Humanity and the Holocaust

Topic 2


Part 1: Do you think the Holocaust represented a failure of humanity?

The Holocaust represented perhaps the greatest failure humanity has ever known. It featured the combination of technical brilliance and bureaucratic efficiency, but dedicated to the most evil of all purposes. This really is the greatest failure of humanity that I can think of.

In the 19th century, educated people, whether they were Hegel in philosophy or Darwin in biology, or anthropologists, were all convinced that humanity evolves, that humanity climbs a ladder of excellence and civilisation. They believed in the newer, the better, that everything that is old is primitive, and that was a fatal act of hubris on the part of humanity. They thought they knew better than all previous generations and they didn’t realise that they were carrying with them the old demons of fear and resentment and hate and desire for revenge.

The 18th century was a century of reason and peace but the 19th century was a century of nationalism, racism, and ideological warfare of the most horrendous kind and hubris did lead to nemesis. When human beings think they are more than human, they end up by being less than human.

Don’t forget it was in 1879, I think, that Nietzsche said for the first time, “God is dead and we have killed Him” and a mere 60 years later, people were busy trying to exterminate the people of God. That’s what happens if you think you know better than all previous generations; you sink to the lowest depths.

Part 2: Can we trust people other than ourselves?

There’s this very remarkable avenue called the Avenue of Righteous Gentiles, in Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem. 14,000 people are honoured there, people whom any one of us would trust because they put their own lives at risk to save the lives of their neighbours and in some cases of strangers.

I think of the extraordinary courage of people like Pastor Trocme and the villages of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. I think of figures like Oscar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg. I think of figures like the Chinese diplomat who provided maybe tens of thousands of visas for Jews of Vienna to escape mainly to Shanghai.

These were beacons of light in the midst of one of the worst darknesses humanity has ever known, and therefore, yes, we can trust humanity if humanity shows itself capable of acting for the sake of others and taking risks to save others from death.

Part 3: How can I have faith that God is within each of us and at the same time fail to have faith in humanity?

I do believe that God is within each of us. God actually is what Abraham Lincoln called, “The better angels of our nature.” He’s what Matthew Arnold called, “The force not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.” He is the other within the self, the total other within the self that says to me, “I can’t act for self-interest alone. I have to acknowledge something larger than me.” Something that indeed embraces every human being, something of which I am a part, not the whole.

And there is within us what the Sages called the Evil Inclination. Christians have a slightly different idea which they call Original Sin, and it is that voice which tells us, “No, I’m all there is and my interest, my passions and my view of the world is all that matters.” And that is when you get hubris. That is when you get nemesis. That is when you get human beings destroying other human beings and ultimately destroying themselves.

So there is this war within us, and anyone who’s reflected deeply on human nature has known that. All the Prophets knew it, Plato and Aristotle also knew it, Plato talked about a chariot with two horses pulling in different directions. So this is something really quite fundamental and it constitutes our freewill. Which voice will we listen to: The narrow voice of self or the large voice of all humanity in the cosmos? And that is the free will. And when you shut one of those voices down, you just refuse to listen. You’re only listening in mono, and not stereo. You’re only functioning with one hemisphere of the brain. Then, somehow or other, you’re going to do bad things.

And of course it is very, very easy to make this fatal error. Hitler really understood, and took advantage of, how easy it is to make people feel fear and hate. And those are two things within us that that are the most powerful at confining us. It’s something called the amygdala, it responds to threats and to what it sees is as bad things, threatening our environment. What happened to Germany in the 1930s, and what constitutes a perennial danger in humanity, is when a country or a culture suffers disappointments or crushing blows.

Germany suffered three crushing blows, one after the other. Number one, losing the First World War. Number two, the punitive conditions of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. And number three, hyperinflation which just wrecked people’s lives and savings. And when bad things happen to any group, there are two questions you can ask. And the whole fate of the group will depend on which of those questions you ask.

You can ask, “What shall we do?” Or you can ask, “Who did this to us?” To ask, “What should we do?” means self-reflection, hard work and putting yourself back together again as a country. But the easy and the really dangerous response is, “Who did this to us?” Then you generate a scapegoat whom you blame for all your troubles. And you are able to let that infect an entire culture because of this thing called the amygdala, which reacts with overwhelming power to what it sees as a threat.

Hitler knew that the only way he could unify a deeply divided Germany was to identify a hate object, who could be blamed for all three. For loss of the World War, for Versailles, and for hyperinflation. He managed to blame Jews for running both the capitalist United States, and the communist Soviet Union. When asked how Jews could do both, he replied, “Well, Jews are that clever. They can do both.”

