The Holocaust has commonly been conceived of as a revolt against reason, the ultimate example of the “irrational,” designed and executed by the pathologically insane. But if reason was the object of the revolt, it was also the chief ally, a dialectic so monstrously rational that it could override all the traditional bounds of morality.

The Holocaust was not so much the overthrow of reason as its triumph over morality. It allowed a scientific ultrarationality—what Hitler called “ice cold logic”—to provide murder with rational justification.

—William Tucker, The Science and Politics of Racial Research

From that self-same nation which was the most advanced in science and in ethics came the ultimate acts of inhumanity—to the point that no one was able to believe that human beings were capable of such behavior. The cause? Because their intellect was not based on the foundation and base of all things, which is the knowledge that “there is a Master to this mansion”—the Creator of the world and its Director.

—The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson1

At his essence, the human being senses something sacred about life—both his own and that of others. Yet the human being is also a social being, and as such will quite eagerly cast away his identity upon the pyre of the whole. In that offering, he sacrifices not only the sacredness of his own self, but yet more readily, that of those who stand outside his own tribe.

At no time in history did this struggle between the individual and the community culminate as ferociously and as consummately as in the 20th century: from the rise of fascism, the racial cleansing program of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, and up to the American civil rights movement which followed in its wake. What is left for us is to pick up the pieces, examine them well, and ask ourselves with all earnestness: Are we capable of producing and preserving a society in which every individual life is sacred, for now and for eternity?

Can a world be built on human reason alone? Or must we accept the sanctity of life as unquestionable dogma?

And yet more practically: Can such a world be built upon human reason alone? Or must we simply accept the sanctity of life as an unquestionable dogma, a pivot point with which no one must tamper?

The Birth of Human Dignity

It was during the European awakening of the 17th century, when the values that enabled our current global society were just beginning to rub their eyes, that the dignity of human life was first stretching its arms. At the center of the debate sat the Hebrew Bible.

It may seem odd, but for the gentile world, the Hebrew Bible was somewhat of a novelty in those days. It had only recently been translated to the vernacular, and only recently had learned men begun to look at it as a source of political ideals. In the foundation works of Locke, Hobbes, Harrington, Selden, Grotius, Cuneaus, Leibniz and other luminaries of the period, the Hebrew Bible is by far the most cited of any work—generally more cited than all other writings together.2

These were times of great social upheaval, of history’s first regicide (Charles I of England) and of attempts to govern nations without kings (both in England and in the Netherlands). The conflict between “the divine right of kings” and what later became known as human rights was at its apex. It was a century we still know today for its wealth of brilliant and novel thinkers. And what screamed out to those great minds from the ancient Hebrew text was just ripe for the picking:

There they found affirmation that each human being bears the divine image of his Maker, so that the murder or oppression of any one of them is an assault against G‑d. That the midwives of Egypt are rewarded by G‑d for disobeying the cruel command of their king. That G‑d’s nation was formed by all the people—not the king alone—entering into a covenant with G‑d. Each man has divine right to his property. That the pauper cries out and G‑d Himself takes heed. Even the king stands beneath the law. The king is the servant of the people. All are equal before the law. Even a king can be tried and punished by the law—which they duly performed.

Many of those most charged by these revelations were eventually forced to leave their land. They traveled across the sea and planted their ideals on soil where tyrants had never trod. Eventually, as they declared their independence, they included these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . .

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

Brave words, but puzzling. The sentence seems in conflict with itself. What is so “self-evident” about the equality of all men? And if it is self-evident, why do we require the reference to their creation by a Creator?

And indeed, a deep conflict does lie within—a conflict between two very different minds with two very different sets of values. The original draft was written by Thomas Jefferson. The words he used were “sacred and undeniable.” It was most likely Benjamin Franklin who, with heavy backslashes, crossed out that phrase for his preference of “self-evident.”3

The distinction is chasmic. That which is sacred is undeniable. That which is self-evident sits precariously in the hands of human reason, whim and desire. That which is sacred is undeniable. That which is self-evident sits precariously in the hands of human reason, whim and desire. The sanctity of life had only just been incorporated into the nation’s embryonic fiber, and immediately it was given over to the surgeon’s scalpel.

John Locke, Jefferson’s most favored philosopher, was keenly aware of the danger. In a note scribbled to himself, in eerie prescience of the centuries to come, Locke had observed:

If man were independent, he could have no law but his own will, no end but himself. He would be a god to himself and the satisfaction of his own will the whole measure and end of all his actions.

