The Value of Human Life in a Time of War: The Holocaust


There was a time when wars and rumors of wars were a regular occurrence. This was especially true in the ancient world as well as in the medieval period. In these conflicts, there was no justification needed to annihilate a tribe and a distinct group of people made different by their religion and culture. In the history of mankind, the Jews were the special target of many. Today, they live in a land that seems not to know peace. But compared to what they had endured in the time of the Nazi’s their current problems can be considered as minor inconveniences. In the time of Hitler, the value of Jewish life was almost nothing. They were reduced to forced labor and many of them died inside gas chambers. Millions perished in just a short period. It was one of the most horrifying atrocities of war. In the 21st century, this kind of genocide could never be tolerated but during that time the whole of Germany was silent. The answer can be found in the ideology developed by Hitler as well as the other factors that strengthened his views and encouraged the German people to support him.

World War I was brought about by a series of miscalculations and bad judgment.1 The Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy, and Germany were forced to fight Great Britain, France, Russia, and the United States of America. It was one of the bloodiest wars in military history but it was merely the prelude to another brutal encounter of the world’s superpowers.2 In the end, the alliance of Great Britain, France, and the United States proved to be formidable. With the late entry of the Americans, the tides of war shifted leaving Germany, Austro-Hungary, Turkey, and Italy in shambles. It was the German people who suffered the most. More or less two million Germans perished in the war.3

Aside from the humiliating defeat, the German people had to contend with severe economic losses. Adding insult to injury Germany was forced to give up military expansion and the victors demanded that the German government must give up conquered territories before World War I.4 In the aftermath of the First World War, German patriots were not happy with the armistice. It was easy to understand how young people would come to view the decision of their national leaders to capitulate to the demands of the enemy. Many harbored ill feelings and one of them was Adolf Hitler. He was a young soldier who participated in the war effort and he could not accept the way they were treated by foreigners. Hitler began to formulate a plan to make Germany great once again as well as reclaim what was lost during World War I.

Hitler’s plans did not stop with military expansion. He began talking about the Jews. For an outsider and a casual student of military history, this does not make sense. Many events in human history are very difficult to explain to a later generation. An example is the Vietnam War waged by the U.S. government against an enemy that is not a direct threat to the U.S. mainland and to an army that did not do anything except in the belief of a political system greatly different from that of the invading forces.5 Hitler’s desire to eliminate the Jews living in Germany and other European territories can be compared with these acts of aggression that seem at first without explanation. Digging dipper one can discover the logic behind such actions but still, it is almost impossible to understand the anger and the emotions behind the murder of more or less six million Jews.

After the devastation brought about by conflict, the post-World War II international political environment was geared towards the prevention of war. In the middle of the 20th century, the world has seen the establishment of the United Nations as an international agency that will facilitate the resolution of international quarrels.6 It is just unfortunate that it was not created immediately after the First World War. Looking back, the bloodshed could have been avoided, and more importantly, the Holocaust could have been prevented. It was just unfortunate for the Jews of Europe that during the Nazi’s reign of terror there was no international authority who could have fought for their protection.7 When the British and American armies joined forces to fight Germany the goal was not to liberate the Jews but to fight in defense of their people.

Expediency

Something happened to Europe that would forever change how people look at war and the activities associated with it and this was summed up in one statement, “At the beginning of the fifth century the Christianization of the army was officially accomplished.”8 In the ancient world, from the time of the Egyptians to the ascendancy of the Roman Empire, everything was fair game. The best way to end a conflict can be employed without being obligated to tell the members of the international community the justification for doing so. But this time around the use of force must be explained correctly or else a military force can be used against that state to force them to back down and reconsider their options.9

The Christianization of Europe added much impetus to the idea of a just war.10 It is no longer acceptable to simply go on the offensive. It does not mean that there were no more wars and rumors of war after Christian writers were able to influence political leaders when it came to the barbarity and vanity of war. But it can be ascertained that Christianity was a major factor in forcing many to at least develop a clear explanation why they should go to war against another and not use expediency as an excuse for a quick yet brutal assault.

The idea of conquest for the sake of conquest no longer applies. This is perhaps the reason why the geopolitical countries in Europe were given the chance to emerge as strong industrialized nations spared from the wastage of resources in fighting battle after battle. An analysis of the root cause of World War I will reveal that the major players like Britain and Germany were hesitant to join the conflict. It was after all sparked by the assassination of a member of the royal family of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by a young Serbian radical.11 It was of course a significant for the political leaders in that particular region but it was not enough to bring large countries into a major conflict. The hesitation of the superpowers to join the conflict is evidence that the idea of a “just war” had permeated Europe. It is therefore shocking to find out that a decade or so after the First World War ended, a German political party was not only desiring to conquer Europe but also eager to kill innocent civilians and their special target was the Jews of Europe.

