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1. NARRATIVE FORM AND HISTORICAL SENSATION: ON SAUL FRIEDLÄNDER'S THE YEARS OF EXTERMINATION1

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    I am indebted to insightful conversations with Amos Goldberg, Allan Megill, Dirk Moses, and Dan Stone, who read earlier drafts of this text. Paul Betts, Herbert Tico Braun, Neeti Nair, and Ilana Pardes shared their ideas with me. The paper was presented at the Lockmiller History Seminar at Emory University, the German Studies Seminar at the University of Tennessee, the research group “Globalization of the Holocaust” at Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, the research group “Ethnography and Experience: Theory, History and Interdisciplinary Practice” at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University, and the conference “Nazi Germany and the Jews: Years of Persecution, Years of Extermination” at the University of Sussex. I am grateful to the participants for the useful comments and discussions.

ABSTRACT

Saul Friedländer's magnum opus, The Years of Extermination, has been received worldwide as an exemplary work of history. Yet it was written by a historian who in the last two decades has strenuously asserted the limits of Holocaust representation. At the center of this essay is a problem of historical writing: how to write a historical narrative of the Holocaust that both offers explanations of the unfolding events and also suggests that the most powerful sensation about those events, at the time and since, is that they are beyond words. I explore Friedländer's crafting of such a narrative by considering, first, the role of his attempt in The Years of Extermination to explain the Holocaust and, second, the narrative form of the book. The book is best seen, I argue, not primarily as a work of explanation but as a vast narrative that places an explanation of the Holocaust within a specific form of describing that goes beyond the boundaries of the historical discipline as it is usually practiced. This form of describing goes beyond the almost positivist attachment to facts that dominates current Holocaust historiography. By using Jewish individual testimonies that are interspersed in the chronological history of the extermination, Friedländer creates a narrative based on ruptures and breaks, devices we associate with works of fiction, and that historians do not usually use. The result is an arresting narrative, which I interpret by using Johan Huizinga's notion of historical sensation. Friedländer sees this narrative form as specific to the Holocaust. I view this commingling of irreducible reality and the possibility of art as a required sensibility that belongs to all historical understanding. And in this respect, The Years of Extermination only lays bare more clearly in the case of the Holocaust what is an essential element in all historical reconstruction.

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