How much do we learn from evil?

Sam Smith

The 60th anniversary observance of Auschwitz brings back a question that periodically lurks in the corner: how much do we really learn from evil?

It is widely assumed in this country that humanity is significantly improved by such things as Holocaust studies, international war crimes, and showing teens scary films about driving. There is, however, far more faith than evidence about all this.

This is not to say that such matters should not be an part of the human curriculum, only that in American culture they are approached with a zeal that borders on moral pornography and, in the process, overwhelms the far more important matter of learning and practicing alternatives to that which we are meant to avoid. It is almost as though we were constantly being given directions by naming all the streets we shouldn’t use without ever being told the ones we should.

I learned about Auschwitz in 1956, on the eleventh anniversary of its liberation. It was at the tail end of Soc Sci 2, taught by intense, red-headed liberal Samuel Beer, who covered six revolutions — including the French, industrial and Nazi — with enthusiasm for real people and events. Each revolution required a two thousand word paper. The climax of the course led us from Nietzsche to Hitler to an evening of Nazi propaganda films and footage of concentration camps liberated just a decade earlier. The concentration camps were gruesome, but the movies the Nazis had made to celebrate themselves were in some ways even more horrific, depicting as they did millions of Germans voluntarily surrendering their souls as millions of others were involuntarily losing their lives. In one of the films, the frame was almost entirely filled with an overhead shot of Nazi soldiers. One thin corridor cut through the dark mass and down it walked three tiny figures — Adolph Hitler and two aides.

What we saw had been placed in history’s context; we had been taught not just brutal endings but far more instructive beginnings, and we got to see not just evil’s horror but its accompanying banality.

What I didn’t realize, however, was that college students all over America weren’t learning the same thing and that when they did, it would have acquired a name, and a politics, and a semiotics, and it would have become multiple worlds inhabited by victims, philosophers, journalists, politicians, leaches, symbol snatchers, propagandists, self-servers and deniers. And that people like Sharon and Bush would do new evil in the name of exorcising the old. I had learned about the Holocaust before it became whatever anyone wanted it to be.

By the time I graduated, I had read William Shirer’s new book, The Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich, and found myself absorbed not so much in what the Nazis had become but how they had begun – how normal, how ordinary so much of it had been, with that frighteningly familiar mix of opportunism, lust, incompetence, and failure of courage at a time when something still could be done. If they had let me build the Holocaust museum that would have been its prime exhibit: not what had happened, but how.

Years later I read Martin Mayer’s book, They Thought They Were Free, based on interviews with ordinary Nazis before and after the war. In it, this Chicago Jewish reporter summed up:

“Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany. . . It was what most Germans wanted — or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it. I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusions. I felt — and feel — that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here, under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I.”

Here is the part of the Holocaust that is most frequently denied. Not that millions were slaughtered but that those who did the deed might under certain conditions be either you or I. And we would do it, as Adolph Eichmann had suggested, simply by finding the right words for it, what he called ‘office talk.’

It is this unrecognized, undiscussed denial, especially at moments of solemn observance, that most frightens me. And our recovery does not lie in still more talk, ceremonies, and professions of horror. It lies instead in the study, honor, and practice of the good and the decent.

If you watch good people closely, their good comes as naturally as evil came to Eichmann. It does not have to be propped up with memories of great wrongs; it is just the everyday unconscious behavior of those graced with honor: the banality of decency.

We need perhaps a museum of the good, curricula in decency studies, and practice in their skills and rhythms. We need peace experts instead of military experts talking about Iraq on Fox TV. We need mediators instead of just lawyers on Court TV. We need movies, and heroes, and moving stories that win Academy Awards and models for our children that lead them to the contentment of cooperation and fairness rather than to brutal examples drawn from the play-by-play of violence and wrong that appears with every other click of the zapper.

Even our memories and mourning of the wrong can be directed toward the better. Do we only regret or do we reconstitute ourselves and our community, creating a soul and a place where we don’t even have to imagine something like that happening again? Too often, confronted with past great horror, we not only mourn the victims, we join them in unconscious capitulation to the presumed inevitability of the evil.

The frightening thing about Auschwitz is not that some would deny it but how real it still seems. The frightening thing about Auschwitz is that our leaders go to honor it while still denying Guantanamo and Al Graib and Palestine. We will know that we have finally learned the Holocaust’s lessons when we no longer hear new echoes of it.

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