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Why?: Explaining the Holocaust

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Featured in the PBS documentary, "The US and the Holocaust" by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein

"Superbly written and researched, synthesizing the classics while digging deep into a vast repository of primary sources." ―Josef Joffe, Wall Street Journal Despite the outpouring of books, movies, museums, memorials, and courses devoted to the Holocaust, a coherent explanation of why such ghastly carnage erupted from the heart of civilized Europe in the twentieth century still seems elusive even seventy years later. Numerous theories have sprouted in an attempt to console ourselves and to point the blame in emotionally satisfying directions―yet none of them are fully convincing. As witnesses to the Holocaust near the ends of their lives, it becomes that much more important to unravel what happened and to educate a new generation about the horrors inflicted by the Nazi regime on Jews and non-Jews alike. Why? dispels many misconceptions and answers some of the most basic―yet vexing―questions that remain: why the Jews and not another ethnic group? Why the Germans? Why such a swift and sweeping extermination? Why didn’t more Jews fight back more often? Why didn’t they receive more help? While responding to the questions he has been most frequently asked by students over the decades, world-renowned Holocaust historian and professor Peter Hayes brings a wealth of scholarly research and experience to bear on conventional, popular views of the history, challenging some of the most prominent recent interpretations. He argues that there is no single theory that “explains” the Holocaust; the convergence of multiple forces at a particular moment in time led to catastrophe. In clear prose informed by an encyclopedic knowledge of Holocaust literature in English and German, Hayes weaves together stories and statistics to heart-stopping effect. Why? is an authoritative, groundbreaking exploration of the origins of one of the most tragic events in human history. 5 illustrations

432 pages, Hardcover

First published January 17, 2017

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About the author

Peter Hayes

12 books7 followers
Peter F. Hayes is professor emeritus of history at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Northwestern University, and chair of the Academic Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Specializing in the Holocaust, genocide and the history of modern Germany, Hayes is the author or editor of 10 books, including Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era (1987), a prize-winning study of the IG Farben corporation. He has been described as the leading scholar of the historiography of industry in Nazi Germany.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 107 reviews
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68k followers
February 23, 2022
The Defective Gene Pool

Peter Hayes is very aware of the problem of ‘explaining’ the Holocaust. Right up front he points out the basic paradox:
“To say that one can explain the occurrence of the Holocaust seems tantamount to normalizing it, but professing that one cannot grasp it is an assertion of the speaker’s innocence—of his or her incapacity not only to conceive of such horror but to enact anything like it.”
In other words, to explain the murder of 6 million people requires finding a rational motive which then mitigates the massive evil involved. But to consider the event as a mute fact implies that inhumanity is simply beyond expression for ‘normal’ people.

Hayes presents his extremely sober and meticulous analysis of ‘Why?’ in a set of sub-issues. Within each issue his arguments are extremely well-documented and succinct. While there are elements of his own research, given the magnitude of his undertaking most of the material has been sourced from elsewhere. What is probably most original is his debunking of certain myths that have circulated from time to time in matters ranging from popular involvement in the programme of annihilation to the responses to that programme by non-Germans.

Hayes gives his own summary of conclusions for each issue at the end of the book. But here is my interpretation of his results issue by issue:

1. Why the Jews? Because it had become a tradition over millennia in Christian Europe to attribute any local or national misfortune to a Jewish presence.

2. Why the Germans? Because the particular economic and social conditions of Weimar Germany formed an opportunity for Hitler to take power.

3. Why murder? Because the Nazis were allowed to by the German populace through a carefully controlled programme of escalating violence against Jews and necessitated by the regime’s inability to expel Jews faster than it conquered them.

4. Why annihilation? Because by 1941 the Germans had nothing to lose either domestically or internationally, and the cost of the effort was insignificant.

5. Why wasn’t Jewish resistance more vigorous? Because their situation was manifestly hopeless and the Nazi strategy of annihilation was directed against whole communities which they manipulated expertly to minimise resistance.

6. Why did some Jews nevertheless survive? Because the Germans ran out of time in their latter conquests, allowing a quarter of European Jews to escape not through Gentile assistance but German defeat.

7. Why was immediate assistance to surviving victims, and longer term resettlement and restitution so difficult to obtain? Because it wasn’t considered in the interests of the victorious Western countries in the context of Cold War politics.

Certainly my summary interpretations cannot capture the extensive detail or nuance of Hayes’s exposition. And he does throw a number historical red herrings back in the sea. And, as a non-professional, I find his reasoning compelling.

Nevertheless, does the book really ‘explain’ the Holocaust? It makes it seem that all of the historical threads which created and sustained the massacre were merely a lack of good fortune, a perfect storm of human insanity and inhumanity. If one or more causal elements had been lacking, perhaps it needn’t have happened, at least with such massive ferocity.

Perhaps this is all any historian can do. But I don’t find it satisfying. The evil which was manifest in the Holocaust and so well presented by Hayes did not arise from the intersection of historical events and opportunities. The evil was there waiting, perhaps in Western culture, probably in religious institutions and the civil institutions derived from them, certainly in a very deep flaw in human psychology.

A superior explanation, therefore, it seems to me, is that human beings are simply not fit for purpose. It is not the case that there are merely some bad apples. The entire gene pool is maladapted to life on earth. As antisemitism and other irrational prejudices again resurface, apparently spontaneously, around the world, this conclusion presses itself forward as the only real explanation. There are, it seems, no normal people. Nor is there a solution to be found to our unfitness through finding reasons for such tragedy.

Perhaps I am simply ignorant, old, worn-out, or disgusted. Then again, maybe I’m right on the money..
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,063 reviews697 followers
October 16, 2019
Why? is often a difficult question when asked about simple things. It is many more times difficult when applied to a historical incident as complex and multifaceted as the Holocaust. This book provides a review of history focusing on those facets which enabled the Holocaust.

The following is a compact summary of reasons for the Holocaust as broken down into replies to four why questions.
1. Why the Jews? Because their emancipation in the nineteenth century from centuries of residential and occupational confinement aroused a backlash that gave new impetus and new form to a chimerical hatred—that is, to a belief that they constituted the single cause for everything that others opposed and feared.

2. Why the Germans? Because a massive and multidimensional national crisis, a perfect storm of economic, political, cultural, and social upheavals, opened the way for believers in this hatred to acquire power in Germany and to reinforce or indoctrinate others in their views.

