Today is the observance of International Holocaust Memorial Day. It falls on the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, known as “the death factory.” It is a day to remember, prayerfully, the victims, and to reflect, soberly, on the depth of human depravity. How, we ask ourselves, could human beings have tortured and brutally murdered millions of their fellow human beings? How could such inhumanity, such barbarism, have occurred in the modern world, and in Germany—a nation of unparalleled cultural and intellectual attainments? It is also a day to consider, humbly, that had we been there, few of us would have been among the heroes who, at great risk to themselves, sheltered Jews and other victims or joined the forces opposing Hitler and the Nazis. Very few of us indeed.
But above all, it is a day to say, from our hearts and with conviction: “Never again.”
The Holocaust—the Shoah—did not begin with the mass killing of Jews or other ethnic or religious minorities, or even Hitler’s political opponents. It began with the killing of the handicapped and infirm. They were, according to Nazi ideology, “useless eaters,” “parasites,” lebensunwertes leben (“lives unworthy of life”). It is important to remember that this eugenic doctrine did not originate with the Nazis. It began with polite, urbane, well-educated, sophisticated people who saw “social hygiene” via, among other methods, euthanasia, as representing progress and modernity. They wanted to ditch the old Judaeo-Christian belief in the sanctity of all human life and replace it with what they regarded as a more advanced and rational philosophy.
This was the view articulated by, for example, noted legal scholar Karl Binding and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche in their treatise Permitting the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life, published in 1920. Binding and Hoche were not Nazis, and when they were writing their book the Nazi party didn’t even exist. In a few years, however, Hitler and the Nazis would adopt their ideas about “social hygiene” (mixing in racialist ideology and nostalgia for a mythical golden age of Teutonic paganism) and carry out the euthanasia program with a remorseless, pitiless fervor. Thus, began what became the Shoah—the murder of six million Jews, two to three million Russians, two million ethnic Poles, and nearly countless other so-called “undesirables.”
Yes, let us truly say, from our hearts and with conviction: “Never again.”
Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.