Truth and the Holocaust
Albert Camus once said, “Truth, like light,
blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that
enhances every object.” Only falsehood could enhance the image of mass
maiming, torture, and murder. Only falsehood could justify the screams
of Gypsy twins as their organs were removed without anesthesia, or the
desperate cries of mothers as SS men shot their children before their
eyes. Only falsehood could approve of such appalling disregard for
precious human life. And only truth can prevent such horrors from
In order for the Nazis’ “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” to be set in motion, the German conscience needed to be numbed to the truth. The easiest way to turn people away from truth was fear – fear of helplessness, fear of missing out on an opportunity, fear of being deprived of pleasure – fear of almost anything. Thus, Hitler’s ability to capitalize on the fears of the German people was the most indispensable aspect of his rise to power. Otto Strasser described this uncanny skill: “Hitler responds to the vibration of the human heart with the delicacy of a seismograph … enabling him, with a certainty with which no conscious gift could endow him, to act as a loudspeaker proclaiming the most secret desires, the least permissible instincts, the sufferings and personal revolts of a whole nation.” Had Germany been experiencing economic prosperity, and had World War I been less devastating, the fringe National Socialist Party would have been dismissed as a political joke. But Germany was in a state of economic and social collapse; the German people had everything to fear, from starvation to the rise of Communism, and it was this context of fear that lowered their inhibitions and helped open their minds to propaganda. In the midst of their national predicament, it became easy to justify the gradually increasing violations of human rights on the basis of circumstances – because of the economic situation, because of the racial superiority of the Aryans, because of their children’s future, events that would normally be condemned as reprehensible became not only acceptable but right.
In the heat of the moment – when something one holds dear is on the line – it is nearly impossible to make a rational moral decision. Everyone buckles in the face of adversity except those who have already decided that there are lines they will not cross, and the Holocaust serves as history’s most sobering warning that we must decide ahead of time to not yield in a time of crisis – that no matter how serious the circumstances or how high the stakes, there are lines that we will not cross. When trial descends upon us, the only way we can resist the slippery slope of compliance with evil is to have made the prior decision to confine our behavior to transcendent moral boundaries. We must make doing the right thing a conscious, preemptive choice.
Choice and volition have become blurry concepts. We have passed from the heyday of psychoanalysis into the age of therapy, and we are accordingly encouraged to produce creative excuses for everything from murder to procrastination. We systematically separate people from their choices when, in reality, one’s identity is nothing but the sum of one’s those very choices. It is easy to imagine that we would choose to hide Jews in our basements or join the French resistance - but how many of us are even willing to give blood, let alone risk our popularity for an unpopular cause? We can look back at Hitler’s reign of terror and express horror at the widespread complacency and complicity – but what kinds of choices do we make today? Unless we genuinely base our actions on what we know to be right rather than what we wish to be right, pointing our fingers at the Nazis’ wrongdoing is meaningless. Adam Michnik, a Pole of Jewish origin who was persecuted by the Communist government, states the concept simply. “Start doing the things you think should be done, and start being what you think society should become,” he says. “Do you believe in free speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it.”
As a student I rarely hear the message “Seek the truth,” but am constantly bombarded with messages of “Be involved!” and “Make a difference!” This sort of ambition seems to be valued today above all else – the willingness to thrust oneself into a cause, to make sacrifices for a dream, to make one’s voice heard. But as Thomas Fuller said, “Zeal without knowledge is fire without light.” Fire without light has only the capacity to destroy. And to encourage people to “get involved” with no emphasis on finding out the truth of the situation has, historically, caused only destruction and tragedy. The Hitler Youth thrust themselves into their cause; the German people made sacrifices for a dream, and Hitler undeniably made his voice heard. The horrific result is proof that without truth, good intentions become nothing more than tools to validate the most heinous crimes.
“Never again,” we cry. “It cannot happen again. We will prevent it through love and tolerance.” But how can we define love? German parents believed that love meant removing Jewish children from the classroom to ensure that the “superior” Aryan children received the best education possible. Our own culture would have us believe that love is mere niceness. Because we live in a society where tolerance is valued, it is easy to take the path of least resistance – to refuse to formulate or follow strong beliefs about anything, but simply float along unobtrusively, doing the occasional uncontroversial random act of kindness. To be called radical is a genuine insult, and the Holocaust itself is constantly touted as a warning against the dangers of cultivating radical beliefs. I say the opposite is true. What is radical about wanting the best for your children, about submitting to government authority and protecting your own interests? Rather, the Holocaust ought to warn us against the danger of not cultivating radical beliefs – the danger of forming our beliefs based on external circumstance rather than inward conviction.
The Holocaust is a terrible truth, one that cannot and will not be erased by revising history books or letting the evidence be buried and ignored. It is as true as the millions of people who were brutally murdered and the millions of people who watched in silence and fear. It is as true as the horrific violations of human rights occurring throughout the world even today. We know the truth. We have only to choose what to do with it.
Bernbaum, Israel. My Brother’s Keeper:
The Holocaust Through the Eyes of an Artist. New York, New York: G.
Putnam’s Sons, 1985.
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