The other face: Menashe Kadishman’s “Fallen Leaves” installation commemorating the Holocaust in the Jewish Museum in Berlin © Steve Tulley / Alamy Stock Photo

Never again?

The ways in which we remember the Holocaust might not help to prevent the rise of violent fascism in future
March 1, 2023
The Holocaust: An Unfinished History
Dan Stone (RRP: £22)
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The Holocaust was the most terrible atrocity of the 20th century. In many ways, it was also unprecedented in the history of atrocities: for its comprehensiveness and systematic nature; for the fanaticism with which its perpetrators scoured an entire continent in their pursuit of Jews; for the awful potency of the Nazis’ insinuation that the victims represented a pernicious and existential threat. Collectively, we have spent decades—and published millions of words—trying to understand what happened and why.

In his new book, The Holocaust: An Unfinished History, Dan Stone’s proposition is, to some extent, that we have failed. Our search for understanding has, in his account, led us down the wrong paths. Our unthinking repetition of the mantra “never again” is comforting but ineffective. He argues that “the answer to increasing levels of hatred is not more Holocaust education, for that is asking education to do more than it can provide. Rather, if we want Holocaust education to prove effective, we have first to build a society that desires equality and tolerance, and in which the values promoted by Holocaust education chime with the values of society at large.” 

Stone is right to emphasise that the circumstances that allow fascism—currently, as he puts it, “knocking on the door” in the UK—to take power have not been addressed. If we fail to meet this challenge, he contends, then the postwar order founded on internationalism and individual freedom, which has already been weakened in the past three decades, will be discarded and we will have somnambulated into authoritarianism, “if not full-blown fascism”.

The history of the Holocaust is the lens through which Stone chooses to view these portentous developments. For this reason, and because he is the director of the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London, it is surprising that he laments that “the Holocaust teaches nothing except that deep passions that owe nothing to rational politics can move human beings to do terrible things”.

Is this really true? Like Stone, I believe that we have come to misunderstand the nature of the Holocaust. Unlike him, I do believe that there are still lessons to be learned from it. Two, in particular, deserve to be highlighted.

First, beware the pitfalls of “community building”. It’s an innocuous-sounding phrase and, one might think, in normal circumstances, a goal to which societies might aspire. But it should also be noted that comradeship can completely remove feelings of personal responsibility and sometimes requires the identification of a common enemy.

As Sebastian Haffner, one of the most perceptive contemporary commentators on Nazism, observed in his 1939 youth memoir: “In comradeship, no thoughts are allowed to flourish, just mass sentiments of the most primitive kind.” This was heightened in wartime, during deployment on the frontline and in occupied territories. There is no community-building without boundaries, without the Other. The group needs the Other in order to become a community.

And the second lesson: people can commit terrible atrocities when they believe they have been wronged, and feel justified in taking radical action. Like most perpetrators of genocide and mass killing, the Nazis were not only convinced that they were victims but also that what they were doing was right. They believed it was necessary both to rectify what had gone wrong in 1918—defeat in the First World War and the tumultuous fallout it triggered—and, in the new war, to avoid a repeat.

It is significant that these two lessons relate to perpetrators, both Nazi and otherwise. It is perhaps no coincidence for Stone’s belief that “the Holocaust teaches nothing” that the perpetrators are largely absent from his book. Stone’s deeply humane account draws on an array of testimonies from some of the most observant and perceptive victims, and he uses these to devastating effect. There is undoubtedly a moral obligation to the victims to tell their story as faithfully as possible, which Stone fulfils here. However, to quote Timothy Snyder, the American historian and public intellectual: “It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.” The most insightful histories of the Holocaust therefore combine both the perspectives of the victims and those of the perpetrators.

Unlike Stone, I do believe that there are still lessons to be learned from the Holocaust

Instead of seeking to teach the reader something using the Holocaust as a conduit, Stone is interested in highlighting elements that, he says, have been overlooked: “There are still major parts of the history of the Holocaust that have not been understood in the prevailing narrative.” He emphasises three. First, “the perception of ‘factory-like’ genocide is misleading”. Second, “the Holocaust was not just a German affair”. Third, “we need a ‘return to ideology’ following the movement away from it in several recent major synthetic histories”—by which Stone means a renewed focus on the centrality of Nazi racial thinking in the drive to exterminate Europe’s Jews.

Stone is right to emphasise that the notion of industrial mass murder is misleading. This misconception remains at large among the wider public—although Holocaust scholars have grappled with it in recent decades. One of the first to make an attempt at rebalancing the narrative was Hans-Heinrich Nolte, a German historian of eastern Europe, who, in 2008, published an essay in the weekly broadsheet Die Zeit about “Die andere Seite des Holocaust”—the other face of the Holocaust—and its “archaic” character. A year later, the aforementioned Snyder—at a time when he was better known as a historian of eastern Europe than as a historian of the Holocaust—noted in his essay “Holocaust: The Ignored Reality”, published in the New York Review of Books, that “as many if not more Jews were killed by bullets as by gas”. The main victims, the Soviet and Polish Jews, had been shot or poisoned by carbon monoxide from internal combustion engines pumped into gas chambers at Treblinka, Beec and Sobibór in occupied Poland.

