Does the Holocaust have Ethical Implications for Today?

March 19, 2015

by Rev. Dr. John Pawlikowski
Originally published on July 17, 2014 in The American Diversity Report
The academic study of ethics, in light of the experience of the Holocaust, has witnessed rapid development in the last decade. In addition to research into ethical decision making during the Holocaust itself in such volumes as Rab Bennett’s Under the Shadow of the Swastika: The Moral Dilemmas of Resistance and Collaboration in Hitler’s Europe, more general reflections on the significance of the Holocaust for contemporary ethics have come to the fore from Jewish and Christian scholars alike. There have also been voices such as Herbert Hirsch who have questioned whether we can learn anything from the Holocaust in terms of the moral challenge facing us today given the sui generis nature of that event as well as the immense complexity of a modern, global society.
I personally stand with those who do find the experience of the Holocaust significant for ethical reflection in today’s global society. But Hirsch’s pessimism does serve a purpose in reminding us that there is no simplistic transition from the situation of the Shoah into today’s complex social situation.
In beginning any study of ethics in the shadow of the Holocaust a caution is always in order. Such an academic study can never substitute for continued re­membrance of the victims of the Nazis. Elie Wiesel’s oft-quoted statement that to forget the actual victims is in fact to kill them a second time must always remain implanted in our personal and communal templates. Otherwise such an academic study can become a rather barren exercise.
As we face the ethical challenges of our global society today three basic perspectives must become foundational for our reflections: (1) respect for basic human dignity must supplant any notion that, only correct belief entitles one to fundamental rights; (2) our universe of moral concern must be broadened beyond the parameters of our own faith and national communities; and (3) acknowledgment of past failings on the part of our religious and national communities is a necessary pre-condition for development of the internal integrity necessary for genuine and consistent moral commitment.
Let me offer a brief commentary on each of these perspectives. For centuries in my own Roman Catholic tradition correct belief was an absolute requirement for full human dignity. After a bitter struggle at the II Vatican Council over the document on religious liberty, Catholicism underwent a major turn-­about in its understanding. In the vision of Vatican II human dignity, not merely right belief, became the fundamental cornerstone of a just society. To be sure, belief remains important. But no longer is it the absolute barometer for human rights. In some ways this reality was also recognized in secular society. As the late Gerhard Riegner has shown in his memoirs, the experience of the Nazi era was crucial in the development of international legal codes on human rights and genocide after the end of World War II.
The lack of a human rights perspective significantly curtained the Catholic institutional response to Nazism. Now that we are corning to recognize that, at the level of institutional Christianity, fear of liberalism and concern for the loss of the Church’s influence over the public order were in fact stronger motives for acquiescence or even collaboration with Nazism and Fascism than classical Christian anti-Semitism itself, we are in a position to ask seriously whether the Church’s response would have been different if those Christian voices who advocated incorporation of dimensions of the liberal vision into Christianity, including liberalism’s human rights vision, had been heeded. And what if Church leaders had made a concerted effort to establish a working relationship with the liberal opposition to Nazism despite that opposition’s widespread hostility to religious belief’?
There are those who are asking, and I support their question, whether the return to fundamentalist religious perspectives in nearly all religious traditions might well erode the commitment to basic human dignity as the ground of global society resulting from the ethical reflections on the Nazi era during the past decade or so. There could be such stress on particularistic identity that the developing focus on common human dignity may be lost. That would clearly represent a failure to take the moral challenge of the Holocaust with utter seriousness.
I recognize that hindsight can never reproduce the difficulty of the actual challenge faced by the churches during the Nazi era. Still I must ask whether some embrace of liberalism’s fundamental stress on human rights by Catholicism and other churches might not have generated the possibility of an ant-Nazi coalition between the churches and the liberal secularists despite the latter’s strong critique of religion. Clearly the unmitigated opposition to the values espoused by liberalism, including its stress on human rights, undercut such a possible coalition, particularly in the case of the Catholic Church. There were Catholic voices such as Felicite de Lamennais and Henri Lacordaire who urged such an integration of certain liberal values, including the focus on human rights, into mainstream Catholic consciousness. But they were berated for such proposals, much to the ultimate detriment of the Church.
