October 18, 2018

The ‘Why?’ exchange, part 1: On trying to explain the Holocaust

Peter Hayes is professor of history and German and Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor of Holocaust Studies Emeritus at Northwestern University and chair of the Academic Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Professor Hayes received his PhD from Yale University and taught at Northwestern for thirty-six years from 1980 to 2016. He is the author or editor of twelve books, including the prize-winning Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era (1987, 2001) and Lessons and Legacies: The Meaning of the Holocaust in a Changing World (1991).  

The following exchange will focus on Professor Hayes’ new book Why?: Explaining the Holocaust (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017)


Dear Professor Hayes,

Your new book provides discussions of 8 giant “why?” questions concerning the Holocaust, each one of which could be studied and debated for a lifetime. Our introductory question: what kind of reader did you have in mind in the writing process, and what kind of explanations can he or she expect to find in it?




Dear Shmuel,

For many years, I taught a course on the History of the Holocaust that I learned to structure around the questions that students most often brought with them into the class and that lay audiences most frequently posed when I lectured elsewhere. This seemed the most efficient way to deal with such a large, multi-dimensional subject within the nine teaching weeks that my university’s academic calendar allowed me. So, the lectures that are the bedrock of the book were aimed at bright undergraduates, young people aged 18-22 whose knowledge of the subject ranged from none to some.

As I approached retirement, I began thinking of turning these lectures into a book, largely because it seemed to me that the good published histories of the Holocaust had a Goldilocks problem: they were either too big or too small—too long for most people to tackle or stick with or too short to convey much depth—and none was just right.  We have massive syntheses, such as Raul Hilberg’s three volumes, Saul Friedländer’s two, the thousand-page studies by Martin Gilbert, and, most recently, David Cesarani, and short summaries by Doris Bergen and David Engel, but not a really up-to-date midsize treatment. Moreover, most of these accounts are chronological narratives, not focused analyses of key explanatory issues.

In putting a different sort of book together, I was still thinking of a student audience, but also of others: interested general readers whose knowledge of the subject ranged from none to a lot, and academic colleagues. My challenge was to speak simultaneously to these disparate groups; in other words, to offer something accessible and arresting to newcomers of different ages, as well as insights or even new information to old hands. And I wanted to do this on a scale that busy people can manage, that is concisely.

Concision is difficult for historians because we love to display the wonderful nuggets of information we have turned up (and to show off how widely we have read). But just as good writing relies heavily on finding the mot juste, the apt word that spares an author many others, memorable historical presentation requires homing in on the example just, the ideal illustration of a point that makes further demonstration superfluous. As a lecturer and a writer, I always try to be considerate of my readers’ time and mental energy. That means making my points clearly and directly, backing them with compelling evidence, but only as much as necessary, and then moving on.

So, I hope that’s the kind of explanations readers find in Why?—ones that are lucid, straightforward, and well grounded; ones that are comprehensive but no more complex than the matter at hand requires; and ones that tell readers not only what research shows, but how.

Of course, my professional training and intellectual bent mean that readers will find factual historical answers to the questions I examine, not philosophical or religious speculation about the natures of God and humans that make a catastrophe like the Holocaust possible. My quest is to explain convincingly how this cataclysm came to pass at a particular time and in a particular place and way. Meditating on the problem of evil is a task for other minds and other books.