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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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.


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