Saul Friedländer Essay - Critical Essays

Friedländer, Saul


Saul Friedländer 1932–

(Born Pavel Friedländer) Czechoslovakian-born Israeli historian, nonfiction writer, essayist, biographer, and autobiographer.

The following entry provides an overview of Friedländer's career through 1994.

Friedländer is known for historical works on Germany, Nazism, and the Holocaust as well as his examinations of the moral, political, and historiographical ramifications of the Nazis' attempt at genocide during World War II. Gaining initial notoriety for his books Pie XII et le IIIe Reich (1964; Pius XII and the Third Reich), which documents the Pope's refusal to speak out against the Holocaust, and Hitler et les États-Unis, 1939–1941 (1967; Prelude to Downfall), which examines Hitler's policies toward the United States prior to its entry into World War II, Friedländer is also recognized for his biography of the Nazi who attempted to inform the world about the death camps, Kurt Gerstein ou l'ambiguité du bien (1967; Kurt Gerstein), his memoir, Quand vient le souvenir (1978; When Memory Comes), and his book-length essay on contemporary fascination with Nazism, Reflets du nazisme (1982; Reflections of Nazism).

Biographical Information

Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia—the present-day Czech Republic—just prior to the political rise of Adolf Hitler, Friedländer was upper-middle-class and Jewish, but his family's cultural assimilation was such that they no longer observed the practices of Judaism. Culminating a series of attempts by his parents to protect their son and avoid capture by the Nazis, Friedländer was sent to a Catholic school in France where, under the name Paul-Henri Ferland, he was raised as a Catholic. His parents fled to Switzerland but were turned over to the Nazis by Swiss border guards; the Swiss policy, tragically, was to admit only those Jews accompanied by children, and his parents were eventually killed at Auschwitz. In 1946, during an interview preceding his planned entry into a Jesuit seminary, Friedländer learned of the death camps and of his parents' fate. This knowledge initiated the reclamation of his Jewish heritage. While living in Paris with a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, he became fascinated with Zionism, which at that time entailed both support for the establishment of the state of Israel and a rejection of what many young intellectuals considered the bourgeois values embodied by older generations of western European Jews. In 1947, at the age of fifteen, he left Paris aboard the Altalena, a ship carrying arms for the Irgun, Menachem Begin's militant band of Zionists in Palestine; in a move to convince the neighboring governments that Israel's in-tentions were peaceful, the ship was attacked by the army of the newly-formed Israeli government led by David Ben-Gurion. After living on a kibbutz—a communal farm—in Israel for a number of years, Friedländer eventually grew disillusioned with Zionism. Returning to Paris, he graduated from the Institut d'Études Politiques in 1955 and, in 1957, spent a year working in Sweden at an institution for mentally-ill children; during this time he studied the works of Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber, whose writings on the presence of God in everyday activities and on the stories and legends of the Hasidim of eastern Europe influenced him profoundly. In 1963 he earned his Ph.D. in history from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. Friedländer has since taught contemporary history at the Graduate Institute, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the University of Tel Aviv.

