One of the most disconcerting facts of the Holocaust is that many Nazis were supremely sincere! They believed they were doing the right thing for humanity. Though they knew they were causing a great deal of pain and tragedy, they explained it to themselves as being like a surgeon cutting away a cancer, for they believed the hatemonger’s rhetoric that the Jewish people were a malignant tumor which, unless excised, would cause the demise of the whole human race.
A person’s sincere belief that he or she is doing the right thing is simply not enough to ensure righteousness, for the greatest atrocities have always been committed in the name of truth, religion and nationalism.
In speaking to the question of why Jews don’t forgive and forget the Holocaust, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum used the metaphor of “a moral ecology” in the universe which, for the sake of the preservation of the human race, dictates, “You shall not stand by while the blood of your brothers and sisters cries out to you from the earth.” In what way is there a moral balance and climate in the universe? In what way does it resemble the ecological balance on this planet? There is no adequate counter-balance apart from God.
The tyrant shouts, “Might is right!” As long as he has the power and the means, he can continue to “prove” he is right until the day of his death when, in a moment, he loses all might and is denounced in the history books to follow.
The moral climate in the universe is not in balance. The contamination of sin has infected us all, clouding our judgment.
One of the hardest facts to face with regard to the Holocaust is the lack of reaction or response on the part of those who could have done something about it. Anyone who read Hitler’s blueprint, Mein Kampf, would have understood that Hitler was not speaking in metaphors when he talked about making the world Juden-frei (free of Jews).
Of course there was no way of making the world free of Jews without conquering the world and exterminating all of world Jewry. There was to be no room in the new moral order for the Jews.
Yet, in the rest of the Western world the Nazis’ statements were treated as though they were simply metaphor. As early as 1942 the United States government knew conclusively of the death camps and the “final solution.”* Though moves could have been made to possibly save the Jews of Hungary and Romania through Switzerland, the Allies turned a deaf ear to the tortured screams of the millions.
The church in Germany swore allegiance to Hitler, and those churchmen like Martin Niemöller who would not were sent to concentration camps. Hitler seemed supreme, invincible, and “moral.” Men and women in the countries occupied by the Axis as well as the Allies hid behind protests of their own helplessness.
How easy it is to do nothing by pleading helplessness. Yet in God’s sight the wrong we tolerate is just as damning of us as the wrong we commit.
There were, of course, lights in the darkness. The ten Boom family of Holland and others hid Jews to their own peril. They were following the higher law of God. God said He loved Israel, and they believed in the power of God more than the might of Hitler. Nevertheless, too few had the courage of their Christian convictions. Many church leaders did mental gymnastics to somehow divorce themselves from the anti-Christian actions of the Nazis.
We can never comprehend the full meaning of the Holocaust, but there are some meanings to both the Jew and the non-Jew, to Christians and those who are not Christians. There are some lessons for all of us.
- People’s capacity to do evil and to tolerate the evil done by others far exceeds any humanistic philosophy’s ability to account for it. No one has any difficulty seeing Hitler and his Nazi cohorts as being totally depraved, but we must see that many were utterly sincere, stifling the sense of revulsion they should have felt at the torture and killing of a whole race, because of an imagined greater good. Therefore, we must conclude that people are most dangerous when they believe they are absolutely right. Sincerity is as loyal a servant of evil as it is of good.
- Human righteousness and strong convictions are not enough. Well-intentioned people can be led to commit acts of evil, or at least tolerate evil even of such a magnitude as the Holocaust, when they believe in the supreme authority of any person, party or unscriptural philosophy.
- Adverse public opinion will do little to inhibit a despot from doing wrong. A murderous dictator is seldom influenced by what other nations think of his actions because he is filled with a sense of self-righteousness. A dictator respects only force and power that is greater than his own. Unless those who have the power are willing to take the risks necessary to do the right thing, genocide will continue to be an occasional but constant reminder to us of human depravity.
- The Jewish people will survive in spite of Pharaohs, Hamans, Hitlers, and all of the demonic forces of this world. It is right to mourn over the six million destroyed, but one must see that, if the forces of evil could have prevailed, our Jewish people would have been annihilated three millennia before this time. The wonder of the matter is not that Jews have undergone so much persecution, but that, in the face of the forces of annihilation, we have survived as evidence that the Bible is true and that God does keep His word.
- We need a Savior who is more powerful than all of the nations of this world put together. In the face of Hitler, our people could not save themselves. The Allies pleaded helplessness. The religious institutions which should have spoken for God were satisfied to express moral indignation and little else. When confronted by our own human eagerness to be seduced by the attractive and the powerful, no matter what banners they display, our crying need is for something far greater than mere good intentions and inward impulses. We need the intervention of the Creator Himself to save all of us from ourselves.
* “Two-Thirds of Jews in Poland Held Slain: Only 1,250,000 Said to Survive of 3,500,000 Once There”, New York Times, December 4, 1942, p. 6, col. 1.