The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945 by Saul Friedlander
Reviewed by Jeffrey Herf
The New Republic Online
With the publication of The Years of Extermination, Saul Friedländer adds to his already well-established reputation as one of the world's pre-eminent historians of the Holocaust and of its place in modern European, German, and Jewish history. In this synthetic work that draws on scholarship of recent decades, Friedländer integrates a history of German official decision-making -- from Hitler down through his various chains of command -- with the observations, chronicles, and analyses of Jewish diarists. It is all here.
Friedländer's evidence comes from official documents, but also from numerous eyewitnesses whose personal chronicles are, in his words, "like lightning flashes that illuminate parts of the landscape." He enriches the well-known chronology of German policies and operations with a succession of scenes and anecdotes about particular individuals in specific times and places. Conversely, by situating diaries and memoirs in the context of a carefully constructed political history, he deepens their credibility and their historical value. In these pages, office memos and personal memories reinforce one another. The Years of Extermination is one of the most important works of historical writing in recent years, and deserves to live in the company of works by Raul Hilberg, Lucy Dawidowicz, and Leni Yahil as one of the finest comprehensive studies of this darkest subject of all.
The Years of Extermination rests on a career of scholarship nearly half a century long. In Paris in 1964, Friedländer published an edited collection of documents about the response -- or more precisely, the lack thereof -- by Pope Pius XII to the Holocaust. An English edition followed two years later. Then, in 1967, Prelude to Downfall: Hitler and the United States, 1939 - 1941 underscored the importance of Roosevelt's resistance to Hitler in the two years preceding Pearl Harbor and American entry into the war in Europe. In 1969, Friedländer published Kurt Gerstein: The Ambiguity of Good, about a Waffen SS officer who witnessed murders of Jews in the gas chambers in Belzec in 1942 and passed the information on to Swedish diplomats, though they did not inform the Allies. In 1979, Friedländer published When Memory Comes, an extraordinary memoir of his own survival during the Holocaust as a boy hidden in a Roman Catholic seminary in France, followed by his eventual awareness of his Jewish origins and his coming of age in Israel. In 1988, he helped to found the influential journal History and Memory. A conference that he organized at UCLA about the postmodernist challenge to the determination of historical fact led in 1992 to Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the "Final Solution." And his reflections on history, memory, and writing about the Holocaust led in 1993 to Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe.
Then there appeared the first installment of Friedländer's grand culminating project. Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume I: The Years of Persecution, 1933 - 1939 quickly became one of the standard works on the subject. Friedländer's years of conceptual reflection about history, politics, narrative, and memory found expression in a remarkable mixture of analysis and story that was admired by scholars and general readers alike. In that book, he displayed a keen eye for the illustrative detail -- for example, in his discussion of the legalisms of Nazi racial legislation. He depicted the mixture of ideological enthusiasm and crass opportunism of the response of German elites of the 1930s to Nazi anti-Jewish policy, and offered a compelling description of what he called "redemptive anti-Semitism" in Hitler's Germany of the 1930s.
The first volume of Nazi Germany and the Jews included another dimension that comes even more to the fore in its successor volume, The Years of Extermination. In both books, Friedländer adopted a binocular view of the catastrophe: he examined both the Germans and the Jews. It is customary to write the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust primarily as one about German subjectivity, that is, as a history of what Hitler and his associates said and did. The very nature of a history of persecution and extermination is such that the subjectivity of the Jews -- the victims with vastly less control over the course of events -- has faded somewhat into the background. The enormous mass of documents of the Nazi regime captured by the Allies in 1945 and now dispersed in many archives has meant that the voices of the perpetrators have figured most prominently in historical writing.
In one sense, of course, this compartmentalization has been essential in order to distinguish truths from lies, and to establish as fact what the Nazis sought to conceal and to deny. Friedländer's accomplishment lies in bringing the voices of Jewish diarists and chroniclers into the main narrative of these events. And he has incorporated this history from below without an ounce of the romanticism and the sentimentality that sometimes accompany work using eyewitness testimony. Friedländer's goal in his new book is to write "[an] integrative and an integrated history" of the Holocaust, one that combines what has remained separate in many previous accounts.
