Auschwitz and “intrinsic evil”

George Weigel

Seventy-five years ago, on January 27, 1945, the infantrymen of the Red Army’s 322nd Rifle Division were bludgeoning their way into the Third Reich when they discovered the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camps. The German inventors of industrialized mass slaughter had cleared out earlier, forcing some 60,000 prisoners deemed capable of slave labor in the Fatherland on a march westward, during which many died. Battle-hardened Russian veterans of the brutal war on the Eastern Front were nonetheless shocked by what they found at Auschwitz-Birkenau: 6,000 living skeletons, many suffering from diseases that would kill them before medical care and food restored their strength.

On his pilgrimage there in June 1979, Pope St. John Paul II called Auschwitz-Birkenau the “Golgotha of the modern world.” And it is striking that a world largely inured to murder on a vast scale still recognizes in Auschwitz an icon of radical evil: a barbaric grotesquerie no sane person would attempt to justify. In that sense, the lethal reality of what happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau stands in contradiction to the claim by some Catholic moral theologians — once thought marginalized but now back in business — that there are no “intrinsically evil acts.” If you cannot concede that what was done to over one million innocents in the torture cells, on the gallows, at the “Wall of Death,” and in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau was “intrinsically evil” — gravely wrong, period — then you are a moral cretin, no matter what your highest earned degree may be.

I’ve been to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex perhaps 10 times: in recent years, to pray at the cell in Auschwitz I where St. Maximilian Kolbe was starved for two weeks before being killed by an injection of carbolic acid, or to hike around the perimeter of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, praying the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary while walking past the likely site of St. Edith Stein’s gassing and cremation. And for me, as for many others, the questions inevitably occur: How? Why?

Poland is not on the periphery of Europe; Poland is at the center of Europe, and that part of Poland that was annexed to the Third Reich in 1939 is in the southernmost part of what, after postwar border adjustments, is now central Poland. So at Auschwitz and Birkenau — the German names for the absorbed Polish towns of Oswiecim and Brzezinka — you are not anywhere near the savage peripheries of the film Apocalypto. You are, rather, in the middle of the continent that, in the mid-20th century, considered itself the center of world civilization. And that is where the industrialized mass murder of innocents was undertaken.

Libraries of books have been written in an attempt to grasp how Germany, a country renowned for its accomplishments in the arts and sciences, could have handed itself over to a genocidal maniac who looked like a Charlie Chaplin character and rabble-roused in screechy German colored by a strong Austrian accent. That question becomes even more urgent when, in the exhibits at Auschwitz I, the visitor ponders black-and-white photos of the “selection” process at the railroad tracks leading into Auschwitz II-Birkenau — and notices that the SS officers making instant decisions about the life and death of those being unloaded from the cattle cars in which they’d been transported across Europe are quite at ease; some are even smiling. Then you learn that the men who invented this horror included eight officials with the coveted German doctoral degree. And you ask again, “How? Why?”

One piece of that jigsaw puzzle of evil falls into place when it’s remembered that, in the 1920s, German intellectuals developed the notion of Lebensunwertes Leben: “Life unworthy of life.” Influenced by the pseudo-science of eugenics and the concern for “race purity” then epidemic throughout the West (not excluding the United States), this wicked idea was first applied to the physically and intellectually handicapped, especially children. From there, it was a short step to its application to Jews, Roma, homosexuals, Slavs, and other Untermenschen: lower life-forms. And the concept of “Life unworthy of life,” it must be remembered, was not developed by clods, but by highly-educated people — people who likely thought there was no such thing as an “intrinsically evil act.”

On this anniversary, we fool ourselves if we think humanity has learned its lesson and that an Auschwitz could never happen again. As the Italian Holocaust survivor Primo Levi put it, it did happen, so it can happen again. The form may be different; but the rationale will almost certainly be the same.

COMING UP: The bullies and that book 

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Immediately after news broke on January 12 that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah had written a book on the crisis of the priesthood in the 21st-century Church, online hysteria erupted — which rather underscored the prudence of a New Year’s resolution I had recommended to concerned Catholics in a January 1 column: “Resolve to limit your exposure to the Catholic blogosphere.”  

The extraordinary venom spewed at the pope emeritus and the cardinal by more than a few commentators did not advance the Church’s discussion of the reform of the priesthood one jot or tittle. It actually retarded that urgent discussion, diverting attention from some urgent issues (including the deep roots of the abuse crisis and the meaning of clerical celibacy) by treating a serious book as if it were a partisan political tract.  

Yet the cacophony over the Benedict/Sarah book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, did serve two useful purposes: it spoke volumes about the character of the venomous, and it clarified some of the dynamics roiling the Church as the pontificate of Pope Francis approaches its seventh anniversary on March 13. 

The attack on Pope Emeritus Benedict was exceptionally nasty — and deeply ill-informed. One prominent partisan of the current pontificate opined that Benedict is “conscious barely half an hour at a time;” another wizard from the left field bleachers had it that Benedict was “incapacitated.” Neither man has the faintest idea of what he’s talking about. I spent a full 45 minutes with Pope Emeritus Benedict this past October 19, discussing a broad range of issues. He was quite frail physically, but in the early evening of what I assume had been a normal day, he was completely lucid, quite well-informed, eager for new information, full of good humor, and able to recall themes and personalities from conversations we had had decades earlier. The pope emeritus seemed clear as a bell, intellectually, at age 92; can the same be said for those who, relying on “reports,” dismiss him as a senile old man, out of touch with events and perhaps even reality? 

The attack on Cardinal Sarah was equally vicious and just as ill-informed. I have had the honor of knowing the Guinean cardinal for several years and, like anyone who has spent significant time with him, I have found him a man of profound holiness: a truly converted disciple of Jesus Christ whose ministry flows from his radical fidelity to the Lord. Despite the caricatures perpetrated by those who evidently fear his present and future influence in the Church, Cardinal Sarah has also struck me as a man of Christian joy, still amazed at the grace of God that has been at work in his life, and therefore able to laugh (in that robust way that only Africans can) at the human foibles of the moment. Cardinal Sarah was not laughing, however, at the claim that he had lied about the origin and nature of From the Depths of Our Hearts and his righteous, if controlled, anger confirmed what those who actually know him understand: this is an honest man.  

These calumnies against Benedict and Sarah were amplified by another absurd charge: that by discharging their minds and consciences on what is necessary for an authentic reform of the priesthood, the pope emeritus and the cardinal were somehow interfering with Pope Francis’s “discernment” after the Amazonian synod of this past October. So it has now come down (and I do mean down) to this: the partisans of openness and dialogue are now telling two of Catholicism’s most distinguished sons that their views are unwelcome; that the theological and pastoral defense of clerical celibacy is an act of disloyalty to Pope Francis; and that they should just shut up.  

These are not the tactics of advocates convinced that they have won the substantive argument and are likely to continue winning. These are the tactics of those who, fearful that time is running out, imagine that their only recourse is to resort to bullying.  

There is nothing of churchmanship in this, nor is there anything of Christian charity. The reform of the priesthood is essential for the evangelizing mission of the Church. Those who dismissed a serious proposal for such reform, in large part by vilifying its authors, branded themselves as less interested in reforming the priesthood of the New Covenant than in ecclesiastical power-games. 

Featured image: © L’Osservatore Romano