Ideology

The conscience of the people must have been seared by the words of Hitler because centuries before World War II and Nazi Germany the clergy and intellectuals of Europe were very well aware of what St. Augustine said regarding their conduct in the event of war. St. Augustine was one of the first to promote the idea that a civilized nation and a religious nation to boot must satisfy the following: a) it must be a fight for justice; b) it is to correct a suffered wrong and not for material gain; c) it is for defense; d) to recover goods unjustly removed; e) to punish the guilty, and f) and to consider all of the above only after a peaceful and viable alternative has been seriously tried and exhausted.12

Hitler could have solved the moral dilemma by stating that Germany lost so many brave men on the battlefield. In one of his speeches, the Fuhrer appealed to the emotions of the German people when he said that it cannot be that 2 million Germans died in vain. 13 From that point forward it was a slippery slope; the Nazi party could never recover their moral compass. They were drowned in their hatred and they were willing to compromise their idea of freedom, morality, etc. They were so focused on hate that they were numbed when it was time to pull the trigger on a young Jewish man or woman. Their hearts were already calloused by the time that the gas chambers were ready to kill Jews.

It must be a just war.14 Based on the principles of “just war theory” and the inflammatory speeches of Hitler, it can be argued that the German demagogue found a way to interpret the said theory to conform to his agenda. By conquering Poland and Czechoslovakia Hitler was saying that he was merely taking back what rightly belonged to Germany. By destroying the Jews he was merely protecting the German state and its people.15

In the mind of Hitler, he was not dealing with a moral dilemma, he truly believed that it was a practical problem that has to be dealt with. Hitler used the ideas that he gleaned from social Darwinism theory that in essence was the belief that human beings were classified into races. They also believed that they have distinct characteristics. These characteristics were inherited and have affected the way they think and behave. Hitler also believed that some races are weak when it comes to military prowess.16

It seems that Hitler abhorred the Jews in at least three distinct ways. First, he does not like the way they look. Secondly, he does not like the way they conduct their business. Thirdly, he believes that they are inferior people, and one way to prove it is to look at their weakness when it comes to the military. Hitler was then able to conclude that the German people could not afford to have mixed racial relations with Jews. And the only way to accomplish this is to eradicate every single one of them. The only problem here from the “just war” point of view is that these paranoid beliefs could not be used to justify genocide.

Many wars were fought without clear justification. On the other hand, if a leader is bent on conquering a neighboring state then there is nothing much that can be done except to stop the madman. This happened in the latter part of the 20thc century when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.17 The same thing happened to the German people when a charismatic leader was able to consolidate power and even though there were critics who opposed his barbaric tactics Hitler was many steps ahead of his political adversaries.

It must be pointed out that it was not only the animated speeches of Hitler as well as his ideas that influenced the German people to go along with his plans of eradicating the Jews. As early as the 19th century an idea called social Darwinism was prevalent in Europe, especially in Germany.18 Social Darwinism posits that it is the environment that influences a human being and not his beliefs and his individuality.19 This prompted many to conclude that a geographic region is a dynamic entity and environmental factors can be manipulated to make it stronger.20 From this point onwards an aggressive leader can blame everything on external and internal forces that are negatively affecting the development of Germany into a serious economic power in Europe.

In the mind of Hitler, the external forces were of course the terms of the armistice that were laid down after the First World War. It is also the pressure exerted by the victors so that the German people would have no choice but to meekly adhere to the terms of the agreement. When it comes to the internal forces that were determined to undermine the overall progress of the German people, Hitler turned to the Jews and other outsiders in looking for a scapegoat that was dragging down the nation.21 In effect, Hitler was saying that the Jews were parasites and they were slowing down the evolution of the Third Reich. Therefore, they must be driven out of Germany. Later on, it was discovered that his solution to the Jewish problem was not merely deportation but mass murder.

It is possible that Hitler used the usual rhetoric of how to inspire undying and fierce devotion from his soldiers. It is possible that he encouraged them not only by making them remember the sacrifice of more than a million German patriots before them. He must have also reminded them of valor and loyalty to the Fatherland. But this is no excuse for what they did to the Jews and to countless others who were not armed. It was not conventional warfare, it was genocide. The officers and the soldiers who offered the services to their country should have known better than to blindly follow Hitler. They could not use the excuse that they were merely following orders.22

Consequences and Warnings

By setting aside morality and ethics in decision-making, political leaders and policymakers will help create laws as well as a mindset that can destroy the lives of many people. This is seen in war and in regimes where dictators and demagogues are only looking after their selfish interests. The result of such a stance is poverty, violence, and confusion. It is interesting to point out that when the Nazi party took over Germany anarchy and mindless violence was not the distinctive feature of the nation. Instead, the Nazis were successful in creating a systematic way of killing Jews.

