Lessons of the Holocaust by Michael R. Marrus (review)
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Lessons of the Holocaust, Michael R. Marrus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), xiii + 196 pp., paperback $23.95, electronic version available.

Anyone who meets Michael Marrus, a valued colleague and good friend for several decades, is likely to be impressed by his deep voice. It resounds throughout his Lessons of the Holocaust, which, in ways both persuasive and paradoxical, plumbs the depths of the fraught but vital topic that its title identifies.

This book recapitulates and extends Marrus's distinguished career as Holocaust historian—a career he describes as "a never-ending quest to get to the bottom of things" (p. 174). Two outlooks govern Marrus's version of that quest. First and foremost, with a premium placed on clear-eyed judgment and close attention to the best evidence available, Marrus wants to understand the Holocaust, since its status as an "epoch-making … watershed in the history of our times" derives from its most telling and mind-boggling features: "unprecedented human wrongdoing … the gravest atrocities, murder, and other horrors, on a practically unimaginable scale" (pp. 160, 162, 166, 168). Second, Marrus distrusts attempts to promote lessons in response to such carnage. As he mines the problems that beset even the best-intentioned aims to advance lessons of the Holocaust, his skepticism reaches a bottom line: "beware of lessons" (p. 160).

Marrus comes by his caution honestly. Taking lessons about the Holocaust to be admonitions, directions, and prescriptions for future behavior and courses of action—typically intended to prevent repetition of atrocities or to "make the world a better place"—Marrus shows in his analysis that such lessons are problematic: they are vague, contradictory, changeable, overgeneralized, lacking nuance, contested, or insufficiently grounded in history. [End Page 118]

Beware of lessons—that, says Marrus, is his "principal lesson of the Holocaust" (p. 160). Persuasive though that lesson needs to be, Lessons of the Holocaust also reveals it to be paradoxical—as a lesson, "beware of lessons" entails caution about itself—a quality that helpfully resists premature closure about lessons of the Holocaust. Furthermore, taking paradox to refer to statements or circumstances that are puzzling because they are conjoined in ways that are apparently at odds, consider that, contrary to Marrus's assertion, "beware of lessons" may not really be his principal lesson of the Holocaust. A rival for that distinction could be his imperative to "get the history right" (p. 159).

As he makes clear in this book through strong and frequent appeals to ongoing critical inquiry, careful research, sifting of evidence, objectivity, and commitment to truth—fundamental pursuits required to harness the passion to get to the bottom of things—Marrus teaches that "when speaking about the Holocaust we all have a fundamental duty to be as faithful as we can be to the epoch-making events from which we issue statements that are supposedly validated by the campaign against European Jewry" (p. 160). Which, then, is or ought to be the principal lesson of the Holocaust: beware of lessons or get the history right? Probing further within and beyond Lessons of the Holocaust, good responses to that question, paradoxically, might be: either and/or both, especially if the tension between the two lessons is dialectical—mutually critical, corrective, and illuminating.

If "beware of lessons" is primary, then it would need to apply to the duty/lesson to "get the history right." Marrus's own analysis shows that "get the history right" is an admonition as elusive as it is idealistic. Errors of historical judgment can be corrected, new evidence can be found and integrated, narrative accuracy can be improved, best historical practices can be followed, but, as Marrus accurately observes, nobody can "master all of the literature that appears" (p. 67); the historian's work is never done—one has to "keep at it" (p. 170). Strictly speaking, then, no one does or ever will get the history right, for the Holocaust shows itself to be an event so vast, complex, and far-flung in its origins and implications that all human inquiry about it will be forever incomplete and wanting in one way or another.

Historical analysis, moreover, always entails interpretation, which does...