Today is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance day. I won’t add my voice to those saying how barbaric, how atrocious, how hideous and criminal and horrifying the Holocaust was, though of course it was. Rather, I want to suggest something else: it was pathetic.
This is important because I doubt many prominent Nazis would have been much bothered by being told how horrifying and immoral their actions were. Indeed I imagine they might well have been pleased to hear such things. In a wartime novel, Arthur Koestler makes a philosophical Nazi give the following speech:
“We have embarked on something – something grandiose and gigantic beyond imaginination. There are no more impossibilities for man now. For the first time we are attacking the biological structure of the race. We have started to breed a new species of Homo sapiens.
We have practically finished the task of exterminating or sterilising the gipsies in Europe; the liquidation of the Jews will be completed in a year or two. Personally I am fond of gipsy music and a clever Jew amuses me in a way; but we had to get rid of the nomadic gene, with its asocial and anarchic components, in the human chromosome.”
How pointless would it be to tell this person that what they were doing would go down as the greatest single crime in human history? Indeed, it would probably thrill him. Eggs and omelettes would no doubt be mentioned. The violation of every ethical principle is not a source of shame but of pride. It is by breaking ‘the rules’ that you prove how powerful, how truly liberated you are.
This sort of mentality has a special relationship with modernity, the power of science, the idea of ‘progress’, but I don’t think it’s at all unique to our period. I suspect that a pharoah having a pyramid built, or Genghis khan leading the mongols, found their pleasurable sense of power and majesty increased, not impaired, by the deaths incurred in their project.
But this Nazi’s sense of pride and acheivement can easily be punctured, not by calling the Holocaust monstrous, but by calling it stupid. After all, the supposed ‘science’ through which the re-engineering of the human race was to be acheived was largely false, projected desires and fantasies, not some final, history-completing clarity of purpose.
Similarly, what was actually acheived by this colossal sacrifice of lives? Did a ‘new species’ appear? No. In fact, the magnificent Nazi Third Reich was swiftly and crushingly defeated. And Hitler liked getting peed on. There was no endeavour ‘grandiose beyond imagining’: there was just a group of psychologically maladjusted, delusional boymen who found themselves propelled to rulership of a state.
It was rather as though two male World-of-Warcraft players with implausibly buxom and almost-naked female characters were to convince themselves and others that the game was real, become rulers of two countries, and kill millions of people in the course of acting out their semi-erotic ‘quests’.
War and genocide aren’t just terrible things: they’re also, in a profound sense, boring and pathetic and even embarassing.