Pro-Palestinian activists in London (TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

October 16, 2023   6 mins

After the Holocaust, academics and others tried to make sense of the murder of six million Jews. Historians pointed to the rise of nationalism following the First World War; the dismal state of the German economy when Hitler rose to power; the dehumanising abstraction of Enlightenment rationality. Some rabbis argued that the Holocaust was a punishment from God, but they could not agree on why it was merited. Was it because the Jews of Europe sought to found a state of their own? Or because they didn’t? Others more prudently followed Wittgenstein’s observation: “That of which we cannot speak, we must consign to silence.”

Many historical and societal factors set the stage for the Holocaust. But none of these, individually or collectively, can explain the kind of violence to which the Nazis subjected their Jewish victims.

Jewish children and babies were, for a time, thrown alive into fire pits at Auschwitz. It has been calculated that, in this manner, the SS saved approximately two-fifths of a cent per child on Zyklon-B, the insecticide they used in the gas chambers. Were the children burned alive to save money? It would be obscene to suppose that economy explains such a horrific method of murder. The same holds for sealing people in a boxcar for as much as a week without telling them to bring water and food, neither of which the Nazis provided. Or sewing twins together back-to-back, as Dr Mengele once did at Auschwitz. (Gangrene immediately set in and they died in three days.)

In fact, nothing could explain such abominations. Primo Levi’s distinction between “useful” and “useless” violence makes this clear. Useful violence has an aim outside itself. A thief kills a witness to a crime in order to avoid capture. The victim would otherwise have been unmolested, but was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such violence is evil, but useful in that it serves a purpose outside of itself. The thief might say: “I never wanted to hurt anybody, but then she came out of the back.” Perhaps he really is just unusually callous and stupid; he didn’t go looking for evil, but he found it. This explanation makes some sense, but does not excuse: the thief is going to prison for homicide, and rightly so.

Useless violence, however, is the deliberate production of pain and suffering as an end in itself. There is nothing apart from the violence to which one could point and say “that’s why they did these things”. The sole aim of useless violence is to torture, to inflict as much pain and suffering as possible. It is not evil, but Evil.

Evil (with a capital E) defies explanation, which is why it is often called “senseless”. Evil is done for its own sake, and in this it mirrors, like a photographic negative, the senseless kindness of Good. In his novel Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman writes of a Soviet woman who, prepared to strangle a wounded German soldier who had participated in deadly reprisals against her village, instead gave him water. “No one could understand [her action]; nor could she explain it herself.” That spontaneous and inexplicable act of kindness — kindness for its own sake — was Good.

Theologians have long understood Evil as an absence or privation: complete separation from God. But while mere absence is inert, Evil is as potent and contagious as certain deadly viruses. It can fill entire social classes and ethnic or religious groups with bloodlust, and drive them to frenzies of violence. Organised and routinised by the State, Evil can even give rise to an entire industry of death. The power that produced the labour, transit, concentration, and death camps of Nazi Germany was evidently substantial and virulent.

Still, the theologians have discerned something important about the negative capacity of Evil. Evil has a way of disabling moral receptivity and short-circuiting intelligence. Examples abound in Claude Lanzmann’s brave film Shoah, a 9.5-hour documentary that records the testimony of perpetrators, survivors, and witnesses of the Holocaust.

Consider Frans Suchomel, SS UnterscharfĂŒhrer at Treblinka, a death camp where 800,000 Jews were murdered. Suchomel embodies pure superficiality: a human outside with no inside. He is secretly filmed by a van outside his apartment building. The technology Lanzmann employs generates a grainy image in which faulty video transmission or reception obscures Suchomel’s eyes with a black line, as if to emphasise his moral blindness. He sings a song that the doomed “worker Jews” of Treblinka were forced to sing as they dealt with a noxious liquid pool of decomposing corpses. The song’s message is that the human lot, the lot of Germans and Jews alike, is determined by forces that we can neither fully understand nor control. When he finishes, he says to Lanzmann with obvious pride: “Satisfied? No Jew knows that today!”

Consider also Mrs Michelsohn, the wife of a Nazi schoolteacher at Chelmno, where 400,000 Jews were murdered in mobile gas vans. (These vans were outfitted with a pipe that fed exhaust fumes into the sealed interior of the vans, which were driven until the Jews packed within were asphyxiated.) Michelsohn cannot recall how many Jews died in Chelmno; she remembers only that the number began with a four. At one point she confuses Poles and Jews. Asked by Lanzmann what the difference is between the two, she says: “The Poles weren’t exterminated and the Jews were. That’s the difference. An external difference.” But she “can’t assess” the “inner difference,” for “I don’t know enough about psychology and anthropology”.