So that is how the bad side of us, which is prevalent within all of us, can overwhelm the good side. And we have to constantly be on guard, to avoid listening only to the negative, small and fearful voice of humanity when it feels scared, and instead to maintain that freedom of choice by being open to hearing the greater, but more difficult, voice of God.

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Discussion Questions

  1. How can humanity find humility to replace the ‘hubris’ Rabbi Sacks speaks of?
  2. Trust in humans is possible, though risky. Should we be more trusting in the hope that this will grow goodwill, or less so as a means of self-protection?
  3. Is self-interested thinking or silencing ‘the difficult voice of God’ only ever a route to negative behaviour?
  4. How do we move from asking, ‘who did this to us/me?’ to instead asking, ‘what should we/I do now?’

Hubris means to behave in a way that shows excessive and unreasonable confidence. It is normally a word used to describe a person or people who behave with such reckless self-belief that they would be considered arrogant by most.

Nemesis is a word that describes an archenemy or defeat that cannot be avoided. So to encounter one’s nemesis would result in almost certain downfall.

When Rabbi Sacks talks of going from hubris to nemesis, he is suggesting that humanity was blinded by its own over-confidence, ignoring ‘old demons’ which would eventually manifest themselves as humanity’s nemesis – its inevitable downfall.

Interestingly, historian Sir Ian Kershaw entitled his seminal two-part biography of Adolf Hitler ‘Hubris’ and ‘Nemesis’, perhaps reflecting a similar thinking, albeit in the case of one man rather than humanity or society at large, to what Rabbi Sacks describes in this response. Hitler was a man of unrepentant arrogance, which grew over the course of the 1930s but led to nemesis – his overreaching of power which ultimately led to both his downfall and that of the Third Reich over which he had presided.

Yad Vashem is the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre located in Jerusalem, Israel. It contains an archive and document centre, research institute, museum, education centre and memorials as well as the Avenue of the Righteous of the Nations which Rabbi Sacks speaks of in this clip.

The Avenue of the Righteous of the Nations is a path at the heart of the grounds of the Yad Vashem complex, along which trees are planted to commemorate acts of resistance and rescue by Gentiles (non-Jews) during the Holocaust. There are strict criteria for a person or group to be recognised as a ‘Righteous Among the Nations’. For example, it must be clear and obvious that such a person did not profit personally from their actions.

Whilst these were people who committed incredible acts of kindness and courage it is important to remember their humanity, and as such recognise them as humans who are flawed. Oskar Schindler is perhaps one of the most famous people to have been given ‘Righteous’ status, having saved some 1,200 Jews. However, it would be worth remembering that his decision to pay for the lives of these people came after he had been profiteering from their labour for some time. He was also known to be a crooked businessman and an unfaithful husband. This should not diminish what he eventually did do to save so many people, rather it should remind us that humans are capable of displaying multiple characteristics, committing both selfish and selfless acts alongside one another. This can also act as encouragement to us all that whilst we may not be angels, we too have the potential to do great things.

Hitler used his power to create a state of fear, mistrust and hatred throughout Germany from 1933 onwards. His ‘terror state’ was based on creating a sense of fear in people that the slightest mistake could lead to incarceration. Even saying the wrong thing to a neighbour or shopkeeper could lead to denunciation and a visit from the Gestapo (the secret state police who investigated so called acts against the state). This lead to the phrase ‘sprich durch eine Blume’ meaning ‘speak through a flower’ or make sure everything you say sounds good, because to even hint that you were disgruntled with the state of the nation was considered a criminal act.

Alongside this Hitler and the Nazis fostered an attitude of hatred towards Jews. Even as a tiny minority (just 0.7%) of the population, Jews were be scapegoated for Germany’s misfortunes including their loss of World War One, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and the consequences of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Despite there not having been popular antisemitism throughout Germany before the 1930s, through a gradual propaganda campaign and legislation which isolated and humiliated Jews, the German people were turned against them. Every part of society was utilised to propagate antisemitic feeling – from education, to the Church and the workplace. Whilst for many this may not have been a reason to support Hitler, the benefits that they gained as a result of these policies, and the threat of terrible personal consequence for speaking out, meant that it was possible to indoctrinate the public, or at least ensure they would turn a blind eye to what was happening around them.

Hitler even went as far as blaming the Jews for both the threats of Communism in the East and the failings of capitalism in the West. Whilst it is clear to see that these two concepts are impossible to connect to the same group, as they are universally opposed ideologies, the Nazi world view contended that there was a Jewish conspiracy of world domination that would use any means possible to succeed. Therefore, whether it be through capitalism or communism, Nazis believed that Jews were trying to take over. Needless to say, this theory is founded on zero evidence, however Hitler did not let this stand in the way of his accusations.

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This series, in partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust, has been made possible thanks to the generous support of Richard Harris.