Theories of Evil Turn to Holocaust

Much-Lauded Book Has Some Serious Shortcomings

What Is Evil? Is the evil of the Holocaust incomprehensible? Studies have discounted this theory.
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What Is Evil? Is the evil of the Holocaust incomprehensible? Studies have discounted this theory.

By Lawrence Langer

Published November 14, 2011, issue of November 18, 2011.
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Simon Baron-Cohen is a figure of great distinction, a professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and a world-renowned authority on autism. He is the recipient of prizes and awards too numerous to list. His latest book, “The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty” (Basic Books) has received widespread acclaim. It has been called brilliant and ground-breaking, a “book that gets to the heart of man’s inhumanity to man.”

One academic colleague praises Baron-Cohen for backing up his claim that evil can be traced to “a distinct psychological state — a lack of empathy” by using “a wealth of research — from developmental psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience and genetics.” And yet conspicuously absent from this list of fields of inquiry is history.

It is understandable that Baron-Cohen would use the Holocaust to frame his investigation, since it represents the most obvious example of cruelty and evil in our time. But his work contains so many errors and misstatements about that event that they cast a shadow of doubt over the reliability of his other conclusions. He begins his account with the following paragraph:

When I was seven years old, my father told me the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades. Just one of those comments that you hear once, and the thought never goes away. To a child’s mind (and even to an adult’s) these two types of things just don’t belong together. He also told me the Nazis turned Jews into bars of soap. It sounds so unbelievable, yet it is actually true.

In fact, neither charge is true. When I visited Buchenwald — the origin of the rumor that human skin had been used to make lampshades — the director of the museum told me that every candidate for such notorious usage that they had investigated turned out to be made from animal skin. And although there is some disputed evidence that there were small-scale experiments for the manufacture of “human soap” at the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig, there is none at all that the Germans ever engaged in industrial-level conversion of human fat into bars of soap. Yet the myths survive, and by perpetuating them, Baron-Cohen serves neither truth nor memory, nor the knowledge of future generations.

He compounds his mistakes by calling Christopher Browning, the eminent American Holocaust historian, a “psychologist.” Although Baron-Cohen cites the title of Browning’s seminal work, “Ordinary Men,” it is inconceivable that anyone who had actually read the book could have mistaken its author for a psychologist. Citing the argument of an unread book does not inspire a reader’s confidence in the author’s arguments.

Baron-Cohen also repeats the decades-old cliché that in standard explanations of the Holocaust, evil “is treated as incomprehensible, a topic that cannot be dealt with because the scale of the horror is so great that nothing can convey its enormity.” But dozens of volumes exist to contradict this claim, the most recent of which include Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands” and Daniel Blatman’s “The Death Marches.” At their core, these works convey in searing, explicit detail the “enormity” of the horrors committed by the Germans against Jews and their other victims up until the closing days of World War II.


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