Faith in Humanity Just Took Another Hit: A Horrifying Holocaust Revelation

“Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” —G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

When even Holocaust historians are shocked at their own findings, you know the picture is horrifying. After 13 years of research, a group of historians studying at the Holocaust Memorial Museum released new estimates about the extent of human brutality and wide-scale involvement in the enslavement and degradation of their fellow humans in Nazi Germany. The New York Times details:

The researchers have cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, during Hitler’s reign of brutality from 1933 to 1945…

The documented camps include not only “killing centers” but also thousands of forced labor camps, where prisoners manufactured war supplies; prisoner-of-war camps; sites euphemistically named “care” centers, where pregnant women were forced to have abortions or their babies were killed after birth; and brothels, where women were coerced into having sex with German military personnel…

When the research began in 2000, Dr. Megargee said he expected to find perhaps 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos, based on postwar estimates. But the numbers kept climbing — first to 11,500, then 20,000, then 30,000, and now 42,500.

The numbers astound: 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions, “Germanizing” prisoners or transporting victims to killing centers.

It must be noted that the unbelievably high number of camps consist not only of large-scale camps like Dauchau and Aushwitz, but also of smaller work camps with as little as 12 prisoners located in small towns. The punchline to this increasingly disturbing account comes at the end:

Dr. Dean, a co-researcher, said the findings left no doubt in his mind that many German citizens, despite the frequent claims of ignorance after the war, must have known about the widespread existence of the Nazi camps at the time.

“You literally could not go anywhere in Germany without running into forced labor camps, P.O.W. camps, concentration camps,” he said. “They were everywhere.”

It takes a moment for that to sink in. “They were everywhere.” Everywhere. Everybody knew. In one of the most enlightened, intellectually accomplished, progressive societies in the world, you had widespread cultural corruption on a level that staggers the mind. Either by direct involvement or culpable acquiescence, they all knew. Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” doesn’t quite capture it—the “ubiquity of evil” seems more appropriate.

Our culture has trouble knowing what to do with this. One of the remarkable things about the American spirit is that even after two world wars, Vietnam, the 1970s, global terrorism, and three Transformers movies, optimism and progressive ideologies still shape our basic outlook on human nature. Faith in the fundamental goodness of humanity is still our basic credo—with enough time, money, energy, and education, the future is bright. For this reason we are, for the most part, utterly incapable of coping with the reality of human evil. Unless we’re stuck in some dark, hipster cynicism about life, after reading this most Americans will scramble to find an explanation—and by “explanation,” I mean a way of explaining it away.

When faced with evidence to the contrary, we try to tell ourselves, “But, people are basically good. It’s just those German Nazis and their particularly evil ways. That culture at that time and that place was just particularly messed up. It was the work of some particularly wicked people and some people just got carried along through fear.”

Except that based on this new research, it wasn’t just the soldiers following orders, or the masterminds, but the everyday people: husbands and wives; hardworking fathers and mothers providing for their kids; good neighbors; decent, regular folk.

And honestly, shouldn’t our own recent history have disabused us of this naive faith? Have we forgotten that a just a few generations ago, a large portion of our own culture functioned on the premise we could legally own people? Or, consider the present reality that right now in the United States, on a scale too large to be called an aberration of the few, some of our neighbors still illegally do? The truth of the matter is that truly heinous evil is not far from any one of us—the very best of us can be hopelessly implicated in any manner of horrors. Evil is not something we can keep at arms’ length—it’s something that lives in all of us.

And this is what terrifies us most.

One of the reasons I am a Christian is that, to my mind, only the Christian story makes “sense” out of the world for me; it is heuristically useful in that it helps me interpret the various natural, and especially human, realities I encounter. The first time I really noticed this was reading Blaise Pascal on the doctrines of the Fall and original sin. Often they are seen as inherently negative and pessimistic doctrines which imply a low view of human nature. Pascal noted that, in fact, the situation is far more paradoxical than that. Christianity teaches us that we are all like deposed kings—made in the Image of God, capable of brilliance, love, beauty, nobility, decency, technological advance, destined for knowledge and communion with the Divine itself. And yet, due to inborn sin and corruption, those same qualities are intermingled with a beastliness so dark at times it can, in truth, only be considered demonic. In fact, the greatness is what makes the wretchedness so terrible—the greater the height, the more catastrophic the fall.

It’s that paradox that makes sense of news like the recent Holocaust report. Given the reality of the Fall and original sin, I’m ultimately not shocked, as horrifying as the research is, though I’m still horrified. There’s still a sense in which we can say, “It’s not suppose to be like this. People are not supposed to be like this.” And yet, given the right conditions, they are. Given the right conditions, we all are. Any view of human nature that cannot account for this kind of gross, systemic, personal, and institutional evil isn’t worth the name.

