Saul Friedländer Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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."