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  • A Holocaust Controversy: The Treblinka Affair in Postwar France
  • Martin Crowley
A Holocaust Controversy: The Treblinka Affair in Postwar France. By Samuel Moyn. Waltham, Brandeis University Press. 2005. xxii + 220 pp. Hb $65.00. Pb $19.95.

In 1966, Fayard published Treblinka: la révolte d'un camp d'extermination, by Jean François Steiner. The book was well supported: it had been extracted in Le Nouvel Observateur and Les Temps modernes, and was accompanied by a preface by Simone de Beauvoir. It depicts the Nazi death camp at Treblinka, where an estimated 800,000 Jews were killed in eighteen months, and where, in August 1943, Jewish prisoners in the camp's work details rose in revolt. Steiner's book became an immense succès de scandale. It sold 100,000 copies by the end of 1966, and was the subject of prominent debate by such figures as Levinas, Rousset, Mauriac and Vidal-Naquet. As Samuel Moyn's magnificent study makes clear, this success was due to the way in which the book's controversial theses allowed it to function as a key object in arguments and struggles about Holocaust memory, about the significance of the Holocaust and of the Nazi camps more generally, and about Jewish identity (particularly with reference to the 'second generation', those of Steiner's age whose relation to the Holocaust was primarily a relation to the memories of their parents' generation). In Steiner's account, the insurrection at Treblinka both provides an example of Jewish heroism to set against images of passivity and suffering, and, most problematically, denounces by contrast this very passivity and suffering, including what appears as the 'complicity' of those in the Sonderkommandos at Treblinka and elsewhere, work details charged with the labour associated with extermination. If such a representation outraged many in the Jewish community, in France as well as Israel, provoking charges of anti-Semitism against Steiner, it is significant that the principal public debate occasioned by the book in France set Steiner's particularist understanding of the Holocaust (in which extermination on racial grounds is essentially different from deportation on political grounds, and is to be interpreted as such) against the dominant universalist understanding (most associated with David Rousset, and in which extermination and concentration camps are part of the same dehumanizing machine, and to be opposed by the same anti-fascist resistance). Moyn's discussion is built on painstaking analysis of primary sources, from private archives to Parisian Yiddish daily newspapers, and manages to be at once exceptionally scrupulous and wonderfully lucid. The debate's implications are comprehensively explored (including its effect on the subsequent reception of Arendt's Eichmann à Jérusalem), right up to its echoes in Agamben and Todorov, both of whom Moyn criticizes for a neo-universalist inattention to the suffering of particular groups. This may be a little unfair: if there is a criticism of Moyn's book, it is that his even-handed conclusion may not sufficiently acknowledge the demands of a kind of universalism in relation to contemporary political violence. (As recently evinced, for example, in Žižek, Nancy, and, again with problematic reference to Jewishness, Badiou.) But no matter. This is a superb book and, as an inspiring model of committed scholarship, at a time when particularism and universalism are again crucial domestic and international political questions, essential reading. [End Page 556]

Martin Crowley
Queens' College, Cambridge


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