Hans G. Furth

Hans G. Furth, my father, was a Professor of Psychology at Catholic University of America (Washington, DC) from 1960 until his death in 1999. He authored many papers and several books, but passed away before his last book was published. It is posted below.

Here is the preface:

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 history.


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