Thursday, October 18, 2018

Teaching Hitler, and My Neighbor's Attitude About the Holocaust

Teaching Hitler

About once a year, I teach a giant lower division class called "Evil", focused on the moral psychology of evil. (This year, I have 420 students enrolled.) We do a segment on the Holocaust, in which I assign Elie Wiesel, Hannah Arendt, Daniel Goldhagen, Ervin Staub, Schindler's List, and selections from Mein Kampf.

I don't think we can properly understand the psychology of the Holocaust without understanding why ordinary Germans of the period found Hitler attractive. Hitler's attraction to ordinary Germans is incomprehensible if we see him through the usual lens of his presentation in U.S. culture. I ask my students to read Mein Kampf so that we can see Hitler in his own words, and to try to understand the vision of the world that he presented to his followers. I hope and assume, as I emphasize in lecture, that none of my hundreds of students finds Mein Kampf too attractive. (Students who find the reading too repulsive to bear are permitted to choose an alternative reading.)

One fascinating aspect of Mein Kampf is that Hitler makes an ethical case for the extermination of the Jews and the Poles. He argues that races of people differ genetically, and that we ought to expect some races to be genetically superior to others. The "Aryan" race -- basically, White people especially from northwestern Europe, but the ancient Greeks and Romans too -- he argues, can be seen to be superior to other races because of their cultural and military achievements (the Parthenon, Beethoven, the Roman Empire, the conquest of the Americas, etc.).

This "Aryan" superiority partly consists in their willingness to subordinate their interests to the greater good of the state. In Mein Kampf and, even more vividly in his speeches, Hitler appears to be at his most frighteningly "inspiring" when he praises ordinary Germans' willingness to become heroes, ready to sacrifice everything for the greater good of their nation. (If you'll forgive the comparison, I am reminded of John F. Kennedy's remark, which many people in the U.S. have found inspiring, "Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.").

Hitler embraces a broadly Malthusian or Spencerian vision of populations of humans destined to fight each other: Each nation or race will breed too many people to share the planet. The natural and desirable consequence of this inevitable fight, Hitler argues, is that the stronger races will defeat the weaker races. They will thus bequeath better genes or "blood" to subsequent generations than would happen if weaker races were permitted to reproduce at the same rate as stronger races.

From all of this, it follows, on Hitler's thinking, that it is the moral duty of "Aryans" to exterminate the Jews and other inferior races and also to invade nearby lands (esp. Poland), killing or displacing the inferior people there, so that healthy, fertile Germans will have room to expand and grow the population. Short-term bloodshed and suffering will ensure the flourishing of future races of superior human beings! Every good German must stand ready to sacrifice for this great goal! One can see how such thinking might have been attractive to a certain sort of racist.

Hitler was quite clear about all of this in Mein Kampf, of which about ten million copies were distributed in Germany. He even gives political advice for how to most effectively implement genocide. I do not think that Germans of the era can plausibly say that they were unaware of his violent eugenic plans.

And My Neighbor's Attitude About the Holocaust

I do not think many people today would endorse such violent eugenic thinking -- but neither do I think that Hitler's reasoning is so alien that we cannot still hear echoes of it.

Last week, I flew to St. Louis to give a series of talks. On the first leg of my flight, I ended up sitting next to a woman and man who lived in the neighborhood just south of mine in Riverside, California, near where my daughter attends school. After finding out that I was a philosophy professor at U.C. Riverside, they asked me what I thought of politics in the U.S. today. I said something about the value of listening across the political divide and respecting facts.

The woman sitting next to me then launched into political conversation with me, and it became clear that she identified with the political right. Despite her earlier approval of the value of listening, she seemed more interested in speaking than in hearing my perspective. At one point I mentioned that I teach a class called Evil and that we were about to start the segment on the Holocaust.

My seatmate said, "I do think there was a reason that Hitler chose to exterminate the Jews. Of all the people he could have chosen, he went after the Jews." She added something about Jews being rich lawyers and bankers. "It was all predicted two thousand years ago," she added.

I was stunned for a moment, and then she changed the topic and our conversation moved on. In retrospect, I imagine many things I could have said in response; but I said none of them.