3. Why murder and with these means? Because of a process of problem-solving mission creep, a cumulative radicalization of policy, as increasingly harsh efforts to "remove" Jews from German territory proved insufficient or unworkable and gave way to ever more extreme methods of "elimination."

4. Why was the eradication of the Jews so nearly successful, resulting in the deaths of two-thirds of those in Europe and at least three-quarters of those within reach of the Nazis? Because indifference and self-interest in Germany and then the occupied or satellite states during World War II cleared the way for the haters; because the logistics of murder proved uncomplicated and self-financing; because the Nazis' ferocious onslaught peaked during the period of their greatest military success; and because most of the killing was done when the Allies against Germany could neither observe nor interdict it. (p.326-327)
The book thoroughly lays out the points in history that support the above conclusions. If the these statements raise questions in your mind, please refer to the book.

Along the way this book debunks a number of myths. The book's contents provide reasons why the following are NOT TRUE. To limit this review to a reasonable length, I have not provided supportive explanations.
... antisemitism played a primary or decisive role in bringing Hitle to power ...

... Hitler planned to murder the Jews from the day he took office ...

... Allies could have done much io impede the killing once it began ...

... greater passive or active resistance by Jews could have reduced the death toll considerably ...

... popular attitudes toward Jews, rather than political structures and interests, were the principal determinants of survival ...

... the Holocaust diverted resources from the German war effort an weakened it in significant ways ...

... slave labor systems was driven principally by greed ...

... most of the leading perpetrators of the Holocaust escaped punishment after World War II ...

... the Holocaust was a product of modernity and a demonstration of its dangers. ...

... it never happened. ... (p.327-330)
The final pages of the book offer the author's take on the implications for us today. The following is my summary without elaboration or support. I recommend reading pages 333 to 343 to see the book's supportive reasoning.

1. The ideology of democracy has won in Western countries, thus conditions are different from the first half of the twentieth century when ideologies that prioritized obedience to group goals were popular (e.g. fascism, Nazism, communism). However, other parts of the globe are another matter.

2. The spirit of nationalism, hostility to foreigners, and economic inequality is on the rise in Western countries. This could cause reversal to early twentieth century conditions.

3. The existence of an independent Jewish State could complicate matters for Jews living outside of Israel because it makes them vulnerable to charges of split loyalties.

The book builds on the above observations to provide the following two lessons for today which can be applied to all minority groups.
Lesson One is: Be alert but not afraid. ...(p336)
Lesson Two...is: Be self-reliant but not isolationist. ...(p339)
The book notes that the United States is blessed by having much diversity with not one ethnic group being dominate. But of course that doesn't stop political rhetoric opposing the most recent immigrants.
Profile Image for Shannon.
619 reviews39 followers
August 15, 2016
Despite being a very avid reader of historical non-fiction books about the Holocaust and World War 2, I have never read a book that really focused in on why the Holocaust happened. Why the Nazis did the things they did and why they specifically targeted the Jewish population. In this book, the author answers many questions that I imagine a lot of people have about this time period and also goes over a variety of different theories that have been presented over the years.

The book is broken down into 8 chapters that discuss a variety of topics; Why the Jews? Why the Germans? Why This Swift & Sweeping? Why Didn't More Jews Fight Back More Often? Why Did Survival Rates Diverge? Why Such Limited Help from Outside? What Legacies, What Lessons? From the first chapter, I thought this was a very interesting book, The author discusses Antisemitism and even goes back as far as discussing the ideas of an ancient Roman writer Tacitus as describing the Jewish people as having a "stubborn attachment to one another . .". This book contains a great deal of history, including going back in to the early 1800's discussing Germany and their political systems and ideas. The last chapter in the book also discusses a things that I have not read a lot about, such as the return and resettlement of inmates in the varies concentration camps and does go into describing what happened to a variety of Nazi military officers after the camps were liberated. The author also discusses what we can learn from the Holocaust and how quickly things can go wrong in this world. I found it to be very interesting and I encourage anything one is interested in the Holocaust and World War 2 to read this book.

Thank you to the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, for sending me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for LynnDee (LynnDee's Library).
508 reviews40 followers
January 15, 2022
I first learned about the Holocaust through The Diary of Anne Frank: The Definitive Edition. And then every year in high school we'd have the "WWII" section in history class, but besides a few WWII historical fiction books, I know next to nothing about the Holocaust and why it happened. This book did what it says in the title, in that it explains how the Holocaust happened. I wouldn't necessarily call this narrative nonfiction, but Hayes writes this in a way that makes it easier for the layperson to comprehend. In the acknowledgements, he states that this book was 30 years in the making, which I think you can tell with how careful this book is written. Each chapter is laid out in a manner that seeks to answer questions that may pop up while reading the book. Overall, I would definitely recommend it to those who interest in this subject. It is heavy and triggering re: genocide, so you definitely need to be in the right frame of mind before entering.
Profile Image for Bill Silverman.
110 reviews
February 12, 2018
Historian Peter Hayes offers a comprehensive stocktaking directed squarely at answering the most central and enduring questions about why and how the massacre of European Jewry unfolded. In this well written and persuasive book, he attempts to set the record straight regarding:
1. Targets: Why the Jews?
2. Attackers: Why the Germans?
3. Escalation: Why Murder?
4. Annihilation: Why This Swift and Sweeping?
5. Victims: Why Didn't More Jews Fight Back More Often?
6. Homelands: Why Did Survival Rates Diverge?
7. Onlookers: Why Such Limited Help from Outside?
8. Aftermath: What Legacies, What Lessons?
Profile Image for Kevin.
53 reviews2 followers
August 14, 2020
Es war absolut ausgezeichnet! Es war das erste Buch, dass ich gelesen habe, das die schmerzhafte Wahrheit über das Thema sagt. Es ist unglaublich traurig, vor allem, weil manche Leute und Länder mehr tun können. Ein besonderer Platz in meinem Bücherregal!
Wehret den Anfängen.
Profile Image for Jon Harris.
116 reviews94 followers
November 30, 2018
The very idea of the word “Holocaust” conjures up feelings of the most despicable kind of evil imaginable. It is normal for those who have detailed knowledge of the horrific mistreatment of Jews in Nazi Germany to wonder what could have motivated such barbarous actions in a civilized country. This is the very question history professor Peter Hayes seeks to answer in Why? Explaining the Holocaust. While Hayes admits his task is not an easy undertaking, he comes as close as perhaps one can to arriving at an explanation. Hayes introduces his study by stating: “Each chapter of this book examines . . . eight central issues . . . and the book as a whole reflects my conviction that the Holocaust is no less historically explicable than any other human experience . . .” (59). Broadly speaking, the issues Hayes deals with can be categorized into “acts of commission, some concern acts of omission, and still others entail[ing] both” (59).

