hindsight isn't 20/20
we are often told that history is a collection of names, dates and facts, that there is a right and wrong answer and anything else is fake. unfortunately, history is rarely that simple.
with a desire to understand the motivations and causal chains of past events, however, we can walk away from memorization and use history as a teaching tool for our culture and lives today.
while a specific battle or war is rarely significant in the broader perspective, reasons, cultural shifts and widely-divergent viewpoints are usually both intriguing and instructive.
so if you’re ready to approach history as a series of interconnected fictions nobody really agrees on, let’s jump in.
imagine you are going on vacation with your family – you, your siblings and your parents. you get in the car and your mother takes out a map as you put your phone on its cradle so you can see the gps navigation. your little sister goes to sleep in the backseat as your father begins criticizing your choice in music.
fast-forward ten years and you’re sitting around at home, all visiting together for the first time in ages, reminiscing about that trip. so many things happened. you got a flat tire. you narrowly avoided hitting a deer while your sister and mother were both asleep and suddenly woke up as you emergency-stopped. your dad had to rush to hospital after seriously cutting his leg while attempting to split firewood outside the cabin you’d rented.
“the ax was defective! the head slipped and i lost my grip.”
“dad, it was a decorative ax. they didn’t expect you to use it.”
“hey, if it wasn’t for that, i wouldn’t have met that nurse who became my wife. you sacrificed some blood and got grandchildren in return. not a bad deal, right, dad?”
history is all about perspectives. if you’ve ever taken a course where they told you the second world war began in the late 1930s and ended in 1945/6, you’ve experienced first-hand the problem with how history is taught in our time. it’s often looked at as a collection of correct or incorrect statements but that’s almost never true. sure, an emperor was born or died on a specific date. a battle occurred at a time and in a place. but the real issue is the story. why did it happen? not why did people say it happened but why did it really happen? who cares what happened? what did people believe happened at the time and what did that mean to society at the time?
taking a more nuanced approach to history is absolutely vital if you want to do more than treat it as a memorization exercise. to understand the past, we must look at it from the lens of interpretation and culture. it’s not enough to have a perspective. we have to look at many perspectives and build a coherent image of the time. what happened is rarely important. why it happened and what was the lasting result are usually key.
who is history for?
many people study history because they are fascinated with the past and that’s perfectly fine. some people cut down trees because they like the feel of the saw in their hand or play the guitar in their bedroom because they find it intensely relaxing. if knowing the date of the gettysburg address (november 19, 1863), the name and birthdate of madame mao (jiang qing, born march 19, 1914, also the date giuseppe mercalli died, if you’re interested) and the name of the pilot who dropped the first atomic bomb (colonel paul tibbets) is how you connect with the past, that’s a perfectly valid approach. it’s not, however, useful for anything other than personal entertainment.
studying history beyond memorization is for those who wish to understand the past, present and future from a more nuanced perspective. you don’t have to be a history scholar to have a good grasp on the past. you do, however, have to divest yourself of the ludicrous notion that there is a single right answer or that any historical event can be explained in a short paragraph.
unless you have a good theory of why something happened, what happened, its effects on the culture of the time and on our present, you haven’t even scratched the surface. serious historical study is for those who want to take the lessons of the past and apply them to the present. but that is not simply an exercise in knowledge.
history more than anything is a way of turning your imagination loose. seeing the world through the eyes of historical figures – not just those in the traditional history books, kings, knights and soldiers but the royal dressmaker, city barber or anonymous resistance fighter in an occupied nation. it’s about unraveling tangled webs of lies, both intentional and accidental. almost everything written about the past is a mixture of what’s true, what’s false and what’s assumed – usually vastly more of the last. the author usually believes it’s all fact.
what are we getting at here? historical fact is rare and mostly unhelpful.
where do we go from here? let’s take a look together at the “historical maybe”. what might have happened and what does that mean for us today?
but we need to increase awareness!
