For historians, the Holocaust presents a conundrum

For historians, the Holocaust presents a conundrum

What are the lessons of the Shoah?
What are the lessons of the Shoah?

In an excerpt from his new book, Lessons of the HolocaustMichael Marrus argues that the Holocaust may not direct us how to solve the problems of our time

Just over half a century ago, in family libraries throughout the English-speaking world, one could probably find, alongside the Bible, a dictionary, and a few other books, an 11-volume set by a couple, Will and Ariel Durant, entitled The Story of Civilization.

Somewhat anodyne by present-day tastes, their work presented a celebratory account of the human past. The Durants’ history, although never completed (they both died in the 1980s), was a triumph of middlebrow culture of the day, written between 1935 and 1975 in some four million words and covering over 10,000 pages. These books arrived regularly into millions of households via the Book-of-the-Month Club, which included volumes as an inducement to join, and thereby put 13 million copies into print. The Durants’ work became a landmark of accessibility, eventually publishing some 17 million copies. Recognized by the Pulitzer Prize (1968) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977), the couple achieved great acclaim as masters of a huge panorama of popular history.

Similarly admired was a little volume by the Durants called The Lessons of History, published in 1968. Echoing the theme of their larger work, this book was upbeat. Things were improving, despite occasional setbacks. Like The Story of Civilization, The Lessons of History had absolutely nothing to say about the Holocaust, the persecution and murder of European Jewry during the time of Hitler’s Third Reich. Indeed, there was nothing in The Lessons of History about Nazism. Nor, so far as I can tell, did anyone ever complain about this omission of what is now considered one of the most important historical events of recent centuries. And nor, so far as I know, did Will Durant’s wife and co-author, Ariel, née Chaya Kaufman, from a Jewish family from Proskurov in western Ukraine and the granddaughter of a Torah scholar, ever make the case for the inclusion of these terrible events of modern history.


The Durants and their oversight suggest that the lessons of the Holocaust, and indeed much else of what we deem to be important in history, are not settled matters, as most people might think, but are rather the object of perceptions that differ and that change. Moreover, while opposing views flourish over what to include, contestation is, if anything, even more vigorous when it comes to the lessons of history.

While these lessons are constantly mentioned in popular discourse, historians generally avoid the issue as an embarrassment, out of keeping with their professional standing. Indeed, the more expert the historians, the more respected they are in their craft, the less disposed they are to proclaim lessons of history with any confidence. Put differently, historians and others who know their subjects well are likely to be far more skeptical than lay persons or popularists about the lessons of history – and whether such lessons even exist.

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Illustration of Jewish man surviving the Holocaust

Over the course of some 35 years of reading, writing, and teaching the history of the Holocaust, I have contended with the questions that the Durants omitted – what we can learn from the history of the Holocaust. Although the topic of  “the lessons of history” has gone somewhat out of fashion, reference to the lessons of the Holocaust is ubiquitous. Unsurprisingly, perhaps. After all, it is about unprecedented horrors: the brutalization of men, women, and children across Europe, in a sinister racially inspired scheme of wiping millions of Jews off the face of the earth.

What should all of this say to us, now that we have had time to reflect and research, over the passage of time? What should we take away, not only about the events, but about the killers, those immediately responsible, and also those who directed, who facilitated, who helped, who stood by – and for that matter the victims themselves, coming from so many different Jewish cultures, rich and poor, young and old, sick and well, believers and non-believers, scattered across an entire continent in their great diversity?

It is hardly surprising that so many expect that specific lessons should emerge from exposure to the massacre of European Jewry during World War II, and that studying this catastrophe should make these lessons explicit. We hear all the time about these lessons of the Holocaust in public pronouncements by dignitaries and in commemorations and educational contexts. More often than not these are part of public advocacy – as in, for example, “We should heed the lessons of the Holocaust” or “We must not ignore the lessons of the Holocaust” – rather than historical analysis.

“But what are these lessons of the Holocaust, after all? Is there general agreement about them? Do the lessons differ from one place to another? And do they change over time?”

When I tell people that I am writing about lessons of the Holocaust, they pause, wondering how I can possibly add to what is so regularly alluded to. They may also feel that the topic is hackneyed. Don’t we already know the lessons of the Holocaust?

But what are these lessons of the Holocaust, after all? Is there general agreement about them? Do the lessons differ from one place to another? And do they change over time?

I believe that these questions go to the heart of Holocaust history and even history in general – in particular why we care about studying the past and what we expect to learn from it. There are many purported lessons out there, and they cannot all have the same transcendent significance or validity. Moreover, the lessons vary a great deal depending on when, where, and by whom they were formulated, and they derive crucially from often-contested interpretations of the Holocaust.

For example, some contend that the lesson of the Holocaust is that Jews are always hated, in one way or another, and can only count on themselves. Others claim, that the lesson of the Holocaust is that all seemingly well-integrated minorities are vulnerable and require special protection. Which is correct? Can they both be right? And even more important, is there something wrong with formulating in this way what we are supposed to learn from the Holocaust?

I think it is interesting that those who are most intensely and systematically involved in the subject have the keenest sense of difficulties in establishing such lessons. That is why, sensing that their competence does not extend to the formulation of such matters, specialists often feel so uncomfortable with them.

With non-Holocaust fields, such respectful caution is widely accepted as appropriate. Few historians nowadays will presume to proclaim “the lessons of history” or the capacity to predict the future deriving from a study of the past. And yet, the public at large seems to be firmly committed to the notion that the Holocaust is different. Overwhelmingly, people seem to believe that there are lessons of the Holocaust that can be reduced to explicit propositions and that Holocaust scholars should not shrink from proclaiming them.

