Ear­li­er this week, Peter Hayes intro­duced read­ers to the teach­ers named in the ded­i­ca­tion and acknowl­edge­ments to his book Why?: Explain­ing the Holo­caust. Peter is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

While writ­ing Why?: Explain­ing the Holo­caust, I tried to address two groups of read­ers at once: peo­ple new to the sub­ject, and peo­ple well informed about it. My goal was to open under­stand­ing to novices and to extend or sharp­en the knowl­edge of vet­er­ans. Read­ers will decide whether I suc­ceed­ed in this chancy under­tak­ing. But the effort made me think about authors who have done so. What oth­er books on the sub­ject can be rec­om­mend­ed as both read­able and reli­able to both new­com­ers and old hands? 

Of course, the clas­sic such works — e.g., sev­er­al by Pri­mo Levi, Saul Friedländer’s two-vol­ume Nazi Ger­many and the Jews, and Christo­pher Browning’s Ordi­nary Men—remain indis­pens­able, but I can think of a num­ber of less­er known or new­er titles that should have sim­i­lar resonance.

Let me start with three out­stand­ing books that emerged from fam­i­ly his­to­ries and pow­er­ful­ly fore­ground per­son­al expe­ri­ence, Edmund de Waal’s ele­giac The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), Göran Rosenberg’s sear­ing A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz(2012), and Mod­ris Ekstein’s har­row­ing Walk­ing Since Day­break (1999). De Waal art­ful­ly por­trays the rise and dis­per­sal of a Euro­pean Jew­ish fam­i­ly through the sto­ry of one of their pos­ses­sions, a col­lec­tion of minia­ture Japan­ese carv­ings (net­suke). Rosen­berg tells the sto­ry of his father, a sur­vivor of the death camp and much else, as he tries to rebuild life in post­war Swe­den and descends into despair and sui­cide. Ekstein, a non-Jew­ish Lat­vian who became an accom­plished his­to­ri­an in Cana­da, immers­es you so intense­ly in the caul­dron of con­flicts in his native region dur­ing the era of the World Wars that you feel its mul­ti-dimen­sion­al tragedy. When you reach the end of each of these pro­found and grace­ful books, you will want to start again — when you can bear to. 

My oth­er rec­om­men­da­tions con­sist of knowl­edge­able and acces­si­ble respons­es to cen­tral ques­tions about the Holo­caust. Cer­tain­ly high on any such list is How does a coun­try become a per­se­cut­ing soci­ety?” as Ger­many did after 1933. To get an answer, you could hard­ly do bet­ter than to start with Thomas Kühne’s apt­ly titled Belong­ing and Geno­cide (2010), a dis­turb­ing demon­stra­tion of the dark side of com­mu­ni­ty-build­ing. Anoth­er such ques­tion is What kind of peo­ple could do such things?” Two illu­mi­nat­ing sets of answers emerge from Bet­ti­na Stangneth’s Eich­mann Before Jerusalem (2014), a book that expos­es not only the men­tal­i­ty of a mur­der­er, but also the ori­gins of Holo­caust denial, and Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies (2013), which shows that women were not immune to corruption.

In recent years, much of the action” in Holo­caust stud­ies has cen­tered on issues of com­plic­i­ty on the part, to take the most con­tro­ver­sial exam­ples, of non-Jew­ish Poles, for­eign gov­ern­ments, the Catholic Church, and even Amer­i­can busi­ness­es, both in and out­side of Ger­many. Jour­nal­ist Anna Bikont’s excel­lent The Crime and the Silence (2015) is about both what some Poles did to Jews dur­ing the war and how stub­born­ly many Poles have resist­ed acknowl­edg­ing such acts ever since. The late Theodore Hamerow’s Why We Watched (2008) draws on numer­ous con­tem­po­rary sources in assem­bling the most vivid and com­pre­hen­sive account avail­able of how Euro­peans and Amer­i­cans jus­ti­fied doing so lit­tle to aid Jews. A wor­thy sup­ple­ment to his book is Richard Bre­it­man and Allan J. Licht­man, FDR and the Jews (2013), which reminds us, despite the bio­graph­i­cal focus of the title, that the Amer­i­can pub­lic deserves more blame for the short­com­ings of nation­al pol­i­cy than the pres­i­dent at the time. On the choic­es made by the Papa­cy and Amer­i­can investors, the sharpest, most absorb­ing stud­ies are David Kertzer The Pope and Mus­soli­ni (2014), which deserved­ly won a Pulitzer Prize, and Thomas Doher­ty, Hol­ly­wood and Hitler 1933 – 1939 (2013).

Two fine and con­cise new books with great per­ti­nence to the present are Deb­o­rah Lipstadt’s Holo­caust: An Amer­i­can Under­stand­ing (2016), which per­cep­tive­ly traces how and why the Holo­caust became a promi­nent theme in Amer­i­can cul­ture, and Michael Marrus’s, Lessons of the Holo­caust(2016), a well-rea­soned warn­ing against draw­ing them too readily. 

Final­ly, I want to draw renewed atten­tion to my per­son­al favorite among the pio­neers of Holo­caust stud­ies, Yehu­da Bauer. To expe­ri­ence the good sense, limpid writ­ing, and sharp judg­ment that he brought to the sub­ject for decades, read Rethink­ing the Holo­caust(2001), a col­lec­tion of thought­ful top­i­cal essays. You will be able almost to hear the British-accent­ed voice of this wise and artic­u­late man as he con­vers­es with you. 

Peter Hayes cur­rent­ly chairs the Aca­d­e­m­ic Com­mit­tee at the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um and was from 1980 to 2016 Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry and Ger­man and from 2000 to 2016 Theodore Zev Weiss Holo­caust Edu­ca­tion­al Foun­da­tion Pro­fes­sor at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. He writes and lec­tures wide­ly on Ger­man and Holo­caust his­to­ry in the Unit­ed States and abroad.

Relat­ed Content:

Peter Hayes is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry and Ger­man and Theodore Zev Weiss Holo­caust Edu­ca­tion­al Foun­da­tion Pro­fes­sor of Holo­caust Stud­ies Emer­i­tus at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty and chair of the Aca­d­e­m­ic Com­mit­tee of the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Museum.