MICHAEL WOOD’S VIEW

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Michael Wood is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic his­tory at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester. He has pre­sented nu­mer­ous BBC se­ries and his books in­clude The Story of In­dia (BBC, 2010)

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.

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