Thoughts after Reading “The Holocaust: A New History” by Laurence Rees

Book cover

I grew up in many different forms of the school systems of Florida: Montessori, private religious school, homeschool and finally public school. I never learned about the Holocaust. I knew it was a thing that had happened in the world and many people had died; however, otherwise I was unfamiliar with the details.

Last year prior to the election, I heard many people compare the USA to pre-war Nazi Germany and this made me curious. I teach Humanities so I am much more familiar in general with these events now, but I had only learned about them some. So I purchased what is considered by some to be the definitive Nazi book called, “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” by William Shirer. Shirer was a journalist who was actually in areas of Germany prior to WW2. Shirer is anxious to exonerate people, because of the fallout after the war – his anti-German sentiment is not veiled, but obvious. He is very judgmental of the Germans and feels that only people of their ilk could fall for such a con artist like Hitler. It seems also clear in this very large work that Shirer tries to give us an idea of two elements: first, no one really wanted to believe Hitler was such an evil leader and many were completely taken in by his rhetoric and charisma; and second, the main motivating factor behind most of the choices prior to WW2 was the overwhelming feeling that no one wanted to go to war. The world nations did every single thing possible to avoid going to war, even if that meant that in the end, that choice helped to make a Germany that was difficult to defeat. These seem to be Shirer’s main points as he details very specifically battles and political power plays. Only one chapter was dedicated to the Holocaust. One chapter. Out of a book of at least a thousand pages.

Now I was curious. Why was Shirer so eager to place all the blame on the Germans? Why was he so intent on exonerating everyone else involved? I knew the Holocaust was bad, but I didn’t now the nuance or details to understand this choice by someone who had lived through these events.

So I bought a book that was just about the Holocaust. This book called, “The Holocaust: A New History,” by Laurence Rees contains historical documents and also testimonials from survivors. It is very powerful in the way it is written and also in how it narrates the sequence of events that led to this horrific event. Now the other book I read made a bit more sense.

Here are a few things about this tragic event in human history that I took away from this book. When it comes to the Holocaust, I don’t think any one nation involved (even the Allies) can complete be exonerated from guilt. I mean, no one. More than once were the Jews offered to Allied nations and they refused to take them in. Even when they knew what was happening to them because they had reports from survivors – still they refused. I know that WW2 wouldn’t have ended without the Allies so I am not saying that they didn’t play a part or help to end this terrible event. But I think history is nuanced. We want to explain away faults through “Great Man History.” However, the thing I like about history is the humanity of it. I like seeing historical figures as human beings rather than duped widgets that had no say. There is a nuance in these events and also a lesson. I think the lesson here is that we often can justify our own actions very easily while blaming others for doing the same thing. This kind of double morality is even more common today. I included this quote as confirmation of what I say above.

A quote from the book

I think another thing that I learned from this work about the Holocaust is that ignoring that which does not immediately effect us is all too easy. This is really how the Holocaust even happened. Others turned a blind eye or looked away, because it wasn’t “me.” Another thing we forget too easily is how readily we can descend into a mob rule. Here the Germans are listening to TV that only has one point of view, newspapers, and all their surrounding only point to one perspective. Certainly there were those who bravely resisted, but many did not. That bubble – that echo chamber. It made it so easy. So easy to dehumanize a whole group of people.

And this is the the other thing that I learned – to dehumanize others makes it easy for us to feel that they need not be treated as people or as humans. Here we must be careful. Very careful. Our little bubbles and echo chambers affirm that we are right to dehumanize and right to not treat others as people – it tells us that we should treat that as less than human. This idea that some deserve humane treatment and others do not is one of the foundational pieces of ideologies that created the Holocaust. It is a lesson to us today. Who are we allowing ourselves to dehumanize simply because they are not in our bubble of agreement or echo chamber of similar thought? We must be very careful. Western society claims that all humans deserve equal treatment by simply being people. To choose some for slaughter and others to live that is what the Third Reich did. To choose to cancel some and keep others – that is not so far away.

Example of photo from the book

Finally I think the thing I learned from this book is that survival tests us to the very core. One survivor wrote that as people we think we know ourselves, but we don’t really know ourselves – not until we are put in that place where we will do anything to survive. We tend to pat ourselves on the back as a Modern society, “Look at all we have accomplished.” And yet, look at what happened not but one generation ago – the mass slaughter of an entire group of people simply because of who they were. There is this feeling that we could not go back there. But is this true? I agree with Rees here. At the end, he says that the Holocaust showed us what we are capable of as a species and I think we must work to not forget it. Not forget what darkness we are capable of in the name of a better society and financial gain. Certainly, humanity is capable of great leaps forward of creativity and imagination – but creativity and imagination can also be used for acts of total depravity and degradation.

In the end, the thing I wondered the most after reading this books was, “How did I never learn about this? How is it possible that this of all things was not considered necessary? Millions of people died and were tortured to death. How was this not a part of my education as an American and a citizen of the world?”

I guess it can be too easy to forget our mistakes. This is where it can be easy to misinterpret the modern attempts by current historians to give a more rounded view of history. When we go back and look at history, who does it help to see former leaders or “great men” as perfect? There is no lesson in perfection. But seeing these “greats” as flawed human beings who made mistakes just like we can – now there is a lesson there. And isn’t this the purpose of learning history in the end? Not to repeat our mistakes? This to me is one of the many useful purposes of learning about history. Forgetting is the enemy of progress, because once we forget our mistakes – we too often repeat the past. Many say that such an event like the Holocaust could not happen again – but I don’t agree or believe that. When we forget our mistakes, it is all too easy to allow them to happen again. That is the value of learning all of history, not just the rosy stuff, but the thorns too.

If you have not read a book about the Holocaust, I highly recommend this one. It was very well-organized and contained excellent information as well as moving testimonials. It was an amazing read.