A few weeks ago marked the 70th anniversary of the Second World War. On August 31, 1939 the Germans invaded Poland, and two days later France and Britain declared war on Germany. Just a week or so earlier had come the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact by which Stalin's Russia, betraying everything that communism was supposed to stand for, signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler and agreed to divide up Poland and the Baltic region between them. Dark days, indeed, and a period in history that more and more of us today seem on the verge of forgetting, and using as a cheap and irresponsible insult to hurl at our political enemies. In an age where American political commentators seriously compare Barack Obama to Hitler, where the government of Iran cheerfully denies the Holocaust, and where Pat Buchanan thinks it was a mistake to fight the Second World War, we appear to have learned nothing from that horrible era of history, which makes it more likely those horrors will return.
These events marked the beginning of a six-year global conflict that would drag in more and more countries, and be fought from the jungles of the Philippines to the frozen seas of Murmansk, and from the deserts of Egypt to the mountains of Norway. It would be fought with unimaginable savagery, against some of the most quintessentially evil forces that human history has ever seen, and the traditional restraints of war would go by the wayside. It would see Hitler's regime in Germany gradually show more and more of its true colors: a demonic state that made brutality, domination, torture and murder its primary values, and that replaced love and mercy with hatred and sadism. It would eventually draw together a bizarre alliance, including men as different as Marshal Tito, President Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, Marshal Zhukov, Kimon Georgiev, Chiang Kai-Shek, Mahatma Gandhi, George Grivas, Menachem Begin....men who believed in very different things, had nothing in common, would happily have slit each other's throats, but were united by just one thing, that they realized that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were mortal threats to them. The war would see the majority of Europe's Jewish population murdered in the largest act of cold-blooded genocide in human history. It would see over 50 million people killed, half of them in the Soviet Union alone, and so many atrocities and horrors that we became used to hearing about them and no longer shocked. It would end with dropping of nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities, resulting in the horrible deaths of over 200,000 people (mostly civilians, and it's a testament to how bloody World War II was that that seems like just a minor footnote), and with the emergence of a world dominated by the rivalry between two powers that hated and feared each other, Moscow and Washington, and that fought a four-decade Cold War in which they both tried to export their ideology across the world by any means necessary. It was, all in all, one of the darkest chapters in the history of man's inhumanity to man. But inasmuch as good consists largely in the resistance and struggle against evil, it was also a time of a great deal of heroism and sacrifice, and a world in which people gave their lives to try to destroy one of the greatest evils the world had ever seen.
There has been a lot of ink spilled and words exchanged over the last 70 years trying to explain Hitler. The Communists accused him of being the logical outgrowth of capitalism and of its reduction of human beings to mere economic resources; conservative capitalists accused him of being the logical outgrowth of socialism and its impulse to centralization. Christians accused him of being the logical outcome of atheist antinomianism; atheists accused him of being the heir of Christian anti-Semitism. Catholics and Lutherans accused each other of being responsible for the German anti-semitism that Hitler inherited. Republicans accused him of inheriting the most brutal tendencies of the Second German Reich; monarchists accused him of being the logical outcome of the popular will untrammeled by tradition.In all of this urge to blame the Nazis on someone else, we too often forget that they were the incarnation of something deep within us, and deep within the world.
Perhaps the closest thing written in recent years about the truth of Nazism was Mr. Norman Mailer's book "The Castle in the Forest". Mailer believed, very strongly, in the reality of a personal, evil spiritual being only slightly less powerful than God. Call it the Devil if you like, though Mailer wasn't an orthodox Christian- or call that power Lucifer, Satan, Ahriman, Ptahil, or any of the numerous other names that various religions have given to the power of evil. Mailer's book imagined that Hitler's birth and life had been literally presided over by the devil, just as the lives of numerous prophets and saints had been presided over by God. And if you think about it, that's not such a bad way to think about a man whose life embodied hatred, cruelty, and domination to the extent of Hitler's.
What could inspire someone, after all, to cold-bloodedly decide to put to death twelve million people- men, women and children, young and old, mostly Jews but with many homosexuals, Gypsies, and political prisoners as well. What could inspire someone to eliminate an entire ethnic group from the face of the globe (and if he failed, it wasn't for lack of trying). Through the most cruel and barbaric means imaginable: through poison gas, through injections, through freezing, boiling alive, working to death, starvation, disease. What could make someone do that? It wasn't merely the desire for something easily understandable that he was pursuing at the expense of other people. We can, to some extent, understand people who do evil things in pursuit of food, sex, money, comfort, or even deeper motives like passion or revenge. But this went beyond that. The Nazis were, quintessentially, a movement that was built on celebrating evil for its own sake, on reversing all that is highest and best in human nature- love, mercy, justice- and turning us into cruel and bestial animals. They worshiped, and craved, power and cruelty for their own sakes.