Major Works

Prelude to Downfall, a revised and updated version of Friedländer's dissertation, Le rôle du facteur américain dans la politique étrangère et militaire de l'Allemagne, septembre 1939–décembre 1941 (1963), examines German attempts to maintain and bolster the isolationist policies of the United States in the early years of World War II. In Pius XII and the Third Reich Friedländer presents Nazi diplomatic records and other documents that describe the Pope's relationship with Germany and his silence in the face of mounting evidence of the Holocaust. Friedländer argues that it was the combination of Pius XII's fear of Bolshevism, his deep-seated admiration for Germany, and an overestimation of his diplomatic power that accounted for his refusal to condemn the Nazi's genocidal actions. Kurt Gerstein documents the life of an SS officer who, though he was responsible for procuring and delivering Zyklon-B, the chemical used in the gas chambers, nonetheless tried to sabotage his own work and disseminate knowledge about the death camps. In Arabes et israéliens (1974; Arabs and Israelis), Friedländer and two Egyptian Arabs—Bahgat Elnadi and Adel Rifaat, jointly referred to as Mahmoud Hussein—analyze contemporary problems in the Middle East; the debate is moderated by French journalist Jean Lacouture. Friedländer's memoir, When Memory Comes, relates his struggle to come to terms with the Holocaust and with his Jewish identity, depicting events from his birth in Czechoslovakia prior to World War II as well as his life in Paris and contemporary Israel. Reflections of Nazism presents Friedländer's analysis of Nazi aesthetics and "the new discourse on Nazism." Examining such diverse works as Albert Speer's memoir Inside the Third Reich (1970), George Steiner's novel The Portage to San Cristóbal of A. H. (1979), and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's film Hitler: A Film from Germany (1978), he argues that many contemporary works of art and history concerned with Hitler and Nazism transform—in the very vividness of their language and images, and irrespective of authorial intention—the abject reality of murder and death into the seductive spectacle the Nazis valorized. The aestheticizing impulse of modern discourses on Nazism, Friedländer believes, diminishes the stark reality of the Holocaust and largely accounts for the continued fascination with Hitler and the Third Reich. Similarly, Probing the Limits of Representation (1992) collects essays by numerous thinkers, historians, and scholars on the difficulties of adequately and ethically representing the Holocaust in language and images. Growing out of a conference Friedländer organized at the University of California at Los Angeles in the spring of 1990, the volume includes work by Friedländer, Hayden White, Dominick LaCapra, Geoffrey Hartman, Anton Kaes, and many others.

Critical Reception

Friedländer's work has generally been well received. His historical works are frequently praised for their scholarship and insightful use of primary sources. Pius XII and the Third Reich and Prelude to Downfall, for example, are considered seminal works in their fields. Some reviewers, however, argued that his selection of documents in the former was biased, although Friedländer himself pointed out the need for material from the Vatican to balance the perspective he presents. Remarking on Prelude to Downfall, some historians described Friedländer's claim that he was the first to rigorously examine Hitler's policies toward the United States as disingenuous. Reviewers of Kurt Gerstein frequently praise the book as an insightful examination of a complex individual. However, a minority of commentators argue that Friedländer lapses into moralizing when he extends his discussion of "the ambiguity of good" to account for all of German society during the Nazi era. Friedländer's other works and edited volumes are also highly regarded, and he is considered a leading thinker on Nazism, the Holocaust, Israel, and Arab-Israeli relations. Noted for its focus on the problem of personal identity, When Memory Comes is frequently cited with Elie Wiesel's Night (1958) and Samuel Pisar's Of Blood and Hope (1979) and La ressource humaine (1983) as one of the most thoughtful and informative of the Holocaust memoirs. Critics note, in this and all of his works, his rancorless, carefully unbiased point of view in dealing with Nazi Germany and with the rights of Arabs living in Israel. On this latter point, Leon Wieseltier notes that "Throughout his life, Saul Friedländer has seen one nation's triumphant convictions quickly become another nation's oppressive facts. This often happened to the Jews, and it has happened to the Palestinians. Friedländer, who escaped the Nazis and fought the Arabs, has the courage to say so."

Principal Works

Pie XII et le IIIe Reich; documents [Pius XII and the Third Reich: A Documentation] (history) 1964
Hitler et les États-Unis (1939–1941) [Prelude to Downfall: Hitler and the United States. 1939–1941] (history) 1967
Kurt Gerstein ou l'ambiguité du bien [Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good] (history) 1967; published in England as Counterfeit Nazi: The Ambiguity of Good
Réflexions sur l'avenir d'Israël (nonfiction) 1969
L'antisémitisme nazi: Histoire d'une psychose collective (nonfiction) 1971
Arabes et israéliens: Un premier dialogue [with Mahmoud Hussein and Jean Lacouture] [Arabs and Israelis: A Dialogue] (nonfiction) 1974
Histoire et psychanalyse: Essai sur les possibilités et les limites de la psychohistoire [History and Psychoanalysis: An Inquiry into the Possibilities and Limits of Psychohistory] (nonfiction) 1975
Some Aspects of the Historical Significance of the Holocaust (nonfiction) 1977
Quand vient le souvenir [When Memory Comes] (autobiography) 1978
Reflets du nazisme [Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death; translated and revised edition, 1984] (nonfiction) 1982
Visions of Apocalypse: End or Rebirth? [editor, with Gerald Holton, Leo Marx, Eugene Skolnikoff] (essays) 1985
A Conflict of Memories?: The New German Debates about the "Final Solution" (nonfiction) 1987
Die Juden in der europaischen Geschichte [The Jews in European History: Seven Lectures] (lectures) 1992
Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the Final Solution [editor and contributor] (nonfiction) 1992
Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe (history) 1993

∗This work is a revised and updated version of Friedländer's thesis, Le rôle du facteur américain dans la politique étrangère et militaire de l'Allemagne, septembre 1939–décembre 1941, originally published in Geneva in 1963.