For obvious reasons, Friedländer places weight on the German dimension, as it was "the Germans, their collaborators and their auxiliaries [who] were the instigators and prime agents of the policies of persecution and extermination and, mostly, of their implementation." But that is the beginning of the story, not the end. For "the Holocaust requires...a much wider range," one that encompasses the non-Germans who actively participated or contributed along a continuum of indifference to silent approval. "At each step, in occupied Europe, the execution of German measures depended on the submissiveness of political authorities, the assistance of local police forces or other auxiliaries, and the passivity or support of the populations and mainly of the political and spiritual elites. It also depended on the willingness of the victims to follow orders in the hope of alleviating German strictures or gaining time and somehow escaping the inexorable tightening of the German vise."
An integrated history requires balance. It is an exquisitely difficult task. Slighting the German dimension to focus on collaborators may obscure the central driving force. Focusing exclusively on Hitler and Himmler and the Nazi institutions that implemented the Final Solution can diminish the significance of collaborators and fellow perpetrators among non- Germans in Nazi-occupied Europe. Placing too much weight on the experiences of the victims can risk losing sight of the political history taking place at the top of the Nazi regime. An integrated history must find a course between the history of political decision-making in which the experience of victims falls from view and one that focuses on the wrenching experience of the Jews. Friedländer has struck the balance beautifully.
Friedländer's account falls firmly within what has come to be known as an "intentionalist" approach to the history of Nazism and the Holocaust. Like George Mosse, Karl Bracher, Lucy Dawidowicz, and Eberhard Jaeckel, Friedländer argues that Nazi ideology and Hitler's resulting obsessions played a fundamental causal role in the Holocaust. He dissents from the view, first articulated by Franz Neumann in the 1940s and more recently by Götz Aly, that "the persecution and extermination of the Jews of Europe was but a secondary consequence of major German policies pursued toward entirely different goals," usually of an economic or demographic nature. Hence The Years of Extermination examines the nature of wartime anti-Semitism not only in Nazi Germany but also in the surrounding European world that collaborated in attack on the Jews or responded to it with silence and indifference.
In The Years of Persecution, Friedländer described what he called "redemptive anti-Semitism," that is, the idea that Germany and Europe would be redeemed and better off if they were cleansed and freed of the Jews. In this subsequent volume, he explores the more radical and deadly form of anti-Semitism characterized by the belief that "the Jew was a lethal and active threat to all nations, to the Aryan race and to the German Volk. The emphasis is not only on lethal' but also -- and mainly -- on active.'" The Nazis viewed their other victims -- such as the peoples of Eastern Europe, Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and the physically handicapped -- as inferior in various ways, and passive. The Jews, by contrast, were for Hitler and the Nazi leadership around him "the only group that, since its appearance in history, relentlessly plotted and maneuvered to subdue all of humanity."
This is a crucial point. Nazi wartime propaganda depicted the Jews as a real and active political subject who were plotting to wage a war of extermination against the German people. This racially grounded political accusation stood at the center of Hitler's oft-repeated public justifications for genocide, which were endlessly reiterated and amplified by the regime's propagandists. In The Years of Extermination readers will -- surprisingly, for the first time -- have a full presentation of the arguments and the evidence that demonstrate what changed in the nature of anti-Semitism as it evolved from the era of persecution before 1939 to the years of extermination. These books, along with the work of Omer Bartov, Richard Breit- man, Christopher Browning, Phillip Burrin, Jürgen Förster, Manfred Messerschmidt, and Gerhard Weinberg, offer us something we did not have a decade ago: namely, a body of historical scholarship that examines World War II and the Holocaust as two events linked by intrinsic causal connections as well as by contingent factors of space and time. At bottom, it was Hitler's and Nazism's ideology that formed the key connection.
In an infamous "prophecy" delivered in a speech to the Reichstag on January 1, 1939, Hitler threatened that if "international Jewry" started "another" world war, such a war would end not in the extermination of the Aryan race but rather in the extermination of the "Jewish race" in Europe. He repeated this warning in public and private on at least seven occasions in the last two months of 1941. I agree with Friedländer's assertion that "nothing of that kind had ever happened before in Hitler's declarations," as his deadly taunts became "one continuous rant." Friedländer draws on the work of historians of Nazi policy to argue plausibly that Hitler made the decision to exterminate the Jews of Europe during last three months of 1941, as the war against Europe's Jews and against the Allies merged into one. As Friedländer puts it, "for Nazism, the Jews, the Jewish peril, and the uncompromising struggle against the Jew' were, as we have seen, the mobilizing myth of the regime."
