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!
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • 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.