Why?: Explaining The Holocaust, by Peter Hayes
It is said, to the point of being a cliche, that there is no business like Shoah business, and this book is certainly part of that to such an extent that it expressly seeks to answer the question as to why it exists as a book. Now, this book has very straightforward aims, and that is to answer a series of questions about why the Holocaust happened and why it happened the way it did. The author is very direct about answering these questions, whether it is in exploring the necessary context of the Holocaust itself or misunderstandings about it. One can read a lot of books about it if one chooses. So, why read this book? As it happens, this book, in making questions the framework of its discussion, makes for a good book for those who have questions about the Holocaust, which is a fairly common thing to have. If you have questions about the Shoah, this book is certainly a good place to look for initial answers, to spur further research as necessary into some of the many different aspects of the Holocaust including various places and figures and the historical antecedents of it, all of which this author discusses in part.
This book of about 350 pages is devoted to answering a series of why questions. The introduction asks the question of why the reader should read another book on the Holocaust. After that the author looks at why the Jews were the main targets of the Holocaust, looking at the basis of antisemetism in Europe and the backlash to 19th century Emancipation in Germany (1). The author then looks at why the Germans were the ones who attacked, pondering the question of the German volk as well as Hitler’s leadership (2). The author then looks at why hostility to Jews was escalated to genocide, looking at the Gentile and Jewish responses to the violence (3), as well as the question of why the genocide was so swift and sweeping (4), which leads the author to look at the generation of German youth without limits and the enslavement of the Jews had made them particularly vulnerable. After that the author looks at resistance and compliance and why the Jews didn’t fight back more often, showing that it made little difference what the Jews did because their survival was not under their control (5), as well as the question as to what led survival rates to diverge from country country (6), which the author explores in considerable detail. Finally, the author looks at why there was such limited help from outside (7) and what legacies and what lessons can we gain from the Holocaust (8).
Like all books about the Holocaust tend to be fairly grim as they reflect upon the context of the Holocaust, and the question of German (and Polish) guilt, and on the meanings it has for us. To what extent could a Holocaust or something similar like it happen today? Who are the people who are the most likely to be targets of genocidal hatred in this world and what can be done about it? What is necessary to mobilize world opinion against acts of violence committed by governments against populations? These are questions of contemporary relevance and they are the sort of questions that point to the problems that we have in our day and age that are simply far beyond reading about the past. What payment must be made for past violence? To what extent can people forgive and forget? And how do we make sure that our own civilization is not merely a thin veneer over beastly violence? When it comes to reading and thinking about the Holocaust, like many people I have a great many questions with unsettling answers.