Decades after the end of World War II, the Holocaust remains as inexplicable and morbidly fascinating as ever. Countless books have been written about it--accounts of survivors, biographies of Hitler and his cronies, poetry and fiction informed by an event no poet or novelist could have imagined for him- or herself. Along with the deluge of responses to the horror, there have arisen two assumptions: first, that it was a unique event in world history; and, second, that it is impossible to understand the motivations of the Nazi perpetrators. Australian anthropologist Inga Clendinnen challenges both these suppositions in her controversial revisiting of the Holocaust.
It is understandable that earlier chroniclers (and survivors) of the Nazi genocide, such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, would have difficulty approaching it with the scholar's objectivity or compulsion to examine all sides of the issue--indeed, in Levi's mind, trying to understand the motivations of the Nazis was tantamount to endorsing them. Clendinnen, an expert in ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures, carefully differentiates between comprehending one's subject and identifying with it. She suggests that only by understanding the minds behind the Final Solution--and not just Hitler and Himmler but the average man in the street and buck private in the army, as well--can we hope to place the Holocaust in historical context. The author divides her study into three parts: in the first (and perhaps most controversial), she discusses the problems inherent in eyewitness accounts; in the second, she examines Nazi psychology; and in the last section, she looks at artistic representations of the Holocaust. Throughout, she amply represents the views of important Holocaust commentators and the many theories that abound. Best of all, she does it in highly readable prose. Reading the Holocaust is a thoughtful, provocative look at an old and troubling question.
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From Kirkus Reviews
paper 0-521-64597-2 A trenchant collection of essays intended to forge the human connections necessary to begin the move toward a full understanding of the Holocaust. Clendinnen critiques the notion that the Holocaust is a unique event that falls outside the boundaries of normal history; it was, she notes, perpetuated by members of 20th-century Western society like ourselves. While she recognizes that the Holocaust presents particular difficulties of representation, such as the relative scarcity of survivors able to tell their stories, the failure of words to communicate human suffering, and the impossibility of communicating the experience of those rendered mute or murdered, she insists that we can come to understand this episode in human history through the unglamorous techniques commonly employed by historians and biographers. Rather than the search for general causes and flashes of intuition, she stresses the need for the piecing together of contexts, the establishing of sequences of actions, and the inferring of the likely intentions behind those actions from our knowledge of the individuals involved and our general stock of knowledge about human motivations. Her approach stresses the absolute necessity of understanding both the victims of the Holocaust and those who perpetrated it. She demands a historical accounting not only of those orchestrating the ``final solution,'' but of the regular soldiers, the police brigades, and even the Sondercommandos, the camp prisoners, mostly Jews, who supplied much of the labor to keep the camps running. The impulse to think of the Nazis as beyond comprehension and to confuse understanding them with identifying with them, yields the dangerous possibility that their actions will be understood as merely idiosyncratic. Although she draws heavily upon literary voices, such as Primo Levi and Charlotte Delbo, Clendinnen suggests that the Holocaust can best be understood through historical writing. An important step toward an honest encounter with one of the great horrors of our past. (7 photos, 1 map, not seen) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.