For all the pleasures of a life spent contemplating the past, for all the sense of discovery and escapism, history often takes us to the darkest places imaginable. Far more than any religious text, the historical record of mankind is the story of sin and suffering played out again and again.


Only the costumes and scenery change: the essential narrative of fear, cruelty, suffering and death never alters. And some events still have the power to bring even the most cynical scholars to the brink of tears.

In its appalling scale the Holocaust seems a genuinely exceptional atrocity. And yet for all its moral enormity, even this extraordinary tragedy is not closed off from fierce scholarly disagreements.

Even its definition is bitterly contested: while some historians insist that the extermination of the Jews was a unique event and the Holocaust was a uniquely Jewish tragedy, others point out that the Nazis’ victims also included 3 million Soviet prisoners of war, 2 million Poles, perhaps 250,000 gypsies and tens of thousands of homosexuals and disabled people.

Other issues divide historians, too. Was the Holocaust driven by clear and coherent orders from above, or by the anarchic pressures of the Nazi regime? Was it a result merely of National Socialism, or of German history more generally? And to what extent were ordinary Germans, as one historian calls them, ‘Hitler’s willing executioners’?

Of course arguing about these kinds of questions – or indeed about the exact numbers murdered in the camps – is a very different phenomenon from Holocaust denial, which tends to be driven by anti-Semitism and far-right fantasies. No event, after all, is above historical debate. It is true that for survivors and their families, the Holocaust can never be reduced to just another historical subject; and yet for thousands of students, it has already become the stuff of seminar presentations and revision classes, while Hollywood has come dangerously close to turning it into a big-screen cliché.

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The American historian Norman Finkelstein, whose parents survived the Nazi camps, has even attacked the ‘Holocaust industry’ – although the enormous criticism surrounding his argument is a reminder that this remains the most sensitive historical subject of all.

The great danger, it seems to me, is for the Holocaust to become ossified, to be cordoned off as the stuff of museums and costume dramas. There is a tendency, exacerbated by our eagerness to cast the Nazis as supremely and uniquely evil, to see it as a uniquely German crime, orchestrated by a gang of fanatical madmen. In fact, many of the people who carried it out were otherwise decent husbands and fathers, people like us.

Similarly, much as we congratulate ourselves on our record during the Second World War, Britain has its own history of anti-Semitism. Even eight centuries later, the pogrom in York in 1190, when hundreds of Jews were massacred by the townspeople, still has the power to shock. And of course the fear and hatred associated with this and other pogroms were not just reserved for the Jews: when anti-Catholic crowds ran amok in London in the Gordon riots of 1780, or when young white men hunted down immigrants in Notting Hill in 1958, very similar passions were at play.

Four years before the Notting Hill riots, the novelist William Golding shocked readers with his parable Lord of the Flies, the story of stiff English schoolboys reverting to primal savagery on a desert island. It was a book that bore the indelible stamp of the horrors of the 1940s; as a naval officer, Golding had taken part in the D-Day landings, and he was obsessed by man’s capacity for evil.

The same theme has recently been sounded by the Austrian director Michael Haneke, whose new film The White Ribbon won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Set in a German village on the eve of the First World War, the film reminds us that cruelty and bullying are deeply embedded not just in modern society but in human nature. Haneke argues that fascism could only have developed in a society of rigid rules and unspoken suffering, which he equates with the strict Protestantism of north Germany.

As a historical interpretation this leaves much to be desired; as a parable, however, it is enormously powerful. A critical viewer might well object that it is an awfully long step from village bullying to the industrial slaughter of the death camps. But the truly chilling lesson of the Holocaust is not that the victims were people like us. It is that the perpetrators were, too.


This article first appeared on History Extra in December 2009