Non­fic­tion

How Could This Hap­pen: Explain­ing the Holocaust

  • Review
By – May 22, 2014

Writ­ten for a gen­er­al audi­ence, How Could This Hap­pen is the first com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of the caus­es of the Holo­caust. Dan McMil­lan, a trained his­to­ri­an and attor­ney, focus­es in vivid and engag­ing prose on two crit­i­cal ques­tions: Why Ger­many ?” and Why the Jew­ish People?”

Draw­ing on the lat­est his­tor­i­cal research and mem­oir lit­er­a­ture, McMil­lan — like Yehu­da Bauer and Jef­frey Herf, among oth­er lead­ing his­to­ri­ans of the Holo­caust — large­ly defines World War II as Hitler’s war against the Jew­ish peo­ple. More specif­i­cal­ly, it was the Jew­ish Com­mu­nist con­spir­a­cy” that drove Hitler to destroy the Jews in what would become a mer­ci­less strug­gle for sur­vival between the races.”

Like ear­li­er nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Ger­man racists (e.g., Hein­rich Class), Hitler argued that while the Jews took on some human forms, they were less than human, a sub-race more akin to bac­te­ria and ver­min. Accord­ing to McMil­lan, to pro­tect Ger­many from the Jew­ish bac­cilus, the sit­u­a­tion required dras­tic action by the Nation­al Social­ist régime. By 1942 the plan was all too clear: to mur­der every Jew on the Euro­pean continent.

To car­ry out this mur­der­ous cam­paign, Hitler was able to draw upon the sup­port of mil­lions of Ger­mans and oth­er Euro­pean racial nation­al­ists. Hitler recruit­ed a large per­cent­age of Ger­man landown­ers, indus­tri­al­ists, vet­er­ans, uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents, and landown­ing farm­ers, not to men­tion the major­i­ty of Ger­man lawyers and doc­tors to his cause. By Jan­u­ary 1933, only the mod­er­ate Social Democ­rats (SPD) and the small­er Com­mu­nist Par­ty (KPD) con­tin­ued to resist Ger­many’s grow­ing adher­ence to Nation­al Social­ist val­ues and goals.

Hitler’s appli­ca­tion of social Dar­win­ian the­o­ry was only one cause that led Ger­many to com­mit mass geno­cide. Ger­many’s defeat in World War I, which Hitler believed was caused by the Jews, end­ed the 1914 Burgfrieden (civ­il peace), shat­ter­ing in the process the Ger­man dream for a Volks­ge­mein­schaft (nation­al com­mu­ni­ty). Ger­many’s Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty, which polled thir­ty-five per­cent of the vote in the Reich­stag elec­tions of 1912, was per­ceived by Hitler and Ger­many’s elites with hor­ror. The promi­nent role played by Jews in both pre-war and post-war left wing Ger­man pol­i­tics only rein­forced the growth of anti-Semi­tism, as mil­lions of Ger­mans began to believe in a Jew­ish Bol­she­vik ” con­spir­a­cy that sought noth­ing less than the destruc­tion of the exist­ing social order.

If racial nation­al­ism, cou­pled with Ger­many’s defeat in World War I, helps explain why Ger­many under­took the Holo­caust, the spe­cial posi­tion held by Ger­man Jews answers McMil­lan’s sec­ond major question:“Why the Jew­ish peo­ple?” The author presents four major argu­ments: first, the Jews were a minor­i­ty, not just in one way but in two– eth­nic and reli­gious. Sec­ond, not only were the Jews a reli­gious minor­i­ty [in] an over­whelm­ing­ly Chris­t­ian [coun­try] but their faith was both the par­ent and rival of the Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion.” Third, Ger­many’s Jews were extra­or­di­nar­i­ly suc­cess­ful in many occu­pa­tions. In 1933, for exam­ple, Ger­man Jews made up less than one per­cent of the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. They com­prised, how­ev­er, six­teen per­cent of all Ger­man lawyers and eleven per­cent of Ger­many s doc­tors. Fourth, the Jews were held respon­si­ble for the rise of social­ism and Communism.

McMil­lan con­cludes his work by argu­ing that the Holo­caust did not [just] hap­pen because the Ger­man people…demanded it, but rather because a wide­ly pop­u­lar dic­ta­tor and his fanat­i­cal fol­low­ers planned it, because the coun­try’s elite shared enough of Nazi anti- Semi­tism to par­tic­i­pate in the killing and because the rest of the coun­try looked the oth­er way.” 

Relat­ed content:

Carl J. Rheins is exec­u­tive direc­tor emer­i­tus of the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research. He received his Ph.D. in Mod­ern Euro­pean His­to­ry from the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York at Stony Brook and has taught cours­es on the Holo­caust at sev­er­al major universities.

Discussion Questions