by Peter Hayes
Reviewed by Michael N. Dobkowski, January 17, 2017, for the Jewish Book Council.
In this clearly written, cogently argued and researched book, eminent historian Peter Hayes challenged the widely held assertion that the Holocaust is unfathomable and inexplicable.
He asserts that the Shoah is comprehensible in the same way that other complex historical events are – if patience, scholarship, careful reasoning, and application are brought to the task. Utilizing the most recent scholarship on the subject, he distills many of the historical debates and provides sensible assessments of their most salient conclusions. In the process, he dispels many of the myths and assumptions that have become part of the conventional wisdom and rejects any approach that seeks to treat the Holocaust as sacred or pull it out of history. The Shoah, he contends, was the product of a particular time and place – Europe in the aftermath of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution – and can be recovered, analyzed, and understood by the usual historical methods. To approach it in awe or as an unfathomable event is to abdicate our responsibility to try to understand how and why it occurred, he believes, and to give in to fate, divine purpose, or the randomness of history. If we hope to learn anything valuable, we need to view the Holocaust not as mysterious and inscrutable but as the work of humans and societies acting on familiar motives and weaknesses.
Why?: Explaining the Holocaust takes on the most difficult of challenges posed by the Holocaust and attempts to answer four basic questions: Why were Jews the primary targets? Why Germany and not some other European country with possibly a more entrenched antisemitic tradition? Why was total elimination the goal, and how were the particular means of extermination chosen? And why was the eradication of the Jews so nearly successful?
Along the way, Hayes debunks or at least complicates a number of myths. He rejects the notion that antisemitism played a decisive role in bringing Hitler to power. He contends that the Allies could not have done much to impede the killing once it began, given the determination of the Nazis and where most of the slaughter took place. More active Jewish resistance would not have accomplished much, due to their limited means and options, and more rescue efforts by non-Jews would not have been able to save many more victims. Ultimately, the Holocaust did not divert resources from the German war effort, nor did the leading perpetrators of the Holocaust and many of their accomplice escape punishment after World War II.
Hayes concludes by challenging the claims made by Zygmunt Bauman and others that the Holocaust was a product of modernity and a harbinger of its dangers. On the contrary, far from being modern in concept or means, it was an expression of extraordinary primitivism and nihilism. Readers may not agree with some of Hayes’ conclusions – particularly those related to Jewish resistance and punishment for the perpetrators of the Holocaust- but they will appreciate the logical and judicious presentation of his arguments, the clarity of his writing, and mastery of the scholarship on the subject. This book courageously confronts some of the thorniest issues raised by the Shoah, making Why?: Explaining the Holocaust an indispensable work for specialists and informed readers alike.