Award-Winning UK Author & Filmmaker Laurence Rees on the Holocaust, Auschwitz, and Remembrance

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This week The Learning Curve podcast marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day with guest host Dr. Jay Greene of the Heritage Foundation and Laurence Rees, a former head of BBC TV History Programmes; founder, writer, and producer of the award-winning; and author of The Holocaust: A New History. Mr. Rees sheds light on the historical context of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, including the rise of the cultural and political conditions that led to the Holocaust. Rees discusses how the Nazis promulgated their anti-Semitic ideology and laws, and underscores the criminal realities of the Auschwitz concentration and death camp, as well as the Holocaust’s six million Jewish victims. Rees also talks about the fragility of both human life and political and cultural institutions. Mr. Rees closes the interview with a reading from his book on the Holocaust.


Laurence Rees is a former Head of BBC TV History Programmes, and the founder, writer, and producer of the award-winning online resource, He left the BBC in 2008 and was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow in the International History Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science, London University. For the last 30 years he has written books and made television documentaries about both the Second World War and the Third Reich. His work includes the BBC television series and books: Nazis: a Warning from History (1997); Auschwitz, the Nazis, and the ‘Final Solution’ (2005), winner of the British Book Award for history book of the; a 90-minute feature length documentary, Touched by AuschwitzThe Holocaust: A New History (2017), and Hitler and Stalin: The Tyrants and the Second World War (2021). His many television awards include a BAFTA, two International Documentary Awards, and two Emmys. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Sheffield in 2005, and the Open University in 2011. Rees was educated at Solihull School and Oxford University.

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Jay: Welcome to the International Holocaust Remembrance episode of The Learning Curve Podcast. I’m Jay Greene of the Heritage Foundation, and I’m guest hosting for Cara and Gerard, who will be back on the regularly scheduled show released next Wednesday. Today is the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was established in 2005 and is observed on January 27 each year.

It’s the date in 1945 when the largest Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated. It was the most horrific and heartbreaking event in human history. When the Nazis killed 6 million Jews during the course of World War II, this genocide murdered approximately two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population.

Pioneer Institute and I believe in looking unflinchingly at history, especially when it comes to educating young people about the realities of human nature. That’s why we’re providing a special podcast on the topic of the Holocaust and the need for ongoing education about the threat of antisemitism in our world today.

In support of a vibrant and robust public discussion, grounded in reason and facts, we’re honored to host the world’s most preeminent author and filmmaker on the Holocaust. Laurence Rees. Laurence Rees is a founder, writer, and producer of the award-winning online resource He left the BBC in 2008 and was appointed a visiting senior fellow in the International History Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science London University.

For the last 30 years, he has written books and made television documentaries about the Second World War and the third party. His works include BBC television series and books, including Nazis, A warning from History, Auschwitz, the Nazis, and the Final Solution, which was the recipient of the British Book Award.

A 90- minute feature length documentary Touched by Auschwitz, and more recently, the The Holocaust: A New History in 2017 and Hitler and Stalin, the Tyrants and the Second World War in 2021. His many television awards include a BAFTA, two International Documentary Awards, and two Emmys. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Sheffield in 2005.

and the Open University. In 2011, Laurence was educated at Solo Hole School and Oxford University. Welcome to the Learning Curve, Laurence Rees. We’re very happy to have you here. Thank you very much. So today marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and you’re among the world’s best respected authors and documentary filmmakers on this topic.

Would you share with our listeners what you think is most important for the general public teachers and students today to know and remember about the Holocaust?

Laurence: Well, in short they should know and remember that a cultured nation at the heart of Europe perpetrated the worst crime in history. And I say worst crime in history having thought about it a great deal. Many historians shy away from saying something like that because once you start saying something’s unique, well, every event in the world’s unique. So some historians say, oh, a singular crime. But it seems to me that just takes you straight back to the word unique and worst as well is a value judgment.

How worst? Well, by worst what I mean is that we can say of this that never before within a planned time, eth, they would target an entire ethnic religious group for destruction, and that they would devise equipment and create special killing factories. Exactly. To do that. That’s why I say worse.

That’s why I say it’s singular. That’s why I think that combination means, especially also because we’re talking about something that happened still just within living memory. Certainly when I was doing all my work and could actually speak to both. Nazi perpetrators and people who suffered at their hands.

It was within certainly my lifetime living memory. This isn’t something that was going on under Genghis Khan or something. this is in that sense, a crime of modernity. So for all of those reasons, and it’s relevant to now, that’s why we must remember this. 

Jay: Is it that, you think people must remember in particular about a modern nation doing this?

You emphasized that in your answer. I was interested in hearing more about why you think that’s important? 

Laurence: One of the things people who don’t know much about this often think of when they look at it is that, well, either the perpetrators are mad or they’re, ignorant, stupid people who were like barbarians.

Actually, if you look at the Wannsee Conference, where many of these issues were discussed during the war by uh, senior members of the regime, many of the people who sat around that table didn’t just have ordinary degrees. They had academic doctorates. So this notion that we have, I think some people have that education is in some way a protection.

Against committing horrendous crimes is simply not the case. You can be as Reinhard Heydrich played, who was one of the people instrumental in creating the Holocaust. He played the violin beautifully. He was very, very interested in high culture, and yet he actually was one of those instrumental in perpetrating this crime.

So the reason I say that first of all is because don’t think just because you are cultured, people are immune from committing absolutely horrendous acts. If you think of Schindler’s List, one of the issues I had with that film was the portrayal of one of the camp commandants as sadistic, almost unhinged murderers. Well, there were indeed some like that, but equally, the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolph Hoss—and I met people who knew him—and, when he was on trial at Nuremberg after the war, people thought he was an exceptional human being.

I think one of the American prosecutors described him as being like a grocer. So you cannot look at someone and think, oh my gosh, this is a psychopath. These are the people we ought to watch out for actually cultured human beings can be convinced themselves that committing mass murder is the right thing to do, and that’s why I’ve such a large portion of my life to trying to understand it because it’s that that’s absolutely terrifying

Jay: This does this raise a paradox, though, in that noting that, that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were on average, highly educated and relatively cultured people, and yet we think the way to prevent future atrocities and to remember the Holocaust is by emphasizing. 

Laurence: Two things to say to that.

First is don’t run away. I’m not saying that everyone involved in this society culture, the fact is that very large numbers of people on the ground doing the killing are absolute ignorant thugs. I mean, many of the stormtroopers who were involved in the initial terrible atrocities against Jews when the Nazis came to power.

I mean, these were absolutely ill educated racist thugs. I mean the entire regime was racist, of course, but so I’m not. the whole group of these people are, are cultured. Just that many of the people involved in the planning stages of it, and actually some of them involved in being perpetrators were, for example, the commander of the Eza group and the murder squads who worked in one of the most bloodthirsty of all of these killers who worked in the Baltic.

After the invasion of Soviet Union and killing people in the notorious pit killings where they were shot and killed, just openly, absolutely horrific stuff. The man involved in that had two PhDs and he was man called rash. And so he insisted on the documentation as being known as Dr. Dr. Rash. so he had two of them. But that’s not to say that all of his. People under his command were like that. That’s the first thing to say. and the second thing to say when you say is what’s the point in edu you know, educating, if educated people, many were in many cases responsible for the leadership here. The answer to that is it depends how you educate people.

Because all of these people who are doing this, were educated to believe absolutely in racism, absolutely believed in the concept of racial superiority, that the people they were destroying were others, they were not like them. Moreover, that the people that they were destroying were en masse dangerous and dangerous, not because of their religion.

And this is again, something that people don’t fully understand, who don’t know much about this. They weren’t dangerous because of a religion. They were dangerous, they believed, because of their blood. They were dangerous because they came from a particular ethnic group that they feared and thought was phenomenally dangerous.

And they were educated. Educated. There were universities teaching this kind of stuff. They were educated to believe this lie. And so therefore the education absolutely is a protection, but it’s a protection as long as it’s not. Inculcating and teaching that level of prejudice and. 

