As a teenager growing up in Short Hills in the 1970s, Dan McMillan learned about the Holocaust and, though his family was neither Jewish nor German, he became riveted by the question of why it occurred.
But in all his reading, then and over the next four decades, McMillan came across not one book that provided a convincing, comprehensive answer. So, he wrote one himself. How Could This Happen was published in April by Basic Books.
McMillan, now 54, earned a doctorate in German history at Columbia University, and a law degree from Fordham University. He worked for several years as a history professor and as a prosecuting attorney.
His deep dive into existing Holocaust research revealed what his publisher calls a “perfect storm” of circumstances, ideas, and personalities, including Germany’s politics, anti-Semitism, scientific racism, and the effects of World War I.
Robert O. Paxton, professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, writes, “McMillan shows how step by step, ideas and institutions came into place in Western nations, especially in Germany, that made the killings conceivable, then possible and even likely, but never inevitable.”
McMillan will talk about his work in a talk hosted by the Holocaust Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ on Tuesday evening, Oct. 21, on the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
For McMillan, this grand obsession began with his reading Simon Wiesenthal’s book The Murderers Among Us when he was 14 and a student at Millburn High.
In an e-mail to NJ Jewish News, he wrote: “It affected me so powerfully because I experienced the Holocaust (then as now) as a direct assault on the meaning and purpose of my own life. Although I could not articulate this at the time, nor for many years thereafter, I recognized that the distinctive features of the Holocaust — unique to this event — represented a very determined statement by the leaders of humanity’s most advanced society that an individual human life has no intrinsic value whatsoever.”
One teacher at the school, German language teacher Rose Spier, became a kind of mentor to him. She was “a Jewish German who had fled Germany with her family after her father was incarcerated for several weeks after Kristallnacht,” McMillan said. “She is a classic example of how a superior teacher can change the course of one’s life.”
McMillan lives in Manhattan but maintains close contact with friends and old classmates in New Jersey.
“Across all these years I don’t think anyone around me understood how important the Holocaust was to me because I could not articulate it myself,” he told NJJN. “Only after I finished the book, as I was drafting my first speech on the topic, did I finally find the words to say what I have just said to you.”
Asked whether he believes such genocidal hatred could coalesce in modern democratic societies, McMillan said: “My answer is a firm and confident no. We have made progress and we have learned many lessons from the Holocaust and World War II. Another genocide could not happen in these advanced societies because democracies don’t commit genocide — dictatorships commit genocide.
He went on to say, “It could not happen because although racism and anti-Semitism are still very much with us — and recent polls by the ADL/B’nai B’rith show anti-Semitism is more widespread than many of us had hoped — these vicious prejudices have no intellectual respectability today and in political life can only be voiced in coded language.
“Finally, we will not see another genocide in these societies because they have all lost their willingness to engage in major warfare, in war on the scale of World War II. Major warfare is probably an essential precondition of genocide, because losing massive numbers of your own men in battle creates a radicalizing, violent context, and because large-scale warfare greatly increases the power of governments over their own people.”