On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we are urged to memorialize the millions who suffered and died in the Nazi concentration camps. The purpose is not merely to pay tribute to the victims, but to learn what made an evil of such magnitude possible–and to prevent it from ever happening again.
Yet this is precisely what we have failed to learn. The rise of Nazism is often attributed to such non-fundamental factors as the resentment produced by the Versailles Treaty or the despair generated by the Great Depression. Or, if we are given a fundamental, ideological explanation, we are told that the Germans had embraced too much capitalism and individualism.
The actual cause of Nazism was ideological–but exactly the opposite ideology. Nazism flourished because of its ethics of self-abnegation and self-sacrifice. Hitler himself stated the moral foundations of Nazism:
“It is thus necessary that the individual should finally come to realize that his own ego is of no importance. . . . This state of mind, which subordinates the interests of the ego to the conservation of the community, is really the first premise for every truly human culture. . . . The basic attitude from which such activity arises, we call–to distinguish it from egoism and selfishness–idealism. By this we understand only the individual’s capacity to make sacrifices for the community, for his fellow men.”
Historians usually dismiss such statements. The idea that self-sacrifice is synonymous with virtue is too uncontroversial for them to connect to Nazism. Thus, such pronouncements are usually regarded as mere window dressing to disguise the Nazis’ true agenda.
But what if this view is wrong? What if it was precisely the Nazis’ most virtuous-sounding slogans that unleashed their evil on the world?
Consider the full, logical meaning of altruistic self-sacrifice. It means, not benevolence toward others, but servitude. If sacrifice to others is the essence of virtue, how can anyone be allowed to pursue his own goals and happiness? If the community needs money, it is the individual’s duty to sacrifice his earnings. If society decides that certain ideas are dangerous, it is the individual’s duty to sacrifice his beliefs. And if the nation decrees that certain individuals are dangerous, then they must be sacrificed. The needs of the collective, not the interests and the rights of the individual, become the standard of right and wrong.
Under such a philosophy, no one can complain when the Nazis freeze workers’ wages–the nation needs less costly tanks. No one can speak out when Hitler arrests his political opponents–the nation needs greater unity. And no one can resist when the Jews are tortured and murdered–the nation needs Aryan purity. As Leonard Peikoff writes in The Ominous Parallels–a study of the philosophic similarities between America today and pre-Nazi Germany: “The opponents of Nazism were disarmed; since they equated selflessness with virtue, they could not avoid conceding that Nazism, however misguided, was a form of moral idealism.”
Most people avoid these stark implications by retreating to a compromise between self-sacrifice and self-interest. Calls for sacrifice are proper, they say, but should not be taken “too far.” The Fascists condemned this approach as hypocrisy. They took the morality of sacrifice to its logical conclusion. They insisted, in the words of Italian Fascist Alfredo Rocco, on “the necessity, for which the older doctrines make little allowance, of sacrifice, even up to the total immolation of individuals.”
And the Nazis certainly practiced what Rocco preached. A central goal of the concentration camps, wrote survivor Bruno Bettelheim, was “to break the prisoners as individuals, and to change them into a docile mass.” “There are to be no more private Germans,” one Nazi writer declared; “each is to attain significance only by his service to the state.” The goal of National Socialism was the relentless sacrifice of the individual: the sacrifice of his mind, his independence, and ultimately his person.
A free country is based on precisely the opposite principle. To protect against what they called the “tyranny of the majority,” America’s Founding Fathers upheld the individual’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The implicit basis of American government was an ethics of individualism–the view that the individual is not subordinate to the collective, that he has a moral right to his own interests, and that all rational people benefit under such a system.
Today, however, self-sacrifice is regarded as self-evidently good. True, most people do not want a pure, consistent system of sacrifice, as practiced by the Nazis. But once the principle is accepted, no amount of this “virtue” can ever be condemned as “too much.”
We will not have learned the lessons of the Holocaust until we completely reject this sacrifice-worship and rediscover the morality of individualism.