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Perhaps one reason for this is that the Holocaust is not like other subjects. The historian Arno Mayer once referred to it as “a fundamental touchstone of the depth and extremity of the dislocation of Western civilization during the first half of the 20th century.” It is probably the one case of genocide most people can identify. And similarly, as columnist Jonah Goldberg observes, World War II may not seem so much like history, because in fact it is the only history about which many people know – or think they know. People may feel more comfortable hearkening to it for lessons even while they may be wary of applying the unfamiliar experiences of far-off times and places.


To those who work on the Holocaust in particular, given the sheer, unmitigated horror of the events themselves, there may also be irresistible pressures to find redemptive outcomes – conditions that restore one’s faith in human decency, or provide illustrations of exemplary human resilience.

And sometimes these can be fashioned into lessons that can be digested and followed. The American writer Susan Jacoby argues that the search for Holocaust lessons may have a religious origin: “the idea that there are some sort of general moral lessons to be derived from the Holocaust is rooted in the religious concept that something good must come out of something bad – that everything, however terrible, is part of a greater plan wrought by an intelligent Designer.

Otherwise, how could anyone justify continuing to believe in a benevolent supreme being after such a cataclysm?”

'Lessons of the Holocaust' by Michael Marrus
‘Lessons of the Holocaust’ by Michael Marrus

Consequently, authorities on the Holocaust may feel that they are expected, even if not in so many words, to present lessons to be derived from their studies. Indeed, to the extent that I participate in civil society, I myself may engage in Holocaust-related public education, commemoration, memorialization, and civic commitments that sometimes associate the Holocaust, for heuristic purposes, with particular causes –tolerance, anti-racism, humanitarian responsibilities in public affairs, and the like.

Might it also be that audiences are intimidated by claims of lessons of the Holocaust because proponents wrap themselves in the authority that comes from exposing terrible wrongs, to the point that critics dare not push back? We need to remember that those who advance Holocaust lessons often assume great moral authority. And they sometimes do so in an environment facing desperate dilemmas and challenges, including some that entail quite calamitous implications. Does the growth of anti-Semitism prefigure mass violence against Jews? Should we read particularly violent political rhetoric as prefiguring genocide? How far should we go to aid victims in distress? Should one’s country intervene militarily in conflict X or in country Y? An appreciation of Holocaust history can be adduced as a key to resolving such questions. The idea seems to be that guides to correct courses of action lie just beneath the surface of Holocaust narratives, and that familiarity with such material, fortified with moral stamina, will reveal the right path to follow.

Naysayers, one can appreciate, hardly feel in a strong position.

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I sometimes think about lessons when I see, as I do several times a week at Massey College of the University of Toronto, a lengthy academic injunction that ends, “To be happy, you must be wise.” This quotation from the writings of the Spanish-American philosopher and essayist George Santayana completes a lengthy passage inscribed along the perimeter of Massey’s dining hall, where gowned students and professors file in regularly, for dinner.


To the extent that those present gaze up at this quotation, they may connect not only with its encouragement to learning but also with a related notion, so often applied to the Holocaust that it has come to be taken as one of its core lessons. I am referring to what is probably the best known among Santayana’s observations, “Those who cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it.”

In some quarters Santayana’s dictum has come to be thought of as a Holocaust lesson in itself, a warning that a comparable cataclysm might recur if events like the destruction of European Jewry were not “remembered” and its lessons were to go unheeded. Note that, according to the quotation, what is necessary is not to understand, but to “remember” what has happened – although by remembrance is usually meant acquaintance or re-acquaintance with terrible injustices and suffering. Moreover, claims of the existence of such lessons are often accompanied by a sense that promoting them is urgent – indeed, that inattention to such lessons is likely to prompt terrible consequences. History has spoken, and we ignore her voice at our peril.

This is another, less explicitly descriptive kind of lesson – a suggestion that a close acquaintance with atrocities that happened during the Holocaust constitutes a lesson that should prompt people to behave more wisely or humanely. In Washington, groups of military personnel and police officers constantly tour the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum precisely with this object in mind. I admit to being puzzled about the rationale that is assumed to be operating here. After all, those who are most familiar with the outrages of the Holocaust were the perpetrators themselves – and there is no evidence that a full knowledge of their own wrongdoing ever generated their revulsion against it.

In his memoirs, the historian and essayist Walter Laqueur reflected on this theme while discussing how a great part of his life had been exposed to totalitarian regimes in Germany and the Soviet Union. There is no guarantee that such “lessons of history” – that is, persistent acquaintance with cruelty to others – will clarify things one way or another, he observes. In his view, some will emerge from such exposure with a more acute sense of the possibilities of wrongdoing, but some will do the opposite. The lessons of history, like all lessons, “can be misunderstood and misapplied.”


Since I have devoted so much of my professional life to the study of the Holocaust, my commitment to its study should be clear. I do not disparage deep reflection on the knowledge we accumulate on this topic, which I believe is one of the foundational events of our age. I believe that the Holocaust is a moral signifier for thinking about good and evil and, perhaps even more important, for pondering what has been called the grey zone, the great space in between. And I also believe that studying the Holocaust contributes to the public good.

But I contest the idea that there exist some formulae that constitute lessons of the Holocaust – or even worse, the lessons of the Holocaust. In a nutshell, the problem with such lessons is that, unfortunately, history does not speak to the present with so clear an admonitory voice. Looking critically at the lessons of the Holocaust, I believe that, like all history, the Holocaust nevertheless has much to teach us, even when it does not direct us how to solve the problems of our time. 

Michael R. Marrus is the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor Emeritus of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto. This essay is adapted from his new memoir Lessons of the Holocaust, published by University of Toronto Press