Causes and Lessons of the Holocaust

Causes and Lessons of the Holocaust

Causes and Lessons of the Holocaust

Victoria J. Barnett

Remarks given at the Kentucky Heartland Institute on Public Policy,
Campbellsville University, Kentucky, September 17, 2007

            Between 1933 and 1945, an unprecedented reign of terror left its mark on human history.  With its vicious policies against the Jews and others viewed as “inferior,” as well as in its expansionism and the terrible war and occupation it brought throughout Europe, National Socialism in Germany unleashed a wave of destruction that ultimately swept all of Europe.

            Simply in terms of the numbers alone, the impact is stunning: six million Jews, one and a half million of them children, perished in the Holocaust.  There were literally thousands of concentration camps.  More than 200,000 patients – most of them mentally ill or physically disabled–were murdered in the so-called “euthanasia” program.  Three and a third million Soviet prisoners of war died.  The Soviet Union lost over 14 million civilians, including between 1.0 and 1.5 million Jews; while Poland lost nearly 5 million civilians, including nearly 3 million Jews.  Germany lost over 2 million dead and another 2 million persons remained missing.

            Yet the impact of this history goes beyond the numbers, and I suspect that is why I am here this evening.  People care about what happened in the Holocaust.  We are profoundly moved and troubled by this history.  We sense that it holds important questions and lessons for us today.

            The Holocaust is the term most commonly used for the state- sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of the European Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945.  Jews were the primary victims—six million were murdered.  But Gypsies, the physically or mentally handicapped, and Poles were also the victims of Nazi policies based upon ideological notions of “racial purity” and national superiority.  There were many others, including homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and political dissidents, who were targeted for political reasons.

            There are historical explanations that help us understand some of what happened.  At the same time, however, there is much we cannot understand, and I believe this is one reason that this history continues to haunt us.  In so many ways, the Holocaust  is inexplicable.  Nazi persecution and genocide of Jews was not the outcome of a civil war, protracted conflict, or a territorial dispute.  Jews posed no threat whatsoever to the German nation.  In fact, despite the drumbeat of antisemitic propaganda throughout the 1920s and 1930s that portrayed Jews as a serious threat to the German nation and its culture, Jews in Germany in 1933 comprised less than 1% of the population and they were loyal, patriotic, upstanding citizens with deep roots in their country.  It is poignant to read the accounts from the early months of Nazism of how German Jewish war veterans of World War I visited the local police, war medals in hand, to protest the new laws against them and insist on their patriotism.  The rise and spread of National Socialism in Germany led to the emigration of some of its most brilliant scientists, scholars, artists, and writers: people like Albert Einstein, Paul Tillich, and Thomas Mann.

            There was absolutely no reason, in other words, for the new government that came to power in January 1933 to unleash a steady campaign of discrimination, persecution, and ultimately genocide against the Jewish population of Europe.  Yet the mystery becomes even more troubling when we look closely at the details of this history throughout those twelve years, for the Holocaust is not the story of the persecution and murder of the Jews by a small cadre of ideological fanatics.  It is the story of widespread complicity and the involvement of “ordinary people”–people like you and me.

            The vast majority of the German population embraced Nazism–they welcomed it and benefited from it.  Many of them became active participants in that police state, turning on their Jewish neighbors or remaining silent as the persecution was unleashed.  Germany was a civilized, highly educated, predominantly Christian country; over 90% of the population, in fact, was Christian.  Yet during the course of twelve years under Nazism, we find countless doctors, scientists, university professors, church leaders, and other professional leaders not only making their peace with National Socialism but benefiting from it and, in some cases, becoming part of the genocidal machinery.  There were doctors who signed forms so that their patients could be murdered in the euthanasia program, and doctors who performed unspeakable “experiments” on children in the concentration camps.  There were internationally renowned professors who remained silent when their Jewish colleagues were fired, and there were church leaders who defended the measures against Jews and gave religious legitimacy to a genocidal regime.  There were police officers, sworn to uphold public order, who stood aside to let the  mobs beat up Jewish  citizens and torch their businesses and houses of worship.  There were members of the military who not only invaded neighboring countries but rounded up and brutally slaughtered the Jewish population as they marched through.  Even today, we continue to find mass graves throughout Eastern Europe where these events occurred.  And there were the corporations, industries, and banks that actually profited from the ravaging of Jewish life in Europe.  Ultimately, 8–12 million human beings worked as slave laborers under the Nazi regime.  Some were inmates in concentration camps who worked in stone quarries or assembled armaments in factories.  Others were prisoners of war; still others were civilians from Eastern Europe.  Even some church institutions used slave labor.  In the year 2000, the Protestant Church of Germany finally acknowledged that church hospitals and other institutions had used slave laborers and contributed around $4 million dollars to the compensation fund.

