Almost nightly, our TV screens berate us with images of atrocities in far-flung places perpetrated by the likes of ISIS and Boko Haram. Watching them, it is chastening to reflect that, less than three quarters of a century ago, savagery on an even far larger scale and a more organized basis was rampant throughout Europe, committed at the behest of the democratically elected government of one of that continent’s most civilized and cultured nations.
What drove the land of Schiller, Kant, and Mozart to descend to such depths of depravity forms the subject of Dan McMillan’s informative and thought-provoking How Could This Happen: Explaining the Holocaust. Like many others, McMillan reserves this term for the semi-clandestine, partially successful concerted attempt by Germany’s Nazi government between 1941 and 1944 to rid the European continent of all its Jews through their systematic extermination.
Jews were by no means the sole victims of cold-blooded murder by the Nazis. However, only European Jewry was singled out for total destruction, making the Holocaust unique among genocides. Why the Jews were so singled out, and how the Nazis were able to secure complicity in their destruction of so many non-Nazis, are vital pieces of the jigsaw that McMillan assembles into a coherent and compelling explanation of the Holocaust.
At its center stands the mercurial figure of Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party since its inception in 1921 and German Chancellor between 1933 and 1945. Without his vitriolic hatred of the Jews and mesmeric powers of rhetoric, the Holocaust would never have happened. Yet much else was needed to bring it about. Not only did Hitler’s compatriots have to be susceptible to his peculiar charms, there was also need for a certain callousness on their part towards human suffering to render them indifferent to the fate of Europe’s Jews, if not, as was true of all too many, their willing executioners.
Underlying all these contributory factors, McMillan convincingly argues, was no unique German gene, but rather the unique and somewhat tragic earlier history of Germany. As he explains, Germany’s economic backwardness delayed the formation of a common-born middle class, the perennial force in the Western world behind the call for representative government and liberal institutions. In Germany’s case, belated calls for these advancements combined with demands for national unification and self-determination, which were both anathema to the hereditary rulers of Germany’s many principalities.
The watershed in Germany’s history was reached midway through the second half of the 19th century, when its unification was achieved under Prussian hegemony. Although the new German Empire had a national parliament, elected through universal male suffrage, and this body controlled the national budget, it did not use its budgetary authority to rein in the executive due to deep political divisions, especially between its sizable socialist party and other parties. According to McMillan, Germany’s elite was able to frustrate socialist demands for democracy by nurturing in its middle classes an increasingly bombastic and aggressive form of nationalism that was to lead directly to World War I.
In its turn, World War l helped pave the way for the Holocaust by intensifying social and political conflicts within Germany, as well as by producing a generation so inured to violence and hardship as would later render many of them willing, as McMillan writes, to “accept that mass death was simply a normal part of human existence.”
Into this roiling political cauldron, one last ingredient needed to be added before all the preconditions for the Holocaust were present. This was the scapegoating of the Jews for all that was amiss in this struggling society. The myth of Jewish responsibility for Germany’s ills was solidified in 1918 by the widespread accusation of the “stab in the back”— the myth that Germany’s Jews had supposedly caused the Kaiser’s army to lose the war.
Those who embraced this myth said Germany had surrendered to its enemies, not because it was defeated on the battlefield, but because Jewish socialist politicians in league with an international conspiracy betrayed the cause. This vast Jewish conspiracy, it was (rather illogically) said, sought world domination through finance capitalism in Britain and America and Bolshevism in Russia. As McMillan explains, such theories were not considered respectable before the war but “when it became apparent that the war was lost, right-wing nationalists became positively hysterical in their anti-Semitic tirades.”
One of them was Adolf Hitler. Drawing heavily on the work of the American historian of Nazi Germany Jeffrey Herf, McMillan argues that:
In Hitler’s mind, Germany needed to destroy the Soviet Union, not only in order to gain the land and resources that would make Germany a great power, but also to eliminate the threat of Jewish-inspired communism… Hitler insisted that “the Jew” had always . . . sought world domination by undermining other peoples from within. Russian communism was only the latest page in this dark history. These beliefs led Hitler to launch a genocidal war against the Soviet Union in which as many as 25 million Soviet citizens died, and they also moved him to order the complete extermination of the Jewish people. The German military would actively support both policies.
