Thinking About Evil (2): The Challenge of Auschwitz

Auschwitz is an unspeakable horror. To speak of it in any way is almost unthinkable. Like the Civil War, Auschwitz was an event that required years to think about, and even longer to write about.

I’m not a big fan of trigger warnings but here is one. I’m about to recount one Nuremberg Trial account which is horrifying and disturbing.

Passage from Nuremberg Trial Record (quote can be found here.)

I decided not to quote the passage. I felt disgusting typing out the words. Nevertheless, Rabbi Greenberg is one example (Elie Wiesel is another) of those who witness to the horror and death of dead fathers, mothers and children.

In a fundamental sense Auschwitz was unique, but as Susan Nieman points out, it is difficult to say precisely “why” it is unique. The horror inflicted at the camps was tremendous, yet there have been other genocides, other horrors that compete with Auschwitz in scale and sheer horror.

Niemann posits that three things died at Auschwitz for most people in the West, and this was a result of decisions about the world that were taken up in the modern period after Lisbon.

She posits that Lisbon fractured the definition of what was included in the very meaning of “evil.” Prior to Lisbon “evil” referred to everything in the natural and human order, but after Lisbon the natural order was “de-eviled” (My word, trademark). In other words, prior to the Lisbon the natural world was seen as the mark of an intentional order, intention could be sought within an earthquake or a tsunami, but afterwards the intentionality behind the natural order was no longer sought in the same way. This occurred because “evil” was shrunk, and was now only applied to human evil, that is morality. Critical to the modern project of human ethics and morality was “intentionality.” Evil must be the product of a human will.

This tradition was brought to its knees by Auschwitz, because the primary area in which modern secular “theodicy” has asserted mastery–the human moral realm–was destroyed.

The first is that the goal of modern philosophy was to eliminate contingency (Hegel is the example here), but Auschwitz was utterly contingent. Who died and who lived was not settled due to science but the whim of some guard or another.

The second is the Hegelian notion of reconciliation, which viewed philosophy as an avenue of consolation, which reconciled human beings to the misery of their lives. As Niemann notes, what is intended as consolation can often turn into preparation for future evils. Auschwitz is an example of Nazi leaders consoling their people that their individual suffering would be worth it in the end, for the great political project which was about to unfold. Reconciliation in the wrong hands, or perhaps any hands, tends to reconcile people to horrors they themselves are about to perpetuate.

Perhaps however, the greatest insight, and the primary thrust of Nieman’s book is the intentionality question. She leads on Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem as a critical piece of evidence for the “unintentionality” of much of the evil of Auschwitz. Arendt argued in the book that many of the Nazis did horrible things with no “intention” of malice or interest in injuring people, but they did it for seemingly normal reasons. Eichmann for instance wanted to do well at his job, he wanted to be promoted, he wanted to excel. The horrors that his work inflicted were secondary to these basic, and understandable intentions.

It is interesting to note how easy it is to slip into this relatively “unintentional” form of evil, in spite of its horrific consequences. I think for instance of the opioid companies which shipped millions of pills per year to a town of 3,000 people in West Virginia, and the countless employees who knew something was wrong and just wanted to keep their job. These sorts of instances are easy to imagine.

At the heart of Arendt and Niemann’s complaint is that the subjective intention of a person is at the heart of what it means to commit a morally “evil” act. This is at the centre of the modern conception of law. Unintentionally committing the same “act,” such as killing a person are automatically understood to be less serious crimes. Subjective intention is critical in demonstrating morally evil acts in the modern world, and it is, central to the modern project of identifying evil enshrined and codified in political and legal institutions.

But how does one make sense of Auschwitz, when the intentions of many of the perpetrators do not seem to match the horrendous crimes that are committed?

As Nieman points out the shock to the Western modern system was profound, because it demonstrated that we are not even capable of explaining the intelligibility of human evil itself. This is concerning, because it was the modern fallback–its a minimalist hope for modern engagement with evil. By this she means, that the modern project began with the hope of explaining the intentions of God and why natural evils occur, but after Lisbon the project had shrunk to the moral human realm (evil being banished from the natural world). Auschwitz had proved that human beings do not even have mastery over their own domain, and the basic conception of theodicy from the beginning, the need for meaningful intentionality, seemed utterly illusive.

Is “evil” still a meaningful word?

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