The Holocaust Didn’t Happen In a Day

How often do you look around and ask yourself “How could this happen?” I am often appalled at the place our lives and culture end up and I am flabbergasted that we could allow certain things to happen. However, most of it can be traced back to choices made long ago which led to where we are.

Through a chain of events, I have taken an interest in learning about Dr. Josef Mengele of the Auschwitz concentration camps during the Holocaust. This German-born man became fascinated with the idea of developing a supreme race of blond-haired, blue-eyed Germans, and set about performing genetic tests to discover the secret of racial perfection. His subjects of choice were Jewish twins, who he plucked from the crowds at Auschwitz as their families marched to the gas chambers and crematoriums, believing twins held the secret to understanding genetic mutations.children-of-the-flames

I received a book for Christmas telling the stories of several of the twins who survived these experiments. As I see certain aspects of my world imploding – for example the division over our current president, culture shifts regarding gender, behavior of children, etc – I want to know how to fix them. Perhaps the Holocaust seems like an extreme example of problems plaguing our world, but this book made me realize how any trend – good or bad, mild or extreme – gets started. There are many principles to be pulled out of a story like Josef Mengele’s and the Nazi party in general.

First, any change begins with an idea. In this book, Lucette Matalon Lagnado states “His [Mengele’s] apprenticeship as a mass murderer formally began not on the selection lines of the concentration camp but in the classrooms of the University of Munich” (1991, p42).

In Mengele’s case, his murderous behavior started with Nazi ideals that were based in the theory of evolution. Adolph Hitler was gaining popularity in the late 1920s, when Mengele was a teenager, and nearly all academic subjects at that time were beginning to lean toward the racial superiority values of the Nazi party. By the time Mengele entered college in 1930, he had already been groomed through the Grossdeutscher Jugendbund (Greater Germany Youth Movement), a youth club popular throughout Germany.  Langado states,

 “The messianic quality of social Darwinism seems to have appealed to the young Mengele. His writings suggest that he was especially struck by their use of the phrase ‘the fate of mankind’. From his youthful encounter with their distorted ideals, to his old age, a weary and broken exile, Mengele would continue to feel a personal allegiance to the social Darwinists. At the university, the questions of the ‘biological quality of mankind’ may have been esoteric to most of Mengele’s classmates. But for him, it was apparently a clarion call. His account of the period suggests he was deeply upset by the fact that the lower classes were having many children, while those of impeccable genetic stock were too busy even to marry” (p43).

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Trends begin with one person or group publicizing their ideas, and the easiest way to make something take hold is by training children to grab hold of them. Children learn whether or not you know you are teaching them and they see the behaviors we may not even know we are displaying.

Second, a person’s behavior and values are wrapped up in their paradigm. When evaluating a person’s behavior, the issue at hand may not be the real issue.

I made this point recently when responding to a post on a writing forum. The person asked “Is euthanasia good or bad?” People weighed in with their varying opinions, but I told the writer that it all rests on a person’s view of the value of life. For example, most Christians would hold that no one has the right to take any life willingly for any reason (capital punishment being an exception with precident: a topic for another discussion). On the other hand, many people these days believe in evolution, natural selection, Darwinism, etc. in which case, humans are an accidental byproduct and do not have any inherent value or purpose.

Herein lays the paradigm. If life is valuable and belongs to God, then only God has a right to give or take it. If life is an accident and doesn’t matter one way or the other, then euthanasia, abortion, murder, or any host of other things are inconsequential.

In the case of the Nazi party, the references to Darwinism are very telling. The Nazi belief that some races were superior to others does not take into account any inherent value to a human life, genetics aside. The same was true of the slave trade, and any other example of ethnic struggle in history.

As I’m reading this story, I am relating to how Mengele must have thought and felt. He likely felt vindicated in his behavior by seeing Jews as lesser beings, valuable only for research but not for their own sake. Of course I don’t agree with this, but perhaps I can relate to the intensity with which Mengele likely held to his beliefs. Perhaps he should have known better. Or should he have, when he was taught that he was on the right track?

While we could point a finger and say that what Mengele and other Nazi’s did was atrocious, fighting a battle is not the same as fighting the war. The concentration camps were not the real issue. The issue was the core beliefs held by those in charge. Those beliefs trickled down to other soldiers who were converted to those beliefs, and actions were carried out by imprisoned people who complied out of fear. Even further back, the root of all this were principles founded in Darwinism that people are only as valuable as their genetics. And if life is a cosmic accident, who gets to decide how to live it? If there is no value, it doesn’t matter what anyone does.

Third, because of this, there needs to be a concrete set of principles we live by. Without a definitive guideline by which we set our standards, there is no reason we cannot all make up our own rules.

The world is full of social problems and there is no easy answer to any of them. It is simple to say “you should think this” or “you should do this”, but these issues are rooted much deeper than they seem. They speak to ‘who makes the rules’?

That is why it is important for each person to take it upon him or herself to know WHY they believe what they do. I don’t just mean choosing beliefs that make sense to you. I mean choosing beliefs that have a foundation. Who says so? Why do they say that? What support is there for that? Science and religion are both places to start for these answers and, as far as I’m concerned, I can at least respect a person who knows why they believe something, even if I don’t agree with them. However, simply saying ‘That’s how it is’ or ‘you’re wrong’ does not answer any of these questions. We need to do the research and make sure that the things we believe are actually factual.

In so doing, we must realize that life is not about any one person having everything or feeling good or being in power. Marriage is not about one person being comfortable. Business is not about one person having as much as he can get. Life has a bigger purpose than that and the choices people make affect other people.

Conversely, while life is not about one person, one person can make a huge impact on many lives. That is why we must be aware of the logical consequences of the choices we make. The changes that are made to our society are leading us somewhere. Are the tiny steps we make today and the views we hold leading us somewhere beneficial? Or are our choices opening doors to darker places than we are prepared to go? And are we even paying attention?

Lagnado, Lucette Matalon, and Sheila Cohn Dekel, Children of the Flames, Penguin, 1991.

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