Open Journal of Political Science
2014. Vol.4, No.1, 16-22
Published Online January 2014 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ojps) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojps.2014.41003
Niebuhr, Evil, and the Holocaust
C. Fred Alford
Department of Government and Politics, University of Maryland, College Park, USA
Received October 21st, 2013; revised December 2nd, 2013; accepted December 20th, 2013
Copyright © 2014 C. Fred Alford. This is an open access article distribute d under the Creative Co mmons Attri-
bution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited. In accordance of the Creative Commons Attribution License all Copyrights ©
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Reinhold Niebuhr could not think thoroughly about the Holocaust. This may surprise some, for Niebuhr is
generally known as the hard-headed realist who understood sin and evil to be real and active in the world.
Niebuhr could not think thoroughly about the Holocaust because he could not think thoroughly about the
emergence of a new type of evil. If Germans took pleasure in the destruction of Jews for its own sake,
then the meaning of history is itself put at risk, at least for those who would learn from Niebuhr. For all
his realism about sin and evil, Niebuhr cannot imagine a world in which the mysterious meaning of his-
tory will not be revealed at the end of days. For many who survived the Holocau··st, Auschwitz was the
end of days. This does not make their experience definitive for the rest of us. It does mean that evil, when
pursued for ends that are fundamentally meaningless, threatens both faith and confidence in the meaning
of history. In thinking about the Holocaust, this essay draws not only on Hannah Arendt, but also on my
own research in the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale University.
Keywords: Niebuhr; Holocaust; Evil; Arendt
In 2007, New York Times columnist David Brooks inter-
viewed then-senator Barak Obama about Reinhold Niebuhr.
“What do you take away from him?” asked Brooks. Obama
replied. “I t ake away··· the compelling idea that there’s serious
evil in the world··· But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for
cynicism and inaction. I take away··· the sense we have to
make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging
from naïve idealism to bitter realism.” (Brooks, 2007) Subse-
quently, many noticed the presence of Niebuhrian themes in
President Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech (Lemert,
2011, p. 213). Niebuhr has been on something of a roll recently,
and yet I argue that about an aspect of evil, The Holocaust, he
was insufficiently serious. Or rather, about this expression of
evil, he could not come to terms.
It is not because Niebuhr lacked compassion, and certainly
not because he failed to understand the National Socialist threat
to civilization. He understood that better than most of his gener-
ation. Niebuhr could not think thoroughly about the Holocaust
because he could not think thoroughly about the emergence of a
new type of evil.
This may surprise some, for Niebuhr is generally known as
the hard-headed realist for whom original sin is the only “em-
pirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” (Niebuhr,
1965, p. 24) Niebuhr also understood evil to be real and active
in the world. It is a leading theme of his Gifford Lectures, The
Nature and Destiny of Man.
Initially opposed to United States involvement in World War
Two, his pre-war trips to Germany in the company of Paul Til-
lich convinced him otherwise. In 1933, Niebuhr wrote that evi-
dence was mounting that Nazi Germany’s “effort to extirpate
the Jews in Germany is proceeding with unexampled and pri-
mitive ferocity.” (Niebuhr, 1933, p. 1014) Ignorant of the real
situation, the German people seemed to largely believe that the
alleged atrocities were little more than Jewish propaganda.
Good Germans, in whom both he and Tillich believed, were in
a state of denial as to what was happening in their own country
(Rice, 2013, pp. 20, 33).
Niebuhr was on the right side, speaking out against anti-Se-
mitism in Germany, leading efforts to find homes and work for
refugee Jewish intellectuals. Discovering that his sponsorship
of one refugee was the reason why his visa had been held up,
Niebuhr asked his friend Felix Frankfurter to intervene. It
turned out that Niebuhr was on a list of communist sympathiz-
ers thanks to his associations with leftist publications from the
previous decade. The Supreme Court Justice had enough polit-
ical clout to get Niebuhr’s name removed from the Red List,
and the visa was secured (Rice, 2013, pp. 208, 209).
During the war, Niebuhr and Tillich, a gentile refugee from
Nazi persecution, spent most of their time preparing for the
postwar era, when the Germans could once again be integrated
into the community of nations. After the war, Niebuhr spoke
out in favor of the claim of the Jewish people for a homeland.
Assimilation, he grasped, can mean the death of a people. There
is, he said,
A curious, partly unconscious, cultural imperialism in
theories of toleration that looks forward to a complete de-
struction of all racial distinction. The majority group ex-
pects to devour the minority group by way of assimilation.
