Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

January 9, 2005

Faith, Lack of Faith, and the Holocaust

Filed under: — Different River @ 1:14 pm

We often hear — mostly, but not exclusively, from lapsed-but-not-assimilated Jews — comments along the lines of, “I can’t believe in God after the Holocaust.” The argument is basically that, if God is good, He would not have allowed the Holocaust to occur; since it occurred, either God does not exist, or He is not good and is therefore unworthy of our faith.

Putting aside whether this argument is valid or not from a theological perspective, it implies something which those who make the argument never seem to claim. The fact is, even if God allowed the Holocaust to occur, surely He did not directly do it Himself. The roundups, the deportations, and the killings were all done by human beings, with free will to choose between good and evil. Now, what did these people have in common, in addition to their choice for evil?

Well first, it was not nationality; they were not all Germans. Hitler and many of the Nazi leaders were Austrians rather than Germans, though they argued that those were the same thing. But even though the leaders were Germans and Austrians, much of the dirty work was done by others. As Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and others have pointed out, before the camps were set up, much of the killing in Eastern Europe was done by Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and other Slavs, under the supervision of Germans who didn’t want to get their hands dirty (literally, not figuratively — there was a lot of blood, and they had to move a lot of dirt to make those mass graves). And of course, there were Slovaks and Hungarians and French and Croatians and many others who helped with the deportations.

Second, it was not religion. Some were atheists, some were Christians, and among the Christians were Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.

Third, it was not political or even racial ideology: While the German leadership were Nazis and no doubt believed in “Aryan” racial supremacy, the Poles and other Slavic peoples who cooperated could hardly be regarded as being motivated by a racial ideology according to which they were inferior (though not as inferior as the Jews).

Those who perpetrated the Holocaust had, in addition to their choice for evil, one thing in common: They were all Europeans.

So why doesn’t anyone say, “I can’t believe in Europeans after the Holocaust”? Why don’t people who say they can’t believe in God after the Holocaust oppose European unification, which is supposed to lead to renewed European strength, with every fiber of their being? Why don’t they opposed European meddling in the Middle East, which — given that it’s mostly based on opposition to Israel — looks like an attempt to “finish the job” of the Holocaust?

The answer, I think, is that they don’t really disbelieve in God because of the Holocaust. They disbelieve for other reasons — perhaps because life is easier if you don’t need to worry about whether you’re doing what God wants you to do — and the Holocaust provides a convenient excuse. In a sense, it’s even more “useful” for these purposes than atheism: atheism is dependent on the assertion that God does not exist, but with the Holocaust excuse, you can claim that even if He does exist, you don’t have to serve Him.

And that is yet a further tragedy to come from the Holocaust. As if there weren’t enough already.

3 Responses to “Faith, Lack of Faith, and the Holocaust”

  1. Dave Schuler Says:

    Don’t exempt the Western Europeans from culpability. It wasn’t just the Poles, Lithuanians, etc. There were substantial numbers of Dutch, Belgian, and French Nazis. They outnumbered the Resistance by at least 10 to 1.

    The fiction that every Frenchman of a certain age was a member of the Resistance is at least as fantastical as the notion that very few of the Germans were Nazis. But by 1955 try and find either a Frenchman who wasn’t a member of the Resistance or a German who was a Nazi. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

  2. Different River Says:

    Excellent point — especially about people’s post-war positions. I didn’t mean to exempt anybody; I was just including what I was sure about, which is why I mentioned the French and Croatians in connection with deportations but not actual killing. The role of the French in the deportations is well-known, but I don’t believe there were mass killings in France on the scale of those in Eastern Europe. Of course, it doesn’t help French Jews much that they were transported eastward before being killed.

    I did mean to mention, however, that the Danish are known for their organized effort to help Danish Jews escape to Sweden — many in rowboats! — to avoid deportation to concentration camps in Eastern Europe.

    There were Nazis in all the countries in continental Europe, and heroic resisters in all countries. My point was not that every European was a Jew-killer, but practically every Jew-killer in the Holocaust was a European. Hence, if one is making decisions about faith or non-faith based on the Holocaust, one cannot reject God but believe in Europe and claim to be consistent.

    Of course, I don’t have to reject Europe on that basis to achieve consistence, since I do not claim to reject God because of the Holocaust (or any other reason). The question of how a just God could allow the Holocaust is a good one, but to ask it does not rule out the possibility of an answer, especially an answer that is beyond human understanding. Personally, I can think of a few possible answers, but I don’t presume to know God’s intent, so I can’t know whether they are right or not.

  3. Dave Schuler Says:

    The Italians, too, saved many of their Jews. There heroic and stand-up Frenchmen. But it’s amazing how the attitudes have persisted.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress