Forgetting the Holocaust
Jewish Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal died this month at the age of 96.
He was 33 when the Germans invaded the Ukraine, moved him into a ghetto
and forced him into slave labour and concentration camps. Eighty-nine
of his and his wife’s relatives perished. After the War, he devoted his
life to pursuing the ageing Nazis who had thrown six million of his
people into the Holocaust. It was partly due to his efforts that Adolf
Eichmann was spirited out of Argentina by Mossad agents and that Franz
Stangl, the commander of Treblinka, where 800,000 inmates had been
gassed, was found in Brazil and extradited for trial. But he did not
regard himself as an avenger. “The most important thing I have done is
to fight against forgetting,” he said, “and to keep remembrance alive.”
In terms of numbers of deaths, there are other crimes to match the
Holocaust. Forty million are said to have perished under Stalin; 80
million under Mao. In terms of sheer physical brutality, we have the
experience of Rwanda only a decade ago. Interhamwe militia slaughtered
at least 500,000 Tutsis and Hutu dissidents with machetes in three
months. These deaths deserve be mourned with the same intensity as
those who died in the Holocaust. Nonetheless, something does set the
Holocaust apart. It was a crime planned by men who had been raised in the heart
of Western culture. Some of the world’s best scientists willingly
participated. It used the most advanced technology and industrial
organisation. Above all, it had a unique theological and cultural
dimension: the extermination of the Chosen People. Wiesenthal was
right: we must not forget.
But what never forgetting mean? Sixty years after the end of World War
II, there is little danger of forgetting the facts. There are Holocaust
centres in major cities across the globe and university centres devoted
to Holocaust research. Its images of horror and degradation are part of
modern culture. The problem is: are the facts relevant to us? When the
few surviving Nazis and Nazi collaborators and their victims have
passed away, will the Holocaust become just another chapter in history
textbooks? The Mongol despot Tamerlane is said to have built a pyramid
of 80,000 skulls after sacking Delhi in 1399. We shake our heads and
turn the page...
Forgetting the Holocaust
Remembrance of the Holocaust is subverted in three ways. The first is
trivialising the horrors of what the Nazis did. The very pleasant young
woman who manages my serviced office describes herself as a “newspaper
Nazi” because she tracks down newspapers which have disappeared into
cubicles. Frivolous comparisons to the horrors of the Holocaust and
other Nazi war crimes are so common, in fact, that debaters and
moderators of internet discussion groups have formulated “Godwin’s
Law”: that as a debate lengthens, the probability of a comparison
involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 100 per cent.
The second is exploiting the Holocaust to blacken the name of political
opponents. This happens all the time. The latest to come to my
attention is an obituary of the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist by
celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz, of Harvard Law School. To darken his
portrait of a mean-spirited enemy of human rights, he relayed anonymous
tittle-tattle about Rehnquist in his days as a Stanford Law School
student: “goose-stepping and heil-Hitlering with brown-shirted friends
in front of a dormitory that housed the school’s few Jewish
The third is describing the Holocaust as unrepeatable. This argument is
common in bioethics. Not long ago Focus on the Family founder James
Dobson compared embryo stem cell research to medical experiments in
Nazi death camps. The analogy provoked howls of protest. The Denver
Post dismissed it as cheap talk. “It strains credulity to connect
death-camp doctors with modern-day medical researchers seeking
knowledge about some of the toughest diseases that afflict human
beings,” the Post sneered.(2) And David Gelernter wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the comparison was “grotesque”: embryos feel
no pain and leave no grief-stricken survivors.(3)
Dobson’s critics had a point. As a debating tactic, the analogy just
didn’t work. It alienated many listeners and failed to convince them.
But it is also hard to defend the opposite point of view — that the
Holocaust is irrelevant to this sort of research. And this is the
position of America’s best-known bioethicist Arthur Caplan. He recently
contributed a guest editorial to Science, the voice of the US scientific
establishment, in which he criticised Holocaust analogies not only as
“deeply flawed” but “unethical”.(4 )
Are Nazi analogies unethical?
Caplan complains that opponents of abortion and embryonic stem cell
research pervert public debate by invoking Nazi comparisons. He
explains that two policies characterised the Third Reich’s bioethics.
First, a totalitarian regime wanted to purge the state of human drains
on its resources — the mentally ill, the demented elderly and the
“feeble-minded”, amongst others. Second, it wanted to protect itself
against genetic degeneration by eliminating inferior races like the Jews
and the Roma (Gypsies). In contemporary America such
policies are unimaginable. For instance, Terri Schiavo’s feeding
tube was not removed because her care weakened the economy or because
she belonged to a “degenerate” race. Therefore, Caplan concludes,
the use of the Nazi analogy is not just inappropriate but “demean[s]
the immorality of Nazi practices” and is itself unethical.
In effect, Caplan is defending the status quo. Never Again? Of course
not. The river of history cannot flow upstream. Totalitarian states
with command economies and imposed ideologies are dead. In an era of
globalisation and the triumph of capitalism, the Holocaust is as
relevant as Tamerlane’s pacification policies.
But this misses the point made by critics like Dobson, however clumsily
it may have been made. No analogy is perfect. In this case, the
historical circumstances were different, but some element were the
same. The Holocaust represented a policy of turning human life into
industrial machinery and raw materials. Embryonic stem cell research
also means that human life will become a raw material — this time for
researchers and drug companies.
In all likelihood the terrible scenes depicted so vividly in Schindler’s List will not happen again. But in a different time, in a
different form, why can’t something just as evil happen again? To deny
this demonstrates not only a lack of deep moral seriousness but also a
lack of historical imagination. Bioethicists like Caplan are still
preoccupied with the nightmares of George Orwell. “Almost certainly,”
Orwell wrote in 1940, “we are moving into an age of totalitarian
dictatorships — an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a
deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction. The autonomous
individual is going to be stamped out of existence.”(5) But
Orwell was wrong. Since the utter collapse of the totalitarian
experiment, far from disappearing, the autonomous individual has
triumphed. So instead of smugly asserting that totalitarian crimes belong to the past, bioethicists should
forecast what threatens human life after the fall of the
A benchmark for inhumanity
From this point of view, comparisons with the Holocaust are almost a
necessity to keep technology from dominating humanity. The great fear
of critics of embryonic stem cell research is that human life will be
assessed as a mere economic resource once again, but this time by the
“autonomous individuals” who have won the battle of ideologies. Embryos
will be created and destroyed by the millions for commercial purposes.
The other reason why Caplan and others feel that Holocaust comparisons
are irrelevant is even less convincing. The motives of stem cell
scientists are said to be high and pure. As David Gelernter says,
“Stem-cell researchers want to help ‘mankind’, defined to exclude
embryos.”(6) But researchers are no different from anyone else.
Many of them have a financial stake in their research; all of them are
eager to carve out reputations — perhaps win a Nobel Prize. It is
difficult to know how pure their intentions are.
What we can learn from the Holocaust is that professional competence
cannot guarantee high ethical standards. Advocates of embryonic stem
cell research assure us that only a few rogue scientists would ever abuse the
power over human life inherent in this kind of work. But recent studies
of criminal research science in the Third Reich have found that many
eminent scientists participated willingly. “Most researchers, it turns
out, seem to have regarded the regime not as a threat, but as an
opportunity for their research ambitions,” says the leading journal Nature about science under the Nazis.(7) To mark the 60th
anniversary of the end of the War, a number of books on medical war
crimes have been published, all with basically the same message: that
Nazi doctors believed that anything was legitimate if it advanced
the cause of science and public health.(8) As the political
philosopher Hannah Arendt has argued, many participants in the regime’s
atrocities were not bloodthirsty monsters, but dutiful bureaucrats like
Adolph Eichmann who did their
job without asking whether it was right or wrong. Sixty years on, there
are more bureaucrats than ever -- and even fewer of them reflect on the
moral dimension of their work.
The Holocaust was different. It took place during a war; it was
violent; it was totalitarian; it was inspired by a lunatic ideology.
None of these are relevant to current bioethical issues. But
essentially it was government-sanctioned destruction of human life on a
colossal scale. The times have changed, but the danger of this
happening again remains the same. To deny it would surely demean the
memory of the Holocaust.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet
(1) Alan Dershowitz. “Telling the Truth About Chief Justice Rehnquist”. Huffington Post. Sept 5, 2005.
(2) “Nazi likeness way over the line”. Denver Post. August 6, 2005.
(3) David Gelernter. “Dobson’s Choice.” Wall Street Journal. August 10, 2005.
(4) Arthur L. Caplan. “Misusing the Nazi Analogy”. Science. July 22, 2005.
(5) George Orwell. “Inside the Whale”. Selected Essays. Penguin, 1957, 48.
(6) David Gelernter. “Dobson’s Choice.” Wall Street Journal. August 10, 2005.
(7) “Uncomfortable truths”. Nature. April 7, 2005.
(8) Julia Neuberger. “Nazi medicine and the ethics of human research”. The Lancet. Sept 3, 2005.
Get the Free Mercator Newsletter
Get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox.
Your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell you personal data.
Have your say!
Join Mercator and post your comments.