trigger warning – racism, starvation
there’s a lot to be said for having a society that is culturally, historically and scientifically aware. it makes people far less likely to make bad decisions and hold reactionary, conservative positions. however, it doesn’t really have much impact on whether minority problems are solved. you have likely been told the greatest problem with our world is that people don’t know what it’s like to experience life as someone oppressed or targeted. i would say that’s definitely a problem but not the greatest one by far. so what’s the larger issue? that people don’t care.
i can tell you don’t believe me so i’ll give you an example. there is a silly and overused statement made by people in the west – “there are starving children in africa”. yes. there are, indeed, starving children in the vastly heterogeneous continent of africa, as there are starving children on every continent and in every country on the planet. my issue with this is twofold. one is that, while people are aware of the fact that children are, in fact, innocent young people literally dying from lack of food while most of the western world binges on luxury items and all-you-can-eat buffets, this hasn’t actually led to people doing anything about it. if you think people are powerless to fix these problems because an individual can do little to feed a starving country full of children, you haven’t thought it through. look at the results of popular outrage. people get angry about something and demand change. the politicians respond to it and have no choice but to act. we have known for many, many years that children are dying simply because they lack basic nutrition, something easily provided if even a single large developed government (i’m looking at you, america, china and france!) seriously committed to it. it’s not fixed because we don’t demand action. it’s not lack of awareness. it’s lack of interest.
the other part of this that bothers me is not simply lack of concern but lack of understanding of the issue. people are aware children are starving but don’t go beyond that to figure out why – corrupt governments? lack of infrastructure? genocide leading to masses of orphans with nobody to take care of them? systemic rape and the unavailability of birth control leading to vast overpopulation of children? while some people believe these causes are irrelevant and we should just fix the problem (which is, i admit, a valid perspective and we should, after all, fix the problem without delaying to look at its cause until after), this understanding would lead us to the obvious conclusion that some of these causes exist in developed nations, too, which leads to starving, underprivileged children not thousands of kilometers away on the other side of the world but a few minutes’ walk in our own cities. do we not know because we’re blissfully unaware? no. we don’t know because euphoria and ecstasy are the result of intentionally ignoring the problem.
let’s study together
history is not like learning a language or studying a piece of literature. it’s not simply a lecture and a discussion. it requires subtle examination of your own culture and perspective and the willingness to put yourselves in the place of figures in the past. it is more nuanced than most other disciplines and, as such, requires significant effort. that’s not to say other subjects don’t reward effort. history, though, decisively punishes a lack of depth in understanding with a truly and disastrously incorrect view of both the historical and modern worlds.
what you will find here is a collection of materials on various ways to look at the historical past. you may not always agree (or ever, for that matter) but the point isn’t to argue. it’s to take a particular viewpoint on the past and use it as a framework and starting place to construct your own.
sometimes it’s better to pick a specific part of history to look at. that’s where this collection begins. you can select the time period you want to study and go from there. other times, it’s more interesting to take an accepted piece of “knowledge” about the past and challenge it. if you scroll down, i will give you several examples of this and how it may be useful to develop your understanding of how history should be explored.
with all that preamble out of the way, let’s travel into the past and try to learn some of its lessons.
it may be useful to note that much of the content here is intended to follow the outline of the ap world history course as it is provided for my students. there is a textbook that accompanies this material but it is gradually being shifted online.
before human society and culture, earth existed for billions of years. before we decided to exploit and destroy the planet and all its non-human inhabitants for our pleasure, the vast majority of time passed.
this period of precultural existence gave way to the beginning of human society. we will consider prehistory to be the time before the rise of modern religious movements and empires. in europe, this is the time before the rise of greek, etruscan and roman civilizations. in asia, this is the time before the shang dynasty. in countries with more recent changes to urban civilization, we will think of prehistory as the time before standardized agriculture and the rise of nations.
you can think of “prehistory” as the time before the development of hinduism, buddhism and judaism, the three early systems of culture and/or faith. from a human perspective, we’ll loosely think of this as 13000 to 4000bce, approximately from the mesolithic period to the beginning of the bronze age. we will discuss prehuman time and early human society but the focus will be on the neolithic period, approximately 8000 to 4000bce.
tribal warfare and nomadic cultures gave way to urbanization, advanced agriculture, empire and government. in europe and asia, massive national powers rose – greek and roman culture flourished and the warring states period developed modern ideas of culture and military. trade between nations grew from simple barter to exchanges from the pacific in the east to europe, eventually to the atlantic in the west.
civilizations also grew in the americas and africa during the ancient period with maya and aztec power and culture rivaling anything in europe, despite neither being aware of the other’s existence.
the “ancient” period can be thought of as the time between the beginning of human culture to the start of contact between european imperial powers and the americas in the late fifteenth century. this would be from the start of the bronze age giving us an approximate time reference of 4000bce to 1500ce.
