- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition edition (April 8, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0465080243
- ISBN-13: 978-0465080243
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 35 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #950,407 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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How Could This Happen: Explaining the Holocaust Hardcover – April 8, 2014
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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.”
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.”
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The shorter version of the author's theory is that it took an impossible combinations of dangerous ideas, ruined people, and unimaginable bad luck to make this catastrophe happen. In the longer version, he tries his best to pulls all of these improbable pieces together into a powerful analytic narrative that at least solves the puzzle of the historical circumstances that gave rise to the Third Reich and the holocaust that followed in its wake.
In this longer version, rather surprisingly, German history plays the dominant role, as the author shows us how the holocaust occurred above all else because Germany did not become a democracy before its own 1918 socialist inspired revolution. This revolution not only gave Germany's rightwing ruling elite the upper hand, but also the motive and the opportunity to fight a sustained battle against instituting democratic reforms and against their greatest fear of all: a Communist revolution similar to what had just occurred a year earlier in Russia.
In this battle, fought as much against democratic reforms as against the fear of a Communist revolution, the rightwing ruling clique used racism and anti-Semitism as well as extreme nationalism as their primary weapons of choice. Jews were made the scapegoats for all of Germany's problems -- from the lost of WW-I, to fomenting the socialist led revolution of 1918, to keeping class antagonism alive; and most of all, to being over-represented in the professions and the culture of German society.
This palpable and deeply rooted race-based hatred for Jews, even more so than its turbulent history and its fear of Communism, set the table for the arrival of the little Austrian Corporal, Adolph Hitler, the most extreme racist and anti-Semite of them all.
Against all odds, this most unattractive and most ill-prepared of political characters gained the backing of rightwing cliques in the upper class and wrested power from an anarchic series of weak autocratic regimes pulled together by Otto von Bismarck. By 1934, Hitler had tricked his way into power as the sole holder of German power and legitimacy.
Two important milestones in Hitler's intellectual preparation for leadership were the honing of his oratorical skills in the coffee houses of Munich and Berlin; and the adoption of his own manifesto, "Mein Kampt," written while he was in jail. Importantly, we discover here for the first time that "Mein Kampt," was parroted in toto from themes written by a member of the ultra rightwing Pan-German society, named Heinrich Class. Class called his book "If I were Emperor."
In his manifesto of everything Germans held dear at the time, Class rhapsodized about German racial superiority; its need to unify around a charismatic leader and around a kind of tribal loyalty that would be more precious than loyalty to family. The Manifesto also called for a robust and muscular German nationalism and militarism that would wipe away the shame of the Versailles Treaty and would at the same time befit Germany's new superior status on the world stage, allowing it to acquire colonies and expand its territories to provide the much needed additional living space. But above all else, Class' manifesto vilified Jews as being genetic and morally inferior traitors who were destructive to German unity, and thus at the very least, were unworthy of German citizenship, and at most should be banished from German lands. Hitler's version of Class' Manifesto went him one better by suggesting that Jews "be done away with completely."
At the same time, reaching its high water mark in the decades leading up to WW-II, an intellectual movement was introduced to Hitler by America called "Scientific Racism." Grossly misreading Darwin's theory of Evolution, its culmination was the American Eugenics program, which, like Heinrich Class' Manifesto, was used by Hitler as a template for inventing a new sociobiological policy to go hand-in-hand with his ideology of nationalism and racism. It called for culling the world of inferior beings and designating them as "unworthy of life." In Hitler's mind the target for this new social policy was always to be used to rationalize a way of "doing away with" all Jews.
Shadows of Hitler's fear of Communism as well as his program for "weeding out the unfit" because they represented a costly "dead weight" on society, can still be seen today as a not too well-hidden twice-removed subtext of all of America's Republican Party's domestic social programs.
The Hitler adaptation of these ideas claimed that Jews were genetically inferior -- hard-wired, as it were, at birth to be destructive -- and thus morally and biologically "unfit" to be Germans as well as ultimately undeserving of life. Rather paradoxically, he made this claim at the same time that most Germans hated Jews not because they were inferior, but because they were perceived genetically superior -- as in being too successful and over-represented in German media, and in German professional and cultural life. Hitler's contradiction of course will forever beg the question of how Jews could be both unfit and inferior at the same time that they were perceived to be the most successful professional ethnic group in Germany?
Then, despite his utter lack of competence, came Hitler's stunning, almost magical string of successes that would serve to bound even the most skeptical Germans to him and his racist ideology. By bringing Germany out of the depression in only four years; reversing the humiliating Versailles Treaty; unifying all Germans around a charismatic leader and around the idea of "the volk;" building up one of the world's most formidable military machines, and using it to overrun Europe in less than a year, Hitler earned the undying fealty of all but a dwindling fraction of the German population. Germans could now forget that they lost two million in WW-I.
By the beginning of 1941, the only elements in the Hitler/Class agenda for attaining German biological superiority that had not yet been fulfilled was taking over Russia, to get more living space, and ridding German society of the "much-reviled Jew."
With all of Germany solidarity centered on completing this last perhaps most important of the Hitler/Class agenda items, Hitler allowed his plans for a "final Solution of the Jewish problem" to "leak" to the proper members of his staff. And they, as always, "working toward the leader," behind a wall of secrecy, "read Hitler's mind," and intuited what had to be done, and with minimal orders and instructions, they set about the business of getting the machinery for industrialized murder up and running, ready to roll towards genocide. Had the Russians not stopped Hitler in his tracks, the world today would be a very different place in which to live. QED.