Jay: So, I’d like to explore a little bit more the kind of education that would produce this kind of hate.

In your book The Holocaust: ANew History, you discussed the origins of hate in Germany in the aftermath of the First World War, as well as the rise of the Nazis and of Hitler and the European anti-Semitism. Could you briefly describe the larger historical context of Germany in the 1920s that created the cultural and political conditions that made this possible?

Laurence:  The First World War is absolutely crucial in. Without the First World War I don’t believe there would’ve been Adolf Hitler as chancellor. There wouldn’t have been a Holocaust as we know it. The first World War is a seminal event in the history of the 20th century and, to the extent that it’s overshadowed by the horrors of the Second World War, I think people sometimes don’t fully understand the immense relevance of it to this story.

And that’s because the humiliation and shame and upset that Germany as a nation felt on losing this war was absolutely immense even during the war, once they realize that it’s not going to plan, and they might be losing it, a search for scapegoats for this begin. And one of the scapegoats or the chief one that they point to are the Jews.

And why do they point to the Jews? Well, because, like all countries pretty much I think in the world there was in some cases avert and in many cases latent antisemitism. And so what was happening was that there was a. A false belief that Jews weren’t serving in large numbers proportionately in the army.

Actually less than 1 perecent of Germans are Jews. So it’s a proportionate issue. But that Jews weren’t serving in proportion numbers in the Army. They actually did a census to actually look at this during the war, and I think they did the census to try and prove that Jews weren’t doing their bit, but actually they were.

And so, We don’t know the reason the census was suppressed, but I think that’s pretty clear. That’s the reason because they didn’t get the result they wanted. There was also a belief that Jews behind the line, whether in the media or business or whatever, were somehow plotting against uh, people on the front line and making profits, war profiteering and so on.

So it became that this myth came up, something called the stab in the back. Which was on the nationalist side, particularly that Jews had somehow plotted against other Germans to lose the war. This is exacerbated by events in 1917 with the Russian Revolution because the Russian Revolution to a group of nationalists is looked on as something that’s created by Jews.

A number of them would say to me, A number of these former Nazis would say, “Aha! Marx was a Jew.” You know, well, actually, he wasn’t a practicing Jew, but nonetheless he came from a Jewish background. But, so they say, well, look, this is a Jewish, you know, Bolshevism and Judaism are the same thing.

And then immediately after the loss of the First World War, you have a series of revolutions in Germany. The one in Munich ends up with a Soviet-style Republic of Munich very briefly, only for a few weeks, but nonetheless it’s there and many of the leaders of that are Jewish. And that means that some people, not all people, but a group of absolute fanatics think this points to how the, Jews are trying to use.Germany, and then you have the settlement of the Versailles Treaty, which is perceived as unjust. And the sense that the Weimar government, which is the government that’s running Germany in the 1920s, that is somehow Jewish influence. And the Jews have blamed for, for liberalism, even for democracy. The Jews become, in a particular group in Germany, the Jews become a kind of all-purpose scapegoat for anything you don’t like.

Jay: Even if they’re blamed for communism profiteering and democracy at the same time.

Laurence: I put that exact question to a former Nazi. I said, hang on a minute you’re blaming the Jews for communism, of course, used to deeply anti-capitalism, and you’re blaming them for the excesses of capital.

It just doesn’t make any sense. And to which this person replied, “Just goes to show how clever they are.”

So you see, you understand that actually, and it’s like the conspiracy theories that the thing about a conspiracy theory, and we see this all over the world, but I mean, I have to say, having recently been to America, it was on a long trip.  About 18 months, two years ago. And, hearing, people talk about the cab drivers chiefly talking about Trump. A lot of it was conspiracy theory based with no evidence of it, and you try to. Discuss it and it was very, and I’m not equating for a second that regime with anything like this or anything.

