Perceptions of Reality: Methodologies That Make Them Come to Life

“The sadistic machine simply rolls over us.” —Victor Klemperer, December 9, 1939


How can we narrate an event as ponderous as the Holocaust? Scholars have narrated this historical tragedy using two perspectives: that of the victim and that of the perpetrator. The perspective of the victim gives us the “what” – What happened in the camps? What were the thoughts and reactions of victims? What lead victims to make the choices they made? Meanwhile, the perspective of the perpetrator tells us “why?” – Why were certain people treated a certain way? Why did people allow the violence to happen? Separately, these perspectives are the main pieces of the puzzle; together, they form a more complete picture.

The overwhelming number of Jewish and German diaries, memoirs, and testimonies give us the answers to some of the questions that rise from a complicated event such as the Holocaust. The value of this evidence is manifest in Christopher Browning’s Remembering Survival[1] and Saul Friedlander’s The Years of Extermination.[2] The critique of Friedlander’s work offered by Browning shows how Friedlander’s argument that the Holocaust is “uniquely unique” reduces the significance of suffering victims today.

Christopher Browning and Saul Friedlander have brought us the perspectives of victims and perpetrators alike. However, we must ask ourselves how accurate the memories of survivors are, and what criteria was employed by the authors in selecting excerpts. Browning admits in his introduction, and often reminds the reader along the way, that there are discrepancies in the testimonies offered, and impugns Friedlander’s obvious exclusion of data and preference for melodramatic texts.[3]

Browning and Friedlander offer different methods to the challenge of making sense of a senseless event. While Browning’s approach reminds us that the experiences of individuals are impossible to describe accurately or collectively, Friedlander demands the Holocaust be felt rather than analyzed, leaving interpretation of events to the reader rather than the scholar.[4] We must recognize the sensitive nature of recollection by victims, and the importance of understanding the reason for the actions of perpetrators without empathizing.


Featured Image: Photographer Unknown, The Formal Opening of the Nuremberg Trial of the Major War Criminals, November 20, 1945.


[1] Christopher Browning, Remembering Survival (New York: Norton, 2010), 1-204.

[2] I will be using responses to Friedlander’s book for content: Alon Confino, “Narrative Form and Historical Sensation: On Saul Friedlander’s The Years of Extermination,” History and Theory 48, no. 3 (October 2009), 199-219.; Amos Goldberg, “The Victim’s Voice and Melodramatic Aesthetics in History,” History and Theory 48, no. 3 (October 2009), 220-237.; Christopher Browning, “Evocation, Analysis, and the ‘Crisis of Liberalism’,” History and Theory 48, no. 3 (October 2009), 238-247.

[3] This admission is found in several places throughout the book. Browning refers often to different testimonies given to the same event. One example is ths accounts given of the camp selection of November 8, 1943 that I will cite here. Browning, Remembering Survival, 148.

[4] Confino, 217.


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