This is a painless death, but it is death nevertheless. (Nie-
C. F. ALFORD
Abraham Heschel gave the lead eulogy at Niebuhr’s June
1971 memorial service, stating simply that “He appeared
among us as a figure out of the Hebrew Bible··· Niebuhr’s life
was a song in the form of deeds.” (Crouter, 2010, p. 2) Aside
from the fact that Niebuhr and Heschel had become close
friends in later years, it was especially fitting that Heschel give
the eulogy. Niebuhr was never especially interested in the intri-
cacies of Christian doctrine, such as the Trinity. On the contrary,
quotations from the Hebrew Bible appear almost as often as
from the Greek Testament. In particular, Niebuhr rejected su-
persessionism before its rejection became acceptable among
many Christians. Supersessionism is the view that the New Co-
venant of Christ replaces the Mosaic or Old Covenant. Super-
sessionism is multifaceted. Suffice to say it has been the doc-
trine of most branches of the Christian Church, even as it has
less of a hold among many contemporary Christians (Johnson,
Niebuhr’s failure to grasp the evil of the Holocaust was no
moral failure on Niebuhr ’s part. It reflected no failure to under-
stand or respect Judaism. The problem was not that Niebuhr
neglected the Holocaust because it was primarily a Jewish ca-
tastrophe. The problem is that the Holocaust was too evil. Not
too evil for Jews to suffer, or Christians to contemplate. Too
evil to know.
Niebuhr wrote hundreds of occasional pieces, reactions to
current events. Christianity and Crisis was founded by Niebuhr
in 1941 to encourage American intervention in the European
war against Nazism, and in it he published dozens of pieces, as
well as hundreds elsewhere. In 1936, he went to Ge rmany with
Tillich for a second time. This time he brought the Church’s
protest against the concentration camps and the persecution of
the Jews to Hitler’s finance minister, who read it to Hitler in
Niebuhr’s presence (Rice, 2013, p. 23). Hitler walked out. Nie-
buhr’s distance was not geographical or temporal. It was con-
The too easy answer as to why Niebuhr never confronted the
evil of the Holocaust is that he was influenced by Augustine,
and for Augustine evil does not exist; it is an absence or priva-
tion in God’s good world. Several things are wrong with this
answer. First, to attribute Niebuhr’s failure to confront the evil
of the Holocaust to the Augustinian influence on his thinking is
no explanation at all. It simply pushes the problem back on
Augustine. Second, the Augustinian influence on Niebuhr had
to do with Augustine’s view of evil as arising from self-love
(Niebuhr, 1986). Third, for Niebuhr evil is in many respects the
opposite of privation. Evil is an attempt to take the place of
God (Niebuhr, 1996, vol. 1, pp. 150, 168, 169). This turns out
to be a fairly fruitful perspective from which to view the e vil of
the Holocaust; certainly it is not a barrier. The Augustinian
influence on Niebuhr, which came late and is readily exagge-
rated, poses no problem to his understanding of evil.
The Evil of the Holocaust: Niebuhr and Arendt
Modern tyrannies, said Niebuhr, are not the end product of a
long history of tyranny, one in which ancient evils have been
slowly perfected. Instead, they are the “characteristic corrup-
tions of a mature civilization in which technical instruments
have become more effective tools of tyrannical purpose.” The
purpose, Niebuhr understands, is not only the destruction of life,
but the worship of the power of the regime itself. Idolatry is the
telos of sin (Niebuhr, 1996, vol. 2, pp. 318, 319).
Compare Niebuhr’s analysis with Hannah Arendt’s under-
standing of modern tyranny in The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Concentration camps, says Arendt, are the realization of the
totali taria n ideal. The y are mea nt not merely to exter minate and
degrade human beings, but serve as “the ghastly experiment of
eliminating, under scientifically controlled conditions, spon-
taneity itself as an expression of human behavior and of trans-
forming the human personality into a mere thing···” (Arendt,
1976, p. 438) The result, or at least the goal, is that all that is
expressive of humanity, above all plurality and natality, disap-
pear. With the term “natality,” Arendt refers to the ability to
give birth to something new, and so defeat the forces of entropy
that would unwind the world. This new thing could be a child,
an artistic creation, or an act of self-giving love.
There are, Arendt continues,
No parallels to life in the concentration camps. Its horror
can never be fully embraced by the imagination for the
very reason that it stands outside of life and death. It can
never be fully reported for the very reason that the survi-
vor returns to the world of the living, which makes it im-
possible to believe fully in his own past experience. (1976,
This is supported in interviews with concentration camp sur-
vivors, many of whom make this same point. As Eva L. puts it,
“I can’t believe it happened to me··· How can they believe if I
can’t believe (T-71)1?” In many respects disbelief is the primary
experience of the camps among those who survived, an expe-
rience that does not diminish with age. Or as Abe L. puts it,
I thought that when the years go by, the Holocaust would
go further away··· I dream about it. I can’t get something
like that out of my system. All gone now, especially the
children. You can’t get that out of your mind. The hole in
your heart gets bigger. The Holocaust is getting closer not
Survivors cannot report their experience to others, not be-
cause others are insensitive (though they often are), but because
they can hardly report their experiences to themselves.
I made a videotape for my daughter. She said “mommy,
you must be so sad.” But when I see it, it’s like it hap-
pened to another person···At moments you get mus hy, but
at moments you think you’re telling someone else’s story.
Arendt (1976, pp. 453, 454) draws a distinction between the
early spontaneous bestiality of the camps, carried out for the
most part by the SA, “as a concession of the regime to its crim-
inal and abnormal elements,” and the latter, when the SS took
over the camps, cold and systematic destruction of human bo-
dies, “calculated to destroy human dignity; death was avoided
or postponed indefinitely2.” While the distinction is worth not-
Quotations from survivors, unless otherwise noted, are all taken from my
research in the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale
University. This is an ongoing research project begun in 2007. Some of the
results are published in Alford (2
009), more in Alford (2013). While the
testimonies are not anonymous, the Archives prefers this method of citation
first name followed by (T-
[accession number]). I have spent hundreds of
hours view i ng over two hundred testimonies.
2The SA was the Sturmabteilung, aka Brownshirts, original Hitler suppor-
ters from unemployed soldiers, bar-
room brawler s, and wor king classes, as
opposed to generally middle-class SS men. Th e SA were po litically margi-
nalized from 1934, thoug h s ome members served under the SS.
C. F. ALFORD
ing, it is important to remember that cold and calculating cruel-
ty is the mark of sadism. Not the instrumental killer, not the
enraged killer, but the sadist turns murder, in this case mass
murder, into a technology.
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (2002) understood
this well in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Rage at a nature too
sparse to be dominated is transformed into the rationalized
domination of nature. In the case of the Holocaust, Jews, gyp-
sies, gays, and others exemplify undominated nature, aspects of
nature which are impure, and so must be destroyed. The dialec-
tic of Enlightenment concerns the way in which the most mod-
ern means of science and technology come to serve the most
primitive superstitions, such as the fear of impurity (Douglas,
It is in The Origins of Totalitarianism that Arendt (1976, pp.
443, 458, 459) develops the concept of “radical evi l,” a concept
she will lat er reject3. What exac tly she mea ns by the term radi-
cal evil is unclear. Perhaps her clearest explanation is that the
motives of the evil doers are no longer humanly comprehensi-
ble. Their absolute evil
could no longer be understood and explained by the evil
motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment,
lust for power, and cowardice··· Just as the vict ims in the
death factories or the holes of oblivion are no longer
“human” in the eyes of their executioners, so this newest
species of criminals is beyond the pale even of solidarity
in human sinfulness (1976, p. 459).
The most salient aspect of radical evil for Arendt seems to be
its incommunicability. Because there are no parallels to life in
the concentration camps, its horror can never be fully embraced
by the imagination for the very reason that it stands outside of
life and death. It can never be fully reported for the very reason
that the survivor returns to the world of the living, which makes
it impossible for him to believe fully in his own past experience
(Arendt, 1976, p. 444).
We have seen this is partially true. However, one might well
argue that survivors who struggle with their ability to believe
their own experiences, and are able and willing to convey this
struggle to others have already begun to reclaim their expe-
rience. But Arendt is biased. She does not want the story to be
told. “The more authentic they are,” the more accounts of suf-
ferings “transform men into ‘uncomplaining animals’,” the less
these reports inspire the passions of outrage and sympathy
which inspire men to seek justice “Only the fearful imagination
of those” who have been aroused but not smitten in their own
flesh and “who are consequently free from the bestial, desperate
terror··· can afford to keep thinking about horrors.” (Arendt,
1976, pp. 439, 441) Was Arendt referring to herself, and the
intellectual distance she achieved as a Jewish refugee intellec-
tual? Do we really need such distance? Perhaps the passage of
time has made some things easier. Let us try to get a little clos er.
