A Whole New World: The Legacy of the Holocaust in the West

The preface to an album I purchased at Auschwitz properly describes the Holocaust as the great watershed moment for modern Europe. The Nazis planned the complete extermination of European Jewry but they also believed, as SS leader Heinrich Himmler declared, that the genocide was a story that would never be written. As Soviet forces approached Auschwitz-Birkenau they tried to wipe out all traces of what they had done, destroying the gas chambers and crematorium. But, as Piotr M. A. Cywinski notes in the book’s preface,

They failed in this in a way that they surely did not anticipate in their darkest surmises. The memory not only endured, but it changed the view of all contemporary civilization. Relations between European states were rebuilt on completely different principles – communitarianism and solidarity. Genocide and crimes against humanity have been defined legally. Protection of minorities has become a basic democratic norm. The Holocaust has become a fundamental reference point in culture, philosophy, theology, and all of anthropology – what is more, it increasingly plays the role of a historical European turning point. Nothing is what it was before. Without the Holocaust, there is no way to understand Europe today. (Auschwitz-Birkenau: The Place Where You Are Standing … 2012)

That is exactly right. Apart from World War II and the Holocaust, the foundations of the modern international order would never have been established: the United Nations, the European Union, internationally embraced norms of human rights and international law, the supremacy of the liberal democratic political order.

These principles aren’t entirely new, of course. They are deeply rooted in Christianity and the legacy of Christendom, as numerous scholars have demonstrated. Rather than a rejection of Europe’s Christian past in favor of the Enlightenment, as is often assumed, they amount to a secular affirmation of Christianity’s most basic humanitarian principles. They are new only because they synthesize those principles with the best insights of the Enlightenment and work them out in the context of modernity. They are new insofar as they are a rejection of modernity’s most horrific 20th Century legacy: racism, militant nationalism, communism, totalitarianism, and world war.

In my past few blog posts I’ve described the ongoing legacy of World War II and the Holocaust in Berlin and in Poland. Europe’s not so distant past is incredibly dark, and no religious or political tradition, no ethnic or national group is free of blemish or taint. Some groups come out better than others, but too often it is only because they lacked the power to do worse, or because they suffered so much that we simply view them as victims. There are very good reasons why Europeans are skeptical about dogmatic political, national, and religious ideologies. There are even better reasons why they are absolutely committed to human rights and to the protection of minorities.

American conservatives, specifically Christian conservatives, tend to be pessimistic about the future of America, of Christianity, and of western culture. Yet we need this history, and these stories, to put things in perspective. The 1930s, the 1950s, the 1980s, were not the good ole’ days. The history of the West is not a history of unilinear decline. The emergence of international organizations like the UN and the EU, the widespread embrace of human rights and basic free market principles, the rejection of nationalism, racism, and the persecution of minorities, and the supremacy of the liberal political tradition over Fascism, Nazism, and Communism all tell a different story. Although few people appreciate it today, especially in Europe, none of this is conceivable apart from the legacy of Christendom, of Christian political principles, and of basic human awareness of natural law.

One of the most important task facing American and European Christians in our time is to offer our skeptical neighbors hope by witnessing to the gospel of Christ. An entire continent is turning away from the faith that shaped it so decisively, confusing evil, injustice, and hypocrisy with what is good, what is just, and what is true. It is by no means clear that these people understand the alternative. Surely few of them grasp the importance of Christian convictions regarding God, humanity, and natural law as the foundation for the liberal order to which they remain so committed. Christians, for their part, need to be honest and own up to our tradition’s complicity in the tragedies of the past. Let’s stop pretending that to be be Christian is to be conservative. But we also need to be courageous in demonstrating that the best hope of the future – the true insights of the liberal tradition – are rooted in the truths of Christianity.

The hope of the future, of course, is neither Christendom nor liberalism. Human history is a long story of “one damned thing after another,” of course, and that is as true for the achievements of the middle ages and modernity alike. But truth shines through, or is at least reflected, in the debris. The hope for all human beings is that God was incarnate in the flesh, that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was raised, and now reigns at God’s right hand. One day he will will set all things right in the perfect justice of his kingdom.

The past was not so bright and the future is not so bleak. Just ask the Germans and the Poles.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 3, 2013, in Holocaust and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on A Whole New World: The Legacy of the Holocaust in the West.

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