The Years of Extermination

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The first volume of Saul Friedländer’s two-part history of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s genocide against the Jewish people, concentrated on what he called “the years of persecution,” the period from 1933 to 1939. Analyzing Adolf Hitler’s consolidation of power and its increasingly disastrous but not yet fully murderous impact on German and Austrian Jews, Friedländer advanced his thesis that a “redemptive anti-Semitism” characterized Nazi ideology. He also showed that sound historical investigation of the Holocaust depends on integrating the experiences of the German perpetrators, their Jewish victims, and many other groups and individuals who were also involved in that catastrophe.

Friedländer’s emphasis on “redemptive anti-Semitism” clashed with so-called functionalist interpretations of the Holocaust, which contended that Nazi Germany was not necessarily a genocidal regime from the beginning but evolved toward its “final solution” when other options for solving the Nazis’ “Jewish question” proved unworkable. Friedländer disagreed, contending that Nazism early on harbored potentially genocidal intentions. Hitler and his followers saw “the Jew” as the worst threat to civilization. The world’s redemption required the elimination of that menace.

This analysis did not mean, however, that Nazi leadership in the 1930’s already had a blueprint for mass murder, let alone specific designs for killing centers such as Treblinka and Auschwitz. Friedländer maintained that the decisions to commit mass murder, the attention to detail needed to implement them, did evolve over time, eventually involving persons and places scattered far and wide in the Holocaust’s vast continental scope. Nevertheless, as Friedländer shows in The Years of Extermination, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the wartime period from 1939 to 1945, Nazi Germany’s fervent, indeed fanatical, commitment to those decisions and details cannot be adequately understood absent the implicitly genocidal “redemptive anti-Semitism” that motivated them.

Much Holocaust analysis has focused primarily either on the Germans and their collaborators or on the Jews and other victim groups who were trapped in Nazi Germany’s lethal web of racism. Indispensable though this work continues to be, it is one-sided insofar as it neglects, for example, the fact that German and Jewish actions and reactions were under way at the same time. Neither the perpetrators nor their victims acted independently; they were always related and intertwined. As obvious as that point may be, the attempt to write the Holocaust’s history with that convergence in the foreground is herculean because too much happened all at once. Arguably, no Holocaust scholar knows that predicament better than Friedländer, who, more than any historian thus far, has written a profoundly integrated history of the Holocaust.

No photographs are reproduced in The Years of Extermination, but to see what Friedländer’s prodigious work required, consider that he begins the book by describing what happened in a picture that was taken at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands on September 18, 1942. A medical student named David Moffie is receiving his medical degree. Surrounded by his professors, family, and friends, the young doctor wears a tuxedo. On its left side is a star, the word Jood upon it. “Moffie,” Friedländer explains, “was the last Jewish student at the University of Amsterdam under German occupation.”

Unearthing such details is indispensable for Friedländer’s narrative. They contain the interrelationships that he finds so important for documenting and delineating the Holocaust’s years of extermination. There is much that the Moffie photograph does not reveal. It is silent, for example, about the words that were spoken at his graduation. Probably they are completely lost, and no history of the Holocaust will ever contain them. Further research indicates, however, that shortly after Moffie’s graduation, he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. His survival put him in the 20 percent of Dutch Jews who lived through the Holocaust. Most of the Jews in the Moffie photo, Friedländer observes, were among the other 80 percent of Dutch Jewry, those killed, one way or another, by the Germans and their collaborators.

Friedländer helps his reader to see that the window on the Holocaust provided by the Moffie photograph opens still wider if one pursues key questions implicit in that image. How, for instance, was it possible that a Jewish medical student could receive a degree at a Dutch university in September, 1942? German forces had occupied Dutch soil since the spring of 1940. By 1942, the Nazis’ continental “final solution” was under way. Deportations of Dutch Jews to Auschwitz and other places of death...

(The entire section is 1992 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 16 (April 15, 2007): 18.

First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life 177 (November, 2007): 62.

Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2007, p. F6.

The New Republic 237, no. 5 (September 10, 2007): 51-55.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (June 24, 2007): 16-17.

Newsweek 149, no. 17 (April 23, 2007): 52-54.

The Times Literary Supplement, January 4, 2008, pp. 3-5.