Why? Explaining the Holocaust, by Peter Hayes

Beware the beginning is one lesson to take from a vital and timely study, says Robert Eaglestone

February 23, 2017
Halt sign at Auschwitz
Source: iStock

If times were different, I might review this book differently. Peter Hayes, trained as an economic historian, aims to answer, calmly and sensibly, the issue of why the Holocaust happened by addressing, in detail, eight questions the public or students frequently ask him: a book of public pedagogy and explanation.

In doing this, not only does he show a sophisticated and judicious mastery of the most up-to-date historical scholarship, but he also tries to demonstrate his conviction that the Holocaust is as “historically explicable” as “any other human event”. But if times were different, I’d suggest that this meticulous book was heavy on facts and light on, well, let’s quickly call it metaphysics (understood roughly as what the philosopher Adrian Moore calls “the most general attempt to make sense of things”). Does it answer the question – posed not only by philosophers and poets but by nearly everybody – why? Not really, unless you think that explaining how the optic nerves work explains why we find a shade of orange beautiful, or that the wetness of water, or how it refreshes, is explained by its molecular composition. Within the academy, it’s the job of “theory” people like me to ask recondite questions about frameworks and categories (and what constitutes an explanation, anyway?). So if times were different, I’d say something like that.

But these are not those times and this clear, well-written, if occasionally dense, book has much of importance to tell us in an age of sudden fear, propaganda and fake news, in which the Third Reich and its crimes reappear often as a “touchstone”. To begin at his conclusion – could the Holocaust have been stopped? – Hayes writes: beware the beginning. He cites the events of early April 1933: Nazi thugs demanded that Gustav Krupp, boss of a huge arms and steel firm, sack its Jewish and anti-Nazi employees. He did. And so capitulated to “bullying” and “deprived the organization of all basis for future noncompliance with Nazi demands”.

The book is also full of no-nonsense “myth-busting”: did many top-ranking Nazis escape justice? No: for example, all 16 commanders of death camps died or were sentenced. Did the genocide take up huge amounts of resources? No: as an indicator, Hayes estimates that during its height only two trains a day were used, while the German railways ran 30,000 trains per day in the same period. Hayes does a good line in detail, too. He points out that the hyphen that Microsoft Word puts into “anti-Semitism”, coined in 1879 to make hating Jews sound respectable or even scientific, implies a “semitism” to which one could be “anti”.

As well as telling, Hayes’ prose also shows us. Some historians of the period resort to accounts of horror that swamp argument and analysis. Hayes, while not avoiding suffering, demonstrates the unshowy anger and scholarly restraint that characterises the best work by historians. In a field that can be partisan, he explains the views of contemporary scholars and then what leads him to his conclusions – allowing room for understanding and even informed disagreement. Overall, this timely, level-headed book is a model of public engagement by a historian.

Robert Eaglestone is professor of contemporary literature and thought, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Why? Explaining the Holocaust
By Peter Hayes
W. W. Norton, 432pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780393254365
Published 26 January 2017

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