How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader

How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader

How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader

How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader


As the Holocaust passes out of living memory, future generations will no longer come face-to-face with Holocaust survivors. But the lessons of that terrible period in history are too important to let slip past. How Was It Possible?, edited and introduced by Peter Hayes, provides teachers and students with a comprehensive resource about the Nazi persecution of Jews. Deliberately resisting the reflexive urge to dismiss the topic as too horrible to be understood intellectually or emotionally, the anthology sets out to provide answers to questions that may otherwise defy comprehension.
This anthology is organized around key issues of the Holocaust, from the historical context for antisemitism to the impediments to escaping Nazi Germany, and from the logistics of the death camps and the carrying out of genocide to the subsequent struggles of the displaced survivors in the aftermath.
Prepared in cooperation with the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, this anthology includes contributions from such luminaries as Jean Ancel, Saul Friedlander, Tony Judt, Alan Kraut, Primo Levi, Robert Proctor, Richard Rhodes, Timothy Snyder, and Susan Zuccotti. Taken together, the selections make the ineffable fathomable and demystify the barbarism underlying the tragedy, inviting readers to learn precisely how the Holocaust was, in fact, possible.


The Holocaust, the Nazi attempt to eradicate the Jews of Europe, has come to be regarded as the emblematic event of the Twentieth Century, the epitome of the “era of ideologies” (Karl Dietrich Bracher) and the “age of extremes” (Eric Hobsbawm). One prominent scholar, Zygmunt Baumann, even has identified the Holocaust as the characteristic expression of the brutal, amoral rationality that he sees at the very heart of modern society. Such views crystallized relatively recently, largely since the 1970s, but they now signify a broad consensus about the major and ominous significance of the events that are the subject of this book.

Yet the Holocaust continues to resist comprehension. Despite thousands of books and the labors of countless historians and other scholars, novelists and memoirists, witnesses and judges, researchers and commissions, the topic often gives rise to a form of intellectual and emotional despair, a sense that the suffering unleashed was too great, too horrible, and too senseless to be accounted for by conventional explanatory processes, let alone grasped or understood. This feeling is, I believe, a reflex, an almost involuntary expression of revulsion at the barbarism of what happened. No matter how decent its origins, however, that reflex has harmful consequences. Above all, it stands in the way of learning from the Holocaust. The unfathomable can inspire awe, but not knowledge. Labeling something incomprehensible encourages and excuses turning attention elsewhere.

This book proceeds from the editor’s twin convictions that the question the title asks—How Was It Possible?—is answerable and that the proof of this emerges from full and accurate descriptions of what the participants thought, said, and did. Yes, the assumptions, perspectives, and environments of those participants were often so different from ours as to be difficult to access. Yes, our ability to enter into their mental worlds is impeded by what stands between them and us: the distorting filter of knowledge about what came next. And, yes, making dreadful developments intelligible runs the risk of seeming to lend them a kind of intelligence or even justification; a French adage warns, “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” to understand all is to forgive all. But to shrink from these challenges is to abandon the subject of the Holocaust to demagogic exploitation in a host of contemporary arguments. Although historical knowledge generally does not lead to unanimity about why and how enormous cataclysms occurred, it often narrows down the range of defensible explanations. The result is not only enhanced understanding of the past, but also enriched capacity to counter misleading analogies to the present.

This book also reflects another of its editors convictions: the Holocaust was National Socialist Germany’s assault on the Jews of Europe. Nazism attacked many groups, but none for the same reason that it attacked the Jews, none with the same urgency, and none to the same extent. Hitler’s ideology depicted the Jews as uniquely dangerous . . .

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