Hans G. Furth

Hans G. Furth, my father, was a professor of psychology at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. When he passed away in 1999, he had completed writing his latest book, but had not yet found a publisher.

Here is the full manuscript (pdf): The Story of the Holocaust: Psychological and Historical Perspectives. HG Furth, 1999.

Here is the preface:


The Story of the Holocaust: Psychological and Historical Perspectives

For whatever reason — personal, familial, cultural, historical — it was not given to
me to feel at home in the country (Austria), the religion (Jewish), not even the language
(German) of my birth. So it was no big personal loss for me when, five months after Hitler’s
annexation of Austria, I left Vienna. When some months later I arrived in England I was truly
overwhelmed: “This is the language and the country into which I should have been born,” I said
to myself.

My grandparents had moved in the 1870s from the provinces to the capital of a large
multi-ethnic empire. However, when I grew up in the 1920s, Austria was a small country that
had emerged from the collapse of this empire following World War I. I was aware of living in
a defeated nation, as well as of the civil unrest that in 1927 led to the autocratic regime of
Dollfus. And then there was a first Nazi grasp for power in 1934 which failed only due to the
intervention of Mussolini’s Italy. But in March 1938 no such help was forthcoming and amid
general jubilation Hitler’s troops occupied Austria. With severe pressure on Jews to leave the
country, I was fortunate to have a friend with a Czech passport who could visit London and
enroll me in a YMCA-sponsored scheme to be trained and sent to Australia as a cowboy. Once
the war broke out this scheme was canceled and I remained in England for the duration.
When I said good-by to my grandfather, he reflected: “When after the war we wanted to
be part of Germany the victorious powers did not permit it…. Jews have always been
persecuted…. Don’t worry, nothing will happen to me. I was an officer in the Austrian army.”

While the first two points sounded almost like an excuse for the Nazi aggression, on the last
point he was sorely mistaken. The Nazi violence turned out to be of a quality different from the
historical experience of European Jews. You will find the name of my mother’s father, Adolf
Schindler, on the Transport List 29 of the Gestapo, 28 June 1942, from Vienna to Theresienstadt
(Figure 1).

Thousands of books have been written on the destruction of Europe’s Jews under
the Nazi regime. This cataclysmic event is now commonly referred to by the term “Holocaust.”
Many museums and memorials are devoted to it, notably the Holocaust Memorial Museum in the
nation’s capital. Although it deals with events that took place on the European continent two
generations ago, it is one of the most frequented of Washington museums. Furthermore, the
events are of a nature to be utterly abhorrent and incomprehensible to ordinary visitors. Many
scholars have called the Holocaust “humanly incomprehensible.” The Holocaust survivor
Primo Levi titled his narrative on the Auschwitz experience with the question: “Is this a human
being?” He expresses the shame of one who realizes that Auschwitz has become part of human

The nightmare of history is full of abominable atrocities and murders on a large scale. In
many of these cases, a political regime killed people in order to accomplish its purpose, however
grotesque it may have been. We can understand why it could be said that a Stalin betrayed an
idea that was fired by the moral imagination. However, the Nazi ideology had no moral basis
whatsoever. Hitler did not “betray racism.” Killing and destruction was the project. Jews
were being slaughtered simply for existing in the shape of human beings. But let us be
careful. We could use uniqueness as an excuse for being content with a mere superficial
acquaintance of what happened and a purely verbal “That must never happen again.” I
believe that is precisely what most people experience when they are exposed to the Holocaust
story. They are left speechless and overwhelmed by the sheer, apparently senseless, malice.
They then face an unhappy choice: Either they treat the Holocaust as if it had happened on a
different planet, as something to which they as human beings cannot meaningfully connect. Or
they water down its special nature and assimilate it to just another instance of “man’s inhumanity
to man.”

My aim in this work is to help readers avoid either of these alternatives by presenting the
Holocaust story both in its special quality and in its general relevance for today. It is special on
account of the quality of destruction and hate that dominated Nazi ideology. This quality led to
crimes and atrocities unheard of before and, fortunately for humanity, to the inevitable and rapid
self-destruction of the Nazi regime. The Holocaust is relevant because unique historical
circumstances joined with ordinary common psychological features to bring this event about.
While history has changed so that we now have material instruments to extinguish the human
species, human psychology remains the same. The Holocaust, I believe, should not only
teach us about the human potential for (self)-deception and (self)-destruction but above all
motivate us toward constructive social actions in the direction of saving human existence.

The story of the Holocaust is here presented with equal stress on historical, social and
psychological factors, thus avoiding an arbitrary and one-sided emphasis. In fact, this work can
be seen as a brief general overview of relevant historical facts along with the social and
psychological context. I believe there is a need for such a text to overcome our first normal
reactions of unbelief and incomprehension. As an essay that strives to make the Holocaust story
comprehensible, it can serve as an educational resource for the curious visitor to a Holocaust
museum, the attentive reader of some Holocaust-related essay, or as a brief first
comprehensive text for the serious student of the Holocaust.

In Part I, as a Psychological Introduction, I discuss in some detail the human ability for
self-deception that, for better or worse, plays its necessary role throughout societies and history
(Chapter 1, On Self-Deception and Destructiveness). The four chapters of Part II , The Story
of the Holocaust, tell the overall story in a concise manner under the aspect of the Nazi
ideology of destruction. This aspect of destruction highlights the uniqueness of what the Nazis
perpetrated and responds to the need for a precise terminology. As the story unfolds, I use this
attribute of destruction consistently to refer to the destructive (and ultimately self-destructive}
quality that characterized the Nazi doings. Thus Chapters 2 to 5 deal, respectively, with the
Nazi Racism of Destruction, the Nazi War of Destruction, the Nazi Deeds of Destruction,
specifically their crimes against the Jews, and the Nazi Pleasure in Destruction.

To help make the Holocaust story more comprehensible, the following two parts provide
additional relevant context. Part III, The Historical Context, begins with Chapter 6, On
German History and the Nazi Destruction. Here we are introduced to some antecedents in the
German past, particularly some negative features in the Germany of 1871 – 1918. Chapter 7,
A Century of Destruction, points out briefly other genocides, that is, government-sponsored
mass murders, in the 20th century. Turning to some controversial issues, I suggest in Chapter 8,
On the Number of Rescuers from Nazi Destruction, a method of estimating this number for
Poland, the unhappy country where the death camps were situated. In Chapter 9, On the
Number of Perpetrators of Destruction, I do something similar for the number of German and
Austrian Nazi fanatics who could justifiably be called “Hitler’s willing executioners.” Part IV,
The Psychological Context, focuses first in Chapter 10, On the Mentality of a Person of
Destruction, on Hitler’s own personality and style of leadership. In Chapter 11, On the
Psychodynamics of Nazi Destruction, we examine the psychology of the Nazi mass murderers.

In the final Part V, Responding to the Holocaust, I link the story to the hopeful
potential of taking a stand against the Nazi destruction. In Chapter 12, On Rescuers and
Resisters amid Nazi Destruction, we learn of those people – “ordinary” people in their own
estimation – who risked their lives resisting the Nazi onslaught against humanity. The final
Chapter 13, On Responding Today to the Nazi Destruction, attempts to bring the story of the
Holocaust, if not to an optimistic, at least to an honest, meaningful closure. We face the
difficult question: What can I do today in response to Auschwitz? My sense is that even a
tentative but positive response to this question — certainly nothing less — would allow us to
somehow comprehend the incomprehensible that is Auschwitz. At the same time this response
will support a fragile human society that after Auschwitz and Hiroshima faces the concrete
possibility of its extinction.

Hans G. Furth