Polychronicon 135: Post-modern Holocaust Historiography

Teaching History feature

By Dr Wulf Kansteiner, published 13th September 2009

Saul Friedländer's 'The Years of Extermination'

The field of Holocaust studies has been hit by an intellectual earthquake whose precise magnitude and long-term consequences cannot be ascertained at this stage. In 2007 Saul Friedländer published The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945. The book has been rightly celebrated as the first victim-centred synthetic history of the Holocaust and won its author many prizes including a Pulitzer Prize. Friedländer has  managed to write a transnational history of the ‘Final Solution' that captures the evolution of Nazi anti-Jewish policies and the extensive record of collaboration and indifference throughout Europe in great detail. At the same time, with exceptional literary finesse, Friedländer integrates into that comprehensive history the voices of the victims which he carefully gathered from diaries and memoirs. Yet The Years of Extermination accomplishes a lot more than simply documenting how the victims reacted to a genocidal campaign whose history has all too often been told from the perspective of the perpetrators. The book represents an ethical landmark because Friedländer developed an innovative, radical narrative structure which performs the victims' point of view and thus calls into question the limits of Holocaust studies and historical writing in general.

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