Reading the Holocaust (Canto)

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9780521012690: Reading the Holocaust (Canto)
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The events of the Holocaust remain unthinkable to many men and women, as morally and intellectually baffling today as they were a half century ago. Inga Clendinnen seeks to dispel what she calls the "Gorgon effect:" the sickening of imagination and the draining of the will that afflict so many of us when we try to confront the horrors of this history. Clendinnen explores the experience of the Holocaust from both the victims' and the perpetrators' points of view. She discusses the remarkable survivor testimonies of writers such as Primo Levi and Charlotte Delbo, the vexing issue of "resistance" in the camps, and survivors' strategies for understanding the motivations of the Nazi leadership. She focuses an anthropologist's precise gaze on the actions of the murderers in the police battalions and among the SS in the camps. Finally she considers how the Holocaust has been portrayed in poetry, fiction, and film. A Prize-winning archaeologist, anthropologist and historian of ancient Mexican cultures, Inga Clendinnen has spent most of her teaching career at La Trobe University in Bundoora, Australia. Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan (Cambridge, 1989) and Aztecs: An Interpretation (Cambridge, 1995) are two of her best-known scholarly works; Tiger's Eye: A Memoir, (Scribner, 2001) describes her battle against liver cancer.

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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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More than fifty years after their occurrence, the events of the Holocaust remain for some of their most dedicated students as morally and intellectually baffling, as 'unthinkable', as they were at their first rumoring. Reading the Holocaust challenges that bafflement and the demoralization that attends it. Searching, eloquent, and elegantly written, Inga Clendinnen's book is an uncompromising attempt to extract the comprehensible--the practical, human reality--from the unthinkable. Reading the Holocaust has won the Premier's Award for General History in New South Wales.

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