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Auschwitz and “intrinsic evil”

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.

People walk in dense fog in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp during ceremonies in late January 2018 marking the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day in in Oswiecim, Poland. (CNS photo/Kacper Pempel, Reuters)

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.


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About George Weigel 257 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). His new book The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform was published by Basic Books on September 17.

20 Comments

    • Gato,
      Yup. Euthanasia also-that’s where all this began under the Third Reich. Handicapped & mentally ill patients began disappearing from German institutions. Killed because they were seen as defective & useless.
      There’s a fictionalized version of that in the 1999 German film “After the Truth”. It’s well worth watching.

    • not only abortion, the enemy succeeds in establishing many footholds due to silence, the silence of people who should be saying “NO, that’s wrong, it will not be permitted”

  1. Admiration for scholars is deserving although not all they produce may be scholarly [I should know]. A Charlie Chaplin like screeching Austrian is childish not scholarly. Meant for the choir this essay is addressed to. The John Paul II quote that “Auschwitz-Birkenau is the Golgotha of the modern world” is the beloved pope’s hyperbole meant to assuage the Jewish people whom he had a devoted sentiment [and philosophically intellectually in his doctoral defense of Jewish convert to Catholicism Max Scheler his advocacy of the cause of Jewish atheist philosopher later martyred Carmelite Edith Stein] not a theological truth. That’s infinitely far from the truth of the Savior’s incomparable unique act. A true scholar would not write of a nation as so imbecilic as to follow a Charley Chaplin to virtual apocalypse. Adolf merited the Iron Cross 1st class during the Great War and was an imposing presence as well as brilliant communicator. William Shirer who authored the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was present as journalist during those years didn’t describe Hitler and events anywhere close to what G Weigel gives us here. Why did Germany follow him? The old canard How could so sophisticated cultured a Nation follow him? and commit mass murder is answered by one reality. Evil. Evil by provocation not something that came out of the blue. Weigel isn’t entirely off the mark otherwise he would have no claim to scholarship. He’s correct that eugenics as the elimination of the ‘unfit’ was responsible. But not a cause. That was a symptom of something much deeper that affects us all. Pride and desire for revenge. Germany received short shrift insofar as justice after defeat WW I. Indemnities were astronomical territories were seized, annexed Germans were humiliated starved in the streets for several decades. Hitler played on the evil inflicted of Germany’s adversaries and inspired greater evil. Murder whether committed by Germans under Hitler by a dissatisfied philandering husband a destitute street person envious neighbor or drunken friend is always and everywhere intrinsically evil.

    • “That [the Evil of eugenics] was a symptom of something much deeper that affects us all.”

      Whittaker Chambers counsels his young son on this point: “I want him to understand that evil is not something that can be condescended to, waved aside or smiled away, for it is not merely an uninvited guest, but lies coiled in foro interno [that is] at home with good within ourselves. Evil can only be fought. . .” (Witness, 1952).

      Evil is not simple, but is disguised as the good. Like a cancer it assumes the shape of the organ it replaces. Does Pope Francis simply enlist hyperbole (as does John Paul II in his remark “Auschwitz-Birkenau is the Golgotha of the modern world”) when he constructs a dichotomy between “ideas” (objective morality?) and “realities”?

      Is he simply parsing poorly Cardinal Newman (?): “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description […] No one, I say, will die for his own calculations, he dies for realities” (Grammar of Assent).

      All the more reason, then, to rein in the freelance “synodal path” and to clearly enlist the realities of the Magisterium and, particularly, St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor.

    • Your points are well taken, good Fr. Morello, and are, of course, right. But, respectfully, as the last sentence of your response would have benefited from the pause taking afforded the comma, your assertions might be received more authoritatively, had greater care been exercised in taking pause from making veiled expressions of what appear to be an obvious distain for the author personally.

      • After posting Paul I thought so in agreement with your take. So perhaps I can retract the ‘innuendos’ here in reparation.

        • Dear Fr. Morello, as a long-time reader of your comments on various sites, my impression of you has always been that you are both charitable and holy. This impression remains unchanged, and I have every confidence that your retraction is indeed heart-felt and sincere. Very truly, -Paul

    • Charles E Flynn ,
      Yes, there was a weird preoccupation with the occult. Which I guess we’re seeing again today. If you take away religion, a culture is going to find a substitute.

      • There are people who claim that Nazis were Christians but they intended to bring back what they felt was their true German religion of the old Nordic religion, I’m not sure what it’s called. Those SS “lightning bolts” are really Nordic runes and were understood as such.

  2. Evil has perpetuated evil since the beginning of man. When someone thinks of themselves as better because of race, religion or any other reason is doomed to repeat this most evil act of the 20th century again and again. Let all know God loves all and we should all follow this, for all to live free!

  3. Your article implies to me that you do not understand the concept of “intrinsic evil”. I base this on the phrase:
    “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.”
    Intrinsically evil is not synonomous with gravely wrong. I’m quite sure moral theologians who don’t believe in intrinsically evil acts (including Aquinas) readily recognize the grave evil of the holocaust. Suggest you read the catechism for an understanding of Intrinsic evil – CCC pp 1751-1756

    • Bob, you are not following the statement. It means that it is gravely wrong if you do not concede that The Wall of Death is intrinsically wrong.

    • It would appear that your consequentialist approach has blinded you a bit to what the CCC states. For instance:

      “The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts – such as fornication – that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil. … There are concrete acts that it is always wrong to choose, because their choice entails a disorder of the will, i.e., a moral evil. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.” (CCC, 1755, 1761).

      Meanwhile, John Paul II, in addressing consequentialism and proportionalism, clearly included genocide in his list of intrinsically evil actions:

      80. Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”. The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator”. (Veritatis Splendor, 80)

      As for St. Thomas, JPII touches on that as well:

      79. One must therefore reject the thesis, characteristic of teleological and proportionalist theories, which holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species — its “object” — the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned.

      The primary and decisive element for moral judgment is the object of the human act, which establishes whether it is capable of being ordered to the good and to the ultimate end, which is God. This capability is grasped by reason in the very being of man, considered in his integral truth, and therefore in his natural inclinations, his motivations and his finalities, which always have a spiritual dimension as well. It is precisely these which are the contents of the natural law and hence that ordered complex of “personal goods” which serve the “good of the person”: the good which is the person himself and his perfection. These are the goods safeguarded by the commandments, which, according to Saint Thomas, contain the whole natural law. (VS, 79; referring to Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 100, a. 1.)

  4. I’m now reading, “The Volunteer – One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz,” by Jack Fairweather. This man volunteered to enter Auschwitz. His detailed account of the evils there is earth shattering.

  5. 1753 A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation.

    What the Catechism means Bob is that an intrinsically disordered [evil] act can never be a good act due to a presumed good intention if the object of the act is evil. As Saint Thomas Aquinas taught acts that are contrary to the natural law murder, homosexuality, pedophilia, false witness, adultery are always and everywhere evil. They can never be justified because they are intrinsically evil.

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