This was made possible by having members of the dreaded SS and police officials incarcerated Jews. They also played a major part in the creation of a system where Jews were segregated, forced to live in Ghettos, shipped to concentration camps, forced to work in deplorable conditions, and then for many of the inmates they were brought to the gas chambers.23 At the end of World War II, a careful study of the Holocaust revealed that approximately 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime and its allies.24 To understand the magnitude of the genocide it is important to point out that in 1933 the Jewish population in Europe was estimated to be over nine million and therefore the Nazis orchestrated a plan to kill nearly two out of three European Jews. This means that in every family a member is mourning the death of a loved one. Every family in every home across Europe mourning for a dead father, mother, brother, or sister is an unbearable thought.

Hatred consumed Hitler and the Nazi party. They suffered greatly in the aftermath of World War I. They used it as a justification to go to war, to invade and conquer neighboring territories. They may be justified using the principles of “just war theory” but when they began killing civilians, especially European Jews, they went overboard. There is no justification for killing innocent civilians. Their belief in the social Darwinism theory allowed them to turn a blind eye to various atrocities committed by the Nazis. Yet, it was also the ruthless and charismatic Hitler that became the tipping point to bring all Germany together and use their resources to ignite war and to initiate the Holocaust.

Works Cited

  1. Borawski, John. 2001. Nato After 2000: The Future of the Euro-Atlantic Alliance. Westport, CT: Praege Publishers.
  2. Contamine, P. 1999. War in the Middle Ages. MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  3. Coppieters, Bruno & Nick Fotion. eds. 2002. Moral Constraints on War: Principles and Cases. MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing.
  4. Gaston, James & Hietala Janis, eds. 1993. Ethics and National Defense: The Timeless Issues. Washington, D.C.: Diane Publishing.
  5. Greenville, John A. Soames. 2005. A History of the World from the Twentieth to the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge
  6. Griffiths, Williams. 2003. The Great War. New York: Square One Publishers.
  7. Keegan, 1998. The First World War. New York: Random House.
  8. Orend, Brian. 2000. War and International Justice: A Kantian Perspective. Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
  9. Roth, John. Reflections on Post-Holocaust Ethics. In Problems Unique to the Holocaust Harry Cargas, ed. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky.
  10. Schwab, O. 1998. Defending the Free World: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and the Vietnam War. CT: Praeger Publishers.
  11. Strachan, Hew. 2001. The First World War. New York: Oxford University Press.
  12. Tomuschat, Christian. 2003. Human Rights: Between Idealism and Realism. New York: Oxford University Press.
  13. Tuck, Richard. 1999. The Rights of War and Peace. New York: Oxford University Press.
  14. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 2009. The Holocaust.
  15. Weeramantry, C. G. 1987. Nuclear Weapons and Scientific Responsibility. Wolfeboro, NH: Lognwood Publishing Group, Inc.

Footnotes

  1. Griffiths, Williams. 2003. The Great War. New York: Square One Publishers, p. 16.
  2.  Greenville, John A. Soames. 2005. A History of the World from the Twentieth to the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge
  3. Keegan, 1998. The First World War. New York: Random House, p. 3.
  4. Greenville, p. 112.
  5. Schwab, O. 1998. Defending the Free World: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and the Vietnam War. CT: Praeger Publishers, p. 2.
  6. Tomuschat, Christian. 2003. Human Rights: Between Idealism and Realism. New York:Oxford University Press.
  7. Orend, Brian. 2000. War and International Justice: A Kantian Perspective. Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press., p. 178.
  8.  Contamine, P. 1999. War in the Middle Ages. MA: Blackwell Publishers, p. 264.
  9. Weeramantry, C. G. 1987. Nuclear Weapons and Scientific Responsibility. Wolfeboro, NH: Lognwood Publishing Group, Inc.
  10. Tuck, Richard. 1999. The Rights of War and Peace. New York: Oxford University Press.
  11. Griffiths, p. 18.
  12. Contamine, p. 264.
  13. Keegan, p. 3.
  14. Borawski, John. 2001. Nato After 2000: The Future of the Euro-Atlantic Alliance. Westport, CT: Praege Publishers, p. 44.
  15. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 2009. The Holocaust.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Coppieters, Bruno & Nick Fotion. eds. 2002. Moral Constraints on War: Principles and Cases. MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing.
  18. Strachan, Hew. 2001. The First World War. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 9.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Roth, John. Reflections on Post-Holocaust Ethics. In Problems Unique to the Holocaust Harry Cargas, ed. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, p. 170.
  22. Gaston, James & Hietala Janis, eds. 1993. Ethics and National Defense: The Timeless Issues. Washington, D.C.: Diane Publishing.
  23. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  24. Ibid.