I’m talking about a mentality in terms of views of conspiracy theories, but you see how it’s actually not necessary to have any evidence for a conspiracy theory. In fact. , if you have no evidence that can benefit you if you’re proselytizing a conspiracy theory because that’s how clever the state is, or the Jews are at hiding it.

Jay: Both the evidence is proof and the absence of evidence is proof. 

Laurence: The absence of evidence can be almost more proof in my experience. so you find that the Jews of course have, you know, they would say the Jews are, behind this. And it would say, well, where’s the evidence?  And that would go, that’s another example of how sneaky and, clever they are. there’s a famous propaganda book published in Germany in the thirties once Hitler’s in power called the Poisonous Mushroom. and it’s a children’s book. And what that’s about is. it teaches children that if you look often into the [00:15:00] forest, at the most beautiful mushroom, the most beautiful mushroom is often the most poisonous mushroom.

Similarly, the nicest Jew who you meet can actually often be the most dangerous Jew because they’re, they’re trying to lull you into liking them in order to more easily pursue the nefarious crimes. 

Jay: This hatred that was latent or explicit and then was activated in a more virulent way with the attempt to rationalize the defeat in World War I.

This then is accompanied with the rise of the Nazi party and Hitler into power culminating in, A set of laws, the Nuremberg Laws, which codify and institutionalize anti-Semitic policies. Could you discuss the events that led to those Nuremberg laws and, what you think educators and students should know about the criminal realities of Nazi ideology?

Laurence: The Nuremberg Laws are the most famous, infamous really, of Nazi legislation before the war attacking the Jews. And they are laws which prevent the Jews from holding German citizenship and prevent the Jews from having sexual relations with people who are non-Jewish.

There’s a number of things to say about that. The first is to say, It isn’t that prior to that Jews were fine. In Nazi Germany, actually there were already many cases of terrible oppression against Jews. There weren’t the death camps. There wasn’t systematic extermination, but a number of Jews were sent to concentration camps where some did die.

Some did die either of mistreatment or by outright murder, not in huge numbers compared to what’s to come. But nonetheless, the persecution began from the. Hitler took office on January 30, 1933. And what was happening locally because a, a large elements of this anti-Semitic action might be perpetrated by local Nazi groups, local storm trooper groups, and they would, if they saw either a, Jewish man in a relationship with a non-Jewish German woman. There were a number of cases where, Parade, the Jewish man through the streets, they would beat him up. They would shave the hair of the German woman. They would humiliate them and so on. there wasn’t a law allowing to do this, but nonetheless these kind of atrocities were perpetrated.

So there were a number of Jews I met. German Jews who actually saw in the Nuremberg laws a slight sense of hope because here is codification and once you have a law, there’s a sense, well, these lawless outrageous that were going on before can’t happen. We kind of know where we are now.

And that’s one of the things that I think is very frightening about, that, that sometimes missed. There was that element to it. There was also another element in that it showed how utterly hypocritical. Utterly, crazy. The whole Nazi idea of of persecuting on the basis of Jewish blood was because whilst they said, we, we hate the Jews as a race, and that was going to.

Have tremendous consequences in the Holocaust because it meant that under traditional Christian anti-Semitism, there was a possibility often that Jews could convert to Christianity to escape. But actually there’s no possibility under the Nazis, if the Nazis say you are of Jewish heritage, Jewish, an ethnicity, you die or you are going to be persecuted.

But because they didn’t have a test for Jewish blood, they had to define who was Jewish. A religious test, which was how many of your grandparents were practicing Jews? And if you had three grandparents who were then, you were clearly a Jew. If you had two. They started to have problems because some people who had two Jewish grandparents were actually clearly in the Nazi eyes, not Jews, and were proper Germans as they saw it.

And some people who had two Jewish grandparents, they thought were clearly Jews. So they then just started to divide and. Within that group that’s demonstrating that it couldn’t be a racist test, if you see what I mean. So, they weren’t even following their own logic, but yet again, they don’t see that I say illogical.

