Why did the Holocaust take place? | The personal view of Val Ginsburg

Val in 2010, copyright Paul Banks


Val in Kaunas in 1938, aged 17

In my filmed interview I described to you how an educated, cultured and civilised nation was seduced by an evil ideology. The message is that it can happen anywhere, anytime, and it can happen here. That is why I will try to explain why and how it took place.

In 1961, the German-Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt, was sent by her American newspaper to Jerusalem, to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief organisers of the Holocaust. She looked for a psychotic or sadistic personality, but what she found was a banal, mediocre, narrow minded bureaucrat. She wrote a book about the trial entitled 'The Banality of Evil'. It was heavily criticised. She was accused of failing to convey the true nature of Nazi evil and of trivialising the Holocaust. But I believe she was right in pointing out an individual need not to be a monster in order to commit monstrous deeds. The dividing line between good and evil is a thin one and quite ordinary people can be indoctrinated or brainwashed to cross it.

Here the views of the Bulgarian philosopher Tsvetan Todoroff, might provide some explanation how certain human flaws can be exploited to condition people to cross the line into evil. He argues that due to man's  evolutionary development he is by instinct clannish, even xenophobic. He only identifies with people who share his way of life, his customs and beliefs. All the others are viewed as less than human, or even inhuman. This division of humanity into two basic categories, 'us and them' is potentially dangerous, but if it is re-enforced by an ideology, religious or secular, that rationalises that division then it becomes destructive.

The Nazis have demonstrated how this divisive 'us and them' instinct can be rationalised and fortified by an ideology of racial exclusivity, and then exploited with devastating effects to gain power.

That takes me to Nietzsche, a famed German philosopher, who brilliantly summarised the whole Nazi psychology in his sardonic dictum, 'Mediocrity is Death'. He argued that mediocrities are unable to produce valuable and constructive ideas, therefore they are prepared to exploit any mass instinct, no matter how divisive or destructive to realise their will to power. Considering that Nietzsche died in 1900, it is uncanny how well his arguments anticipate the rise and fall of the Nazi dictatorship, and their dominant traits; mediocrity, vulgarity and murderous bigotry.

I state from my own experience, that the actions of the Nazis in the occupied Eastern territories, were of such bewildering stupidity, that they made mediocrity look outstanding. But to describe how Nazi racial lunacy triumphed over political and economic rationality is a story for another day. In the end the profanity they committed by donning the mantle of gods led to their ruin, but not before millions of innocent people were sacrificed in the name of a monstrous ideology of racial exclusivity.

August 2009