Holocaust expert explores difference between religious hostility, anti-Semitism

Peter Hayes speaks at the Holocaust History Center at the Jewish History Museum on March 13. (David J. Del Grande)

From the Catholic Church, to occupied Europe and the United States, the world failed to prevent the Holocaust because they were too vested in their own interests, Peter Hayes, a former professor at Northwestern University, told about 40 people who packed the Holocaust History Center at the Jewish History Museum on March 13.

“Everyone else always had something more important to do, and everyone else always had an interest that to them was more important than protecting Jews,” Hayes said.

Hayes discussed some of the major factors that lead up to the Holocaust in his lecture, “The Holocaust: What Do We Need To Know Now?”

He’s the author of 12 books including, “Why? Explaining the Holocaust,” which distills and answers the most common questions students and lecture attendees asked about the Holocaust throughout his career. W. W. Norton & Company published the book in January.

He was a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., for 36 years, teaching German and history. He specialized in the history of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and the role corporations played during the Third Reich.

Hayes currently serves as chair of the academic committee for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Although Hayes’s new book addresses eight questions about the Holocaust, he focused on two central concerns during his lecture: Why were the Jews killed, and why didn’t, or couldn’t, anyone stop it?

The hatred of Jews began with the rise of Christianity and was fundamentally rooted in this religious rivalry, he said. This animosity changed in complexity during the Enlightenment, influenced by philosophers like Voltaire — who were the embodiments of rational, modern thought, but weren’t necessarily religious — who believed Jews were too dedicated to tradition. But the birth of anti-Semitism was a response to the professional emancipation of Jews in Europe that developed in the early 19th century. Before the 1850s, Jews couldn’t practice law or hold political office.

“When you had religious hostility to Jews — that could change, they could convert; when you had Enlightenment hostility to Jews — that could change, they could abandon the old traditions, they could dress like everybody else and eat the same food as everybody else and so forth,” he said.

“But the new teaching of anti-Semitism, when that word comes into existence — that is about saying, ‘They can never change and never be like you.’”

Barry Kirschner, a board member at the Jewish History Museum, purchased two copies of Hayes’ new book following the lecture, and has done extensive research about family members who were killed during World War II.

“And the idea of how to prevent this type of thing from ever happening again should be high on the agenda of every person of conscience,” he said.

Education is a vital aspect of prevention in the long and short term of history, Kirschner said. He’s noticed a recent rise in authoritarian sentiment in politics and economics, so understanding how the Holocaust happened is timely.

“The government of the United States is veering towards creation of a ‘we and them’ [mentality] and dehumanizing persons who are powerless, or have become powerless,” he said. “And many persons who call themselves leaders in these institutions are standing by and basically being complicit.”