They see that as merely practical. . So 

Jay: The brunt of the victims Jewish victims of the Holocaust were actually not in Germany. They were in Poland, no uh, to the East. Yes, students and educators may have a hard time grasping the scale of this. We’re talking about 6 million European Jews, which constitutes nearly two thirds of the Jews of the continent and 90 percent of the Jews in Poland also including one and a half million children among those 6 million. Yeah. So could you say anything to help people? Comprehend the scale of this.

Laurence: Well, you’re right in that, again, it’s a misconception to think that German Jews were mostly the victims of the Holocaust.

Absolutely. they weren’t simply because quite a number did manage to leave Germany before the second World War, but also because as I mentioned earlier, less than 1 percent of Germans were Jewish. That was completely different. Once the Germans invaded Poland, and, very roughly half the Jew number of Jews who died under the Holocaust were Polish Jews.

That’s the reason why all of the death camps Nazi death camps are in Poland, and the polls in my experience have had a very kind of, they’ve had a rough ride with this history in the sense that I’ve seen there was one leading kind of, public figure in Britain a few years ago who said, oh, well the Nazi death camps are in Poland because the Poles are all anti-Semitic.

Well, actually they were in Poland because , that’s where the enormous numbers of more than any other country, the Jews they were going to kill were, but also, of course there was Polish anti-Semitism. But equally there were a number of Poles who actually risked their lives to save Jews.

So it’s a complex picture in Poland that sometimes I don’t think people who dunno much about it, they don’t actually grasp. And I can understand, I didn’t agree with the Polish move to make illegal certain comments about about the Holocaust as it relates to Poland.

But nonetheless, I could understand the motivation of it out of the sort of frustration and anger with that. But in terms of how do we actually comprehend the horror of it? Paradoxically, I think you do it through looking at individual. So obviously the Frank diary is the most famous, but I would say to educators that, another extraordinary resource is the book by the head of the Warsaw Ghetto Emanuel Ringelblum called Notes from the Ghetto, and it’s essentially his diary of trying to run the Warsaw Ghetto and end tragically with him committing.

But in terms of understanding what it was like, and this was the, because before sending these Jews off to death camps, they actually ghettoized them. And the conditions in the ghetto were as you can imagine, absolutely horrendous. And that’s an incredibly moving, incredibly moving book. But also from a perspective of someone who’s trying to do the best for the people and for 18 year olds or people just in first year of university around that kind of age. I really would recommend one of the most profound books I’ve ever, ever read which not many people know about for some reason, but it’s called Amidst a Nightmare of Crime. And that book is compiled from scraps of diary entries and comments that these under-commandos, that’s to say Jewish prisoners who worked doing horrendous tasks actually in the gas chamber complexes, forced to do that on pain of their own.

Many of them, or a number of them wrote down what it was like and they put these notes in bottles, and buried them in the environs of the gas chamber complexes. And they were only discovered years and years later and have been published in this book called Amidst a Nightmare of Crime. And you can’t get more firsthand than that. Moving and, just absolutely extraordinary, extraordinary book. And I would recommend the testimony in. My own Holocaust book only because we managed to go off and interview not just many of the people who suffered, but a number of the perpetrators, including an SS man who works at Auschwitz.

And I think once, you want a certain level of understanding, actually that kind of testimony can also be. 

Jay: And it is really one of the distinctive features of your work is the extent to which you emphasize the personal accounts of both perpetrators and victims.

To help people grasp the scale and nature of this event. Another famous personal account is the memoir Night by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Holocaust survivor, Ellie Wiesel, in which he says, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw have turned into wreath of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.” As an author of Landmark History of Auschwitz, could you discuss the death camps and the conditions under which Jews lived and ultimately died there? 

Laurence: Well, I think it’s appropriate that the book I just mentioned is called Amidst a Nightmare of Crime.

I mean, it’s at one level it’s unimaginable. But what’s interesting is the human capacity to survive. The people I’ve met who survived Auschwitz are absolutely extraordinary people, many of whom point to the fact that they were lucky to escape various selections, but also they possessed an extraordinary resilience.

One of the things about that is I always think it’s partly, it’s partly to do with age. Because I think when you are in your late teens or early twenties, there’s a level of forced and resilience that you don’t have when you are young, much younger than that a child and you don’t have as you get older, certainly once you get older and have children, and you are worried about your children.

I think it’s very different. a number of cases of women going to the gas chambers with their children because they couldn’t, they just couldn’t face the children. Dying on their own. Whether they actually knew for sure they were going that, but they certainly were not going to be separated from their children as they arrived at Auschwitz.

Many of the commanders, the prisoners who were helping them, getting down from the trains. A number of them would say to young healthy women who were holding a baby, give the children to old people. Give the children to old people in order to try and have it so that the young mother would survive.

You can hardly imagine. Imagine the horror of that. The other thing I would say, if I was talking to educators about this, the other thing to emphasize is that one of the problems we have with this in terms of understanding is, a confusion in the English language between death camp and concentration camps.

Many people use them as the same thing , [00:26:00] and they were not the same thing. Part of the reason for that is because Auschwitz, the biggest and most deadly camp of all. Both a concentration camp and a death camp. And so therefore it has an element of confusion inherent in that many, many of the other places where these horrendous crimes were committed.

There virtually everyone on arrivals. they’re small places. They’re almost more extraordinary to visit than Auschwitz in a type of way. And that’s because Auschwitz, because it’s a concentration camp as well as a death camp, was designed also to keep certain numbers of people alive to be worked to death.

So it actually had to have space. But if you want to kill enormous numbers of people, just kill them. You actually need hardly any. That was one of the things that shocks me going to Dachau or Sobibor. Also, there’s nothing there because the Nazis had as they saw it, fulfilled their task in killing Polish Jews by 1943 and plowed these camps back into soil in order to pretend nothing had happened there.

They were temporary places for a temporary problem of mass, mass killing. and so for me to meet, I’ve met a number of, Jewish survivors from these camps who, and the reason they survived was they were in the tiny, tiny number of people fit young men. These people I met who were selected on arrival to work in the camp, and then there was a revolt at Treblinka and revolt also at Sobibor, and they managed to.

And through almost miraculous means managed to survive. but that’s the experience in a way that typifies the Holocaust at least as much as Auschwitz, which is simply on arrival. You are dead within a matter of hours. They are factories designed to destroy.Aand the problem insofar is you are, if you were looking at it as a Nazis, now hesitate to use the word problem because the problem is the crime, not the mechanism of the crime.

But if you were a Nazi and you were looking at the difficulties of doing this, the difficulty was not killing people in massive numbers. The difficulty was body disposal. That’s the problem they wrestled with. Killing people in large numbers is not hard. 

Jay: A depressing observation, but this also leads to the question of what should we make of all of this then for our understanding of what human beings are really like, what human nature is like?

You write at the end of one of your recent books, through their crime the Nazis brought into the world an awareness of what educated, technologically advanced human beings can do as long as they have a cold heart once allowed into the. Knowledge of what they did must not be unlearned. But we also have people are drawn to the personal account of Anne Frank, in which she remarks at one point, “I still believe in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart,”and yeah. So I, I was wondering if you could discuss a little bit what you think people should draw from all of this. what we learn about what human beings are really like. 

Laurence: Well, I wish I could believe that people are fundamentally good at heart.

I think they’re fundamentally good at heart when it comes to their own family and fundamentally good at heart when it comes to their own group. But they can be, it’s not hard to turn people group against group. That’s one of the things I take from this, but I take broadly two things from all of this for 30 years of this and having met so many people who are involved as perpetrators or as survivors, I take two things from this.

The first is fragility. One of the problems we’ve got as human beings, I think is that we look around at our lives at our world, and we don’t understand. That it’s inherently fragile. We don’t understand. Our body’s inherently fragile. I could have a heart attack straight after I hang up on this call, but I don’t think that, I think I’m here forever.

I mean, the idea. of not is just incomprehensible. my body is fragile, but also the political institutions around us are more fragile, way more fragile than we think. I think again, in America, you learnt that a few years ago and you’re still learning it.

