Holocaust Remembrance Day: Understanding the Underlying Factors

The Hall of Names in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Site in Jerusalem, Israel, commemorates some of the 6 million Jews murdered during World War II.

By Aliya Kuykendall Published on January 27, 2024

How could the great evil of the Holocaust have happened? How could a modern, Western society, led by doctors and educated people, be so unfeeling to their neighbors, their fellow human beings, to not acknowledge their human dignity?

In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, The Stream spoke with Dan McMillan, who holds a Ph.D. in German history. He’s the author of How Could This Happen: Explaining the Holocaust.

Fifty one years ago — when McMillan was just 12 years old, he began to ask the questions that led to his book. He explained to The Stream:

In the first months of 1973, I read The Murderers Among Us by the famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. And it just knocked me flat. At the time, I couldn’t fully articulate what knocked me flat, but I guess what struck me most about it was the extraordinary coldness and emotional detachment of the killers from their victims, a kind of indifference. I mean, they thought it was important to murder these people, but they cared about them not at all. And that frightened me, and still frightens me, a lot more indeed than hatred frightens me. Hatred — if you hate someone, they’re still kind of important to you. But they saw the Jewish people as vermin in human form, ultimately as a virus that they wanted to stamp out everywhere so it could never grow back.

McMillan said he realizes now what “knocked him flat” back when he was 12. He had confronted in Wiesenthal’s book an unfathomable lack of respect for human dignity.

It is really the moment in history that is the most uncompromising assault on the principle that individual human life — yours, mine, those of the people in our audience — has any kind of intrinsic value. And in fact, the leaders of the Nazi regime, I’m thinking particularly of Himmler who headed the SS, which was the paramilitary formation that organized and carried out most of the murders. They even stated this explicitly and quite proudly. Himmler once said in his speech, “Man is nothing at all, nothing important, nothing remarkable.”

And they, you know, if we could go back in time and ask these killers, if we could get 10 or 15 or 20 around the table — wherever they were in the machinery of death, whether at the bottom in a shooting squad or at the top like Himmler or Heidrich or Hitler himself — and we asked them, “Why in heaven’s name are you doing something so ghastly, so cruel?” I think the answer we would get would be a shrug of the shoulders and a question they’d put to us: “Why not? They’re just people.”

McMillan said he wasn’t able to articulate that until after he’d finished his 2014 book on the topic: “But I already knew at the age of 12, somehow this was something I needed to understand.” This remains for McMillan the most compelling thing about the Holocaust: “this radical denial of the value of human life.”

McMillan went on to say that he’d need 40 minutes to fully explain his understanding of the things that made the Holocaust possible, but he said this troubling fact, this lack of respect for human life, is the simplest answer: “The main reason this happened is the people who did this saw no reason not to do it because there was no moral inhibition in their mind, no moral restraint. There was nothing morally wrong or even troubling about taking the lives of millions of innocent people.”

Why Did Nazi Germany Have Such a Low Regard for Human Life?

McMillan listed three factors that came together to “rob human life of value among the ruling class, the highly educated and culture ruling class of such an advanced society.” 

One, massive German casualties in World War I, cheapening human life. “It made killing millions of people for political ends seem like just a normal effect of political life.”

Two, social Darwinist racism. That’s the false idea that ethnicities or races have a hierarchy of evolution, some being more evolved, and thereby better, than others. “So you open the door in this kind of thinking to the idea that some ethnicities really are worth so little that their lives might be forfeited if it’s useful. And at least one, the Jews, were less than human and were essentially vermin in human form, condemned by their genetic markers. … It made sense to them to use poison gas because in the gas, the cyanide they used to Auschwitz was actually a gas used to fumigate like factories and other work buildings to kill insects.”

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Three, the deification, or near-worship, of Adolf Hitler. Democracy was not well established, Germany was falling apart, and people wanted a savior. Hitler had great success as a leader and gained great trust. Trust in him was so great, that it was almost as if a person who obeyed Hitler could be certain he was doing the right thing simply because Hitler ordered it, superseding one’s own moral inhibitions. “The long and the short of it is that after the victory in 1940, people really did see Hitler as superhuman and not subject to any moral or ethical constraint. And because of that, anyone who carried out his orders kind of operated in a norm-free space.”

While McMillan highlight these three things — WWI, social Darwinist racism and the charismatic rule of Hitler — he also emphasized that this was “a perfect storm” of multiple factors which he discusses in his book. “There were like a dozen factors and they were all indispensable.”

Why Did Nazis Hate the Jews in Particular?

While these factors largely allow for dehumanization of people or a particular unfavored race in general, I asked why the Jewish people? Why is anti-Semitism the world’s oldest hatred? Here, McMillan again provided me with a few points. One, a belief that Jews were the instigators of communism, Marxism and socialism, aided by the fact of Karl Marx’s Jewish ancestry. Communism was rightly hated and feared, and Jews were regarded as part of a worldwide Jewish communist conspiracy.

Also, the fact that Jews are a diaspora people, separated from their historic homeland and spread around the world. In this case, this fact connected them with communism, and the maxim that “the worker has no country.” It also led to the idea that Jews are loyal to other Jews but not to the country they live in, but that was false. “In fact Jewish Germans were, if anything, 150% German. They were very patriotic and identified with German culture.”

Then there’s the demonization of Jews in Christian theology. “Beginning in the Middle Ages, Christian theologians more and more began to speak of the Jews as the instrument of Satan. They would often say not ‘the Jews,’ they would just call it ‘the Jew,’ as if it’s a single malevolent force. And I think that long history, that image of ‘the Jew,’ Christian perception of the Jews as this menacing source of evil, then kind of becomes the basis or lays the groundwork at least prepares the ground for this secular theory of the Jews as the instigators of communism.”

Finally, McMillan spoke of the success of Jews, which he called both relevant to the Holocaust and to anti-Semitism in many countries. “They have been extraordinarily successful, and you can’t deny it.” German Jews owned important newspaper chains and were successful in book publishing and the arts. This made it easier for German antisemites to say that Jews were using their power over the media to manipulate the masses.

Some Lessons From My Conversation With McMillan

What are some lessons, as I reflect on this interview with McMillan? Lies are dangerous. Dehumanizing people is the surest path to being a participant in horrific monstrosities. Being educated doesn’t make a person morally good, as McMillan pointed out to me. I think it’s clear, in fact, that the prevailing ideas among the elite could be deadly ones. Trusting fallible humans to the point that you let them, rather than God, define good and evil for you, is an idolatrous trap to avoid. Don’t override your moral inhibitions because you trust a great leader and think they could do no wrong.

As Michael Brown has pointed out, Jews are blessed by God to be a blessing to the nations, and tend to be very good at what they do, whatever it is … which is no reason to hate them. Gentile Christians should not be arrogant towards unbelieving Jews, as the apostle Paul strongly warned against. God still loves His chosen people, and we ought to pray for them and mourn with them over the Holocaust and their more recent massacre on Oct. 7.


Aliya Kuykendall is a staff writer and proofreader for The Stream. You can follow Aliya on X @AliyaKuykendall and follow The Stream @Streamdotorg.

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