How could it happen in Europe?
If history was a panorama dome, it might be possible to observe a vista of the Holocaust’s European antecedents. We would then be witness to Islam’s armies sweeping across Middle Eastern deserts and North Africa, slaughtering Jews wherever they found them ; the Crusaders leaving behind them rivers of Jewish blood flowing in the gutters of villages in the Rhineland and France; the Jews of York being massacred in Clifford’s Tower; the Inquisitors of Spain and their auto de fé slashing a scar across the face of that country that has never truly healed; Chmielnicki’s Cossacks of 17th Century Russia, galloping across the foothills of the Ukraine, raping, pillaging and murdering Jews unchallenged; the pogroms of Tsar Alexander III in the early 1880s , the first modern instances of state sanctioned murder and despoliation of Jews; the Kishniev massacre of 1905, a final stake into the heart of Old Russia.
Unabated and unabashed Jew killing became a European specialty and so it is often claimed by modern historians that Adolf Hitler’s campaign to destroy the Jews was merely a culmination of centuries of such slaughter. But that theory has always rankled with me. The Holocaust stands alone in history as a high water mark, not just of Jewish slaughter but also of human degradation. The two had to combine to produce something as truly brutal and barbaric as the mechanized slaughter of Jews. The unending question, the one that never truly ceases to pound in my brain is - how was it possible for the German people to have perpetrated such a horrifying program of inhumanity with barely a ripple of conscience?
The most immediate answer to that question is that for those who executed their orders, as well as those whose silence made them complicit in the Holocaust’s perpetration, it was not inhumanity at all. Rather, it was a service to mankind.
The very idea that one could facilitate the creation of a better world by the elimination of the less worthy elements in it, was a function not simply of German antisemitism but of a modern nihilism and entropy that had been metastasizing in Western civilization for a century. Darwin’s theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest (and the Social Darwinism which emerged from it); Einstein’s theory of relativity which suggested that there were other dimensions to the universe and that time and space were not a continuum ; Freud’s probing of the subconscious, exposing man’s basic impulses as fundamentally barbaric; the rampant growth of political ideologies which found the cause of man’s unhappiness rooted in capitalism, wealth and greed; Nietzsche’ s insistence that God was dead – all nurtured the growing acceptance that life had little purpose beyond immediate gratification of one’s senses. It ultimately lead to an erosion of religious faith and the notion that moral strictures and codes were essentially human constructs designed as instruments of power rather than as a path to purpose, meaning and civilized conduct.
The eugenics movement of the early 2oth Century became the most fitting scientific analog to this collapsing sense of humanity. The notion that humans can and should be selectively bred to improve the species began in 1865 with Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, who believed that heredity governed talent and character, just as it does eye color and facial features. He coined the term ” eugenics ” in 1883, deriving it from the Greek “good in birth” In the early 20th Century eugenics was a serious intellectual and political movement with courses offered in 350 American universities and endorsed in over 90% of high school biology text books. In 1920, two esteemed German academics Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche published Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life ( Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens) in which they argued that some humans had greater moral worth than others. Here they suggested that physicians ought to be allowed to kill people deemed unworthy of life including the “terminally ill and mortally wounded; ” incurable idiots” and the”unconscious” This was all fifteen years before the Nazis instituted their own euthanasia programs.
And if you believe that eugenics was just a European intellectual past time, think again. In my June, 2009 piece California Roots of the Eugenics Movement, I describe how the Golden State became the leading sterilizer in the nation, putting to the knife to over 60,000 citizens deemed unworthy of reproduction, before a moratorium was called on the practice in the early 1960s. Eugenics enthusiasts were numbered among some of the West’s most famous political and intellectual leaders on both sides of the Atlantic and these included Sir Winston Churchill, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Theodore Roosevelt.
It is any wonder then that the Germans felt at considerable ease committing (in 1904), the first genocide of the century in South West Africa – all but wiping out the Herero natives there? Or that the Turks, eleven years later, could mercilessly drive one million Armenians from their ancestral homes and force them on a death march which resulted in the disappearance of 90 per cent of the population? Or that Josef Stalin in the 1930s could allow five million Ukrainians to slowly perish from starvation? And that all these events occurred years before the advent of the Second World War? These perpetrators had been schooled for years in the idea of the Üntermensch – that there were lesser beings who populated the planet and whose existence stood in the way of human progress.
Perhaps this should give us pause then to remember that genocide never begins with guns, machetes and knives, but with ideas. The Nazis only built on the concepts that, by the time they came to power, had been percolating through Western intellectual life for more than 60 years.
In our own day, we can’t forget that there are bio-ethicists and philosophers such as Princeton University’s Peter Singer who argue quite seriously that infants, as human beings absent cognition, have no right to life at all – at least no more than baby chimpanzees.
Years ago I remember a celebrated Australian journalist writing that whenever he contemplated the Holocaust, his biggest nightmare was not that he could have been a concentration camp victim, but that he could have been one of the guards.
This is a reminder to those of us who are regularly exposed to the noxious arguments of supporters of assisted suicide, euthanasia, abortion and mercy killing and who daily see the reality of animal life raised to the sanctity of human life, that there might indeed be modern day forms of “permission to destroy life unworthy of life.” Perhaps it can make us all realize that the horrors of the Holocaust began with the dehumanization of those incapable of either defending or speaking for themselves, decades before the blueprint of the first gas chamber was set to paper.
How could it happen in Europe? The real question – and an ongoing one – is how could it have happened in the human soul?