The story of anti-Semitism in Europe starts long before the existence of national socialism. Hayes observes that “Although some ancient Egyptian and Greek texts express animosity toward Jews, the rise of intense hostility to and fear of them largely coincides with the rise of Christianity” (133). Guilds across Europe kept Jews from competing economically in most vocations. However, the rise of capitalism afforded an opportunity for Jews to have success in financial vocations such as money lending. An oft-repeated cliche throughout the book is that “the appeal of antisemitism rises and falls in inverse relationship with the stock market” (478). The perception that Jews, because of their over representation in banking, were responsible for the financial down turns that affected the rest of the population formed the wedge that would tarry long into post-Christian secularism.

Of course the moral objection to the Jewish people still had a profound affect. The author states that “By the time of the Reformation . . . hatred of Jews . . . had crystallized around two central generalizations: (1) that Jews were parasitic profiteers, intent on extracting wealth from Christians, and (2) that Jews were incorrigible instruments of Satan, intent on serving his purposes and afflicting the pious” (207). The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a widely circulated publication originating in early 20th century Russia, asserted a Jewish conspiracy for international control. This theory was widely echoed as one Catholic journal from 1938 “wrote of the Jews’ ‘messianic craving for world domination’” (3994). It was this attitude that could have given rise to the Holocaust in many European countries as the lack of resistance and degree of assistance in the Holocaust among other nations shows.

The reason the Holocaust happened within a German context, according to Haynes, has much to do with events immediately preceding the rise of Hitler. “ . . . the prominence of Jews in the arts became an excuse to blame them for the alleged ‘corruption’ of German culture during the Roaring Twenties. . . the leading proponent of sex education and research and of gay rights . . . was a Jew, as was the owner of Germany’s preeminent manufacturer of condoms . . .” (1012). In addition, Germany’s devastating economic collapse in the late 20s and early 30s was blamed on Jewish corporate interests. Association with Bolshevism gave the impression that Jews did not care about the country in which they resided. The three-class voting system and “Jew count” from World War I still lingered in the minds of Germans who believed that Jews were over represented in political decision making had shirked their military duty. Catalyzing justification for this resentment was the fact that evolutionary “science” could now be used to justify racial hatred. “Hitler tricked his message out with a synthesis of pseudoreligion and pseudoscience that may be aptly dubbed a ‘theozoology’: On the one hand, he posed as an evangelist of the Volk, the person who would lead a national revival by making the German people sense its own power and, as the Nazi slogan ‘Deutschland Erwache’ said, ‘Awaken Germany’” (928). It was in awakening the German people to alleged Jewish privilege and fanning the flames of resentment because of it that Hitler gained the support necessary to eventually carry out the Holocaust.

In addition to answering the major questions, Hayes also draws lessons about the Holocaust. He identifies potential opportunities that exist within the United States for stoking the flames of hatred, namely toward homosexuals and Hispanics. This may be Hayes weakest section since he fails to make necessary distinctions between the motivations for the resentment of Jews within Germany and the motivations for wanting to secure the southern border within the United States. He also fails to interact with movements aimed at the rich, such as Occupy Wall Street, or the popular concepts of social justice and white privilege. Still, Hayes does offer up a wonderfully thorough explanation for why the Holocaust took place, and why there was little resistance to it.
1,629 reviews8 followers
December 6, 2019
The title of this book reminds me of a story I heard from college, that one final exam question was simply "Explain the Holocaust". This book was an embodiment of that exam, only a lot longer than an exam booklet, and with more citations. This work does attempt to offer some concise points about the Holocaust. Hayes covers the definition and origins of antisemitism, the origins of German antisemitic feelings and beliefs, how the Nazis leveraged that hatred to come to power, how they initially dealt with the Jews, how that evolved as the war evolved, how they implemented the Holocaust, how the victims dealt with the torture and death, and what happened in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Hayes' analysis does attempt to challenge certainly long-held beliefs, such as the real impact of the Holocaust on German logistics and economic outputs (the Holocaust barely registered any significant impact on German rail, despite previously held assumptions and while the Holocaust was very profitable for the German economy (from the plunder/lootings), slave labor was hardly the economic boon to the German war industries).

Like many books about the Holocaust, it can be hard to read, given that still doesn't seem real that people could do that to each other. However, this book focuses more on theories, data and impact, making it a bit impersonal and more analytical than other books about the subject. Still, the academic structure is readable and readers from all levels (scholarly to lay readers) can follow the theories and assumptions. The full story of the Holocaust may never be told in its entirety, but this work does have its place on the shelves of good Holocaust analysis.
Profile Image for Moni2506.
305 reviews
April 30, 2022
„Warum? Eine Geschichte des Holocaust“ von Peter Hayes ist ein Sachbuch, dass sich anhand von 8 Fragen mit dem Holocaust beschäftigt. Erschienen ist das Buch 2017 im Campus-Verlag.

Normalerweise schreibe ich eine eigene Zusammenfassung, aber diesmal übernehme ich den Klappentext vom Campus-Verlag:
Warum geschah der Holocaust, die Ermordung von Millionen jüdischer Menschen während des Nationalsozialismus? Peter Hayes ist der erste Historiker, der die Frage nach dem Warum ins Zentrum eines Buches stellt. Hayes spannt den Bogen von den Ursprüngen des Antisemitismus bis hin zur Bestrafung von NS-Verbrechern nach 1945. So gelingt ihm ein kluger und präziser Überblick über die Vernichtung der europäischen Juden. Ein eindrucksvolles Buch, an dem künftig nicht vorbeizukommen sein wird.

