The Hollowness of Holocaust Remembrance
Hitler to Hamas, Eugenics to Equitism
On this, the 79th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Holocaust Remembrance industry stands as a colossal failure. Holocaust Remembrance Day, it turns out, successfully transfixed eyes on the rear-view mirror and diverted attention from the dangers 10 feet in front of us. And, truth be told, the rear-view mirror is growing a bit foggy, as well. Less than a century ago, the leading intellectuals of Germany—the most highly educated nation on earth—initiated, participated in, or acquiesced to mass murder on a previously unimaginable scale. And only weeks ago, intellectuals in America, Europe, and elsewhere waxed lyrical over the rape, torture, mutilation, murder, beheading, and kidnapping of innocent Jews.
An important parallel underlies both historical episodes. Both Hitler and Hamas were the cancerous outgrowths of respectable and sometimes altruistic intellectual movements that saw individuals as nothing more than avatars of demographic groups, defined by immutable characteristics. At my own Substack, Bastiat’s Window, I’ve written of this in “The Briar and the Rose,” “Intellectual Tyrants Beget True Believers,” and “Zola, Weiss, and J'Accuse...! 2023.”
A century ago, eugenics provided the unquestioned and unquestionable foundation for academic writing and public policy. Eugenics preached a world of predestination, where an individual’s worth was irrevocably determined at birth by race, religion, gender, sexuality, disability, economic status, and family history. No one could escape his or her essentialist destiny by dint of action, accomplishment, or character. Eugenics began as parlor conversation among well-born, well-educated, often well-meaning British academics. Then, it jumped the Atlantic and gave rise to a sexual sterilization machine in America—enabled by a debauched Supreme Court. Finally, it leaped back to Europe, where it metastasized into the Holocaust.
In our time, the equivalent academic tendency is one that travels under many names—diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); critical race theory (CRT); antiracism; white fragility; intersectionality; social justice; anticolonialism; social and emotional learning; progressivism; safetyism; critical social justice; identity Marxism; and (primarily to its denigrators) “wokeness.” The central connective tenet in all of this is something called “equity”—which does not in any way resemble any traditional definition of the word.
A note on nomenclature: “equitism”
Writers like Thomas Klingenstein on the right, Freddie DeBoer on the left, and Bari Weiss in the center decry the lack of a consistent name for this intellectual and activist movement. I use the term “equitism” here and suggest it to others. Unlike “equity,” “equitism” offers no ambiguity of meaning. Unlike, say “the equity agenda,” “equitism” is a single word. Advocates of this philosophy often present “equity” as a substitute for “equality,” so “equitism” is parallel to “egalitarianism.” Unlike “woke,” “equitism” is not an insult or pejorative, and the web shows that a few advocates have used the term to describe themselves. I’ll use the term below for simplicity and clarity.
Equitism as echo of eugenics
Like eugenics a century earlier, equitism presumes that demography is destiny, with some demographic groups imperiled by the immutable malignities of other groups. This often manifests itself as a Manichaean “oppressor/oppressed” dichotomy across demographic categories. Intersectionality and other frameworks array groups along a spectrum between these polar opposites. In its most extreme manifestation, this weltanschauung justifies horrific punishment of perceived “oppressors.” Hence, the pro-Hamas marchers proclaiming “by any means necessary”—which presumably includes baking babies to death in ovens, tying parents to children and immolating them together, raping young girls till their pelvises shatter, beheading children in front of their parents, and visiting all manner of depravities upon elderly Holocaust survivors—as long as they are Israelis and Israelis are classified as oppressors.
Clearly, those Western professors celebrating Hamas have not absorbed whatever lessons that Holocaust Museums were designed to impart. To name one category of protestors, LGBTQ+ Jews marching for Hamas seem not to understand the message of Martin Niemöller. The most enthusiastic practitioners of Holocaust Remembrance, unfortunately, seem to be the members of Hamas, who learned the lessons of those years all too well. It should noted that David Patterson’s 2022 scholarly work, Judaism, Antisemitism, and Holocaust: Making the Connections, documents Hamas’s literal organizational and philosophical links to Hitler’s Nazis.
The central feature of both the Holocaust and of Hamas’s slaughter is that once one abandons the sanctity of individuals and considers only the presumed virtues and vices of demographic groups, one is free to attack those deemed unvirtuous in any way.
Furthermore, equitism, like eugenics, can anesthetize those who do not share the murderous intentions of the Nazis or Hamas. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has been open for 31 years, but its mission clearly failed to educate the Ivy League presidents who hemmed and hawed and equivocated over questions of whether calls for genocide against Jews qualified as protected speech on the same campuses where subjectively discerned microaggressions or misuse of preferred pronouns are grounds for ostracism and punishment.
Who wants to contradict something called “social justice” or “diversity” or “equity?” The anesthetic effect seems to have impacted even the Holocaust museums themselves. At Commentary magazine, Seth Mandel asked, “Why Are Holocaust Museums Cowering in Silence?”
Corrosion begins in microscopic proportions
The most important lesson for Holocaust Remembrance comes from Dr. Leo Alexander’s simple, chilling statement that “corrosion begins in microscopic proportions.” Alexander, an American psychiatrist, neurologist, educator, and author, of Austrian-Jewish origin, was a key medical advisor during the Nuremberg Trials. He wrote part of the Nuremberg Code, which provides legal and ethical principles for scientific experiment on humans, and discovered that German doctors didn’t fail to stop the Nazis’ program of genocide and barbaric medical experimentation. Rather, he discovered they didn’t do more to stop the horrors because they were instrumental in initiating them. In a 2018 article on this subject, I argued that:
German doctors enthusiastically volunteered for [service] to, and leadership within, the Third Reich. Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess declared Nazism ‘nothing but applied biology,’ and many German doctors apparently agreed.” Collectively, they decided that medicine’s primary purpose was to build “an economically productive populace,” a concept that “opened the floodgates for atrocities.”
By contrast, Alexander found that Dutch physicians following the Nazi conquest of the Netherlands, unanimously rejected this assumption and viewed their role as healing and comforting the sick and dying. Even when threatened with punishment and death, “humility assured that no Dutch doctors participated in the Holocaust.
German doctors, besotted with eugenics, gladly segmented society by ethnicity, by disabilities, by sexuality, and so forth. And once they began thinking of groups (e.g., productive versus nonproductive races), rather than of individuals, then they were free to commit atrocities in good conscience—or at least to acquiesce in the atrocities committed by others. The same dynamic plays out today on the campuses of America or the streets of London and Paris and Sydney.
Alexander’s work is described in James A. Maccaro’s brief 1997 article “From Small Beginnings: The Road to Genocide.” Alexander’s full paper is his 1948 New England Journal of Medicine report on “Medical Science Under Dictatorship.” A century ago, the oxidants that began society’s corrosion lay in eugenics. Today, the oxidants lie in equitism.
In the early 20th century, eugenics was almost universally accepted by academicians, politicians, doctors, the general public, and celebrities. Opposing eugenics put one’s career and friendships in peril. One of the few public intellectuals to oppose this madness was the British writer G. K. Chesterton, author of Eugenics and Other Evils (1922). Chesterton understood better than anyone that evil comes most often not from evil people, but rather from good people with unmoored ethics. In 1908, he wrote:
The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.
Holocaust Remembrance Day is a worthy project, but not if it is solely backward-looking. Looking for Nazis in 2024 is a futile endeavor. Scanning the horizon in front of us for those with parallel intent is far more urgent and challenging.
As goes the aphorism, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
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