3. modern history
a. early modern
we will explore the period from approximately 1500ce to the beginning of the twentieth century in the “early modern” section. this takes civilization in the west from contact with the americas through the rise of the modern christian church, the industrial and revolutionary period and to the contemporary age that loosely coincides with the beginning of the first world war.
from the wars of the twentieth century to present day, history has moved at an ever-increasing speed. world wars gave way to cold wars. mail was replaced by telephones and communication shifted online. from a time when many people never experienced a culture more than a day’s journey away, we can now travel around the world that quickly and cultural mixing is a daily occurrence. the study of contemporary history is no longer one of dynasties and general trends with limited source data. it is the exploration of cultural shifts, propaganda, media and the rise of a post-truth human society.
much of history is already arguments between scholars but academic debate at the theoretical level as it takes place in its written form is often the source of much of the theory that is then applied to other disciplines.
in a similar fashion, applying anthropological, sociological and scientific methods to the study of history has generated a huge volume of useful lessons for the modern and future world.
while it is often looked down on by scholars of history to predict the future, it is often helpful to look at past lessons and, rather than predict events that haven’t yet happened, explore the inherent causes and factors to prevent disasters. what is meant here by the study of future history is not an academic exercise analogous to crystal balls and tea leaves. it is simply the exploration of why the past occurred and how closely modern events are linked to a similar potential outcome. can we prevent another world war? another holocaust? another great depression? perhaps. but we certainly won’t if we play ostrich and keep our heads in the sand of history-for-history’s-sake as if it was a movie with no relationship to the modern world.
while this is certainly not the study of history, the study of social anthropology is closely linked to historical inquiry. it looks at how cultures and societies function in addition to how they functioned in the past. using somewhat different methods (ethnography is the one that will be focused on here) gives the study of societal and cultural groups a unique perspective that provides an excellent counterpoint to the traditional timeline and era approach to history.
this will be a mixture of the outside-in approach, exploring how cultures function from a practical perspective, and the inside-in approach, looking at how societies see themselves from within in the contemporary age.
a note on these examples
these are short explorations of the past. they are not scholarly essays of great length and depth. they are intended to get students thinking about different ways to approach history, rather than memorizing what has been written in books for centuries, to develop a more nuanced understanding of the events that have shaped our modern world. it’s not expected that you agree, only that you think. there are many other possible examples and you’ll discover them as exploratory exercises in material here and elsewhere but i have selected two from the recent past because that’s the time period most people are most familiar with.
there was only one world war in the twentieth century
trigger warning – violence
of course, anyone saying that the first or second world wars or the cold war didn’t exist would be nothing short of delusional. this is more an argument that these three constituted simply one conflict for simple reasons that continued for nearly an entire century. dividing these conflicts as three separate things was not originally done for the purpose of simplicity. people experiencing them generally believed they were discrete, minimally-related events. through the benefit of hindsight, however, it is clear that no such division is a sensible perspective on warfare in the twentieth century.
first, let’s look at why the first world war happened. it was not because an insignificant member of the habsburg dynasty was assassinated by a member of a small serbian terrorist organization. that was certainly one of many excuses that was used but certainly not the cause – not even one of the causes, realistically, as it was a truly meaningless event to all but his immediate family, even at the time. many people have argued that it was the alliance system that truly caused the war to begin but this, again, is a weak statement. yes, the alliance system made it far easier for war to go from a simple encounter between two countries to something that spanned an entire continent or the whole world. in that way, yes, the alliances at the beginning of the twentieth century certainly contributed to the sheer size of the conflict. they did not, however, truly make war more likely. the war would have occurred without either of these things, whether it happened at that time or a few years later. it was unavoidable without a far larger change in both government and society.
