The Holocaust and the Horror of Thoughtlessness

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion and Democracy | Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Holocaust and the Horror of Thoughtlessness

October 23, 2008

“In the university,” writes Joseph E. Davis in the latest issue of Culture, the magazine of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, “the concepts of good and evil have largely disappeared.  This is not to say that scholars avoid normative issues; they don’t.  What they avoid is any reflection on what the good actually is.”

The danger of avoiding “any reflection on what the good actually is” is graphically illustrated in one of the magazine’s articles.   Jennifer L. Geddes in “Blueberries, Accordions, and Auschwitz:  The evil of thoughtlessness” reflects on a photo album that was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  It bears the handwritten title “Auschwitz 21.6.1944” and was apparently owned by Karl Hoecker, Auschwitz’s second-in-command who appears in many of the photos.

The museum already had one Auschwitz photo album.  The photos are of Jews from Hungary arriving at the concentration camp, waiting to be sorted, and then, having been sorted, walking to their assigned fate:  forced labor or the gas chambers.  Karl Hoecker’s album, in marked contrast, shows the life of the people in charge of Auschwitz during the summer and fall of 1944.

In the album are pictures of official visits and ceremonies, Nazi VIPs, and a Christmas tree lighting. But the most disturbing images are snapshots taken at Solahütte, a beautiful lodge in the mountains thirty kilometers from Auschwitz where officers, guards, and others went for rest and relaxation.

One photo shows an accordion player leading a Solahütte sing-along.  The enthusiastic singers include Hoecker, Baer, Otto Moll who supervised the gas chambers, and Dr. Josef Mengele who performed his infamous medical experiments on human “specimens” at Auschwitz.

Another series of photos shows Hoecker at Solahütte along with a group of cheerful young women—Nazi officers and female auxiliaries.  According to the Holocaust Memorial website:

A full-page spread of six photographs… shows Hoecker passing out bowls of fresh blueberries to the young women sitting on a fence. When the girls finish theatrically eating their blueberries for the camera, one girl poses with fake tears and an inverted bowl. Only miles away on the very same day, 150 prisoners (Jews and non-Jews) arrived on a transport to Auschwitz. The SS selected 21 men and 12 women for work, and killed the remaining members of the transport in the gas chambers.

“What are we to make of these photos?” asks Geddes.  She goes on to cite journalist Hannah Arendt who covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1963.  Eichmann coordinated the transportation of Jews from all over Europe to concentration camps.  Geddes comments that when Arendt arrived at his trial she, “expected Eichmann to be a calculating monster, but encountered a fool.”  Geddes goes on:

According to Arendt, Eichmann was responsible for organizing the transportation of millions of Jewish men, women, and children to their deaths not because he hated Jews or had an evil essence. Rather, he was responsible for these evils because he never reflected on the moral character of his actions.

Failure to reflect on the moral character of his actions led directly to Eichmann’s unspeakable crimes.  The same is true of the young women enjoying blueberries who were complicit in the horror.  And the same is true of Hoecker who was married with two children, enjoyed gardening, worked in a bank after the war, and in all the photos seems to be friendly, positive, and hardworking.  His moral failure went beyond working at a death camp.  His great sin was thoughtlessness—the lack of moral reflection on his life and actions—that allowed him to work at a death camp in the first place.

In Ideas Have Consequences, Richard M. Weaver wrote in 1948:

There is ground for declaring that modern man has become a moral idiot.  So few are those who care to examine their lives, or to accept the rebuke which comes of admitting that our present state may be a fallen state, that one questions whether people now understand what is meant by the superiority of an ideal.

This, of course, is nothing new.  Human beings are sinners and we sinners are not naturally inclined to moral reflection.  We are even less inclined to repentance that must accompany moral reflection if it is going to be worth the effort. 

As Joseph Davis noted, most of our colleges and universities are no help.  Our entertainment culture, our political culture, and our penchant for information over ideas are obstacles to serious thought as well. 

While too many of our churches have minimized sin and repentance, Christianity is the world’s great well of serious moral reflection.  Drawing deeply from that well and discipling others to do the same has always been and is now one of the great tasks of the Church (Matthew 1:18-20).

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