History and the Holocaust

Something interesting I found in David Engel's short book on The Third Reich and the Jews, where he discusses how people react to the horrible brute fact of the Holocaust. Some historians have argued that Hitler and his regime operated within a totally foreign universe of discourse, according to rules for perceiving and conceiving reality entirely beyond the experience of any contemporary society. When we read Nazi documents, we can only do so with incredulity. Trying to find a point of psychological identity with these men is doomed to failure. There is nothing in our experience that can enable us to penetrate their conceptual domain. They will always be opaque and strange.

I think I found something like this in Michael Burleigh's book The Third Reich, where he was very willing to throw around terms like 'mass stupidity' and so on. There is a lot of rage about what happened, which is of course understandable. But I think this way of thinking places the people and events under study at a distance. Historians should always maintain a critical, objective stance. But I think a good historian is one that has the imagination (which Steven Fry says is the same as sympathy) to inhabit the mind-space of his subjects. This is why I admire Simon Schama, even though (apparently) he gets it wrong sometimes. See the note on Lenin for more on this.

Why should we sympathise? Engel posits that keeping the Nazis opaque negates the historical approach altogether. If historical societies are so alien -- so completely removed from our own experience -- then it becomes impossible to ever understand them. When it comes to the Holocaust, this is a conforming thought. More frightening is the idea that the Nazis, and the German people who collaborated in their dictatorship, are real human beings whose mentality is possible to understand. Even relate to.

Engel quotes the novelist and Holocaust survivor Yehiel De-Nur: 'Whereever there is humankind, there is Auschwitz'. This is what this modern European genocide confronts us with. Modernity has not eroded our capacity to inflict colossal evil on other people. We are no different, or no better, than the barbarians of the Middle Ages.

We are the same. People haven't perceptively changed the way they think or the way they act for all of recorded human history. For me, the main flaw in Marx's theories is his belief that human beings are transformed by their environment. All utopian ideologies are based on this notion, because in utopia people *have* to be better than they are now. In my view, history says different. It confronts us with the best and worst of ourselves. It shows us who we are. And in the myriad examples of human society we come across, it gives us ideas about the way to best manage our qualities and weaknesses, so that we minimize the harm that we do to one another.

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