Humanism and Holocaust History

It is often said that racism is the result of a lack of education, that it must be defeated by civilization and progress. Nothing points to the silliness of that idea like the Holocaust.
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I'm getting toward the end of Antony Beevor's The Second World War. If you only know the outlines of World War II, I would very heartily recommend it. Speaking for myself, this is the first book I've read that devotes considerable attention to the Holocaust. It's one thing to know the numbers. It is another to be faced with the methodology.

When studying a great evil, my general approach is to try to preserve my judgment but suspend my judgmentalism. In other words, I want to be able to tell you very forthrightly about the evils of, say, slavery, while at the same time telling you about the psychology of the slaveholder. And I want to do this with the full knowledge that I could have been on either side of the whip.

No historian whom I've read better handles this than Drew Gilpin-Faust. Her work on the women planters during the Civil War does not excuse anyone. When she speaks of patriarchy or white supremacy, she does it with seriousness and specificity. She manages to avoid the temptation to lump women, blacks, and poor whites into some vague activist mélange called "The People." And at the same time, Faust is able to sketch the very real societal bonds that kept these women in a cage. That humanist approach to history, as opposed to marshaling history for condemnation or the improvement of collective self-esteem, is one I have tried to emulate.

In the case of the Holocaust, it is failing me. For all the talk of supremacy, Nazism in Beevor's telling is savagery and cannibalism. I don't mean that for rhetorical effect. The Nazis are using human body hair, human skin, and human fat to make products. When practiced by the darker peoples of the world, we call this savagery. Here is Beevor quoting a Nazi paymaster in the Ukraine:

In Bereza-Kartuska where I took my midday break, 1,300 Jews had been shot the day before. They were taken to a hollow outside the town. Men, women and children were forced to undress completely and were dealt with by a shot through the back of the head. Their clothes were disinfected for reuse. I am convinced that if the war lasts much longer Jews will be processed into sausage and be served up to Russian prisoners of war or to qualified Jewish workers.

Vasily Grossman looking at Treblinka noted that 800,000 Jews and 'Gypsies' -- a population of "a small European capital city" -- were killed by a staff numbering just over a hundred. "Never before in human history," writes Beevor, "had so many people been killed by so few executioners."

So I find humanism failing me here. Perhaps it is because I am American and not German, and thus there's greater distance. Or perhaps it's because I just haven't read enough. (When I first began studying slavery, I was not a humanist.) Certainly the scale of death, and its industrialization, presents a challenge. The irony of slavery (in the United States) is that planters have an incentive to keep enslaved people alive. You see the embers of the kind of hate that could lead to genocide, but never the fire. There's just too much money involved.

Anyway, I am not saying this as though it's a fresh insight, I strongly suspect that the entire field of Holocaust Studies is grappling with this challenge. Or maybe the field has gotten past it. I just don't know.

One final point. It is often said that racism is the result of a lack of education, that it must be defeated by civilization and progress. Nothing points to the silliness of that idea like the Holocaust. "Civilization" is irrelevant to racism. I don't even know what "civilization" means. When all your great theory, and awesome literature, and philosophy amounts to state bent on genocide, what is it worth? There were groups of hunter-gatherers wandering the Kalahari who were more civilized than Germany in 1943.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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