[image source]


  1. a few first thoughts:

    Hitler was rationalizing, people who do bad things really think they are doing it for some good, ethically people had barely evolved beyond the point of the highest morality is the benefit of their "people", as a rhetorical ploy Hitler was saying "you say we are doing evil. No, in fact we have the highest cause
    You should have invited your neighbor to your class for cross examination or as a specimen

  2. Yes, I very much agree about the important role of rationalization in Hitler's and many others' evil. Not so sure about inviting the neighbor, though!

  3. I certainly hope that you are making it crystal clear to your students that there is no such thing evil. If not, you are perpetuating the long standing tradition of a primitive, archaic paradigm which states that there is such a "thing" as good and evil, an intellectual construct used to justify heroes and villains, them and us, the model of rationality that perpetuates the lie and pits brother against brother.

    Homo sapiens will never be free from bigotry because the intellectual models we craft for ourselves and hold so close to our hearts are nothing more than a code word for "control", a futile attempt by our sovereign, the Schwarzschildian Me, to gain a transient "sense" of control in the stark reality of the "absence" of control; such is the human experience. The phenomenal self model demands this response because without a sense of control there is no sense of self, for the two are coextensive as one and cannot be divided. The pathological need for a sense of control is a genetic defect inherent within our DNA, as it is for all discrete forms of consciousness. Control is the ghost of rationality, and unless or until we are individually or collectively willing to address this genetic defect nothing will change, because nothing can change.

  4. The class could always begin with "Apology of Socrates"...

    As Splintered Mind is, also, a tutelary presence of...
    ... attitude toward oneself first and differences become values...

  5. Dear Lee:

    True, 'evil' has a lot of negative baggage emotionally and metaphysically- we musn't lose our heads- but don't you think there are some things people do that our disgust and condemnation are fitting if not necessary?
    I'm genuinely asking your opinion, because I'm no philosopher and genuinely want an answer

  6. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for posting your whole syllabus, which looks ambitious in many ways. Here you've underscored your view that you "don't think we can properly understand the psychology of the Holocaust without understanding why ordinary Germans of the period found Hitler attractive." and I wanted to share some thoughts about that, since it was an issue that came up when we worked on the project, where we focused on constructing oral histories of survivors of Alberta's eugenics program, which ended only in 1972. There we deliberately didn't try to interview people "on the other side", chiefly because we took a strong standpoint position with respect to what we thought was ethically and politically most important. Having a sort of balance between the stories we collected was incompatible with our stance here, especially in working directly with vulnerable community members. The context of your course is, of course, very different, and I don't disagree with the claim I've quoted here. But I wonder whether providing some counter-balancing or contextualizing readings, if that is the right way to characterize them, from Arendt or Wiesel, and relying on philosophical arguments to show that Hitler was mistaken in various (deep) ways, is enough here. Especially in light of California's own extensive eugenics history, including the Gray Davis apology in the early 2000s, the uncovering of the sterilization of African-American and Latina women in the California state prison system just a few years ago, and the ongoing discussions in the state legislature of compensation payments to the relatively small number of survivors. In my experience in teaching eugenics in Alberta for over 10 years and in working closely with students on its contemporary significance, getting them to see and feel the effects of eugenics through discovering how close at hand it is, something that our survivor histories were able to play a major role in, were the most transformative aspects of what we covered.

  7. Thanks for your comments, folks!

    Lee: I suppose I'm not as committed to the centrality of "control" and "self" in our behavioral choice and motivation as you seem to be. I think, for example, that most people have desires for others to flourish that are not so egoistically motivated.

    Lee and Howard: On evil: I argue that it is best understood as a feature of actions rather than of people. (I define evil for the purposes of the class as "any gravely morally wrong action".)

    Rob: I do discuss California's history of eugenics a bit in the class (though I have no dedicated readings on it) and I mention personal experiences in Riverside as well, including the neo-Nazis in full Nazi regalia who photographed my family members and me going to temple on Hannukah several years ago. (That particular version of the neo-Nazi movement in Riverside ended when the leader of the group was shot to death by his ten year old son.) Although I might be wrong, I think that particular personal story is a striking moment in the class, for many students. As you say, it is disputable whether Hitler should be given a voice in the class at all, alongside the voice of survivors and critics. To me, it is not entirely clear what the best choice is. However, my current thinking is that more is gained by showing students what Hitler's perspective was "from the inside" (so to speak) than by not doing so. Although I know something about California's history of eugenics, I am embarrassed to admit I hadn't hear of these very recent cases. I will look into it straightaway.