But Franklin was more impressed by his Scottish friend David Hume. For Hume, reason trumped all. Which seems quite reasonable. But, as the history of the coming centuries was to demonstrate, reason and human reason are not necessarily synonymous.

Across the Atlantic, where the sacred was synonymous with the despised dogma of the established church of the crown, human reason had already rejected the notions upon which Jefferson’s sacredness was founded. Voltaire, the great humanist and cynic, could not have put it more plainly:

It is a serious question among them whether the Africans are descended from monkeys or whether the monkeys come from them. Our wise men have said that man was created in the image of God. Now here is a lovely image of the Divine Maker: a flat and black nose with little or hardly any intelligence.4

Humankind was already too smart for its Creator.

Some Less Equal Than Others

In the New World, the first test of the equality of all humankind was, of course, slavery.5 Eighteenth-century colonial slavery was quite probably the most brutal slavery in history. In England, William Wilberforce, a devout Quaker, fought with perseverance to outlaw the slave trade throughout the British Empire. Yet, in America, all the fathers of the revolution themselves had slaves. The abolitionists pursued their cause on both religious grounds and by reference to the Declaration of Independence. Yet the agrarian South could not afford to give up their slaves, and the industrializing North could not imagine treating these people as equals.

The human mind cannot live with cognitive dissonance too long, and so an exception had to be made. It was determined self-evident that Negroes had not been created quite as equal as others. In case there was any doubt of the definition of “self-evident,” a vocal pro-slavery activist succinctly provided it. “If this indeed not be true,” he proclaimed, “American slavery is a monstrous wickedness!”6

In the century following the revolution, science rushed to the rescue of ethical integrity in the form of Social Darwinism. Scientific measurements were made of skulls from every part of the globe, the results tallied and published, and the conclusions accepted by all men of science: Negroes were not of the same race as their masters. If they were, they were not “at the same stage of evolution.” It now became self-evident, scientists claimed, that some men were less evolved than others. And if so, less equal than others.

And so, the self-evident trumped the sacred once again.

By the 20th century, the focus of such studies turned from the blacks who already inhabited America to the Europeans bursting through its golden gates. Again, scientific reasoning was rolled out to the battlefront. Psychologists and social scientists rushed forward for the job, eager for the opportunity to finally win for their disciplines some respect as real, hard sciences.

In a progressive world, they declared, science must replace religion in the measurement of human worth. Robert Yerkes, a well-known Harvard psychologist, assured the public that psychometrics had advanced sufficiently for the task. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, he declared that “man is just as measurable as is a bar of steel.”

“Indeed,” Yerkes concluded, even “the value of man could be appraised.”7

And appraised it was. Psychometric studies at Ellis Island demonstrated that 83% of Jews, 80% of Hungarians, 79% of Italians and 87% of Russians were “feebleminded”—the then-popular term for those incapable of making intelligent decisions. And feeblemindedness, the public was assured, was a hereditary trait, something that no amount of education could change.

Data in hand, men of reason launched a frontal attack against the silly notions of religion and other sentiments of the ignorant past that had indiscriminately opened the gates of America and provided education and suffrage to all. Until now, the business of eugenics and Social Darwinism was simply to provide exceptions to the rule. Now democracy itself came under scientific attack.

The Declaration of Independence was therefore to be honored in the same manner as other outmoded scientific theories—“as the dead bodies over which we have advanced.”

Who better to lead the attack than Dr. James McKeen Cattell, a prestigious American icon, the first psychologist to explore cognitive testing and to coin the term “mental test.” In his New York Times obituary, Cattel would be proclaimed the “dean of American science.” In the highly respected Scientific Monthly, of which he was founder and editor, he declared that all social and political institutions must be “based on the truths determined by science,” and “no social system, no political theory . . . can be maintained when it is not in accord with science.” The Declaration of Independence was therefore to be honored in the same manner as other outmoded scientific theories—“as the dead bodies over which we have advanced.”8

Dr. James Mckeen Cattell
Dr. James Mckeen Cattell

What were the new truths determined by science? That intelligence, moral character and the potential within an individual to contribute to society were determined from birth, principally according to race, and that it was as futile to expect to change such matters through education as it was to transform a brunet into a blond. Hardly a voice in the scientific or intellectual community protested. G. K. Chesterton stood out as a lone outspoken voice, taking great exception with his good friend, George Bernard Shaw. But his dissent was based principally on his religious moral values. In America, the only voices of protest to be heard from the academic world were those who had a “self-interest”—in other words, Jews.

