John Stonestreet and David Carlson on the Banality of Evil and the Problem With Misremembering the Holocaust

“Selection” of Hungarian Jews on the ramp at Auschwitz-II (Birkenau), Poland, during the Holocaust in May/June 1944. Jews were sent either to work or to the gas chamber. The photograph is part of the collection known as the Auschwitz Album/Creative Commons

John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and radio host of BreakPoint, a daily national radio program providing thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


Today, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the infamous Nazi death camp known as Auschwitz, the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The millions who each year visit Auschwitz, as well as the Holocaust museums in Jerusalem, Washington D.C., and elsewhere become witnesses to an era of almost unimaginable cruelty.

They, and we, are told to “never forget.” And we shouldn’t. But, it is crucial not only that we remember, but how we remember.

Last week, in the online magazine TLS, Nikolaus Wachsmann reflected on the plea of camp victim Zalman Gradowski that future generations would “form an image” of the “hell” of Auschwitz.

“But,” Wachsmann writes, “the Auschwitz of popular imagination often bears little relation to the Auschwitz Gradowski had lived and died in. As a global emblem of evil, the camp has become unmoored from its actuality.”

For example, Wachsmann relates that “It is often said . . . that Auschwitz was a different planet, so alien that even birds did not sing there.” But that’s not true. The camp’s surroundings were “rich in wildlife.” So rich, in fact, “that employees of IG Farben, the German firm that enslaved thousands of prisoners, went birding together, while a trained ornithologist among the SS guards meticulously surveyed the local species… for scholarly publications.”

In other words, there is a very real human tendency to mis-remember the grave evils of history: to imagine that they happened in a different world; to think that those who perpetuated such evil, or those who scandalously remained silent and complicit, were somehow different kinds of people than we are.

Exacerbating this tendency is the modern illusion of moral evolution. That, somehow, we are more enlightened and tolerant than they, having moved on from the bigotry of our human past.

That moral chronological snobbery is not only wrong, it’s dangerous, creating a blind spot to the evils and horrors of which we are capable.

In his 1993 Templeton Prize address, Chuck Colson described the realization that came to Holocaust survivor Yehiel Dinur at the trial of Adolf Eichmann:

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