Initially, upon gaining power in 1933, Hitler and the other Nazi Party leaders might have been content merely with their initial policy of depriving Germany’s half million Jews of their German citizenship, socially segregating them as much as possible from other Germans, and of systemically dispossessing them of their livelihoods and property. All this was to be done to encourage their mass migration, preferably to somewhere as faraway as possible, such as the malaria-infested island of Madagascar.
With the Anschluss (the Nazi unification of Austria in 1938) and subsequent overrunning of most of Western Europe, the Nazis found themselves in control of a far larger Jewish population who all now had to be considered a potentially dangerous fifth column. Their concentration in ghettos, prior to deportation to work camps in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, then became a priority for the Nazis.
So long as the Germans had the prospect of wresting control from Britain of its sea-lanes, the Nazi plan to ship all Jews under their control off to some faraway destination like Madagascar still held currency. After Germany’s defeat in the Battle of Britain in 1940, that prospect vanished. A more radical solution to the Jewish question was thus now called for.
The invasion and conquest of Soviet Russia then became the prime Nazi objective. Not only would that dispose of the Jewish-Bolshevik threat, but Germany would thereby gain control of much desired Lebensraum by destroying much of Russia’s Slavic population as well as its Jews.
Things did not quite go according to plan.
The portable gas chambers and mobile shooting squads that followed the German troops upon their invasion of Russia in 1941 could not dispose of Russia’s Slavic and Jewish populations quickly enough. Hence, the fatal step was taken in the devising and implementation of the so-called “Final Solution” which involved disposing of all remaining Jews under German control through their systematic gassing in specially constructed death camps or else by their being worked to death as slave labor.
There is one final piece of the puzzle to put in place. How and why were so many people who were not in the Nazi Party persuaded to go along with the Holocaust, either by active participation in it or else by their passive acquiescence in the genocide that was patently unfolding before their eyes? Explaining non-Nazi complicity is especially needed, given that, according to McMillan and others, German soldiers and civilians could have refused to play any part in the genocide without fear of punishment for refusing. McMillan writes that “without the help of tens of thousands of civil servants, and some academics, the Holocaust would not have been possible.” He offers at least a partial explanation, but it only goes so far:
What made their participation easier was that they were not asked to dirty their hands with the actual killing. . . . However, thousands of men who were neither Nazis nor members of Germany’s ruling class were drafted into the shooting squads that ultimately murdered 1.5 million Jews. Very many were family men, with wives and children at home. . . . Why did they kill?’
It is at this juncture that McMillan appeals to three seemingly widespread, if not entirely universal, human psychological traits: a propensity to obey authority automatically; to conform with other members of any group to which one belongs; and to adapt to any role and situation in which one finds oneself.
As to the many tens of millions of Germans whose failure to protest against the Holocaust made it easier for it to happen, the truth is that, despite their disclaimers of ignorance, they largely chose to look away, knowing at some deep level what was happening, but simply not caring. Based on postwar surveys, an estimated third of the German populace, some 20 to 25 million adults, “had substantial knowledge of the murders” and “nearly all of the rest could have known if they had chosen to think about the information they received.”
Why, then, did ordinary Germans choose to remain silent about the Holocaust? For silent they did remain during the war years, according to reports from the government itself. As McMillan says, the Nazi intelligence services eavesdropped on citizens regularly but picked up very little popular reaction concerning the Jews or what the government was doing to them. Fear of the Gestapo for speaking out can only account for some, not all, of this silence, since, as the author notes:
Nazi leaders loudly and frequently boasted that they were exterminating the Jewish people . . . What is more, Germans frequently criticized other government policies in unvarnished terms.
From these facts, McMillan draws the natural inference: they did not care it was happening.
Such indifference to the suffering of others, distanced through geography or else, as in the case of the Holocaust, by circumstances of race and creed, is by no means a peculiarity of the German psyche. Rather it is a fact about our all-too-human nature. McMillan discusses horrors in our own time, such as the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and concludes that all peoples “must strive to learn from their moral failures.” Understanding the Germans of the Nazi era, he writes, “should make us think twice before assuming that we would have done better had we stood in their shoes.”
Food for thought indeed, as we sit watching on television, from the comfort of our homes, images of the latest faraway Islamist atrocity.