How was the Holocaust Possible?
Jamie McCarthy answers:
I am one of the volunteers who answers questions for The Holocaust History Project. Let me try to address each of your questions.
The first is the hardest. It is nearly impossible to understand, even today, that such a thing could happen at all in a country considered to be the height of civilization and culture. Many people did foresee the brutalization of Germany's Jews, but it is safe to say that, in the mid-1930s, few people imagined that events would ever be as horrible as they ended up ten years later. Some thought that Hitler's antisemitism, which he did nothing to hide (quite the opposite), was little more than talk. Some did not imagine that Hitler's quest for Lebensraum (living space) would lead to the attempted conquest of Europe, thus endangering Jews and many others outside of Germany. And some, although in retrospect it is easy to see all the warning signs, just did not want to consider that the Nazis would set in motion such brutal and inhumane measures.
Remember that, by the time the program of extermination (as opposed to cultural exclusion, forced emigration, and ghettoization) was taking place, the Jews who were targeted were already living in areas overrun by Germany's military.
Regarding your second question: this is very subjective. I believe it is always possible for a culture to become infected with the notion that another culture is inferior, diseased, or evil, and needs to be eradicated. Recall the cultural genocide in Rwanda just a few years ago, when 800,000 were murdered because of their heritage and position. A look at the events leading up to the current war in Kosovo is proof enough of the fact that a power-mad dictator can stir up hatred among his fellow citizens in what seems almost the blink of an eye.
Personally, I think that such events are very unlikely in any country with a free press and a strong commitment to democracy. Which is not to say impossible.
On your third question, this is very complex, and again reasonable opinions can differ. My own is that, while there was probably little that could have been done to reduce the magnitude of the tragedy during the war, the Allied governments, including Canada, are guilty of ignoring, disbelieving, and downplaying the importance of what was going on. The most important thing that could have saved Jewish lives in the 1940s would have been the relaxation of immigration quotas in the 1930s, and this was not done.
The seminal text on this matter is Martin Gilbert's Auschwitz and the Allies. If you can find None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews Of Europe 1933-1948, by Irving Abella and Harold Troper, I hear that's an excellent work, though I haven't read it myself. See also:
Thank you for writing.
The subject of the Holocaust is one that I struggle to grasp in its enormity, I cannot comprehend how this happened. History can teach you the dates, the whys and the whens but it is still impossible for me to truly understand as I cannot imagine how humans as a race could let this happen or rather didn't put up a bigger fight. I have searched all over the internet to gain information on the above topic, this site is so far the best I have found. I have also ordered a = copy of Goldhagens book 'Hitler's willing executioners'. I am doing my A-levels, which include history, and as this is a subject = I am interested in I would like to research it further. If I can gain enough information I may also use this for my coursework title but that is not definite at the moment it is for my own personal interest. If you could spare the time to reply I would be most grateful. Any information and any other sites you can recommend are most welcome. Thank you for your time
Gord McFee Responds:Thank you for a very difficult and controversial question. Other of my colleagues may have viewpoints as well. Frankly, I hardly know where to start.
I am not entirely clear what you mean when you write: "I cannot imagine how humans as a race could let this happen or rather didn't put up a bigger fight." If you mean, how could the Germans have done it, you may wish to start on our site at:
If you are wondering why the Jews were the main target of the Nazis, check out:
If you mean that you feel humanity let this happen to the Jews, and did not do enough, I would recommend, amongst others, Raul Hilberg's Victims, Perpetrators and Bystanders.
If you mean that you believe the Jews let it happen to them, and did not resist enough, you have raised a very controversial subject on which there is wide disagreement. In that event, I can only advise you to canvass the literature, and attempt to make up your own mind. For what it is worth, I do not subscribe to that point of view, but that is merely me.
I hope this helps. Best of luck.
back to the list of questions
Last modified: September 18, 2004