Can Evil Ever Truly Be Understood?

John K. Roth, professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is the author of "Holocaust Politics" and co-editor of "Remembering for the Future: The Holocaust in an Age of Genocide."

As “Holocaust: A History” draws to its close, Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt include a 1941 photograph of Mirka Grossman and a fragment of conversation between the little girl and her father. “Daddy,” she asked in Polish, “isn’t it better that today it’s a bad day, but tomorrow it will be better?” “Today doesn’t matter,” her reassuring father replied, “tomorrow will be much better.”

It was a comment overheard by Mirka’s aunt, Sara Grossman-Weil, one August day in 1944 as cattle cars packed with Jewish deportees from the Lodz ghetto rolled to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than a million Jews perished, most of them gassed to death. Grossman-Weil was among the few adults selected for labor, but 5-year-olds, such as Mirka, were worse than useless to the Germans who practiced the lethal anti-Semitism that Hitler preached. Those killers ensured that “tomorrow” would prove her father wrong.

Writing with a distinctive blend of moral intensity, attention to detail and multifaceted breadth, veteran scholars Dwork and van Pelt describe the Holocaust’s history as “a story of utter perdition and ruin.” In 1944, for example, with the war against them, the Germans operated four crematories at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Those structures included eight gas chambers, 46 ovens and the capacity to dispose of 4,416 corpses a day. In the months before those installations and their more primitive counterparts at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka became operational in 1942, hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews were shot to death by special task forces (Einsatzgruppen), which were augmented by battalions of German police and supported by the German army. Just to mention that such things happened is ruinous enough, but the Holocaust’s toll cannot be calculated by those devastating measures alone. Thus, Dwork and van Pelt write their history in a style that keeps individuals such as Mirka Grossman in view.


Scholarship’s strategies always have strengths and weaknesses. In addition to their focus on detail, Dwork and van Pelt strive for a comprehensive overview, but their book sheds relatively little light on how to sift and sort the controversies that interpretations of the Holocaust unavoidably produce. Instead the authors’ straightforward method is to try to tell, as accurately as possible, what took place. That task, however, is anything but straightforward because it raises daunting questions to which scholars have responded in various and often conflicting ways: Where to begin? What to emphasize or leave out? How strongly to claim that one’s account explains what took place? Where to end, and what, if anything, to conclude from the history one writes?

Arguably, no one book can be a history of the Holocaust. The Holocaust entails a multiplicity of accounts, including those of 6 million Jews, among them more than a million murdered Jewish children such as Mirka Grossman. Each account differs in detail because every man, woman and child perished one by one, just as every killer, bystander or rescuer was an individual with all the complex relationships and circumstances that such identity entails. The Holocaust is so vast that, at best, there can be only selective historical narratives about it. Done well, they more or less weave together reliable glimpses, documented perspectives, focused but not all-embracing slices from a destruction process that swept through a continent from 1933 to 1945. This melancholy work is done not to achieve an unattainable mastery but, as the historian Raul Hilberg says, “lest all be relinquished and forgotten.” The destruction process, moreover, does not account for itself but can be grasped only in relation to the conditions--some of them centuries old--that made it possible. Still further, the Holocaust reverberates far beyond 1945, leaving one to wrestle with its never-ending implications. Given these limitations and dilemmas, how do Dwork and van Pelt convert a virtually impossible task, the attempt to write a one-volume history of the Holocaust, into a noteworthy achievement?

Although this part of their book is underdeveloped, Dwork and van Pelt understand that the history of the Holocaust begins at least as far back as the struggles that attended the emergence of Christianity, the religion that grew from Jewish roots nearly 2,000 years ago and soon defined itself in opposition to its sibling rival. Absent that rivalry in a Western culture that became predominantly Christian, it is not possible to explain why Jews became targeted for the multiple forms of anti-Semitism--political and especially racial--that ultimately produced an unprecedented genocide.

In greater detail, Dwork and van Pelt supply essential background by concentrating on two other crucial moments in European history prior to Hitler’s coming to power in late January 1933. First, with the Enlightenment and the emancipation of the Jews that gradually developed in Europe after the French Revolution, the idea of the nation-state and its citizens emerged in full cry. Emancipated Jews would have to be assimilated Jews, but even if they tried to be the latter, suspicion that they were the “other” still dogged them. The danger in that fate escalated during the 19th century, when, as Dwork and van Pelt point out, nationalism increasingly identified “ ‘the nation’ and ‘the people’ with biological, genetic descent.” Second, the carnage of World War I, which included the Armenian genocide, turned Germany into a fertile field for Hitler’s ideology. An incalculable price would be paid for that arrogant vision of German superiority, territorial expansion and the elimination of Jews and other so-called racial inferiors.

Dwork and van Pelt emphasize that neither Hitler’s rise to power nor the Holocaust was inevitable. “No straight line,” they correctly say, “led to the gas chambers of Birkenau.” Nevertheless, Hitler took the German people--more by consent than coercion--down a lethally consistent path. He spoke repeatedly about getting rid of the Jews, and, the authors stress, he meant what he said. If his racist brand of anti-Semitism entailed “social death” and forced emigration before Nazi Germany ignited World War II by invading Poland in September 1939, then once the Nazi blitzkrieg brought millions of additional Jews under German domination, the policy evolved into systematic murder on a massive and unrelenting scale.

Underscoring a pivotal point, Dwork and van Pelt show that these developments took place not because Hitler always gave explicit orders but because his principal followers--relatively young men, with Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich chief among them--eagerly vied for favor and power by “working towards” Hitler, by “taking independent initiatives to promote what they surmised the Fuhrer’s wishes to be, even to anticipate them.” The ensuing struggles doomed Europe’s Jews. The authors give voice to these people, who were impoverished, unable to find refuge and largely defenseless. The European Jews tried valiantly to sustain their families and traditions, but the odds were overwhelming.

Within this matrix Dwork and van Pelt locate “the paradoxical developments” that they hope their book untangles. Those developments have at least three dimensions. First, the Holocaust took place in a predominantly Christian culture; that culture could have led those who killed and those who stood by to act differently, to embrace Mirka Grossman as a fellow human being whose life must be protected and saved. There were people who rescued Jews, but unfortunately they were too few and far between, for central aspects of the Christian tradition were anti-Jewish and minimized moral obligations toward Jews. Second, the Enlightenment’s optimistic political philosophies envisioned nations with citizens who shared equal rights. Such an outlook could have fostered inclusion, but the idea of “one nation, indivisible” developed in ways that promoted exclusion instead. Third, it was not an ignorant rabble but an educated elite, well-versed in the technology and science of its day, who dedicated themselves unquestioningly to Nazi ambition. Its endemic violence, they somehow believed, would lead to heights transcending humanity itself.

“There is no silver lining to the Holocaust,” conclude Dwork and van Pelt. That judgment extends to their book as well. Even though the authors help to show why so much went wrong, their history cannot untangle completely the paradoxes it insightfully identifies. Doing so would require closure that the Holocaust can never give us. After the last page is turned, the most telling questions remain. Dwork and Van Pelt say that one of them ought to be “What, in light of the Holocaust, is the definition of the word ‘civilization’? “

In 1921, 20 years before the worst of the Holocaust raged, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested that “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Dwork and van Pelt show that we can and must speak about the Holocaust, but in the aftermath of that event, optimistic talk about “civilization” is anachronistic or premature. Unless that word is redeemed by deeds of caring and justice, especially by acts akin to those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, silence about civilization’s grandeur can only be broken with mournful irony.