The mass murder of Jews in Europe began in 1933 and ended in 1945 when its malevolent mastermind, Adolph Hitler, went to meet his maker. It is commonly reported that some six million Jews were murdered in Der Fuhrer’s democide. According to more recent research however, the reach of the monster’s rage against Jews may have been considerably more extensive than previously believed.
Some thirteen years ago, the United States Holocaust Museum commenced a research project that would provide a record of Hitler’s ghettos, concentration camps, slave labor locations and killing factories all over Europe. The results set the researchers back on their heels. The scope of the evil that they uncovered was worse than they could have imagined. An account of their grisly findings was published in an article by Eric Lichtblau in the The New York Times, March 1, 2013.
According to Lichtblau, “The researchers have catalogued some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe…” The Times article went on to say, “The documented camps include not only ‘killing centers’ but also thousands of forced labor camps, where prisoners manufactured war supplies; prisoner-of-war camps; sites euphemistically named ‘care’ centers where pregnant women were forced to have abortions or their babies were killed after birth; and brothels, where women were coerced into having sex with German military personnel.”
The lead editors of this research project estimate that between 15 and 20 million people died or were imprisoned in these sites. As these camps reached full potential, Hitler and his subservient minions expanded their population to include homosexuals, Gypsies, Poles, Russians and other eastern European ethnic groups.
Writes Lichtblau, “The numbers astound: 30,000 slave labor camps, 1150 Jewish ghettos 980 concentration camps; 1000 prisoner-of-war camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions, “Germanizing” prisoners or transporting victims to killing centers.”
Those who claim there was no Holocaust are in denial of a veritable mountain of evidence. With vaunted “German efficiency,” those responsible for these horrors kept meticulous records. An archive in the German town of Bad Arolsen holds 16 miles of shelving containing 15 million pages of documents. It has only recently been opened to the public.
Hitler’s Holocaust was one of the darkest periods in human history. Under the direction of a monster in human form, armies of murderers marched across Europe raping, pillaging, torturing, starving, slaughtering and humiliating millions of hapless human beings made in the image of God. The carnage included 10 million Christians and 1900 Catholic priests.
And God didn’t stop it.
Wrestling with the Why of it all
Hitler’s Holocaust was only one of many equally horrific democides (governments killing their own people). Vast numbers of people have been murdered by Joseph Stalin of the U.S.S.R, Mao Tze Tung of Communist China, Pol Pot of Cambodia and many other nations. R.J. Rummel, the political scientist who revived and redefined the term “democide,” estimates that as many as 262 million people were murdered by their own governments in the 20th century. That’s six times as many who died in battle during the same period (Wikipedia, article “Democide.”).
The theological question of the ages is, why would an all-loving, all-powerful, God allow such unbridled cruelty and carnage? If God is all-powerful, he could do something about it. If he is all-loving, then he is morally compelled to intervene. Many learned philosophers and theologians have addressed this issue. Some have lost their faith in the process. Bart D. Ehrman, a top Evangelical scholar, is a case in point. He writes in his book God’s Problem, “If there is an all-powerful and loving God in this world, why is there so much excruciating pain and unspeakable suffering? The problem of suffering has haunted me for a very long time. It was what made me think about religion when I was young, and it was what led me to question my faith when I was older. Ultimately, it was the reason I lost my faith,” (p. 1). Ehrman spends the rest of his book explaining his personal journey from faith to unbelief.
The Jewish View
At the beginning of this article, we reviewed the latest research on that unbearably dark event known as the Holocaust. The Jews were the main recipients of Hitler’s demonic democide. They lost at least 6 million of their number – probably more. Since the close of WWII, an extensive body of “Holocaust literature” has grown up around the issue of “Why?”
When I wrestle with this most difficult of theological questions, I find I can only embrace one fundamental explanation: that God has given us free moral agency.
The numbers in these democides is not what matters; it’s the fact of them. As Oliver Leaman writes, “The only difference between the Holocaust and previous numbers lies in the size of the former, and there is little theological difference in size. The issues surrounding the death of one innocent person are the same as in the case of six million,” Evil and Suffering in Jewish Philosophy, p.191).
It is clear that that the Holocaust happened. It was a monumental moral outrage. God allowed it to happen. He could have stopped it at any point in its progression but he chose to let it play out to its end. Why did God keep hands off? “…[It] makes possible the capacity of human beings to act freely. Were God to involve himself in the evil decisions of human beings he would create a world in which injustice was impossible, but morality would be impossible too. There would be no scope for independent human action. If God hides himself for ever, though, there would be no scope for morality since the world would be infused with absence of meaning. In that case everything would be allowed.” (ibid. p. 191).
It is God’s existence and involvement with the world that gives life meaning. It is his apparent absence that enables us to see and experience the consequences of our own actions and decisions. The Holocaust didn’t have to happen. It happened because the German people elected, and served, a monster in human form. Every democide committed by every malevolent dictator that ever lived has happened because of a cascade of human choices.
The Jewish people were, and are, a witness to God’s role in history. Anti-Semites seek to destroy the Jews for this very reason. Hitler sought to supplant that role and exalt himself and the “Aryan” people. Totalitarians seek to control the totality of people’s lives. Jews and Christians often come in for persecution because their belief system puts them at odds with the ruling party. Hitler was threatened by Biblically-based religion. Modern China is threatened by “house churches” and “unauthorized” Christian meetings. Muslim-ruled nations are threatened by competing denominations of Islam, as well as by Christians and Jews. The net result of all this is persecution, humiliation, war and democide. It’s a matter of cause & effect. Everything happens for a reason.
Perhaps the painful, but mercifully short, experience of life is meant to teach us that life has consequences – and not always the ones we intend. Free choice comes with a price tag. We reap what we sew. If we allow tyrants and dictators to rule us, we will suffer oppression. The degree of suffering is determined by the evil intent of those in power – and by the degree to which we tolerate their rule. Evil must be fought. Weakness and passivity are provocations.
Today, we see a burgeoning statism. Even in our own nation, we see statists growing in power and influence. They seek to control every aspect of life – from the size of the soft drinks we purchase to the number of bullets our gun magazines may hold. The greater the power of these Big Government types, the less the power of each citizen. At some point, we may find ourselves living in an Orwellian “1984” world.
Yes, current research reveals that the Holocaust was worse than we could have imagined. Qualitatively, it was one of the greatest acts of mass evil of the last century – one of many. So long as the human race chooses to ignore the Torah (Instruction) of its Creator, and persecutes the people whom God has made a “priest to the nations,” there will be suffering and carnage.
As Paul wrote to Timothy, “Yes and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
“But evil men and imposters will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived,” (II Timothy 3:12-13).
Much of the evil in the world is directed at God’s people – whether they are Jews or Christians. Those who commit this evil justify it through the clenched teeth of hatred and envy. Irrational, fist pumping mobs wreak destruction and death wherever they go. The world of Arabs and Persians is currently building up to another explosion of Jew-hatred. At this point, we don’t know how it will play out. But we know this: it will be dark and ugly. God may or may not choose to intervene. We can only hope and pray that he will.