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Keynote: "The Holocaust: Myths and Misconceptions"

Professor Peter Hayes (Northwestern U.) specializes in thehistory of Germany in the 20th century, particularly the Nazi period. He did an admirable speaking job, presenting a dark and serious topic while dealing gracefully with the challenges of a late evening audience digesting its dinner and a very noisy, joyful event happening in the room next door. Learn more about Peter Hayes at

Professor Hayes challenged eight widely-believed "facts" about the Holocaust, pointing out that when the public thinks it knows something, scholarship often has trouble making itself heard. His hope was that the audience at AJL might be more receptive than many others, and allow new ideas to penetrate. Here are the eight misconceptions that, when examined more closely, turn out to be untrue. (From notes scribbled during the keynote address, please forgive any errors.)

1. Anti-semitism played a major role in bringing Hitler to power.

Apparently we've put the cart before the horse. "More Germans became anti-semites because they became Nazis, than became Nazis because they were anti-semites."

2. Killing Jews was Hitler's goal from the beginning.

The original intention seems to have been to remove the Jews from German-held territory, but it soon became apparent that by gaining territory they were gaining Jewish residents. The more practical way to remove them was to kill them, but the Nazis realized this only after they started taking over other countries.

3. TheAllies could have saved many more Jews than they did.

Anti-immigrant sentiment was very strong at the time, and politicians who pushed for bringing in more Jews would have been voted out of office. Also, 3/4 of the six million were killed out of reach of Allied intervention in northeastern Europe, in a short period of time, while the Germans seemed to be winning the war.

4. Jews could have done more to save themselves.

Jews were a tiny percent of the population in all the countries where they lived, and being more assertive wouldn't have had much impact on the larger population's opinions/actions. The Jewish ghetto uprisings that did happen were quickly squashed and didn't really save lives, so more uprisings probably wouldn't have saved more lives.

5. Greater solidarity with or sympathy for Jews in Europe would have saved more Jews.

Individual people saved other individual people, but to really raise the numbers you would have needed institutions or governments working to save Jews. More Jews were saved by the collaborating French government than by individual righteous gentiles, just because governments have more power than individuals. But most of the governments in Europe had been taken over by the Nazis.

6. Killing Jews diverted resources and weakened the German war effort.

It didn't take large numbers of guards or even trains to deal with imprisoning/killing Jews, compared to the number of soldiers overall.

7. Persecution of Jews was driven by greed (ie the desire to take the Jews' possessions).

Taking Jewish possessions was a side benefit for the Nazis, not their main goal. They got more money by taking over banks in the countries they invaded than by taking Jewish possessions.

8. The Holocaust represents modernity and its dangers.

The image of mechanized murder has been overblown. "Auschwitz was a dis-assembly line, but more like a 19th century slaughterhouse than a modern factory." Most killing was done with simple tools: a gun, carbon dioxide from a car. And cultural genocide is certainly not a new idea.

Conclusion: the common denominator of all 8 myths is the desire to shield ourselves from the horror, to think that thinks could have been better or to find a place to lay blame. But these are prettifications of history.

--Heidi Estrin

Posted via web from The AJL Convention Blog

Posted in: Uncategorized


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