This coming April 27, the State of Israel, and people around the world, will be observing and commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day. One of the issues of great public interest in the post Holocaust years has been the question “where was God during the holocaust”?
While various theologians have taken different approaches to address this question, their answers may or may not satisfy the magnitude of the question. As mature members of the Western community, it is our responsibility to ask not where God was during the Holocaust, but where were the people, where was humanity, and where was Western civilization during those terrible years.
By the time of World War II, democratic modernity had already become the dominant form of political life in Western and Central Europe. In the 1930s and ‘40s, the years in which the Holocaust took place, people were supposedly cultured, sophisticated, humane, and conscious of their deeds. Germany, at that time, stood at the cutting edge of Western cultural and intellectual accomplishment. Prior to the war, Berlin was an international capital of culture, academic scholarship, and research. German science and technology, concern for animal rights, moral philosophy, and artistic creativity (including film), set the standard among Western nations.
And yet, in a matter of a decade, this nation, this paragon of modernity and culture, had deliberately murdered six million civilians, and waged a war that killed more than forty million souls.
Some of the attempts to answer the question of where man was during the Holocaust seem to be even more disturbing than the question itself – even if we follow some “mainstream” attempts to explain what happened in those terrible years.
Christopher Browning, in his book Ordinary Men, uses Milgram’s conformity experiments to explain the power of “peer group” pressure on those executing Jews as a way to understand the horrors that Nazi officials have committed. To use man’s need to conform to his surroundings as an explanation and answer to where man was during the Holocaust is to renounce human accountability in the world and is far more troubling than the question “where was man during the Holocaust?”
To point to the Nazis’ grip as a “law of history” assumes that people are not capable of resisting “the crowd” that beckons us “to do evil” – that humans have no inner moral compass capable of resisting moral cowardice, capable of acting on a sense of moral right and wrong. To think this way is to absolve the Nazi criminals of all accountability.
Indeed, to say that western democratic societies, for all their efforts at education, are nothing more than individuals capable of joining in lethal, cruel, and vicious groups with no self-control – “it could be any of us” (Browning, Ordinary Men) – is a notion that should offend most Westerners.
These questions become all the more disturbing when we see a world standing by as more than 150,000 Syrians have already been killed in an ongoing cruel civil war; a world that stood by as Syrian children were gassed to death; and a world that continues to stand by countless atrocities as long as they are not committed within their immediate vicinity.
These questions continue to be disturbing when we see the Nordic countries of Europe and other European counties stand by as anti-Semitism rises to levels unprecedented since the Holocaust, even as these very same countries see themselves as the cutting edge of moral civilization. These questions must be addressed so that we can see a world where human rights actually mean something.
Such an attitude seems radically counter-indicated to any culture that wants to maintain the civic contract and therefore the ability to sustain human rights in the face of challenges from authoritarian forces. Why is there such a level of apathy for the existential well being of our fellow citizens?
While asking where God was during the Holocaust is an important question, asking where man was is far more important. Western-minded people, people who value freedom, tolerance, civil society, and human rights, should be losing sleep over this question.
To push these questions aside, which is what Western society has chosen to do so far, would be a mistake the West cannot afford to make again. To allow complacency to transform into complicity, to turn a blind eye to issues that lay at the core and bedrock of democracy and free society, would be wrong- to our own societies more than all.
Published in the Algemeiner April 27, 2014