“For though they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became worthless, and their senseless hearts were darkened.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I recently had the chance to visit a traveling exhibit about Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps. The exhibit was powerful and moving. It did not shy away from any of the grisliest details of what happened there. And what happened there was the systematic extermination of more than a million Jews and others the Nazi leadership believed to be unfit for life in the Third Reich. This kind of sobering encounter with the absolute worst of human evil ever unleashed on the world is something everyone should experience. That being said, the exhibit was not without its problems. Allow me to highlight one that kept it from being fully what it could have been.
There were actually several things that really stood out to me as we went through the exhibit. For starters, while the Nazi regime is synonymous with evil, the exhibit’s creators’ walking you through the history and actual careful thought that went into the planning of turning Auschwitz into their primary death camp really underscored just how breathtakingly evil they were.
One point on this reflection that caught me the hardest was the fact that they were evil to children. For starters, well before they began systematically murdering Jews and members of the Roma people and homosexual men and anyone else deemed unfit to be part of the Aryan nation (a meaningless geographical and genetic idea that was invented out of whole cloth by Nazi ideologues to justify their awful political aims and racial hatred), they began culling their own herd from the bottom up. In the mid-1930s they began taking any children who were reported to have been born with any kind of handicap and forcibly removing them from their parents for “treatment.” In reality, they were all murdered either by strangulation, lethal injection, or starvation. This program was suspended when people began to learn about it broadly and protest it, but that alone should have awakened the German people to the evil of the regime they had put into power.
The second thing here was that when children arrived at Auschwitz, they were all sent straight to the gas chambers. They weren’t even registered as prisoners. Within hours of their arrival, they were murdered and incinerated. A people are rightly judged morally by how they treat the weakest members of their society. The Nazi’s systematically murdered the weakest members of their society. Even without knowing anything else about them, that tells you all you need to know.
Another major theme of the exhibit that caught my attention was how many people knew of their racial hatred and the gross persecution they aimed at anyone who didn’t fit their definition of good citizen, and who supported them either in spite of or even because of it. The soldiers of the SS and the other Nazi leadership did not bear the weight of their crimes on their own. There were millions of regular people who looked the other way or were even sucked in to supporting their aims. When good people do not resolutely oppose what is evil, they can very quickly and easily fall to supporting or even participating in it.
For instance, the company who designed the incineration furnaces at Auschwitz knew what they were going to be used for and helped design them to run even more efficiently anyway. Those business owners were just as morally culpable for the deaths in those camps as the soldiers who carried them out and the officers who ordered them to take place.
Not only did ordinary people support the Nazi political and social and military aims, but many of the people who were the most directly responsible for the daily operations at Auschwitz and other concentration camps were not obviously moral monsters. The director of Auschwitz was an unassuming man who might have worked stocking shelves at a grocery store. His family lived on the compound in a nice house surrounded by gardens and space for the children to play and live a remarkably idealistic childhood. He oversaw the systematic murder of tens of thousands of people during the day, and then went home to kiss his wife, have dinner with his family, and then tuck his five children into bed for the night. That anyone can behave so normally while committing such unspeakable atrocities should be a stark reminder to all of us of what we are capable of ourselves. We can convince ourselves that even the most heinous evil is a positive good if we are not careful.
Still, as necessary and important as those kinds of reminders was, the exhibit had one glaring omission that, for me at least, was bad enough it almost rendered its rightful moral condemnation weaker than it should have been.
The exhibit took great pains to examine the philosophical and scientific strains of thought that came together to make the whole Nazi program seem reasonable. It looked at the development of anti-Semitism over the centuries along with other cultural developments. But in doing so, the creators assiduously avoided any mention of Darwinism, the scientific theory that gave more credibility to the aims of Nazi planners than any other single idea. Nazi scientists and social planners were fairly explicit that they were simply taking Darwin’s ideas to their logical conclusions to the betterment of not just their society, but the entire human race.
I could only see two conclusions on this omission. First, it was accidental. My instinct is to discredit this conclusion out of hand. As central to Nazi thinking as Darwinism was, its accidental omission represents a intellectual blind spot that renders the rest of their scholarship deeply suspect in terms of its credibility.
This leaves only one other conclusion: the omission was intentional. This, however, is, if anything, even more problematic for me. If the creator’s commitment to Darwinism is so strong as to avoid its mention in this obviously connected context so as to not risk bringing it any intellectual, scientific, or moral discredit to it, how can the rest of their scholarship be trusted? To put that another way, if the exhibit’s creators are so committed to a particular ideological position which happens to be the same ideological position embraced by the very group they worked to condemn by virtue of having created this display in the first place, what does that say about their aims? How can they hope to prevent such a tragedy from happening again in the future when they are so committed to the ideology that helped lead to it in the first place that they won’t even mention it when describing how such an evil came about at all?
The truth is, apart from the Christian worldview—which Darwin’s theory was constructed in part to undermine and oppose—there are not any solid, moral grounds for objectively condemning the evil of Nazism for what it was. As Paul wrote to the Roman church, when we reject God as God, our thinking becomes clouded and twisted and corrupted. When we refuse to be grateful to Him, our minds become sick. Our reasoning is tainted and leads us regularly to faulty conclusions. Things which are obviously deeply immoral become justifiable on a number of different grounds. Good becomes bad, and bad becomes good. In other words, everything becomes a mess.
If you want some evidence of this, consider the fact that a few years ago, the nation of Iceland proudly reported they had eliminated Down’s syndrome from their country. How did they manage such a feat considering it comes from a random genetic malformation in the conception process? Simple, they murdered any child reported as possessing the trait in utero. They didn’t cure anything. They killed people who would have otherwise lived relatively healthy and productive lives that were a blessing to everyone around them (siblings of children with Down’s syndrome report higher levels of happiness than those who don’t have that distinction). Or, to point to the other problem in Germany, how many businesses and celebrities resolutely refuse to condemn the Chinese genocidal efforts toward the Uyghur people because of the amount of money they stand to lose if China bans them from the nation economically as is their routine threat for anyone who says anything they don’t like (namely, anything that condemns any of their moral evil)?
Now, there were many professed Christians who gave up the Gospel and supported the Nazis. They embrace hatred and became corrupted by the devil himself. That was and is to their shame. But that doesn’t mean the Christian worldview is the problem. No, the Christian worldview is the only solution to keep us from going down that path again in the future. It alone gives us sufficient intellectual and moral grounds to recognize racial hatred as objectively wrong. It alone allows us to understand that social engineering is a fool’s errand at best. It alone reminds us that in Christ everyone is possessed of equal—and eternal—value and that this must not be transgressed by any actor be it personal or the State. Our rights like those outlined in our Declaration of Independence are truly unalienable because they are rooted in something—Someone—higher than any human institution. If we lose sight of this, we run the risk of losing everything and walking once again down this evil path.
The Auschwitz exhibit, then, was right in judging the appalling evil of the Nazi regime, but what it was missing was a clear and objective understanding of why. Worldviews don’t just give us answers to life’s big questions, they help us understand what is true and why. Pick the wrong one and you lose a great deal more than you might think you are gaining. Choose wisely and you can explain everything. The exhibit creators didn’t get theirs right. Let’s make sure we do.