This article first appeared in The National Book Review:
Why? Explaining the Holocaust by Peter Hayes
W.W. Norton & Co. 432 pp.
Why the Jews? Why the Germans? Why murder? And why did it all unfold so quickly? There have been -- with good reason -- no end of books about the Holocaust, but Why? Explaining the Holocaust takes a novel approach. Peter Hayes, a professor of Holocaust studies at Northwestern University, has organized this deep and persuasively argued book as a set of eight chapters, each answering one of the most central questions about the Holocaust.
Hayes's answers are full of insight and powerful historical detail. In the chapter on "Why the Jews," he notes the irony that the murderous impulse came after a period of growing tolerance and liberation. The more Jews were freed from the historic shackles of anti-Semitism, the more they thrived: in Germany in 1912, Jews were less than 1 percent of the population, but almost one-third of the wealthiest families. With their success, Jews inspired jealousy, conspiracy theories, and eventually genocidal rage.
In a gut-wrenching chapter on "Why Didn't More Jews Fight Back More Often?" Hayes puts forth an array of explanations, from the fact that it was so difficult for most Jews to imagine that the Nazis were really intent on mass-murder, to the viciousness of German reprisals against anyone who resisted, to the direness of many Jews' situation: "about the only effective form of resistance the Jews in the ghetto could exercise in the short run," Hayes writes, "was to defeat the Nazi effort to starve them to death."
Hayes titles his Introduction with one more question: "Why Another Book on the Holocaust?" He notes that for all of the outpouring of histories, it is still an event that defies explanation. Readers with an eye on current headlines here in the United States -- including the rise of the alt-right, the increasing demonization of minorities, and the ongoing assault on civil liberties -- may provide some reasons of their own.