Friday, February 5, 2010

Thinking about the human being after Auschwitz

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

This year we remember the 65th anniversary of the Holocaust against the Jewish people perpetrated by the Nazism of Hitler and Himmler. The inhumanity demonstrated in the extermination camps is terrifying, especially in the one of Auschwitz (Poland). The event came to shake the faith of Jews and Christians who wondered: What to think of God after Auschwitz? The answers given so far, whether from the Jewish side, or by J.B. Metz and J. Moltmann on the Christian side, are insufficient. The question is even more radical: what to think of human beings after Auschwitz?

It is true that the inhumane is part of the human. But how much inhumanity can fit into humanity? It was a project conceived calculatedly and without any scruple to redesign humanity. At the top was to be the Aryan-Germanic race; some races would be placed in second and third categories; others simply enslaved or exterminated. In the words of its formulator, Himmler, October 4, 1943: "This is a page of glory in our history, which has never been written and is never to be written." The National Socialism of Hitler was well aware of the total inversion of values. What would be a crime became for it virtue and glory. Here traits of the Apocalypse and the Antichrist are revealed.

The most disturbing book I've read in my life and that I could never finish digesting is called Commandant of Auschwitz: The Autobiography of Rudolf Hoess (1958). During the 10 months he was imprisoned and interrogated by the Polish authorities in Krakow from 1946-1947, before finally being sentenced to death, Hoess had time to describe very precisely the details of how he sent about two million Jews to the gas chambers. A factory producing thousands of corpses daily was set up there that scared the executioners themselves. It was the "banality of death" that Hannah Arendt talked about.

But what is most frightening is his human profile. Let us not think that Hoess united mass extermination with feelings of evil, diabolical sadism and sheer brutality. On the contrary, he was gentle with his wife and children, conscientious, a friend of nature, in short, a normal petty bourgeois. In the end, before dying, he wrote: "Public opinion may think I'm a bloodthirsty beast, an evil sadist and a murderer of millions. But it will never understand that this commandant had a heart and it was not bad." Evil is more perverse, the more unconscious it is.

This is what is disturbing: how can so much inhumanity coexist with humanity? I don't know. I suspect that the power of ideology and total submission to the leader come into play here. Hoess the person identified with the commandant and the commandant with the person. The person was Nazi, body and soul, and radically faithful to the leader. Upon receiving the order of the "Fuhrer" to exterminate the Jews, he must not have even thought about it: we are going to exterminate them (der Führer befiehl, wir folgen). He confesses that he never questioned the order because "the leader is always right." The slightest doubt was thought to be treasonous to Hitler.

But evil also has limits and Hoess felt them in himself. There is always something human left. He himself tells of two children who were busy playing. Their mother was pushed into the gas chamber. The children were forced to go too. "The mother's pleading look, begging mercy for those innocents," says Hoess, "I will never forget it". He made a brusque gesture and the guards threw them into the gas chamber. He confesses that many of the executioners could not bear so much inhumanity and committed suicide. He remained cold and cruel.

We face an extreme fundamentalism that is expressed by totalitarian systems and blind obedience, whether political, religious or ideological. The result it produces is the death of others.
This risk is also around us, because today we have been given the means to destroy ourselves, to throw the Earth system out of balance and to destroy much of life. Only by empowering that within the human being that makes us human, such as love and compassion, can we curb our inhumanity.

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