As the reader would expect, Friedländer recounts the contributions to the Holocaust by now-familiar villains such as Hans Frank (the Nazi boss in Poland's General Government), Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, Joseph Goebbels, Albert Speer, and Joachim von Ribbentrop. His interpretation of Goebbels and the propaganda effort is very well done. And he follows the message down the chain of command. One of the important accomplishments of historical scholarship of the past quarter-century has been to document in greater depth what the postwar trials in Nuremberg had established -- namely, the deep involvement of the German military leadership in the racist and anti-Semitic hatreds that originated with Hitler and Goebbels. Friedländer cites the enthusiasm with which German military leaders such as Erich von Manstein and Walter von Reichenau passed on denunciations to the troops under their command of what Reichenau called "Jewish subhumanity." He draws on letters sent by German soldiers for evidence of diffusion of the regime's anti-Semitic message. Soon after one of Goebbels's rants, an army sergeant wrote in a letter home that "now Jewry has declared war on us along the whole line, from one extreme to another, from the London and New York plutocrats to the Bolsheviks. All that is under Jewish domination stands in one common front against us." The propaganda minister would have been pleased to know that almost his exact words made their way into this private communication.
The detailed reconstruction of the organizations and the persons involved in the Final Solution has been a focus of scholarship for many years, and it finds a place also in The Years of Extermination. Friedländer rightly points out that bureaucratic disputes did not at all impede cooperation regarding the Final Solution. The bureaucracy is everywhere in the genocide -- for example, in the following anecdote about the inner workings of the Holocaust. In the summer of 1942, Heinrich Himmler's adjutant, SS Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff, demanded the personal intervention of the secretary of state at the Transportation Ministry, Dr. Theodor Ganzenmüller, to ensure daily deportations from Warsaw to the death camp at Treblinka. On July 27, Ganzenmüller reported that "since [July 22] a train with 5,000 Jews travels daily from Warsaw over Malkinia to Treblinka. Moreover, twice a week a train with 5,000 Jews travels from Przemysl to Belzec." Wolff replied on August 13, "Hearty thanks in the name of the Reichsführer SS [Himmler] for your letter....With great joy I learned from your announcement that, for the past fourteen days, a train has gone daily to Treblinka with 5,000 members of the chosen people."
Another example of Friedländer's historiographical skill concerns the details of murder in a small Ukrainian town. "In early August 1941, the small town of Bjelaja Zerkow, south of Kiev, was occupied by the 295th Infantry Division of Army Group South; the Wehrmacht area commander, Colonel Riedl, ordered the registration of all Jewish inhabitants and asked SS Sonderkommando 4a, a subunit of Einsatzgruppe C -- which in the meantime had moved from eastern Galicia to pre-1939 Soviet Union -- to murder them." Friedländer describes the awful details of the murder of "all 800 to 900 local Jews" and then the somewhat delayed execution of ninety children under the age of five. The decision about whether or not to murder them went all the way up the chain of command to Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau and SS officer Paul Blobel. The officer who carried out the executions, a certain Captain Luley, was recommended for promotion.
In the first volume of his great work, Friedländer presented numerous examples of German government officials, lawyers, doctors, corporate executives, and church leaders who collaborated with the Nazi regime out of conviction and opportunism. The Years of Extermination addresses "an essential fact" about the period of 1939 to 1945: "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...to the contrary, many social constituencies, many power groups were directly involved in the expropriation of the Jews and eager, be it out of greed, for their wholesale disappearance. Thus Nazi and related anti-Jewish policies could unfold to their most extreme levels without the interference of any major countervailing interests."
Friedländer also offers much material about the views and actions of Nazi collaborators in Eastern Europe, including the Croatian Ustasha, the Romanian Iron Guard, and the Ukranian and Latvian nationalists. The Years of Extermination draws emphatic attention to their participation in the Holocaust. The Romanian Jewish writer Mihael Sebastian observed a three-day anti-Semitic rampage in Bucharest by the SS-supported Iron Guard in Romania. On January 21, 1941, he wrote:
The stunning thing about the Bucharest bloodbath is the quite bestial ferocity to it....It is now considered absolutely certain that the Jews butchered at Straulesti abattoir were hanged by the neck on hooks normally used for beef carcasses. A sheet of paper was stuck to each corpse: "Kosher Meat." As for those killed in Jilava Forest, they were first undressed (it would have been a pity for clothes to remain there), then shot and thrown on top of one another.