Arendt defines radical evil as evil that is inexplicable in
terms of human motives. But there is one motive she omits.
People commit radical evil because they like to hurt other
people. In particular, some people like to hurt the innocent and
good because they are innocent and good. Though he originated
the term radical evil (radikalen Bösen), not even Kant could
abide this possibility, for this would mean that some men and
women would seek destruction for its own sake. That would
mean that some humans possessed “a thoroughly evil will···and
thus the subject would be made a devilish being. Neither of
these designations is applicable to man (Kant, 1960, pp. 30-
About her imprisonment at Bergen-Belsen, Fela Nichtauser
refers to the German SS guard Irma Grese who forced women
prisoners to stand to attention in all kinds of winter weather
from 08:00 until 11:00 for the Zahlappel (the daily count),
without anything covering their heads in the snow and rain. At
11am or after, Grese would arrive.
And when she would notice that some girl would have
that little piece of blanket on her head she would approach
her immediately with a smile and would tear down that
piece of blanket with the person together. She would call
her dog. The dog would jump at the girl and gnash its
teeth as if he was going to bite. Irma Grese did not permit
him to bite. She just wanted to horrify us. She wanted to
cause anguish and terror, and that was much worse. So
she would throw down this blanket together with the per-
son and kick her and beat her with her whip.
Ms. Nichthauser concludes this portion of her testimony by
saying, “I can just tell you that the block seniors were no bet-
ter.”4 In this case, block seniors were evidently SS guards, but
in most cases they we re pol it i cal or ordinary prisoners in charge
of a particular barrack.
Irma Grese operated within the SS bureaucracy. Other guards
were perhaps not as cruel, but Grese’s cruelty faced no resis-
tance at Bergen-Belsen. She served Bergen-Belsen’s purpose;
her brutality was both instrumental and functional for the insti-
Consider, in this regard, Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing
Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, a somber
reinterpretation of the Holocaust in terms of the eagerness of
ordinary Germans to collaborate in the destruction of the Jews.
In the middle of this long (over 600 pages), sometimes mind-
numbing account of the organization of hatred and death, one is
surprised to find Goldhagen (1996) drifting off into sexual fan-
tasy, imagining a post-coital dialogue between prison guards.
The Germans made love in barracks next to enormous
privation and incessant cruelty. What did they talk about
when their heads rested on their pillows, when they were
smoking their cigarettes in those relaxing moments after
their physical needs had been met? Did one relate to
another accounts of a particularly amusing beating that
she or he had administered or observed, of the rush of
power that engulfed her when the righteous adrenaline of
Jew-beating caused her body to pulse with energy (p.
What is it about the Holocaust that leads even the sober his-
3Later, after covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker
magazine, Arendt would give up her belief in radical evil, saying “it is
indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘
radical’ , that it is o nly extreme.”
The passage is from an “acrimonious exchange” between Arendt and Ger-
shom Scholem (Elshtain, 1995, p. 76
). In her l ater view, evil is not radical
because it has no depth; th at is its b anality. I n fact, t hat vi ew does not seem
so far from the definition of radical evil offered here: that evil lacks the
depth of mot i vation so as to make it humanly comprehensible.
The testimony of Fela Nichthauser is from the research of David Boder,
the first person to audiotape the testimony of survivors in 1946. See
C. F. ALFORD
torian to fantasize about the sexual lives of the prison camp
Presuming these fictional guards were not ranking officers
(and perhaps even if they were), they probably went on to live
normal lives in post-war Germany, raising children, never
thinking, never having to think, and about what went on in the
other “barracks” next door. Certainly tens of thousands of real
guards did. Incomprehension is another part of the answer: that
humans could take such pleasure in inflicting pain. For Gold-
hagen addresses that issue, a key reason his book was so suc-
cessful among the public, even as it failed to convince many
scholars (Zank, 1998).
Germans tormented, degraded, and killed Jews because they
wanted to, because they liked to do it, because it made them
feel powerful, and good, and clean, and righteous to do so. To
have said as much is the distasteful secret behind the vast
commercial success of Hiltler’s Willing Executioners: over one-
half million books sold in the Americas and Europe. And yet
the large number of books sold suggests that this secret was
hardly a s ecret at all.
