Given that this week marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I’d like to share a new book on the Holocaust that I’ve been reading: Gotz Aly’s Why the Germans? Why the Jews? It raises the question of how the conditions for the Holocaust could have come together in the first place, and one of those conditions (he suggests) is a simple one: the seventh deadly sin–envy–and its correlates, such as resentment, Schadenfreude (taking secret pleasure in the misfortune of others), and over-compensation born of self doubt (“I’m really superior to those elitists over there; I’m exceptional, they are crap–and holding me back!”).
Such attitudes had infected German politics.
So it’s a hard-to-put-down read that resonates (troublingly) with some of the dynamics in contemporary American politics. While reading this book, for instance, I can’t help but think that the chest-thumping phrase, “American exceptionalism,” is a milder version of the Germans’ “master race,” bandied about as a Medusa amulet to ward off the self-doubt that we actually aren’t all that different from other countries.
Nations suffused with envy and resentment (masked as defiant independence and supreme confidence) grow paranoid, irrational, and dangerous. A lesson we need to relearn again and again, apparently.