'The Holocaust' by Laurence Rees (Penguin, 2017)

It seems so unreal. I close the book, stretch back and look up through the boughs of an apple tree, already showing fruit, into a clear blue sky.  A blackbird performs tunefully in our neighbour’s tree and a wood pigeon continues its mournful complaint; otherwise the only sound is of a distant lawn mower. It is a warm, peaceful Sunday afternoon in the south of England; secure, predictable. The fragility of human life may be acknowledged in theory, but kept at a safe distance.

Unreal; because I have just finished reading a remarkable and disturbing book – Laurence Rees’s The Holocaust.  The book is stunning, both in the wealth of detail it presents, in setting down the almost unbelievable narrative of various brutalities and killings that came together in what we call the holocaust, and particularly in the first-hand accounts by individuals that bring home to the reader the harrowing reality of it all.

His approach to the holocaust is particularly interesting – and I’ll come to that in a moment – but for me the fundamental question is presented in his final paragraph:
‘Finally, although the contents of the book you have just read are distressing, I believe it is still important to understand how and why this crime happened. For this history tells us, perhaps more than any other, just what our species can do.’

If it were possible to believe that the holocaust came about through the deranged anti-semitic fantasies of just one man – Adolf Hitler – we might consider it with a measure of detached comfort, knowing that we do not share such views.  But what Reece shows is the complex web of events and the many different choices and almost casual brutalities that gradually moved in the direction of the systematic killing in the death camps. The events that were influenced by external military, economic and political factors, and the range of killings – from the early euthanasia experiments, to the elimination of thousands of gypsies, Slavs, prisoners of war and the handicapped as well as the Jews – shows just how a horror may be normalised, routinised, and apparently accepted by many as necessity for the social and political good.  He charts the range of responses to anti-semitism, from opposition, through unwillingness to accept what was happening, to tacit or active support.

And that is the fundamental problem we are forced to face. The sky could also be blue and apples grow for those who were involved in the killings. They did not come from another planet, but shared the same European cultural heritage that we assume will protect us from naïve beliefs or crude, inhuman practices.

And Rees shows that the holocaust was not a straightforward once-for-all decision, but a whole range of cruelties and narrow views, some undertaken deliberately, or through malice, others almost my accident or a misplaced attempt to solve a social problem. The ‘final solution’ was just that, the last of a whole range of problems and suggested solutions, of growing inhumanity, until the unthinkable became thinkable, then possible, then practical, then necessary. Chance often determined a person’s fate, being in the wrong place and the wrong time, or random acts of kindness or brutality.

The danger we still face today, personally and nationally, is not just anti-Semitism, or racism, but also naïve nationalism, or the setting of unrealistic goals and blaming others when they are not fulfilled.  We cannot pretend to be fundamentally different from those whose lives seemed so rational, civilised and secure before the ground started shifting.

It can’t happen again, we think, setting aside the book. But that was exactly the view of those at the end of the 19th century for whom the establishment of international free-trade offered the route to peace and prosperity for all.  We could not be so naïve again. Or could we? I shudder.

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