Im letzten Jahr konnten mich neben Science-Fiction auch Sachbücher für sich begeistern und so mache ich auch in diesem Jahr damit weiter. Beim Lesen erfordern diese Bücher eine etwas andere Herangehensweise, finde ich, denn diese lassen sich nicht mal eben nebenbei weg lesen, haben mir bisher aber meist neue Erkenntnisse gebracht.
Das Buch beschäftigt sich mit dem Holocaust und stellt die Frage nach dem Warum. Unterteilt ist das ganze in 8 Fragen, die sich mit jeweils einem Teilaspekt beschäftigen. Der Klappentext gibt bereits einen guten Aufschluss über die Themen, die in diesem Buch behandelt werden. Es wurde unglaublich viel Wissen zum Thema zusammengetragen und man merkt, dass sich der Autor ausführlich damit beschäftigt hat. Hierzu sollte allerdings erwähnt werden, dass es sich um einen emeritierten Professor für Geschichte und Deutsch sowie Holocaust Studies an der Northwestern University handelt.
Ich habe sehr viele neue Informationen für mich aus diesem Buch mitgenommen, anderes war mir bekannt, wurde aber mit neuen Zahlen und Fakten untermauert. Manche Kapitel waren einfacher für mich zu lesen, manche schwerer, manche Kapitel haben mich einfach nur wütend gemacht.
Neben den oben genannten Themen beschäftigt sich das Buch beispielsweise auch damit, warum niemand von außen geholfen hat und ab wann die Vorgänge ins Ausland gedrungen sind. Manchmal stellt das Buch provokative Fragen wie, warum sich die Juden nicht gewehrt haben. Bei diesem Kapitel hatte ich tatsächlich ein wenig Angst was da kommt, aber das hat sich dann relativ schnell gelegt.
In das letzte Kapitel mit den Lehren, die wir daraus ziehen können und ob das nochmal passieren kann, hatte ich tatsächlich mehr Hoffnung gesetzt. Ich musste dann feststellen, dass sich das Buch an ein amerikanisches Publikum richtet und da wurde mir dann fast ein wenig zu viel relativiert. Hier muss ich nochmal auf die Suche gehen, ob ich etwas finde, dass sich im speziellen an unsere geschichtliche Verantwortung im Zusammenhang mit diesem Thema richtet.
Ich habe meine Ausgabe bei der Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung erworben und da ist der Klappentext ein wenig anders und spricht zum Beispiel auch an, dass sich oftmals reflexartig von dem Thema distanziert wird und dieses Buch das überwinden möchte. In Teilen hat es das erfüllt. Das Buch spricht viele wichtige Mechanismen an, bei denen es auch heute noch wichtig ist, dass uns diese bewusst sind. Ich habe in diesem Buch einiges gelesen, dass mich an so manch andere heutige Situationen erinnert und was mir ein bisschen Angst macht für die zukünftige Entwicklungen.

Fazit: Ein Buch mit unheimlich viel Faktenwissen, das thematisch breit aufgestellt ist und einen tiefen Einblick in den Holocaust zulässt und manches Mal sehr schmerzvoll zu lesen ist. Leider richtet sich das Buch an ein amerikanisches Publikum und so konnte es mir kein befriedigende Antwort auf die Frage nach unserer geschichtlichen Verantwortung geben.
Profile Image for Roberto Treviño Iturbide.
75 reviews9 followers
February 13, 2023
Esta ha sido una de las mejores explicaciones que he leído sobre lo que fue el Holocausto. Creo que el autor hace un excelente trabajo explicando que el Holocausto no fue algo que se decidió en un determinado momento ni fue orden de una persona específica, sino que fue escalando y evolucionando al tiempo en que se desarrollaba la guerra.

Hay algunas opiniones y comentarios del autor que podrían ser revisadas, pero de ahí en fuera recomiendo ampliamente la lectura.
Profile Image for Marquise.
1,692 reviews295 followers
December 20, 2021
A good overview of eight issues in Holocaust history that the general public most wants answers for. Hayes goes for balance, without being too academic and getting bogged down by the amount of competing data, and presenting the two sides of a controversial point when there's one he must address. It's meant for the average reader and history lover, not for the professionals in the field, and all those that would like more in-depth information on any given topic of the eight Hayes tackles can consult the bibliography at the end.
37 reviews
September 14, 2021
As a lifelong teacher of the Holocaust, I've had no question more frequently posed than the simple, "Why?" And I didn't always have a satisfactory answer at hand.
So for me and anyone interested in a clear understanding of how and why the Holocaust happened, written by a premier authority on the subject and backed by up-to-date historical research, this book is essential. I wish I'd had it in 1976.
Hayes is an "economic historian" by training, and he uses numbers to enlighten.
The final chapter explores the lessons and legacies (spoiler alert: It's more than "never forget") in an honest and unflinching discussion. It includes a debunking of common myths about the Holocaust that any student of the subject will find useful.
Profile Image for Brooke.
384 reviews42 followers
January 7, 2023
A lot of people tend to ask "Why?" when it comes to answering the question of monstrosities. Peter Hayes attempts to answer that simple question in this well-researched review of history.

The chapters are divided into the following: Why the Jews? Why the Germans? Why This Swift & Sweeping? Why Didn't More Jews Fight Back More Often? Why Did Survival Rates Diverge? Why Such Limited Help from Outside? What Legacies, What Lessons?

This book is very in-depth and educational, so if you're interested in learning more about the history of the Shoah, I'd recommend this.
Profile Image for Julie Gray.
Author 3 books41 followers
November 29, 2020
The first third of this book was the best, most compelling, interesting information I have ever read about antisemitism and German/European politics leading up to WWII. I couldn't put it down. So much was illuminating for me in ways that were both educational and, of course, upsetting. Unfortunately, the other two-thirds of the book while also valuable is much more academic and scholarly, and try as I might, I got bogged down entirely. I definitely recommend the book, overall, but wish that the whole book was as readable as the first third of it. The parallels between Germany then and the United States now are just shocking - this is important stuff.
Profile Image for Brandon Foster.
67 reviews
February 10, 2021
This book is incredible. Hayes absolutely succeeds in his quest to answer some of the most notable questions about the Holocaust, most notably: Why? He offers a sweeping, yet detailed history of the Holocaust and presents it in a fresh and highly readable way. Some sections on the death camps, concentration camps, death marches and the like are hard to read, but it is important for us to remember what the Jewish people went through. May we all learn something from this book and others like it, to treat every human being with dignity, decency, and respect. I highly recommend this book.
17 reviews
January 20, 2020
Ein kurzweiliges Buch, das eine tiefe Analyse des Holocausts erlaubt und viele neue Erkenntnisse gebracht hat.
Profile Image for Catie.
212 reviews19 followers
February 18, 2017
"Our first responsibility as citizens, regardless of our walk of life, is to do no harm. That is not a doctrine of passivity. 'Why?' has shown how much harm doing nothing can do. It is a doctrine of activity informed by seriousness, prudence, restraint, and unselfishness."

