Recalling Depravity

on October 22, 2015

Last evening I attended a talk at the Holocaust Museum about Franklin Roosevelt and the Holocaust.  Could he have done more to save Jews from Hitler? The authors, Jay Winik of 1944 and Richard Breitman of FDR and the Jews, largely agreed that FDR was mostly well intentioned but, because of his political caution, missed opportunities to do more, although his power to affect the Holocaust was always very limited.

FDR’s greatest success was dispatching Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg to save thousands of Hungarian Jews near war’s end.  But perhaps many more could have been saved across Europe by wider actions earlier, the authors speculated.   Winik afterwards told me he thinks Churchill was somewhat more proactive, asking that Auschwitz be bombed, a request that was ignored.  Breitman said bombing Auschwitz would have had symbolic importance but likely would not have significantly slowed the Nazi death machine.

After Yalta, FDR met the Saudi king to urge Arab acceptance of a Jewish state, pointing out two million Jews had been murdered in Poland.  The king caustically responded there should be plenty of room then left for survivors in Poland. So much for Holocaust sensitivity.

Remembering the Holocaust and other genocides is important for, among other reasons, it reminds us of humanity’s endless capacity for evil.  Modern, wealthy, protected Americans largely live in functional denial about evil.  In our coddled culture, any absence of affirmation and security is a terrible wrong meriting grievance and renumeration.  It’s nearly impossible for most Americans to imagine a political upheaval involving orchestrated, sustained mass murder.  We believe people are basically nice, and when they’re not, it’s a mysterious aberration.

There have been numerous state organized genocides since the Holocaust, although none as sinisterly systematic as the Third Reich’s relentless eradication of a whole people.  An exhibit at the Holocaust Museum highlights the Cambodian genocide of 40 years ago by the Khymer Rouge, which I recall as a boy. The world knew but did nothing.   Tragically there likely will be more genocides in the future.   Humanity progresses but does not fundamentally change.

Modernity and postmodernity have few resources for explaining mass evil.  The first supposes it is a misunderstanding, while the second uncomfortably grants it is merely an alternative reality.   In contrast, Christianity assumes evil is a constant given, always a threat, never completely absent, and only effectively countered by God’s grace realized through appreciating the intrinsic dignity of each person.  

Christianity is built around an Innocent Man who’s tortured and executed, with the promise that many of His followers will likewise suffer in a world that often despises good.  There’s no escapism in this narrative.  

During the Holocaust, which occurred in what was supposed to be Christendom, countless supposed Christians were silent or complicit. Others, too few, were summoned by God to moral sacrifice and greatness. Rebuilding Europe after the war, at least outside the Soviet orbit, entailed resurrecting Christian teachings in support of democracy and human rights. Yet these civil and social protections are never completely secure in any society. Constant vigilance and remembrance are always required. Wickedness and madness are never very far away, for any people.

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