I'm reading Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder. It's a good book, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the history of WWII, Eastern Europe, The Holocaust, or the Nazi and Soviet systems. That said, it's as relentless grim and numbingly brutal as one would expect, given it's subject matter. Snyder does a good job of humanizing the victims, but in the end it is a litany of horrors, albeit well described, well explained horrors.
Early on in the book I was struck by a statement that Snyder made -- roughly that people approach the holocaust as an event outside history, an almost supernatural event of ultimate evil, and that this gives Hitler altogether to much credit, and comes dangerously close to agreeing with his view of his actions as an expression of pure will, directing, rather than dictated by, the course of history. This observation seems quite true to me -- how many of us, when we studied the holocaust in school, could grasp the general outline of horror, but glazed over and repeated cliches when we tried to explain it? Man's inhumanity to man and people's destruction and hatred of the 'other' is a description of what happened, not a cause of it, after all.
And to me it is very important that we always search for a historical explanation, if we believe that history can be studied at all. No event is outside the flow of cause and effect. This is not to say that everything is preordained or that we are all just avatars of the historical process, but that the explanatory methods that we use for ordinary events -- who wins elections, why nations go to war -- can be used to explain anything, no matter how horrible.
This method is a particular method, rather than a universal one. We cannot look to universal laws of human nature but to individual circumstances if we actually want to say something useful*. This means rejecting abstract, philosophical arguments about 'totalitarianism**' and 'modernity' and looking at the actual events.
In this regard Snyder is admirable. He shows the 'how' of the terror famines, the great purges, the starvation of Soviet POW's and the Holocaust in enough detail that we see how the machinery of death was set in motion. He also answers the most proximate 'whys' -- why did the Germans start killing Jews en masse in 1941? why did Stalin deliberate starve the Ukraine? The deeper whys (why the Nazis hated the Jews so much, why ordinary Germans and Ukraineans and Balts went along with it), however, he is silent on.
And this is perhaps inevitable. He is writing a history of the eastern European borderlands between Germany and Russia from 1933 to 1945. The deeper causes lie within the minds of Hitler and Stalin and in the natures of the movements that they led and the states they ran. But if you do read Bloodlands (and I would recommend it), please remind yourself that the answers are out there. After all, these are not devils, but men.
*I believe it's presumptuous to assume that we can know the nature of human beings as such, but aside from that, if humans have a nature then it is the same at all times and in all places. The question then, is why some people (with the same natures as everyone else) are genocidiers when others are not.
**A useless word, except as propaganda.