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Reading the Holocaust Hardcover – March 28, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (March 28, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521641748
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521641746
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,080,602 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Steven M. Gorelick on January 22, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Scholarship and criticism simply doesn't get more gutsy than this! Think about it: An obviously brilliant and sensitive Anthropologist takes on virtually the entire field of Holocaust studies (ostensibly not her field of expertise), reads fearlessly through a massive and established literature, and dares to take on a scholarly establishment that she argues has clouded and mystified an area of study that -- while perplexing -- should not defy explanation.
The only problem I had is that, by the end of the book, her self-proclaimed stance as a naive and fresh reader is more than overwhelmed by what is obviously genuine expertise. But it is expertise fearlessly put to the task of re-reading an entire field and arguing that we should never convince ourselves that some events are too horrible to read, engage with, and understand.
You gotta read it to believe it. And Ill tell you something else. Not an ounce of post-modern jargon seeps into this complex and brilliant analysis.
Most excitingly, it makes clear that one of the most studied episodes in human history -- The Holocaust -- can and should productively be the subject of many more years of fruitful inquiry.
You think I liked it? Criticism gets no better. Period. (I would be afraid that you would think I am the author or related to her, but another aspect of her critical stance is a humility that at least I have never seen in similar work. I guess I am saying: She would never write this about herself.)
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Dagashai on May 12, 2003
Format: Paperback
This book assumes that the reader has prior experience with holocaust literature. It is not necessarily an overview of the holocaust, but rather a moral and historiographical exploration of the way the Holocaust can and has been reported. The writer has a deft touch on obviously sensitive materials, and addresses one of the modern historian's most troubling issues: how does one critically analyze the veracity and moral actions of those who have been deliberately tormented out of their humanity? From what perspective can one objectively judge monsters and their victims?
This is a thoughtful addition to a reading list of holocaust literature, and a profound text on the calling of the historian.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By John G. Hilliard on April 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is a small book in size only. The author has taken it upon herself to review the field of literature on the topic and try and take a new look at the perceptions for why it happened and why it happened to the Jews. This is a interesting and gutsy look at the topic, some would say it is the "third rail" in many circles to look at this topic, but the author does it and does not do a bad job of it. I think she correctly provides and overview that the holocaust was not a unique event in world history and that it is possible to understand the motivations of the people who committed these crimes, just like it is to understand common criminals.
The author is taking on a big issue and one that could easily bog the reader down in a large amount of complicated theories and terms, but she does not. The book is well written and straightforward. If you are interested in topic this should be one of the books you start out reading.
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23 of 29 people found the following review helpful By R. W. Rasband VINE VOICE on April 29, 1999
Format: Paperback
Clendinnen's small book is a good antidote to mystifers of the Holocaust like Saul Friedlander and Elie Wiesel. Her "just the facts" attitude is refreshing and paradoxically leads to more comprehension of larger issues (although I think she is too easy on Hannah Arendt and too tough on Viktor Frankl.) This is a good supplement to Ron Rosenbaum's masterful "Explaining Hitler."
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