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How Could This Happen: Explaining the Holocaust Hardcover – April 8, 2014

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition edition (April 8, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465080243
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465080243
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #318,501 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Jewish Book Council
“McMillan...focuses in vivid and engaging prose on two critical questions: ‘Why Germany ?’ and ‘Why the Jewish People?’”

“[McMillan’s] argument that the causes of the catastrophe were multifaceted is well grounded and quite compelling. Equipped with excellent endnotes, the work is well suited for general readers, students, and scholars.”

Publishers Weekly
“This thoughtful work examines why the Nazis came to power and how they could engage in murder on such an unprecedented scale.”

Sir Ian Kershaw, author of Hitler and The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945
“Dan McMillan’s book is clearly written, well-structured, and rests on good acquaintance with recent research. It offers a thoughtful and intelligent answer for a non-specialist readership to the vital but often strangely ignored question: what caused the Holocaust? It deserves to be widely read.”

István Deák, Seth Low Professor Emeritus, Columbia University, author of Essays on Hitler’s Europe
“An important and much needed book. In explaining why the Holocaust happened, Dan McMillan explores not only the motives of Hitler and his fanatical followers, but also of the millions of ordinary Germans and other Europeans who shared responsibility for this tragedy. Beautifully written, persuasive, and often very touching, this book should be read by everyone who wants to understand how such a monstrous crime was possible.”

Robert O. Paxton, Professor Emeritus of History, Columbia University
“How could a cultivated nation like Germany unleash a murderous frenzy against the Jewish people? Many authors have described the killings. A few authors have warned that explaining is in itself a profanation. But Dan McMillan takes a different course. With eloquence and clarity he sets the Shoah in a broad historical context. McMillan shows how step by step, ideas and institutions came into place in western nations, especially in Germany, that made the killings conceivable, then possible, and even likely, but never inevitable. This book is an impressive achievement.”

S. Jonathan Wiesen, Southern Illinois University, author of Creating the Nazi Marketplace
“This is one of those rare books that is accessible to the general reader while offering significant new perspectives to academic specialists. I marveled at the richness and clarity of McMillan’s insights, his efficient syntheses of scholarly debates, and the intellectual depth of the questions he poses. His arguments are thoughtful, well informed, and grounded in wide-ranging literature. This book deserves a broad audience.”

John Cox, Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Studies, University of North Carolina Charlotte, author of Circles of Resistance: Jewish, Leftist, and Youth Dissidence in Nazi Germany
“This is an outstanding book. Dan McMillan has provided a compelling explanation of why the Holocaust happened in prose that is elegant, vivid, engaging, and fully accessible. The first comprehensive essay on the causes of the Holocaust, this admirably concise book offers a remarkable combination of scholarly rigor, new perspectives, and keen insights delivered in a passionate moral voice. McMillan has made a powerful contribution to the way all of us—scholars and laypersons alike—understand the Holocaust.”

About the Author

Dan McMillan holds a Ph.D. in German history from Columbia University and a law degree from Fordham University, and has worked as a history professor and a prosecuting attorney. He lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

We will all have to try harder.
Lena Rotmensz
Dan McMillam has written a book that brings history together with global incidents, as well as sociological impacts to give us an understanding of the inexplicable.
Janet G. Zinn
A good book for the scholar and for the student looking into this subject.
Sol A. Factor

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Peter S. Bradley on April 10, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
Sometimes, to really see the terrain, one needs to fly very high, until the particular details become lost in the form of the whole.

What Dan McMillan has done in "How Could This Happen" is to give a self-consciously "high-altitude" survey of the events and facts - while occasionally "swooping in" to examine particular matters of detail - that led to the Holocaust. In taking this approach, McMillan rewards the reader with not only a lot of detail concerning German history prior to 1943, but also a model to understand that history, and a useful corrective against quite a bit of historical "pseudo-facts" that seek to paint German history as uniquely prone to genocide. For myself, even though I've read or heard that the "Socialist Problem" was a leading cause for the German elite's willingness to embrace war - in, for example, the Teaching Company's excellent lecture series on World War I: The Great War (The Great Courses) - this book made me understand and appreciate the quandary that Germany found itself in in 1914 with the largest party having an ideology that would have been absolutely unacceptable for those elites.

