Having read the 500+ pages of Laurence Rees sobering book on one of the greatest crimes ever committed against humanity, it seems in someways churlish to write a review. This has been the first book that I’ve read on the tube that has attracted quizzical looks, without people asking why I’m reading it. I regularly read books that some might find provocative or controversial – and in most of their reading, I will have a random stranger ask me about it. Not so with this one. The sheer presence of this book, it’s topic and title, seems to put people off – even as they are fascinated by it.
I picked this book up because I firmly believe that knowing our history helps us with our present and future. Laurence Rees is an experienced historical author and documentary maker for the BBC, and in this magesterial book he tackles one of the most controversial and dark periods of human history. With a blend of interviews with survivors, original documentary evidence, and a wealth of research, Rees walks us through the development of ant-Semitism in Hitler and Nazi thought, and also reminds us of the inhuman violence and murder committed on other human beings, including Roma and Sinti, disabled people, homosexuals, and others. As Rees notes, before the ‘Final Solution’ had begun in earnest, the Nazi regime had already committed atrocity on a scale that defies belief.
Whilst the broad scope of the story of the Holocaust is probably known to most people – over 6 million Jews killed, alongside many hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people the Nazis deemed undesirable – the devil, as they say, is in the detail. Rees writes well, letting facts speak for themselves and treading that impossible fine line between displaying horror and revelling in it. Throughout the book – which is well constructed, and flows in a very readable way – we are constantly confronted with the depths of human depravity, with the rare occasion of a human act in the darkness.
Though this is a long book, I have written a short review. I think people in the comfortable West should read this book. It is not just the story of a regime led by psychpathic racists, but delves into the methods and education they used to convince hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of their fellow humans to engage in despicable, criminal violence against other human beings. In a time where ‘Nazi’ is a word that springs onto internet discussions too easily, in a time where Western and indeed global culture is in flux and polarisation, this book is a powerful challenge to our complacency. I did not enjoy reading this book – that is not it’s purpose – but I would give it the strongest possible recommendation.