If you’re not aware that there is a new Amazon series about a group of Nazi hunters (called, in fact, “Hunters”) in the 1970s, then let me assure you that this is, in fact, your worst nightmare if, like me, you care a little bit about history. You can read about the series elsewhere – my colleague Prof. Bill Niven has written a great review of it for “History Extra,” the BBC’s history magazine. Here, I want to suggest why a series about the Holocaust that invents titillating, fantastical horrors about what happened during the Holocaust might be a bad idea.
When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, we talked about our hope that the aging generation of Holocaust deniers would soon die, and we could stop worrying about Holocaust denial. I know! We were very optimistic after the Berlin Wall for a good decade. The internet wasn’t really a big part of anyone’s normal life then, but I suspect that even without it, a new generation of Holocaust deniers would have appeared on the landscape anyway.
Yet Holocaust denial has long stopped being actual denial; deniers are no longer interested in actual hardcore denial. What they do care about is what I would call softcore denial – what if it was bad, but wasn’t that bad? What if … What if… What if… and on and on until we arrive at an Amazon series that decides that the Holocaust wasn’t that bad at all. After all, the horrors of the mass murder of Jews and Roma, and the persecution of other ethnic, religious, and political groups, weren’t enough: Amazon had to invent a chess game in a killing center that never happened. This is the definition of softcore denial, and I use a pornography phrase here intentionally. The series is intended to shock and horrify and excite viewers; there is no attempt here to discuss actual suffering. If atrocities can be used to create a series “inspired by” rather than about the Holocaust, then they lose their status as atrocity and become fantasy horror.
I used to teach George Perec’s 1975 novel W, or The Memory of Childhood, and I could never quite decide what to think about it. This series reminds me a bit of Perec’s attempt to re-interpret the Holocaust as fantasy, but he never let the reader forget that the actual Holocaust was what the true horror was. Perec’s mother died in a killing center, and he spent his life trying to come turns with her suffering. I want to revisit Perec – I still own the French copy I read in college in Alan Astro’s seminar on memory – and think some more about why that novel moved me, whereas the Amazon series infuriates me.