My reflections after going to Auschwitz won’t be original, but I think reflecting on it in a deliberate way is still valuable. I read the following article of the unspeakable evils of ISIS, on my way to Poland, bringing home the connection between the holocaust and our own times. We must not look away.
I approached this being aware that I could have been a perpetrator. That the evil, that the nazis did lays in diluted form in me, and given the right conditions could become full grown. It may sound trivial but The Nazis and the SS had really good branding, they were cool! I am part of the process of making people cool, this hits home. However I could have also been a victim. The Nazis killed people for my Christian convictions, and today if I was in Syria or many places in the world, there is a fair probability that I would be dead for those beliefs. The reality that I could be a victim was bought alive to me in the room where they stored the hair of those the Nazis gassed, looked just like the big pile of hair I left at the barbers floor a month ago. The room of victims shoes looks like the shoes of friends. The people who died were like me.
One of the things that hit me was the nazis tried to deny the humanity of Jewish people. Yet the very approach they used to control them would never had worked if the victims weren’t fully human. The nazis would not have understood how to leverage this had they not been human as well. The holocaust was very human. But it was also scientific, gas chambers were efficient production lines, the level of gas measured to be most economical. This was designed, tested, and thought about.
I struggle to comprehend all this, but through a Christian lens I can at least move forward. There is an old Christian idea, that “The World, the Flesh and the Devil” war against our souls. While the triplet isn’t in the bible, I think its a biblical idea, and only when all three are acknowledged and held in tension can I begin to make sense of this gross kind of evil.
Those who are on the political left, talk a lot about social causes of evil, of structural sins. They are right to. Our environment effects us. The holocaust was in a sense environmental. Nazism was a system, a system set up by people but a system none the less. It was a system where it was hard to do good.
In the current debates around Islamic radicalism it’s a simplistic cliche to point to disenfranchised young people. Not all disenfranchised young people join ISIS, and not all who join are disenfranchised. Just as not all countries in economic decline start to hate Jewish people! Yet it’s wrong to completely ignore social conditions, as they do contribute to how people act. Demoralised postwar Vienna was a hotbed of anti-Semitic ideas, and a young hitler may not have been so keen to lap these ideas up had the environment been different. But the ideas matter. In much of the debate surrounding ISIS there is an aversion to looking at the influence Qur’an, Hadith and Suna as if religion doesn’t matter. But we ignore this at our peril. These are important external factors.
Those on the political right tends to stress individual personal responsibility. They are right to. “I was only carrying out orders” is not good enough! When you see the horror of the Holocaust, the human spirit cries no way! What you read, and your environment matter, but it dehumanises the perpetrator to push the blame on to social factors alone. We’re not good people with a bad environment. We do bad things because we want to. It’s out of the heart that evil flows. Humans take pleasure in very cruel things. The young men in ISIS like to rape and behead. The men in the SS liked to torture people. We don’t want to face it, but we are more evil than we like to admit. I have enjoyed doing wrong things. Am I really so different an SS officer? It may horrify a me, but we all must face it. The biggest problem is inside us.
The Nazis tried to take away another’s humanity, but you don’t become less human by being dehumanised, you may become a quivering wreck, and a shell of your former self. But no less human. The person trying to dehumanise another, is in a way dehumanising themselves, they are defacing the image of God, not so much in the other, but in themselves.
Both the political left and right find the idea of the devil kooky, and I’m sure most people will think I’ve lost it here. But in many non-Western culture attributing evil to the supernatural is more common. They see this kind of gross evil and they want to exorcise it. That’s merely to suggest the person did such unimaginable evil that without supernatural influence is hard to stomach. I think they are also right. Often the supernaturalists give the devil too much credit. But to dismiss this too quickly is to suggest other societies have nothing to say. The demonic accounts for the sheer limitless horror of actions which seem beyond human. But it seems the real power of Satan is not some kind of Faustian deal, but rather the seduction of lies. Lies which don’t stand up to scrutiny, but are a kind of mass delusion which would glory in evil. Something that almost hypnotises a previously sane nation. All this confirms my rather old-fashioned belief in the devil.
It seems to me that only when we look at this 3 pronged attack on our soul, can we truly face this brazen evil. We must see that cultures and ideas, our own inclination and demonic forces all have to come together for this kind of evil to take place. We may say never again but it keeps reemerging. Let’s be bold enough to take a good hard look at our own hearts and realise that may be we might not be what we thought we were.
1 June 2016