The Great Race

Pumping through America’s veins at the time was Madison Grant’s popular work of 1916, The Passing of the Great Race. Grant was perhaps the earliest conservationist—he has been called “the greatest conservationist who ever lived,” founding the Bronx Zoo and its parent, the New York Zoological Society. He fought alongside Theodore Roosevelt to preserve the California redwoods and American bison. Yet he is little mentioned today by scientists, who are rightly ashamed of his more execrable contributions. Not satisfied with the preservation of animal species, Grant was also concerned with preservation of the racial purity of America.

It was Madison Grant who first classed the Caucasian race itself into three categories:

  1. Nordics, the “great race” of blond-haired, blue-eyed giants.
  2. Alpines, who dominated much of Central and Eastern Europe into Asia.
  3. Mediterraneans.

America was a great country, Grant explained, because it was principally Nordic. But the Nordic peoples of Europe had been polluted by miscegenation (interbreeding) with the other two far inferior sub-races. Germany, for example, had been totally brutalized in the hands of Alpine peasants following the Thirty Years War, and only recently had the Nordic aristocracy begun to reassert itself there. But America was now in great danger, with the increasing influx of “worthless” race types.

The solution? Strict immigration quotas, sterilization of the feebleminded, and ghettos for non-Nordics, along with restrictions of intermarriage with them.

The Passing of the Great Race reads to us today as absurd charlatanry—shamanism or astrology appear as pure sciences in comparison. Which makes it all the more stunning to discover how widely accredited it was by major scientists of its time. The introduction was written by no less than Henry Fairfield Osborn of American Museum of Natural History fame, one of America’s most influential paleontologists and geologists. Yes, there were critical reviews—but, as one scientist put it, “only in non-scientific journals” (and by those “self-interested” types again). The Yale Review summarized Grant’s “lesson in biology” succinctly, warning America of the dangers of its “fetishes of equality, democracy and universal education,” concluding that “we must drastically revise our immigration policy.” America had outmoded its own principles.

It wasn’t long, and Grant was granted all his three wishes. Legislation for compulsory sterilization had already been passed in some states and was now accelerated, so that between the years 1907 to 1963, over 64,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized—predominantly aboriginals, blacks and immigrants. The last forced sterilization in America was performed in 1983. From 1913 to 1948, thirty states of the Union enforced anti-miscegenation laws.

And in 1924, after extensive testimony from geneticists and social scientists, Congress shut the golden gates of Ellis Island to “the tired, the poor and the huddled masses” with quota restrictions directly parallel to Grant’s recommendations. The American eugenicists even had their opportunity to contribute directly to the Nazi cause: In 1939, when almost a thousand German Jews waited offshore for their redemption in the land of liberty, Harry Laughlin, secretary to the Eugenics Society, testified before Congress that these quotas should be reduced by 60%, and even recommended that some immigrants who had attained citizenship be denaturalized and deported. The ship returned its load to the land of the Final Solution.

Passengers of the SS St. Louis
Passengers of the SS St. Louis

Back To Europe

As America was retreating from its foundation values, much of European society was experiencing its own form of social regression. As technology hurtled humanity into frontiers previously unimaginable, as cities grew and commerce bustled, the aristocracy as well as the masses craved for a return to the order and authority lost with the demise of feudalism. In Europe, it was much easier to promote the notion that the good of society overrides the rights of the individual.

Prussian culture, in particular, was drawn to such notions. In 1904, Ernst Haeckel, one of Germany’s most influential biologists, openly advocated the destruction of sickly newborn infants and the elimination through some painless and rapid poison of those “utterly useless lives” that served only to burden society. In the same year, the Society for Racial Hygiene was formed, quickly establishing itself as one of Germany’s most prestigious organizations, including in its membership some of the land’s most distinguished scientists and physicians.

Grant’s book was acknowledged by Hitler to be “his Bible,” in a fan letter written personally to Grant to thank him.

