Wrestling With the Darkness of Man (On Auschwitz & Dietrich von Hildebrand)
Lieutenant Ivan Martynushkin peered at what lay in front of him. On a bitter January morning in 1945, Martynushkin and the members of the Soviet Army’s 322nd Rifle Division found themselves warily dismounting from their horses and cautiously approaching the barbed wire surrounding a Polish camp perimeter. Just behind the sharp-pointed fences milled dazed human corpses.
“We saw emaciated, tortured, impoverished people…Those were the people I first encountered…We could tell from their eyes that they were happy to be saved from this hell. Happy that now they weren’t threatened by death in a crematorium. Happy to be freed. And we had the feeling of doing a good deed – liberating these people from this hell.”
Hell. Just think…These Soviets had survived Communist state-sponsored purges, show trials, gulags (even famine), not to mention the bloody carnage of Nazi-Soviet war on the Eastern Front. And yet, Lieutenant Martynushkin could find no better description. His division had arrived in Hell. His division had arrived at Auschwitz.
It has been seventy years since the world first came into contact with the world’s most notorious Nazi death camp. Auschwitz has come to epitomize the twisted aims and ideology of the National Socialist state. Poland, split in half and occupied for two years (1939-1941) by rival totalitarian states, became the proving ground for Nazi racial hygiene. In pursuit of political compliance and biological elitism, the newly acquired Nazi cities in France, Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands were systematically emptied of their racial, social and political inferiors. Straining railcar after straining railcar would arrive in Poland, their ultimate destination, where wheat would be separated from chaff. Immediate execution by gunfire or gas chambers would be the fate for some; slow death by starvation, disease or merciless work for others. The irony, however, was that all that arrived in those boxcars of death were deemed chaff. It was only a matter of whether the Nazis could extort one last drop of energy, blood or dignity before discarding the “life unworthy of life”. At Auschwitz, at least 1.1 million human lives perish.
How did it come to this? How could such a demonic ideology emerge, organize, arm, conquer and systematize in such a macabre fashion? Step back and seriously think about it. Humans stuffed into rail cars where many suffocated or were crushed to death. Babies and elderly stripped from the embrace of families and shot publicly and without remorse. Efficient lines marched people to gas chambers. Furnace after furnace churned over time to incinerate dead bodies while ever-growing piles were stacked nearby like cordwood. How could this happen?
After a particular wicked, yet unnecessary act by a Nazi guard, concentration camp prisoner Primo Levi asked, “Why?“. He was impassively answered, “Here there is no why.” It is this type of sneering evasion that leads us to despair that we will never understand the inhumanity that was common trade among the Nazis.
But perhaps we would be well-served to reconsider this. Perhaps there is a “why” which, though never fully comprehensible, can provide us even a shadow of understanding. And if there is some small degree of understanding, perhaps we are better armed to prevent this horror from ever happening again. But first we must ask ourselves, who can help us understand?
After years of studying the likes of Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, Goebbels and Eichmann, I found myself thoroughly depressed by the blackness that dominated the souls of these men to ruthlessly (yet often impassively) destroy others. No matter the theories of German militarism, blood and soil nationalism, post-WWI revenge politics or twisted theories of Eugenics, I still couldn’t see how people could rally around and bureaucratize the hellish, totalistic mechanisms of death.
But that was when I started to read the the words of the opposition. Finally, some solace, some sanity. Before long, I found myself transfixed by the writings and speeches of Winston Churchill, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoller and the White Rose student resistance movement. And just recently, I’ve become more familiar with the inspired life and works of Dietrich von Hildebrand.
For our benefit, John Henry Crosby and John F. Crosby published My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth & Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich. The book is a thoughtfully edited collection of German Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand’s memoirs spanning the rise of Adolf Hitler and his subsequent domestic (and international) domination from 1921-1938. The book reads like an edge-of-your-seat thriller with welcome and well-placed contextualization about events, people and places in the life of Dietrich von Hildebrand.
What captivates about this book is the preternatural insight Hildebrand had about the meaning of Hitler and National Socialism. From a thriving vocation as professor and Catholic philosopher in a rich German academic community, Hildebrand finds himself fleeing to Austria to assemble a new life with a new home, new vocation, new friends and most of all, a new urgency to warn people about the dangers inherent to National Socialism. Naturally, the story of Hildebrand’s sacrifice and vision is pock-marked by honestly described academic, social and political squabbles and insecurities. Nonetheless, it is because Hildebrand is so human that his courage to speak and publish truth to nefarious power is so admirable.
Hildebrand’s experience fleeing from and speaking against Hitler has the unrelenting tension of a noose being cinched about the neck – a noose from which Hildebrand, miraculously and defiantly, seems to slip free again and again. But if the story of Dietrich von Hildebrand is not gripping enough, his words will stun you. Crosby and Crosby provided a gift to the reader in the form of an appendix of fourteen spellbinding essays penned by Hildebrand. These essays helped me grapple with the “why” behind National Socialism.
Hildebrand’s vehement opposition to Hitler’s National Socialism was rooted in first principles. The fundamental questions that Hildebrand asks are: Who are the National Socialists and what do they truly want? Who are we and what do we truly want? What follows are Hildebrand’s characterization of Nazi tenets and his response to them.
The foundation of National Socialism is the religious, social and biological primacy of the Nordic race to the exclusion of all other creeds, including Christianity. Hildebrand reminds,
“The ‘hero ethos’ of National Socialism and the ethos of the Sermon on the Mount constitute an utter antithesis.”
The ineradicable value of all human life (infused with a soul and dignified in its relationship with the Creator) is flatly rejected by National Socialism. Hildebrand admonishes,
“The fate of states, nations, and peoples as such is incomparably less important than the eternal salvation of a single immortal soul.”
In the Nazi creed, materialism of blood has primacy over the spiritual sphere and the state has total power over its citizens in all respects. Hildebrand asserts,
“In a time when the state expressly advances totalitarian claims and incessantly seeks to overstep its divinely ordained sphere of competence, indifference to the political sphere on the part of Catholics constitutes an outright dereliction of duty. It is precisely the rootedness of genuine Catholics…that requires them to erect a dam against every encroachment of the state.”
The pillars of this secular creed are in direct opposition to the creed of Christ. And the Nazi creed is aimed at feeding the dark and insatiable appetite of fallen man. No matter the excuses, the distractions, the propaganda served up by Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and no matter the assurances, the promises, the guarantees offered by the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler, the road to Auschwitz begins when we sacrifice our first principles and when we ignore theirs. Hildebrand asks – no insists – that we not be fooled. We must know ourselves and our enemy.
“For the present hour leaves no room for liberal harmlessness, for just comfortably carrying on, for vacillation between good and evil, for a “classroom idealism” backed by no genuine commitment. The present time with its penchant for extremes, its tendency to absolutize positions, its fanatical idolatries, its unprecedented and ruthless propaganda, puts everyone to the ultimate test and compels the revelation of every person’s true self.”
It has been seventy years since Lieutenant Ivan Martynushkin arrived at the barbed wire of Auschwitz. Seventy years. And I still wrestle with the darkness of man – with the darkness of myself. Will I ever understand? I’m not sure.
I’m just not sure.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Quote sources: Interview with Ivan Martynushkin (Agence France Presse)
Quote sources: My Battle with Hitler by Crosby & Crosby