A review and analysis of Dan McMillan's book "How Could It Happen." The reviewer offers as part of the summary of the review, an alternative explanation, that includes the reviewer's own combination of variables that predict to modern genocide.
The author of the book "How Could This Happen," attempts to disavow us of the notion that because of the racist extremism that allowed the holocaust to occur, we must conclude that man is basically evil. Dan McMillan does this primarily by not allowing us to "throw our hands up in the air" at the complexities that led to one of the world's greatest moral disasters. Giving us instead, a cogent, cleanly-written narrative that, while not everywhere convincing, does nevertheless give us the outlines of a testable theory that could explain both why and how the holocaust occurred.
The shorter version of the author's theory is that it took an impossible combinations of dangerous ideas, ruined people, and unimaginable bad luck to make this catastrophe happen.
In the longer version, he pulls all of these improbable variables together into a powerful analytic narrative that solves the puzzle of the historical circumstances that caused the rise of Nazi Germany and the holocaust that followed in its wake.
In this longer version, German history plays a dominant role, as the author shows us how the holocaust occurred above all else because Germany did not become a democracy before its own 1918 socialist inspired revolution. This revolution not only gave Germany's rightwing ruling elite the upper hand, but also the motive and the opportunity to fight a long battle against democratic reforms and against their greatest fear of all, a Communist revolution similar to what had just occurred a year earlier in Russia.
In this battle -- fought as much against democratic reforms as against the fear of a Communist revolution -- the rightwing ruling clique used anti-Semitism and extreme nationalism as their primary weapons of choice. Jews were made the scapegoats for all of Germany's problems -- from the lost of WW-I, to fomenting the socialist led revolution of 1918, to keeping class antagonism alive; to, most of all, being over-represented in the professions and the culture of German society. This palpable and deeply rooted race-based hatred for Jews, even more so than its turbulent history and its fear of Communism, set the table for the arrival of the diminutive Austrian Corporal, Adolph Hitler -- the most extreme racist and anti-Semite of them all.
Against all odds, this most unattractive of political characters gained the backing of rightwing cliques in the upper class and wrested power from an anarchic series of weak autocratic regimes pulled together by Otto von Bismarck. By 1934, Hitler had become the sole holder of German power and legitimacy.
Two important milestones in Hitler's intellectual growth and preparation for leadership was the honing of his oratorical skills in the coffee houses of Munich and Berlin, and the adoption of his own manifesto, "Mein Kampt," written while he was in jail. Importantly, we discover here that "Mein Kampt," parroted in toto the themes written by a member of the ultra rightwing Pan-German society, named Heinrich Class. Class called his book "If I were Emperor."
In his manifesto (of everything Germans held dear at the time), Class rhapsodized about German racial superiority; its need to unify around a charismatic leader and around a kind of tribal loyalty that would be more precious than loyalty to family. Class' tract also called for a robust and muscular German nationalism and militarism that would wipe away the shame of the Versailles Treaty and would at the same time befit Germany's new superior status on the world stage, allowing it to acquire colonies and expand its territories to provide the much needed additional living space. But above all else, Class' manifesto vilified Jews as being genetic and morally inferior traitors who were destructive to German unity, and thus at the very least, were unworthy of German citizenship, and at most, should be banished from German lands -- or worse yet, completely done away with.
At the same time, reaching its high water mark in the decades leading up to WW-II, an intellectual movement was introduced to Hitler by America called "Scientific Racism." Grossly misreading Darwin's theory of Evolution, its culmination was the American Eugenics program, which, like Heinrich Class' Manifesto, was used by Hitler as a template for inventing a new sociobiological policy to go along with his ideology of nationalism and racism. It called for culling the world of inferior beings and designating them as unworthy of life.
Shadows of Hitler's fear of Communism as well as his program for "weeding out the unfit" because they represented a costly "dead weight" on society, can still be seen today as a not too well-hidden twice-removed subtext of all of the Republican Party's domestic social programs.
The Hitler adaptation of these ideas claimed that Jews were genetically inferior -- hard-wired at birth to be destructive -- and thus morally and biologically "unfit" to be Germans as well as undeserving of life. Rather paradoxically, he made this claim at the same time that most Germans hated Jews because they were perceived as too successful and over-represented in German media, and in German professional and cultural life. Which raises the interesting question of how Jews could be both unfit and inferior at the same time that they were perceived to be the most successful professional ethnic group in Germany?
Then, given his utter lack of competence, came Hitler's stunning almost magical string of successes that bound even the most skeptical Germans to him and his racist ideology. By bringing Germany out of the depression in only four years; reversing the humiliating Versailles Treaty; unifying all Germans around a charismatic leader and around the idea of "the volk;" building up one of the world's most formidable military machine in world history, and using it to overrun Europe in less than a year, Hitler earned the undying fealty of all but a dwindling fraction of the German population. Germans could now forget that they lost two million in WW-I.
By the beginning of 1941, the only elements in the Hitler/Class agenda for attaining German biological superiority that had not yet been fulfilled was taking over Russia, and ridding German society of the "much-reviled Jew."