Whether such a coalition would have resulted in the survival of many more Jews, Poles and Roma is an open question. Some prominent historians such as Michael Marrus and Gunther Lewy do not believe that active, public opposition to Nazism on the part of the Christian leadership would have made much difference in terms of the survival of people targeted for extermination by the Nazis, principally the Jews. But on the level of protecting the Church’s basic moral integrity, it likely would have proven quite significant.
This is a point I first learned from the teacher who first introduced me to issues of the Church and the Holocaust as an undergraduate student at Loyola University in Chicago. That professor was Dr. Edward Gargan, an historian, who taught a very popular course on modem German history. Speaking as a committed Catholic, he felt that the Church had seriously compromised its future moral integrity by not standing up more directly and openly to Hitler whatever the impact and consequences might have been. That perspective remains deeply ingrained in me until today.
Another aspect of the human rights question in light of the Holocaust is how we state our own faith understanding. Michael Berenbaum has made this point quite strongly. If we do so in a way that fundamentally denigrates another religious tradition, as was the case for centuries especially in terms of the Jewish tradition, we are transforming our faith into an instrument of potential violence. We have seen far too often in past history and even in the present day how powerful and destructive such religious identification can be in terms of instigating or abetting social violence.
Violent religious language can greatly contribute to softening a society for genocide. I would argue that this is precisely what Christian anti-Semitism did during the Nazi era. Religion remains a powerful force in many present-day societies. If religious language in a given society continues to demean people who do not share the dominant faith system and even denies them full rights of citizenship it certainly opens the door for physical assaults on such groups in times of social tension. On the contrary, positive religious language about the “religious other” can serve as a barrier against such assaults. It is especially necessary in the complex national societies that globalization has produced.
The emphasis on human rights as a central moral imperative after the Holocaust also impacts our understanding of ecclesiology. Any post-Holocaust definition of the Church (or any religious tradition for that matter) must make human rights integral to that definition.
The vision of the Church that needs to prevail is one that sees the survival of all persons as integral to the authentic survival of the Church itself. The desire for self-preservation, as legitimate as it is, can never be sustained by indifference to human rights abuses against the outside “other.” I have argued that Pope Pius XII was regrettably affected by such a “limited” ecclesiology as he tried to keep the institutional Church operational under very trying political circumstances.
There definitely appears to be some understanding of the need for a shift in ecclesiological vision after the Holocaust. I can cite several examples, such as the stance of many of the churches in South Africa in the face of the brutal apartheid political system, the strong support given by local church leaders to the revolution that brought down the Marcos regime in the Philippines, and the courageous stance taken by the Catholic bishops of Malawi when the late Dr. Hastings Banda threatened the human rights of many of the country’s citizens. The last situation is especially relevant because the bishops were willing to risk institutional church survival when President Banda made a serious threat to murder them and their catechists if they continued in their protest on behalf of people who, in most instances, were not Catholic or even Christian. Clearly ecclesiology with a human rights bent had become part of the episcopal template in Malawi.
But other situations show the need for considerable development of a human rights-based ecclesiology. In the Philippines and in South Africa Catholic bishops had to go against the papal representatives who urged caution and even support for the existing oppressive regimes. The situations in countries such as Haiti and Argentina likewise show a Catholic leadership far down the learning curve in terms of moral lessons in light of the Holocaust.
The second ethical principle emerging from reflections on the Holocaust experience involves the extension of our parameters of moral concern. It follows directly from the first principle just discussed. The well-being and even the survival of our own community can never come at the indifference to the sufferings of other. As some Holocaust commentators have put it, we can ­not make others “unfortunate expendables” in the process of self-preservation, as many people in the churches seemed to do with regard to the Jews during the period of the Holocaust. Ignoring the plight of others may not be as heinous an offense as outright hatred, but it remains morally unacceptable nonetheless. Allowing some people to become “expendable,” may in fact rebound eventually on those who take on such an attitude. We, too, may at some point find ourselves “expendable” by some other dominant group if we allow such marginalization of human dignity to go unchallenged. Put another way, the greatest protection of our own human dignity comes ultimately through the uncompromising effort to protect the dignity of all.