What is so hard to imagine is what we already know. Know-
ledge as disaster, Maurice Blanchot (1995, p. ix) calls it. The
problem isn’t learning something new; the problem is accepting
what we know about ourselves and humanity. Something terri-
bly simple, and simply terrible. Under certain circumstances,
most people (not everyone) when given unlimited power over
others who have already been degraded, devalued, and dehu-
manized will use this power to degrade, dehumanize, and ulti-
mately destroy these others. Furthermore, there is no larger
metaphysical reason, despite recent attempts to transform the
language of the “Other” into a philosophical ontology. People
don’t like to hurt “the Other.” They like to hurt particular other
people in particular circumstances, especially when they are
invited to do so. This involves two steps: first, permission by
those in authority, and second the degradation of the victims.
The fact that the victims are ruined by those who will then use
their degradation as an excuse to humiliate and destroy them
makes no difference. The only logic at work here is psycho-
To a person of ordinary imagination, historical literacy, and
psychological insight, the Holocaust as an act by which a large
group of humans found pleasure in tormenting, degrading, and
finally killing another group of humans is quite imaginable.
This statement applies even to that most terrible act, to which
Heinrich Himmler and his tens of thousands of followers came
shockingly close, “that this people should disappear from the
Saul Friedlander (1993, pp. 109-111) refers to the “Rausch,”
the intoxication of destruction, which seems to have seized
Himmler and other Nazi leaders as the goal of destroying an
entire people came within their grasp. Is this unimaginable?
Why should it be? Pleasure in destruction, in destroying the
innocent and good because it is innocent and good, has a long
history. “Evil be thou my Good,” says Milton’s Satan. (Para-
dise Lost iv, 105-110) When William Blake said that Satan gets
all the best lines in Paradise Lost he was not kidding. Satan is
often an attractive figure, just as evil may be attractive, and that
should be cause for deep concern.
Hope, Enlightenment faith in reason, progress, belief in a
particular human vision of God: all this and more is trans-
gressed by the Holocaust. But to claim, as some such as Berel
Lang have, that the destruction of these human ideals is the
inversion of the sublime, reality shattering the bounds of the
imagination for evil, says more about the narrowness of an im-
agination than anything else (Lang, 2000, pp. 56, 57). Or rather,
about the blinders we put on our self-knowledge, individually
and collectively—that is, as historians of our species.
But what we know, and imagine now about evil is vastly dif-
ferent than what we knew, or could imagine, in 1935, is it not?
Of course, or there would be nothing new to learn, no history to
learn from. My claim is simply that barbarism, the lust to de-
stroy, and pleasure in mass murder did not begin or end then.
To be sure, the Holocaust did bring something new to our
knowledge of evil: that it is subject to an absurd rationalization,
captured far better by Raul Hilberg’s account of the German
railways (Reichsbahn) schedule of fares to bring “passengers”
to the concentration camps than any sado-sexual fantasy Gold-
hagen could dream up.
The basic charge was the third-class fare: 4 pfennig per
track kilometer. Children under 10 were transported for
half this amount; those under four went free··· For the
deportees one-way fare was payable; for the guards a
round-trip ticket had to be purchased (Hillberg, 1985, p.
With this rationalization of destruction, the Holocaust did
bring something new into the world, similar to the banality of
evil that Arendt writes of, but which is better captured by the
term absurdity of evil. The absurdity of evil is akin to the world
of Franz Kafka, in which the rationality of everyday life goes
on in heightened form even as the goals it serves become more
obscure, evil, and obscene. Perhaps the obscurity of the goals,
the mark of absurdity, is itself a defense against knowledge of
the evil seemingly rational men and women are pursuing, but
about this I am not sure. I am sure that this is no new idea, but a
version of Horkheimer and Adorno’s (2002) dialectic of En-
lightenment, in which extreme rationalization is bound to the
return of ever more mythic goals of blut und boden, purity, and
When asked for an explanation of the Holocaust, generally
we want more: that it makes sense, which often means that the
end was present in the beginning if only we could have seen it.
This seems to be what Primo Levi (2001, p. 232) means when
concludes from the impossibility of a complete explanation of
the Holocaust that no explanation is possible. One consequence
is that we are led further and further from the one explanation
that really works in these matters. An explanation that is not
really an explanation at all, but a redescription of what hap-
pened in terms of the simplest of human motives. For various
simple and complex reasons we need not, and generally do not
understand, people do what they want to do. Germans and oth-
ers tormented and killed Jews, gypsies, gays and others because
they wanted to, because it gave them pleasure to do so. Is this
not transgression enough?