  8. PS to Rob: Wow, I just found the article in the local newspaper. I'm surprised not to have heard of it before. Thanks for the heads up.

  9. As an undergraduate in the 1980s, I took a course in Japanese history. One of our assignments was to find a translated Japanese book in the school library, read it, and do a book report. I came across a book written in the early 30s from the perspective of a Japanese nationalist.

    It talked about the injustice of eastern Asia being dominated by colonial powers and how Asian cultures needed to be self governing. It then went on to describe why Japan's superior culture made it the ideal candidate to lead its neighboring countries, that it was Japan's moral duty to "guide" countries like Korea and China out of their serfdom.

    As a 22 year old who had just spent a semester learning about the Japanese worldview and culture, a culture which had enabled a radical transformation of their country from a medieval recluse in 1850 to a world power by 1904, I found it utterly chilling how plausible that point of view sounded, how compelling it would have been to me if I'd been a Japanese 22 year old in 1931, with no knowledge of what was coming.

  10. howard b,

    (but don't you think there are some things people do that our disgust and condemnation are fitting if not necessary?)

    Absolutely!!! But let's not loose our focus because of those actions and be satisfied with a grossly divisive paradigm that simple isn't true, because there is no such "thing" as good or evil, there is only one thing, and that thing is value. Value stands alone at the center of motion and form, and that model is linear, which is in direct contrast to the discrete model of good and evil. Evil like morality is an expression of power which is relative to the values expressed by the victim as well as the values expressed by the perpetrator. The perpetrator abuses power to execute horrendous acts against his brother, nevertheless, for the perpetrator, those acts are an expression of value, not evils.

    It's a strange place that we find ourselves, nothing is as it appears........

  11. If you think about Hitler he was just a product of a long line of racist and colonial thinking and it is only industrial warfare and efficiency that makes him the historical bogeyman he is. King Leopold II killed 10 million but he hardly ever gets a mention. & Especially interesting are the claims Hitler admired the racist one-party Southern politics and the American reservation treatment as a 'solution' to their indigenous populations. In this light, WW2 was more like a fight between colonial powers as a Japanese diplomat said when talking about Colonialism "The West taught Japan poker, but after winning all the chips, declared the game immoral."

    Now if numbers are the only things that matter morally total numbers -like that stupid comparison that Communism was worse than capitalism because of X killed- Hitler is up there but so are the Mongols. But put in an overall context of past human Imperial and Colonial ambitions he is different in degree not in kind.

    So if you are going to teach this Colonialism shouldn't be left out.

  12. About acts being evil and not the actors- then a tsunami or sun going nova can be evil. It is helpful to say the war between Israel and Palestine is evil and not the two sides, but if an act is evil then isn't the actor as well? You have metaphysical assumptions you have to clarify

  13. grist for the mill

  14. Eric,

    The centrality of "self" and "control", coextensive as one, with a character that is determinate and unified is the underlying form of the phenomenal self model and that model is the reality and cannot be avoided. It needs to be understood, not dismissed, because within that architecture lies the mysteries of human behavior.

    (I think, for example, that most people have desires for others to flourish that are not so egoistically motivated.)

    This statement is a excellent example of my model, because even the noble desire to see others flourish is motivated by a "sense" of control which in the end, reinforces the "sense" of self. It is just one of the many intellectual models we craft for ourselves which reinforces our own phenomenal self model. A "sense" of control is a latent dynamic within human behavior that we are not even aware is taking place. Our sovereign, the Schwarzschildiam Me knows that literal control is an apparition, so our sovereign will settle for the less ambiguous "sense" of control every time. Control is not a dirty little word, to the contrary, it is absolutely essential for homo sapiens to survive and thrive within our primary experience. But it needs to be recognized for what it is and understood in its correct context if we are ever to get past these dualistic, divisive architectures of good and evil, right and wrong, morality and immortality, heroes and villains, them and us; because at the end of the day, there is no distinction between human beings because we are all the same. The only distinction is how we each express value through the "power" of reasoning.

    Our primary experience has no fixed patterns of punishments or rewards, the only perceived good is freedom. The only limitations to those freedoms are the those imposed upon us by our biology, the ones we place upon ourselves, and those forced upon us by society at large.

