When I traveled to Auschwitz a few years ago, one question played over and over in my mind: Did they know?
Did the German people know what was happening in this camp near their own border, in their own occupied territories? With the trains coming and going year after year, with the long lines of prisoners and the billowing smokestacks, did they just turn a blind eye to the atrocities? Had they become desensitized to the point that they could no longer see the carefully choreographed death operations nearby?
Some concentration camps, like the one in Dachau, were set in comfortable suburbs right inside Germany itself and the townsfolk could stroll past them during their daily routine. The grass in those suburbs continued to grow as green as anywhere else, young people got married, babies were born, men went to work and life went on.
Walking through a place like Dachau or Auschwitz, one wonders: could it ever happen again? Could a similar scenario play out today in middle-class America? Most would instinctively say "no" — after all, we live in a more enlightened time and culture. A more perceptive eye, however, can discern troubling parallels. Nowhere are these parallels more evident than in the bioethical issues of our day. Our society, in fact, faces virtually the same temptation that Germany did: the temptation to normalize certain well-scripted death operations in the midst of polite society.
If we look within our own culture and within our own time, we will see that suction machines have replaced smokestacks, and that fertility clinics and women's health centers have replaced the barbed wire. Unborn humans and embryonic children are now dispatched with the same desensitized ease as camp inhabitants once were, and never a word is mentioned in respectable society. Our great universities, which need to serve as a moral voice, remain mute or even foster such evil, as does the press, and few dare mention the pall of death that quietly permeates the air.
We need look no further than the Planned Parenthood clinics which are dotted across our country. Future generations are likely to be appalled by the statistics: nearly 2 million deaths per year. They are sure to wonder about a people that ended the lives of their own children at the rate of 1 every 23 seconds through elective abortion. They are sure to ask, "How could they?" and, "Did they know?"
We need look no further than the fertility clinics present in every major American city. Future generations are sure to be scandalized by the numbers: in vitro fertilization making hundreds of thousands of embryonic humans, to be chilled in liquid nitrogen and turned into, in the words of one commentator, "kidsicles." They are sure to deplore the many other human embryos treated as objects, discarded as medical waste, poured down the sink or experimented upon and strip-mined for their embryonic stem cells.
There is a certain banality about evil. It doesn't necessarily present itself in a monstrous or dramatic way. It can take the shape of simple conformity to what everyone else is doing, to what the leadership says is right, to what the neighbors are doing. The gradual encroachment of evil in our lives can be something we might not even notice because we are not paying attention; it can be something barely on the periphery of our consciousness.
The majority of those who collaborated with some of history's most terrible crimes and falsehoods need not be cast as inhuman monsters; instead, they were often like us. They were capable of giving and receiving sympathy and love; they could have beautiful feelings and noble ideals; heroism, loyalty, family and culture could all co-exist with almost unbelievable evil.
During the Nazi years, there often were no momentous decisions to be made for or against evil. People were concerned with their daily affairs, and on that level, Nazism seemed good: it seemed to bring prosperity, it made things work, it allowed people to feel good about themselves and their country. The moral issues — the ones that we now see as having been central — were carefully avoided.
When the full horror of Nazism was revealed at the end of the war, the German people responded, "We didn't know." When a local townsperson was asked whether he knew what was going on in the camp, he gave a more complete answer. "Yes, we knew something was up, but we didn't talk about it, we didn't want to know too much." Primo Levi, a writer and a survivor of Auschwitz, described the German ethical blind spot this way:
In spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn't know because they didn't want to know. Because, indeed they wanted not to know. … Those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his door.
Martin Luther King Jr. used to say that what pained him the most was the silence of the good. Albert Einstein, who fled Germany when Hitler came to power, articulated the same sentiment in an interview for Time magazine on Dec. 23, 1940. He stressed that sometimes it was only the Church and religion that could challenge the status quo as evil made inroads into a society:
Being a lover of freedom, when the revolution came in Germany I looked for the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but no, the universities immediately were silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers, whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom. But they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks. Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler's campaign for suppressing truth. I had never any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom.
The courageous, even daring question we must ask is, "What is our own response to the evil around us?"