Telling Right From Wrong

Underlying the trials and the discussions of what the Nazis did and did not do is an important question: If a government orders an individual to do something that, in normal circumstances, is illegal and, even more to the point, morally wrong, must the individual obey?

As she watched Eichmann’s trial, Hannah Arendt observed: “Eichmann said he recognized that what he had participated in was perhaps one of the greatest crimes in history, but, he insisted, if he had not done so, his conscience would have bothered him at the time. His conscience and morality were working exactly in reverse. This reversal is precisely the moral collapse that took place in Europe.

Arendt concluded that the act of resistance was extraordinarily difficult during World War II. There were no acceptable role models. “Those few who were still able to tell right from wrong went really only by their own judgments, and they did so freely; there were no rules to be abided by, under which the particular cases with which they were confronted could be subsumed. They had to decide each instance as it arose, because no rules existed for the unprecedented."1

Simon Wiesenthal wrote a story called “The Sunflower” that raises many of the same questions. The jacket of the book in which it appears summarizes the tale.

A young Jew is taken from a death-camp to a makeshift army hospital. He is led to the bedside of a Nazi soldier whose head is completely swathed in bandages. The dying Nazi blindly extends his hand toward the Jew, and in a cracked whisper begins to speak. The Jew listens silently while the Nazi confesses to having participated in the burning alive of an entire village of Jews. The soldier, terrified of dying with this burden of guilt, begs absolution from the Jew. Having listened to the Nazi’s story for several hours – torn between horror and compassion for the dying man – the Jew finally walks out of the room without speaking. Was his action right? Or moral?2

Hans Habe, a Hungarian-Austrian writer and newspaper publisher responded to Wiesenthal’s questions:

One of the worst crimes of the Nazi regime was that it made it so hard for us to forgive. It led us into the labyrinth of our souls. We must find our way out of the labyrinth – not for the murderers’ sake but for our own. Neither love alone expressed in forgiveness, nor justice alone, exacting punishment, will lead us out of the maze. A demand for atonement and forgiveness is not self-contradictory; when a man has willfully extinguished the life of another, atonement is the prerequisite for forgiveness. Exercised with love and justice, atonement and forgiveness serve the same end: life without hatred. That is our goal: I see no other.3

  1. Citations

    • 1 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 2.
    • 2 Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower (Schocken, 1976).
    • 3 Ibid.

Connection Questions

  1. How would you answer the questions Wiesenthal raises? Wiesenthal’s tale is followed by the responses of theologians, philosophers, historians, and writers to the two questions. In his response to the questions, Hans Habe wrote:
  2. Why does Habe believe that “We must find our way out of the labyrinth – not for the murderers’ sake but for our own?” Do you agree?
  3. Primo Levi argued that it was right to refuse to pardon the dying man because it was “the lesser evil: you could only have forgiven him by lying or inflicting upon yourself a terrible moral violence.” Are there lesser and greater evils? What “moral violence” would the man have inflicted upon himself through forgiveness? How do you think Habe would respond?
  4. When asked about forgiveness, Elie Wiesel replied, “No one asked for it.” What is he saying about the perpetrators? About the bystanders?

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