THE YEARS OF EXTERMINATION: NAZI GERMANY AND THE JEWS 1939-1945
By Saul Friedlander
HarperCollins, $39.95, 870 pages
REVIEWED BY SUZANNE FIELDS
The idea behind the Holocaust is a paradox. The Jews were perceived as inferior mentally and physically, carriers of a genetic inheritance of disease and pollutants, powerful perpetrators of evil with gifts of cunning and intellect that enable them to ensnare the unwary. The Nazis depicted them as vermin weakening the body politic from within while accruing wealth and status through the talents jealously sought by those determined to keep them in an inferior place.
Anyone interested in the doubletalk of the perpetuators of incalculable evil will find it in “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945,” a panoramic exposure of man’s capability to do harm as seen through personal letters, diaries, memoirs and the documents so obsessively kept by the Nazis. This is the much-awaited second volume by historian Saul Friedlander, following “The Years of Persecution: 1933-1939,” published in 1997.
The first volume showed how insidious anti-Semitism could find cover behind a veneer of refinement and civilization, marked by occasional eruptions of pure evil. Rationalizations for doing nothing to resist this evil proliferated both inside and outside Germany as the world confronted war.
What’s actually happening cannot be camouflaged in the second volume, though the extent of the evil is partially hidden, assisted by the naive and innocent, eager to believe better of humanity and who hold out hope and illusion against the inevitability of their ultimate suffering unto death.
The second volume, like the first, lends the impression that “you are there,” a witness with a kaleidoscopic panorama of history that juxtaposes the cries and whispers of ordinary men, women and children against the sadistic bombast of Hitler, his henchmen and their many helpers eager to indulge villainous appetites and vicious prejudices. These stories are woven together in a tapestry that comes to life (and death) by the vivid recall of eyewitnesses to what they otherwise could not have believed.
The author, a careful researcher armed with knowledge of three languages (German, French, English), reflects the modesty of a man who understands the understated power of personal stories. He lets his subjects speak for themselves even as he refuses to let the reader escape from the weight of his theme, “man’s inhumanity to Jews.”
He sums up succinctly the different levels of perception in the anti-Jewish ideology that enabled the Holocaust to happen: “The Jew was a lethal and active threat to all nations, to the Aryan race and to the German Volk.” Anti-Semitism specifically acted as a “constant mobilizing myth” coalescing for those with their own reasons to support Hitler, to indulge the spoils and exploit vested interests, all mediated through ideological fervor.
Mr. Friedlander’s personal history as a survivor born in Prague, who hid in a French Catholic school in Nazi-occupied France during the war, was powerful motivation for documenting personal experience, but he writes more as an omniscient author of a novel. His prose style gives unique voice to the characters he encounters, whether major or minor, virtuous or villainous, religious or secular.
In this way he rejects popular theories of other historians of the Holocaust, who see anti-Semitism as uniquely internalized in the German mind. “The Nazi system as a whole had produced an anti-Jewish culture, partly rooted in historical German and European Christian anti-Semitism,” he concedes, “but also fostered by all the means at the disposal of the regime and propelled to a unique level of incandescence, with a direct impact on collective and individual behavior.”
The author takes issue with Hanna Arendt’s thesis that Jews acted as collaborators in their own destruction through the Jewish leadership councils, and he dismisses the idea that almost anything they could have done in their own defense was marginal, given the might behind the German orders and the peculiar isolation experienced by the Jews in most communities.
Hitler’s charismatic lunacy motivated the worst in others, who were then able to unleash their viciousness in the cause of redeeming the state: “Not one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews.” There were, of course, individual heroes, but they were a tiny minority whose heroism is measured by the incredible odds against them.
“The sadistic machine simply rolls over us,” writes Victor Klemperer, a Dresden Jew, in his secret diary on Dec. 9, 1939.
Mr. Friedlander is first a historian, but because he writes with a style that intimately engages in human dramas that animate statistics and dry scholarly interpretations, his two volumes challenge the reader to discover new insights into the incomprehensible, without eliminating that most human need to domesticate the enormity of such evil with disbelief.
He introduces his technique on the first page of the second volume by describing a photograph of David Moffie, who received his degree in medicine at the University of Amsterdam on Sept. 18, 1942. The young man is surrounded by faculty and family and should be looking forward to a career that would reach through the decades in healing others.
But on the left side of Moffie’s academic robe is a palm-size Jewish star with the word Jood. Moffie was the last Jewish student at the University of Amsterdam under German occupation. The ceremony took place on Friday. The new semester would begin the following Monday when the ban on Jewish students became mandatory.
In giving Moffie his degree, the university authorities followed their administrative calendar against the actual intention of the German decree that would have disallowed it, a telling act of defiance on the part of the Dutch, but of course a small act rendered irrelevant in the larger scheme of annihilation of the Jews.
Moffie’s medical degree further illuminates a controversy over the Jewish councils who parceled out exemption certificates for certain Jews, delaying the fatal visit from the Gestapo, while the great majority of Jews were taken at once to their fate. The young medical student was able to become a doctor because he received one of 17,000 exemption certificates.
Moral clarity becomes difficult when expressed directly through human experience. Like all Jews, Moffie was “marked for murder,” but he gained a little time. Shortly afterward Dr. Moffie was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He survived along with 20 percent of the Jews of Holland. Most of those in the photograph did not.
By focusing on Dr. Moffie’s graduation ceremony, Mr. Friedlander signals his approach to the Holocaust of integrating personal, political and historical facts to assemble an account of evil that is as chilling and visceral as it is incomprehensible. Yet it happened. The rest of the book shows how.
One diarist who chronicled life in the Warsaw ghetto desperately wanted his words to survive him. He was determined to let everyone know what happened. He asks himself whether his words should be taken as “the truth,” and replies in his reverie: “No, this is not the truth, this is only a small part, a tiny fraction of the truth …” Saul Friedlander wields a mighty pen, but even the mightiest pen cannot depict the whole, real, essential truth about an episode of unique and unalloyed evil.
Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times.
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