Other historians have since built on the work of Nolte and Snyder, so that we now know that Nazi Germany killed approximately 13m people, six million Jews and seven million non-Jews, in deliberate policies of mass murder over the course of less than six years from summer 1939 to late spring 1945, but also that starvation, shooting and gassing, in that order, were the preferred killing methods. If the many works in both specialist and non-specialist publications over the past 15 years have failed to correct the misleading conception of industrial mass murder among the general public, it is hard to see Stone’s book achieving this.

In memory of memory: West German chancellor Willy Brandt kneels before  a monument in the former Jewish ghetto of Warsaw in 1970 In memory of memory: West German chancellor Willy Brandt kneels before a monument in the former Jewish ghetto of Warsaw in 1970 © INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

Likewise, the fact that the Holocaust was not just a German affair can only be considered an overlooked aspect of this history, as Stone maintains, if we assume that his target audience is a lay readership. Martin Dean, Knut Stang and the late Andrew Ezergailis all published, more than 20 years ago, prominent studies on collaboration in eastern Europe.

In one chapter, Stone does provide a nuanced analysis of reactions to the persecution of Jews in countries allied to Germany, including considerable resistance to German demands in Vichy France, Italy, Hungary and Romania. This is underscored by Stone’s observation that Jews in Axis countries “were more likely to survive than their co-religionists in Nazi-occupied lands”. The response of neutral countries further reveals that German domination was the common denominator when it came to killing Jews. Ultimately, Stone himself must concede that the Holocaust was “driven and largely perpetrated by Germans”, “a German project first and foremost” and “undoubtedly emanated from Germany and was led by the Germans”.

The third part of Stone’s argument is that we need a return to ideology. This prompts the response: a return from what? Stone cites two examples of recent major synthetic histories to demonstrate this movement away from ideology, namely Christian Gerlach’s The Extermination of the European Jews and David Cesarani’s Final Solution, both from 2016. For his part, Gerlach concluded that “ideological, material and political considerations were inextricably linked”, adding that to claim “that economic issues were more important than ideological ones… would make no sense”.

More importantly, over the past 25 years, the works of Klaus-Michael Mallmann, Wendy Lower and Thomas Kühne, among others, have resurrected the importance of antisemitism and ideology as a decisive motivating factor for Holocaust perpetrators. The conduct of these perpetrators cannot be explained in terms of their ideology alone, yet it also cannot be understood without ideology—because antisemitism provided, at all times, a general absolution for the actions of the perpetrators. The unity of ideological convictions and sanctioning from above, on the one hand, and material and career interests, on the other, can feasibly explain the conduct of a great many people during the Holocaust. There is no empirical basis for dismissing or downplaying the role of ideology.

The three aspects that Stone highlights are already known to Holocaust scholars. Besides, he heavily caveats one of his main arguments—that the Holocaust was not just a German affair—throughout. Measured against the goals it sets itself, then, one might conclude that The Holocaust: An Unfinished History falls short. As a well-written history of the Holocaust and its aftermath, and in its accomplished use of eyewitness accounts, however, the book has a lot to offer a more general audience. Though the book is not a major new interpretation, Dan Stone remains an important and eloquent voice in the field of Holocaust studies.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when he discusses “Holocaust Memory” in chapter eight. Here, it finally becomes clear why the book is subtitled “An Unfinished History”: “Selective Holocaust memory is being put at the service of criminalizing scholarship.” The chapter neatly and persuasively brings the book full circle and, again, starkly illustrates the problems confronting Holocaust education and Holocaust remembrance today: “Commemorating with ceremonies whose template involves heads of state, a few victim testimonies and children’s poems is insufficient to change the ways in which fascism is interwoven into the deep memory of western culture.” 

This is the challenge facing us all today. Here, the words of one commentator at war’s end, quoted by Stone, ring true: “Hitler has been vanquished rather than repudiated, most of those who opposed him reacted against the application of his concepts to them. They have still to disavow his conception.” It is with good reason that Stone declares we must face the meaning of Nazism head on, and that “notions of racial supremacy, of the right to territorial expansion, of the dismissal of minorities’ rights to hospitality and membership in the polity in which they live” must be renounced.

Like Orlando Figes’s The Europeans, from 2019, a book written in a similar context and with a similar message, albeit employing a very different historical example to make its arguments, Stone’s book is suffused with humanity. The Holocaust remains relevant and important because it is a terrifying example of what people can and will do in given circumstances.