the simple reason there was a war is twofold – everyone thought they could win and they wanted to fight. europe at the beginning of the twentieth century was much as it had been for the previous century. the nineteenth century was an endless conflict between rival empires, each believing itself to be better and more powerful than its rivals. the major players were england, germany, france and russia. there were certainly others but, by the end of the century, much of the world’s land outside europe had been divided between those powers. looking at a map of europe, however, it is very clear that these countries were far too close to each other for comfort. it was a situation of four loud, aggressive people in a very small room progressively getting more and more angry, each looking for a reason to fight the others regardless of how much they’d get hurt in the process.
there were several other considerations, of course. tsarist russia, a western empire with delusions of divine grandeur, had just been summarily thrashed by the far more modern military of japan. this wasn’t like being beaten in the constant wars of the nineteenth century and before, a conflict with theoretical equals. this was seen as embarrassing, a non-western nation quickly and decisively beating the military of a western one called into question the idea that western (white) people were dominant and they should remain that way and this was intensely frightening to all of europe, especially the newly-defeated russians. they were eager to demonstrate their military power against what they saw as a defeatable but worthy enemy, the germans or the austrians, their two near-neighbor imperial powers. they were happy to take any excuse.
germany and france had been fighting over territory (not restricted to the border area of alsace-lorraine but that was the most hotly-contested region, full of both french and german speakers and historically neither truly french nor cohesively german) since before the foundation of germany in the second half of the nineteenth century. bismarck had used racial and cultural fear of the french to unify german states into a single nation (with the exception of austria) and the animosity between these historic rivals was ready to break out into war at any moment. no provocation was necessary, only an excuse to blame the other for starting the war. neither wanted to be seen as the aggressor by its population but any excuse would be fine if it could be blamed on the other.
with the largest and most powerful empire, england had exactly the reaction to the rest of the world that would be expected in a strong bully. any challenge to its authority, however tiny or insignificant, was enough to respond to with brutality and aggression. it had something to prove and that had to be proved continuously to avoid other empires taking its territory in places like india and east-asia. they had already (and relatively recently) lost first the united states then canada to either revolutionary or independence movements with much the same results. much as russia felt regarding japanese defeat, english military superiority as epitomized by the conquest over the spanish armada, a naval joke if ever there was one, had been shattered by the american revolutionary army, seen by european aristocrats as wild criminals and bandits rather than the organized army it truly was. with a chip on its shoulder the size of north america, england more than anyone in europe had something to prove and was simply waiting for an excuse to prove it. combine this with potentially the most culturally violent and oppressive population in the modern world and the result is inevitable. it was just a question of finding a worthy enemy – the combined forces of the german and austro-hungarian empires were a challenge too good to pass up, much like being called out by the strongest, biggest person in a bar fight.
and that’s exactly what it was. the first world war was a bar-room brawl between relatively modern militaries that killed millions both in uniform and as civilian casualties in numbers no western conflict had ever even come near. the cause was, simply put, a desperate desire for war combined with a vaguely acceptable excuse that would play well in the public sphere.
this was compounded by the fact that military forces had dramatically modernized in the first few years of the twentieth century but all the military leadership was trained decades earlier both in strategy and equipment. each thought they could quickly and decisively beat the others in a war of total domination because they had so much technological advantage. the problem was that they were fighting using nineteenth-century tactics and assumptions with twentieth-century weapons against fairly evenly-matched opponents who had the same views and opinions of the battles that were to come. it was the national equivalent of a roomful of people all thinking they were so much better at fighting they could easily defeat everyone else there then, having declared their intention to fight, discovering that each other person in the room was surrounded by armed bodyguards. the problem in the case of nations, however, is that the sensible response to such a situation, to walk away to fight another day against another enemy, didn’t seem to occur to anyone and the fighting was a foregone conclusion before the first shots were fired. each thought they were too smart to lose so everyone ended up losing, whether in name or simply in result.
