Civilization De-railed: Lessons of the Holocaust

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead, American anthropologist 1901 – 1978 (Moncur). Mead’s words are words of encouragement, and words to live by, surely – a call-to-arms in pursuit of stewardship, edification to all who understand the importance of standing up for whatever causes or principles are deemed best and most noble for the betterment of the world and of society. But just what is best and most noble for the betterment of the world and of society? The chilling truth is that Mead’s words serve well to universally describe what is required to affect change, regardless of the nature of the change in question: for good or for ill, it does not take great multitudes to affect great change, but merely a small group with great resolve.

To apply Mead’s words to some of the darker moments in world history provides many apt possibilities, though perhaps some of the most apt possibilities occurred within Mead’s own 20th c. lifetime. One of the darkest chapters in 20th c. Western Civilization is the Holocaust – millions of people murdered, at the hands of a relative few unexceptional individuals, in response to a systematic campaign of terror (a terror guised in rhetoric detailing the changes required to bring about what was deemed best and most noble for the betterment of the world and of their society). So what of such terror and atrocity – is it a mere, slight, bump on Western Civilization’s road toward becoming the best of all possible worlds, something exceptional and “wholly other” apart from the greater post-Enlightenment glory? Is it, perhaps, just a slightly different re-telling of the traditional plot of genocidal oppression, with the heat of the terror turned up a bit perhaps? Was a group of godless, evil people somehow twisted in an extraordinary way to perpetrate this outrageous historical anomaly? Is this atrocity somehow the historical “private property” of one exceptionally vulnerable group? In the Preface to his work Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman dismisses all of the aforementioned claims on the Holocaust: “The Holocaust was born and executed in our modern rational society, at the high stage of our civilization and at the peak of human cultural achievement, and for this reason it is a problem of that society, civilization, and culture” (x). Bauman’s insistence throughout his work is that the Holocaust is not an anomaly, but “a rare yet significant and reliable, test of the hidden possibilities of modern society” (12); he cites:

The truth is that every ‘ingredient’ of the Holocaust – all those many things that rendered it possible – was normal; ‘normal’ not in the sense of being familiar, […] but in the sense of being fully in keeping with everything we know about our civilization, its guiding spirit, its priorities, its immanent vision of the world – and of the proper ways to pursue human happiness together with a perfect society. (8)

So if a “civilized” society can hold the glories of its own advancement in one hand, and the forces of terrible destruction in the other, how is this even possible, and what went wrong?

Perhaps one thing to consider – indeed a major premise in Bauman’s work – is how a society uses various tools to affect change or promote productivity. A “tool,” by definition, can be broadly defined as any instrument, implement, process, etc. used to accomplish a task or process (Tool). With respect to the tools of society, they are the instruments and processes by which civilization is further advanced. However – as with a surgeon’s scalpel or miner’s explosives – the power of the tool for benefit or for harm rests ultimately with the end-user; the tools in-and-of themselves are not harmful, but they can be used to bring about harm. Scientific thinking, bureaucracy, and scientific technology are tools for a productive modern society, but without a moral “check,” even the most productive society can be run off-the-rails in immoral directions by the power of faulty “reason”; though an immoral de-railing of society is possible, it is not inevitable.

One tool of modern society is scientific thinking. While science can be infinitely beneficial for a society’s advancement, it can become a danger when its aims and processes are allowed to wholly eclipse (and even replace) established religion and morality. The penultimate legacy of the Scientific Revolution of the 16th c, and the 17th c. Enlightenment that followed, was to elevate what is “rational” above all other considerations. By Enlightenment thought, all subjective, metaphysical, and spiritual consideration are either less valid or invalid compared to what is rational. The danger in replacing religion or morality with scientific reason in the case of an established “Christian” nation like Hitlerian Germany rests in the idea of “natural theology.” The antithesis of “natural theology” would be the concept of “revelation.” “General revelation” of God occurs in such things as nature and the world around us; “specific revelation” in Christian theology is in Christ (indeed one of the three tenets of Protestantism):

God in himself […] is revealed to us in Christ alone, that we may behold him as in a mirror. For in Christ he shews us his righteousness, goodness, wisdom, power, in short, his entire self. We must, therefore, beware of seeking him elsewhere, for everything that would set itself off as a representation of God, apart from Christ, will be an idol. (Calvin)

In other words, God defines himself from the “top down” – God is who he says he is by how he reveals himself to us. By contrast, the “natural theology” trap by which Hitlerian Germany was snared is a “bottom up” approach – God is defined by how we experience God (a rational point-of-view). There was a group of church leaders from the various denominational factions in the German church (and also Swiss theologian Karl Barth among them) who stood against Nazi Germany’s nationalization of the German church (“German Christians”); their resistance “answer” to the “German Christians” (and Nazi Germany) was the Theological Declaration of Barman, a creed wholly rejecting the hijacking of the German church by the Nazi regime. Section 5 of the Theological Declaration of Barmen states:

5.) “Fear God. Honor the Emperor.” (I Peter 2:17.)

Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the church also exists, the state has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task by means of threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility of both rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State. (“Theological Declaration of Barmen” 8.22-8.24).

Though some boldly stood against what was happening, it was merely a brave few. The nationalization of the German church paved the way for a cultural steam-rolling of established tenets (and “checks”) of morality in Nazi Germany. Of course, there cannot simply exist a void in human consciousness where “morality” once stood (or ought to be), that void must be filled with something; Nazi Germany sought to fill that void with a rational propaganda on a societal scale. But if one is going to “invent” a new rational morality, who then is minding the store? Bauman’s assertion is that when moral considerations move beyond the proximity of community and communal interaction (“social”) to an abstract and corporate “rational” substitute for morality (“societal”), it can become both perfectly logical – and reasonable – for all hell to break loose (192).

What, then, is required for a society to seemingly completely lose its senses and wash out established morality in favor of “rational” immorality? Bauman asserts that the primary key to this lies in a different tool of modern society: bureaucracy. The reason why the Holocaust under Nazi Germany proved so horrendously effective is that it did not rely on an emotional “mob mentality,” but on the cool rational logic of an extensive bureaucracy. Bauman points out that the division of labor in a bureaucracy creates a distance and detachment from the task at-hand, and re-focuses morality not on the ethics of the task, but on the efficiency by which that task is accomplished (98-99). Bauman used the example of the Milgram experiments to point to the idea that there is an odd bit of wiring in “rational” human consciousness such that if a person is detached from the direct consequences of his or her actions, and if the degree of severity of the consequences of those actions is increased incrementally under a single authority, morality against cruelty can disappear in otherwise “normal” or “moral” people (160). And further, what becomes important – in-place of morality – does not have anything to do with the effects of the action, but rather, the efficiency of performing the task and of effectively following orders (Bauman 160). Additionally, where terror reigns within this bureaucracy, the instinct for self-preservation above all other things takes over (Bauman 206). Bauman further speculates that the difference between the bureaucracy of Nazi Germany and the conditions of the Milgram experiments (as Nazi Germany obviously had multiple variables and took place over a longer span of time) allowed for a “free-floating” morality to develop – that because the culturally-ingrained bureaucracy of Nazi Germany was so large and so compartmentalized, no one individual felt any responsibility for the ultimate results because everyone within the bureaucracy was confident the ultimate responsibility rested with someone else somewhere else in the system (163). In other words? “Free-floating responsibility means in practice that moral authority as such has been incapacitated without having been openly challenged or denied” (Bauman 163). A society can lose its senses in the direction of immorality because if it all happened very gradually and very surgically – as can occur within a bureaucratic setting – the society may not have noticed when morality “went missing” in the first place. Clearly if all the safety valves on the tools for promoting and creating a civilized society fail sequentially: “In a system where rationality and ethics point in opposite directions, humanity is the main loser” (Bauman 206).

If a society’s moral compass can be uncoupled from its actions in the direction of cruel immorality by scientific thinking within a bureaucratic model, how then can one explain the scale of the Holocaust’s destruction? Bauman asserts that the key to the efficiency of the bureaucracy itself lies in a third tool of modern society: scientific technology. In essence, the Nazis took “industrialization” to a new level: via technology and scientific advancement, the Nazis employed all manner of “science” to bring about their extermination processes. In the interest of the “science” of promoting public health, the parameters of desirable and undesirable populations of humanity were defined, and the best available scientific and medical technology available was used to cull the undesirables from the population via “euthanasia” and sterilization (Bauman 66-7). Incredible technological innovations in transportation and chemistry made the mass deportation for forced-labor and extermination of millions possible. When imposing death on fellow humans becomes “scientific” and a matter of improving technology, the bureaucratic mindset takes over – how can we make this process more efficient? (Bauman 194-5) It plays to the aforementioned findings of Milgram – that physical separation can wash the ethics and morality out of the situation, and can perhaps even serve to divorce us from the humanity of others (or our own humanity). In the case of the Holocaust, the improved killing technologies which distanced the perpetrators from the victims washed the morality out of murder, and the blood of innocents ran in that wash-water on a colossal industrial scale.

