Monday, July 5, 2010


In my college course on the Holocaust students inevitably ask the question Why? How did humanity get to Auschwitz? This is a topic so shocking that most students, understandably, are hard-pressed to find an answer; yet, I think a fair number of them choose not to find an answer, convinced from the outset that it’s an enigma. I personally have found the answer to this question, but each person must travel his or her own path toward understanding. If one embraces a racist theory and Social Darwinian view to the extreme, and if one wants to be coldly logical about it, then the extermination of “lesser” peoples, Untermensch, who pollute the bloodstream, makes sense to me. True, not everyone in Nazi Germany subscribed to this ideology in its totality, but it takes only a few committed leaders to get the ball rolling. Some killed primarily in the name of an Aryan utopia, others killed primarily for more primal reasons—revenge, hate pure and simple, territory, property. If you’re of this persuasion and manage to seize power by hook or by crook, then you can launch a media blitzkrieg to hammer home your point of view.

Propaganda is a form of education, it seems to me. I took a year of Greek in graduate school and remember my professor, a Scotsman named McKeown, talking about the meaning of the Greek word for education in his thick and pleasant accent. Honestly, I don’t remember the Greek word, but I do remember that educate is a Latin-based word that stems initially from the ancient Greeks. He said that the word contains the Platonic idea that knowledge and ideas are contained within us; education simply draws out the ideas already present. In Latin ex + duco is literally to lead or draw out. You can disagree with this epistemological concept, of course, and embrace the Aristotelian view that says we gain knowledge from the “outside” through sensory experience; but I want to make a point here. Education and propaganda can tap into our inner being and “lead out” wonderful things, but it can also bring forth things most foul and loathsome. Ironically, if you come from either a Christian or Darwinian perspective, you’ll agree that dark impulses lie dormant within us—and violence more so in males. Hitler and Goebbels were only tapping into the fear and hatred that already existed, manipulating it and guiding it toward a more homicidal direction.

I’ve never murdered anyone or committed any other heinous act, and I don’t plan to do so in the near future. Let’s just say, though, that, horror of horrors, somehow I committed manslaughter or murder outright. As I think about the prospect of committing murder now, I’m horrified and imagine turning myself into the police department for such an evil act, what with my guilty conscience and all. I suspect it wouldn’t necessarily work out this way, however. Never underestimate our innate self-preservation and powers of rationalization. People end up doing things they perhaps thought they would never do, and once they find themselves as accomplices or collaborators in such foul deeds, lo and behold, it’s not quite as bad as it seemed before. If I’m right about this psychological phenomenon (and you might disagree), then multiply it a hundredfold or more, and you’ll have the better part of a nation or ethnic group, regardless of its cultural sophistication, engaged in genocide.

As some of you would detect by now, I’m not a big fan of the “insanity defense,” or whatever name the judicial system gives it nowadays. I’m hesitant to label people crazy, which is a meaningless term really, and I even have trouble with “mentally unstable” or “psychopathic.” (I place people who suffer from schizophrenia into a different category, but even they know right from wrong in most instances.) I truly see most of these Nazis as normal. They loved their wives and kids; they enjoyed a beer with friends; they became emotional and teary-eyed listening to Wagner or Mozart. Moreover, most of them, if not all of them, evinced a sense that what they were doing was wrong, at least as far as conventional (Judeo-Christian) morality is concerned, and for that reason they, sane and conscientious beings that they were, went out of their way to be secretive about their crimes and use euphemisms. Let’s consider Heinrich Himmler’s words when he spoke to his SS minions at Posen in 1943:

We must be honest, decent, loyal and friendly to members of our blood and to no one else… We shall never be rough or heartless where it is not necessary; that is clear. We Germans, who are the only people in the world who have a decent attitude to animals, will also adopt a decent attitude to these human animals, but it is a crime against our own blood to worry about them and to bring them ideals… shall speak to you here with all frankness of a very serious subject. We shall now discuss it absolutely openly among ourselves; nevertheless we shall never speak of it in public. I mean the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish race.

To have gone through this and yet - apart from a few exceptions, examples of human weakness - to have remained decent fellows, this is what has made us hard. This is a glorious page in our history that has never been written and shall never be written We had the moral right, we had the duty to our people, to destroy this people which wanted to destroy us. Altogether, however, we can say, that we have fulfilled this most difficult duty for the love of our people. And our spirit, our soul, our character has not suffered injury from it.

I gain two contradictory insights from this motivational speech. First, Himmler didn’t think he was doing anything immoral. Second, Himmler knew that he was doing something immoral. He talks about the goodness and moral fiber of each German, but he acknowledges that they must commit unspeakable deeds, deeds which must be blotted from history, deeds which have an ultimate good: to destroy enemies bent on the destruction of the German people and to prepare the way for a future life in Aryan bliss.

Before we so readily dismiss these murderers as mentally diseased, and thereby distance them comfortably from ourselves, let us not forget the possibility that they’re sinful and evil creatures, simply thus. People who commit heinous crimes aren’t necessarily stupid or mentally impaired. Evil can be irrational and senseless, true; but it can also be rational and logical.

And yet the question Why? persists. Why is the sky blue? We could educate ourselves and answer this question with scientific reasons. We could take the time to familiarize ourselves with these reasons and understand them completely. But we still might ask the question: Yes, yes, I realize the scientific causes of a blue sky, but why blue? So my explanation as to why the Holocaust occurred is a penultimate explanation. I’ll perhaps never know the ultimate reason for such evil in this life, for that would take me into what C.S. Lewis called the Problem of Pain—the disconnect between a world of evil and a providential, righteous and omniscient God at the helm of it all.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep trying to figure out this enigma, doomed as I am to find the meaning, if there is one, behind all this suffering. As I study evil, though, I’ll be on my guard. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” In the attempt to understand these evildoers and try as best I can to put aside my moral sensibilities and presuppositions in the process, sometimes the lines between analysis and acceptance get blurred. I want to understand the Hitlers and Himmlers of the world on their own terms, not mine. Explanation is not exculpation, however, lest we forget. I’ll also heed the words of another German. On his deathbed Martin Luther said, “Wir sind Bettler. Hoc est verum.” We are beggars. This is true. Nobody is immune from the dictates of sin and self-interest. Let us all walk in humility.