Explaining the Holocaust

by Elizabeth Canning Blackwell

Professor Peter Hayes knows how to keep your attention. During his 36 years at Northwestern, he had a reputation as an impassioned, engaging lecturer who brought modern German history vividly to life. Even decades later, students can remember what it felt like to sit in one of his classes. When I told my college roommate, Mary Jean Babic ’90, that I was talking to Hayes for this story, she gushed, “He was far and away one of the best professors I had at Northwestern. I took all three quarters of his German history class, and let me put it this way: I was a senior, I didn’t need the credits to graduate, and the class met at 9 a.m. — and I never skipped once.”  

At 70, Hayes may have recently retired from teaching, but he’s not slowing down. An in-demand lecturer at events all over the world, he is also the author of Why? Explaining the Holocaust (W. W. Norton, 2017), a new book that offers an eye-opening, accessible look at a seemingly incomprehensible subject. “The Holocaust was not mysterious and inscrutable,” Hayes writes. “It was the work of humans acting on familiar human weaknesses and motives: wounded pride, fear, self-righteousness, prejudice and personal ambition.” And those forces, he shows, are the reason we must keep learning about it.

Hayes grew up in an Irish Catholic family in the Boston area. His father served in World War II; his mother stayed home with Hayes and his three siblings when they were young and later worked as a secretary at the engineering firm Honeywell. The first person in his family to complete college, Hayes graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 1968, then spent two years on a fellowship at Oxford University. (He sailed to Europe on the same ship as Bill Clinton.) “I was going to go to law school, but Oxford saved me,” he says with a laugh. He came back from England determined to teach and earned a doctorate in history from Yale.

He began teaching at Northwestern in 1980, and his first book, Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era (Cambridge University Press, 1987), won the Biennial Book Prize of the Conference Group for Central European History, a division of the American Historical Association, in 1988. During his academic career at the University, Hayes was elected to the Associated Student Government Faculty Honor Roll 14 times and served as chairman of the history department from 2009 to 2014. He has collaborated on numerous Holocaust-related publications and currently chairs the Academic Committee of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. (He’s been part of the academic committee since 1999.)

Hayes was instrumental in creating the Holocaust Educational Foundation’s biannual Lessons and Legacies Conference, a premier forum for the field of Holocaust studies, as well as the Summer Institute on the Holocaust and Jewish Civilization, which has graduated more than 500 fellows who have gone on to teach at universities around the world. In 2013 the Holocaust Educational Foundation became part of Northwestern.

Reading Why? gives you a sense of what it was like to be in one of Hayes’ classes. “The structure of the book emerged out of Northwestern’s quarter system,” he says. “The way to teach this subject in nine weeks was to have each week built around a question.” Why did the Holocaust happen in Germany, a place where Jews were relatively well assimilated? Why didn’t more Jews fight back against the Nazis? Why didn’t the Allies bomb the railway lines leading to the concentration camps? Hayes tackles each question with authoritative ease, making for a book that’s both readable and revealing.

Hayes lives in Chicago with his husband, Voltaire Miran ’91, a School of Communication alumnus and the co-owner and CEO of the digital consulting firm mStoner Inc., and their two standard poodles, Annyong and Maeby (named after characters in the cult-TV comedy Arrested Development). In the office of his townhouse, with a poodle splayed at his feet, Hayes spoke about his career and the questions he continues to address about Hitler’s legacy.

Why did you decide to study this period of history?

I’m a child of the ’60s. I grew up watching racial violence on my television set — watching police sic dogs on children — and I was appalled. I also went to middle school and high school in Framingham, Mass., in a part of town that had lots of Jewish families. I was raised a Catholic, but I went to more bar mitzvahs than confirmations.         

The primary way I experienced antisemitism was through movies: The Diary of Anne Frank, Exodus, The Pawnbroker. It was a puzzle to me. Then my sister married a man who grew up on Cape Cod but had been born in Nazi Germany. His mother had divorced his father and married an American soldier. The father had remarried and had a second family in Germany, and I visited them in Düsseldorf, and they seemed like nice people — I liked them. I spent a summer in Germany, working in a steel factory, and I learned German. I’m also part of the Vietnam generation, and I was appalled by American policy in Vietnam and by the criminality that some of our young men became a part of. I had a great teacher of German history at Oxford — Timothy Mason — who really helped me bring all those strands together: personal ties to both Jews and Germans, shock at racial hatred and violence, concern that apparently good people could come to do bad things, and the inspiration of a great teacher.

College professors have to balance their teaching responsibilities with research. How did you negotiate those two roles?

I knew I wanted to teach before I knew I wanted to be a scholar. I had some wonderful teachers at Bowdoin, and I wanted to do for other people what they did for me. Besides, I’m a talker. My nickname in high school and college was Gabby, so I was meant for this [laughs].

Northwestern was my first academic teaching job. I had done my dissertation — it was good, and it came out as a book — but it wasn’t as immediately gratifying to me as teaching was. Over time, the balance between my satisfaction with teaching and research shifted. When I got here in 1980, I sensed that Northwestern was deeply divided about what it was. Many professors still thought of themselves as teaching at an undergraduate liberal arts college. That has been utterly transformed. Faculty understand and embrace their scholarly roles much more now, and the resources are here to encourage that.

Why did you frame the book — and your Holocaust class — as a series of questions rather than straight chronology?

The hardest thing for students who aren’t natively attuned to history is learning how to sort through this ocean of information. What do you need to know? There’s no single answer — it depends on what you want to find out. My idea was to stay focused on what we were trying to know, then certain data suddenly became more important than other information. “Why the Jews?” was the first class, because it’s incredible how little many students know about Judaism and the historical background to hostility toward the Jewish people. So you have to start with that, because Jews were the principal victims of the Holocaust. Then you have to look at, why the Germans? Antisemitism was a very widespread phenomenon in Christian Europe and Muslim lands; why was this the country that produced carnage?