As one would expect given Friedländer's longstanding engagement with the issue, The Years of Extermination deals extensively with the role of Europe's churches, Catholic and Protestant. During the 1930s and 1940s, 95 percent of European Christians were regular churchgoers and paid attention to what priests and ministers had to say about the events of the day. His assessment of the Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany during the Holocaust follows his critical view in The Years of Persecution. Regarding the period from 1939 to 1945, he concludes that "the conciliatory attitude" of the Christian churches and especially the Catholic church was a key factor in fostering that stance in Portugal, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Croatia, as well as in Vichy France. The new order in Europe established by the Nazi victories of 1940s "became an intensely anti-Jewish new order." He describes the stance of Pope Pius XII toward Hitler and his anti-Jewish policies as one of "selective appeasement." And some church officials went much further. On July 15, 1941, in the first month of the Einsatzgruppen murders of tens of thousands of Jews behind the lines on the Eastern Front, Polish Catholic officials sent the following message to the Polish government-in-exile in London:
As far as the Jewish Question is concerned, it must be seen as a singular dispensation of Divine Providence that the Germans have already made a good start, quite irrespective of all the wrongs they have done and continue to do to our country. They have shown that the liberation of Polish society from the Jewish plague is possible....Clearly, one can see the hand of God in the contribution to the solution of this urgent question being made by the occupiers.
By December 1941, deportations of Jews from Germany to the East had sharpened controversies in both the Catholic and Protestant churches. On December 17, 1941, German Christian church leaders of Saxony, Nassau-Hesse, Mecklenburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Anhalt, Thuringia, and Lubeck announced that the "severest measures" should be taken against the Jews, who should be expelled form German territories. The overwhelming majority of Catholic church leaders who had previously denounced the Nazi murders of the mentally ill and physically handicapped said nothing about the deportations of Jews from Germany. Friedländer concludes that between 1939 and 1945 the vast majority of church officials remained silent. They made clear and ugly distinctions between a tiny minority of Jews who converted to Christianity and the vast majority who did not. They accepted that there was a fundamental inequality between Christians and Jews, and failed to use the moral authority of the church to attempt to stop the genocide in progress. Anti-Semitic antipathies rooted in traditional Christian theology combined with fear of communism led the preponderance of leadership in the Christian churches of Europe to remain silent and on occasion to fan the flames of anti-Semitism. We read of the occasional priest or minister who gave a dissenting sermon (and was sometimes arrested or murdered as a result); but these were exceptions that proved the rule.
What was true of the churches was also true of the civil service, the intellectuals, the police, the journalists, the industrialists, and the professors. The anti-Semitism of prominent European intellectuals has been an important theme in the scholarship for some time. Readers will not be surprised to read that in 1940 the French novelist Céline asked, "Are we to remain slaves of the Jews, or shall we become Germanic once more?" Rather less well known is the effort of the association of French publishers in September 1940 to identify writers, artists, and intellectuals on lists of banned books: "These are the books which by their lying and tendentious spirit have systematically poisoned French public opinion; particularly the publications of political refugees or of Jewish writers who, having betrayed the hospitality that France had granted to them, unscrupulously agitated in favor of a war from which they hoped to take advantage for their own egoistic aims." Paris, writes Friedländer, "possibly more than any other Western European capital...became a hotbed of intellectual and artistic collaboration." With very few exceptions, the European "academic community" also acquiesced in purging Jews from university faculties.
The Years of Extermination includes a great deal of material regarding the efforts of Europe's Jews to withstand, resist, and survive the German assault, which included bribing officials, fleeing, disappearing into small villages, converting, joining resistance movements, and recording in many diaries the unfolding campaign of mass murder. Almost nothing worked -- a fact that has led observers then and since to assume that the Jews went passively like lambs to the slaughter. At times, faced with terror and dwindling hopes of survival, solidarity among Jews broke down. The leadership of French Jewry did its best to protect "native" French Jews or "Jewish Frenchmen," but gave less support to recent Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe.
Friedländer's discussion of the Jewish leadership in the ghettos of Eastern Europe comprises an important aspect of his work. He does not shy away from reporting the intense criticism to which some of these leaders were subjected by their fellow Jews. At the same time, he reconstructs the impossible situation in which these leaders found themselves. Some acted with more bravery and fairness than others. Friedländer concludes that, in the face of the German intent to exterminate, nothing they did mattered. No amount of political cunning, diplomacy, or work "had any impact whatsoever on the ultimate fate of their communities." The Years of Extermination puts to rest the ridiculous notion, advanced by Hannah Arendt and others, that passive resistance or civil disobedience would have been an effective tool in hindering the destruction.
