How Could This Happen: Explaining the Holocaust

Overview


The Holocaust has long seemed incomprehensible, a monumental crime that beggars our powers of description and explanation. Historians have probed the many sources of this tragedy, but no account has united the various causes into an overarching synthesis that answers the vital question: How was such a nightmare possible in the heart of western civilization?

In How Could This Happen, historian Dan McMillan distills the vast body of Holocaust research into a cogent explanation ...

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Overview


The Holocaust has long seemed incomprehensible, a monumental crime that beggars our powers of description and explanation. Historians have probed the many sources of this tragedy, but no account has united the various causes into an overarching synthesis that answers the vital question: How was such a nightmare possible in the heart of western civilization?

In How Could This Happen, historian Dan McMillan distills the vast body of Holocaust research into a cogent explanation and comprehensive analysis of the genocide’s many causes, revealing how a once-progressive society like Germany could have carried out this crime. The Holocaust, he explains, was caused not by one but by a combination of factors—from Germany’s failure to become a democracy until 1918, to the widespread acceptance of anti-Semitism and scientific racism, to the effects of World War I, which intensified political divisions within the country and drastically lowered the value of human life in the minds of an entire generation. Masterfully synthesizing the myriad causes that led Germany to disaster, McMillan shows why thousands of Germans carried out the genocide while millions watched, with cold indifference, as it enveloped their homeland.

Persuasive and compelling, How Could This Happen explains how a perfect storm of bleak circumstances, malevolent ideas, and damaged personalities unleashed history’s most terrifying atrocity.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
01/27/2014
While many books have been written on the Holocaust, this volume claims to be the “first comprehensive analysis” of its causes. McMillan, a specialist in German history, addresses multiple factors, including an authoritarian tradition in German politics dating to the 1860s, a long history of German anti-Semitism, the demoralizing loss of WWI, the weakness and collapse of the Weimar Republic, the influence of Darwinian thought on notions of a German “racial struggle” against the Jews, and Hitler’s rise “from dictator to demigod.” McMillan’s best chapter, “The Absent Moral Compass,” surveys postwar psychological experiments to explain how even non-ideologues in the German bureaucracy and army could be led to murder, thanks to “automatic obedience to authority; conformity to the behavior of a group, and adaptation to a role and situation.” McMillan’s analysis is succinct, yet its relative brevity is occasionally a weakness, as when he claims, without sufficient evidence, that a “genocidal cohort” of men, hardened by their experience in WWI, were instrumental in implementing the “Final Solution.” Despite this flaw, and the idea that no truly comprehensive explanation for the Holocaust seems possible, this thoughtful work examines both why the Nazis came to power and how they could engage in murder on such an unprecedented scale. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

Publishers Weekly
“This thoughtful work examines why the Nazis came to power and how they could engage in murder on such an unprecedented scale.”

Sir Ian Kershaw, author of Hitler and The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945
“Dan McMillan’s book is clearly written, well-structured, and rests on good acquaintance with recent research. It offers a thoughtful and intelligent answer for a non-specialist readership to the vital but often strangely ignored question: what caused the Holocaust? It deserves to be widely read.”

István Deák, Seth Low Professor Emeritus, Columbia University, author of Essays on Hitler’s Europe
“An important and much needed book. In explaining why the Holocaust happened, Dan McMillan explores not only the motives of Hitler and his fanatical followers, but also of the millions of ordinary Germans and other Europeans who shared responsibility for this tragedy. Beautifully written, persuasive, and often very touching, this book should be read by everyone who wants to understand how such a monstrous crime was possible.”

Robert O. Paxton, Professor Emeritus of History, Columbia University
“How could a cultivated nation like Germany unleash a murderous frenzy against the Jewish people? Many authors have described the killings. A few authors have warned that explaining is in itself a profanation. But Dan McMillan takes a different course. With eloquence and clarity he sets the Shoah in a broad historical context. McMillan shows how step by step, ideas and institutions came into place in western nations, especially in Germany, that made the killings conceivable, then possible, and even likely, but never inevitable. This book is an impressive achievement.”

S. Jonathan Wiesen, Southern Illinois University, author of Creating the Nazi Marketplace
“This is one of those rare books that is accessible to the general reader while offering significant new perspectives to academic specialists. I marveled at the richness and clarity of McMillan’s insights, his efficient syntheses of scholarly debates, and the intellectual depth of the questions he poses. His arguments are thoughtful, well informed, and grounded in wide-ranging literature. This book deserves a broad audience.”

John Cox, Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Studies, University of North Carolina Charlotte, author of Circles of Resistance: Jewish, Leftist, and Youth Dissidence in Nazi Germany
“This is an outstanding book. Dan McMillan has provided a compelling explanation of why the Holocaust happened in prose that is elegant, vivid, engaging, and fully accessible. The first comprehensive essay on the causes of the Holocaust, this admirably concise book offers a remarkable combination of scholarly rigor, new perspectives, and keen insights delivered in a passionate moral voice. McMillan has made a powerful contribution to the way all of us—scholars and laypersons alike—understand the Holocaust.”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465080243
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 4/8/2014
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 141,666
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Dan McMillan

Dan McMillan holds a Ph.D. in German history from Columbia University and a law degree from Fordham University, and has worked as a history professor and a prosecuting attorney. He lives in New York City.
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