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Holocaust Expert Counters Myths About the Holocaust

Peter Hayes tries to narrow the gap between Holocaust scholarship and popular opinion

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November 18, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Historical scholarship doesn't make its way immediately into the public consciousness. In the case of the Holocaust, however, Northwestern University historian Peter Hayes sees a "widening and particularly stark gap" between what scholars of the Holocaust have discovered in 30 years of serious study and what the general public thinks about the Holocaust.

Speaking to an audience including family members of Holocaust survivors, Northwestern University historian Peter Hayes last night (Nov. 17) discussed eight common Holocaust myths and misconceptions. His lecture was part of the Evanston Northwestern Humanities Lecture Series sponsored by Northwestern’s Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities and the Evanston Public Library. The lectures provide opportunities for University faculty to share their research with a broad public audience.

Hayes, the Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor of Holocaust Studies at Northwestern, specializes in 20th-century German history, particularly the Nazi period. He is the author or editor of seven books, including "From Cooperation to Complicity: Degussa in the Third Reich" (2004) and a prize-winning study of the I.G. Farben corporation in the Nazi era.

The myths and misconceptions:

* Anti-Semitism played a key role in bringing Adolf Hitler to power. Not so, says Hayes, who points out that a series of anti-Semitic political parties between 1871 and 1914 got no more than 4 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections. "Every contemporaneous source that we have confirms that fear and hatred toward socialists and communists had much more to do with Hitler's rise than fear and hatred of Jews. More Germans became anti-Semites after becoming Nazis than became Nazis because they were anti-Semites."

* Killing Jews was on Hitler's agenda from the beginning of his political career. Another myth, says Hayes. Very little evidence indicates that Hitler contemplated murdering Jews until the late 1930s, when he realized that he could not drive them out of Germany territory, in part because that territory kept expanding into areas that contained hundreds of thousands more Jews.

* The Allies could have saved more Jews. Perhaps, says Hayes, but most of the killing occurred while Germany appeared to be winning the war. "Fully half of the victims were slaughtered in 11 months, from March 1942 to February 1943, in an orgy of violence that the Allies could do almost nothing to impede." In addition, 75 percent of the Jews killed in the Holocaust perished before the tide of war turned in the Battle of Stalingrad.

* Jewish resistance could have reduced the death toll. "The few incidences of defiant resistance that did occur all were quickly suppressed at little cost to the Germans; and the survival rates in ghettos where leaders encouraged resistance was no better than in those where leaders chose to work closely with Nazis."

* Greater popular solidarity with or sympathy for Jews in German-occupied countries could have saved large numbers of the victims. Only 5 to 10 percent of all survivors outlived the Holocaust because individuals protected them. To protect large numbers of Jews, governments had to take action as they did in France, Hungary and Romania in contrast to Poland, Lithania, or occupied Russia and Ukraine.

* Killing the Jews diverted large German resources from the war effort. Hayes counters that the Holocaust was neither labor- nor capital-intensive. "The deportation trains had the lowest priority on the railroads and, contrary to legend, were never allowed to impede military traffic or supplies... Auschwitz alone made a profit of 30 million German Reichsmarks on the labor and possessions of the murdered Jews, after deduction of construction and operating costs."

* The persecution and slave labor system were driven primarily by greed. "The amounts that Nazi Germany confiscated from Jews were dwarfed by those they stole from non-Jews across Europe, especially from the central banks of the countries they conquered."

* The Holocaust represents modernity and its dangers. Not entirely a misconception but an overstatement, says Hayes. Eugenics, the pseudoscience "that gave a supposedly modern gloss to the attempt at racial purification was the very opposite of modern, Hayes said. "It was the application of animal husbandry to human society and was fundamentally rooted in an agricultural, not an industrial, world. Far from being modern in either conception or means, the Holocaust was an outbreak of extraordinary primitivism, a fitting product of an ideology that believed all life is governed by the law of the jungle."