Summary and Analysis
From this point onwards, the author structures his narrative in such a way that even though he later denies it, he nevertheless seemed to try subtly to pin the responsibility for the holocaust on the German people collectively -- rather than on the criminal Hitler government and his henchmen -- where the responsibility justifiably should have been laid. As one strain of the author's argument goes,"ordinary Germans had to know what was going on" and thus should have rebelled against Hitler's criminal regime and its murderous machinery of death. However, this argument is undercut by the reality of the fact that most German's were in lockstep with Hitler's virulent anti-Semitism. Yet, the fact that they were passive-aggressively complicit, does not mean that their share of the responsibility was equal to that of the Nazi regime. Far from it in fact.
In his unstated but implied thesis, the author strongly insinuates that the German people allowed their anti-Semitic emotions to get the better of them; and that this clouded their moral judgment so much so that it was easy for Hitler's soothing nationalistic oratory to seduce them. And then Hitler used this seduction to further lower their moral inhibitions and further confuse their moral compasses. But their moral compasses had already veered so far off course that they were reduced to willingly engaging in mass murder along side Hitler's henchmen, all with the Fuhrer's permission and moral protection. And while there is much to be said for this thesis, I believe it obscures subtleties that when raised to higher visibility in the analysis, could alone constitute an even more robust alternative explanation.
The alternative explanation I speak of is that of connecting the dots between several not so obvious variables and then assessing their combined role in producing the holocaust. To wit: Hitler being a tool of Germany's rightwing ruling cliques of businessmen, professional, and the military officers corps -- all rightwing ideologues; his virulent racism and anti-Semitism that grew more and more rabid over time; and the fact that all of the murders were "state sanctioned," and were carried out behind a wall of state protected secrecy; one erected by a criminal/Fascist "national security state" specifically to engage in the business of genocide.
The ideological manifesto that Hitler executed to perfection was a "carbon copy" of the Pan- German Heinrich Class' own racist manifesto. And thus, even though Hitler's regime was a legitimate government, the very fact that it had a formally acknowledged policy of genocide against Jews, rendered it little more than a criminal enterprise with outer trappings of a government. The mere existence of plans for genocide rendered the Third Reich, both legitimate and criminal.
The author seemed more than just a bit reluctant to accept the fact that governments can be both criminal and legitimate. In fact, he seemed to have willfully ignored this distinction altogether. But the distinction is important not only to better expose the Nazis criminal element and criminal intent, but for another reason: All orders to kill Jews were always "issued verbally" so as not to leave a paper trail, and always "behind a wall of secrecy," (usually at the "Top Secret" level) so the outside world would never know that mass murder was taking place.
Moreover, like in any criminal organization, (and as Franz Stangl found out upon discovering that he could not simply resign from his job as sentry at a Euthanasia murder factory), the penalty for being suspected of exposing one's "guilty knowledge," was the same as in the Mafia for refusing to carry out an order of murder: the perpetrator is allowed to exit the wall of secrecy only in a pine box. The fact that there were instances where Germans were excused from this ultimate threat, does not mean that the Germans in question were any less intimidated by it. Nor, does excusing them from time to time, make the Nazi regime any less a criminal enterprise.
It seemed to me that the author went to great pains to minimize both the criminality of the Hitler regime, and the rightwing ruling clique that handpicked and put him in office. As well, he minimized the severity of the implicit threat the criminal Nazi system held over the heads of anyone who refused an order or chose to reveal "state secrets" about the murders.
Again, Gitta Sereny's Franz Stangl (in her book "Into the Darkness") seems to be the perfect case in point: While an Austrian police, Stangl hated and was rewarded for hunting down Nazis. Then, after Austria was annexed to Germany, Stangl, cleverly erased his past as a Nazi-Hunter, and became a Nazi. And as mentioned above, he ended up a Security Guard at a Euthanasia facility. Once he learned what went on inside that facility, he balked at being associated with it in any way. But by then it was already too late. When he sought to resign or get reassigned, he was presented with an unexpected life-threatening fait accompli. He was told in the cold-bloodiest of terms that he was already beyond the point of no return, deep inside the Nazi inner sanctum, and could leave only via a pine box. So what did Stangl do? He kept his head down like all "good Nazis" did, and became the best Nazi he could be, eventually ending up as the commandant of two of Germany's most notorious death camps, Treblinka and Sorbibor.
Not to belabor the point, but I believe that a criminal racist rightwing regime that is allowed to erect a screen of secrecy, behind which it can then carry out mass murder without impunity, is by definition a criminal regime -- even if it might also be taking place within the boundaries of a legitimate state.
I believe this arrangement of factors is arguably a much more potent set of causative factors than those insinuated by the author. For, these are factors that are more the rule than the exception in modern genocide. And while it cannot be denied that having a nation of "willing executioners" makes genocide infinitely easier, the trigger to the genocidal gun, is a criminal government operating with impunity behind a shield of state secrecy anxious to pull it. Five Stars
Finally, now, after more than 30 years, historian and attorney Dan McMillan has produced a comprehensive answer to my question. Step by step, Dr. McMillan logically produces an understanding of the Holocaust which has never been previously achieved. The deniers will not be persuaded by this profound work, but fair-minded people of every language and culture will find an answer to the question, How Could This Happen.
McMillan's findings are particularly pertinent during the current presidential primary elections, as right-wing candidates increasingly cast immigrants in the role of scapegoats for America's economic failures. With candidates seeking to outdo each other in demanding that all immigrants be tracked like FedEx packages or forced to pay for and build a wall of exclusion, we must learn and apply the lessons of history—if we are to avoid becoming complacent and complicit in the crimes against humanity done in our name for our national and economic security. Understanding why "psychologically normal" Germans with "free will" could make such "horrible choices" requires us to "think twice before assuming that we would have done better had we stood in their shoes. . . . We are the Germans and they are we."
The book serves as a primer on how evil can happen. The book How Democracies Die might be seen as an illustration of what can be done to prevent evil-doers from gaining power in the first place.