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WORLD FOCUS: Holocaust history and memory
April 20, 2017

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Jeremy Black is an internationally recognized historiographer, a professor of history at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom, and the author of more than 100 books on military history, international relations and British politics. He decided to write a book about the Holocaust, as history and memory.

Black is currently on a lecture tour at colleges around the world. Among those he had visited was the College of William & Mary. He gave a talk titled, "Rethinking the Holocaust."

According to the Kirkus Review, Black, in his book, attempts to avoid displaying emotions. He is not describing how the Nazis were smashing living babies' skulls against the walls. Rather, he is writing in scholarly tone, recounting the genesis and the largely effective policy of Jewish extermination, as the prime tenet of Nazi ideology. He describes in detail the Wanenese Conference and the effort to make Europe "Judenfrei" in a Final Solution.

Black, in his book and talks, emphasizes that not all Jews died in extermination camps. Millions were simply shot in the streets and fields of Europe, exterminated by Nazi Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units that kept extensive records even before such murder of the Jews was industrialized.

He dismisses as implausible the claim of ignorance by the German population, who, at the time, as documents prove, had widespread information. He also documents that the Allies, including the United States, did not consider preventing the Final Solution as a primary target of the war. Black's book, along with the examination of anti-Semitic actions of the Nazis and its allies, provides an in-depth account of the memorialization of the Holocaust around the world both after the war and today.

"Black is especially astute in his consideration of the current rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East as well as the facile tendency to label diverse events as Holocaust," states the Kirkus Review.

"In a horrific form, the Holocaust, particularly the extermination and concentration camps, testified to a persistent and widespread use of the concept of race in order to rank peoples and develop and express national cohesion," writes Block. "This was more common in the political thought and practice of the twentieth century than is generally appreciated and was particularly important in state-building and also in the creation of new political allegiances."

According to Black, the stress on distinctive cultures potentially undermined universalism and, thus the idea of tolerance and the rights for others. The organizing narrative becomes the nation, he observes.

"The emphasis on nations was linked to the belief in a nation that is different and superior to, other nations," he wrote.

As populist fervor rises in Europe and the United States, it is important to pay attention to Black's analysis.

It is perceivable that in France's forthcoming presidential elections, the candidate of the party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a convicted Holocaust denier, who proclaimed, "the gas chambers are just a detail in the history of World War II," would win plurality. As Black sees it, "cultural, political and generational tensions and changes are all linked to the contested and altering presentation and understanding of the Holocaust. ...Generational change encourages a different frame of reference. ... But the Holocaust is a key event not only in history, but also in its presentation and understanding."

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Frank Shatz's column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette. Shatz is a seasonal Lake Placid resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns.

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