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.
getty images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Baron-Cohen repeats Hannah Arendt’s stereotypical view of Eichmann and his fellow bureaucrats as individuals who “followed orders mechanically and unquestioningly” as if they bore no responsibility for the crimes they had initiated. Resulting from this, Baron-Cohen states: “Many of them could not be charged with war crimes later because they had just been doing their jobs, just following orders,” even though the tribunal at Nuremberg explicitly excluded “following orders” as an acceptable defense for those accused of war crimes.

But the most outrageous blunder appears in his inventory of the chain of events leading to mass murder, beginning with a hypothetical “Person A” who “simply had the list of Jews in my municipality,” and ending with “Person Z,” who says, “My job was simply to turn on the showers out of which the poison gas was emitted.” Baron-Cohen’s appalling ignorance of the actual killing process can be traced to a notorious scene in “Schindler’s List” in which a group of naked women placed in a dark enclosed room at Auschwitz shriek with relief when water instead of gas emerges from the showerheads above them. But as we know, there was no plumbing in the gas chambers at Birkenau, and the fatal Zyklon B crystals were inserted into the death chambers through openings in the roofs or sidewalls of the structures. For an author specializing in empathy to misrepresent the well-researched details of mass murder suggests how easily enthusiasm for scientific theory can override one’s devotion to historical facts.

There are other careless errors in reference to the Holocaust, but lack of space prevents me from examining them all in detail. The worst occurs in Baron-Cohen’s version of a hanging, which he takes from a survivor memoir. He places it in Auschwitz even though, as the author makes clear, it actually happened in a factory near the former Kielce ghetto — 100 miles and a world away from the extermination camp. His totally unreliable account of this episode makes one wonder how carefully he read the text on which it is based.

But this is only half the scandal. Presumably, Baron-Cohen’s American and British publishers, Basic Books and Penguin Books UK, have editors, copy editors and fact checkers. He also has agents, professional colleagues, friends and family members who had read all or part of the text. He thanks one of his editors for her “insightful, careful feedback as the book took shape.” Is it possible that not one of these individuals knows (or cares) whether lampshades were made from human skin at Buchenwald, or soap from the fat of Jewish corpses? Or that none — not even a single reviewer — was aware of how inmates were gassed at Auschwitz? What are we to make of this mess of misinformation that passed scrutiny undetected?

Baron-Cohen ascribes the cruelty of the Holocaust to a lack of empathy rooted in brain malfunction rather than to the excessive zeal of the murderers. Has a superficial familiarity with some popular ideas of the Holocaust replaced an empathetic editorial vigilance about its details that might have caught the errors in his text? Although we continue to hear complaints that modern consciousness is unduly concerned with the Holocaust, the reverse appears to be true. The failure of publishers, readers and reviewers to expose or deplore the inaccuracies in “The Science of Evil” only further confirms this unfortunate fact.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.