Nothing good came out of the Holocaust. The mass murder of Jewish people, Roma, gay people, the disabled, and other targeted groups was an atrocity of unimaginable proportions, an orgy of needless suffering, cruelty, grief and horror. Genocide doesn’t make the world a better place; it makes the world a worse place.
That should be obvious, you'd think. And yet, in America, we compulsively try to turn the Holocaust into a moral lesson or an inspirational parable. Yes, we say, the Holocaust was evil. But look at the good that came out of it! Hitler's crimes, we insist, gave us all the chance to be better people. The piles of corpses are an abomination, of course; but even so, if we climb them together, we will ascend to a new moral awakening.
Vice President Mike Pence provided a particularly repulsive example of this logic in a tweet over the weekend commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day. “A few days ago, Karen & I paid our respects at Yad Vashem to honor the 6 million Jewish martyrs of the Holocaust who 3 years after walking beneath the shadow of death, rose up from the ashes to resurrect themselves to reclaim a Jewish future,” Pence declared. Pence turned the Holocaust into a triumphant story of bravery, a monument to Israeli nationalism. The Holocaust here is not a tragedy, but a triumph.
Many Jews have pointed out that Pence, who is an evangelical Christian, imposes a Christian narrative on the Holocaust, comparing victims of the Holocaust to Jesus. His tweet also paints Jewish victims of the Holocaust as martyrs for Israel, as if every Jew who died was an ardent Zionist, deliberately laying his or her life down for a future Jewish state. Pence treats the Holocaust as a holy validation of evangelical support for Israel. Many American evangelicals believe that Israel has a role to play in the apocalyptic end times. The Holocaust, then, for Pence becomes a kind of providential working out of God's divine plan for the Jews. Israel makes the Holocaust worth it, at least from an evangelical perspective. Hallelujah.
Pence is unusually blunt in framing the Holocaust as Christian resurrection narrative, but he’s not the only one to try to turn Auschwitz into inspiration porn. The majority of high-profile films and fictional narratives about the Holocaust focus on upbeat endings and salvation. Films like Defiance (2008), The Zookeeper’s Wife ( 2017) and, most famously Schindler’s List (1993) all tell stories about people who saved Jews during the Holocaust. They all end, ritually, with text informing the viewer how many people the protagonists rescued from death in the camps.
All these films are based on true stories; Otto Schindler and others did save some Jews. Every life saved is precious—but every life that wasn't saved is precious, too, and there were, horribly, a nightmarish number of people who weren't saved from the Holocaust. The obsessive focus on the handful who escaped gives the Holocaust, over and over, a happy ending. The main characters dodge the Nazis; Israel rises up. The death camps may have been horrible, but they gave good people a chance to demonstrate their goodness.
That's the message of Lois Lowry’s hugely influential Holocaust novel Number the Stars (1989). The book tells the fictional story of Annemarie, a Danish girl who (like many in Denmark) helps a Jewish friend escape the Nazis. “Young people rejoice when Annemarie takes a deep breath, enters the woods, faces the danger, stands up to the enemy, and triumphs,” Lois Lowry wrote in an introduction. The Holocaust gives young people the chance to vicariously brave danger and do the right thing. It’s heartwarming. But should we really be always be looking to the Holocaust to warm our hearts?
The impulse to find lessons in the Holocaust is natural and almost unavoidable. We're meaning-making creatures, and the Holocaust was so huge and so terrible that we feel like it must have some sort of moral takeaway, some nugget of truth we can pass on to our children. Even the much-repeated mantra “Never forget” suggests that the Holocaust has some use. If we keep the camps in mind, we hope, it will help us to make better choices, or at least enable us to defend ourselves against similar threats.
Ruth Klüger, a Holocaust survivor, rejects this logic in her memoir Eline Jugend, or Still Alive (1992). “Auschwitz was no instructional institution…” she writes. “You learned nothing there, and least of all humanity and tolerance. Absolutely nothing good came out of the concentration camps…They were the most useless, pointless establishments imaginable. That is the one thing to remember about them if you know nothing else.”
Similarly, survivor Alain Rensais’ documentary Night and Fog (1956) treats the Holocaust as a horrible, bemusing puzzle, a bleak, heavy lock without a key. “We survey these ruins with a heartfelt gaze, certain the old monster lies crushed beneath the rubble,” the voice over of the film muses. “We pretend to regain hope as the image recedes, as though we’ve been cured of the plague of the camps.”
As Resnais says, much discussion of the Holocaust seems designed to provide a cure, or offer some sort of world-historical closure. The Holocaust was terrible—but Israel rose up, and (the Christian) God is great. The Holocaust was terrible—but some people saved some victims, and children can learn valuable lessons from that. It was terrible but—it’s done now, and we've learned from it, and we’re moving on. Isn’t that inspiring?
The answer, again, is no. The Holocaust was not inspiring. The people murdered by Hitler did not die to advance some greater cause, or to teach us courage. Remembering the Holocaust is a moral imperative, because to forget evil is to collaborate with evildoers. But while memory is a necessity, it’s not clear it protects us. There have been other genocides since Hitler’s. Trump flirts with anti-Semitism and fascist demagoguery while his Vice-President dragoons Holocaust dead for his own political purposes. Evil people still take inspiration from the Nazis; they marched in Charlottesvile and murdered yet another woman there. Hitler’s been dead for 70 years, but his death toll keeps mounting.
We aren’t wiser because of the Holocaust. We aren’t kinder, or braver, or more noble. Evil diminishes us—not least when, like Pence, we act as if the senseless death of millions of people somehow made the world a better place.