Guenter Lewy (review date 21 May 1966)

SOURCE: "Was Silence the Only Solution?" in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XLIX, No. 21, May 21, 1966, pp. 26-7.

[Lewy is a German-born American historian, educator, and nonfiction writer. In the following excerpt, he discusses Pius XII and the Third Reich and the reasons for the Pope's decision not to speak out against Germany when presented with evidence of the Nazi's "Final Solution," the attempt to exterminate European Jewry.]

The attitude of Pope Pius XII toward Nazi Germany and the reasons for his silence in the face of the murder of six million Jews have been the subject of extensive and often acrimonious debate ever since the young German playwright...

(The entire section is 988 words.)

Walter Laqueur (review date 22 May 1966)

SOURCE: "Diplomatic Decisions," in The New York Times Book Review, May 22, 1966, p. 6.

[Laqueur is a German-born American historian and novelist who is widely considered an expert on modern German and Israeli history. In the following review of Pius XII and the Third Reich, he describes Pius XII's diplomacy toward the Nazis as "masterly inactivity," judging it "tragically inapplicable in an extreme situation."]

The policy of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church during World War II has during the last few years been the subject of several historical studies, of plays, polemical essays and theological disputations in various countries. Needless to say, there was...

(The entire section is 1297 words.)

Arno J. Mayer (review date 5 June 1966)

SOURCE: "The Vatican in WW II," in Book Week—Chicago Sunday Sun-Times, June 5, 1966, p. 7.

[Mayer is a Luxembourgian-born American historian. In the following review of Pius XII and the Third Reich, he focuses on Pius XII's "hostility to Bolshevism" as a determinant of Vatican policy during World War II.]

Anyone who does not literally interpret the claim that the Pope is God's Vicar will not be overly shocked by Pius XII's policies during the Second World War. After all, the man who was Pope never ceased to be a good Italian, a confirmed Germanophile, a punctilious elitist, an impassioned anti-Bolshevik, and a shrewd chief executive of one of the world's...

(The entire section is 846 words.)

E. H. Wall (review date 23 August 1966)

SOURCE: "Tragic Dilemma," in National Review, New York, Vol. XVIII, August 23, 1966, pp. 843-44.

[In the following excerpt, Wall faults Friedländer for his possibly biased selection of documents in Pius XII and the Third Reich and for "rushing" to publish an admittedly incomplete account of the Vatican's policies toward Nazi Germany.]

Friedlander's [Pius XII and the Third Reich], despite its title, is not the story of Pius XII and the Third Reich. It is a collection of quotations from documents and other books, interspersed with the author's comments and conjectures. What is particularly valuable about the work is that some of the material reproduced is...

(The entire section is 619 words.)

Edwin Tetlow (review date 15 December 1967)

SOURCE: "Of Diplomatic Thrust and Counterthrust," in The Christian Science Monitor, December 15, 1967, p. 13.

[Tetlow is an English journalist and nonfiction writer. In the following highly positive review of Prelude to Downfall, he praises the "self-effacing zeal" with which Friedländer writes and relates some of the dramatic political machinations that preceded American entry into World War II.]

Looking back a quarter of a century, one sees now that it should have been apparent to all concerned that, once Hitler had turned away from an undefeated England and decided instead to take on the sprawling colossus of the Soviet Union, he had lost his war. He had...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Francis Loewenheim (review date 4 February 1968)

SOURCE: "Die Amerikaner," in The New York Times Book Review, February 4, 1968, pp. 10, 12.

[In the following review, Loewenheim states that Friedländer's Prelude to Downfall, though its arguments are not original, adequately presents Hitler's perceptions of and policies toward the United States before its entry into the Second World War.]