"As William Pitt, a British prime minister in the mid-eighteenth century, once warned: 'Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.'"

"The first lesson of the study of the Holocaust for all minority groups in American society is 'be alert, but not afraid.' The general trend in America remains toward pluralism, freedom, and Jefferson's right to 'pursuit of happiness' for each person in his or her own way. We all have a responsibility to see to it that the trend continues; its opposite is the oppression, the stasis, and the homogeneity that Nazism prized."

"To prevent other Holocausts, it is not enough to combat antisemitism; one has also to fight for these broader values, and not only at home....In an increasingly globalized world, the obligation to combat and reduce parochialism and intolerance is an increasingly global matter."

"Sometimes historical work is an extended game of whack-a-mole."

"Everyone knows or should know that freedom is indivisible; when taken away from someone, it can be taken away from anyone. But few people dare to act on that principle--or think they need to do so--even under the best circumstances."

"The public mind was, in other words, methodically poisoned, and the measuring stick of morality systematically shifted from general ethical principles like the Golden Rule to the specific matter of whether an action strengthened Germany or did not."

"...power magnifies the ideas of those who hold it because of the human tendency to seek safety in conformity. The only antidotes are conviction--loyalty to a strong countervailing ideology--and the freedom to express it. Where these are lacking, as was the case in Germany after 1933, ideologues quickly get the upper hand and call the tune for behavior. A minority of haters, backed by the authority of the state, thus becomes free to drive events forward, to make the lives of any targeted group ever more miserable."

"The platform they ran on was summarized succinctly by Gregor Strasser, the day-to-day director of Party operations in the early 1930s, when he defined National Socialism as 'the opposite of what exists today.' And their method in state and national parliaments, as well as in municipal councils, was to disrupt democratic government, make it dysfunctional, and thus 'prove' its ineffectiveness in meeting Germans' needs. In a fundamental sense, this highly partisan political force ran against politics, with all its messy compromises, disagreements, and imperfections, and promised to replace it with order and strength."

"In sum: Nazi ideology was a witches' brew of self-pity, entitlement, and aggression. It was also a form of magical thinking that promised to end all of Germans' postwar sufferings, the products of defeat and deceit, by banishing their supposed ultimate cause, the Jews and their agents."
Profile Image for Sarah.
140 reviews1 follower
February 5, 2017
Peter Hayes brings a lucid and thoughtful voice to the discussion of Holocaust history and the events surrounding it. He writes his book with an eye at explaining the complicated and difficult parts with simplicity and nuance, and he does so with astonishing grace. His writing is beautiful, thoughtful and concise.

The book is designed to answer some of the biggest questions that people have about the Holocaust. Each chapter is a major question, and the rest of the chapter is the answer. The answers are never simplistic, but nor are they so complex as to be inscrutable. Hayes connects the dots and gives the reader all the relevant backstory in order to fill in the picture of what happened.

This book is a welcome addition to the history of the Holocaust, and it gives the reader a full understanding of how it happened, why it happened, and why no one stopped it from happening. Anyone at all will benefit from reading this book now, and for many years to come. His detailed account brings solemnity and truth to an often fraught and emotional topic.

The only complaint I have about this book is the author’s tendency to throw around a lot of names. There were many, many different Nazi leaders mentioned once or twice in one chapter, and then they would be referenced again fifty pages later. Many times it was hard to keep track of who was responsible for what. Outside of this one detail, though, it was a compelling and interesting read that was both educational and necessary.
Profile Image for Cathi Davis.
220 reviews11 followers
October 21, 2018
A superbly written book that tries to answer its title question through eight sub-questions ..why the Jews, why the Germans, why murder, why so swift and sweeping, why didn’t Jews fight back, why different survival rates, Why was outside help so limited, and what are the lessons to be learned ?
We have each probably asked at least one of these questions, and the author uses unrelenting statistics and gripping anecdotal stories to answer each of them.

This was a very slow read and after each chapter/question a pause was necessary to integrate the facts and conclusions before moving on to the next question. I must admit the last question had me turning to the front page to check when the book was written. 2017. So timely. His three part answer was not small and I quote them here.

1. This means that Politics matters, and none of us can afford to fail to participate in making responsible public policy.

2. This dreadful history shows the necessity of standing up To categorization and conspiracy peddling, of refusing to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to defamation.

3. The politics of division and emergency, of bullying and rage deserves opposition and scorn. We need to preserve the distinction between means and ends.

Early voting opens in Texas tomorrow. A state where normally only 25 percent of registered voters vote in midterm elections. Politics matters.
Profile Image for Karen.
609 reviews8 followers
December 2, 2021
Answers the why questions: why the Jews, why the Germans, why murder, why swift and sweeping annihilation, why didn't Jews fight back more often, why did survival rates diverge, why such limited help from outside? The author makes some very interesting points in a very readable text.

Some thoughts that struck a chord in me, as they relates to the current turmoil in the world:

. . . from now on, it is not up to you to deicide whether something is true, but whether it is in the interests of the National Socialist Revolution. . . how power magnifies the ideas of those who hold it because of the human tendency to seek safety in conformity. The only antidotes are conviction - loyalty to a strong countervailing ideology and the freedom to express it. p. 95.

