The tragedy of the Second World War and the horror of the Holocaust is woven into the fabric of our public consciousness in a way that can be summed up in the phrase, “Never Again.” Never again can we allow evil ideology to seize power. Never again can we remain passive spectators on the field of battle. Never again can we allow ourselves to be swept into total war.
We often think of World War II in numbers: 1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz; 80,000 people were killed instantly when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; 85 million people were killed during the entire war. In reality, these numbers tell us nothing about the human cost of war- a cost that cannot be quantified. If we are to learn anything at all from history, we must examine it from a personalist perspective. Personalism asserts that the human person should be the epistemological starting point for philosophical reflection. It emphasizes the reality and value to be found in personhood.
Examining history through the human person brings us to some interesting insights. I argue that these insights teach us more than numbers or dates or sheer memorization ever could. We must be careful, however, how we go about this examination. Rather than dwelling on all the examples of grotesque evil, we should look for the good to be found in the darkest of times. Through experience, we find that it is not the examples of evil that teach us the most, but rather the stories of those who met evil with good. It is only by encountering those persons through history and learning from their experience that we can fully say, “Never Again.”
In My Battle Against Hitler, Dietrich von Hildebrand writes that the war “put everyone to the ultimate test and compelled the revelation of every person’s true self.” He continues: “Both the good and the bad in people... came to light. Hidden and base passions, brutality, ruthless violence, fanatical resentment, unprincipled behavior, cowardice, intellectual confusion, and weakness, on one hand, and heroism, kindness, strength of character, noble courage, unwavering intellectual clarity, and a deep, indestructible religiosity, on the other.” In the face of evil, our masks fall to the ground and who we truly are as a human person comes to the surface.
The narrative of World War II is filled with stories of the monstrous brutality of the guards at concentration camps and the cruel fanaticism of the Nazis. But these narratives do not tell the whole story. In the face of terrible evil, there is also unconquerable good.
We see great examples of these unconquerable goods in the witness of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who offered himself for execution and took the place of another man. In Anne Frank, we find a witness to the profound hope and innocence of adolescence, an innocence that was not destroyed by suffering. In her famous diary, she writes: “I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness. I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too. I can feel the sufferings of millions. Yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.” Anne had an absolute trust in the triumph of good over evil, even amid the darkness of the present moment.
By experiences of persons, we find the unexpected. We find that suffering is more than the repulsive feeling of pain. We discover that suffering cannot be taken at face value, but rather, it can be used to redeem us. Suffering, if we allow it, draws us into something beyond. Suffering holds the potential to teach us, to change us, to transform us. Though the act of redeeming is reserved to God, experiences of suffering can bring us to the threshold of redemption and truth.
Famous psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl described the redemption he found during his imprisonment at Auschwitz: “For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers… I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” This from a man who lost everything, including his beloved wife, only to be tortured for four years in a concentration camp. Yet he discovered something pivotal in his suffering that many of us have been blinded by in our comfortable lifestyles. In his suffering, he came face to face with the heart of life: love. The world stripped everything from him but could not touch the heart of life and the very value of his suffering.
These stories demonstrate that a historical narrative filled with descriptions of the hideous brutality of camp guards and the cruel fanaticism of the Nazis in fact tells us very little at all. There is an immeasurability of the good, far outweighing all the evil in the world, that teaches us more about ourselves than an examination of the depths of depravity. In the words of Anne Frank, let us not “think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”