The Common Monster
By Kevin Binz
Normandy Park, WA


 

The American fascination with the Holocaust threatens to relegate this extraordinary historical occurrence into a mere cultural cliche. The torrent of analytical works published on the Holocaust in the last sixty years would seem to render original interpretations of this event increasingly rare. But the Holocaust retains its vital relevance to modern society because of its multi-faceted complexity. In particular, it forms an ideal platform for an analysis of human nature. Acknowledging humanity's susceptibility to evil behavior remains an essential component to an accurate conception of our world. Only when the next generation accepts this fundamental truth can we hope to prevent similar atrocities in our era.

Human Nature

An appreciation of the Holocaust should yield much more than simply a rejection of fascism. The Holocaust remains controversial because it offers an unvarnished glimpse of true human nature. How could millions of Germans tolerate and condone such barbarism? What causes such evil to develop in the first place? Paradoxically, the Holocaust maintains its significance because it was not unique. History is littered with comparable examples of heartless slaughter. This well-documented reality leads to the unsettling conclusion that something is not quite right with the human race. Moral responsibility cannot be solely pinned to one's environment. Humans must ultimately hold themselves accountable for the evil that festers in this world.

This moral principle is so disconcerting that there have been repeated attempts to undermine its validity. This can be witnessed in the popular notion that Nazi guards were nothing more than sadistic monsters. Holocaust survivors themselves rebut this assumption. As Auschwitz survivor Benedikt Kautsky points out, "Nothing could be more mistaken than to see the SS as a sadistic horde driven to abuse and torture...by instinct, passion, or some thirst for pleasure. Those who acted in this way were [in the] minority." (Todorov, pg. 122) As Kautsky makes clear, normal human beings, not perverted monsters, perpetuated the atrocities of the concentration camps. Observations such as these validate Primo Levi's assertion that: "Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous [is] the common man." (Todorov, pg. 123)

The philosophy of Humanism offers a more sophisticated, and yet ultimately flawed explanation of the Holocaust. Adhering to their faith in man's inherent goodness, humanists blame the environment and culture for the sins of the individual. This reluctance to assign moral responsibility can be witnessed in the denunciation of the Treaty of Versailles. Humanists, averse to consigning blame, like to "explain" Nazism because of the sense of desperation that this treaty inspired. Richard J. Maybury suggests that the Treaty of Versailles was so harsh that, "[Germany was] ready to fly into the arms of anyone who would promise to make them strong and prosperous again." (Maybury, pg. 190) This sort of reasoning seems, at some level, to excuse Germany from responsibility for the perpetuation of the Holocaust. Mr. Maybury ignores the fact that external factors can never fully override human free will. World War Two was not inevitable after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. A combination of human failings, on both sides, was responsible for the rise of Nazism and all that followed.

The Holocaust did not open a new chapter in human history. It merely represents a particularly brutal demonstration of human depravity. Despite idealistic arguments that insist upon our inherent goodness, the Holocaust demands a very different explanation. Without minimizing man's potential for good deeds, history demands that we acknowledge the individual's vulnerability to evil. This lesson simply must be learned by each new generation.

Armed with this rudimentary understanding of human nature, we can begin to apply it in modem society.

Prevention of the Holocaust

A very natural question arises out of our examination of the Holocaust: "How can we hope to prevent a recurrence of such evil?" Lamentably, on the individual level, we cannot. Human nature ensures that prejudice, discrimination, and violence will always exist in society. However, the Holocaust was maintained on a societal, not an individual, level. It is our duty to prevent a repetition of the conditions that led to the universal abandonment of justice and social harmony. If we glean lessons from our failure, we can hope to avert its recurrence. Our government must retain its system of checks and balances, uphold fundamental human rights, and advocate tolerance. Only with a recommitment to these principles can America hope to suppress humanity's natural inclination toward evil.
Our forefathers recognized the dangers of unrestrained government. James Madison presented democracy this way: "If angels were to govern men... controls on government would [not] be necessary. In framing a government, which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must... oblige [the government] to control itself." (Noebel, pg. 624) Because, as Madison argues, men are not angels, controls must be placed on elected officials to avoid any imprudent concentration of power. Should these controls not be firmly established, it is only a matter of time before another Hitler assumes and abuses authority. It is the next generation's responsibility to understand and maintain the great American commitment to checks and balances.
But we must do far more than merely limiting the government's ability to persecute the minority. We must utterly reject the mindset that led to this tragedy. The Holocaust was characterized by an absolute denial of human dignity. Despite its realistic appraisal of human nature, our democracy also stipulates fundamental human rights, among which are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." As these rights are inalienable, they may never be altered. Nor are these protections limited by race or ethnic background - they are universal, regardless of whether a government acknowledges them. America must stand as a beacon of liberty and protection, not allowing totalitarianism philosophy to soil her shores.

America has sustained its great interest in the Holocaust because it has begun to comprehend its fearful and terrible lesson about humanity. This event stands as the supreme example of man's natural impulse towards evil. Yet there is hope. State-sponsored terrorism, as witnessed in the German concentration camps, only exists with the consent of the populace. America must reestablish the two bedrock constitutional principles: checks and balances, and inalienable rights. It is the duty of my generation to preserve, protect and defend these pillars of civilization.

Works Cited

Bauer, Yehuda. Rethinking the Holocaust. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2001

Langer, Lawrence L. Admitting the Holocaust. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995

Maybury, Richard J. World War One. Placerville, CA: Bluestocking Press, 2002

Noebel, David A. Understanding the Times. Manitou Springs, CO: Harvest House Publishers, 1991

Todorov, Tzvetan. Facing the Extreme. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1996
 

 


The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by the participants are not necessarily those of Holland & Knight LLP or the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.

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