Leading Article: The Holocaust story retold

Click to follow
WHEN a film director known more for box-office success than for Academy Awards decides to set a serious new film in the moral abyss of Nazi-occupied Europe, he must expect a brickbat or two. But the accusation that has been made against Steven Spielberg, of cheapening something that should be left to more elevated minds, is absurd. Schindler's List, whose London premiere took place last night, is its own best defence.

It is valuable, too, in raising afresh the broader question of why the criminality of the Nazis exerts such a visceral hold on our emotions. Germany under National Socialism abolished the normal contrast between social order and violent crime. Hitler's attempt to purge his empire of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals was both methodical and official. Its drab concern for efficiency and cost made the act of mass murder far more chilling than any campaign of random slaughter and pillage.

Other regimes have made murder a systematic object of policy. But it is not the force of numbers that has etched the sufferings of Jews under Hitler more deeply into modern consciousness than those of Kurds under Saddam, Armenians under the Turks, or the kulak class of Russian landowners under Stalin. Many Jews were fully integrated into western European society. They worked in science, politics, art, education and philosophy as well as in business and agriculture. Their destruction - largely successful, since there are now fewer Jews in the whole of continental Europe than in New York - was simply harder to ignore.

The Jews themselves, who speak with a louder and more articulate voice than many other minorities, have helped to keep memories fresh. An important new Holocaust Museum has only recently been opened in Washington DC. Such efforts as continue to track down Nazi war criminals are partly the result of pressure from Jewish communities who have helped the authorities to trace them.

Yet it is a mistake to complain that the Holocaust story has been overtold. The most comparably potent examples of what can happen when the state itself goes mad - the Soviet Union under Stalin, the Cultural Revolution in China - are incompletely documented in the West. Information about the Holocaust must serve as their surrogate.

Furthermore, the legacy of Nazism lives on. Murderers from the death camps walk freely not just in South America but also in the United Kingdom. Neo-fascists and pseudo-historians manage simultaneously to claim that the Holocaust never happened, and to reinflame the violent racial hatred that served to feed it. When we are sure that no crime of remotely similar scale could again take place, it will be time to put the Nazis behind us. Until then, films like Mr Spielberg's will serve as a valuable reminder.