When thinking about the past, as we all do in the 21st century shaped by the events of the 20th, what images come to mind? I see Nazis marching into city squares. Jews being crushed into airless cattle cars. An iron gate with the inscription “work sets you free,” and beyond it, rows of spartan dormitories housing skeletal inmates in filthy striped uniforms, subjected to all manner of dehumanization. There are smokestacks, barbed wire, mass graves.

These awful scenes are the products of a lifelong immersion in Holocaust narratives, from factual accounts in textbooks to visits to museums to documentaries screened at Hebrew school. But because I grew up in the era of television and film, my most indelible impressions of the genocide come from pop culture. When envisioning a concentration camp, I am seeing a collage of movie stills.

The very same imagery suffuses The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Peacock’s new, six-part adaptation of Heather Morris’ internationally best-selling 2018 novel. Inspired by Lali, a Slovakian Jew who spent the final years of World War II tattooing ID numbers on new arrivals at the notorious death camp, it is ultimately, as Harvey Keitel’s elderly Lali explains to Heather (), “a love story.” But that romance, between young Lali (Jonah Hauer-King) and another prisoner, Gita (Anna Próchniak), unfolds against what can only be described as a familiar Holocaust backdrop. Viewers witness suffering that fits our broadest conceptions of the camps: sadistic Nazis; lines of naked bodies slouching towards death; Jews praying and singing to reassert their humanity.

The Tattooist is solidly made historical fiction, built on benign intentions and open-hearted performances. It’s also the latest—and, in that quotidian concentration-camp hell dominates the plot, the most generic—example of a dubious TV trend: the Holocaust drama. While the genre dates back decades, and isn’t limited to the small screen, the past year has seen an explosion of such shows about Nazis and their prey, from The Man in the High Castle to Hunters to The Plot Against America; The First to The Last.

Each of these series has its own angle. What unites most of them, however, is unwittingly exploitative imagery that long ago lost its power to shock and an adherence to tropes of individual suffering and perseverance, heroism and villainy, that abstract the Holocaust from any but the most anodyne political context: Nazis evil, Jews brave. This is a tumultuous moment for Jewish identity. White nationalism and anti-Semitism are surging—and that trend is driving Hollywood’s demand for Holocaust scripts—as memories of the genocide fade. Yet the stories TV keeps telling about the most painful years in modern Jewish history too often cling to sentiment and cliché. What we need from these narratives—political insight, introspection—remains elusive.

In high school, I took two classes that happened to screen French New Wave filmmaker Alain Resnais’ documentary Night and Fog just weeks apart. Released in 1956, the half-hour film exposed an international audience to photographic evidence of the multifarious horrors of the camps. The first viewing was as enlightening as it was harrowing. But the second felt obscene. I was staring at those same distressing images—slow pans across gas chambers disguised as showers, mounds of emaciated corpses—without learning anything new. I had to excuse myself after a few minutes.

Susan Sontag recounted a similar experience in her 1977 book On Photography. The cultural critic wrote that when she first encountered photos from the camps, at 12, “something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feeling started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying.” But as the photos proliferated, she grew inured—evidence of a familiarity with atrocity that was alarming in itself: “At the time of the first photographs of the Nazi camps, there was nothing banal about these images. After 30 years, a saturation point may have been reached. In these last decades, ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.”

A half-century later, The New Look on Apple TV+, Lucky Ones on Hulu, and The Tattooist—all based on true stories, cast with recognizable stars, and released in the past three months—cement a new era of Holocaust-fiction supersaturation. The New Look is an examination of Christian Dior (Ben Mendelsohn), whose struggle to free a sister (Élizabeth Loly) condemned to the camps for her role in the French Resistance is contrasted with the brazen Nazi collaboration of his rival Coco Chanel (). In Lucky Ones, a Polish Jew endures years of separation and hardship. The Tattooist is the most conventional concentration-camp narrative of the three, framed by Lali’s conversations, in the early aughts, with the woman who would transform his reminiscences into a biographical novel.

Although their plots diverge, the shows have strikingly similar emotional arcs and moral agendas. Each one drags the viewer through endless human suffering, whether behind the gates of Auschwitz or in a Soviet work camp or even in a Paris atelier where Dior is all but forced to design gowns for the wives of the Nazi officers whose minions are holding his sister, Catherine, captive. At long last, the finales bring catharsis. Families and lovers reunite. Inspired by Catherine, Dior reinvents French fashion for an exuberant postwar era. Careful to temper happy endings with somber tributes to the millions who died while these heroes lived, albeit scarred by their experiences, the creators of these series nonetheless leave us to exult in the triumph of the human spirit over the swastika-draped forces of evil.

The morality that underlies these dramas tends to be simplistic. No one seriously disputes that the Nazis are the bad guys. (When Netflix’s All the Light We Cannot See, which focuses on French resisters rather than Jewish captives, attempts to inject nuance into the depiction of Nazis, through the thought-experiment character of a brilliant orphan conscripted to fight for a cause he finds repugnant, the result is unintentionally funny.) But that doesn’t mean the Reich must always be represented by one or two conniving, mid-level psychopath characters, plus dozens of faceless foot soldiers. The implication of such depictions is that Germany during the Second World War was populated by millions of extraordinarily deranged individuals, rather than overtaken by a regime that normalized, euphemized, and incentivized genocidal hatred to such an extent that only Europeans of remarkable courage resisted.

The impression that the Holocaust was an anomaly, perpetrated by avatars of rootless evil, isn’t just a comforting misapprehension. With fascist ideology gaining traction in the U.S. and abroad, it’s a dangerous one, blind to the systemic workings of authoritarian populism. As the historian Dan Stone argues in History on Trial: “The Holocaust is not a lesson about the dangers of bullying, nor even a tale of the dangers of hatred. It is a warning that states, when elites become desperate to hold on to power, can do terrible, traumatic things, and that the deep psychology of modernity produces monsters the likes of which even the sleep of reason would struggle to generate.”

The best recent representation of this phenomenon is The Zookeeper’s Wife, a biographical drama about the family of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Fr