About a month ago, up at 2am with a sick baby, I found myself watching a documentary about the modern-day descendants of prominent officials of the Third Reich. Entitled Hitler’s Children, it examined the lives of modern-day descendants of high-ranking Nazi officials such as Hermann Goring, Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Höss. None of them Nazi sympathizers, the featured interviewees had all in different ways endeavored to come to terms with the fact of being closely descended from moral monsters.
They certainly had my sympathy. Like so many others, the children of Nazi officials lost their fathers in the Second World War (or shortly thereafter), but they weren’t permitted to grieve in the usual way. No one will ever try to comfort them with the polite fiction that Daddy or Grandpa was an honorable man.
In one of the documentary’s more memorable scenes, Rainer Hess, grandson of Rudolf Höss (the infamous “butcher of Auschwitz”), visits the house at Auschwitz where his father grew up. Charming and spacious, the family’s home was just a short stroll away from the ovens where millions were exterminated, but it had been carefully situated so as to keep the death camp from view. Höss stands in the garden talking to Jewish journalist Eldad Beck as he struggles to wrap his mind around the horror of what happened here. It is difficult, and a modern American audience can easily understand the reasons: to the younger Höss, the horror of Auschwitz is literally incomprehensible. He wants to acknowledge it so that he can denounce his malignant ancestor and put the past behind him, but these depths of human depravity are simply beyond his grasp.
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Thus, we are treated to a rambling soliloquy in which Höss rails against the insensitive inhabitants of the house who, as he indignantly notes, enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle without ever acknowledging the labors of those workers (presumably prisoners) who supported them. “Did they think that this garden planted itself?” Höss asks angrily. Beck, a descendent of Holocaust survivors, does not reply. I wondered whether he was tempted to point out that the crimes of Rudolph Höss, the butcher of Auschwitz, were considerably more serious than a failure to adequately compensate his gardeners.
Rainer Höss has the particular misfortune of being descended from an infamous war criminal, but in every other sense he struck me as entirely unremarkable, a typical product of his time and place. Citizens of prosperous and peaceful Western countries have trouble making sense of extreme human wickedness. They easily fall into the language of exploitation, not only because it has a Marxist history, but also because it makes more intuitive sense. Everyone sees the appeal of living exactly as you please without having to say thank-you. Very few can relate to the desire to slaughter millions of innocents, and in trying to comprehend this monstrosity we are reduced to repeating empty platitudes like “never again,” although the sad truth is that the horror of Auschwitz was far less singular than many would like to believe.
I thought of this scene again when reading Ross Douthat’s “Ideas from a Manger.” Reflecting on the significance of the manger scene, Douthat divides Americans into three classes, all of which take something different from the Bethlehem scene. Some of us (including Douthat and myself) still want to take everything, wise men and angels and shepherds and all, as historical truth. We actually believe that the manger contained the Messiah, the Word made flesh, God’s own literal Son. A second group focuses more on the “spirit” of Christmas, feeling that it would be beside the point to get hung up on the specifics of what the shepherds actually saw when Christmas is really about generosity, niceness, and delighting children with fantasy fairy-tales. Finally, there is a group of people who reject the Biblical worldview entirely. In America today, most of this last group still tries to maintain a kind of secular ethics, but they want it to be as divorced as possible from its Judeo-Christian parentage.
In sheer numbers, this last group is probably fairly small. But it is disproportionately represented among academics and the elite, and as Douthat observes, this group is in the unhappy position of having no secure bridge between its metaphysical and ethical commitments. Comfort and a tenuous, ill-defined sense of good-will may, for a time, stave off the more hideous manifestations of a nihilistic worldview; after all, almost nobody really wants genocide in America today. (Although we do have something of a sustained assault on the unborn, most Westerners are not actively hostile to this group so much as indifferent to their fate.) Humans are always susceptible, however, to the desire to dominate and destroy. It is disturbingly possible to persuade the greedy and the power-hungry that whoever stands in the way is somehow less human, and less worthy of life, than they and their friends.
This is the kind of dehumanization that opens the door to monstrosities like Auschwitz. It is frightening to realize that, for all the apparent civility of our comfortable American life, we are mostly in the position of Rainer Höss, which is to say, ill-equipped to vanquish something that we cannot even comprehend. Most modern people have been habituated, not to virtue, but rather to a shallow niceness that prioritizes comfort and pleasure above any serious understanding of the good. Morally immature people tend not to have much understanding either of evil or of good. They may reject the teachings of organized religion, not for serious reasons of conscience, but rather because they see no need for it. Why put up with the inconvenient and judgmental demands of orthodox religion when we can all just agree to be nice?
Unfortunately, adherents to the religion of niceness tend to be mowed down like grass before the ruthless and bloodthirsty, such as will eventually arise wherever Christianity’s influence wanes. As W.B. Yeats explained in his chilling poem, the center cannot hold without the Babe in Bethlehem; mere anarchy is loosed upon the post-Christian world. Properly speaking, The Second Coming is a Christmas poem, though a less sentimental tribute to the Holy Child could hardly be imagined. Vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle twenty centuries ago, the monstrous Spiritus Mundi is loosed upon us in figures like Rudolph Höss, over whom the unfathomable beauty of the Madonna and Child has ceased to have any humanizing influence. Godless materialists (Douthat’s third group) are its eligible recruits, and milk-toast proponents of niceness are powerless before it. If we hope to look courageously in the face of true evil, we must be prepared to make our stand behind the manger in which the true and ever-living God has given himself to the children of men.