Why the Jews?
Why did the Germans target the Jews? Why did so many other people cheer them on, or at the very least get out of the way, while the Nazis implemented their soulless genocide?
What was wrong with those people, the murderers and their accomplices and silent enablers?
What was going on?
Those obviously are huge questions with many answers. Historians have been trying to answer them almost since the camps were liberated, and that work still is going on.
Peter Hayes, who will speak at Rockland County’s Holocaust commemoration this Sunday at 5 p.m., is one of those historians. (See below.)
Dr. Hayes used his formidable education — including degrees from Bowdoin, Oxford, and Yale, and his impressive work at Northwestern University, which began in 1980 and where he was a professor of history and German and then, from 2000 until he retired in 2016, the Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor, and including as well the chairmanship of the academic committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — to study the Holocaust. His 2000 book, “Industry and Ideology,” looks at the economics of Nazism, focusing on the German companies that paid for and profited from the Holocaust.
Last year, Dr. Hayes published “Why? Explaining the Holocaust.”
He’ll talk about some of what he learned for that book at the New City Jewish Center.
There are both long-term and short-term reasons that combined to cause the Shoah, Dr. Hayes said. “The long-term causes have to do with 2,000 years of intensely cultivated hostility to the Jews.” They were Christ-killers, money-changers, dirty and rapacious, the devil’s spawn and working at his command, the impoverished Christians of Dark Ages Europe were taught, and those teachings were passed down to their theoretically enlightened descendants. So there was that.
“That laid the path for the animosity fueled by the crisis Germany faced after World War I, which created a mass audience for people who thought that they had found the key to solving the nation’s problems. That was to eliminate an entire target group.” That group was the Jews.
The crisis was “of morale and humiliation because they’d lost the war, and added to that the economic crises that hit Germany in quick succession,” Dr. Hayes said. That also was at least in part the result of the war — “the difficulty of coping with the expenses of the war, and supporting the invalids and widows” it left in its bloody wake. “And there was the inflation of the currency, to the point where it wasn’t worth it to print it.” And then there was the depression that hit the whole world, but was felt most strongly in the United States and Germany. “The global depression created massive unemployment,” Dr. Hayes said. “Thirty-three percent of the workforce was out of work.
“This created an opportunity for the Nazis, who harped on it, and kept saying, ‘This is not your fault. Somebody did this to you. We know who did it.
“‘It was the Communists and the Jews.’
“‘And they are allies, the Communists and the Jews. You are not at all at fault. And we know how to fix it.’”
In the meantime, outside Germany, “you have a cauldron of ideological and nationalistic elements that the Nazis were able to play on,” Dr. Hayes said. “Most of the Jews in Europe lived in the Pale of Settlement — Poland, Lithuania, what we now call Belarus and Ukraine — and that was also an area where the Nazis could exploit vast hostility to the Communists, and link the Jews to communism. The Nazis could exploit desires for national self-determination. Both Ukraine and Belarus were part of the Soviet Union, and Lithuania was occupied in 1940.
“When the Germans marched into those areas in 1941, they came as liberators.
“The implied price of liberation was, ‘You help us with the Jews.’ And in many cases, the local population was only too happy to help.”
That was based, Dr. Hayes said, on the locals’ “history of hostility to the Jews, and the linking of Jews to communism, and also to the implied promise of independence — although the Nazis had no intention of keeping that promise, of ever making those nations independent.”
And then there were the countries that the Nazis did not occupy directly, “like Romania and Hungary. There was a lot of homegrown nationalist anti-communist fervor, and that was linked with anti-Semitism,” he said. “This produced the Romanian regime’s willingness to carry out massacres. When the Romanian army invaded the USSR with the Germans, they killed hundreds of thousands of Jews in their path. And the Hungarians weren’t much better.”
All those forces “were harnessed together,” Dr. Hayes said. “That produced a sort of mentality of massacre that the Nazis were able to use.
“We should remember — what people often overlook — is that we think of the Holocaust as something that occurred between 1933,” when Hitler came to power, “or maybe 1938” — Kristallnacht — “and 1945, but three quarters of the victims of the Holocaust were killed in a very short period of time, between June 1941, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, and the beginning of February 1943, when the Germans surrendered at Stalingrad. Three quarters of the victims are killed while the Germans are winning the war, and with the help of a lot of collaborators, all around Europe.
“Remember that it is the French police who round up refugees in France, and the Dutch police who round up refugees and guard the trains in Holland. It is the Hungarians and the Romanians and even a lot of people in places like Poland and Ukraine and Belarus and Lithuania who round up Jews. Who root them out of hiding. All of this happened in that fierce 20-month interval.”
Not everyone who lived in those places helped kill Jews, Dr. Hayes added. Many did not. Many risked their lives to help; many lost their lives helping. But many did help kill Jews.
“People have a tremendous capacity to rationalize,” he said. “They can tell themselves that these were extreme circumstances, and that they conformed to the needs of the time. Or that they were fighting for their people, against other people. Or that they were fighting the Reds, and so on.
“In other cases, they just happily pocketed the loot, and they happily go on, with the benefit of what they acquired during that time.
“Don’t forget, where they lived there were areas of great scarcity, Dr. Hayes continued. “People don’t have much, and they steal from their neighbors when their neighbors are vulnerable. They take their houses, their furniture, their bedding, and they just go on and say, ‘That’s what we have to do. We just did what we had to do.’
“Also,” he added, “some of those people really were haters. They envied the Jews around them who seemed to have more than they did, and that envy rapidly turned into hatred.”
Some of this — the hatred, the scapegoating, the looking for easy answers to complex questions, unscrupulous politicians harnessing those forces for their own ends — sounds familiar to us now, even as other parts of it do not.
Does Dr. Hayes ever make those connections between then and now in his talks? Does he draw lessons from his study of history?
No, he says. “I am a historian, not a political scientist.” But although he does not draw any parallels in his talk, “usually they come up in the question and answer session afterward,” he said. “People are very alive to the implications for the present. I try not to get political, but the general lesson I draw is to look at how much damage can be done. When Hitler came to power, about 55 percent of the German people had not voted for him, and yet he succeeded in turning that country into a murderous society in which very few people stood up for the Jews in their midst, and very few of the people he put in those positions were reluctant to commit the murders he wanted done.
“That is the general lesson — that societies can go pretty bad pretty fast, if you have enough power concentrated in the hands of people who are unscrupulous about how they would use it.
“I talk about the past, and let people draw their own conclusions.”
Who: Dr. Peter Hayes
Who: Will be the keynote speaker at Rockland County’s community-wide Yom haShoah commemoration
When: On Sunday, April 28, at 5 p.m.
Where: At the New City Jewish Center, 47 Old Schoolhouse Road, New City
For more information: Call the Holocaust Museum & Center for Tolerance and Education at (845) 574-4099 or email the museum at firstname.lastname@example.org