Dogma Makes Obedient Ghosts | Facing History & Ourselves

Dogma Makes Obedient Ghosts

Consider the connection between science and human values, and reflect on how the Nazis used their beliefs to justify making mass murder as efficient as possible.  
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English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • Propaganda

The trials of the engineers who designed and built the gas chambers and crematoria for Nazi camps (see reading, The Technology of Mass Murder) raised universal questions about the relationship between science and human values. Until 1933, German scientists explored scientific questions from various perspectives. They were pioneers in the theory of tolerance, the idea that the world cannot be understood with complete certainty. In the absence of complete certainty, according to this theory, humans must make judgments about how the world works, judgments that might change in light of new evidence.

After 1933, German scientists, like most Germans, served the aims of National Socialism, and dogma became a substitute for truth. Dogma is a belief or set of beliefs that the leaders of a community or nation declare to be absolute truth. Dogma is not open to question, and it denies the existence of uncertainty. In a country dominated by Nazi dogma, German scientists developed gas chambers and crematoria. This technology of mass murder has often been described as a defining characteristic of the Holocaust (even though millions were also murdered in mass shootings and by other, less technological means).

In the documentary series The Ascent of Man, historian and scientist Jacob Bronowski explored the relationship between science and human values throughout human history.  After visiting Japan at the end of World War II, Bronowski was troubled by the aftermath of the atom bombs the United States dropped on Japan in 1945, killing more than 120,000 people instantly and thousands more later from radiation exposure.  While he did not compare the bombing to the crimes of the Holocaust, both raised concerns for him about the use of science for the destruction of human life on a massive scale. In the documentary, Bronowski bends over a pond at the site of Auschwitz, where several of his family members were killed, and discusses the role of technology in what he considers to be “the central dilemma of the twentieth century”:

One [part] is the belief that the end justifies the means. The push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts—obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.

It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. . . . This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

I owe it as a scientist to my friend [physicist] Leo Szilard. I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people. 1

Connection Questions

  1. What is dogma? How might dogma close the mind, according to Jacob Bronowski?
  2. According to Bronowski, what role did arrogance, dogma, and ignorance play in the deaths of millions at Auschwitz?
  3. What is absolute knowledge? Does Bronowski believe it is possible to achieve, through science or any other means? What does he believe are the dangers of trying?
  4. In The Ascent of Man, Bronowski says: “We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act.” What does he mean? How do you think the history of the Holocaust and World War II led him to this perspective? How do we “close the distance”?
  • 1Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man (British Broadcasting, 1973), and accompanying book of same title (BBC Books, 1973), 284–85.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Dogma Makes Obedient Ghosts," last updated August 2, 2016.

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