Every year, as part of Sociology 230, “The Holocaust and Global Racisim,” Michael Sanow, a professor at the Community College of Baltimore County Catonsville, commemorates Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, with a special program. His students attend, and students and professors from other classes are also invited. This year, Sanow asked Fred Katz, a sociologist, teacher, author and Holocaust survivor who escaped Nazi Germany through the Kindertransport to speak to his class.
The Kindertransport was a rescue initiative that brought thousands of Jewish children from Central Europe to Great Britain from Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1940. When he was 11, Katz’s parents, who saw it would be impossible for the whole family to escape, arranged to send him to England, where he was placed in a refugee school. He never saw his parents and brother again.
But as compelling and instructive as his story is, Katz did not wish to dwell on it during his talk. Instead, he said, he was interested in “taking a new approach” to the Holocaust.
As he has addressed directly in his books “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Evil” and “Confronting Evil: Two Journals,” and more globally in books such as “Immediacy: How Our World Confronts Us & How We Confront Our World,” Katz contends that remembering the Holocaust so that it “never happens again” is not only an inadequate response, but also a response that fails to take into account the genocides that have been and continue to be perpetuated around the world.
“Yes, we should remember, but don’t assume that remembering will prevent mass horrors,” Katz told the class. “All of this [study and remembrance] raises a central issue about the Holocaust being unique. It was unique in its scope, yes, but what is the price we pay by focusing on its uniqueness? It prevents us from learning and gaining the tools we need to prevent holocausts. The Holocaust mustn’t be remembered as unique. We can discover elements from our ordinary human ways that can explain evil.”
In “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Evil” Katz drew upon Hannah Arendt’s controversial theory of the banality of evil, which she first introduced in her editorial coverage of the Adolph Eichmann trial for The New Yorker in 1961. In essence, Katz told the class, “She [Arendt] pointed out that this man [Eichmann] who had committed these atrocities seemed so ordinary. She brought the message that ordinary human beings are capable of evil.”
Katz went on to give examples of how easily human beings can — unwittingly at first — become engaged in evil. For example, said Katz, “take the hypothesis of a German lawyer who needs a job and finds the only job available is in the legal department of the Nazis in Berlin. This guy isn’t a Nazi. He tells himself that he will do his job without being part of the Nazi stuff. After a while, his wife tells him they need more money. What can he do to make more money? He can formulate anti-Semitic laws. He has become an active participant in the Nazi horrors.”
In another example, Katz cited the role that group dynamics or “informal cultures” can play in the evolution of evil.
“In the benign culture of factory workers, where the assumption is that everyone is just working the assembly line, workers often develop a rich culture,” said Katz. “Each individual creates a distinctive reputation for himself within the crew. One person is the prankster, another is the chronic victim. … Each person is celebrated for their reputation.”
This was also the case among the prison guards at Auschwitz, Katz contended. “In the informal culture of Auschwitz, each guard developed a specialty. One guard liked torture, another liked to hit people in the face and break their noses. One guard liked to shoot people, and another, a medical orderly, would inject phenol into their hearts to kill them.”
Finally, Katz pointed to his theory of “closed moral universes.” In this situation, human beings maintain elements of the values with which they were raised — such as loyalty and respect for authority — but with a “moral mutation.”
In one experiment, said Katz, “nice, ordinary Americans were willing to inflict electric shocks to innocent people when they were told it was contributing to science and were directed to do so by an authority figure. A new moral reality was created, and they believed they were carrying out justice. Mass extermination was based on the same thing. In closed moral worlds, mutations can open the floodgates, and people will believe they are acting morally.”
Katz believes that “unless we get our house in order, we [humans] may not make it.” By taking a “cold, dispassionate look” at the capacity for evil, he believes humanity may find clues that will help determine what makes human beings capable of perpetrating cruel acts such as genocides and how to prevent them.
Ultimately, Katz said that the path to preventing our demise will come through “better science.”
“The state of human science is where physics was 1,200 years ago,” he said. “Understanding the science of social space is crucial for our survival.”
Following Katz’s talk, students and professors had many questions. They asked for his opinions on Middle East relations, the situation in the Ukraine and present-day genocides. Danielle Taylor, an African-American student who attended the program on the advice of her English teacher, said, “It was really powerful and insightful. I am so grateful he was here. I’ve read a lot about the Holocaust. I’ve read Eli Wiesel, and I don’t want to minimize the Holocaust. But there are atrocities we need to address going on all over the world. Education is the key to unlocking hate. Hate is all about anger and fear. I like to say, ‘Don’t be bitter, be better.’”