It seems clear that many Americans—and especially critics of United States policy in Vietnam—would prefer to hear as little as possible about the history and meaning of American foreign policy in the 1930's. This may help to account for the disturbing fact that neither William L. Langer's and S. Everett Gleason's The...

(The entire section is 918 words.)

Norbert Muhlen (review date 12 April 1969)

SOURCE: A review of Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good, in America, Vol. 120, No. 15, April 12, 1969, pp. 454-55.

[Muhlen was a German-born American journalist and historian. In the following mixed review of Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good, he faults Friedländer for his facile psychoanalysis of his subject and for the moralistic tone of his conclusions.]

The hero of this historical study [Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good] is one of the most enigmatic figures of the Nazi years. In an era characterized by tragedy on a mass basis, his tragedy was unique. A devoutly Lutheran Christian, the son of an old-fashioned Prussian middle-class...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

Arthur A. Cohen (review date 13 April 1969)

SOURCE: A review of Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good, in The New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1969, p. 10.

[Cohen was an American historian, novelist, nonfiction writer, and theologian. In the following review, he examines some of the moral complexities Friedländer explores in Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good.]

The enigma of Kurt Gerstein, a lieutenant in the Waffen-SS responsible for securing shipments of Zyklon B, the lethal gas used in the crematoria of Auschwitz, first came to the attention of the American public through Rolf Hochhuth's celebrated play, The Deputy. There, Hochhuth represents Gerstein as having sought to bring word of the...

(The entire section is 738 words.)

Guenter Lewy (review date July 1969)

SOURCE: "A Question of Conscience," in Commentary, Vol. 48, No. 1, July, 1969, pp. 71-2, 74.

[In the following review, Lewy discusses the ethical dilemmas Friedländer explores in Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good, examining at length the moral untenability of both blind obedience to the law and complete reliance on conscience.]

The story of Kurt Gerstein involves one of the most bizarre episodes of the Nazi era, a period of human history not lacking in the fantastic. Gerstein was an SS Obersturmführer, in charge of supplying the deadly Zyklon B gas to Hitler's murder factories. At the same time, he was a member of the Confessing Church, an opponent...

(The entire section is 2185 words.)

Rose G. Lewis (review date January 1976)

SOURCE: "Shadowboxing," in Commentary, Vol. 61, No. 1, January, 1976, pp. 89-92, 94.

[In the following review of Arabs and Israelis, Lewis criticizes Friedländer for inadequately defending Judaism and Israel against the arguments of Marxist Arabs.]

It was in 1939, I think, that the Arabs for the first time officially refused to talk with the Jewish Palestinians. Their intransigence began, at any rate, years before there were Arab refugees, or occupied territories, or even an independent Israel. What did exist at that time was the claim of Jewish entitlement to basic rights in Palestine and a Jewish demand for self-determination, equality, and freedom from Arab...

(The entire section is 2588 words.)

Amos Elon (review date 15 July 1979)

SOURCE: "Alone in the World," in The New York Times Book Review, July 15, 1979, pp. 1, 27.

[Elon is an Austrian-born Israeli journalist, historian, and novelist. In the following positive review of When Memory Comes, he discusses Friedländer's struggle with identity.]

Saul Friedländer was born "in Prague at the worst possible moment, four months before Hitler came to power." In this harrowing, deeply moving memoir [When Memory Comes]—one part the Gothic tale of a Jewish orphan alone in Nazi-occupied France preparing to become a Catholic priest, the other part the diary he kept many years later in Jerusalem—he undertakes an evocative voyage into his...

(The entire section is 1814 words.)

Leon Wieseltier (review date 25 October 1979)

SOURCE: "Between Paris and Jerusalem," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXVI, No. 16, October 25, 1979, pp. 3-4.

[An American journalist and critic, Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. In the following review of When Memory Comes, he examines the ramifications for contemporary Jews and Israelis of the struggle for Jewish survival since World War II.]

On June 11, 1942, Heinrich Himmler demanded 100,000 Jews of France, for Auschwitz. Pierre Laval agreed in July to turn over 10,000. This would "cleanse France of its foreign Jewry": the deportations, Laval insisted, would take only Jews from Germany and Central Europe who had sought...

(The entire section is 2096 words.)

Tamar Jacoby (review date 4 July 1980)

SOURCE: "Selfhood and Resistance," in Commonweal, Vol. CVII, No. 13, July 4, 1980, pp. 406-08.