. . . portrait is of a public split into three groups: people who endorsed the persecution of Jews, people who merely accepted it, and people who disliked it but saw little point in protesting, even though they expressed reservations or felt embarrassed about specific actions. p. 98

National Socialist morality: overcoming scruples against inflicting pain became a sign of moral progress not indecency. p. 141

. . . Nazi regime succeeded in creating a closed mental world, an ideological echo chamber in which leaders constantly harped on the threat the Jews (unjabbed?) supposedly constituted and the need for Germans to defend themselves against it. . . -. 144

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the mentality of the Nazi perpetrators was their self-delusion, their capacity to distract themselves from what they were doing by calling it something else. Perpetrators never owned up to torturing and slaughtering; they always professed to be serving a sanctified purpose that immunized them from the charge of immorality. p. 154

To succeed, it has needed a host that it can exploit - a pervasive sense of crises and victimization that allegedly justified lashing out in reprisal. That is the essential prerequisite for widespread demonizing of Jews as the root of all evil (sickness?) and the presence of this sort of sweeping crisis is what brought Hitler to power. p. 336

The veneer of civilization is thin, the rule of law is fragile, and the precondition of both is economic and political calm. This means that politics matters, and none of us can ever afford to fail to participate in making responsible public policy. Nazism stemmed from German racism, but that ideology would never have become national policy without the presence of an economic, national, and ideological crisis that fostered demagoguery and irresponsibility. Everyone's first goal in a decent society must be to avoid contributing to such a crises or to those responses. p. 340

The Holocaust illustrates the fundamental importance and difficulty of individual courage and imagination. . . there can be no drawing of distinctions between citizens when it comes to fundamental human rights, no hair-splitting about who gets to have them and who does not. . .dreadful history also shows that doing the right thing can have costs that are multiplied by the unwillingness of most people to pay them, so bravery is not enough - wit, wiliness, shrewd judgment, persistence, and creativity in challenging evil are also indispensable. Resistance is never easy and seldom comfortable. . . rising to that challenge begins with a refusal to be cowed, followed by alertness to opportunity. . . Pastor Andre Trocme, of Le Chambon-sur-LIgnon believed that if you choose to resist evil, and you choose this firmly, then ways of carrying out that resistance will open up around you. p. 341

The Holocaust testifies to the need to preserve the essential distinction between means and ends. Antinomianism - the idea that moral restrictions do not apply to us because of some special nobility or necessity or our purposes - is the fatal temptations that the Nazis proffered and the fateful rationalization they used. Still endemic, it always feeds on fear. In times of extreme crisis, the history of the Holocaust demonstrates a person's most profound moral commitments to family, faith, community, country, organization, party, and principle, for example - can be made to seem like reasons to choose to do great harm. . . p. 341

As William Pitt, a British prime minister in the mid 18th century warned, "necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves." The politics of division and emergency, of bullying and rage - the politics that says desperate times require the political equivalent of "stand-your-ground" laws - that sort of politics always deserves opposition and scorn because it is the politics that is just itching to get out of hand. p. 342

When did the Holocaust begin? Peter Hayes writes, April 1-5 1933 in Berlin. . . the occupation by a company of Nazi storm troopers in the offices of the National Association of German Industry. The thugs made clear their intention to stay and disrupt the association's work until it dismissed all its employees who were Jews or affiliated with other political parties. When Krupp (the industrialist who was also the head of this association) tried to persuade Hitler to call of his dogs, Hitler refused. Krupp then gave in, firing everyone of whom the Nazis disapproved on April 5 and thus breaking his contracts with each one of those people.

One of the members of the Association's governing board, Georg Muller-Oerlinghausen, wrote a prophetic protest to Krupp eight days later, saying that his actions amounted to capitulation to bullying and that they deprived the organization of all basis for future noncompliance with Nazi demands. If the German industrialists would not stand up for the contractual legal rights of their own personnel, for whom would they stand up and on what grounds. . . the more powerful the Nazis became, the more irreversibly right he was. Beware the beginnings. p. 343 (less)
Profile Image for Tiffany Brookshire.
84 reviews3 followers
May 4, 2017
Beware the beginnings.

If you take away anything from this book, it's to beware the beginnings. This is remarkably well-written, analytical and detached from sensationalism that often pervades other books on the Holocaust. Thoroughly written and clearly researched, the author poses the most common questions about the Holocaust, such as why the Germans? Why the Jews? Debunking common and dangerous myths and misconceptions with historical evidence and proof, Hayes has covered all of the bases for those truly interested in understanding why. It's not enough to say that the Holocaust is incomprehensible--as Hayes writes, that's indicative of laziness and a collective desire to render oneself so thoroughly disgusted by the idea that it could never occur again.

Beware the beginnings.
Profile Image for Daniel Liu.
21 reviews2 followers
February 9, 2021
Hayes' writing is clear, direct, and thorough. He identifies the core questions at the heart of why the Holocaust happened, explains how institutional failures and societal fractures allowed the Nazi regime to thrive, and dispels a number of myths that have sprung up in recent decades regarding the historical record.

I worry that many people have this idea in their minds that the horrors of the Holocaust are something that can be locked away in a Pandora's box, confined merely to the history books. Hayes shows this cannot be the case. That such atrocities could happen in a civilized society and in the face only emphasizes how important these lessons are.

Beware the beginnings.
Profile Image for Pam Irwin.
24 reviews
July 4, 2017
This was not a fun read but very informative. The upsetting topic took much longer to read to fully digest. The book provided important information to better understand the events leading up to the Holocaust and the progression. I can only hope we learn from our past to act better in the future as humans. We have to stay vigilant to recognize these terrible trends are still happening in our world today including areas like Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Central African Republic, Myanmar, Nigeria, Burundi, Turkey, Ukraine, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
July 13, 2017
Very readable history, enormous detail and interpretation

Corrects mountains of misinformation and offers a very clear timeline thesis on how and why Germany started on a path to disaster. Above all Hayes is a good storyteller able to relate events and keep his narrative going until the last page. At 432 pages that says a lot--I read it cover to cover.
Profile Image for Renuka.
119 reviews1 follower
July 7, 2017
I had gotten this book from the library. I keep going back to sections and reading parts of it. I think that I want to own a copy and intend to buy the book.
Profile Image for Matt Hooper.
178 reviews2 followers
August 2, 2018
"To enter into the [study of the] Holocaust is to risk enormous disillusionment with human beings and to awaken deep anxiety about how badly things can go wrong in this world." -- Peter Hayes, "Why?: Explaining the Holocaust" (page 324)

At the end of this year -- 2018 -- my wife and I are visiting Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic to celebrate the holidays. We'll be spending at least one of those vacation days at what remains of a World War II concentration camp (Dachau, for sure -- and maybe Mauthausen, too).

