The Place of Auschwitz in the Problem of Evil

As I near the end of my readings for my course on providence and suffering, I notice that the authors I have been assigned all share a common assumption. They each assert as self-evident that the Holocaust represents a cataclysmic, paradigm-shifting moment in the history of the problem of suffering. Susan Neiman introduced her book Evil in Modern Thought, “What occurred in Nazi death camps was so absolutely evil that, like no other event in human history, it defies human capacity for understanding.” Similarly, Carleen Mandolfo wrote in the journal Interpretation, “There can be no redemption, no understanding in the Holocaust (something the Christians who put up crosses at Auschwitz cannot understand, or simply do not accept).” At first, I accepted this assessment of Auschwitz without question. After all, we live in a society where Hitler’s name has become a byword for evil and invoking the memory of Nazism evokes appropriate disdain from any culturally conscious bystander. The Holocaust does typify depravity in everyday society, and it certainly is unquestionably depraved.

I wonder, nevertheless, whether or not we should afford it the kind of catastrophic significance that these authors do. Of course, I do not dispute that the Holocaust was evil or even that it was tremendously evil. I simply question if it is peculiarly evil, if it truly represents the kind of awful exercise of human will that should shatter every existing theodicy and leave us utterly and specially dumbfounded at the thought of it.

From a purely analytical standpoint, I wonder what it is that makes the Holocaust so much worse than other modern atrocities. It is the number of deaths? Modern technology has given us the capacity to kill in astonishing numbers, and there are abundant examples of massacres which have, if not equal, at least comparably appalling numbers. Consider the successive wars which have plagued this past century particularly but in reality all centuries. Are the lives of those who died in these conflicts somehow ontologically inferior to those of the Holocaust victims? Of course, the majority of these people were soldiers, and, assuming for the sake of argument that this is a valid explanation for the mass extermination of human life, let me propose another possibility.

Was it the innocence of the victims? Ignoring what I would dismiss as a fundamentally invalid moral category relative to taking human life, there have been numberless accounts of the torture and deaths of innocents. Consider the civilian causalities associated with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. Think also of the birth pangs of communist regimes which saw countless innocents slaughtered by their own governments. Conjuring one of the most terrible images possible, Emil Fackenheim (who argues strongly for the sinister peculiarity of the Holocaust) wrote, “In Auschwitz, Jewish babies were thrown into the flames without being killed first. Their screams could be heard in the camp. To find redemption in the suffering of these babies, or of those cursed to hear their screams, is a human impossibility and—so one hopes—a divine one as well.” Whatever the truth in his statement about finding redemption, the suffering of infants is by no means a peculiarity of Auschwitz. In fact, twice in Scripture the systematic mass murder of infants is described. Horrible, tragic, inexcusable, but unfortunately not distinct.

Could it be the attempted extermination of an entire people? The sufferers of various other genocides and racial oppressions are excluded if this is the case. The twentieth century was one plagued with racial, ethnic, and ideological genocides. Some still rage on. Genocides occurred in Asia, Africa, and the Balkans (to name only the few that spring immediately to mind). Meanwhile, the world has regularly seen programmatic racial oppressions which, while not so costly in human life as the death camps, were more prolonged and no less burdensome for those involved. The slave trade from Africa which spanned not years (as did Auschwitz) but centuries saw the torture, exploitation, and incalculable death of Africans. Surely targeting a single group of people for extermination or oppression is neither new nor peculiarly evil.

Could it be the means employed? Certainly we do not believe that the death camps were any less humane than the (often exaggerated) means of the Inquisition. Could it be the apathy of the German people or the world? Human apathy is by no means a new phenomenon, and it has certainly not passed away in the wake of the Holocaust. In spite of the aforementioned culturally appropriate expression of disdain, the horror of the Holocaust does not reach any of us on the kind of level that philosophers and theologians suggest it ought to. Could it be…anything at all? Is there any way to quantify why the Holocaust is radically epoch-making?

My question runs deeper than that. Even if some analytical grounds were presented to me that explained why the Holocaust was somehow radically worse than all expressions of evil previous (and I anticipate that the answer for many would be that no single feature is distinct but the coincidence of all of the above make it peculiarly evil) that would not prove the case for me. Any solution to the question I have posed is inevitably an answer of degree. More people died. People who died were more innocent. The system was more programmatic, more racially motivated. And so on. The reality is, however, that even if Auschwitz represents a new degree of evil it is nevertheless the same old evil out of which man has always made an art form. The annihilation of human life without just cause, without regard for the humaneness of the means, without thought of the character of the victim, and without moral outrage from onlookers.

So I ask again, what justifies this matter-of-fact statement from Mandolfo: “Auschwitz has finally forced theologians and biblical scholars to at least consider that no promised redemption, no good, is worth the price of catastrophic suffering.” If such a conclusion must considered, it must be considered regardless of Auschwitz (and was over the course of the history of thought on the problem of evil). With the possible exception of a shift out of the modernist belief in a progressing society and an imminent utopia, I can see no reason for making the Holocaust a necessarily decisive event in the history of theodicy. The suggestion that all pre-Holocaust theodicy is somehow made obsolete now (as Neiman proposes) requires at the very least serious scrutiny if not outright rejection. It may overturn optimistic modernist theodicy but all theodicy seems to overstate it.

I leave the above without a conclusion on my part, because I certainly do not have the answer, only the suggestion that the assertion of the authors I am tasked to read is by no means self-evident. Instead, I close with a particularly unformed question which has occurred to me: in making Auschwitz an epochal events for the modern world, one that forces us to question God and the traditional theology/theodicy of the church, do we make an idol out of human evil?

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3 thoughts on “The Place of Auschwitz in the Problem of Evil

  1. […] Some years ago, I raised questions about the place of the Holocaust, and Auschwitz in particular, in debate regarding the problem of evil. It was my contention then–one which I continue to stand by–that the Holocaust did not represent any special evil, any new sort of paradigm shattering expression of the depravity of human behavior. In fact, the truly shocking nature of the Holocaust was precisely in that it was consistent with the overarching history of humanity’s gross inhumanity. […]

  2. […] no one would ever suggest hamstringing historians on those topics because they are not blessed by the kind of special pleading that surrounds the Holocaust. There is no villain like Hitler, no enormity like the Holocaust, and […]

  3. […] no one would ever suggest hamstringing historians on those topics because they are not blessed by the kind of special pleading that surrounds the Holocaust. There is no villain like Hitler, no enormity like the Holocaust, and […]

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