The Sinister Sin of Indifference

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. (Elie Wiesel)

In 1969, I was a tourist in West Germany. (This visit, of course, was before the unification of Germany and the fall of the Iron Curtain.) That year was only twenty-four years after the end of World War II. I saw many people whose age would indicate that they were alive during the war. The questions that haunted me as I strolled through the cities and countryside were these: How many of these older people had been Nazis? How many of these Germans had supported Hitler and his cruel and inhumane policies? How many participated in the persecution of Jews and other minorities deemed inferior and subhuman? How many still nurtured hatred and prejudice against God’s Chosen People? How many didn’t give a damn about the victims of Nazism as long as they were exempt from persecution, torture, and death? How many simply remained silent in order to survive? In all the cities of West Germany I visited, I never met a single German who admitted to being a Nazi or to supporting Hitler. 

I have read from some historians that every single act of Hitler was technically legal.

I have read from some historians that every single act of Hitler was technically legal. He was appointed Chancellor by the German President von Hindenburg. After the death of Hindenburg, the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament) voted to approve every request Hitler proposed. This governing body also granted Hitler supreme power over all the country. Hitler was legally declared the “Fuhrer and Reichskanzier” (Leader and Chancellor) of the entire nation of Germany and was even granted the authority to act in ways that violated the German constitution. Such power and control obviously had to be accompanied by many Germans acquiescing to if not supporting this evil monster and his policies. 

Elie Wiesel, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was a Romanian-born Jew who suffered in the notorious concentration camps the Nazis built to carry out “the final solution.” Elie was fifteen years old when he was sent to Auschwitz with his family. His mother and sister were immediately murdered by the Germans upon their arrival at Auschwitz. Elie and his father were required to do forced labor under brutalizing conditions. They were later moved to Buchenwald where his father died before the camp was liberated on April 3, 1945 by the U. S. Third Army. Elie Wiesel, after the war, chronicled some of his experiences in these concentration camps. His most famous book about the Holocaust was Night. I forced myself to read this book many years ago. It haunts me to this day.

Wiesel spent the rest of his life as a political activist working against all kinds of injustice. He campaigned for victims of oppression and persecution in South Africa, Nicaragua, Kosovo, and the Sudan. Wiesel was also an author and professor who taught, among other places of higher learning, at Boston and Yale Universities. He died on July 2, 2016 at his home in Manhattan. He was 87 years old. Senator Orrin Hatch offered this tribute to Wiesel on the U. S. Senate floor: “With Elie’s passing, we have lost a beacon of humanity and hope. We have lost a hero of human rights and a luminary of Holocaust literature.” In 2018, antisemitic graffiti written by Holocaust deniers was found on the house where he was born. I choose to see such “fake” propaganda as a reminder that our world still needs his kind of witness and activism. 

Everything evil which occurred in Nazi Germany was the result of indifference by the majority of Germans.

Elie Wiesel earned the right to speak about the lack of love, art, faith, and life in our world. He profoundly saw that their opposites were not hate, ugliness, heresy, and death. The opposite of all these, and perhaps the most sinister sin of all, is indifference.Everything evil which occurred in Nazi Germany was the result of indifference by the majority of Germans. I doubt if most of the Germans from 1932 to 1945 were rabid Nazis. But the vast majority had to be indifferent to what was happening to victims of Nazi ideology. One cannot explain the rise of Hitler and the horrors of Nazism without recognizing the sins of silence and indifference of most Germans. As Edmund Burke observed, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” In other words, for “good” people to remain indifferent. 

There are so many situations and issues today where the majority remains indifferent. Ninety-eight percent of scientists tell us that we are facing a climate emergency which requires massive and radical changes if we are to survive in any humane way in the future. But so many Americans seem totally indifferent to this greatest threat humanity has ever faced. Once again, we see the rise of racism, scapegoating, violence, and policies designed to persecute and oppress minorities. But most white Americans either support such evil or remain indifferent as long as they are exempted from these morally indefensible attitudes and acts. Two-thirds of the electorate expect to see the current demagogue and violator of laws, women, and the U. S. Constitution re-elected. If such a tragedy does occur, it will be because adults would be willing to sacrifice a democracy “with liberty and justice for all” as long as they are economically secure. (Such support reminds me of the Italians praising Mussolini for keeping the trains on schedule.) And perhaps most telling of all, we continue to see a fanatical devotion to a reprehensible man which is blind to truth, goodness, and compassion. There are parallels in history to this sad development that we ignore at our own and our children’s peril.

There are parallels in history that we ignore at our own and our children’s peril.

I suggest that Elie Wiesel was correct—the greatest sin most of us are capable of committing is indifference. And all of this brings me to the one question I did not ask when I was in West Germany in 1969. That question may be the most important one for me today. WOULD I HAVE HAD THE COURAGE AND INTEGRITY TO SPEAK OUT AND ACT ANY DIFFERENTLY FROM AN INDIFFERENT MAJORITY? I honestly don’t know if I would have been among the brave exceptions who chose truth, justice, and compassion. But I don’t have to answer that question because I was not even alive back then. I have other questions I am called to answer. Will I have the courage and integrity to choose truth, justice, and compassion? I certainly hope so, because the time in which I live is becoming as fraught with monstrous evil and calamity as the time when Germans had to choose between decency and inhumanity. 

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