Hope, History, and the Holocaust

How much do we really learn from evil?

| March / April 2006

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.