MICHAEL WOOD’S VIEW
The struggle of human beings against power, said the Czech writer Milan Kundera, is the struggle of memory over forgetting. That goes for history as a whole, I think. We remember because it still matters to us as human beings. But how easy it is to forget.
Kundera came to mind recently when I read the Washington Post’s survey on the Holocaust. It revealed that 41 per cent of Americans today did not know what Auschwitz was. Even more astonishing, when you look at millennials, the figure goes up to 66 per cent – two thirds of young Americans of college age. This is just 75 years on, still within the living memory of survivors. And yet there is still no end to cinema films on the Nazis: from Night and Fog to Schindler’s List and the Indiana Jones franchise, there have been a couple of hundred of them, 60 alone since the year 2000. There are scores of TV documentaries on the Holocaust; we have the memoirs of witnesses from Anne Frank to Primo Levi; let alone the internet’s flood of information. So how can it be that so many have already forgotten? Or were they never taught?
This side of the Atlantic you’d expect a different result to the poll, for the US – it is often said – has a narrower knowledge of the wider world. In Europe it would surely be different. But here in Britain there are also issues. Not long ago the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education put out a study on schools which concluded that while British schoolchildren strongly agreed that the Holocaust should never be forgotten, the problem is that they increasingly don’t know much about it. In many UK schools the Holocaust is not a curriculum priority and time spent on the subject is being reduced. Everyone agrees schoolkids should understand the dangers of racism, hatred and anti-Semitism, but there is no detailed study of the history. Among 11–14 year-olds, little curriculum time is devoted to exploring in depth why and how the Holocaust happened, and our exam boards have reduced it to an optional element in some GCSE papers; indeed, it’s almost disappeared from A-level history courses.
But the Holocaust is an event without parallel in the history of the world. Not long ago, and not far from where we live, ordinary people across Europe became complicit in the mass murder of their neighbours. What will young people’s education in history amount to if they do not understand this?
This brings us to the question of what history is about. It reinforces our sense of community and identity, whether in family, region or nation. It gives value and meaning to our lives, and tells us who we are as humans. That’s why it is such a good subject at school: enlarging our perceptions, sharpening our judgment.
Yet history informs in a deeper way. We may find our meaning in religion, art, literature or music. We may go to see Shakespeare’s King Lear to see life in its extremes. But history delivers the plain facts. It tells us what humans actually did: what Immanuel Kant called the crooked timber of humanity, “out of which no straight thing was ever made”. Terrible genocidal acts were committed by the colonial powers in the age of European empires, but the Holocaust stands out in all history as an unparalleled crime against humanity. The nation of Goethe and Beethoven made Auschwitz. If you want to explain us to a visitor from another planet, it is no good just showing them the Sistine Chapel – you have to explain this too, hard as that is. As a society we remember without knowing: we miss the meaning by avoiding the difficult questions; and, in a world of ongoing crimes against humanity, it is vital that young people understand how such events can occur.
So watch Claude Lanzmann’s epic, Shoah; read Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, Theo Richmond’s Konin, and Laurence Rees’s The Holocaust and Auschwitz. Read also Tzvetan Todorov’s Facing the Extreme, and Samuel Kassow’s Who Will Write Our History? – one of the most important books of history you will ever encounter. They tell us why history matters, even in the darkest extremity of humanity: the battle of memory against forgetting.