The Holocaust is not a universal sign or metaphor, but an act
of destruction initiated by one exclusive group against another
group, based upon the first group’s will-to-power to deny not
just identity but existence to another group. The Holocaust is
absurd because some people have rendered the human world so
morally incomprehensible that it becomes almost impossible to
see one’s way out, even years after the event. We should not
underestimate the destructive power of the absurd upon the
human psyche. Not just upon the Holocaust’s victims, but on
C. F. ALFORD
those who would try to make sense of it.
Niebuhr, Sin, Evil and the Meaning of History
Is Niebuhr’s account of sin and evil commensurate with the
preceding account of the Holocaust? The preceding account
begins with Arendt’s explication of radical evil, going on to
argue that Germans tormented, tortured, and killed Jews be-
cause they wanted to, because it gave them pleasure. There is a
not so subtle operational definition of evil at work in this
second account. Evil is pleasure in inflicting pain and destruc-
tion upon innocent life for its own sake, because the ability to
do so itself brings gratification, rooted in the power to play God
(or in this case Satan) by desecrating innocence and destroying
goodness. Add to this a lack of remorse, and one has a working
definition of evil for our times. Perhaps not a comprehensive
definition. There must be other expressions of evil. But this
seems a good start.
The question of whether Niebuhr’s account of sin and evil is
commensurate to our working definition of evil has no simple
answer. Niebuhr is more interested in communal than individu-
al sin. That is a good start for the evil represented by the Holo-
caust. Niebuhr is interested in the self-worship of the commu-
nity, or its false gods, be they reason, scie nce, or the Na zi Pa rty.
“Communal idolatry” is the most common sin of our time, cer-
tainly the most damaging in scale and intensity. For Niebuhr,
sin, and with it idolatry, is an anxious attempt to hide our fini-
tude, to make ourselves the center of life, and so take the place
of God. We are all vulnerable to contingency, what the ancient
Greeks called tyche. Each of us can imagine an infinity of hor-
rors that might befall the self. And so humans seek by an act of
will, what Niebuhr (1944, p. 139) calls the will-to-power, to
overreach the limits of human creatureliness. Since most people
lack the ability to do this on their own, they join communities
of wild self-assertion (verwilderte Selbstbehauptung), as they
have been called (Habermas, 2008, p. 198).
Sin, communal idolatry, and the will-to-power. Taken to an
extreme these are enough to explain the Holocaust. Are they
enough to understand it? Original sin is understood by Niebuhr
not in the Biblical sense, the legacy of Adam’s concupiscence.
Original sin stems from the subject’s fear at being alone and
vulnerable in the world, leading him or her to worship the gods
of the community, indeed the god that is the community. When
this community worships the will-to-power, it becomes a pre-
dator among nations, and a marauder among the marginal
within the community itself.
Idolatry is such a strong human tendency because we are all
meaning-seeking and afraid. The only alternative is a true hu-
mility, based on the knowledge that there exists a divine judg-
ment superior to our own. Though he has no where stated that
he was influenced by Niebuhr, Václav Havel (1995) understood
the danger of communal idolatry in a way that Niebuhr would
The relati vization of all moral nor ms, the crisis of author-
ity, the reduction of life to the pursuit of immediate mate-
rial gain without regard for its general consequences— the
very things We stern democracy is most criticized for—do
not originate in democracy but in that which modern man
has lost: his transcendental anchor, and along with it the
only genuine source of his responsibility and self-re-
spect··· Given its fatal incorrigibility, humanity probably
will have to go through many more Rwandas and Cher-
nobyls before it understands how unbelievably short-
sighted a human being can be who has forgotten that he is
not God (pp. 49-50).
It is not uncommon among those who admire Niebuhr to re-
gard his theology as though it was an afterthought. Hans Mor-
genthau and George Kennan represent this tendency among
international relations realists, but the philosopher Sidney Hook
(1943, p. 13) put it most plainly when he said “not one of the
positions that Niebuhr takes on the momentous issues of social
and political life is dependent on his theology.” Hook is correct
in a strictly logical sense. None of the positions Niebuhr took
on the positions of the day (1930’s-mid-1960’s) would be in-
coherent absent a belief in God. But almost all that is subtle and
interesting about Niebuhr depends on this belief.
