The Depths of Depravity: What the Holocaust Can Teach Us About Human Nature
By John Hundscheid
Madison, AL


 

The annals of human history are stained with the bloodshed of atrocity. These volumes serve to remind us of the capacity for evil that mankind possesses. We are by nature barbaric creatures, prone to bigoted fear and pragmatic murder. Operating with a blatant disregard for the sanctity of human life, like animals we tear into one another for expediency or out of unbridled disdain. Our savageness was not tamed in antiquity. The commencement of the 21st century has been defined by genocide, ethnic cleansing, and massacre.

The Holocaust is a vivid and devastating chapter of history. The consequences of the Nazi’s eschatology of hate have been felt to the present day. Retrospectively, we examine the past unable to comprehend an ideology that demanded the slaughter of millions of human beings. It is a foreign and alienating prospect which forces us to reckon with the depravity of the human condition and wrestle with the problem of evil. The genocidal delirium of the Holocaust would have been unimaginable ten years earlier (even in the wake of the bloody hysteria of World War I). However, as impossible as it may be to understand, it is pivotal that we examine the Holocaust in a historical context. We must attempt to discern motives, understand outcomes, and assign blame. This is no simple task. Evil is rarely a self evident phenomena. To recognize it requires great discernment, firmly rooted in cultural syntax and deeply soaked in relevant history. History provides a multitude of experiences from which to formulate a course of action. The experiences must be applied appropriately to the present, with a respect for the nuances of each historical scenario. Failure is often catastrophic, resulting in the heinousness of sanguine violence or the triumph of injustice.

It is vital that we do not allow the lessons of the Holocaust to go unlearned. Adolf Hitler was not a man who concealed his ambitions. He spoke in Mein Kampf of the Jews, “as a parasite in the body of other nations and states (Hitler 306).” Yet many on both sides of the Atlantic continued to advocate a position of isolation and disengagement. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke in September of 1938 saying, “It seems still more impossible that a quarrel which has already been settled in principle should be the subject of war (Chamberlain 393).” While we should be wary to question Chamberlain’s judgment without acknowledging our benefit of hindsight, we must understand the essential fallacy that underlines Chamberlain’s thinking. Chamberlain thought of Hitler as a sane man voicing a legitimate grievance regarding the demilitarization of Germany, who could be reasoned with through diplomacy. It is a dramatic understatement to categorize this as a mistake. It represents a grotesque misreading of human nature that is at best naïve and at worst incompetent. Chamberlain saw the conflict with Hitler solely in the pragmatic political terms of Germany’s grievances (Chamberlain 361). Consequently, the Prime Minister signed the disastrous Treaty of Munich. While the desire to avoid war is unquestionably noble, Chamberlain failed to accurately assess the threat Hitler posed. He did not take Hitler at his own words when Hitler wrote, “By defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord (65).” The political implications and lessons of the Holocaust are relevant to this day.
With a recent convention in Iran, there has been a recurrence of Holocaust denial (Economist 06). It tends to be largely motivated by political considerations. The Holocaust was a key justification in the establishment of an Israeli state (Economist 06). If you remove this underpinning historical element, the legitimacy of the Israeli state may be called into question. Accordingly, if history can be rewritten or revised, then several Arab nations stand to benefit geopolitically. The implications of Holocaust denial, therefore, extend far beyond pure academia into the affairs of modern nations.

The most effective means of preserving the memory and lessons of the Holocaust is to maintain our vigilance against apathy. The temptation to forget exponentially grows as time passes. Resistance is a political and intellectual imperative. Scholarly inquiry, devoid of agendas, is an essential tool to combat the exploitation of history. In politics, history is the ultimate force of justification. But history is not an account of what actually occurred. Rather, it is the account of what people remember occurring. Remembering is an active process. It involves reminding through recounting at both a scholarly and popular level. It is not always a natural reaction, but it is a vital one to assure that history is a reflection of the truth. It is the key to reconciliation, healing, and ultimately the prevention of tragedies.

The Holocaust is a defining juncture. Eva Hoffman named it, “The most documented event in history (192).” It is the event to which all tragedies are compared (Bischoping and Kalomin 485). Exposing the darkness of the human condition, it also highlights sincere acts of altruism and heroism. The examples of the brutish murders in gas chambers are counterbalanced by the stories of families who risked everything to provide a safe haven for Jews. The Holocaust is a narrative about the struggle between the binary poles of man’s constitution, a struggle that has haunted mankind since our inception.

The 21st century is an era of challenge. Our capacity for innovation seems nearly endless. But we have not discovered a scientific advancement to eliminate ethnic cleansing. There is no natural cure for hatred. Racial tensions still abound throughout the world, manifested in genocides that bear a remarkable resemblance to the Holocaust. Still searching, we continue to wrestle with our own history. We have come to learn that there is evil in this world, we have stared into the face of hell and glimpsed our own reflection. We have also gazed into heaven and witnessed the other side of our humanity. Modernity is torn. We are devastated. The consequences are grave. To ignore these lessons is a crime of negligence against future generations who depend on us for the ability to win the war against themselves.
 

Works Cited


Biema, David van “Spinning the Holocaust. Time. 14 June 1999.

Chamberlain, Neville. In Search of Peace. London: Hutchinson & Co, 1939.

---. Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons. London: Hutchinson & Co, 1939.

“Denying the Holocaust.” The Economist. 16 Dec. 06.

Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

Hoffman, Eva. After Such Knowledge: Memory, History and the Legacy of the Holocaust.

“Milking the Holocaust.” The Economist. 14 Sep. 06.

 


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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