Those Who Justify Genocide

Philosophy Now|June/July 2020

Those Who Justify Genocide
Michael McManus asks what remains of morality in the face of genocide.
Michael McManus

“I made the effort to shoot only children… it was soothing to my conscience to redeem children unable to live without their mothers.”

– Member of a Nazi police death squad

Israel recognises 6,620 Poles for their sacrifices, sometimes of their lives and their children’s lives, in helping Jews during WWII. The figure far exceeds the number of heroes in France, or in fifty other countries listed at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust (one exception is the Netherlands). Some of the Polish heroism is described in Code Name: Zegota (2010) by Irene Tomaszewski and Tecia Werbowski. It is therefore a tragedy that Poland briefly brought in penalties for anyone speaking of Polish complicity in the Holocaust, for complicity there was. Poland could instruct us all on the complexity of morality under enemy occupation, but foolish leaders have chosen instead to ally themselves with those who deny their history – such as the manipulators who rule Turkey and deny Turkish responsibility for the genocide of Armenian Christians between 1915 and 1922.

In 1992 Christopher Browning published an in-depth study of the Police Battalions operating as death squads in Poland. He titled it Ordinary Men because that is what the squads were made up of – people like you and me and our neighbours: respectable people, kind and compassionate, who loved their wives and their children, who led blameless lives, until confronted with the opportunity to do evil with impunity. These men were mostly in their late thirties and their forties, with varied backgrounds: most were previously labourers, truck drivers, seamen, waiters, salesmen, and office workers. A few were better educated, such as teachers and pharmacists. They were assisted in their work by Polish informers who often plundered the vacated property. They were hampered, however, by other Poles.

No one reading Browning’s book can avoid the question, ‘What would I have done?’, nor be content with the easy answer, ‘I would not have committed murder’, ‘I would not have stood aside’, and so on. We think of ourselves as basically good, and we can all give reasons why we do not cheat, lie, or kill. Even in this secular country in this irreligious age, many of us will think of the ethical part of the Ten Commandments (you should not dishonour your parents, lie, steal, commit adultery, or murder) as a list that has stood the test of time. It’s almost part of our physiological makeup. Others will have in mind the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Some will refer to a sense of duty, following, without knowing it, Immanuel Kant’s command to do nothing that we would not wish all other people to do in suitably similar circumstances.

The members of the Polish death squads, brought up in a Catholic country, ought to have had the same commitments. However, none of the cases examined by Browning showed any sign of religious principles. So much for the sense of duty and its influence on moral behaviour. How much better to follow a secular rule like the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill: a deed is good if it leads to the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

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June/July 2020