This is quite an extraordinary book. How, you ask, can there be anything more to say after hundreds of writers have delved into this topic? Holocaust literature is almost a genre unto itself. And judging from the length of Hayes’s bibliography, he has read most of it. But now, with the passing of the generation that perpetrated, and suffered, the Holocaust, is perhaps the time for another definitive look.
Yes, there have been other holocausts – other genocides, other ethnic cleansings – and they continue today. Which is perhaps Hayes’s point . . . if we have not learned how to prevent this outcome, then perhaps we need to look more analytically at the actions, events and conditions that allowed it to happen.
Hayes explains how a failing economy, particularly the huge disparity in the distribution of wealth, engendered so much fear in the German population that they listened to the leader who made the most promises, who shouted them the loudest, and who convinced them the impossible was possible – and that he, and only he, could make it happen. Promises were made, and some were kept. What first passed as patriotism, love of country and leader, became a nationalistic frenzy – a dangerous situation for minorities – those who were seen as “not like us.” With a calculated understanding of just how much could be tolerated at any given time, those in power engineered their terrible solution, day by day, edict by edict – and no one stopped them until it was too late. So many people, so many governments, so many religious leaders – were complicit.
We’ve all heard of Dachau and Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen – but the truth is that there were nearly 40,000 “work” camps and death camps throughout Germany and Poland. Some were very small, with only a half dozen guards; some held several thousand doomed prisoners – they dotted the countryside like family farms. As my 94-year-old veteran friend says, “At first we didn’t know. We were going to save the world. Some guy named Hitler was taking over whole countries and it was our job to stop him. But then the rumors started to circulate among the guys. At first we knew none of that stuff could be true. And then we started to wonder . . . And finally, those of us who made it all the way, we saw it with our own eyes. Those memories come back to me every night, just like it was yesterday.”
Although this is a serious work of scholarship, it’s very readable. I understand it is not going to be the #1 book checked out of Tucker Free, but It feels important, it feels like something to which we should all be paying attention. The one big question that is only partially answered: how could we - the U.S., the rest of the world - have allowed this to happen? One hopes the answer doesn’t lie in today’s newspaper.