As part of my Coursera course The Holocaust, I am required to write three papers, of which I have completed the first. In my first paper, I chose to examine the “reasons” for the Holocaust. After all, the horror of the Holocaust compels the question: WHY? Why did so many human beings plan, carry out, cooperate with, or turn a blind eye to acts of unspeakable cruelty against other human beings—human beings who were Jewish?
I am finding that the answer that makes the most “sense” to me is that the perpetrators, their supporters, and even many bystanders were CRAZY. By “crazy,” I mean that they embraced beliefs with no basis in reality, beliefs that were not at all helpful to themselves and that were disastrous for their targets, the Jews. In fact, our Coursera Professor, Peter Kenez voices this explanation himself in his lecture “The Jews of Western Europe.” Speaking of the Nazis, Professor Kenez says, “The party taking control of the machinery of a modern state was lunatic, aside from the vicious aspect—they were crazy—what they were after did not serve their interests, no matter how you define their interests."
We tend to view craziness as an aberration—but considering the numbers of people involved in enacting, supporting, or allowing the Holocaust, we have a huge number of aberrant people. In other words, it is possible for millions of people to be crazy, or out of touch with reality, in ways that cause extreme harm.
I would say that it behooves us to analyze this craziness, to see it for what it is, and to prevent it from happening again. Here, I echo Primo Levi, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, who says of the Nazi hatred for Jews, “We cannot understand it, but we can and must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard. If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again.” (“Afterword” to Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, page 394)
To this end, I will first examine some of the crazy beliefs that led to the Holocaust and then consider them in light of what we know about healthy and unhealthy mental processes.
Crazy beliefs about the Jews during the time of the Third Reich combined traditional pseudo-religious nonsense with modern pseudo-scientific nonsense. In my next post, I will turn my attention to the first crazy pseudo-religious belief.