Vincent Carroll: Rocky Mountain News Editor Takes Historians To Task

Roundup: Talking About History

The power of the individual

If young people today are turned off by the study of history - and by and large they are - it is partly the fault of the historians and educators who write the books that students read. History is most vivid and real when it highlights the extraordinary individuals, good and evil, who shaped it. But many scholars disdain such a focus, dwelling instead on culture, class and economics as the driving forces in our past.

Their impersonal approach is useful up to a point. Taken too far, however, it obscures the truth. No one has ever pointed this out more forcefully than the brilliant Milton Himmelfarb, who died this month at 87, in an essay titled No Hitler, No Holocaust.

"Hitler willed and ordered the Holocaust, and was obeyed," Himmelfarb wrote. "Traditions, tendencies, ideas, myths - none of these made Hitler murder the Jews. All that history, all those forces and influences, could have been the same and Hitler could as easily, more easily, not have murdered the Jews. . . .

"Anti-Semitism was a necessary condition for the Holocaust, it was not a sufficient condition. Hitler was needed. Hitler murdered the Jews because he wanted to murder them."

His entire essay, which was published in Commentary magazine in 1984 and can be found online, is still worth reading. It's a powerful argument against any version of history that demotes individuals to the role of puppets.

NOTES: Vincent Carroll, editor of the editorial pages, writes On Point several times a week. Reach him at

comments powered by Disqus