            While there was little outright support for all this in the outside world, the reactions of the international community ranged primarily from silence to cautiously phrased opposition to (in all too few instances) rescue.  Some local populations in surrounding countries joined in the killing of Jews.  Others courageously hid their Jewish neighbors.  There were diplomats like the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and Msgr. Angelo Rotta, the Catholic nuncio in Budapest, who produced hundreds of visas to enable Jews to escape.  There were Germans like the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who as early as 1934 warned that “you can either be National Socialist or Christian; you can’t be both.”  Bonhoeffer later became involved in the conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi regime; he was imprisoned in 1943 and executed in 1945.  There was a network of rescue that included the French village of Le Chambon, which rescued around 3,000 Jewish children.

            And yet these individual responses were not enough to stop the Holocaust, and the overwhelming evidence is that the responses at the time were largely characterized by apathy, silence, and a general failure to stop what was happening and rescue the victims.  Holocaust history gives us all too many symbols of this: one of the starkest symbols is the ship St. Louis, which in 1939 left Europe with 937 Jewish refugees who believed that they had escaped just in time.  The ship sailed to Cuba and Miami, desperately seeking a safe haven–and had to return to Nazi occupied Europe because no country, including the United States, would take these refugees in.

            How did all this happen?  There are certainly some historical explanation for the rise and popularity of National Socialism in Germany.  The aftermath of the First World War ushered in a turbulent decade of political and economic instability, as well as social change.  There was widespread resentment against the international community for the reparations that had been levied against Germany.  Most Germans believed that their country had been made the scapegoat for World War I.  These emotions converged with a strong anti-Communism (many feared a Bolshevik uprising in Germany that would parallel the successful revolution in Russia) and a deep nationalism that had its roots in the Bismarck era when Germans began to consider: what did it mean to be German?  Who were the “German people”?  How should the German nation be defined?  Even in the late 19th Century, this discourse took on ethnic contours, and this coincided with the birth of a different kind of antisemitism that viewed the Jews as a “race.”  The word itself was coined during the 19th Century by Wilhelm Marr, a German publicist who subsequently founded the League of Antisemites.

            Yet, of course, hatred toward Jews had existed for centuries, and the “new” antisemitism was simply the convergence of racist ideas (which would subsequently become the definitive core of Nazi anti- Jewish ideology) with widespread popular prejudices that had been present throughout Europe for centuries and which had been fed by the Church’s “teachings of contempt” against the Jews.

            All these historical explanations of the root causes of the rise of National Socialism, however, take us only so far.  Both the sheer scope of this genocide and the phenomenon of complicity raise profound questions about human beings and what we are capable of, about what it means to be a citizen, about how to prevent our civil society from such a descent into barbarity.  There were some, even at the time, who recognized that these events confronted human beings with profound political and religious questions.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Protestant theologian and pastor who joined the conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi regime, wrote to his fellow conspirators in 1943: “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical.  Are we still of any use?”

            Bonhoeffer’s question continues to haunts us because it opens the door to the very similar questions we face today.  Are we today of any use?  Have we learned anything from this terrible history?  In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the phrase “Never Again” was often repeated, and yet the last half of the twentieth century would seem to render these as empty  words, since in the interim the  world has witnessed the murder of millions in Cambodia, Rwanda, and today we confront the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region of the Sudan.  How does an understanding of the history of the Holocaust shape our reactions on the personal level and on a global level to evil, to mass violence, to prejudice, genocide?

            In exploring these questions–in drawing lessons from the Holocaust–we need to simultaneously address and respect both the particularities of the history and the universal lessons.  This task is not always easy and it is easily misunderstood.  To say that the Holocaust is unique is not at all to diminish or discount the horror, evil, and suffering in other historical instances, whether that be the history and legacy of slavery in this country, the Rwandan genocide, or other historical atrocities.  But there are lessons of the Holocaust that are rooted in very specific aspects of the history–lessons about antisemitism, about complicity, about the convergence of nationalism and prejudice and how that becomes policy.

            When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened its doors in the spring of 1993, its founders hoped that there would be enough people interested in this history and these questions–that we would get visitors, school classes, and other groups interested in this history.  But what we have witnessed in our work has so far exceeded our expectations that I think this tells us something both about the history and about its contemporary relevance.  Since the Museum opened we have had over 25 million visitors, including 8 million schoolchildren.  Ninety percent of our visitors, incidentally, are non-Jewish.  Over 5,000 church and synagogue groups have visited.  More than 86 heads of state and over 3,000 officials from 131 countries have come.  Our website last year had 15 million hits.  We’re translating portions of our website into Arabic and Farsi and the number of hits from those countries has jumped significantly.