  15. Thanks for all of the continuing interesting comments, folks!

    Simon, although it is not as much of a focus in the course, I do talk briefly about colonialism, and Leopold gets at least a brief mention. I know most about the Nazi period, and Arendt and Goldhagen are so terrific (despite some well-known challenges) and so interesting to contrast with each other, that I find it useful to focus my pedagogy there.

    Lee, I guess I don't find that view very plausible on the surface, and since you state it rather than providing argument for it (I recognize that it's difficult to defend a whole worldview in a blogpost comment!), we'll have to agree to disagree for now, if that's okay.

  16. Agreeing to disagree is totally acceptable Eric and I do not expect you nor anyone else to apprehend my theories based upon a few brief statements. But I do want to thank you for tolerating my strange, unique views.

    Homo sapiens have an affinity towards surface appeal because of its beauty and usefulness. It is not natural for homo sapiens to be attracted to underlying form because all too often the underlying form is either unknown or not esthetically pleasing, and underlying form challenges our prevailing assumptions of what we believe the world be, a world view which is predicated primarily upon the beauty of surface appeal.

    The best example I could use to demonstrate this attraction to surface appeal is Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and the fabric of space/time. This model is very useful for physicists and the model is esthetically pleasing as well, nevertheless, my models definitively demonstrate that general relativity is a bogus intellectual construct that is simply not true, useful or not. That’s the underlying form. Physicists, like all homo sapiens prefer useful constructs over latent underlying form because “believing” to know something reinforces their need for a “sense” of control, and that control is demonstrated by their ability to make predictions, a qualitative property which we all share. A fundamental dynamic of reasoning is a reciprocating closed loop system of control which is absolutely essential for homo sapiens to substantiate and give credence to the phenomenal self model, a model which Thomas Metzinger refers to as “being no one”.

    Reasoning is just the latest form of consciousness to arrive on the scene after billions of years of evolution, and the power of reasoning is without precedence. Reasoning is a powerfully unique form of consciousness which leads to the novelty of expression we observe within human behavior, be it good, bad, or indifferent; and reasoning, like all forms of consciousness is a universal attribute of the phenomenal realm. Reasoning is inclusive, just like all of the other forms of expression we observe, for reasoning can both create and destroy, just like a tsunami, earthquake or a super novi. None of those things are evil, for they are all the unique novelty of expression.

  17. Dear Eric:

    A little observation: people who are authoritarian believe in power and in moral authority. They believe they are the only citizens who have the moral authority to rule. So Hitler and so today.
    USA USA patriotism and onward Christian soldiers makes people do bad things.
    We'd have to get our hands dirty with history and theory to sort things out- there's a lot going on- but that is a good starting point- morality and authority are perhaps necessarily intwined, but dangerously

  18. As a naturalist it seems to me that we can view past behavior with a deductive reasoning mindset. Notice that we’re given what Hitler and his people ended up doing. Thus all that’s left to determine are the circumstances which prompted those events. Therefore if the situation here remains incomprehensible, it should be due to ignorance — and specifically in terms of human psychology and/or the conditions under which these people lived. To me this sad sentence of human history does seem quite plausible. I see people under trying circumstances who were attempting to forge better lives for themselves. Fortunately we’re not in their shoes!

    As I define good/evil, a freedom element is quite central, as opposed to good/bad which has none. For example I’d consider it bad if a machine were to tragically cut off my arm, but wouldn’t call this machine itself evil given that it wouldn’t freely be choosing to maim me. Furthermore my naturalism mandates that even people are not ultimately free to do what they do, and therefore good and evil cannot ultimately exist anywhere (cheers Lee!). But that’s from a perfect perspective rather than a pathetic human perspective. From way down here, yes it does make sense to refer to some people as “good” and others “evil” (though the naturalist must still bear this term as a function of his/her ignorance).

  19. Howard Berman, you might wish to read the work of Claudia Card, who argues very persuasively, in The Atrocity Paradigm, for referring to evils as the foreseeable, intolerable harms that are the result of culpable (or inexcusable) human wrongdoing. There's a rich subfield of work on her view, elaborating on the usefulness of 'evils' as a term for the most serious harms that humans commit. It's articulate and useful and would save some wheel-reinventing work

  20. Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

    I second Kathryn Norlock's recommendation of Claudia Card.