Speaker debunks Holocaust myths
Professor Peter Hayes of Northwestern
University attempted to demystify
surrounding the Holocaust at the Annual
Berger Family Lecture last Sunday,
In conjunction with the Jewish Studies Program, the grant from the Berger Family allows a speaker to come to Colby once a year to discuss an issue relating to the Holocaust. At this year's lecture, Hayes, a professor of history and German, and the Theodore Z. Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor of Holocaust Studies, delivered a lecture entitled "The Holocaust: Myths and Misunderstandings."
As a historian, Hayes explained that his job consists of two goals: discovery and clarification. Throughout the course of his presentation, he focused on clarifying what he believed to be eight common misinterpretations of the Holocaust. "A historian's work is never done," Hayes said. "Refuting historical myth is never easy."
The first conception that Hayes challenged was that anti-Semitic sentiment played a major role in the rise of Hitler. Although there were anti-Semitic political parties, "they never got more than four percent of the vote," Hayes explained. Besides, Hitler was not affiliated with a party that was exclusively anti- Semitic. After Hitler gained a position of power, "anti-Semitism became legitimate and advantageous." However, it was not used to strengthen the Nazi party until after Hitler seized control of the government. Hayes continued, arguing that contrary to popular belief, killing the Jews was not Hitler's goal from the start. "Of course we cannot read Hitler's mind," Hayes said. "But it is by no means clear that he intended [to execute] until he needed to." According to Hayes, the defining moment was when Hitler wanted to move the German territory eastward into largely Jewish populated areas.
At this point, Hitler's expansionary policies resulted in a perceived need to remove the Jews.
Another notion that Hayes attempted to clarify was the idea that the Allies could have saved more Jews. Although he acknowledged that more could have been done to help the Jews, Hayes asserted that given the public consensus, it was unrealistic to do. "Few politicians could have gotten elected by saying so," Hayes said. The general sentiment was "if we take the German Jews, in that will drive the Poles to send more Jews as well." This antirefugee mentality prevented the Allies from being able to help the Jews in a more significant way.
Similarly, some people have charged that the Jews could have done more to protect themselves. Hayes debunked this suggestion by pointing out, "They were weakened of any possibility of resistance...the objective was to make people incapable [of resistance]." By instituting policies that systematically dehumanized the Jews, the Nazis were able to prevent uprisings.
An additional disputed belief surrounding the Holocaust was that greater popular solidarity, on the domestic level, would have saved more Jews. That is to say, if more people had given refuge to Jews in their homes, there would have been fewer deaths. Though in theory this would be true, "probably only five to 10 percent of Holocaust survivors were those who had been concealed," stated Hayes. "Power magnifies by institutional action, not through individuals."
In terms of the German war effort, many people believe that by engaging in the Holocaust, the Nazis were using resources that could have been saved for the war. Hayes explained that such a claim would be mistaken. "The Holocaust was cheap," he said. "It was not labor intensive...there was no real drain in German manpower."
Even though the Nazis confiscated the Jews' property, Hayes maintained that the Jews' persecution was not driven by Nazi greed. Stealing from the Jews was "an afterthought," said Hayes. "It was not impetuous." Last, and perhaps most significant in understanding the driving force behind these events, is the idea that the Holocaust represents the dangers of modernity. On the contrary, Hayes ascertained that "Auschwitz was more like a 19th century slaughterhouse than a modern factory...the only modern device used was a gun."
Hayes pointed out that the ideology behind the Holocaust was rooted in a more agricultural conception in which "animal husbandry turns human society into the law of the jungle." According to Hayes, the Holocaust does not demonstrate a clear example of the spirit of modernity.