A Warning From History

A Warning From History

“If understanding is impossible, however, knowledge is imperative, because what happened could happen again. Conscience can be seduced and obscured again: even our consciences” (Primo Levi, 1986, https://newrepublic.com/article/119959/interview-primo-levi-survival-auschwitz ).

In 1955, 10 years after his liberation from Auschwitz, Primo Levi wrote a preoccupied article, pointing his finger against the “silence of the civilized world”, which regarded any mention of Nazi extermination camps as in bad taste. Levi feared that the greatest crime imaginable, still so vivid in the minds of survivors, was in danger of being forgotten by the public. He rhetorically asked: “Is this silence justified?”


On Thursday the 9th of March Laurence Rees, historian and former head of BBC history programmes, presented at Waterstones York his latest book The Holocaust, claiming that books and talks about Holocaust are “a warning from history”, echoing Levi’s fear of people forgetting about such a terrible crime. Rees interest in the Holocaust history has been ongoing for 25 years, since he realized his first documentary for BBC on the subject. The Holocaust is the combination of those 25 years of research and interviews. It is a piece of work that speaks through the voices of victims, killers and bystanders. Rees draws on interviews collected over the years for his TV programmes, often previously unpublished. The book uses documentary techniques, frequently cutting from the narrator to eyewitnesses, adding immediacy and emotion.

Through the voices of people who experienced the holocaust Rees also approaches some persistent myths on the subject. To tackle the postwar claims that victims followed their killers “like sheep” and show that there was defiance and some even obtained weapons and turned them against Germans, Rees tells the story of Marek Edelman, who fought in the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Edelman recalled: “the first few days were our victory. We were used to being the ones who ran away from the Germans. They had no expectation of Jews fighting like that.” Rees also fights the idea that the Nazi machinery of mass murder was impersonal or antiseptic, describing the sadistic violence of some killers – in some case through their accounts – the carnage in death camps overflowing with corpses, and the unspeakable suffering: when children were dragged away from their parents in the Łódź ghetto, one survivor remembered: “their screams reached the sky”.

The Holocaust it is not an original interpretation, but offers an interesting approach. Rees tells a complex story with compassion and clarity, but he also manages not to sacrifice the nuances of it. The voices of the victims are accompanied by the ones of ordinary Germans and sadistic killers who, interviewed decades after the destruction of the Third Reich, never regretted their role in the Holocaust and still believed that they had done the right thing. Erna Krantz from Bavaria recalled: “You saw the unemployed disappearing from the streets.  There was order and discipline … It was, I thought, a better time”. Wolfgang Horn, a former soldier, explained his decision of burning down a Russian village: “because the locals were too primitive for us”. One of Goebbels personal assistants, interviewed in 1992, summed up his experience of the Holocaust in one word, “paradise”, and when asked if he ever felt guilty about the slaughtering of children he cited Groaning: “the enemy is not the children. The enemy is the blood of the children that will grow up to be Jew”. The Holocaust helps to recover the memory of those children whose only guilt was to be Jews, and the memory of the other victims, survivors of what Rees described “a crime of singular horror in the history of the human race”.

It is the duty of everyone to meditate on what happened. Everybody must know, or remember, that Hitler and Mussolini, when they spoke in public, were believed, applauded, admired, adored like gods. They were “charismatic leaders”; they possessed a secret power of seduction that did not proceed from the credibility or the soundness of the things they said, but from the suggestive way in which they said them. And we must remember that their faithful followers, among them the diligent executors of inhuman orders, were not born torturers, were not (with a few exceptions) monsters: they were ordinary men. Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous; more dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.

(Primo Levi, 1986, https://newrepublic.com/article/119959/interview-primo-levi-survival-auschwitz ).

Originally published on Point Zero on Monday the 20th of March 2017:  https://blog.yorksj.ac.uk/englishlit/a-warning-from-history/