Particularly poignant is Niebuhr ’s view that God is not victo-
rious in history, for evil is not defeated. Rather than imposing
His goodness upon the world, God suffers the injustices of the
powerful. To be sure, Niebuhr holds that God would not allow
evil to completely triumph over the face of this earth. But hu-
man history is marked by the “scandal of the cross”, the willing
defeat of God in this world.
The perfect love which [Christ’s] life and death exemplify
is defeated, rather than triumphant, in the actual course of
history. Thus, according to the Christian belief, history
remains morally ambiguous to the end··· Suffering inno-
cence, which reveals the problem of moral ambiguity in
history, becomes in the Christian faith the answer to the
problem at the point when it is seen as the revelation of a
divine suffering. (Niebuhr, 1949, p. 135)
In the meantime, all we know, all we can know, is that there
is a decisive difference between good and bad, right and wrong.
Historical outcomes are not merely relative or subjective. His-
tory doesn’t “just happen,” as Richard Rorty (1989, pp. 184,
185) would have it. Consequently, we can know that it is
worthwhile fighting for the good, and we need not become
overly discouraged when we lose, as we often will. Worthwhile
means that fighting for the good is a meaningful (and not ab-
surd) activity. Neither is it simply an existential choice, receiv-
ing its value because I have chosen it. Fighting for the good can
be measured by, and receives its value from, a standard of infi-
nite value. We have been given a glimpse of this good and its
standard, even if in practice this glimpse is indistinct. The
good’s basic principles were laid down in the Hebrew and
Greek Testaments. The scandal of the cross reflects a determi-
nation to be utterly realistic about the prevalence of evil in the
world, while remaining committed to the belief that history is
meaningful because it has been given meaning by the traces of
Nonetheless, Niebuhr has a problem. The knowledge of God
in history is not known through the study of history. It is
grasped inwardly, by repentance and “the shattering of the
self,” placing one’s trust in divine power and mercy. Niebuhr is
referring to the type of knowledge often characterized in terms
of revelation or faith. Gilkey (2001, pp. 193-104) uses the term
“existential,” in order to stress the similarity between the
knowledge Niebuhr assumes and the knowledge Søren Kierke-
gaard writes about. How then can Niebuhr make this know-
ledge (if that is what it is) relevant to the fate of human collec-
tivities, and hence to history, which is clearly what Niebuhr
wants to do? Niebuhr writes about “structures of common grace
C. F. ALFORD
in history,” but this is not very convincing. What he seems to
mean is moments when the interests of the ruling class and the
community come together, as in the United States with civil
rights, or South Africa when apartheid was ended without a
bloodbath. This seems less than a fully satisfactory explanation.
Is it possible that the Holocaust represents a new form of evil,
one that mocks the meaning of history? One might argue that
this is strictly a religious question, one that may divide Chris-
tians and Jews. But even if this is a question of theological
difference (as well as theological distance), it is not only a
theological difference. Not, if the Holocaust has brought a new
evil into our world.
For Niebuhr, the Holocaust is not unique, but an exemplary
corruption “of a mature civilization in which technical instru-
ments have become more effective tools of tyrannical purpose.”
The purpose is not only the destruction of life, but the worship
of the power of the regime itself (Niebuhr, 1996, vol. 2, pp. 318,
319). What if this were not simply the case? What if the Holo-
caust represented a break even with the other industrially orga-
nized horrors of the twentieth-century: two world wars, Hiro-
shima, Stalin, Mao Zedong, a woefully incomplete list. Why
would the Holocaust represent a break?
Because National Socialism worshiped not only itself, and
not only its power over life and death. National Socialism
created a world of industrialized and organized sadism, whose
goal was to rationalize pleasure in the torment, torture, and
degradation of the innocent before they are destroyed. Arendt
grasped this; it is what she called radical evil, before retreating
from the concept. Daniel Goldhagen grasped it, and so pre-
sumably did tens of thousands of his readers, even if more so-
ber historians did not. Saul Friedlander grasped this point with
his concept of the Rausch, the intoxication that must have
seized the organizers of the Holocaust when the ultimate trans-
gression, the elimination of a people, a genos, seemed within
One imagines that sadism, pleasure in the degradation and
destruction of the innocent, must be carried out by perverted
individuals if it is to give them any satisfaction. This turns out
not to be true. People at some distance, either bureaucratic dis-
tance, or the distance of people who only have a hazy under-
standing of what is going on, can experience great satisfaction,
perhaps even greater satisfaction, because they can know and
not know at the same time. They can know, and yet not get too
close, even to their own knowledge. Niebuhr wrote that in the
years leading up to the Holocaust, good Germans were in a
state of denial about what was happening in their own country.
