Why should we still study the Holocaust?

Dr Norry LaPorte, an expert on modern German history
Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

Dr Norry LaPorte, a Reader in modern German history, explores the importance of teaching the Holocaust.

If to teach is to learn, then to learn is to question – as one wise saying goes.

The Holocaust is suited to asking - as the author Primo Levi and others did - what allows humans to descend into barbarism?

The Holocaust is at the centre of twentieth century history. It distinguishes itself from even the brutalities of Stalin’s Russia and the Gulags in that the Third Reich opted to organise and implement the murder of Jewish people throughout occupied Europe for no other reason that their race. 

As a subject of history, it allows us to investigate what went so horrifically wrong in a country of high culture, high modernity and supposedly ‘civilised’ European way of life.

Why did so very few of the Jews’ fellow citizens stand up for their rights? How could an ultra-racist murderous minority in the Nazi leadership bring about a policy of mass murder couched in bureaucratic language and a pseudo-scientific ideology? All these themes, and the role of the Führer, Adolf Hitler, are treaded in all their essential details in texts written for A-level and beyond. 

There are also warnings from Europe’s recent history in the study of the Holocaust. For example, how should we treat minorities in our own communities today? And how should we understand those with different view and cultures from our own.

If to teach is to learn, as one wise saying goes, then to learn is to question. And no subject is so crucial in understanding our recent past as the Holocaust.

Rather than the usual dispassionate reason and argument that history asks of its students, the Holocaust reminds us of the need to have the courage to speak out when we know something is wrong, and to try to understand how it must have felt for the innocent victims of the Third Reich whose humanity was abused in the death camps.

To get an insight into the human experience of the Holocaust, I recommend Primo Levi’s If This is a Man.

Levi, an Italian Jew, wrote this autobiographically inform account of Auschwitz not for sympathy, but for understanding – understanding what humans could under certain circumstance. Not only leading figures, but also the faceless officials putting ‘directives’ into practice: ‘Monsters exist’ he observed, ‘but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions’.

Find out more about studying History at USW.