There is another dimension of the need for expansion of moral concern as a response to the Holocaust. It has to do with what I have termed the “neutralization” of people, particularly those we may regard rightly or wrongly as our enemy. I remained convinced that religion has a vital role to play in insuring that groups in a society are not “neutralized” in terms of their fundamental humanity. The Holocaust scholar, Henry Friedlander, showed some years ago how the neutral language in reporting daily death counts in the Nazi extermination camps paralleled the language used by the United States military in reporting Vietnamese casualties during the Vietnam War. I myself have examined some of the death camp reports on their daily “activities.” If one had no inkling from where they came, one could easily assume they were reporting on the daily production of radios in a manufacturing facility rather than on the daily death count of Nazi victims. The reports were totally devoid of any language that would indicate that human beings were involved at the level of “production.”
To understand how easily such “neutralization” of victims, especially those regarded as enemies, can infiltrate human consciousness I would report on a situation in the Hyde Park neighborhood at the University of Chicago where my home institution is located during the Vietnam War era. The Museum of Science and Industry, at the time the most visited tourist attraction in the Midwest, put up an exhibit sponsored by the U.S. armed forces which depicted a mock Vietnamese village. As a pioneering interactive museum, the exhibit had a “hands-on” dimension for children. They could enter a recreated American helicopter gunship and shoot down at the Vietnamese village. It took a group of local clergy people one night in jail to force the closure of the exhibit. This total insensitivity on the part of museum and military officials reflected a much wider disturbing phenomenon as the sanctioning of the term “gooks” for the Vietnamese people which robbed them of all human dignity and hence greatly reduced the sense of moral culpability in the process of killing them.
The Iraqi war generated some similar patterns. Torture and human degradation of prisoners was given at least tacit approval by some military commanders. And the wider public, whether in the United States or in the United Kingdom, has shown little or no moral concern over the high number of Iraqi civilian casualties during this conflict. This total moral indifference extends to the church leadership in both countries who have never challenged their membership on this dimension of contemporary warfare.
Historian Peter Hayes of Northwestern University has further illuminated this “expendable” category of people during the Nazi era in his continuing research on German business leaders during the period of the Third Reich. Hayes concludes that in the end German big business was willing “to walk over corpses.” The importance of economic success gradually eroded any sense of the human dignity of those relegated to forced labor in German industry.
There were many factors internal to Germany that contributed to this process of moral numbing. But above all, says Hayes, was the fact that “the Third Reich constructed a framework of economic policy in which the effective pursuit of corporate survival or success had to serve, at least outwardly, the goals and the ideological requirements of the regime.” The indifference of German businessmen during the Third Reich, Hayes continues, reveals the all-too-common penchant in the contemporary world to hide behind so-called professional responsibilities in the face of deep moral challenges. “The obligation to achieve the best possible return for the firm and those who own or work for it to secure their long-term prospects, which in decent contexts can be a guarantee against personal corruption or frivolous management, became an excuse for participating in cruel, eventually murderous acts, indeed a mandate to do.”
Most alarming about this development was not even the complicity in murder through direct participation in the Nazi program of forced labor, but a sense of innocence about such complicity on the part of very many of the businessmen. They were able to subdue any moral hesitations they may have experienced with the response, “What else can I do?” losing sight of the far more important question, according to Hayes, “what must I never do.”
Clearly these German businessmen had “neutralized” the humanity of the people forced by the Nazis into their labor program.
Hayes’ studies provide solid data for the perspectives of a number of Jewish and Christian ethicists regarding the erosion of a sense of personal responsibility within Nazi culture. The “system” became the dominant reality, not human dignity. Regrettably we have not learned a lesson from the Nazi experience in this connection. Today we often see a similar process taking place within the context of globalization. “What else can I do?” has in fact become a stock phrase in the vocabulary of global capitalism.
The dynamics of the market must reign supreme no matter what the cost in human terms, no matter that, as a European Union report of several years ago showed, some two hundred and fifty million children around the world are used to support this system living in conditions, in many instances, of virtual slavery. They have become a new form of Nazi forced labor. The late Pope John Paul II, in what may prove in the end to be his most prophetic concern, warned that the global ideology of the market, which has tended to replace the competing Cold War ideologies in recent years, cannot insure the preservation of human dignity:
“The rapid advance toward the globalization of economic and financial systems also illustrates the urgent need to establish who is responsible for guaranteeing the global common good and the exercise of economic and social rights. The free market by itself cannot do this, because in fact there are many human needs which have no place in the market.” (Pope John Paul II)
Published with the author’s permission.

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