The Holocaust and the Evil in Every Human Heart: Reflections on a Visit to the Heart of Darkness

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – “The Gulag Archipelago”

With this remark, Solzhenitsyn surmised the central lesson of the Holocaust – a lesson of which humanity must regularly be reminded.

During the days leading up to a visit to Majdanek Concentration Camp with The Philos Project’s Leadership Institute last month, I reflected on a conversation I had last year with a German acquaintance.

We were discussing the Holocaust, and I was stuck by my German interlocutor’s resentment toward the guilt that all Germans are expected to feel about the Third Reich’s slaughter of 6 million Jews – regardless of whether they were alive during that time, or complicit in any way. Recent research and reporting has suggested that this collective guilt about the Holocaust is widespread in contemporary Germany.

“Can’t the Jews just get over it already?” my friend wondered aloud at one point during our exchange. This baffled me. Of course the Jews cannot just “get over” the Holocaust, and nor should anyone else. Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. The Holocaust is not something that humanity can afford to repeat.

Still, I listened to him. He thought it unfair that his generation was paying a price for sins committed decades before they were alive. Remembering this conversation and reflecting on my visit to Majdanek prompted a reflection about how Christians ought to think about the concept of generational and collective guilt.

To what extent should I – as a modern evangelical Christian – share the guilt for the sins of my Christian predecessors during the Crusades or Inquisition? What is the optimal balance between acknowledging the barbaric acts of our ancestors, yet also bearing in mind scriptural notions of individual moral culpability?

Scripture is fairly explicit about the fact that we will be accountable for our actions on an individual level. One oft-cited verse on this point is Ezekiel 18:20: “The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.”

Christ also provided another rejection of generational guilt in the Gospel of John. When his disciples asked, about a blind man, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:1-3)

Exploring these and other Biblical passages has led me to conclude that, in the same way that every American is not guilty of slavery because some of their ancestors owned and abused slaves, neither is a 22-year-old German guilty because his ancestors were associated with the Holocaust.

But that doesn’t mean that the Holocaust is morally irrelevant; indeed, it’s the rejection of generational guilt which allows us to see the Holocaust’s moral message. As Solzhenitsyn observed, the Holocaust illustrates the extent to which evil exists in every human heart.

There was nothing about 20th century Germans that made their country the inevitable site of genocide. There is a tragic yet longstanding history of Jewish persecution in Western history, including in America.

Consider those complicit in the Holocaust as two distinct groups. The first group includes the Nazi officers and S.S. agents who persecuted Jews and other individuals for whom Hitler did not see a place for in his utopian Arian society – including, but not limited to, Poles, Russians, Roma, homosexuals and the disabled. This group’s villainy stares us in the face: they tortured, experimented on, gassed, shot, burned and buried countless innocents.

The second, far larger group includes those who stood by and watched as these atrocities occurred. Granted, many Germans did not know the extent of the Holocaust’s barbarism until after the fall of the Third Reich. Yet many members of this second group still failed to speak up or act in the face of the injustice of their friends and neighbors being targeted for their ethnicity and religious persuasion. Their evil is less dramatic than S.S. agents’, but no less real. Renowned Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was arrested and executed for being involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler, aptly stated in his modern classic “The Cost of Discipleship,” “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.”

In theological terms, the individuals in these two groups were responsible for sins of commission and omission, respectively. Committing evil and standing by while evil occurs are both depraved in God’s eyes.

A common question among Christians and non-Christians alike is, “Where was God during the holocaust?” An equally, if not perhaps more, important question is, “Where were we during the Holocaust? Where was the Christian church?”

Bonhoeffer answered this question by decrying the secularization of the church and the subsequent prevalence of “cheap” (as opposed to “costly”) grace. Secularization meant that the church’s practices became nothing more than a set of cultural obligations. The Gospel was cheapened and lost beneath habitual ritual. The result was that most Christians in Germany were idle while their Jewish neighbors were targeted, persecuted and taken to concentration camps.

These Christians were likely good citizens and pleasant individuals. They perhaps they paid their taxes on time, volunteered at local charities and loved their wives and children. Yet they were nevertheless complicit in one of history’s gravest atrocities.

These Christians’ religious observance failed to drive them to act at least partially because they refused to accept the radical responsibility true Christian faith requires. As Dostoevsky’s virtuous Father Zossima declared, “We are all responsible for everyone else.” Zossima doesn’t mean this in a pantheistic sense, but in a real sense: We each have a calling to be committed to the interests and wellbeing of those around us.

Although we don’t bear any guilt for the Holocaust, our remembrance of it should compel us to ask ourselves: How have we been, or how do we continue to be, complicit in injustice by not speaking up and acting when we should?

This could mean something as simple as interjecting when someone tells a hurtful, off-color joke or something as grand as leading a campaign to end the Atlantic slave trade. Consider the breadth of injustice around us: the persecution of the Christian church in the Middle East by Islamic extremism and modern-day sex slavery and human trafficking. We must protect the lives of the unborn by providing care and support to women in crisis and alleviating homelessness in our local communities.

Christ informed us that the poor will always be with us, and it is naïve to think that the church can irradiate evil and injustice in this world entirely. But there remain ample opportunities for the local and global church to be involved in alleviating suffering at home and abroad.

It is easy to be faithful during times of peace and prosperity; less so in times of adversity. What defines our faith is how we respond when its principles are tested, or when standing up for justice and the oppressed comes at a cost. The church largely failed to do so in Nazi Germany; its failure reveals the depth of evil in every human being – despite how seemingly good or upstanding he may seem on the outside.

As Christians, it is crucial to have to have a rigorous and nuanced understanding of both what we are responsible for, and how sinful we are as humans. We aren’t responsible for the failures of the Nazi-era German church more than half a century ago. But we are responsible for the good we fail to do today.

The Holocaust continues to have consequences and implications that extend beyond the lives of those who were complicit in it or victims of it. Yet, as we consider how the iniquities of past generations still impact us, let us also reflect on our moral obligation to be instruments of peace and healing in a broken world. Bonhoeffer said it best: “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”

May this reflection be a tool of meditation on our sins and frailties so that the Lord might hold us accountable, convict us and cause us to repent – all so that we be spurned to fight for justice with joyful boldness and resolve.

This post originally appeared on Philos Project, August 31, 2016, and reposted with permission.

Previous articleParashat Shoftim – Deut 16:18 – 21:9
Next articleVIDEO: Dos And Don’ts When in Israel
Alexandra Hudson
Philos Leadership Institute 2016 participant Alexandra is a graduate of the London School of Economics where she completed her masters in comparative social policy as a Rotary Foundation Global Grant Scholar. She also has a history degree from Trinity Western University. She is also an alumna of the Summer Institute, an educational and leadership program administered by the American Enterprise Institute. Alexandra currently lives with her husband in Milwaukee, Wis., where she is lead education policy analyst for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.