This January 27, 2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the most notorious of all Nazi death camps – Auschwitz-Birkenau. The name of the camp will forever be linked with man’s inhumanity to man and the unspeakable crimes of Nazi Germany.
Seventy years ago on January 27, 1945, the Red Army marched into Auschwitz after a battle where more than 230 Soviet soldiers died, and put an end to what can only be called hell on earth. When they arrived seven thousand prisoners – the weakest – remained. Upon entering the camp the Soviet soldiers discovered about 600 dead prisoners who had been shot by the withdrawing SS or who had succumbed to the horrible condition of forced labor.
Seventy years later we are still left wondering how could this have happened. It isn’t that evil, murder, and acts of barbarism are anything new – history is sadly full of such episodes. What makes Auschwitz-Birkenau so horrifically unique, however, is the systematic brutality and mechanized mass murder of people whose only crime was being ethnically different or unsupportive of the totalitarian regime. History shows that German companies bid for contracts to build crematoria in extermination camps run by Nazi Germany – it all seems so incredibly ordinary.
One of the greatest scandals of the Holocaust is the collaboration and complicity of well-educated and even religious citizens. We can imagine the pressures and fears that the Nazi regime inflicted on individual people when they gained control, yet one is left utterly speechless at how a highly cultured society could succumb to Nazi media manipulation and propaganda.
What disturbs us when we think of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the other death camps, is the possibility that perhaps we – under the same circumstances – could have acted in a similar way. There is a human tendency to project ourselves into the same situation and ask – “what would I have done?” The answer is complex and not at all easy to deal with.
The German-born Jewish political theorist Hanna Arendt, who escaped Europe during the Second World War and later became an American citizen, wrote extensively on the nature of power, authority, and totalitarianism. In 1961 she reported for The New Yorker on the Adolf Eichmann Trial and later wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). In the book she describes how ordinary a person Eichmann appeared – he had the appearance and demeanor of an ordinary bureaucrat, totally different than the monster one is tempted to create mentally when considering his crimes. Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the capacity for evil in an ordinary person when accepting orders, or succumbing to mass opinion, without critically evaluating the ramification of his/her actions or inactions.
Yet, having a well-formed critical thought process is in itself insufficient. There needs to be something else – a moral and ethical compass guiding our critical thinking, otherwise the conclusions will be skewed.
An example of this is the notorious and flamboyant figure of Hermann Goring – Hitler’s second in command. Goring was an effective critical thinker who according to US Army psychiatrist Douglas M. Kelly – the first mental health expert assigned to examine him at the Nuremburg Trials – was extremely intelligent, charming, cultured, and psychologically normal. Yet Goring was also found to have a complete lack of moral discrimination and a lack of any sense of the value of human life to the point that he refused to look at the graphic concentration camp footage played during the Nuremburg Trials. His amoral compass led Goring’s critical thinking to dismiss the evils of the Third Reich as a mere footnote to the accomplishments of the Nazi Party.
Kelly tried to understand and define the “Nazi character”, but ultimately concluded that none existed. After his evaluation of the 22 Nazi prisoners during Nuremburg, Kelly noted – “I am quite certain that there are people even in America who would willingly climb over corpses of half of the American public if they could control the other half.”
We may never get to fully understand why ordinary people may choose to be apathetic toward great evil, but what is clear is that as long as they are convinced that their actions are efficient in producing the result they want, nothing will stop them. And when such a person has the gifts of charm, sympathy, and magnetism, the results are nothing less than catastrophic for society.
As more of the “greatest generation” fades into history, and no corporate living memory exists of Auschwitz-Birkenau or the tragedy of World War II, it will be increasingly important for new generations to be formed as moral and ethical critical thinkers who can avoid the seduction of power, and come to a morally correct conclusion on the intrinsic dignity of every individual and the basic freedom of individual conscience.
When we look at the educational landscape of our nation today, however, it doesn’t seem that we are preparing the present or future generations for this kind of moral and ethical critical thinking. You can progress today from kindergarten to a three-year bachelor’s degree without ever having to take a mandatory course in ethics, morals, or even civics. The lack of “civil discourse” among our national leaders is already a symptom of this deficiency. This should give us cause for concern and motivate leaders to find a way to correct this.
As we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau we should be aware that we all have a moral obligation to maintain the memory of this tragic event in human history and look critically at our own signs of the times to avoid such pitfalls.