If all the primary tools, primary “ingredients,” of the Holocaust exist within modern societies, why then do not more Holocausts occur? The primary factor that can twist society is the presence of a strong central authority without plurality (Bauman 165). Bauman points to the further Milgram experimental research by which multiple authority figures were introduced into the experimental model; the blind obedience against moral judgment fell apart within plurality (164). Bauman concludes:

[T]he readiness to act against one’s own better judgment, and against the voice of one’s conscience, is not just the function of authoritative command, but the result of exposure to a single-minded, unequivocal and monopolistic source of authority. Such readiness is most likely to appear inside an organization which brooks no opposition and tolerates no autonomy, and in which linear hierarchy or subordination knows no exception: an organization in which no two members are equal in power. (Most armies, penitentiary institutions, totalitarian parties and movements, certain sects or boarding schools come close to this ideal type). (165)

So what is necessary for a society to follow blindly into a realm of cruel immorality is a singular strong, authoritarian voice to guide, shape, plan, and enact that society’s “rational” journey straight into pits of hell.

It is a bleak forecast indeed if the lessons to be learned from the Holocaust, and from Bauman’s analysis of it, are correct: that the Holocaust was a warning, and because the conditions that caused the Holocaust still exist (and have been often left unexamined or unheeded), it could happen again (203-4). What then – is there any hope? Must humanity merely wait – holding its breath – until the next Holocaust hits? Though the last Holocaust missed us personally, are we marked for extermination in some future event? Should we all go dig our graves now in preparation for future societal depravity? Bauman concludes that it is an important lesson of the Holocaust that:

[P]utting self-preservation above moral duty is in no way predetermined, inevitable, inescapable. One can be pressed to do it, but one cannot be forced to do it, and thus one cannot really shift the responsibility for doing it on those who exerted the pressure. It does not matter how many people chose moral duty over the rationality of self-preservation – what does matter is that some did. Evil is not all-powerful. It can be resisted. The testimony of the few who did resist shatters the authority of the logic of self-preservation. It shows it for what it is in the end – a choice. (207)

If the Holocaust is a mirror of our own times, then it is as Galadriel’s mirror in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; it is a mirror that – like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come – reflects not what will be, but what may be. In the reality that future holocausts do not need to come to pass if we can learn well from the lessons of the Holocaust, there is hope. If the lesson to be learned from the Holocaust is to warn of the power of evil apart from morality, then as long as there is resistance to evil, there is hope. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act” (Van Horn). Bonhoeffer’s words on silence as a sin of commission are apt: clearly in the case of the Holocaust, or other instances like the Holocaust, apathy kills (and kills splendidly). Bonhoeffer’s reflection is interesting when compared the reality of his life: he was willing to compromise (somewhat) his own moral convictions within Christianity to settle for the “rational” solution of “the lesser of two evils” with respect to his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler; even one with strong moral convictions like Bonhoeffer was not immune to the poison of the “rational” thinking of the society in which he lived. Still, Bonhoeffer offers us a bold challenge: if a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world it should be allowed to do so in the direction of goodness, but if the small group threatens to change the world in the direction of evil, silence will then morph from a sin of omission to a sin of commission. All, then, that remains to ask is whether or not we have the courage to stand against evil in the small group committed to what is truly best and most noble for the betterment of the world and of society.


Works Cited

Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and the Holocaust. Ithica: Cornell University Press. 2000.

Calvin, Jean. “Colossians 1:12-17.” Commentary on Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians. Trans. J.P. Elgin. 1851. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 2005. Calvin College, Grand Rapids. 2 May 2010. <;

“Theological Declaration of Barman.” The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part I: The Book of Confessions. Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 2004. 8.01-8.28.

Tool – Define Tool at 2 May 2010. 2 May 2010. <;

Moncur, Michael. Margaret Mead Quotes – The Quotations Page. 2007. The Quotations Page. 2 May 2010. <;.

Van Horn, G. Amour. Dietrich Bonhoeffer quotes from (page 2 of 2). 2 May 2010. 2 May 2010 <;