Historians, as Michael R. Marrus notes, were latecomers to a discussion of the Shoah , the Holocaust. In the beginning was denial. Jews, too traumatized by what they had experienced, had no desire to relive it in words. Others, it seems, had no interest. When the Shoah finally forced itself into the realm of discourse, it was treated mythically or in theological terms. In this mode, Elie Wiesel protested that the subject "defies imagination and perception. It submits only to memory. . . . Between the dead and the rest of us exists an abyss that no talent can comprehend."
Finally, a full decade and a half after the events did historians move them out of the intellectual ghetto to which they had been relegated. Spurred, perhaps, by the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, scholars deemed the Holocaust a fit subject for academic study. Today, a select bibliography lists 2,000 book entries--and 10,000 publications--on Auschwitz alone.
Marrus, professor of history at the University of Toronto, attempts not a history of this most significant--and shattering--event in Jewish history in two millennia, but a historiography. He is concerned less with the events themselves than how they have been understood and portrayed. He assesses the way various historians have treated such subjects as the development of the mechanisms of the "final solution," the responses of its victims, and of bystanders. How did world leaders respond? World Jewry? He is insistent on applying the professional historian's gift for making fine distinctions. In the process, he touches on issues that may strike the non-specialist as arcane: the extent of anti-Semitic attitudes in Germany, in various East European countries, assessments of collaboration with--or resistence to--imposition of the final solution in vanquished countries, the precise number of Jews who perished--whether it was 5.1 million or 5.8 million or 6 million.