- Book Review Index
Years of Persecution, Years of Extermination: Saul Friedländer and the Future of Holocaust Studies, edited by Christian Wiese and Paul Betts. New York: Continuum, 2010. 370 pp. $39.95.
As Doris L. Bergen observes in this volume, the publication of Saul Friedländer’s magisterial Years of Persecution aroused the concern that it would “somehow manage to finish the work” of so many scholars (p. 289). This important collection of essays, however, should dispel such fears. Using Friedländer’s two-volume Nazi Germany and the Jews as their starting point, leading scholars of the Holocaust identify important avenues for further research and debate.
The editors succinctly lay out the scope of the debates and reflections in their introduction to the volume, and in the opening chapter Saul Friedländer himself takes the opportunity to define the concept of an integrated history of the Holocaust, to explain the narrative choices that he made in writing such a history, and to reflect on a few comparative issues revealed by such an approach. The remainder of the book is usefully organized around four themes: the Holocaust as a narrative problem, German society and redemptive antisemitism, mass killing and genocide, and perspectives. The individual authors, however, do not confine the scope of their essays to a particular theme, so that there are interesting continuities and counterpoints across the editors’ organizational divisions.
In general admiring of the complexity of Friedländer’s narrative and his cinematic use of testimony (particularly diaries), Alon Confino and Tony Kushner both suggest advantages to expanding Friedländer’s approach to testimony. Confino urges the use of “historic sensation” and disruptive techniques in historical inquiry beyond the Holocaust, while Kushner advocates an even greater acceptance of chaos and incoherence in historical narrative to accommodate competing voices and to be more reflective of victims’ experiences. Kushner also points out the usefulness of reflecting on the literary form of diary writing and on the entire life arc of the diarists. Mark Roseman, meanwhile, compellingly demonstrates that victims’ observations can teach us about the perpetrators. Dan Diner highlights the productive results of Friedländer’s chronicle-like approach. His understanding of Friedländer’s concept of redemptive antisemitism, that it provides a necessary precondition to mass murder without needing it to explain individual actions, stands in contrast to the skepticism of the scholars in the second and third parts of the book.
Peter Pulzer leads the way by accepting redemptive antisemitism as a necessary background to the Shoah but questioning whether it is sufficient to explain it. The succeeding authors examine German society and demonstrate the need for further research to explain German motivations to pursue genocidal war and the immunity of Germans to defeatism until the very end of the war (Nicholas Stargardt) as well as the perseverance of Nazi morality and “decency” into the postwar era that complicates issues of resistance and complicity (Raphel Gross). Wolf Gruner argues that the mechanism by which Germans became mass murderers remains unclear and suggests the need for biographical studies at all social levels, for examination of the movement of personnel (such as German mayors to occupied territories) and of how pre-1939 activities prepared them for mass murder.
Others see global trends as more significant than the particularities of German society and antisemitism for explaining the genocide of the Jews. Alan Kramer, for example, suggests that the explanation lies in fifty years of mass killing and genocide by authoritarian regimes engaged in nation-building or national reconstruction, while A. Dirk Moses situates the Nazi genocide in the context of colonialism and imperial methods brought home to Europe.
The frenzied murders of the final days of the regime are the focus of Richard Bessel’s argument that while redemptive antisemitism can explain the calculated murders of the concentration camps, the seemingly chaotic murders of the war’s end that engulfed a wide-range of victims need to be understood through the self-motivation of individuals in a collapsing regime. In contrast, Doris L. Bergen sees continuity in the logic of violence even as the target groups changed during the final days. She fruitfully identifies four analytical categories (chronology, agency, solidarity, and religion) within Friedländer’s work that open new avenues for research. Zoe Waxman reminds us that people continued to live gendered lives even during the war and that scholars need to take this into consideration, including men and issues of masculinity.
This readable and stimulating collection is notable for the consistently high quality of the essays. Scholars and graduate students will find it a useful overview of the state of Holocaust studies, stimulating debate and informing research agendas.
Margarete Myers Feinstein