Illume the heart of darkness

November 25, 2010

Yes, a great many so-called "historical" novels are trash ("History in the faking", 18 November). Is War and Peace also trash? I ask mainly because Leo Tolstoy was scathing about the contributions of most historians. Why?

Consider a recent episode of history, the Holocaust. Here you had some of the most advanced people in the world - if by advanced you mean such things as scientific, educational, civic and artistic contributions; living in their country was a relatively small number of mostly emancipated Jews. Yet a high proportion of those advanced people took it upon themselves to slaughter, or certainly to acquiesce in the slaughter, of millions of men, women and children because they were born Jews. This is an important and interesting question with many implications.

How do most historians deal with it? They report the economic, political, social and historical circumstances; if they are serious professionals, they obtain the bulk of their information from the archives. Such an approach is certainly scholarly, and I have read a good deal of this literature, but it leaves out something vital - the human element. I want to know something about the hearts and minds of those who set about systematically murdering millions of people in cold blood.

I am unable to find much about this in the accounts provided by most historians. When I read those accounts, I am reminded of a condition called alexithymia - a paucity of emotional expression or a lack of awareness of inner feelings. When emotional terms are used by people so afflicted, one senses that they are prompted by the intellect. It is like listening to a person who is colour-blind using terms such as red and yellow.

One can compare the accounts of the Holocaust provided by professional historians with a novel such as Bernhard Schlink's The Reader (1995). It describes Hanna Schmitz, a German woman who is illiterate and likes to be read to; with grace and skill Schlink helps us to see that she is also morally illiterate. With amazing brevity he manages to convey something about the heart and mind of this woman, a former SS guard at Auschwitz.

It seems to me that historians have much to learn from novelists, and novelists have much to learn from historians.

Eric Sotto, Haifa, Israel.

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