Why?: Explaining the Holocaustby Peter Hayes
A bold new exploration that answers the most commonly asked questions about the Holocaust.Despite the outpouring of books, movies, museums, memorials, and courses devoted to the Holocaust, a coherent explanation of why such ghastly carnage erupted from the heart of civilized Europe in the twentieth century still seems elusive even seventy years later. Numerous theories have sprouted in an attempt to console ourselves and to point the blame in emotionally satisfying directionsyet none of them are fully convincing. As witnesses to the Holocaust near the ends of their lives, it becomes that much more important to unravel what happened and to educate a new generation about the horrors inflicted by the Nazi regime on Jews and non-Jews alike.Why? dispels many misconceptions and answers some of the most basicyet vexingquestions that remain: why the Jews and not another ethnic group? Why the Germans? Why such a swift and sweeping extermination? Why didn’t more Jews fight back more often? Why didn’t they receive more help? While responding to the questions he has been most frequently asked by students over the decades, world-renowned Holocaust historian and professor Peter Hayes brings a wealth of scholarly research and experience to bear on conventional, popular views of the history, challenging some of the most prominent recent interpretations. He argues that there is no single theory that “explains” the Holocaust; the convergence of multiple forces at a particular moment in time led to catastrophe.In clear prose informed by an encyclopedic knowledge of Holocaust literature in English and German, Hayes weaves together stories and statistics to heart-stopping effect. Why? is an authoritative, groundbreaking exploration of the origins of one of the most tragic events in human history.
Hayes (How Was It Possible?), professor emeritus of Holocaust studies at Northwestern University, answers eight questions relating to the Shoah in order to show that it is “no less historically explicable than any other human experience.” Particular themes frame the chapters, which have subtitles such as “Why the Germans?,” “Why Didn’t More Jews Fight Back More Often?,” and “Why Such Limited Help from Outside?” An economic historian by training, Hayes delves into the day-to-day functioning of the Nazi slave-labor system. He also examines the fraught nature of the relationship between Polish Jews and gentiles during the Holocaust. His analysis of Jewish leaders’ diverse survival strategies shows that none had much effect against the relentless Nazi murder machinery. In Minsk, for example, the two heads of the ghetto actively supported armed resistance, yet “that availed them little as the ghetto’s population dropped from 100,000, in October 1941, to 12,000, in August 1942.” In his concluding chapter on legacies and lessons, Hayes sturdily debunks a number of Holocaust myths. But it’s also the book’s weakest section; his lessons there focus on prevention of the Holocaust’s recurrence and are stated vaguely: e.g. “Be self-reliant but not isolationist.” Hayes reveals the virtues of dealing with this overwhelming subject in a topical rather than a chronological way. (Jan.)
Few other historical events are as frequently analyzed as the Holocaust, yet too often these investigations present information that is not unique. Hayes (history, German, Northwestern Univ.) offers a refreshing examination of this World War II atrocity and why it was allowed to happen. As the chair of the academic committee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hayes expertly answers commonly fielded but complex questions in chapter topics such as "Why the Jews?," which details the events leading up to Hitler's rise in power; "Why Murder?," which explains the factors that led up to mass extermination, and "Why Such Limited Help from Outside?," a thorough examination of the influences that spurred complicity among outside countries. Throughout, Hayes dispels prevailing myths that negatively impact Holocaust scholarship, such as the misconception that anti-Semitism brought Hitler to power. The work concludes with legacies and lessons of the Holocaust while emphasizing the importance of abolishing indifference. VERDICT In a narrative brimming with historical sources, Hayes's work is required reading for history scholars, amateur history buffs, and anyone interested in answering necessary questions surrounding this tragedy.—Marian Mays, Washington Talking Book & Braille Lib., Seattle
How could a civilized nation have brought a self-professed racist and xenophobe to power and then stood by as millions were murdered? It's not a mystery, according to this important overview of the Shoah.It does not do, Hayes (Emeritus, Holocaust Studies/Northwestern Univ.; From Cooperation to Complicity: Degussa in the Third Reich, 2007, etc.) notes at the outset, to confront the Holocaust and its legacy of genocide and terror with words like "incomprehensible" and "unfathomable." Such words amount to "an assertion of the speaker's innocence—of his or her incapacity not only to conceive of such horror but to enact anything like it." The German-speaking world was full of such supposed innocents, who protested that they knew nothing of it but enabled and participated in the system all the same. The Holocaust, writes the author, is eminently knowable: "it was the work of humans acting on familiar human weaknesses and motives: wounded pride, fear, self-righteousness, prejudice, and personal ambition being among the most obvious." Proceeding from the provocative question, "why another book on the Holocaust?"—the entire book is a careful answer to it—Hayes examines precipitating events and conditions, such as a long European tradition of scapegoating and anti-Semitism given new weight by the horrors of World War I. He looks into the participation of sectors of society that normally are not singled out in such accounts, such as the collusion of the German pharmaceutical industry in developing the mechanisms for mass death, and he delves into some particularly thorny questions—e.g., the old saw, "Why didn't more Jews fight back more often?" One answer: a civilized person is (too?) often inclined to follow orders, even at the risk of their own ruin, "in hopes of preventing them from getting worse." Throughout, Hayes writes lucidly and with generous spirit. "Beware the beginnings," admonishes a German proverb. This noteworthy book is a chilling compendium of warning signs, past and present.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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- 9.30(w) x 6.10(h) x 1.40(d)
Meet the Author
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.
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