A state of denial stands close to that state of knowing and not
knowing, and perhaps there is satisfaction in resting there: the
satisfaction of vicariously participating in the desecration of the
Jews while not letting oneself know that this is what one is
The Holocaust was the conjunction of evil and absurdity.
Evil in all the ways is described. Absurdity in the rationaliza-
tion to which it was subjected, so that evil becomes one more
thing to be administered by the state and its institutions, as ex-
emplified by the Reichsbahn schedule of fares to bring “pas-
sengers” to the concentration camps. This combination of evil
and absurdity does not contradict an interpretation of history in
which God stands at the end point, suffering with us along the
way. Nothing could contradict this interpretation, for it does not
depend on actual history for its validity. Nevertheless, there is
something about the conjunction of evil and absurdity that
mocks the meaning of history. Primo Levi tells the story of a
prison guard who snatched an icicle out of his hand just as he
was about to suck on it to relieve his terrible thirst. “Warum?”
asked Levi. “Hier ist kein warum” answered the guard. Here
there is no why, no reason, no point in asking because there is
no answer (Levi, 1996, p. 29). This occurred during the first
few days of Levi’s year-long imprisonment in Auschwitz. The
answer never changed.
For Niebuhr, history is fundamentally mysterious. We do not
know its meaning, but we know that it has a meaning, a mean-
ing expressed most richly in Biblical myth. There are other
myths. One of the most well-known contemporary myths is The
Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus, in which there is no mean-
ing but that which man self-consciously creates for himself. Or
as Gilkey (2001) puts it, for Niebuhr
“the problem of history” is the question of the meaning-
fulness of history··· However obscure that meaning may
be··· [Niebuhr] never drew the conclusion from that ob-
scurity that the re might in fac t be no meani ng to histor y at
all··· For examples of this latter view, see the works of
Albert Camus, especially The Myth of Sisyphus (p. 146; cf.
My claim is that the Holocaust represents a new type of evil.
An evil that was not primarily instrumental, but whose goal was
the infliction of torment, torture and degradation for its own
sake. Death was only the last station on this journey. An evil
which never lost these qualities, even as it became more and
more bureaucratized and rationalized. It is this combination that
renders the evil of the Holocaust absurd, as Horkheimer and
Adorno recognized. They were referring to the conjunction of
primitive superstition and modern rational methods of destruc-
tion. I refer to primitive satisfaction in desecration of the good,
disguised and given free reign by the ideology and rationaliza-
tion of Nazi propaganda and bureaucratic practice. Arendt
(1965, p. 150) seems to be getting at a similar point when she
said “evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most
people recognize it—the quality of temptation.”
This doesn’t mean that Niebuhr is wrong about the myste-
rious meaning of history. He could not be wrong, for his is a
theological claim, not an empirical one. The absurdity of evil
means that it becomes more difficult to find meaning in the
meaning of history, for absurdity is not mysterious; it is simply
absurd. The mark of absurdity is that it mocks meaning, as
Niebuhr and Gilkey understand. To be sure, one can continue to
hold to the view that the meaning of history is mysterious. Only
at some point, does not the mystery itself become absurd, point-
less? At some point one wants not mystery, and not even clarity,
but simply for the insanity to stop. Those with the power and
will to make it stop become, at least for a time, the source of
meaning. This is dangerous business, dangerous thinking, for
those who stop the insanity will soon seek their turn to become
gods, and one hopes more charitable ones. By then the absurdi-
ty of evil will have done its work, leaving a hole in history too
big for any meaning to fill. This includes any theory of post-
poned meaning: that the mysterious meaning of history will
become clear only at the end of days. For have those who expe-
rienced the Holocaust not experienced that too? A perverted
version, to be sure, Auschwitz as the end of all days. But that’s
C. F. ALFORD
what mockery is.
For all his realism about sin and evil, Niebuhr never got
close enough to the Holocaust to let himself be touched by this
experience, the desecration and degradation that mock all
meaning. Niebuhr was too much of an activist to be touched in
this way. This is not necessarily a criticism. The world requires
all types. But it sets a limit to Niebuhr’s understanding.
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