My wife is a long-suffering, very patient person.

The Germans (and Austrians and Poles, for that matter) have done an admirable job of preserving many of these notorious sites as a memorial to victims of the Holocaust and as a real-life reminder that human beings are capable of evil on an almost inconceivable scale. Before walking through those foreboding, ironic gates at Dachau (the ones proclaiming that "work will make you free"), it is essential that one absorb a proper amount of historical context.

If reading is your preferred way of absorbing context, then allow me to full-throatedly recommend Peter Hayes brilliantly written "Why?: Explaining the Holocaust."

"Why?" is focused around the questions that continue to haunt us even 80 some-odd years after the Nazis' extermination campaign began against European Jews (as well as political foes, gay men, gypsies, Slavs, and other so-called dissidents). Of the eight chapters -- seven are explicitly focused on answering a single question. In organizing the book in this way, Hayes delivers what amounts to a chronological history of the Holocaust, but in a more digestible, contemporary format.

Here are some of the aforementioned questions:

Why did the Nazis target Jews in the first place? (Short answer: Antisemitism has existed in some form since the time of Jacob. The Jews have long been targets of vitriol -- the Nazis continued the thread.)

Why did this happen in Germany, specifically? (Short answer: Antisemitism was not demonstrably more pervasive in Germany than anywhere else in Europe, but economic and political conditions in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s coalesced into a perfect storm that Hitler exploited to his benefit.)

Was murdering the Jews the original goal of the Nazi regime? (Short answer: Probably not. Hitler and the Nazis were looking to clear living space and farm lands to support Aryan livelihood. The initial goal was to deport Jews, which eventually proved unworkable in practice. Over time, deportation evolved into destruction.)

How did this all happen so quickly? (Short answer: The world was not as small then as it is now. The Nazis placed their camps in remote areas, away from the reach of the Allies. They also operated in a near-total absence of humanity, which made things easier for them. After all, if you treat human beings like cattle, you won't object to packing them tightly into boxcars. By killing en masse using cheap gas, the Nazis could wipe out thousands of people in a very short time at practically no cost.)

Why didn't the Jews fight back? (Short answer: Because the Nazis had a virtually insurmountable advantage both physically and psychologically over their victims.)

Why did other nations not rally quicker to aid those tortured by the Nazis? (Short answer: It's complicated. Jewish deportation might have worked for the Nazis had more nations stepped up and accepted more Jewish migrants. But few leaders had -- or felt they had -- the political capital necessary to do so. Most of the killing that took place at the hands of the Nazis took place before the Allies could get on the ground to stop it. If D-Day taken place a couple of years earlier, many Jews would have presumably been saved. But the Allies simply couldn't ramp up their military capabilities within that timeframe.)

What has taken some historians volumes to analyze, Hayes has managed to condense into a (relatively) quick, but still dense, read.
His measured, fact-forward retelling of one of history's most horrific, complicated and controversial topics is worth reading, regardless of where you'll spend your holiday this year.
Profile Image for Nathan Albright.
4,419 reviews97 followers
May 9, 2019
It is said, to the point of being a cliche, that there is no business like Shoah business, and this book is certainly part of that to such an extent that it expressly seeks to answer the question as to why it exists as a book.  Now, this book has very straightforward aims, and that is to answer a series of questions about why the Holocaust happened and why it happened the way it did.  The author is very direct about answering these questions, whether it is in exploring the necessary context of the Holocaust itself or misunderstandings about it.  One can read a lot of books about it if one chooses.  So, why read this book?  As it happens, this book, in making questions the framework of its discussion, makes for a good book for those who have questions about the Holocaust, which is a fairly common thing to have.  If you have questions about the Shoah, this book is certainly a good place to look for initial answers, to spur further research as necessary into some of the many different aspects of the Holocaust including various places and figures and the historical antecedents of it, all of which this author discusses in part.

This book of about 350 pages is devoted to answering a series of why questions.  The introduction asks the question of why the reader should read another book on the Holocaust.  After that the author looks at why the Jews were the main targets of the Holocaust, looking at the basis of antisemetism in Europe and the backlash to 19th century Emancipation in Germany (1).  The author then looks at why the Germans were the ones who attacked, pondering the question of the German volk as well as Hitler's leadership (2).  The author then looks at why hostility to Jews was escalated to genocide, looking at the Gentile and Jewish responses to the violence (3), as well as the question of why the genocide was so swift and sweeping (4), which leads the author to look at the generation of German youth without limits and the enslavement of the Jews had made them particularly vulnerable.  After that the author looks at resistance and compliance and why the Jews didn't fight back more often, showing that it made little difference what the Jews did because their survival was not under their control (5), as well as the question as to what led survival rates to diverge from country country (6), which the author explores in considerable detail.  Finally, the author looks at why there was such limited help from outside (7) and what legacies and what lessons can we gain from the Holocaust (8).