            We are a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.  Obviously the commemoration of and education about the Holocaust must be based first and foremost upon its documentation.  This was the spontaneous response of General Dwight D. Eisenhower when he first encountered the aftermath of Nazi atrocities when he liberated the camp at Ohrdruf on April 12, 1945.  He immediately ordered that military officers, reporters and photographers document and testify to what they had witnessed, so as to prevent any possibility of denial later.

            Thus, the Museum has an extensive and still growing collection of documents of this history:

• Over 12,530 artifacts and artwork
• 42 million pages of archival documents
• More than 77,000 reference photographs
• 194,915 survivors and their families; from 49 states and 59 countries, are listed in the Meed Survivors
• Over 9,000 oral histories
• Over 985 hours of historical film footage
• More than 72,000 library holdings in 55 languages

            What many people don’t realize is that the Museum has an extensive educational and research programs for people from all walks of life, and here, too, the reception to these programs has been stunning: 10 years ago Charles Ramsey, then Chief of Police in Washington, DC, visited the Museum and was haunted in particular by the images of German police.  He decided that every entering class of police officers for the District of Columbia should visit the Museum, learn something about this history, and talk about its lessons for the challenges that they face in law enforcement.  Since then, over 32,000 police officers and recruits have attended workshops at the Museum.  Over 7,000 FBI agents have attended our programs as well.  We have similar programs for the military.  Every fall the entering class at the U. S. Naval Academy visits the Museum for three days.  Nearly 200 cadets from West Point come every year.  We have held programs for judges.  We have a number of programs for teachers, both at the museum and in workshops throughout the country, which have shaped the teaching and curriculum about the Holocaust in thousands of classrooms.

            My own field of expertise is the history of the churches’ response to the Holocaust, both inside and outside Nazi Germany.  That history unfortunately is dominated far more by silence and complicity than by rescue and courage.  But it’s a crucial part of this history that very much shapes the ethical lessons we seek to draw from it.  In my own work, I work with church groups of all denominations and religious groups of all faiths, as well as with seminaries and religious studies departments who train clergy and academics.  The participants in these programs reflect the religious diversity of our country; they range from liberal Jews to evangelical Christians to Catholic clergy to mainstream Protestants to devout Muslims.  Each of them brings a different faith perspective and a different set of questions.  Yet almost without exception, every person I have ever encountered in my work for the Museum is profoundly moved and challenged by this history, and leaves convinced of the importance of this history and its lessons in their own work.

            What are those lessons for us today?  Personally, I approach words like “causes” and “lessons” with a great deal of caution.  I am particularly wary of the politicization of the Holocaust, especially the easy drawing of analogies to contemporary victims or contemporary perpetrators.  I suspect we might all be able to draw up such a list, but those lists would probably differ according to our own political and even religious views and as such we would be using the Holocaust as a moral exclamation point, a way of absolutizing the point we are trying to make.  And as anyone who’s ever been in such an argument can testify, it very quickly polarizes things and makes thoughtful discussion impossible.  If you call someone a “Hitler” or if you say that a certain set of victims is “just like the Jews,” that pretty much stops the conversation.  The Holocaust, and Nazism, really are historical examples of absolute evil, and must stand on their own in the particularities of that history.

            When I wrote my book on Bystanders, this was on my mind a great deal.1  It seemed to me that when we make comparisons to the Holocaust, what we are really doing is stating our own sense of moral urgency about something.  We have realized that we are witnessing something that demands a response from us as bystanders, as witnesses, as citizens.  The Holocaust does indeed teach us something about this because it couldn’t have happened without the active involvement or passive silence of those who were there.
So what are the particularities of this history that can teach us a larger lesson?  I would start with:

            * Antisemitism.  This history gives us insight into prejudice in general and the ways in which prejudice becomes violent and murderous as it dehumanizes “the other.”  But we cannot lose sight of the very particular history of antisemitism, which confronts Christians in particular with very painful questions.  The history of Jews in Europe would have been utterly different throughout the centuries without the Christian teachings that accused Jews of “deicide” (killing Christ), and without the myths promoted by the churches that described Jews as cursed, poisoners of wells, and so forth.  Nazi terror was preceded by centuries of anti-Jewish laws and violence against the Jewish people.  Indeed, a great many of the anti-Jewish laws in Nazi Germany had their precedent in early church regulations.  National Socialism was not a Christian phenomenon, and there were certainly Christians at the time that condemned it.  Yet it is haunting to see Nazi leaders celebrating key events with gifts of gold-bound copies of Martin Luther’s writings against the Jews, or to see photographs of Catholic and Protestant leaders standing alongside Nazi leaders, their arms raised in the fascist salute, and to read church statements from the time that actually defend  the persecution of the Jews.  Moreover, the history of that period shows that those Christians who condemned Nazism and tried to save its Jewish victims were a small minority.