of course, they had no intention of stopping there. with the end of the conflict in theory in 1919, world leaders got together to punish rather than rebuild and created a situation where the losers (germany in particular) were so heavily burdened and oppressed that they had absolutely no choice but to fight back against that treatment. a large portion of their land taken away and massive payments coupled to the humiliation of having their military restricted by countries the local population thought were both racially and culturally inferior (namely france) meant it was just a matter of time before the decade and a half of ceasefire erupted and the war continued. with the restrictions western imperial powers put on japanese imperial expansion, realistically restricting it to asia and only the part of asia that was not already european-controlled, the result was also a foregone conclusion in a world where only imperial powers were respected and allowed to trade as equals. this was nothing short of a national poking a rattlesnake with a stick to give yourself an excuse to kill it. with the russian revolution realistically taking russia out of the warfare game and replacing it with a far larger and stronger soviet union eager to prove itself the world’s dominant military power, no longer subservient to japanese victory or german aggression, the game of searching for excuses was alive and well even after years of active fighting. as with almost all military conflicts in the modern age, sharply different from those of previous eras, the people deciding to fight were rarely those dying. it was mostly young people who were killed and old ones who gave the orders on both sides. generals might have gone into battle with their troops but politicians certainly didn’t and the relative safety of the battlefield headquarters of the general officers compared to the frontline trenches of the enlisted provided a distinct contrast in life expectancy and desire for risk avoidance.
this situation coupled with an endemic antisemitism that spanned most of the western world, a desire for revenge, enough time having passed that all countries thought they had once again gained a decisive military advantage, the construction of vast defensive formations (all of which were practically useless when the time came to fight but that’s a whole other topic) meant the temporary cessation of active fighting was just a matter of time rather than a lasting peace that could have been preserved. if people hadn’t wanted to fight, it could have been avoided. but the general mood in europe was one of aggression and confidence in a quick victory, not to mention a complete justification of each nation’s reason for fighting. for germany it was because it had been punished and didn’t deserve it. for russia (or, more practically speaking, the soviet union) it was to spread its new more equal system of government. for france it was to defend its new territory and once and for all eliminate the threat of german occupation from its eastern border. and for england the excuse was to save europe but really this was a self-serving goal. a unified europe was a threat to british dominance in the imperial arena but a divided europe would always mean each individual nation was second to english power.
so what began with vague provocations on all sides (especially the building of new german military power and invasion of weak countries like czechoslovakia and poland) was just a resumption of the same hostilities that had been briefly suspended in 1919 with a few minor changes to the alliance system and a new player added to the mix, japan. of course, japan had been of significant importance in the first conflict beginning so that’s not nearly as large an addition as it appears, especially with the expansion of modern military forces to travel far larger distances, bringing east-asia and north america within range of a european conflict.
after nearly another decade of fighting, of course, it might be expected that people would have been tired of active warfare but, really, they were only tired of being the ones doing the dying, not of fighting and killing others. from the moment the conflict labeled the second world war was officially ended with the unconditional surrender of germany and the use of japan as a testing ground for american weapons to frighten the soviet union and, while they were at it, killing many members of a race white america thought of as expendable, the war simply moved to other locations but generally continued with the same players.
american forces shifted from europe to fight proxy wars in china, korea, vietnam and afghanistan (to name only the most significant) against soviet opponents. the americans being the newly-dominant member of the group that was once led by england and france, it counted on them for token support but had no real interest in the newly-decimated western european countries from a military perspective. the allied forces became an american show and it went on to fight on stages across the eastern world, once all the western battlefields had been sufficiently filled with corpses. with the rise of soviet power, the enemy wasn’t totalitarian germany but a similar russian empire with a new name. it didn’t much matter who the enemy was, of course. both sides (the eastern and western blocs would be a good way to think of them at this point) simply needed an enemy to prove their dominance, which was fictitious at best, as results showed after decades of stalemates.
while americans and russians certainly continued to die on battlefields outside their territories, the hatred of jews and asians that was so prevalent in the first and second world wars was still alive and well as chinese, korean, vietnamese and afghan citizens were slaughtered in their millions in the name either of “democracy” or “world socialism”, practically just more modern excuses to keep fighting.
