Auschwitz Began With the Murder of a Single Innocent Man

As we mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, let us never forget the individual compromises with evil that brought it all about.

(photo: Peter Tóth/Pixabay/CC0)

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp. Located on the territory of occupied Poland, Auschwitz started as a camp for Polish political prisoners but has become the symbolic epitome of the Holocaust, the systematic extermination of the Jewish people. Over the next three and a half months, we’ll mark various anniversaries on the path to V-E Day, the defeat of the Third Reich, including the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp on April 29.

St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Evangelium vitaedefined modern times as characterized by a struggle between “the culture of life” and “the culture of death.” Although he did not write that encyclical until 1995, it would be erroneous to imagine that the “culture of death” is a phenomenon only of recent decades.

Auschwitz reminds us that the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century adopted death as an instrument of state policy, undermining the sanctity of individual human life. Jews (and not only Jews) were liable to arbitrary execution at Nazi German hands not for any “crime” of which they might be guilty (although, of course, the formalistic Germans would create “crimes”—including “racial” ones—to justify what they were doing) but because the victims were who they were. Being a Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe was sufficient reason to be killed. Auschwitz was simply the incarnation of that whole mentality.

Contemporary writers insist on confining the term “Holocaust” to the extermination of European Jewry, the “Final Solution” of the Jewish Question (Endlősung der Judenfrage). I understand the effort to recognize the uniqueness of what happened to European Jewry, both in scope and degree.

But we should not forget that the destruction of European Jewry was part of a larger racial and eugenic agenda embraced by the Nazis, which much earlier began with the extermination of Germany’s own disabled citizens, those deemed living “life unworthy of life” (lebensunwertes Leben). Indeed, that very concept preceded by 13 years the almost 13 year reign of terror that was Nazism: the phrase “lebensunwertes Leben” appeared in a 1920 book title written (you guessed it) by two professors.

The Holocaust was a uniquely vicious incarnation of that concept, but it did not come out of nowhere: the seeds of the Holocaust were planted the moment the right of an innocent life ceased to be self-justifying, when innocent life itself was not sufficient reason to protect it, when innocent life needed a further reason to remain inviolate. The essence of that truth is captured well in the 1961 film, “Judgment at Nuremberg,” when American Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) visits the Nazi Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) in that latter’s prison cell. “Those people… those millions of people… I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it,” declares Janning.

“Herr Janning,” replies Haywood, “it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”

While Auschwitz has become a symbol of the extermination of European Jewry, we should also not forget the numerous other crimes against human life that took place in the entire concentration camp network built by the Nazis. Dachau was practically a Catholic religious community — even a seminary — and I shall write in a future blog about some of those priests that eventually made their way from Dachau to the United States. European Roma were also slaughtered in the camps. Inmates were used for experimentation, both arguably “medical” (e.g., the “cold water experiments” in Dachau, involving priests and Soviet POWs, immersing them in ice water to see how long they might survive in order to apply the data gleaned from these Untermenschen to the pedigree of the German nation flying in bombers over the frigid North Atlantic) as well as simply sadistic. The degree to which scientists in general and physicians in particular collaborated with the Nazis was vast. Dr. Josef Mengele is simply the zenith of those who prostituted their professions.

The outcome of World War II led at least to a temporary effort to ensconce the right to life and human dignity in legal instruments designed by the architects of the postwar order. The new West German constitution, for example, enshrined its opening commitment to the “inviolability of human dignity.” Postwar medical ethics (e.g., the World Medical Association’s International Code of Medical Ethics) exhorted doctors always to “respect human life” and obtain informed consent. The lessons of the Holocaust were universalized as an ethic of the sanctity of human life.

The Holocaust possesses, of course, a unique dimension as the testament to the lethal scope of anti-Semitism. No one can deny that. But as we mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz — both as symbol of the Final Solution and as the nadir of a three-and-a-half month period in 1945 when concentration camps were liberated and their full horrors disclosed — let us never forget one basic truth: it all came about when the first innocent man was, nevertheless, deliberately murdered.