            In the wake of the Holocaust, of course, a number of Christian churches throughout the world have issued statements condemning antisemitism, and expressing repentance and remorse for church complicity and silence in the Holocaust.  There are over a hundred such statements by churches in this country and in Europe, by Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox leaders, and by interfaith groups.  In 1994, following a visit to the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America issued a statement repudiating Luther’s antisemitic writings.

            We know all too well that antisemitism continues in many parts of the world today, and certainly a central part of our work is to speak out and warn against this terrible hatred wherever we encounter it.

            * Antisemitism and the way in which it became policy in Nazi Germany teaches us something about prejudice: about the dehumanization of others and the step-by-step process by which this occurs and is rationalized and justified.  It also teaches us something about the process by which violence against the victims increases as the apathy of bystanders increases.

            * This in turn teaches us something about the phenomenon of complicity: the ways in which ordinary people become involved in genocide, how they benefit, and how they come to rationalize what they do.  A deeper understanding of complicity tells us something about how dictatorships function, about the role played by propaganda, and the ways in which leading institutions–such as universities, churches, and corporations–become complicit in dictatorships, thereby helping genocide to occur.  One of the lessons of this history is certainly the central importance of civil liberties and the fragility of freedoms that we tend to take for granted.  The early months of Nazism were marked by steady, almost daily reductions of certain rights, by growing government control of the press and the radio, and by regulations that brought everyone–from school children to housewives to civic leaders–into line with Nazism.  And all these began with measures that people thought seemed harmless and legitimate.

            * The Holocaust teaches us something about contemporary genocide.  As I’ve noted, each genocide is different, and yet what leads us to compare them are the underlying issues that I’ve just described: prejudice, dehumanization, and the dynamics complicity and growing violence.  Genocide would not be possible without these things, and the Museum in Washington is a witness not only to history, but to contemporary genocide.  The Museum’s Committee on Conscience is an essential part of our work and has been instrumental, not only in drawing the attention of the world to the genocide now going on in Darfur, but in energizing people to do something about it.

            * All of these topics draw a larger picture of human evil.  The Holocaust teaches us something about what evil looks like–in its everyday mundaneness and ordinariness as well as in the shocking images from the camps.  This in turn teaches us something about ourselves and leads us to reflect on how it might be possible for us to respond differently than those at the time of the Holocaust.

            When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was founded, its statement of purpose included the following passage: “The Museum's primary mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about this unprecedented tragedy; to preserve the memory of those who suffered; and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.”

            That is the call to us today: to reflect on our responsibilities in the troubled and violent world in which we find ourselves.  There are many different ways of summing that up.  One is to reflect about what it means to have a moral compass.  A compass is a tool that points us in a  certain direction, a  tool by which we can navigate difficult terrain.  Yet certainty can come in many ways, some of them quite destructive.  Some people seek certainty through a rigid ideological agenda or uncritical allegiance to certain doctrine, beliefs, or prejudices.  An imbued sense of morality–a moral compass, if you will–cannot be imposed but must arise out of knowledge, memory, and reflection.  How we retain that sense–especially during turbulent and violent times, especially in an instance like Nazi Germany–is the big question.  The history of the Holocaust shows us how all too many citizens in Nazi Germany lost their way.

            It is fitting that we reflect on these issues here at the Kentucky Heartland Institute on Public Policy.  Ultimately, the history of the Holocaust moves people from all walks of life so deeply because it is such a human  story.  We find that whatever our national backgrounds, whatever our gender, whatever our ethnicity, whatever our religion, whatever our age, we are touched and troubled by the stories of those who lived and died at the time.  If we allow ourselves to be touched as human beings: to think of our commonalities, our common ground, our obligations as human beings to one another and to the greater whole, then we honor the memory of those who died and, hopefully, can help to prevent such things from happening again.  The Holocaust is part of history, but the questions with which it leaves us very much concern the future.  Thank you.

Editor’s Note

1 Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity during the Holocaust is published by Praeger Publishers, 1999.