THE HOLOCAUST IN HISTORY By Michael R. Marrus University Press of New England 267 pp. $16.95

HOLOCAUST literature can be divided into two broad categories, Michael R. Marrus explains in his preface to this lucid and well-written study. One consists of works written "as witness, or in commemoration, or as a somber warning to future generations"; the other applies "the modes of discourse, the scholarly techniques, and the kinds of analyses used for all other historical issues."

The Holocaust in History, as its title suggests, concentrates on the second of those categories. Marrus, a historian at the University of Toronto, sets himself the task of surveying what other historians have discovered and written about the facts of the Holocaust: the details of what happened, and how, and what the causes may have been.

This involves a literature that is by now quite extensive; one recent bibliography, Marrus reports, lists nearly 2,000 books and a far greater number of other publications -- over 10,000 entries on Auschwitz alone. While this will not surprise today's readers, Marrus also notes, interestingly, that the great bulk of this material dates from the 1960s or later. In the immediate aftermath of the event, he writes, "there was scant popular interest in the matter," and Holocaust research was itself "ghettoized" within historical scholarship. The turning point for scholars, he adds, is "generally seen" to have come with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961.

Within the broad outlines of his effort, Marrus pays particular attention to the state of knowledge on issues that are still in dispute more than four decades after the event, including such questions as: Was the Nazis' "final solution" premediated all along or did it evolve more haphazardly amid the convulsions of war? What was the role of the citizens and authorities in the occupied countries? What was the extent and nature of Jewish resistance? What was known about the massacres by the publics in both Nazi-controlled and Allied countries, and why was there not a stronger response? Could the Allies have saved some of the victims, and if so why didn't they?

On these and other questions, Marrus offers a lucid and sensible discussion of the evidence as it has been gathered by Holocaust scholars. His book thus becomes both a guide to Holocaust literature and a useful, well-reasoned examination of important aspects of the event itself.

The Holocaust in History is also, necessarily, an essay on the special challenges the subject poses for historians. As Marrus points out, the nature of the event makes difficult or impossible the "creative leap of the imagination" by which a scholar discovers, recreates and explains the experience of a different culture in a different time. In dealing with the Holocaust, Marrus writes, the reality threatens to overwhelm the imagination: "the terrain is so unfamiliar, the frame of reference so horrifying and bizarre, and the cultural landmarks so unintelligible, that customary historical methods may simply fail."

At the same time, any attempt to systematically dissect and analyze such a horror-laden event runs the risk of seeming to trivialize it. On this point, Marrus quotes the Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer, who has condemned "the growing tendency of immersing tears and suffering in oceans of footnotes, of coming up with a remote quasi-scientific approach which would be as inhuman as that of those who committed the crime or of those who stood by and watched it indifferently."

Put that way, the issue is absurdly overstated, of course. Even if passionless research is a crime, it is surely far less criminal than the Holocaust itself.

Nonetheless, the subject does demand a kind of special respect. Perhaps not forever, but certainly until the event is considerably farther behind us than it is now, no scholar can do it justice by portraying it as just another episode in the long sorry tale of human violence and cruelty; in one way or another, its awful uniqueness must be recognized.

For his own part, Marrus reaches the unavoidable conclusion that there is simply no substitute for historical scholarship. "For better or worse," he writes, "we shall have to rely upon historians to transmit what is known about the massacre of European Jewry. No one else is likely to do so in a way that commands credibility and standing in our culture."

While his survey persuades us that scholarly research still has much to teach on the subject, however, it also leaves one with a sense that it will forever defy complete understanding.

Nearly all personal memoirs of the Holocaust, Marrus comments, "seem to despair, in one way or another, of the task to which they are nevertheless committed -- to communicate across an abyss of experience, to portray a universe that is unspeakable, yet of which they feel a necessity to speak."

Historians, however diligent and skillful in digging out more facts, face the same abyss. Their craft may continue to solve some of the Holocaust's puzzles, but at the heart of their subject something hidden and ultimately unknowable remains: the dark, terrible mystery of an evil so immense that all humanity is diminished just by knowing that it could happen -- and did.Arnold R. Isaacs, a former foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, is the author of "Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia."