Narrative form and historical sensation: On Saul Friedländer's The Years of Extermination

Alon Confino

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)199-219
Number of pages21
JournalHistory and Theory
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Oct 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Causality
  • Disciplinary boundaries
  • Historical explanation
  • Historical narrative
  • Historical sensation
  • Holocaust
  • Saul Friedländer

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Philosophy


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