Today, the world is still full of wilfully blind Suchomels and obtuse Michelsohns, callous perpetrators and complicit witnesses who see no Evil and hide behind a veneer of intellectual abstraction. Lanzmann’s words about the making of Shoah ring true: “The worst moral and artistic crime that can be committed in producing a work dedicated to the Holocaust is to consider the Holocaust as past.”

When they invaded Israel on October 7, Hamas terrorists beat, robbed, raped, kidnapped, and executed Jewish men, women and children. They also burned families alive, shot babies in the head, and decapitated them. Such horrific crimes hadn’t been perpetrated against Jews since the Holocaust. Yet politicians and university presidents who were previously quick to comment on issues of social justice have little or nothing to say about mass slaughter in Israel, while more than a few students and professors have applauded Hamas’s atrocities and assaulted Jewish students.

Hamas, whose hateful ideology was directly influenced by Nazism, has claimed that the brutal murder of Jewish children and babies in Israel was perpetrated by enraged civilians from Gaza. In fact, documents recovered from Hamas terrorists killed in southern Israel show “detailed plans to target children and young people”. Hamas’s supporters cite “facts” that are supposed to justify the terrorists’ vile deeds, including the seizure of Palestinian land in the 1948 War of Independence, when the Jews of the new nation of Israel fought the armies of five invading Arab nations. But there can be no justification of Hamas’s atrocities, not even in principle. They are so vile as to fall beyond the realm of explanation, let alone excuse. History teaches us at least this much.

In other words, Hamas’s vicious deeds were Evil. They exemplified useless violence, for they were designed to make their victims — Israelis, and insofar as possible, all Jews — suffer in the cruellest possible way. This must be understood, because the organs of supposedly judicious opinion are already explaining that Israel’s military response to Hamas must not be “disproportionate”. We’ve seen this movie ad nauseam: it plays on an endless loop. Israelis are murdered in terrorist attacks, and then they are denounced for taking concrete steps to protect themselves.

There is something absurd about the demand that Israel exercise proportionality in the face of Evil. As Douglas Murray has observed, that would mean that “Israel should try to locate a music festival in Gaza and rape precisely the number of women that Hamas raped
 kill precisely the number of young people that Hamas killed.
 [They should] go door to door and kill precisely the correct number of babies that Hamas killed.”

The revulsion this suggestion elicits in decent human beings underscores the literal impossibility of reckoning with Evil. If Good is transcendent, Evil is negatively transcendent, exceeding measurement as it exceeds explanation. To try to measure or explain either Good or Evil is like trying to capture mathematical infinity in a finite sequence of numerals. It simply can’t be done.

We must not forget this when we hear “reasonable” people at the UN, The New York Times or the US State Department urge Israel not to go too far in its attempt to eradicate Hamas, or when they condemn the country — as is inevitable — for having done so. Such judgments pose as clarity, but are in fact moral and intellectual obfuscation. They can only encourage antisemites everywhere, and give Hezbollah and other agents of Iran’s theological tyranny a pretext for opening up more fronts in their effort to effect a Final Solution: to finish, once and for all, the work of the Holocaust.

Indeed, Hamas and its Islamist allies are counting on exactly this. They have set a trap for Israel, baited by their Evil. They want the IDF to grind Gaza to a pulp. They hope that publicising images of suffering in Gaza (including fake ones, if past performance is any indication) will stimulate world outcry and justify a wider war — one that Israel may not be able to win. This violence might seem to be “useful”, but if so, it is useful only in the cause of Evil.

If we are to speak of Evil at all — and now is no time for decent people to be silent — we cannot rely on ordinary frameworks of evaluation. The only language that can hope to do justice to Evil is theological. Perhaps all that can be said of Hamas and the worldwide gang of Islamists is that their crimes and plans are Satanic: absolutely and completely demonic.

Jacob Howland is Provost and Director of the Intellectual Foundations Program at UATX, commonly known as the University of Austin. His latest book is Glaucon’s Fate: History, Myth, and Character in Plato’s Republic (Paul Dry Books, 2018).