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!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • 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.