It's difficult to imagine that Professor Friedländer's detailed account of the greatest crime in history will ever be surpassed. He combines great detail with a storyteller's talent, such that what could so easily have become a very long recitation of facts is a continuous, cohesive, fluid account, no mean achievement. His command of many different primary source materials and his fusion of these are most impressive. Interwoven into the straight historical narrative are diary entries of people of all ages and walks of life, many of whom did not survive. These voices from beyond the grave add a poignancy to the story and a reminder that this was the murder not of a race but of six million individuals, each with his or her own individual spark, his or her own potential contribution, great or small, to humankind. These accentuate the sheer unadulterated monstrousness of what the Nazis did.
The story follows on from his first volume of the story ("The years of persecution"), and shows that the road from the Kristallnacht to the gas chamber was gradual and taken in small steps. There was never a specific decision where someone said, "Let's do in the whole lot", but rather a gradual outworking of a philosophy that decreed that Europe had to be "Judenfrei". The only question was how exactly to achieve the desired "Judenfrei" state. Initially, the idea was to export them to somewhere. However, with all possible exits cut off and the General Government (the "Polish" part of German-occupied Poland) bursting at the seams with Jews forcibly evacuated there, the unthinkable became fact and the dreadful machinery of extermination came into being. It had already been decided in principle by the time of the infamous Wannsee Conference, whose primary purpose was to exert the central role of Himmler, Heydrich and the Reich security apparatus (RSHA) over the whole affair.
An interesting aspect is that the Final Solution didn't really get into gear until the USA entered the war. Hitler regarded the USA as completely Jew-ridden and -dominated, and therefore, to some extent, he went (relatively) easy on the Jews as a sort of hostage against the USA's good behaviour. This is another interesting aspect of Prof. Friedländer's account, the degree to which anti-Semitism completely distorted Nazi policy, such that rational thinking was impossible, and the extermination continued unabated, even when the thousand-year Reich was collapsing around the Nazis' ears. He makes it clear how anti-Semitism was no bolt-on extra to Nazi philosophy, but was central to it.
One of Prof. Friedländer's main points, and perhaps one of the most tragic, is how so many in the occupied territories participated actively and passively in the Nazi crime. Most turned their backs and pretended not to know, others fell over themselves to help the Nazis. For every hero(ine) of unbreakable moral compass who was prepared to help (and Prof. Friedländer lists some very odd ones, such as the Japanese consul in Lithuania), there were a thousand collaborators, indifferent and downright opportunistic people. One (this one anyway) has the clear impression that Prof. Friedländer is at heart a Zionist who believes that the Jews have no place anywhere in Europe, such was the inherent anti-Semitism there. His view appears to be that, while the Nazis ploughed the earth, sowed the seed and cultivated the crop, that earth was inherently fertile. So, although Prof. Friedländer has major problems with the thesis of Daniel Goldhagen ("Hitler's willing executioners"), he often seems to be thinking along very similar lines.
The one jarring note in this otherwise peerless account is when Prof. Friedländer pushes this point too far. As an example of British anti-Semitic feeling expressed in the press, he cites an article in, of all places, "Punch". Perhaps one needs to understand the British sense of humour, but to me the article is clearly typically "Punch", with its tongue firmly rammed in its cheek, saying one thing on the surface while clearly meaning precisely the opposite. Prof. Friedländer doesn't seem to have got the joke.
Nevertheless, the thing that really impresses is Prof. Friedländer's reasonable tone. This is no polemic (which, given the subject matter, it could so easily have become) but a rational, well-reasoned account in which the facts are allowed to speak for themselves, rather than have a particular agenda imposed on them. For example, Prof. Friedländer clearly understands the complex political undercurrents of the time, in which Allied governments and even Jewish organisations in the USA and Israel did less than they could have to rescue a people whom by 1943 everyone knew had been destined for the slaughterhouse.
In short, this account of the darkest side of human nature should be on everyone's reading list, particularly on that of the current State of Israel, which, while keen to remember this past, has not apparently learned anything from it and appears only too happy to inflict torment on others.