with the end of what is usually seen as the “cold war” with the fall of the soviet union, the battles that began at the beginning of the twentieth century largely ended. whether the iraq conflict was one last attempt to continue the fighting or a somewhat distinct entity starting a new type of independent-national conflict is a matter of academic interest but not nearly as significant as the ongoing war that ravaged the century. the idea of a “twentieth-century war”, however, is an interesting one. whether it’s labeled as several conflicts with intermeshed parameters or a single ongoing war is largely just a matter of perspective but i hope that this has inspired at least some level of questioning the nature of how history is viewed from a simplified and popular perspective. in this ongoing war there were many bad sides full of evil and hatred but there was no shining white knight, fighting for good and freedom.
the holocaust could have been ended quickly if people had cared
trigger warning – genocide, religion, violence
i want to begin this example with a few clarifications to ensure nobody gets the wrong idea here. the holocaust is a historical truth. many millions of people, mostly jews, were killed in one of the most brutal acts of hatred committed in recent history. this is not an attempt in any way to absolve the nazi movement of its guilt surrounding the holocaust or its generalized antisemitism. to be clear, the holocaust happened and if you doubt that, it is not because you are a critical student of history. it is because you are antisemitic and you should seriously reevaluate your life and become a better person. i should also make it very clear that i am a scholar, not a child of holocaust survivors. i write and teach from the perspective of awareness, education and enlightenment, not from experience, neither first-hand nor inherited. those whose families have been directly impacted by the holocaust have voices that must be listened to. sadly, their voices are nowhere near loud enough to inform the world of what happened so it is important that those of us who study history and wish to avoid another holocaust in the future join the discussion and amplify our disgust for the hatred and violence that spawned the mechanical extermination of millions in the twentieth century.
first, let’s review basic facts about the period typically understood to be the second world war, from the middle of the 1930s to the middle of the 1940s. with the rise of power of the national socialist (nazi) party in germany, there was an increase in active antisemitism. this began with laws restricting activities for jews and certain other members of society the general german population didn’t like. it progressed to become physical violence, eventually systematic extermination. the part that is often forgotten is that this was not a specifically german occurrence. it was germany where this became an active attempt to eliminate an entire race but that doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination mean that antisemitism was present only in germany.
there are many examples of similar ideas stretching both east and west from germany during that period. the united states and canada famously refused entry to a huge population of jews seeking to escape from the rise of fascism in europe, especially germany and austria, long before the mass-killings began. that is only one small portion of the issue, however. it was common for the general public in the united kingdom, ireland and france to treat the jewish population as undesirable and even after the war to talk about the jews as a group “getting what they deserve”. systematic persecution of jews was the norm in russia and the slavic and baltic states for centuries before the war began and, during the soviet era, many people theorize that as many jews were killed in the eastern bloc as during the wars in the first half of the century. while there are no hard numbers on how much of the jewish population was killed (either directly or by the discriminatory policies of the governments) by either the tsars or the soviets, we can presume the number is sufficiently high to be shocking.
in countries like italy and spain where fascism took stronger hold, perhaps stronger even than in germany, restricted only by the much weaker militaries in those countries from being a real threat to the rest of the world, as germany became, deportations to the death camps was accomplished with a minimum of resistance and few provided any assistance to those being sent to their deaths. in the netherlands, yugoslavia and various other smaller countries scattered throughout europe, governments cooperated in the deportation of jews and other “undesirable” populations to be exterminated. some of these governments were so strongly supportive of the nazi mission that they were written and spoken of in official german government documents as being more willing to help than even those in the german military.