It’s much more fragile than you, so many people I met who were Jews, particularly in Hungary, for example the Holocaust when it came there was incredibly sudden. I know Ukraine very well because I’ve filmed interviews and traveled around Ukraine for my work a lot.

I was in Lvov for New Year just before the war. Incomprehensive, impossible to imagine in Lvov a beautiful, beautiful city, cultured city. Impossible to imagine. It’s under missile attack. For what? For what? People are dying. Children are dying there now, today or, or in other cities in Ukraine.

Impossible. Think of the fragility and that fragility is right across all of us, our ourselves and the world. The level of vigilance necessary to prevent this is so strong. And the second thing to think about is why you are who you are. And that’s to do with the culture that you are brought up in.

[00:31:08] We swim in the culture we are brought up in. If you and I had been born into 15th century Mesoamerica we’d be Aztecs and believe that human sacrifice was the correct way forward. The only reason we don’t think that is, we were lucky and fortunate where we were born in the circumstances we were born and the education we received. So we actually have to think, I think quite a great deal about. Why we are who we are. And it’s not because there’s some inherent wonderfulness about us as individuals, it’s because of the nature of the culture in which we swim 

Jay: and the fragility of the decency of that culture. 

[00:31:45] Laurence: Completely. Of course. and that’s essentially the difficulty of getting that across because the human desire to believe that everything is perfectly okay and we can all be complacent and it’s not a problem, the legal system has a rule of law and so on and so on. It’s extraordinary to me.

Actually, I mean, I get incredibly depressed at looking at, for example, Iran with these terribly brave people who go out on street demonstrations and now they’re being executed. But as I saw it, I could almost predict that. And I could predict it because you study something like the Germany and the Nazis and Hitler, and the reason Hitler wasn’t overcome until the Russian troops were at the door of his bunker.

The reason that happened primarily was because the army stuck with him, and actually you don’t need, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a hundred thousand people demonstrating without weapons on the street, as long as you’ve got the army on your. It doesn’t matter. And yet somehow we see it and think, ah, popular, upright, it’s just incredibly depressing.

The key, the key is the army, not the people on the streets to that extent. they may influence the army and whatever, but, as long as you keep the army close to you, like Putin is, keeps, keeps those people who are closest to [00:33:00] him, very well off and implicates them. It’s very, very, very hard to dislodge these people who are committing terrible crimes.

Jay: Well, I have a feeling that we could discuss this for, for many more hours. Here you’ve devoted decades of your life to studying this issue. But unfortunately we don’t have the time to continue. Although, this is really fascinating and I think really important, but perhaps you’d like to help us conclude by reading a portion from one of your recent books The Holocaust: A New History.

Laurence: Sure thing, this relates to, I mean, he’s one of the two or three most extraordinary people I’ve ever met in my life. A man called to Blatt who was a, what is called a under command at Sobibor that’s to say he was involved.

He was selected to do horrendous tasks in the camp in exchange for not being immediately murdered. And I interviewed him a number of years ago. He’s dead now. I interviewed him a number of years ago and he said something that relates to this notion of why we are who we are. I think about it a great deal.

So I’ll just read this one paragraph to Black, who was at the age of 15, selected as a Nazi commander at Sobibor. Was astonished at how the horrific circumstances of the camp could alter the character of those who worked there. People change under some conditions. He says, people ask me, what did you learn?

And I think, I’m only sure of one thing. Nobody knows themselves. All of us could be good people or bad people in these different situations. Sometimes when somebody is really nice to me, I find myself thinking, how will he be in Sobibor?

Jay: This is really very powerful. Thank you for sharing that. Thank you again for joining us. This has been an interesting and engaging discussion that we hope has been helpful as people are trying to make sense of the horrors of the Holocaust. Remember, it’s millions of victims as well as better understand our shared past.

Please tune into our regular episode of The Learning Curve on Wednesday with Cara and Gerard. And again, thank you very much Lawrence Rees for joining us here on The Learning Curve.

Laurence:  You’re very welcome.

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