Why?: Explain­ing the Holocaust

  • Review
By – January 17, 2017

In this clear­ly writ­ten, cogent­ly argued and researched book, emi­nent his­to­ri­an Peter Hayes chal­lenges the wide­ly held asser­tion that the Holo­caust is unfath­omable and inexplicable.

He asserts that the Shoah is com­pre­hen­si­ble in the same way that oth­er com­plex his­tor­i­cal events are — if patience, schol­ar­ship, care­ful rea­son­ing, and appli­ca­tion are brought to the task. Uti­liz­ing the most recent schol­ar­ship on the sub­ject, he dis­tills many of the his­tor­i­cal debates and pro­vides sen­si­ble assess­ments of their most salient con­clu­sions. In the process, he dis­pels many of the myths and assump­tions that have become part of the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom and rejects any approach that seeks to treat the Holo­caust as sacred or pull it out of his­to­ry. The Shoah, he con­tends, was the prod­uct of a par­tic­u­lar time and place — Europe in the after­math of World War I and the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion — and can be recov­ered, ana­lyzed, and under­stood by the usu­al his­tor­i­cal meth­ods. To approach it in awe or as an unfath­omable event is to abdi­cate our respon­si­bil­i­ty to try to under­stand how and why it occurred, he believes, and to give in to fate, divine pur­pose, or the ran­dom­ness of his­to­ry. If we hope to learn any­thing valu­able, we need to view the Holo­caust not as mys­te­ri­ous and inscrutable but as the work of humans and soci­eties act­ing on famil­iar motives and weaknesses.

Why?: Explain­ing the Holo­caust takes on the most dif­fi­cult of chal­lenges posed by the Holo­caust and attempts to answer four basic ques­tions: Why were Jews the pri­ma­ry tar­gets? Why Ger­many and not some oth­er Euro­pean coun­try with pos­si­bly a more entrenched anti­se­mit­ic tra­di­tion? Why was total elim­i­na­tion the goal, and how were the par­tic­u­lar means of exter­mi­na­tion cho­sen? And why was the erad­i­ca­tion of the Jews so near­ly successful?

Along the way, Hayes debunks or at least com­pli­cates a num­ber of myths. He rejects the notion that anti­semitism played a deci­sive role in bring­ing Hitler to pow­er. He con­tends that the Allies could not have done much to impede the killing once it began, giv­en the deter­mi­na­tion of the Nazis and where most of the slaugh­ter took place. More active Jew­ish resis­tance would not have accom­plished much, due to their lim­it­ed means and options, and more res­cue efforts by non-Jews would not have been able to save many more vic­tims. Ulti­mate­ly, the Holo­caust did not divert resources from the Ger­man war effort, nor did the lead­ing per­pe­tra­tors of the Holo­caust and many of their accom­plices escape pun­ish­ment after World War II.

Hayes con­cludes by chal­leng­ing the claims made by Zyg­munt Bau­man and oth­ers that the Holo­caust was a prod­uct of moder­ni­ty and a har­bin­ger of its dan­gers. On the con­trary, far from being mod­ern in con­cept or means, it was an expres­sion of extra­or­di­nary prim­i­tivism and nihilism. Read­ers may not agree with some of Hayes’ con­clu­sions — par­tic­u­lar­ly those relat­ed to Jew­ish resis­tance and pun­ish­ment for the per­pe­tra­tors of the Holo­caust — but they will appre­ci­ate the log­i­cal and judi­cious pre­sen­ta­tion of his argu­ments, the clar­i­ty of his writ­ing, and mas­tery of the schol­ar­ship on the sub­ject. This book coura­geous­ly con­fronts some of the thorni­est issues raised by the Shoah, mak­ing Why?: Explain­ing the Holo­caust an indis­pens­able work for spe­cial­ists and informed read­ers alike.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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