perhaps most troubling among western nations, as has become more obvious in the last half-century, the vatican was in a position to negotiate with the german government throughout the war and it is clear that the pope (pius xii) and his advisors were certainly aware of what was happening in german camps yet decided to do absolutely nothing either to stop it from happening or to warn jewish populations throughout europe. with such a powerful voice to reach out in the name of a church preaching compassion and love, whose founding teacher and most early members were in fact jewish, this speaks volumes about the desires of those throughout the western world regarding the jews. it would be lovely to imagine the world has changed significantly since then but, if you have never visited a synagogue in a major city, i invite you to do that. you will encounter at most of them a level of intense security and vigilance that no other religious buildings, even obvious terrorist targets like national cathedrals and historic locations, have ever possessed. the jews are certainly not the only persecuted group in the modern age but it certainly appears that antisemitism like that of the nazi period is still just as present today as it has ever been.
so what does that mean in terms of actual prevention? many people now admit that there was far more awareness of what was happening in the camps than was originally spoken of in the aftermath of the war. sadly, most of those scholars have excused people for their inaction, saying little could have been done to stop the genocide without defeating germany first and that it was accomplished as quickly as possible, sadly resulting in millions dead before it was done. this is a staggering skewing of the facts and i ask you to look seriously at what was happening throughout europe at the time. what, then, could have been done by people to fight against german plans to exterminate the world jewish population?
let’s start with religion. most of europe is, if not in faith, at least in culture christian, much of that roman catholic. while the catholic church has often been a voice for ethics and good in the world, in this case it was certainly not acting that way. had the pope at the time decided to take action, much would have been different. for example, most of the people working to enslave and execute jews were roman catholics, often practicing but certainly at least passively believers. a declaration from the holy see that all people participating in genocide were to be excommunicated (kicked out of the church) would have drastically lowered compliance among these people and, if not stopping the process, slowed it to the point where far less would have died. beyond that, simply making the general public not simply aware that this was occurring but that it was morally and religiously condemned would have stopped many collaborators from their actions assisting with the roundups and deportations. perhaps the most significant action the church could have taken was to instruct all church followers, from parish priests, monasteries and convents to the general lay population, to do all they could to shelter jewish populations and resist the german plan. if this had been done, few would have defied a direct order from the highest authority in the church. again, it wouldn’t have eliminated the camps but would have significantly reduced its success. people have often said things like “even if it had been slower, they still intended to kill them all” but this is an argument without merit. we know, as we knew then, that germany would eventually be defeated. slowing down the process was not simply a matter of delaying an eventual fate but reducing the total number of people enslaved and killed.
other than religion, it is clear that nearly all jews who survived the nazi death machine owed their lives to non-jews who risked everything to help them. whether they were sheltered in secret or, in many cases, taken in as children and hidden as members of non-jewish families, these people were fighting not just against the german government and army but popular opinion and often their own governments’ wishes. had the general public wished to end persecution of the jews, either before the war or while it was ongoing, it would have been a simple matter of demanding an end to racist policies. while governments can often ignore minority demands, elected officials are usually quickly impacted by overwhelming public opinion and demands for change. there was no mass outrage nor was there thought by most people to be anything wrong with the systematic oppression of an entire race. the minority that protected and saved the few jews who managed to survive were completely on their own, often forming webs of resistance groups but doing that without governmental or popular support.
could the holocaust have been prevented? absolutely. a rejection by the general public and the church of antisemitic policies before the war would have completely prevented the killing and likely the rise of nazism altogether. a blanket acceptance by countries including america, canada, the united kingdom, ireland and russia of jewish refugees from german territory would have dramatically reduced the potential population to be eliminated, possibly making the whole idea impossible to begin as it would only have been such a small portion of the total left in german lands. it would definitely have made it far less significant as an event, reducing the total number killed perhaps by an order of magnitude or more.
could it have been stopped once it was started? it depends what is meant by stopped. it could have been slowed down to the point that it was far less successful, that many fewer people were killed, through the intervention of governments whose citizens demanded action. through the voice of a church that was completely silent, collaborating with the nazi agenda by its inaction, a similar result could have been achieved. both together may have been enough to eliminate any possible way to continue the killing. if it continued, it would have been a far smaller number.
of course, this has been a thought experiment. it’s not a “what if” scenario but it’s an exploration of why something happened and how it could happen again in the future, if we don’t learn from history and desire a different outcome. it is primarily through asking the question “if this one thing had been different, how would history have unfolded” that the past can be most deeply studied.