With all of Germany's solidarity centered on completing this last perhaps most important of the Hitler/Class agenda items, Hitler allowed his plans for a "final Solution of the Jewish problem" to "leak" to the proper members of his staff. And they, as always, "working toward the leader," behind a wall of secrecy, "read Hitler's mind," and intuited what had to be done; and then with minimal verbal orders and instructions, they set about the business of proactively completing Hitler's agenda. With or without explicit orders, Hitler's henchmen got the machinery for industrialized murder up and running, ready to roll towards genocide. Had the Russians not stopped Hitler in his tracks, the world today would be a very different place in which to live.
Summary and Analysis
From this point onwards, the author structures his narrative arguments in such a way that even though he later denied it, he nevertheless seemed to try subtly to pin the responsibility for the holocaust on the German people collectively -- rather than on the criminal Hitler government and his henchmen -- where arguably the responsibility justifiably should have been laid.
As but one strain of the author's argument goes,"ordinary Germans had to know what was going on" and thus should have rebelled against Hitler's criminal regime and its murderous machinery of death. However, this argument is undercut by the reality of the fact that most German's were in lockstep with Hitler's virulent anti-Semitism. Yet, the fact that they were silently complicit, does not mean that their share of the responsibility was equal to that of the Nazi regime itself.
In his unstated but implied thesis, the author strongly insinuates that the German people allowed their anti-Semitic emotions to get the better of them; and that this clouded their moral judgment so much so that it was easy for Hitler's soothing nationalistic oratory to seduce them. And then Hitler used this seduction to further lower their moral inhibitions and further confuse their moral compasses. Their moral compasses had already veered so far off course that they were reduced to willingly engaging in mass murder along side Hitler's henchmen, all with the Fuhrer's permission and moral protection.
And while there is much to be said for this thesis, I believe it obscures subtleties that when raised to higher visibility in the analysis, could alone constitute an even more robust alternative explanation.
The alternative explanation I speak of is that of connecting the dots between several not so obvious variables and then assessing their combined role in producing the holocaust. To wit: Hitler being a tool of Germany's rightwing ruling clique of businessmen, professionals, and the military officers corps -- all rightwing ideologues; his virulent racism and anti-Semitism that grew more and more rabid over time; and most important of all the fact that all of the murders were carried out behind a wall of secrecy; one erected by a criminal/Fascist "national security state" specifically designed to engage in the business of genocide.
The ideological manifesto that Hitler executed to perfection was a "carbon copy" of the Pan- German Heinrich Class' own manifesto. And thus, even though Hitler's regime was a legitimate government, the very fact that it had a formally acknowledged policy of genocide against Jews, rendered it little more than a criminal enterprise. The mere existence of plans for genocide rendered the Third Reich, both legitimate and criminal.
The author seemed more than just a bit reluctant to accept the fact that governments can be both criminal and legitimate. In fact, he seemed to have willfully ignored this distinction altogether. But the distinction is important not only to better expose the Nazis criminal element and criminal intent, but for another reason.
All orders to kill Jews were always issued verbally so as not to leave a paper trail, and always behind a wall of secrecy, (usually at the "Top Secret" level) so that the outside world would never know about it. Moreover, like in any criminal organization, (and as Franz Stangl found out upon discovering that he could not resign his job as sentry at a Euthanasia murder factory), the penalty for exposing one's "guilty knowledge," was the same as in the Mafia for refusing to carry out an order of murder: the perpetrator is allowed to exit the wall of secrecy only in a pine box. The fact that there were instances where Germans were excused from this ultimate threat, does not mean that the Germans in question were any less intimidated by it. Nor, does excusing them from time to time, make the Nazi regime any less a criminal enterprise.
It seemed to me that the author went to great pains to minimize both the criminality of the Hitler regime and, the rightwing ruling clique that handpicked and backed him, as well as the severity of the implicit threat the criminal Nazi system held over the heads of anyone who refused an order or chose to reveal "state secrets" about the murders.
Again, Gitta Sereny's Franz Stangl (in her book "Into the Darkness") seems to be the perfect case in point: While an Austrian police, Stangl hated and was rewarded for hunting down Nazis. Then, after Austria was annexed to Germany, Stangl, cleverly erased his past as a Nazi-Hunter, and became a Nazi. And as mentioned above, Stangl ended up as a Security Guard at a Euthanasia facility where he balked after learning what actually went on inside that facility.
But by then it was already too late, as when he sought to resign or get reassigned, he was presented with an unexpected life-threatening fait accompli. He was told that he was already beyond the point of no return, deep inside the Nazi inner sanctum, and could leave only via a pine box. So what did Stangl do? He kept his head down and became the best Nazi he could be, eventually ending up as the commandant of both Treblinka and Sorbibor.
Not to belabor the point, but I believe that a criminal racist rightwing regime that is allowed to erect a screen of secrecy, behind which it can then operate without impunity, as it carries out murder, is by definition a criminal regime -- even if it might also be legitimate.
This arrangement of factors arguably is a much more potent set of variables that invariably predict to genocide than those offered by the author. In fact, I would argue that in modern forms of genocide, this configuration of factors is more often the rule than the exception, and is much more important than just having a nation of willing executioners. Five Stars
Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at Seattle. A graduate of the National War College and a Phd from the University of Southern California.