I remember once hearing a story from a friend. He was of Austrian descent, with some circumstantial evidence of Jewish ancestors, including a suggestive family name, but if they were ever Jewish they had converted to Catholicism generations ago. One of his relatives was in Vienna at the time of the Holocaust (the rest of the family had long since emigrated) and was investigated by the Nazis after the annexation of Austria. They couldn't verify that she was Jewish, and couldn't send her to a death camp, but they thought they might as well get rid of her anyway. They smashed her insulin, and left her to die a painful death from a diabetic coma, lingering for months while she gradually used up her remaining medicine, knowing that ultimately she was going to die.
What could lead men to do that, to so completely lose any sense of love, mercy, or kindness towards another human being? We would do well to remember this kind of thing happens in our age, too. A Liberian warlord, within the last fifteen years, killed about 20,000 people and practiced ritual sacrifice and cannibalism of children before going into battle. The German nation itself, less than fifty years before Hitler, committed genocide against the Herero and Nama people of German Southwest Africa: driving them into the desert, poisoning the wells, and abandoning them to a slow death from thirst. In the postwar period we have seen a grisly chronicle of one atrocity after another- in Cambodia, in China, in Rwanda, in Central America, in the Middle East. There is something literally inhuman about all this: something beyond humanity, and beyond nature. In these glimpses of man at his worst, just as it the glimpses of man at his best, we see something outside man and outside the physical universe: a brooding, dark power that thrives on hatred, evil, self-love, and cruelty, not as means to an end but for their own sakes. The Zoroastrians, in their sacred writings, identify the nature of this evil power as just this love of cruelty and destruction for its own sake:
"I will not depart, I will not provide assistance for thy creatures, I will not offer praise among thy creatures, and I am not of the same opinion with thee as to good things. I will destroy thy creatures for ever and everlasting; moreover, I will force all thy creatures into disaffection to thee and affection for myself" (Bundahishn 1:14).
I think the reason our age still hasn't come to terms with the legacy of the second world war is because we don't really believe in the reality of evil in the same sense as our ancestors did. They knew that such an evil power existed, though they weren't sure quite what to make of it- most of all, they weren't sure how evil had originated, and what the nature of evil was. But they were wise enough to know what our century came near to forgetting: that evil is very real, very personal, and very powerful.
Perhaps the most powerful prediction of the Nazi era was this, written almost 20 centuries ago:
"Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God..... For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now restraineth will restrain, until he be taken out of the way" (2 Thessalonians 2:3-7).
The identity of that person or force that St. Paul refers to as the "Restrainer" has been a matter of debate over the centuries. During the Middle Ages it was often taken to refer to the Roman Empire, and by inheritance to the Holy Roman Empire which governed central Europe, and which had its last capital in Vienna until it finally fell in 1806. About 80 years later, not far from Vienna, was born the child who would grow up to be history's greatest villain and mass murderer. St. Paul's prophecy is of course an apocalyptic one, but then I don't believe that the apocalypse is merely something that happens once, at the end of the world. I think that the visions of apocalypse given to us by Daniel, Paul, Christ, St. John, and various apocryphal sources are attempts to dramatize- not in detail but in essence- the eternal conflict of good and evil, and refer to a struggle that repeats itself in every age. Those visions apply to the end of the world but they also apply to the world of AD 70, of AD 476, and of AD 1933.
The Holy Roman Empire, and the medieval world of which it was an integral part, had many evils. But this can be said for it: that it restrained us, both for evil and for good. It set limits on humanity's capacity to accomplish good things and evil things: some of them were set by the lack of technological advancement, and some were set by the constraints of religion and tradition. The same dead hand of tradition and the lack of scientific knowledge that made it impossible to cure the plague or to avoid famines, also made it impossible to carry out or even to envision genocide of an entire people. There were plenty of pogroms and massacres in the medieval world, but at critical times men like Aquinas or Pope Clement VI, with the authority of scripture and tradition behind them, spoke out on behalf of the Jews to stop them from engulfing all of Christendom. As J.B.S. Haldane said, our world is greater in its capacities for good as well as evil than the world of the Middle Ages presided over by St. Paul's "Restrainer". A doctor can do so much more good today than a medieval doctor, and a scientist can discover so much more: and by the same token, a tyrant can do so much more evil. The leaders of the twentieth century claimed power over nature itself and over human bei The early modern world was shocked by the massacre of Glencoe in which a dissident Scottish clan of thirty people were wiped out by King William: they couldn't even think of the unimaginable horrors that were to arise in the twentieth century, in the name of Capitalism, Socialism, Civilization, Equality, Order, the Master Race, Freedom, Democracy, Progress, Security, and God, in which slaughters would involve not thirty but thirty thousand people at a time.
