Friedrich Nietzsche is best known for his declaration that God is dead, and we have killed him. Nietzsche insisted that Christian morality was weak and squeamish, holding humanity back from evolution. Evolution requires a harsh struggle so the fittest can survive and thrive as the weak are culled from the herd. That poor Christianity called on the strong to care for the weak, the rich to care for the poor, reversing the ability of evolution to spur on human progress.
Nietzsche insisted that God, the center of all morality, had been killed by the progress of the West. But this left a tremendous problem — without God, there is no morality. Civilization falls apart. So he called for the next step in human evolution: the development of Superman, men who write their own values.
While Nietzche insisted that morality was not absolute, his ideas would inspire the man who would embody evil incarnate for the latter half of the 20th century and beyond. Adolf Hitler infamously believed that the Aryan race was superior and all other types of humans inferior. He particularly hated Jews, homosexuals, and other minorities. He carried out the Holocaust, the systematic eradication of “unfit” people from the lands Hitler’s Nazi regime ruled.
In roughly five years, Hitler would kill an estimated 11 million people: six million Jews and five million others. As Americans and Soviets liberated Nazi territory at the end of the Second World War, the horrific atrocities were revealed in vivid and horrifying detail. Starving men and women had nearly been worked to death. Millions had been rushed into gas chambers and thrown into mass graves or ovens. People had been killed with systemic and ruthless efficiency — because they were viewed as less than human.
Secularism is an odd beast. Modern people somehow believe it is possible to live without any religion — thanks to the legacy of medieval Catholicism which divided the secular laity from the religious clergy. So many modern Americans and Europeans believe they can keep the husk of Christian morality after jettisoning the beating heart of faith in the God who became man and died as a slave.
At one point, it may have been possible to reject Christian morality along with Christianity. Then Hitler came along.
Hitler did not kill the most people of anyone in history. That would be Mao Zedong, who murdered an estimated 50-80 million people. Joseph Stalin came close, causing the deaths of 18-45 million people. Yet Adolf Hitler is equally hated by both the left and the right because he combined the heartless torture and execution of innocent people with horrific racism. Stalin and Mao killed millions to make their utopian Communist systems work. Their horrific evil was carried out in the name of helping the lower class and upending the oppressors. Adolf Hitler’s evil was carried out in the name of erasing the “unfit” entirely, so the strong may inherit the earth.
In his important book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, historian Tom Holland explains how Christianity flipped ancient Roman morality on its head. In ancient Rome, the strong exercised legitimate rule over the weak. The head of the household not only ruled slaves but had the power of life and death over his wife, children, and servants. Holland notes that the man of the house had the right to sexually use anyone in any way he wanted.
Yet Christianity fundamentally altered this view. God chose the weak to shame the strong, the foolish to shame the wise. God Himself became a man and that man was executed in a painful and shameful way. He came to serve, not to be served. His life and teachings emphasized self-control and love toward everyone, even enemies.
Notions of universal individual rights are rooted in the system of morality that grew out of Jesus’ teachings. International law traces its roots back to the Spanish Scholastics, who condemned the Spanish empire for subjecting Native Americans to slavery and ignoring their rights. Christianity emphasized the rights of the oppressed and the duty of rulers to serve the people below them.
When Nietzsche, like many before him, tried to thrust off this restrictive morality of the weak, he failed. Modern secularists, who seized on evolution as an alternate explanation for humanity supposedly in conflict with religion, had a chance to create a “new” morality that would effectively return to the dog-eat-dog rule of the strong that held sway for thousands of years before Jesus.
Yet Adolf Hitler demonstrated what a wholesale rejection of Christian morality would entail. Hitler was Nietzsche’s superman — he was beyond good and evil, in his own mind. This is not to say Nietzche would have supported Hitler — he would not have — but Hitler arguably embodies Nietzche’s philosophy.
The rejection of Christian morality would not usher in a brave new world, but rather a return to the injustice of the ancient Near East. Ravaging empires — Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and many others we easily forget — would conquer and subdue peoples through force. If a city rebelled against Assyria, the Assyrians would enslave their women and children and impale the men on pikes as a warning. Many of these kingdoms would force slaves to worship the gods of their city.
It was notable and different when Achaemenid Persia bucked the trend by allowing dominated people to worship their own gods. Even then, slavery, oppression, and poverty were domineering facts of life. The wealthy ruled over the poor, the power lorded it over the weak, and this was the way of the world.
Adolf Hitler represented at once a return to this and the apotheosis of the pseudoscientific hatred of racism. He melded modern technology with an ancient will to power that was fundamentally at odds with Christian morality — worse even than Communism because Communism is a tyranny exercised in the name of helping the poor. Hitler was a tyrant, and he was proud to be a tyrant.
Modern secularists have a hard time justifying the Christian morality they instinctively believe in while also denying the existence of God. Yet Hitler and the Holocaust give them a crutch. This devil gives them a false grounding of morality to which they cling desperately.
The Holocaust was a horrific evil tragedy on a cosmic scale, not because it killed the most people in history but because it represents the fundamental challenge to the Christian morality that has (rightly, in my opinion) conquered the consciences of so many across the world.
Yet the devil is a poor substitute for God. Opposing Hitler is not an ultimate ground for morality. The Holocaust may make moral relativism impossible, but it cannot solve the secularist’s dilemma.
In fact, the undeniable evil of the Holocaust is a good argument that human moral intuition is correct, and there must be an ultimate standard for good and evil. None other than God Himself can foot that bill.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.