[In the following excerpt, Jacoby offers a review of When Memory Comes, outlining the many changes in Friedländer's life and perceptions of himself, the past, and Israel.]

In 1942 Pavel Friedlander's parents began to sense that the circle was closing in, and that as foreign Jewish refugees living in Vichy France, they could be certain of nothing in the future. They arranged for their son to be put in the care of the nuns of the Catholic Sodality. Rechristened Paul-Henri—an unmistakably French and Catholic name—the Czech boy passed the war years at Sodality...

(The entire section is 1143 words.)

David Pryce-Jones (review date 6 March 1981)

SOURCE: "Separation and Survival," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4066, March 6, 1981, p. 250.

[Pryce-Jones is an Austrian-born English novelist, biographer, and historian. In the following review of When Memory Comes, he addresses the lasting effects on Friedländer of having lost his parents to the Nazis.]

Forty years have passed since the events described in Saul Friedländer's infinitely sad and haunting memoir [When Memory Comes]. His parents separated themselves from him in Hitler's Europe; they died, he lived. The fear of being abandoned still rises in him. What experience, or history itself, has taught him is this fear, fear in its pure...

(The entire section is 1716 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 28 May 1984)

SOURCE: "Nazism and Yearning," in The New York Times, May 28, 1984, p. 37.

[Lehmann-Haupt is a Scottish-born American critic and novelist whose reviews frequently appear in The New York Times. In the following favorable review of Reflections of Nazism, he briefly summarizes Friedländer's arguments supporting his main contention that Nazism remains a dangerously fascinating phenomenon.]

"Gentlemen, in a hundred years still another color film will portray the terrible days we are undergoing now," said Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, apropos of a film he was discussing in 1945. "I can assure you that it will be a tremendous film, exciting and...

(The entire section is 914 words.)

Alan Mintz (review date 1 October 1984)

SOURCE: "Under Hitler's Spell," in The New Republic, Vol. 191, No. 3637, October 1, 1984, pp. 40-1.

[Mintz is an American nonfiction writer and educator who has written extensively on Hebrew literature. In the following positive review of Reflections of Nazism, he examines Friedländer's thesis that the "fusion of kitsch and death" is constitutive of both the original and contemporary fascination with Nazism.]

Since World War II a fascination with the prurient details of Nazism has been a staple of American adolescence. In the "adult" world of pornographic pictures and films, the sadistic possibilities of Nazism have long provided the raw material for a...

(The entire section is 1662 words.)

Bryan Cheyette (review date 16 October 1992)

SOURCE: "The Horror and the Words," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4672, October 16, 1992, p. 10.

[Cheyette is an English literary critic, nonfiction writer, and educator who has written extensively on racism—particularly anti-Semitism—in literature. In the following review of Probing the Limits of Representation, he discusses some of the major issues confronting historians and other writers who seek to account for Nazism and the Holocaust.]

In recent trials of neo-Nazi publishers who "deny" the existence of the Holocaust, the historical record was dismissed by their defence lawyers as "mere opinion" and their denial was claimed as no less legitimate...

(The entire section is 1018 words.)

James E. Young (review date Fall 1994)

SOURCE: "The Uses of the Holocaust," in Partisan Review, Vol. LXI, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 700-04.

[In the following excerpt, Young discusses some of the ways Friedländer and the other contributors to Probing the Limits of Representation address the difficulties of writing about the Holocaust.]

"The history of the Holocaust sits uneasily amidst other events of its time," Michael Marrus wrote in The Holocaust and the Historians. "How do we write Holocaust history? Since by writing it, we automatically locate it within some tradition, some epoch, how do we choose one? Is it only Jewish history? Or German? Is it European or more generally Western?" To which...

(The entire section is 1038 words.)

Further Reading


Mitgang, Herbert. "Friedländer's Odyssey." The New York Times Book Review (15 July 1979): 35.

Brief profile of Friedländer on the publication of When Memory Comes.


Birley, Robert. "Not Guilty." Spectator 223, No. 7367 (6 September 1969): 305-06.

Generally positive review of Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good (here called Counterfeit Nazi: The Ambiguity of Good) in which Birley questions the validity of some of Friedländer's conclusions.

Review of History and...

(The entire section is 847 words.)