2021 Balzan Prize for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
Saul Friedländer is a world authority on the Holocaust but he is also a survivor. It is this combination which makes him unique: he makes his own life history the dynamic source of inspiration for his work as a professional historian of the Holocaust. Combining intellectual discipline with the passion of memory, he writes rigorously researched and documented history which has the urgency and truth of a work of art. In his historical narrative disbelief is not smoothed away, but constitutes a morally coherent starting point to what happened, while constantly counterbalanced by Saul Friedländer’s self-control and calm intelligence.
With his approach Saul Friedländer has had an unparallelled impact on the emerging field of Holocaust studies. His authoritative interventions in a debate in the 1980s with the German historian Martin Broszat over the call for a ‘historicization’ of Nazi Germany were of crucial importance. Saul Friedländer argued forcefully that the danger of treating Nazi Germany as a ‘normal’ period of history would cause historians to lose sight of the unique character of Nazism. He maintains that Nazism is unique for its ‘redemptive anti-Semitism’, resulting in a genocidal politics which resists any attempt to integrate Nazism into the ‘normal’ development of Germany.
Saul Friedländer’s capacity to successfully combine rigorous archival research with a moral stance is already visible in his early publications on specific aspects of the Holocaust, such as his Pius XII and the Third Reich (1966; translated from the original Pie XII et le IIIe Reich, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1964). However, the uniqueness of his approach is fully expressed in his masterpiece, a two-volume history of the persecution and extermination of all European Jews, Nazi Germany and the Jews. These volumes took a lifetime to germinate and 16 years to write (volume 1 was published in 1997; volume 2 in 2007). Together they offer the first overall history of the Holocaust, taking into account all occupied European countries, and thereby integrating for the first time developments in Eastern and Western Europe into one interpretative frame. This holistic approach is one of the reasons why Saul Friedländer’s work has been so influential to this day. The other main reason is the extraordinary way in which he uses personal documents written by victims, perpetrators and bystanders that give direct contemporary expression to their experience of these events. These voices convey an atmosphere which cannot be captured from other sources. Saul Friedländer’s work has greatly stimulated the use of personal documents in Holocaust history, which has now become common practice.
Saul Friedländer’s originality also expresses itself in a particular kind of self-awareness. While emphasizing the necessity of a self-critical attitude so as to diminish the constraints of subjectivity, he also maintains that one should avoid undue restraint and paralyzing caution. Reflections on the ties between history and memory, including his own, continuously inspire his scholarship. Apart from scholarly publications like Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe (1993), he wrote two memoirs. In When Memory Comes (1979) he reflects on the loss of his parents and the meaning of his Jewish roots. Where Memory Leads (2016) is a tale of an intellectual coming of age that spans three continents and allows him to reflect on the events that have led to a lifelong fascination with Jewish life and history. With his work on memory he demonstrates in theory and practice that Holocaust victims can be Holocaust scholars as well. This has been extremely important for the development of the field.