Roger W. Smith


The literary and cultural critic George Steiner has been described as the pre- eminent literary critic of the past fifty years. Certainly, he has written eloquently about aspects of the Holocaust, and his emphasis on language and its power to make and unmake much of human life, has been widely influential. Yet Steiner’s work on the Holocaust is misleading in its interpretations, explanations, and implications. Part of this stems from his worry that the Jews brought their near destruction upon themselves: that they had invented the practice of genocide, had invented the idea of a ‘‘chosen people,’’ had through Moses, Jesus, and Marx created such moral demands upon ordinary human beings that the tension became unbearable and resulted in a revolt against the tyranny of conscience and perfection. Part of it comes from his uncritical focus on Freudian psychology and reliance on literary works as a substitute for history. Yet there is almost always the dazzling prose, which can overwhelm critical thought and lead one away from a factual understanding of the origins and consequences of the Holocaust. The present article provides a critical assessment of Steiner’s interpretation of the Holocaust, its antecedents, causes, and consequences.