Our Own Capacity For Evil — An Overlooked Lesson From The Holocaust

Learning history can often seem like a daunting and unfruitful task.

In a time of unprecedented technological advancements, we devalue the endeavors to rediscover the past, or as Jordan Peterson puts it, “rescue your father from the belly of the whale”.

Why bother looking back when the future is so promising, so exciting, so new? In our fervor and excitement to bring about the future, we stumble into the darkness without a guiding light.

Our current attitude toward human history is comparable to driving a car without a map.

Our blind and reckless attitude to venture forward presents a potential risk of driving off a cliff, ignoring all the warning signs on the road that have been set up by our predecessors.

The guardrails that closed off the unknown are now being uprooted and tossed aside, threatening to send us careening into the chaos, the forest that does not have a straight path for man.

The more we as modern people ignore the history of man, the more we are doomed to repeat it.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

— George Santayana

Because as much as we’d like to see history through the lens of objective observers, it is a story that tells us what humans are like and are capable of, not just about specific groups of people.

The more we try to study history through the lens of groups, the more we will stray further from the truth.

Our endeavor to deny or project the capacity for evil that is within us all will lead to more catastrophic events like the Holocaust or the Rape of Nanking.

What is the lesson that we must draw from the Holocaust? A lot of us have a gut-level reaction when we hear the words related to the Holocaust (Nazi, Hitler, Germany in WW2).

We have all internalized as a society that nationalist movements can become pathological and genocidal.

We should not adopt the ideology of “I am of a descendant of X lineage, which makes me superior to those who do not share my lineage.”

We should not herald one man to control the branches of government, for he can quickly bring about catastrophe unto the nation and the rest of the world.

There are countless other lessons to be learned from witnessing the rise of Nazi Germany, but it seems that we have not internalized one of the most important lessons of the 20th century.

Evil does not only exist outside of us. Evil is not a force that apprehends and brainwashes good people.

Evil exists in each individual and the decision to capitulate to the temptations of this side of the human spirit is in every individual’s control.

Nazi Germany taught us not only about group pathology but also about individual pathology.

The soul of a society is dependent on the decisions each individual in that society makes.

If the people in that society decided to listen to their conscience, to do what they believed was right even in the threat of personal harm, rather than stay silent and follow the dark ideological movement that encapsulated Germany culminating in Hitler and the Nazi Party, perhaps the catastrophes of the Holocaust could have been avoided.

Obviously, this is easier said than done, and these conclusions only seem more clear in hindsight. And I am not stating this to say that I would have been one of the heroes to speak up against the tyrannical forces of the mob had I been a German in the country.

In fact, I probably would have been one of two people:

  1. A person who didn’t believe in the Nazi ideology but kept quiet due to potential threats of violence or conflict (making me complicit in the corruption of the soul of the society)
  2. A person who didn’t really think about the consequences of adopting such an ideology and went along with the mob (making me a direct contributor to the atrocities that ensued)

I could have easily been a Nazi camp guard at the time and would not have felt any remorse for the actions I was taking. I could have easily been an ideologue had I been born into that society and believed firmly in the teachings of the Nazi party. I could have easily been a regular officer who engaged in atrocious and inhumane acts because of personal desires (to keep my job and not upset my superior).

Without this realization, I am vulnerable to future circumstances where I engage in reprehensible behavior that goes against my conscience. I could easily have been swept into a movement or ideology where I removed all personal responsibility and blamed external forces for my decision to corrupt the soul of society.

And this is not to underestimate the strength and quickness of the evil individuals who were more than happy to inflict pain and suffering on others. This is not to say that the tyrannical forces did everything they can to silence the people who spoke to the good conscience of the German people at the time.

But in studying and understanding how these events unfolded, I realize that I now have the responsibility of making sure that I do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

I have the responsibility to inform others, if they are willing to listen, of the dangers of projecting the capacity of human evil outwards rather than inward.

For what is a group of people? It is made of individuals.

And the degree to which the actions that the group takes will pave the way to heaven or hell is dependent on the ability of each individual to have enough self-knowledge (historical wisdom about himself) and courage to act against the evil that lies not only in their brothers’ hearts but in their own hearts.

To understand the potential consequences of a historical atrocity yet stay idle or quiet if it threatens to manifest itself again is, in my opinion, many degrees worse than the unknowing individual who follows along with the zeitgeist, the passion of the times.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

— Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

If you want to ask me a question or simply want to talk: @ohc.william@gmail.com. Check out my publication — https://medium.com/sapere-aude-incipe