Like all books about the Holocaust tend to be fairly grim as they reflect upon the context of the Holocaust, and the question of German (and Polish) guilt, and on the meanings it has for us.  To what extent could a Holocaust or something similar like it happen today?  Who are the people who are the most likely to be targets of genocidal hatred in this world and what can be done about it?  What is necessary to mobilize world opinion against acts of violence committed by governments against populations?  These are questions of contemporary relevance and they are the sort of questions that point to the problems that we have in our day and age that are simply far beyond reading about the past.  What payment must be made for past violence?  To what extent can people forgive and forget?  And how do we make sure that our own civilization is not merely a thin veneer over beastly violence?  When it comes to reading and thinking about the Holocaust, like many people I have a great many questions with unsettling answers.
Profile Image for Brad Eastman.
90 reviews7 followers
October 11, 2021
I was given this book when I joined the Board of Advisors of Holocaust Museum Houston. I have read a lot of books about the Holocaust in my life and I was not sure this book would offer any new insight. I turned out to be pleasantly surprised, particularly after the first two chapters. Mr. Hayes has structured this book as a series of eight questions about the Holocaust. The first two (Targets: Why the Jews? and Attackers: Why the Germans?) are good surveys appropriate to an introductory college class of how the Jews became targeted in Europe and how the Nazis rose to power in Germany by taking a long, if not deep, view of history. These chapters are fine introductory texts, but I did not feel that I learned much new. The book starts to really shine in Chapter 3 (Escalation: Why Murder) where Mr. Hayes provides a detailed analysis of how German policy towards the Jews evolved throughout the Nazi regime. In particular, Germany found itself the victim of its own success. As Germany increased its empire throughout the 30's and 40's, ironically Germany found itself the steward of more and more Jews. Mr. Hayes does an excellent job of illustrating this conundrum and how it drove Nazi policymaking. Chapter Four (Annihilation: Why This Swift and Sweeping?) also provides detailed numbers about the murders, the methods and the relative brief time (18 months) when most of the killings took place. Mr. Hayes does an excellent job of putting the scale of murder in perspective with hard facts. In Chapter 5 (Victims: Why Didn't More Jews Fight Back More Often?), Mr. Hayes looks to the futility of resistance, the psychological games Nazi's played with their victims and the troubling nature of Jewish cooperation with the Nazis. Mr. Hayes is more sympathetic to the instruments of Jewish self-governance under the Nazis than other scholars (e.g., Hanna Arendt) and the State of Israel have been in the past. I really enjoyed Chapter 6 (Homelands: Why Did Survival Rates Diverge?) as Mr. Hayes investigates why even in countries that had sympathetic populations (e.g., Holland) had such bad survival rates, while some states that were allied with the Nazis (e.g., Bulgaria) did much better. I believe Chapter 7 (Onlookers: Why Such Limited Help from Outside?) was my favorite. Mr. Hayes does an excellent job of surveying why other countries did not do more, looking at the domestic politics of various countries that prevented them from doing more to assist Jews. Particularly eye opening is Mr. Hayes discussion of the efforts of various American Jewish organizations. Chapter Eight (Aftermath: What Legacies, What Lessons?) asks what we can learn from studying the Holocaust. I found this chapter slightly unsatisfying for two reasons. First, I think Mr. Hayes does not do a good job of discussing how the Holocaust has been used and abused by various states for political purposes. I think two better examples are Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands and Ian Burma's The Wages of Guilt. I think Anne Applebaum also addresses this question better in The Crushing of Eastern Europe. Second, I think drawing lessons from history will always depend on the circumstances of the time in which the history is constructed. Mr. Hayes draws lessons very appropriate for 21st Century America, and sometimes too transparently. The real issue for me is that the Holocaust may have been so cataclysmic that drawing more detailed, universal lessons becomes very difficult, but that difficulty spurs further study.
Profile Image for Monika Bělinová.
84 reviews3 followers
January 7, 2023
Kníh a informácií o holokauste nájdete mnoho (a to teraz nemyslím tie, ktoré ho popierajú alebo ohýbajú, ako sa im hodí). Máloktoré zdroje sú však napísané tak, že po ich prečítaní bude mať bežný človek naozaj jasno v úplnom základe. PREČO sa to vôbec stalo a ako mohla genocída v takom obrovskom rozsahu prebehnúť v srdci civilizovanej Európy v 20. storočí?

Áno, existujú aj komplikované, akademickým jazykom napísané monografie, ktoré sa šoa venujú zo všetkých strán, no z vlastnej skúsenosti viem, že ich lúskanie niekedy bolí :) Peter Hayes vo svojej veľmi triezvej a precíznej analýze Prečo? Ako pochopiť holokaust rozbije túto otázku na drobné, aby veľmi zrozumiteľne, no zároveň dostatočne podrobne a odborne vysvetlil aj nehistorikovi, čo všetko viedlo k tomu, že práve v Nemecku (a nie napríklad v Rusku alebo vo Francúzsku) sa antisemitizmus rozbehol na plné obrátky.

Prečo vlastne práve Židia boli označovaní za pôvodcov všetkých možných problémov? Ako sa Hitler dostal k moci? Prečo boli riešením arizácie a vraždenie, rýchle a radikálne? Bránili sa Židia? Pomáhal im niekto, snažil sa zastaviť túto katastrofu? Prečo/prečo nie? Skončil sa holokaust kapituláciou Nemecka v máji 1945? Čo nasledovalo potom? Poučili sme sa z minulosti?

Kniha je rozdelená na 8 kapitol, ktoré vám odpovedia na tieto a ďalšie otázky, vyvrátia mýty a polopravdy, ktorým možno veríte (napríklad že antisemitizmus vyniesol Hitlera k moci). Nájdete tu vyčerpávajúco vysvetlené spoločenské, politické, ekonomické aj kultúrne príčiny holokaustu v historickom kontexte.

(Nielen) Buča, Mariupoľ či Irpiň nám smutne pripomínajú, že čítať takéto knihy s porozumením je veľmi dôležité. Nezabúdajme na minulosť a neopakujme chyby, ktoré viedli k obludným tragédiám.

Ako viackrát Hayes zdôraznil – pozor na začiatky… Musíme sa naučiť vyrovnať sa s pamäťou a identitou. „Máme sklon obe velebiť s pokrikmi ako „nikdy viac” či „nikdy nezabudneme” a zakaždým, keď ich vyslovíme, sa utvrdzujeme v našom dedičstve a vernosti. Oba tieto zvyky však majú svoje temné stránky.”
Profile Image for Andy.
551 reviews14 followers
September 5, 2018
This book is a great exploration of the causes, events and effects of the Holocaust. The clear connections drawn between causes and effects, as well as the great structure of the chapters made it easy to follow and remember. I have read various books on this topic over the years, but I have never read one that is so to the point and so well structured that I am left with answers instead of more questions and some confusion. You can tell that the author has spent decades not only researching this subject-matter, but also teaching it. He addresses all common questions and misconceptions about the Holocaust in such a way that I almost had the impression of attending a lecture series. Really good!

My reason for giving this book 4 instead of 5 stars is the fact that in my opinion it could have used a few more graphs and/or maps. It does deal with a lot of numbers that are sometimes getting a bit lost, if there are just so many of them over pages and pages. The author does a good job explaining them and giving them significance, but being able to actually see them all at a glance would have maybe made it easier to follow and see the connections or differences. Since the book does already contain some graphs and maps, it would not be a complete deviation of the existing.

In summary, I can only recommend this book to everyone who is interested in history and learning more about this dark chapter in the history of humanity.
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