In politics and popular culture, it seems like we’re hearing constant references to the Holocaust and Hitler, but people still have so many misconceptions about that period in history.

I saw that in the arc of the people who took my classes. In the late 1980s, students didn’t know much, so you taught them about the Holocaust. By 2010, students thought they knew a lot, and you had to un-teach them. For example, many students came into my class thinking that the Holocaust was Hitler’s plan from day one, whereas in reality it was a program he arrived at over time.

I get this question all the time at lectures: “Why didn’t the Jews fight back?” It’s an incredibly naïve question, but you have to show what the Jews were up against. You have to explain that they couldn’t see what was coming because it was unprecedented and that they were internally divided in a host of ways and thus had trouble reaching consensus on how to respond. They were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, and except in central France and mountainous regions like Yugoslavia, they didn’t live in geographic regions hospitable to hiding. The surrounding non-Jewish populations were often hostile, especially in Eastern Europe, and the Jews were worn down by starvation and suffering for years before the gassing began.

Those misperceptions have consequences for how we act today. We have the crisis in Syria, and Europe is knee-deep in refugees. That raises the question, why didn’t we take more Jewish refugees in? And the answer is essentially the same as why we aren’t taking in more people now. The arguments we’re hearing against immigrants today are very close to what people were saying about the Jews back then: They’ll take our jobs, cost us lots of money and include enemy agents.

The original brick barracks at the Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland

It’s one thing to teach the Holocaust, but it’s another to teach the right lessons. In the book, you say there’s a big gap between what the specialists know and what the public believes, like whether antisemitism was the primary driver of Hitler’s rise (it wasn’t) or that many leading Nazis escaped into hiding and got off scot-free (they didn’t). Are you trying to redress that balance? 

What we think we know is often erroneous. One point that is most counterintuitive to what people believe is that the Germans did this with their little fingers. The image of Nazis in the popular imagination is of numerous trains running all over Europe and of the camps as huge, sprawling places, but not many trains were in motion at any one time, and most of the death camps were small, ramshackle affairs. The Holocaust wasn’t a particularly well-organized operation. And yet Germans could wipe out millions of people quickly and while applying very few resources to the task. That’s what’s really terrifying.

At the end of the book, you point out parallels between the rise of the Nazis and the growing popularity of nativist, inward-looking political movements today. Why is it important to connect this subject to the present?  

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was doing a lot of lecturing for Kellogg, and people would ask what the post-Communist world was going to look like. I remember saying that the old left-right division was falling away. What we were going to have in the future were the cosmopolitans versus the nationalists, the people who have passports and those who don’t.

That division has gotten even sharper now, because it’s not just cultural, it’s economic. The people who were attracted to antisemitism in the early 20th century were people who were losing economically and were looking for an explanation. The people who are responding now to demagogues are people who also are being left behind — not by the Industrial Revolution, but by the digital revolution. The Industrial Revolution created modern antisemitism, and the Bolshevik Revolution expanded it, because more people became afraid. Now people aren’t afraid of Communism, they’re afraid of terrorism. But the result is the same. You have people rallying to those who offer very simple explanations, who say all your problems are the result of others. This is what we’re facing right now.

Is that why the Holocaust continues to be relevant? 

The Holocaust shows how essential it is to preserve the distinction between means and ends. A civilized society believes that it’s terribly important to respect and observe means, that there’s a right way to do things and a wrong way. If a society forgets that — if people go around saying laws and procedures don’t matter because everything’s a disaster — that’s a license for tyranny. Once that genie is out of the bottle, it can turn into lots of things. One of the aphorisms I quote in the book is “Beware the beginnings.” You have to be able to recognize dangerous forces that pose as protectors but really open the way to oppression.

In the week that Hitler was appointed [chancellor] in 1933, the German industrialist Gustav Krupp wrote to one of his friends that it was “unthinkably sad how carelessly the interests of a great people are played with.” We have lots of frustrated, aggrieved people now saying, “The system is so corrupt — let’s smash it.” We have a great deal to lose by smashing the crockery.

Are there emotional repercussions to studying such a dark subject for so long?

There are accounts I still find impossible to read. But, although not much is left of my Catholicism, I am a moralist. I’ve always been interested in historical questions that have a moral dimension, and I want my knowledge of the past to be instructive about the present. I belong to a once terribly idealistic generation, and I’m still that person, in many ways. To me, the value of doing this is high enough to put up with the emotional toll.

One of the ways I’ve kept that toll at bay was by concentrating my research on the question of what the Germans were thinking. How could they possibly talk themselves into this? I’ve spent most of my time figuring out the people who did it, rather than feeling along with the people who suffered it. The field of Holocaust studies is now in the process of redressing that imbalance. You can see that in popular representations: The two best films on the subject recently are the Hungarian film Son of Saul and the Polish film Ida. They’re both told from the side of people who lived the ordeal, and they’re light-years ahead of what used to be done. But it’s hard on the nerves.

How have you adjusted to retirement? Do you miss teaching?

One of the reasons I stopped teaching was that I couldn’t keep doing it the same way I did when I was really good. I’d always been someone who paced as I talked, stayed far away from my notes and looked like I was assembling the lecture before the students’ very eyes. I couldn’t do that anymore — I’d be too tired at the end of an 80-minute class. The wonderful thing about stopping teaching is that I’m as busy as I ever was but in a different way. I do a lot of consulting for museum exhibitions, there are all kinds of offers to write things, and people invite me to lecture in other countries.

Elizabeth Canning Blackwell ’90 is a freelance writer based in Glenview, Ill.

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