Yet it was not until the rise of the Third Reich that American social science found itself put to practical use on European soil. Grant’s book was acknowledged by Hitler to be “his Bible,” in a fan letter written personally to Grant to thank him. Hans Gunther, a social anthropologist, had translated the work and from it founded the scientific basis for Nazi racial theory.

National Socialism found the old model of medical care, by which a doctor was principally concerned with the individual welfare of his patient, to be unscientific. The more scientifically enlightened view of the land that had given the world its greatest advances in science was that medicine’s prime purpose was for the betterment of the genetic health of the people as a whole—which would of course necessitate the denial of medical assistance, and even of the right to life, to certain individuals. By some scientists’ estimates, those to be denied accounted for about a third of the population.

The 1929 study of Gosney and Popenoe, two highly influential American physicians, Sterilization for Human Betterment: A Summary of Results of 6,000 Operations in California, was widely cited by the Nazi government as evidence that wide-reaching sterilization programs were feasible and humane. Popenoe himself reviewed the Nazi sterilization program and, quoting widely from Mein Kampf, judged it to be “a policy that will accord with the best thought of eugenicists in all civilized countries.” After the war, in the Nuremberg trials, doctors cited the American programs as the inspiration for their own.

German photo of Paul Popenoe showing a couple a pedigree of "Black People of Artistic Ability."
German photo of Paul Popenoe showing a couple a pedigree of "Black People of Artistic Ability."

Sterilization was far more rapid in Germany than in America—over 40,000 within the first year. Yet this, too, was not fast enough, considering the huge drain of the useless parasites on scarce German resources. A euthanasia program was established, beginning at first with children below the age of three, eventually increased to age seventeen. The list of illnesses that qualified a candidate also grew, including such problems as bed-wetting and difficulties in education.

Murder, Humanitarian Style

The truth that stares us coldly in the face, the truth we all wish desperately to ignore, is that the worst horrors of Nazism were not only rationalized, but licensed and fueled by that land’s devotion to an ethics of reason. Germany was not Sudan or Uganda. It was a land where—as Hannah Arendt noted—even such a half-wit as Adolf Eichmann could quote and elaborate on the Kantian moral imperative with utmost clarity. It was a land that, more than any other nation, from Luther to Kant to Nietzche to Heidegger to the brothers Grimm, had succeeded in calibrating with the precision of German craftsmanship what is right and what is wrong. And it was that tool, more than any German technology, that enabled good men and women to commit the most horrid crimes against humanity.

Konrad Lorenz
Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz was an animal lover from youth, who was later called “the father of ethology” (the study of animal behavior)—and awarded a Nobel Prize for his work. Reading his works, one is struck by his sensitivity and depth of character. After the war, he was well-known for his environmental activism. Before and during the war, however, he was a member of the Nazi party. In a 1940 essay, he provided perhaps the most eloquent analogy for the implementation of “drastic” racial cleansing:

On the one hand, bodies with a cancerous tumor, on the other hand, a people with unfit individuals among them. Just as in cancer . . . the best treatment is the earliest possible recognition and eradication of the growth as quickly as possible, the racial-hygienic defense against genetically afflicted elements must be restricted to measures equally drastic.

In his autobiography, Lorenz was to rationalize his support and that of his colleagues with equal elegance—conveniently sidestepping that “drastic” word: “None of us as much as suspected that the word ‘selection,’ when used by these rulers, meant murder.”

The words seem almost farcical, yet Lorenz speaks earnestly for himself and many of his colleagues. In his classic work, The Nazi Doctors, Robert Lifton discusses the idealism and dedication of many of those who participated in the euthanasia program. It was not a spirit of cruelty, certainly not irrationality, that drove these men, he writes, but on the contrary, “an embrace, even a worship of scientific-medical rationality.”

Albert Schweitzer
Albert Schweitzer

Karl Brandt, for example, was Hitler’s personal doctor and director of the euthanasia programs. Yet the führer was only the second role model in his life. Albert Schweitzer, the German missionary who had made a religion of “reverence for life” and who had left his comfortable home to provide medical care in the Congo, had been his first.

Along with Dr. Brandt, Germany never forswore the spirit of Albert Schweitzer. Rather, it reasoned that such reverence must be even greater for the health of humanity as a whole—and with the same devotion and commitment to reason thereby transformed sublime morality into absolute evil.

Germany never forswore the spirit of Albert Schweitzer.