Thankfully, the Gospel teaches neither the blind human optimism looking ahead to an inevitably bright future, nor a resigned cynicism leading to despair about human history. Christianity teaches both the greatness and the wretchedness of humanity, and yet it teaches us in a way that neither puffs us up, nor crushes us. As Pascal writes in the Pensees: ”Knowing God without knowing our wretchedness leads to pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God leads to despair. Knowing Jesus Christ is the middle course, because in him we find both God and our wretchedness.” In other words, Jesus Christ shows us both how wretched we are in that we needed the bloody atrocity of the murdered Son of God to put right all that we’ve put wrong, and that we are valuable enough that he was willing to endure it.

Reports like these ought to crush any blind faith in humanity we might have left and point us to the true hope for our wretchedness: the Gospel.

 

About Derek Rishmawy

Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA, serving college kids for the gospel. He’s been graciously adopted by the Triune God. That God has also seen fit to bless him with lovely wife named McKenna. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Theological Studies (Biblical Studies) at APU. His passions are theology, the church, some philosophy, cultural criticism, and theology. He has been published at the Gospel Coalition, Mere Orthodoxy, and Out of Ur blog. He writes regularly at his Reformedish blog. You can connect on Facebook and can also follow him on Twitter at @DZRishmawy.

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  • http://www.capturingcourage.org Cyndy Lavoie

    In my work of Prayer Ministry, it is when I come alongside those of German decent that a harsh perfectionism comes through. Which makes perfect sense. For it is in our own inability to accept the grace of Christ through our most horrific realities (or denials) that we then turn our imposed and unattainable standards onto others. The German people, and all their descendants are carrying the weight of these horrors still. Thanks be to God that Jesus provides a way through.

  • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com Morgan Guyton

    Hannah Arendt’s point about the banality of evil is insightful because evil often doesn’t come in the form of conspicuous, craven malevolence. It also isn’t individualistic. It’s a demonic amoeba that swallows people who don’t have enough grounding in grace and truth to resist its gentle quicksand. The real choices that most of us have to make do not involve deciding whether or not to do something blatantly wicked. Our choices are usually about whether or not to go along with something that isn’t right when speaking out against it exposes and ostracizes us. When we accept the world projected by evil’s demonic amoeba as “reality,” then we generally either stay out of the way and keep quiet unless the time comes to prove our loyalty to that “reality,” which is what makes us capable of hideousness. I don’t think it’s accurate to say either that humans are astonishingly wicked or that we are basically good. We are basically weak-willed, solipsistic, and also made in the image of a loving God. I think it takes a lot of dehumanization to become a willfully diabolical individual, but it’s also very hard to resist being swept up in a diabolical reality that is the collective tumor of a lot of dangerously fearful and confused people.

  • http://manifestpropensity.wordpress.com Bryan Christman

    A very well said report on a very dark and difficult subject. It is so telling that we so readily “explain” what human history says of us as a species. I think you hit the nail on the head regarding what this readiness says when you say that the thing we fear the most is the evil that dwells within each one of us and that that is the reason we so willingly “explain away” the indisputable past. I also agree that we need a Pascallian approach, otherwise we can seem to cynical or pessimistic which people resist from the fear of a world without hope. Ironically, their fear makes them resist the truth of our evil, the knowledge of which points toward the only sufficient remedy, the redemption of the world through Christ.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    @Cyndy – Amen to that!

    @Morgan – Yeah, I’m not trying to discount Arendt’s concept or analysis–more trying to point up the its widespread, almost inescapable nature.

    @Bryan- Thanks. Yeah, Pascal has really shaped my thought here. He presses wretchedness, a great wretchedness, that points us to the only possible solution available.

  • http://exilefertility.com becca: exile fertility

    In “Parenting for a Peaceful World” Robin Grille writes a chapter on Nazi Germany and how the parenting manuals that were very widely circulated a generation before Hitler’s rise to power were horrifically abusive and about a century behind the rest of Western Europe in treatment of children. Hitler was very open about his plans of Jewish extermination and Germans went along with it, and as your article shows us, the truth of what was happening was everywhere. Why did people go along with it? Grille believes it’s because most of the population were adults who had been severely abused children who
    1. were taught to obey authority at all times (this was very true for the German church as well)
    2. were looking for a people on whom to unleash their own rage from their trauma (which explains why people were so quick to hand over friends and neighbours to the Gestapo).

    What’s even more interesting is that, when studying memoirs of people who resisted Hitler and the Nazis by hiding or rescuing Jews the only thing they had in common (not class or education or gender) was that they were predominately parented non-violently with much less of an emphasis on “unquestioning obedience” than the rest of the culture.

    Our hope for sure is in the good news of Jesus and God’s promise to reconcile all things. But hatred and violence and abuse are passed down from generation to generation, from parents to their children. One day we will not teach our children war anymore – maybe that’s why God is so interested in turning fathers hearts back to their children, and children’s hearts back to their fathers.