Another thing that McMillan did was make me appreciate the uniqueness of the Holocaust. There have been many genocides in human history, but the Holocaust was the first time where the victimizers went outside their own country to round up the victims wherever they could. Himmler's trip to Finland to secure the 900 odd Jews living in Finland underscores the bizarre, evil obsession that the Nazis had for their bete noire.

McMillan's thesis is that Germany hit a perfect storm in 1943 because of circumstances that were unique to its recent history.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By J. Hershey on April 3, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I applaud and thank Mr. McMillan for authoring How Could this Happen. The book is well written and the arguments are cogent. It undoubtedly took him a long time and much intensive research to put together what I believe is an important historical work. Does his work totally explain the four word title with the second and third words interchanged? Possibly – maybe even probably. It is an extremely complex issue.

In another intense historical investigation of an extremely complex issue, the causes of the English civil war, the eminent historian Conrad Russell listed seven “effects,” the removal of any one of which could have prevented the war and that Charles I was implicated in all seven. Russell states that “We are therefore driven to investigate a more contingent sort of causation, in which we look, not directly for ‘causes of the Civil War’, but for causes of the events which led to the Civil War.” McMillan does a good job, I think, of setting forth a similar “more contingent sort of causation”. I believe he succeeded in illuminating the national mens rea of the criminal government and supporting societal elements of the Third Reich.

Early on, on page 6 of his book, he zeroes in with a key observation of many of the Germans and their lack of what he later calls a moral compass:: “One problem with making moral compromises is that doing the right thing becomes increasingly difficult: it requires admitting that one’s earlier acts were wrong.” This problem is an example of what I call a vortex of malignant regression. It is these vortices, I believe, that grow in energy and angular momentum as they spin ever faster and become irreversible and inexorably draw a society into the abyss.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
You should buy this book! I first saw Dr. Dan McMillan speak on the Holocaust in a lecture on C-Span. This scholar sent me to the computer to order his book. While whole libraries of books have written documenting the Holocaust this fine effort by McMillan actually seeks to explain why the horror of Hitler';s insane and evil plan to destroy ever Jew in Europe developed.
A Summary of McMillan';s conclusions regarding the holocaust":
1. The author defines the Holocaust as:" ...the determined attempt by the German government during World War II, aided by collaborators in most European countries, to murder every single person of Jewish ancestry on the European continent-some 11 million human beings by the German's own calculations.". (page 1). Six million were eventually slaughtered in six major extermination camps as well as countless concentration camps were prisoners were starved, shot, beaten, gassed, experimented on and beaten to death in horrific ways that are repugnant to the soul of any thinking and compassionate human being.
2. Why Germany? McMillan points to a number of vital factors among which are":
a. Germany';s loss of two million soldiers in World War I followed by total defeat against the Allied Powers.
b. Germany's out of sight inflation and poverty following the imposition of war reparations.
c. The failure of the Weimar Republic to stabilize dissident and rebellious elements in the fractured society.
d. Germany failed to become a democracy until 1918. German aristocrats looked to strong and dictatorial leaders such as Iron Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck to rule Germany.
e. Germany had only been a united nation since 1870.
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More About the Author

Visit Dan McMillan's website at

Dan McMillan holds a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University and a law degree from Fordham University School of Law. He has published scholarly work in both history and law, and has worked as prosecuting attorney and as a history professor. He lives in New York City and writes about history and politics.

How Could This Happen is Dr. McMillan's first book and is the result of nearly four decades of engagement with German history and the Holocaust. Reading Simon Wiesenthal's The Murderers Among Us as a teenager, Dan felt compelled to understand how something so horrific could have been possible. His quest for an explanation has shaped the course of McMillan's life ever since: he became completely fluent in the German language, studied History and German at Stanford, spent his junior year at the Freie Universität in what was then West Berlin, earned a Ph.D. in German history at Columbia, taught at universities in New York, New Jersey and Illinois, read everything he could on the Holocaust, constantly refined his understanding of its causes, and searched relentlessly for ways to explain these causes clearly and concisely.

Across this long search for answers, Dan found countless specialized studies that addressed this or that cause of the Holocaust in isolation from the others - books on anti-Semitism, or racism, or World War I, or psychological factors, and so on. Yet there was no book that put all these pieces of the puzzle together in an overarching explanation. In How Could This Happen, Dan McMillan aims to fill this need by providing a coherent analysis of the many causes of the Holocaust.

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