The very idea of the word “Holocaust” conjures up feelings of the most despicable kind of evil imaginable. It is normal for those who have detailed knowledge of the horrific mistreatment of Jews in Nazi Germany to wonder what could have motivated such barbarous actions in a civilized country. This is the very question history professor Peter Hayes seeks to answer in Why? Explaining the Holocaust. While Hayes admits his task is not an easy undertaking, he comes as close as perhaps one can to arriving at an explanation. Hayes introduces his study by stating: “Each chapter of this book examines . . . eight central issues . . . and the book as a whole reflects my conviction that the Holocaust is no less historically explicable than any other human experience . . .” (59). Broadly speaking, the issues Hayes deals with can be categorized into “acts of commission, some concern acts of omission, and still others entail[ing] both” (59).
The story of anti-Semitism in Europe starts long before the existence of national socialism. Hayes observes that “Although some ancient Egyptian and Greek texts express animosity toward Jews, the rise of intense hostility to and fear of them largely coincides with the rise of Christianity” (133). Guilds across Europe kept Jews from competing economically in most vocations. However, the rise of capitalism afforded an opportunity for Jews to have success in financial vocations such as money lending. An oft-repeated cliche throughout the book is that “the appeal of antisemitism rises and falls in inverse relationship with the stock market” (478). The perception that Jews, because of their over representation in banking, were responsible for the financial down turns that affected the rest of the population formed the wedge that would tarry long into post-Christian secularism.
Of course the moral objection to the Jewish people still had a profound affect. The author states that “By the time of the Reformation . . . hatred of Jews . . . had crystallized around two central generalizations: (1) that Jews were parasitic profiteers, intent on extracting wealth from Christians, and (2) that Jews were incorrigible instruments of Satan, intent on serving his purposes and afflicting the pious” (207). The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a widely circulated publication originating in early 20th century Russia, asserted a Jewish conspiracy for international control. This theory was widely echoed as one Catholic journal from 1938 “wrote of the Jews’ ‘messianic craving for world domination’” (3994). It was this attitude that could have given rise to the Holocaust in many European countries as the lack of resistance and degree of assistance in the Holocaust among other nations shows.
The reason the Holocaust happened within a German context, according to Haynes, has much to do with events immediately preceding the rise of Hitler. “ . . . the prominence of Jews in the arts became an excuse to blame them for the alleged ‘corruption’ of German culture during the Roaring Twenties. . . the leading proponent of sex education and research and of gay rights . . . was a Jew, as was the owner of Germany’s preeminent manufacturer of condoms . . .” (1012). In addition, Germany’s devastating economic collapse in the late 20s and early 30s was blamed on Jewish corporate interests. Association with Bolshevism gave the impression that Jews did not care about the country in which they resided. The three-class voting system and “Jew count” from World War I still lingered in the minds of Germans who believed that Jews were over represented in political decision making had shirked their military duty. Catalyzing justification for this resentment was the fact that evolutionary “science” could now be used to justify racial hatred. “Hitler tricked his message out with a synthesis of pseudoreligion and pseudoscience that may be aptly dubbed a ‘theozoology’: On the one hand, he posed as an evangelist of the Volk, the person who would lead a national revival by making the German people sense its own power and, as the Nazi slogan ‘Deutschland Erwache’ said, ‘Awaken Germany’” (928). It was in awakening the German people to alleged Jewish privilege and fanning the flames of resentment because of it that Hitler gained the support necessary to eventually carry out the Holocaust.
In addition to answering the major questions, Hayes also draws lessons about the Holocaust. He identifies potential opportunities that exist within the United States for stoking the flames of hatred, namely toward homosexuals and Hispanics. This may be Hayes weakest section since he fails to make necessary distinctions between the motivations for the resentment of Jews within Germany and the motivations for wanting to secure the southern border within the United States. He also fails to interact with movements aimed at the rich, such as Occupy Wall Street, or the popular concepts of social justice and white privilege. Still, Hayes does offer up a wonderfully thorough explanation for why the Holocaust took place, and why there was little resistance to it.