How much do we really learn from evil?
In January 2005, the 60th-anniversary observance of the liberation of Auschwitz begged a question that periodically lurks in the corner: How much do we really learn from evil?
It is widely assumed in this country that humanity stands to gain from Holocaust studies, the exposure of international war crimes, and showing teenagers scary films about the dangers of driving. There is, however, far more faith than evidence concerning the methodology that typically fuels these exercises -- that it is the end results, not the seemingly innocent beginnings, that matter most.
This is not to say that history's horrors should not be a part of the human curriculum. But Americans in particular often fixate on the gory details with a zeal that borders on moral pornography and, in the process, fail to discuss what could have been done to prevent these tragedies in the first place. It's as though we were constantly being given directions by naming all the streets we shouldn't use without ever being told the ones we should take.
I learned about Auschwitz in 1956, on the 11th anniversary of its liberation, at the tail end of a social sciences class, which was taught by the intense, red-haired liberal Samuel Beer. The climax of the course led us from Nietzsche to Hitler to an evening of Nazi propaganda films and footage of concentration camps liberated just a decade earlier. The concentration camps were gruesome, but the movies Nazis had made to celebrate themselves were in some ways even more horrific, depicting millions of Germans voluntarily surrendering their souls as millions of others involuntarily lost their lives.
What we saw had been placed in history's context; we had been taught not just brutal endings but also far more instructive beginnings, and we got to see not just evil's horror but also its accompanying banality.
By the time I graduated I had read William Shirer's book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and found myself absorbed not so much in what the Nazis had become but in how they had begun -- how normal and ordinary so much of it had been, with that frighteningly familiar mix of opportunism, lust, incompetence, and failure of courage.
Years later, I read Milton Mayer's book They Thought They Were Free, based on interviews with ordinary Nazis before and after the war. 'Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany,' Mayer concluded. 'It was what most Germans wanted -- or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it. I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusions. I felt -- and feel -- that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here, under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be [me].'
Here is the part of the Holocaust that is most frequently denied. Not that millions were slaughtered but that those who did the deed might under certain conditions be either you or me. And we would do it, as Adolf Eichmann had suggested, simply by finding the words that allow us to deny responsibility, what he called 'office talk.'
It is this unrecognized, undiscussed denial, especially at moments of solemn observance, that most frightens me. And our recovery does not lie in still more talk, ceremonies, and professions of horror. It lies instead in the study, honor, and practice of the good and the decent.
If you watch good people closely, you see that their good comes as naturally as evil came to Eichmann. It does not have to be propped up with memories of great wrongs; it is just the everyday unconscious behavior of those graced with honor: the banality of decency.
Perhaps we need a museum of the good, a curriculum founded in the skills and rhythms of decency. We need peace experts instead of military experts talking about Iraq on FOX TV. We need mediators instead of just lawyers on Court TV. We need movies, and heroes, and moving stories that win Academy Awards, and models for our children that lead them to the contentment of cooperation and fairness rather than to brutal examples drawn from the play-by-play of violence and wrong that appears with every other click of the zapper.
The frightening thing about Auschwitz is not that some would deny it but how real it still seems. The frightening thing about Auschwitz is that our leaders go to honor it while still denying Guant?namo and Abu Ghraib and Palestine. We will know that we have finally learned the Holocaust's lessons when we no longer hear new echoes of it.
Sam Smith is the editor of Progressive Review, a Washington, D.C.-based online journal (www.prorev.com) in which this essay originally appeared. Reprinted from the environmentally driven, socially conscious DESIGNER/builder (Sept./Oct. 2005). Subscriptions: $28/yr. (6 issues) from 2405 Maclovia Lane, Santa Fe, NM 87505; www.designerbuildermagazine.com