In the first chapter of his work exploring human violence, A Sign For Cain, Fredric Wertham provides one of the most thorough studies of the psychology of the Nazi doctors. One episode summarizes it all:

A special ceremony was held in one mental institution on the cremation of the ten-thousandth patient. All the staff members from the doctors to the secretaries celebrated the occasion with beer. The head of this institution, who personally opened the gas containers that killed many of the children and other patients, acknowledged being “torn” by his victims’ agony, but, he continued, “reassured to learn what eminent scientists partook in the action.”9

Neither science nor German ethics brought about the Holocaust, just as technology does not cause war. But neither were science and ethics simply willing partners. Scientists, philosophers, men of reason and high values provided the means, the rationale and the moral justification that enabled otherwise moral individuals to commit the most unspeakably immoral acts.

How We Got to Today

It was not scientific progress, but raw, human outrage that repudiated racism; not reason, but indignation at the Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht that began to turn the tide. It was only after the world saw the images of Auschwitz and Buchenwald that scientists, gradually and reluctantly, began to seek out the flaws of scientific racism. It was only after the Nuremberg trials that the “Nuremberg Code” was established, to this day the universal foundation of limitations to scientific experimentation on human subjects.

In 1948, in response to the horrors revealed through those trials, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights made Jefferson’s conviction a foundation statement for the global community, in its very first article:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

It is hard to challenge the notion that the civil rights movement in America was the most successful and influential social movement of our time. It transformed the way we look at one another and care for one another more rapidly and more thoroughly than any movement in history of which I know. It was born not in the laboratory, not in the halls of academia, but in the fiery words of preachers, citing the words of the Bible and of the Declaration of Independence, teaching their flock that “we are all G‑d’s children” and singing communal hymns comparing themselves to the Children of Israel leaving Egypt-land. Its leaders were not scientists, not professors, but deeply religious black Baptists and indignant post-Holocaust Jews.

Martin Luther King with Abraham Joshua Heschel
Martin Luther King with Abraham Joshua Heschel

There was nothing ever self-evident about human equality or the reverence of life. Those two words were a fallacy from the moment they were scribbled above those deep slashes. What’s most self-evident is how different we all are. Today our amazing world of seven billion human beings sharing a single planet is possible only due to those who consider these values sacred and undeniable—despite those differences. And that is how it must be. Life must be held sacred, beyond reason.

What Have We Learned?

Upon the stage of history play out the most inner concerns of the human psyche: Am I really here as a person, or am I just another cog in a great wheel? Do I have value in my own right, or only according to my contribution to the whole? Am I here only to serve the greater good of everyone else, or is society here to provide the garden in which I can flourish? Perhaps all of humankind’s great story can be read as this struggle between the human and humanity; between the dignity of the individual and the triumph of institutions over the dignity of those that form them.

Ethics crumbles when held within man’s grasp—the tighter the grasp, the more devastating the disintegration

In the last century, there were men and women who believed that these questions were to be resolved by science—and it was to their voice that both the lawmakers and the masses hearkened. Today it should be blatantly apparent to all that ethics cannot be observed in a laboratory, measured with a caliper or weighed in a scale. Neither can the human being establish his own boundaries through his own self-accounting. We did not give life, and we are not capable of measuring its worth. The lesson goes much further: We have seen firsthand how ethics crumbles when held within man’s grasp—the tighter the grasp, the more devastating the disintegration. The knowledge of ethics must derive from an entirely different plane. It must be established from an authority far beyond human subjectivity.

Many social scientists, political theorists, psychologists, biologists, and even educators have rationalized the tradeoff of individual rights for the benefit of society. I have yet to find a single humanist rationale that will place any single individual’s right to life above the survival of the collective whole—as Talmudic law asserts. Yet there is an empirical one, for which the last century serves well as a laboratory. From that century we learned all too well that the society that wages war against the divine image of G‑d within man wages war against itself, while the society that cherishes that G‑dliness thrives.

True, humanity cannot be expected to accept, no matter on what higher authority, that which does not appeal in some way to its own reason and experience. The tenet that all human life is sacred has these advantages. It is given to us as a divine edict. Yet, additionally, it resonates universally with the innate moral sense of human beings. And it has been demonstrated to us, particularly in the horrors of the history we yet struggle to leave behind, that this is the vital bedrock upon which a sustainable world must rest, a world in which each one of us can flourish and live our lives in harmony, building together a world of peace.