Whether we like it or not, the fact remains that most people’s introduction to historical topics comes from fiction. And that’s as true for the Holocaust as it is for the Tudors, ancient Rome or medieval Europe.


But should the sheer horror of the Nazi genocide impose additional constraints on authors and filmmakers? And should we even be fictionalising it at all?

These are questions I was keen to put to Professor Richard J Evans, one of the world’s leading experts on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. We spoke just before the release of the TV adaptation of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which is one of 2024’s most hotly anticipated historical dramas.

It’s based on a 2018 novel by Heather Morris, which is itself centred on the real story of Slovakian Jewish Holocaust survivor Lale Sokolov (a tattooist at Auschwitz), who met the author in later life.

The trouble with The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz has sold millions of copies around the world and won plaudits from many reviewers, but also come in for criticisms from some Holocaust scholars for a number of inaccuracies within the book. Evans read the novel in advance of our conversation and found himself sharing many of these concerns.

“I'm afraid the historian in me is always on the lookout for little mistakes and little errors, which can be a bit irritating,” he said. “But the major one for me is that this book cannot cope with the extremes of inhumanity, brutality, and horror that you find in Auschwitz.

“For 99 per cent of the inmates, the concentration camp is a degrading, humiliating, appalling and shocking experience from which there's no escape. And this novel is about escape: escape through love, escape through an affair, escape through the humanity and the help of other prisoners and of some of the camp auxiliaries and camp guards. That softens the contours of what was really a horribly appalling experience. So, to me, that doesn’t ring true.”

In response to the critics of the book, both Heather Morris and the book’s publishers argued that this was a work of fiction – albeit based on a true story – and therefore shouldn’t be judged by the same criteria as an academic history of the camp.

I asked Evans for his response to that. “If you're going to set a novel in a historical context, then I think you do need to get as much right as you can about that context,” he said. “A lot of people come to the Holocaust, not through academic books, which are often very difficult to read, admittedly, but through fiction. And so, I think fiction writers have a duty not to distort the context and to distort the nature of the camps and of human relations in them.”

The challenge of telling Holocaust stories

Evans made it clear that these criticisms do not apply to The Tattooist of Auschwitz alone. For example, he believes that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (a hugely successful 2006 John Boyne novel later made into a film) “gets it completely wrong”.

“The book imagines the son of the commandant of Auschwitz starting to chat through the fence to a boy in striped pyjamas – in other words, a young boy who's a prisoner there. Now, young boys were almost all taken straight to the gas chambers. They weren't made into permanent prisoners. And the idea that the son of the commandant of Auschwitz would not be a dyed-in-the-wool Hitler youth is just completely misleading.”

Even Schindler’s List, surely the most important Holocaust film ever made, takes some liberties. “It concerns Oskar Schindler, who is a businessman, a corrupt, immoral German businessman who goes to occupied Poland in order to get cheap labour for his factories. These cheap labourers are Jews, essentially forced labourers. Schindler keeps them working for him in order to save them from the gas chambers. It's a remarkable story and it is a true story. But in making the film, Spielberg converts it into a moral parable.

“Historical records show that Schindler was as corrupt a businessman before and after. It didn't affect his character at all. He was always having extramarital affairs with women. The film sort of prettifies this by showing him reconciling with his wife, which he didn't do at all according to the historical record.”

As listeners to our podcast may recall, Evans admires the recent Jonathan Glazer film The Zone of Interest, itself based on the Martin Amis novel of the same name. But even here he felt that some aspects were misleading.

“It’s a very good film, but it has a problem, which is that it's about what the philosopher Hannah Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’ when referring to Adolf Eichmann, one of the main officials of the Holocaust.

“The film shows Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, living a kind of conventional bourgeois home life, but in fact his memoirs say that the stress of his work was destroying his marriage and his home life.”

Why is it so difficult to translate the Holocaust info fiction?

One reason that telling stories about the Holocaust can be so difficult is that so few people survived long enough to provide a sufficient narrative arc.

“Films have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. And for a lot of people this did not happen,” said Evans. “The Holocaust was not structured in that way.”

Another issue, specific to screen adaptations, is that it’s incredibly difficult to reflect the appalling condition of those who had to live in the camps. As Evans pointed out: “You've got healthy, well-fed Hollywood actors and extras playing people who in reality were starving, covered in lice, sick and brutalised. You can't really convey that on film.”

Considering the challenges confronting those seeking to write books or screenplays about the Holocaust, is it even possible to do it properly?

“That's a very difficult question because I think it's very difficult to actually convey the full horror,” said Evans. “I've read stomach-turning accounts of eyewitnesses and victims, and I think it's really difficult. But I think it could be possible and I think authors should try, but they owe it to the readers to do some serious, hard research.”

Are there any well-told Holocaust stories?

There is one film that Evans cites as an excellent example of fictionalising the Holocaust – 2001’s Conspiracy, starring Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci, which dramatises the 1942 Wannsee conference. This was the meeting where the plans for the Holocaust were laid out.


“The film is based very closely on the minutes of the meeting, prepared by Adolf Eichmann. And where they can't fill in some details, the film cleverly takes from other documents: the diaries of Alfred Rosenberg for example, who was the chief ideologue of the Nazi party. It is a very good introduction if you do want some kind of dramatisation.”

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Rob AttarEditor, BBC History Magazine

Rob Attar is editor of BBC History Magazine and also works across the HistoryExtra podcast and website, as well as hosting several BBC History Magazine events.