Thursday, April 29, 2010

Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933-1939

Historian Saul Friedlander first published Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume I: Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 in 1997. Since then, the book has gone on to establish itself as a major contribution to Holocaust studies. Volume II, which covers the years of the War, 1939-1945, won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

Friedlander was born in Prague and spent his boyhood in Nazi-occupied France posing as a Gentile, sheltered in a Roman Catholic monastery. In 1942, when he was nine, his parents attempted to escape to Switzerland but were captured and handed over to German authorities who sent them to Auschwitz. It was only after the War, in 1946, that the author learned the fate of his parents. Thus, his scholarship has always been an attempt to face and to deal with the world of his past.

In 1963, Friedlander completed the doctorate at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. Since then, he has published a memoir as well as several major books and articles, all of them in some way related to the Holocaust. Today, he teaches at UCLA.

In the “Introduction” to Nazi Germany and the Jews, Friedlander notes that, as he sees them, many previous works on his topic tend to be lopsided. For example, books like Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews, focus almost exclusively on the perpetrators, "the Nazi machinery of persecution and death." On the other hand, works like The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945, by Lucy Dawidowicz, concentrate almost completely "on the history of the victims." The goal of his book, says Friedlander, is to "convey an account in which Nazi policies are indeed the central element, but in which the surrounding world and the victims' attitudes, reactions, and fate are no less an integral part of this unfolding history" (1-2).

In his focus on Nazi anti-Jewish measures which ultimately led to the Final Solution, the author emphasizes the responsibility of Adolf Hitler. He is careful to note that he has no intention of going back to "earlier reductive interpretations, with their sole emphasis on the role (and responsibility) of the supreme leader." At the same time, he observes that some historians, attempting to explain the complexity of the events that led from persecution to extermination, have neglected one simple fact: "In all its major decisions the regime depended on Hitler" who took to its most extreme and radical limits a worldview that Friedlander calls "redemptive anti-Semitism" (3).

Here, the reader who knows the work of Daniel J. Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, instantly recognizes the unspoken critique of Goldhagen's comparatively-weak phrase, "eliminationist anti-Semitism." Friedlander, by using what he considers to be a more precise and appropriate adjective, goes beyond merely describing what Hitler's anti-Semitism did and what its intentions were. Instead, he indicates why the members of the Nazi high command, in spite of any remnants of a genuine humanity, found eliminationist anti-Semitism so appealing, why they deemed it a good thing. Indeed, with this telling phrase, he reveals how it was that the Holocaust could have happened at all: "It was this redemptive dimension,” he writes, “this synthesis of a murderous rage and an 'idealistic' goal, shared by the Nazi leader and the hard core of the party, that led to Hitler's ultimate decision to exterminate the Jews" (3).

The book that follows is comprised of two major parts, each one containing five chapters. In “Part I: A Beginning and an End,” Friedlander describes the Nazi regime from the time of Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933 to the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws near the end of 1935. This was a time of shocking political and cultural change in Germany. The period saw so many radical anti-Jewish measures that by the time the Nuremberg Laws, which promised racial isolation, were announced even some of Germany’s Jews were themselves relieved. Behind all of this was Hitler’s redemptive anti-Semitism, which Friedlander partially describes as follows: “Whereas ordinary racial anti-Semitism is one element within a wider racist worldview, in redemptive anti-Semitism the struggle against the Jews is the dominant aspect of a worldview in which other racist themes are but secondary appendages” (87).

“Part II: The Entrapment” is made up of another five chapters which bring the story from 1936, a pivotal year according to the author, to 1939. The author reports the major events of this significant period of time. He includes telling descriptions of how, for instance, Hitler and the Nazis “achieved one of their greatest propaganda victories: the successful unfolding of the 1936 Olympic Games” (180). And he provides an account, of course, of the Kristallnacht pogrom during which 276 synagogues were destroyed, 7,500 businesses were vandalized, and hundreds of Jews committed suicide or were killed (276).

Throughout his work, Friedlander enlivens the story by providing details from government documents and first-person accounts, and by quoting from the diaries of both victims and perpetrators. He also manages to strike what I regard to be a good balance between intentionalist and functionalist interpretations of the Holocaust:

"The crimes committed by the Nazi regime were neither a mere outcome of some haphazard, involuntary, imperceptible, and chaotic onrush of unrelated events nor a predetermined enactment of a demonic script; they were the result of converging factors, of the interaction between intentions and contingencies, between discernible causes and chance. General ideological objectives and tactical policy decisions enhanced one another and always remained open to more radical moves as circumstances changed" (5).

Based on painstaking research among the best sources, Saul Friedlander’s work offers penetrating insight and judicious conclusions. Both the subject and the long sentences of the historian's style sometimes make for a difficult read. But the payoff is well worth the investment of time and effort.


Wade Tannehill said...

Now this sounds like it might be the definitive work on the topic. It might be a good place for me to start since I am very interested in this particular time in history.

I notice most of the books you've read this year have to do with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Is this your theme for the year, kind of like "old books" were a year or two ago?

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi Wade.

Yes, from what I can tell it would hard to beat Friedlander. I should have included in the post that within the last year or so, someone has actually done a 1-volume abridgement of the 2-volume set. It brings it down from, (I'm guessing) 1000 pages to more like 400 pages. I saw the abridgement in a bookstore the other day. Looked like it had been done right. If you want something more-specifically about Hitler, the big books by Ian Kershaw are the ones to get.

The Holocaust is the topic of a graduate seminar I took this semester at West Texas A & M. I've been so sad and angry. It makes me tired.

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

Frank I do thank you for calling attention to Friedlander's work. I have not had the opportunity to read it yet but will soon. I read Goldhagen several years ago and found it to be a disturbing book too. what we are capable of as humans is indeed horrific.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi Bobby.

As you probably know, Goldhagen's book was a bombshell and has since received a good bit of criticism. Saul Friedlander and Christopher Browning are some of the more astute critics. I don't think Goldhagen is a bad book, but it does seem a bit lopsided in its answer to the question of how the Holocaust could have happened.