Of the writing of books about the Holocaust it seems there is no end. And it is, all in all, a good thing that that is the case. There are other candidates for the dreadful distinction, but it happens that the Holocaust is the only universally agreed upon icon of absolute evil in the modern world. Since the publication more than ten years ago of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s notoriously reckless book Hitler’s Willing Executioners , a great deal of scholarly attention has been devoted to the role of “ordinary Germans” in the genocide of the Jews. (See “Daniel Goldhagen’s Holocaust” in the August/September 1996 issue of First Things .) What did they know? What was the nature and degree of their complicity?

Yet another entry in this field is Peter Fritzsche’s Life and Death in the Third Reich (Harvard). Fritzsche, who rightly gives major attention to the remarkable and much-discussed diaries of Victor Klemperer, is much more judicious than Goldhagen, but leans in the direction of a similarly comprehensive indictment of the German people and the deeply entrenched anti-Semitism of German political culture. Also just out from Yale is Ian Kershaw’s Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution . Kershaw has written extensively on these questions over the past three decades and is justly famed for his two-volume biography of Hitler.

The Kershaw book includes key essays he has written over the years, and of particular note is his twenty-three-page introductory survey of how the arguments have developed among students of the Third Reich. For a long time following the war, the extermination of the Jews was not a central concern of scholars. He notes, for instance, that at an international conference on the Third Reich in 1979, there was not even one paper on the Holocaust. For understandable reasons, Jewish scholars have taken the lead in putting the Holocaust front stage center in discussions of Hitler and his regime. A resulting problem, says Kershaw, is that writers begin with Auschwitz and then read it back into everything that went before, which results in telling the story of the Third Reich as a straight line of causality from the early Hitler’s vicious hatred of Jews to the Final Solution, designed and perpetrated with the active collaboration of the German people.

In fact, says Kershaw, things were much more complicated than that. The Nazi exterminationists, who really went into high gear after German setbacks on the eastern front, had reason to believe they were acting in accord with Hitler’s wishes but were not acting under his direct orders. As for ordinary Germans, many of them knew more about what was happening to the Jews than they would later admit, but they “had many more things on their minds” than the fate of an unpopular minority. The key to their essentially passive role, says Kershaw, is explained better by “moral indifference” than by active malice.

Kershaw writes, “Whether the passivity of the majority reflected moral indifference, bad conscience, suppression of uncomfortable knowledge, fear of the consequences, or tacit approval of what was being done seems to me, truth to tell, impossible to establish. I have the feeling . . . that interpretations of the German population’s stance on the Final Solution cannot be taken any further. Sometimes historians simply have to accept that they cannot find the hard and fast answers they seek in the inadequate remnants of the past with which they have to deal.”

Human beings are capable of doing or countenancing the doing of terrible things. In response to scholars who explain genocide in terms of the totalitarian drive of the modern state, or technological rationalization, or anti-Semitism, Kershaw writes, “The lack of sophistication in planning and implementation but magnitude and speed of mass killing in the Rwanda genocide, carried out in the main with little more than guns and machetes, should alone give pause for thought about such an argument.” So how to explain, if explain is the right word, catastrophes such as the Holocaust? “The decisive factor was the nature of a new kind of ideology, which, whatever its varied form and expression, was absolutist in its total claim to determine who should have the right to inhabit the earth in the building of a mooted coming utopia.

“To be a Jew under Hitler, a Kulak under Stalin, or an intellectual under Pol Pot was tantamount to a death sentence. The Nazi state, however, produced the most absolutist form of ideology of all in that the biological exclusion of Jews was more lethally uncompromising than the often brutally arbitrary socially deterministic exclusivism of Stalin or Pol Pot. And this most extreme manifestation of absolutist ideology thoroughly permeated the most advanced state machinery and exploited the most developed technology in Europe. The Final Solution arose from this unholy combination.”

The Holocaust may be the only universally agreed upon icon of absolute evil, but we deceive ourselves if we insist upon its utter singularity. Kershaw concludes on the sobering note: “So far, with great effort, the combination [that produced the Holocaust], which would be truly dangerous if marshaled by a powerful state entity, has been held in check. Will it continue to be?” Neither divine promise nor our knowledge of the human capacity for good and evil warrants a certain answer in the affirmative.

During the Third Reich, ordinary Germans “had many more things on their minds.” That’s a chilling phrase. We might easily say, and many do all too easily say, that during the era of slavery or during current horrors such as the genocide in Sudan or the daily killing of thousands of unborn children in the abortuaries around the country, most ordinary Americans “had many more things on their minds.” That’s a moralistic cheap shot. The truth is that we all have many more things on our minds, and necessarily so. Such as families, jobs, dealing with sickness, and warding off despair. Not to mention, for many, the distinctly unnecessary hours every day spent surfing and chatting on the blogosphere.

The Third Reich is rightly viewed as an icon of evil. This does not mean, as Ian Kershaw reminds us, that the ordinary Germans of the time are the icon of moral indifference or complicity in great evil. Then it was the Jews, the Slavs, and the gypsies. At other times, it is another class of human beings. Given the requisite mix of circumstances, which is not beyond imagination, it is an idle conceit to think that ordinary Americans would behave more nobly than did the Germans of Hitler’s day. Among any people of any time, moral courage is the exception and not the rule. There are heroes and heroines who contend against the great evils of their time, but even they must be selective. You may be devoting your life to helping the people of Sudan, but what are you doing to help prisoners of conscience in China, or to stop international sex trafficking, or to feed the hungry of Zimbabwe, or to relieve the loneliness of old people in the nursing home within an easy drive from your home? The list goes on and on.

“They had many more things on their minds.” And so do we all. Contemplating monstrous evils, such as the Third Reich, is not an occasion for preening in our supposed moral superiority but for humility, for self-examination, for renewed discernment of our duty, and for more earnest prayer for the coming of the promised Kingdom.


Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Daniel Goldhagen’s Holocaust ” by Richard John Neuhaus

Life and Death in the Third Reich by Peter Fritzsche

Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution by Ian Kershaw

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