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Journal Article

Success, Truth, and Modernism in Holocaust Historiography: Reading Saul Friedländer Thirty-Five Years after the Publication of "Metahistory"

Wulf Kansteiner
History and Theory
Vol. 48, No. 2, Theme Issue 47: Historical Representation and Historical Truth (May, 2009), pp. 25-53
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25478836
Page Count: 29
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Success, Truth, and Modernism in Holocaust Historiography: Reading Saul Friedländer Thirty-Five Years after the Publication of "Metahistory"
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Abstract

This essay provides a close reading of Saul Friedländer's exceptionally successful comprehensive history of the Holocaust from the theoretical perspective of Hayden White's philosophy of history. Friedländer's The Years of Extermination has been celebrated as the first synthetic history of the "Final Solution" that acknowledges the experiences of the victims of Nazi genocide. But Friedländer has not simply added the voices of the victims to a conventional historical account of the Holocaust. Instead, by displacing linear notions of time and space and subtly deconstructing conventional concepts of causality, he has invented a new type of historical prose that performs rather than analyzes the victims' point of view. Friedländer's innovation has particularly radical consequences for the construction of historical explanations. On the one hand, Friedländer explicitly argues that anti-Semitism was the single most important cause of the Holocaust. On the other hand, his transnational, multifaceted history of the "Final Solution" provides a wealth of data that escapes the conceptual grasp of his explicit model of causation. Friedländer chooses this radically self-reflexive strategy of historical representation to impress on the reader the existential sense of disbelief with which the victims experienced Nazi persecution. To Friedländer, that sense of disbelief constitutes the most appropriate ethical response to the Holocaust. Thus the narratological analysis of The Years of Extermination reveals that the exceptional quality of the book, as well as presumably its success, is the result of an extraordinarily creative act of narrative imagination. Or, put into terms developed by White, who shares Friedländer's appreciation of modernist forms of writing, The Years of Extermination is the first modernist history of the Holocaust that captures, through literary figuration, an important and long neglected reality of the "Final Solution."

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