The texts of Jewish diarists and chroniclers play a key role in Friedländer's reconstruction of events and mentalities in the Jewish communities. Chaim Kaplan, the director of a Hebrew school in Warsaw, noted Jewish reactions to the Soviet occupation of Poland in his diary on October 13, 1939. The Jews there looked
upon the Bolsheviks as redeeming Messiahs. Even the wealthy, who would become poor under Bolshevism, preferred the Russians to the Germans. There is plunder on the one hand and plunder on the other, but the Russians plunder one as a citizen and a man, while the Nazis plunder one as a Jew. The former Polish government never spoiled us, but at the same time never overtly singled us out for torture. The Nazi is a sadist, however. His hatred of the Jews is a psychosis. He flogs and derives pleasure from it. The torment of the victim is a balm to his soul, especially if the victim is a Jew.
Following the German victories of early summer 1940, Kaplan wrote that "the Germans are, of course, the heroes of the war, but they require a short war; as they say in their language, a Blitzkrieg. They could not survive a long war. Time is their greatest enemy." Winston Churchill's famous speeches of June and July 1940 suggested the same strategic insight. On October 18, 1941, when it appeared that the Germans might defeat the Red Army outside Moscow, Kaplan wrote that "a Nazi victory means complete annihilation, morally and materially, for all the Jews of Europe."
In Amsterdam, Etty Hillesum, a young woman studying Slavic languages at Amsterdam University, recorded her rage about the deportations taking place in a diary entry on March 15, 1941. She was "beside myself with anger, cursing and swearing at the Germans....The whole nation must be destroyed root and branch. And now and then I say nastily, They are all scum,' and at the same time I feel terribly ashamed and deeply unhappy but cannot stop even though I know that it's all wrong." Then, on June 14, 1941: "More arrests, more terror, concentration camps, the arbitrary dragging off of fathers, sisters, brothers. Everything seems so menacing and ominous, and always that feeling of total impotence." Jacques Biélinky, in France, was one of many Jewish chroniclers who observed the responses of their non-Jewish fellow citizens to anti-Jewish policies. On February 20, 1942, he recorded that non-Jewish colleagues made no attempt to prevent the dismissal of their only Jewish colleague. "They did not make the move; cowardice has become a civic virtue."
Victor Klemperer, now famous for his great diary of the Nazi era, recalled details of his arrest and interrogation at the Gestapo headquarters in Dresden on January 6, 1942. He reported that the "interrogating" officer conveyed the following version of the nature of World War II according to Hitler:
"Who is going to win this war? You or us?" -- "What do you mean?" -- "Well, you pray for our defeat every day, don't you? -- To Yahweh, or whatever it's called. It is the Jewish War, isn't it. Adolf Hitler said so -- (shouting emphatically) and what Adolf Hitler says is true!"
On January 18, 1941, Hermann Kruk, who had been active in Yiddish cultural activities in Warsaw and then in Vilna, recoiled from efforts to stage cultural activities. "I felt offended, personally offended about the whole thing, let alone the festive evening. In every ghetto you can amuse yourself, cultivating art is certainly a good deed. But here, in the doleful situation of the Vilna Ghetto, in the shadow of Ponar, where of the 76,000 Vilna Jews, only 15,000 remain -- here, at this moment, this is a disgrace....You don't make theater in a graveyard." All these testimonies are essential for the historian, and crushing.
A great deal of work on the Holocaust examines what the Germans knew about the Holocaust. Friedländer thinks that many of them knew quite a bit. Yet The Years of Extermination is particularly interesting for its examination of what the Jews knew, of what mixture of hope, illusion, rumor, and fact prevailed in their communities. Deprived as they were of newspapers, radios, or any means of transportation, forced into ghettos, they made efforts to spread news. In early June 1942, an unknown survivor of the extermination in Wodawa in Poland sent an easily decipherable code letter to the Warsaw Ghetto making veiled reference to the preparation of the death camp in Treblinka. "Uncle has the intention to celebrate the wedding of his children also at your place; he has rented a house close to you, very close to you. You probably don't know a thing about it. We write to you, so that you may be informed and do find a house outside of the city, for yourself and also for all our brethren and children, as the uncle has already prepared a new house for all, the same as in our case." In his diary on July 8, 1942, Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Judenrat in Warsaw, reflected this understanding of impending disaster. He recalled a film about a captain who orders music to be played as a ship is sinking. "I have made up my mind," he wrote, "to emulate the captain."
