The Argument from Morality: Nazi Morality

So how did the Nazis justify the murder of innocent Jews?

They didn’t.

Watching or reading Nazi propaganda, it is impossible not to be struck by how close their overtly expressed moral values are to ours. They condemn cruelty to the poor and oppressed. In the 1941 film, Heimkehr (Homecoming), Poles in eastern Poland are depicted as heartless brutes, vilely oppressing the German minority inside their borders. Fleuchtlinge (Refugees) made in 1933 is about Germans living on the Sino-Russian border in Manchuria in 1928. Again, Germans are the victims of cruel persecution, this time from the bolsheviks.

The Nazis did not openly celebrate cruelty and oppression. They purported to condemn it. Even in the notorious “Jud Seuss”, Seuss is a cruel, manipulative rapist, that’s why he’s bad. Of course, the film peddles the lie that he is a cruel manipulative rapist because he’s a Jew. But it could never have scaled the moral high ground it aspires to if it had just said that he deserved to die simply because he was a Jew.

In order for there to be any possible claim of a moral basis for their actions, the Nazis could not simply cut themselves adrift from everything which had been thought about morality before them. In order to present their wickedness as admirable, they had to use those same concepts about what is good and bad as we all use. If they had not done so, they could not have been understood to be talking about morality at all.

The following quote from Richard Swinburne puts it better than I could hope to.

Suppose that a person were introduced to the concept of ‘moral obligation’ only by being told that it is ‘morally obligatory’ in all circumstances to walk on alternate paving stones,to touch your head three times before getting out of bed in the morning….Surely we would regard this person as not having been introduced to the concept of moral obligation. The difference between this person and the rest of us would be not that we and he or she have different views about what actions are morally obligatory, but that he or she would not have the concept moral obligation. There has to be a measure of agreement about what are paradigm cases of actions that are morally obligatory, good and so on, for disputants to have a common concept about the further application of which they are in disagreement

What applies to actions that are entirely outside the realm of moral behaviour will also apply to actions which have a moral aspect but where the morality is simply inverted. You might have a morality where you call all the things”good” that we call “bad”, in the same way that you might call everything “black” that we call “white”. But that would not show that you had a radically different concept of good and bad (or black and white). EIt would just show that you had exactly the same concept as the rest of us and were using it to play some kind of word game.

Heinrich Himmler wrote to his daughter Gudrun on her birthday: “You must be decent, brave and kind.”  Does anyone disagree with that as a moral standard to aspire to?  Himmler also described the Final Solution as “This page of glory in our history has never been written and will never be written…”. The Holocaust could never be written about by the Germans because they knew that it defied any normal concept of morality.  Himmler knew very well that what they were doing in the concentration camps would be universally condemned. Secrecy was necessary because what was happening was morally indefensible.  

Obviously, to some extent they managed to “sell” the Final Solution to those who carried out. How did they do that?

People are good at making excuses for themselves. They can generally find some argument, however thin, to justify the unjustifiable and dress their faults up as virtues. So the slave-holder told himself that black people were better off held as chattels and that slaves had better care under their masters than the free workers who had nobody to look after them and might starve if they lost their job.

The Nazis argued that Jewish culture was debauched and cruel. And if the Jewish children were allowed to live, that would spell the undoing of Germany. So in killing Jewish children he was wiping out a blot which had troubled Europe for centuries and ensuring that no new menace would arise.

If that sounds implausible as a defence for the murder of children, consider this:

By the time of their destruction, Canaanite culture was, in fact, debauched and cruel, embracing such practices as ritual prostitution and even child sacrifice.

God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel

Yes, it’s our old friend WLC again, “explaining” how the OT genocides were justifiable. He closes with this:

Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli [sic] soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children?

Ah, the terrible suffering of the genocidal killer. Too bad God didn’t send down some gas chambers. That was how the Nazis insulated themselves from the “trauma”.


4 thoughts on “The Argument from Morality: Nazi Morality

  1. Apart from taking another dig at WLC, I’m not sure what you are trying to say in this post.
    I have just read it twice.
    And I shall read it a third time, but you’re going to have to help me out here, please, Frances.

  2. Oh dear! This is disheartening! Of course, if I have failed to make myself clear, then I immeadiately accept the fault lies with me and not my reader.
    I’ll try to sum it up.
    1. A frequent gambit used in the AfM is to say: “If your morality is not founded on God, then your morality can endorse literally any sort of behaviour. Look at the Nazis – if they’d wonn the war we all be taught to believe (and all accept) that it was a fine and noble thing to send defenceless people, including children, the sick and the elderly into gas chambers.”
    2. I challenge that. The Nazis did not and never could have preached that pushing children into gas chambers and killing them was a fine and noble thing. This is for much the same reason that they could never have taught that a square was a plain figure with an infinite number of sides.
    3. If they had won the war, the Nazis would have denied the holocaust, because they understood it could not be accommodated under any moral theory. If they had been forced to admit some killings they would have used strategies to try and justify it within the normal scope of morality (“if any children died it was collateral damage….” That sort of thing). There was no question of a completely new morality which bore no relation to our accepted models.

    IDK if I’ve made myself any clearer. Please let me know.

  3. I’d be keen to know from a purist atheist perspective, if slavery, rape, gay bashing or infanticide are objectively (truly) wrong (as opposed to being merely distasteful or detrimental to civility). Whenever I’ve viewed such crimes from my own atheistic vantage point I honestly can’t find anything objectively wrong. Ie Putting aside any legal impediment, I see nothing whatsoever that gives me (the atheist) the right to oblige my fellow citizen to not commit those crimes.

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