  • Marianne Peters

    The memoir The Seamstress revealed to me how pervasive and deeply rooted anti-Semitism was in Europe, including Germany. Hitler fanned a flame that had been burning for a long time.

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  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Becca,

    That’s fascinating stuff. I had never heard about the parental angle on that. Teaching our children respect, dignity, and proper respect for authority, especially God’s authority which trumps all human authority, is certainly one of the lessons most important for our children to learn at an early age. And, of course, the good news of God’s offer of reconciliation which puts an end to all of our violence.

    Thanks for your comments.

  • Nikki Lindsey

    I found your article very powerful and thought-provoking. I am an historian of Modern Germany by training, so unfortunately very used to examining the horror of the Holocaust and trying to interpret what it means about humanity. As you pointed out, as awful as it is, we can place it beside other tragic events in human history like the Spanish Conquest of the New World, American slavery, the Belgian treatment of the Congo, and so on. It is both shocking and heartbreaking to realize the absolute depths to which humans are capable of sinking. At the same time we are capable of such incredible kindness, generosity, and beauty, much more in keeping with our creation in God’s image and the example of Jesus. I think that what your article and those other historic events illustrate is the fact that at some point the evil begins when we stop treating each other as human. That was certainly the goal in Nazi Germany. Building upon centuries of European anti-Semitism, Hitler and his cronies were able indoctrinate a nation into the idea that despite their contributions to European culture and shared religious heritage, Jews were actually somehow sub-human. That was true in the other cases as well. Once you can make the “Other” you are trying to isolate and subjugate into something else, then it seems all bets are off. I think the ultimate takeaway is that rather than thinking about having “faith in humanity” we need to focus on putting our faith into God, while trying to do our best and bring out the best in each other. Thank you for a very powerful and well-written article.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Nikki,

    Thank you for your very thoughtful reflection on the article. The twisted anti-miracle of the othering of the Jewish people despite the great beauty of their heritage is a sad one, but its the kind of thing that happens every day on a smaller scale, both in other nations, and in smaller ways, our own hearts. We forget that before we think anything else about a person, we are commanded to think, “Image of God”, and then read everything else about that person after that foundational truth is secure.
    Thanks again for the comment.

    D

  • John

    Why do we have trouble believing in the banality and common knowledge of evil. Since Roe v Wade, we have aborted more children than the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. How many of us think about what goes on in those(generally) nice abortion clinics (what an ironic use of the word clinic!)? As ones who turn our backs of the slaughter of innocents (largely for reasons of convenience), we should not think that we are better than those who turned their back on the slaughter in Germany. The reasons were remarkably similar. Like the unborn, the Jews and other racial inferiors were not really “people.” It cost society too much to take care of the deformed and inferior, so they had to be eliminated just like the unborn with birth defects. May God have mercy on us all.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ theoldadam

    Faith in humanity is the last place our faith needs to be focused.

    Humanity will let us down…every time.

  • http://OneFamilyManyFaiths.blogspot.com Y

    Any religion or political movement based on fear takes away the divinity of humanity. I believe Jesus chose to die to end our belief in blood sacrifice to appease “God,” once and for all.

    He followed a sacred path in The Holy Spirit to show us the way to do the same, but we are addicted to blaming our sins on our ancestors, and fear. We are responsible for turning away from fear and toward the light of faith in The Holy Spirit in all creation.

  • Pattie

    Derek,
    Your article is so concise and well said, getting to the very root of our state as fallen human beings, yet with exquisite hope if we are to submit ourselves to the authority of the creator/redeemer. I’d actually like to encourage you in your work with college age and yo pro (young professional) adults. I have college age children that walk with the Lord. I had the privilege of going to a baptism at a campus church of a young man my son led to the Lord. I was so impressed with the work this young pastor was doing with such an important demographic. These young people are looking for meaning and purpose. If they don’t find Jesus, where are they going to find it? What will fill the void? I pray for you in your work. Be encouraged that it is the stuff of eternity!!Bless you.

  • Bob

    I still have faith in humanity, it just isn’t blind. As long as we are vigilant, there’s no reason why evil can’t be prevented or at least defeated. The Nazi regime was toppled eventually. The fact is, human life is slowly getting better. It’s medicine, not prayer, that cured smallpox and lowered the rate of many other diseases. Even if you believe in god, you have to admit, he doesn’t do much in practical terms to help us. It wasn’t god who saved the surviving prisoners at Aushiwitz, it was other human beings. We are the only the only ones who can really help us. God never does anything.

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  • Sheryl Pineiro

    Excellent article. Excellent discussion; the parenting aspect is indeed, intriguing. I am sorry to highlight this, but the fact that abortion wasn’t mentioned in the article illustrates precisely our complete acquiescence of the evil inculcated into society and its cascading influence on the devaluation of human life. The evil is a bit more subtle. Morgan hits the nail on the head: The amoeba metaphor is fitting.

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