That restrained world, the world of the past, when our horizons were low and our visions were narrow, and our capacity to dream of both good and evil, began dying with the rise of modernity, and one pillar of that world ended in 1806 in Vienna. So many of the men of the Enlightenment dreamed that the new world would be a better one, that it would be a world of ease, comfort and leisure, that machines could do the work of men, that rationality would replace superstition, that prosperity would mean that material struggles were pointless and secularism would mean that spiritual struggles were unnecessary. How wrong they were. In Hitler we saw, as George Orwell puts it, the rise of "all the witch doctors and warlords in history rolled into one", and in Germany we saw "the tools of science at the disposal of ideas from the Stone Age". That combination of the worst aspects of the ancient- cruel and militant barbarism- with the worst aspects of the modern- the cool and reasoned application of the methods of science to ghoulish and demonic ends- made it difficult for people at the time, and since, to know what to make of the Nazis. Were they ancient, or were they modern? The answer of course is that they were both. In the first century the belief was widespread that the 'man of lawlessness' would be Nero risen from the dead: and this image of a spectral dead man risen from the grave, marching like a horde of zombies out of the past into the present, is a striking symbol for the Nazis' resurrection of all the barbarism of the ancient world in the middle of the twentieth century, empowered by modern science and philosophy. As new as the invention of mustard gas and the Haber process for fixing nitrogen: and as old as the ancient slave-empires which had carried out trade in " beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men", in the chilling words of St. John (Revelation 18:13). For this prediction, too, was upheld, that the Nazi empire would bring back forced labor in the heart of Europe, where it had not been seen for centuries.
An early second-century apocryphal vision of the apocalypse goes into more detail about the 'man of lawlessness', and seems strikingly applicable as a prediction of the twentieth century:
"After it is consummated, Beliar the great ruler, the king of this world, will descend, who hath ruled it since it came into being; yea, he will descent from his firmament in the likeness of a man, a lawless king, the slayer of his mother: who himself (even) this king, will persecute the plant which the Twelve Apostles of the Beloved have planted. Of the Twelve one will be delivered into his hands. This ruler in the form of that king will come and there will come with him all the powers of this world, and they will hearken unto him in all that he desires. And at his word the sun will rise at night and he will make the moon to appear at the sixth hour. And all that he hath desired he will do in the world: he will do and speak like the Beloved and he will say: "I am God and before me there has been none. And all the people in the world will believe in him. And they will sacrifice to him and they will serve him saying: "This is God and beside him there is no other." And they greater number of those who shall have been associated together in order to receive the Beloved, he will turn aside after him." (Ascension of Isaiah 4:2-9).
Indeed. The twentienth century tyrants, Hitler among them, attracted to them much of the same adulation and veneration that in the medieval world had been given to God and to the supernatural. In a world in which religion and God no longer seemed relevant, huge numbers of people found in political tyrants and demagogues objects for worship and self-sacrifice. The tyrants of the modern age boasted of their 'scientific, modern' capabilities: if they didn't promise to make the sun rise at night, they promised many other miracles of technology- better infrastructure, better agriculture, better medicine, and in time even the power to split the atom. "And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men..." (Revelation 13:13). They saw in themselves replacements for the religions of the past, destined to take the place of 'the Beloved" in men's hearts: particularly in Russia, where Stalin raised the cult of the embalmed Lenin to a virtual religion, and referred to his paid propagandists as 'engineers of human souls'. They appeared invincible in war, indomitable in the power over nature and over history, and for millions of people around mid-century it seemed reasonable to ask, "Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?" (Revelation 13:4). The apocryphal vision cited above further suggests that even the Church itself, those 'associated together in order to receive the Beloved", would become complicit in the crimes of the great modern tyrants, and indeed the Second World War saw all too many Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist and other Christian leaders silent and weak in the face of the greatest evil in modern times.
These are the lessons of a horror-ridden twentieth century, that seven decades later we can look back upon and try to learn from. Have we learned from them? Maybe, and maybe not. As I said above, I think history repeats itself, and the struggle of good against evil repeats itself, in every age. But the stakes keep getting bigger and bigger. Every turn of the wheel good is more and more good, evil is more and more evil, and the struggle between the two is more cataclysmic. I don't know who the next embodiment of evil will be in the future, or what the next great global struggle will be, but I do know that if we don't keep the reality of human and superhuman evil always in our hearts and minds, and stay on guard against it, we will once again be faced with something too great and horrible in its evil to imagine.