As Head of BBC TV History programming Laurence Rees has spent many years researching and writing about the Holocaust, interviewing some of its’ survivors and perpetrators to produce important acclaimed books such as the award-winning and best-selling book “Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’. He has also brought to our screens landmark documentaries accompanying these books, most notably the BBC television series “The Nazis: A Warning From History”. With his newly-published book “The Holocaust – A New History” (Viking, 2017), Rees has presented a powerful narrative, showing in a chronological history how a series of escalations in the persecution of the Jews and other minority groups including homosexuals, Gypsies and the disabled, led to the horror of the Holocaust, in what Rees re-affirms was and remains the worst crime in human history.
Faced with the impossible brief in this hour-long lunchtime talk of covering the overwhelmingly broad questions “How did the Holocaust happen? Why did the Holocaust happen?” Rees decides instead to focus on providing what insight he can by presenting summaries and backgrounds to some of the personal testimonies he has gathered over the years and for his new book, which includes a large amount of previously unpublished testimony, one from a survivor of the concentration camps, and two others from people involved in different ways in perpetrating the atrocities.
The hugely important point from this talk that came through very strongly was the point that the Holocaust was a long and gradual process that starts from the scapegoating of a minority group, the creation of the myth that the Jews were to blame for Germany’s defeat in the First World War, repeated ad-nauseam alongside the idea that there was an international Jewish / Marxist conspiracy, that the Jews were a race apart, not just a religious group but a threat to the German race, the country and its’ people. Fear was stoked up, the power of fearing the unknown “other” highlighted by the fact that before the Holocaust less than 1% of the German population was Jewish.
Some potential parallels with current events and political developments are almost too frightening to dwell on, but dwell on them we must as Rees insists this could happen again, ultimately human nature has not changed, we must be on our guard. Though an engaging and passionate speaker, and hugely well-informed on his subject, at times Rees is apologetic for having to share the grim details of his research and seems understandably somewhat worn down by his years of working in and researching this dark subject matter, having to acknowledge and confront the worst of human behaviour.
Ultimately however, Laurence Rees is energised and impassioned by the importance of his work and recognises and values the privilege it is to be involved in it, pleased to see in the audience a school group studying this subject, interested in this important work. Rees urges us to continually be on guard against the Holocaust deniers given unwarranted consideration, exacerbated by the capability of the Internet to spread conspiracy theories. The solid documentary evidence from years of rigorous academic research underpinning books like those Rees produces, further underpinned by personal testimonies of survivors and perpetrators are the strongest response. The best we can do now perhaps is to take heed, bear witness to these testimonies, continue to take seriously the immense dangers inherent in the stoking up of fear and hatred, in scapegoating minorities, demonising the other and seeking internal and external groups to blame for our problems, and to be on guard against those who would seek to sow and stoke up such fear and hatred.
reviewed by Steve Cox