Friedländer carefully reconstructs the erosion of illusions and the growing knowledge among the Jews about the fate that awaited them. He draws heavily on Czerniaków, as well as on the historian Emanuel Ringelblum's Notes From the Warsaw Ghetto. Ringelblum described inhabitants freezing to death and dying of disease, and the "time of persecutions" giving way, at the end of 1942, to "the time of atrocities." The absence of Jewish illusions is evident as well in Ringelblum's account of a conversation with Mordechai Anielewicz, a leader of the armed resistance in Warsaw, in which the latter "gave an accurate appraisal of the uneven struggle, he foresaw the destruction of the ghetto and he was sure that neither he nor his combatants would survive the liquidation of the ghetto. He was sure that they would die like stray dogs and no one would even know their last resting place." A year later, in March 1944, Ringelblum and his son were captured and killed by the Germans in Warsaw.
When he examines the issue of what the early Zionist leadership in Palestine could have done to help the Jews of Europe, Friedländer writes that it did "not demonstrate any major commitment to alleviating the fate of the Jews in Europe, nor did it seem to devote much attention to the unfolding of the ever-more-manifest catastrophe." Though he cites the important recent work of the Israeli historian Tuvia Friling, Friedländer resists agreeing with the conclusion that Friling draws based on exhaustive research, namely that Ben-Gurion and Zionist leaders made great efforts with the absurdly limited military means at their disposal to help Europe's Jews. Friling's work points to both the desire to help and the absence of power to do so.
Like other historians before him, Friedländer criticizes the refusal of Britain and the United States to use their military power to attack the death camps, especially in the summer and fall of 1944, when approximately 500,000 Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered at Auschwitz. Yet while these criticisms of what the Western Allies failed to do in summer 1944 are justified, The Years of Extermination, like the historical scholarship in general, includes nothing about what the Soviet Union might have been able to do beginning in 1941, and even more so in 1943 and after, to use its military power to stop or to impede the Final Solution. So far as I know, no historian of the wartime Soviet Union or of the Holocaust has examined this issue. The opening of the Soviet archives offers some hope that this neglect will be overcome. Historians of the Holocaust have noted the enormous suffering endured by the Red Army and the citizens of the Soviet Union. Perhaps the deaths of eight million soldiers in the Red Army and approximately nineteen million Soviet citizens during World War II in Europe, as well as the major role played by the Red Army and Air Force in the defeat of the German armed forces and much of the Luftwaffe as well, have discouraged historians from probing into the subject. Whatever the reason, Friedländer does not address the issue in The Years of Extermination.
The fact is that the armed forces of the Soviet Union were located hundreds, not thousands, of miles from the death camps in Poland. The difficulties of aerial bombardment would have been daunting, but Soviet military historians estimate that the Soviet air force had gained air superiority over much of the Eastern Front by mid-1943, though not yet over German- occupied Poland. As early as 1940, the Soviet air force possessed thousands of medium-range bombers. In 1942, the Soviet Union produced more than 20,000 fighter planes, and in 1943 it produced more than 34,000. The Soviet Union's official history of its air force claims that between 1941 and 1945 it flew 3,124,000 sorties, dropped 30,450,000 bombs, destroyed 77,000 Axis aircraft (of which 57,000 were German), and flew 168,000 "strategic-bombing missions," including an attack on Berlin as early as June 1941. It carried out extensive photographic reconnaissance of the Eastern Front.
Granted, the Soviet Union was fighting desperately for its survival in 1941 and 1942; but the tide turned after the Battle of Stalingrad in January 1943, and the Eastern Front began to move west, closer to the death camps. What did the Soviet leaders know about the mass murders of the Jews, and when did they know it? Were there debates or discussions in wartime Moscow about possibly striking the death camps? These questions still await answers.
In time, a new synthesis will be written. The rush of serious scholarship on the Holocaust seems to be unstoppable. Yet I have no doubt that The Years of Extermination will stand the test of time for many years to come. On August 4, 1942 in Warsaw, Chaim Kaplan wrote the last entry in his diary before he was murdered: "If my life ends -- what will become of my diary." In this magnificent work of historical erudition and moral clarity, Saul Friedländer has ensured that Kaplan's diary, and many other seemingly forgotten texts, will not perish; that they will live as sources of light about the darkness. He has fulfilled the doomed man's most desperate wish.