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  • The Dictatorship of the Conscience1
  • Bernard N. Schumacher

I am freeing men from the restraints of an intelligence that has taken charge; from the dirty and degrading self-mortifications of a chimera called conscience and morality, and from the demands of a freedom and personal independence which only a very few can bear.

—Adolf Hitler2 [End Page 547]

Conscience is a Jewish invention. It is a [mutilation], like circumcision. … There is no such thing as truth, either in the moral or in the scientific sense.3

Hermann Rauschning, president of the Senate of Danzig during the years 1933–1934 thus records several remarks by Adolf Hitler, who stated that the “new man,” the one whose coming the Nazi Party wanted to see, has an obligation to liberate himself from the oppression of his moral conscience, as well as from an independent mind, by subjecting both to the conscience and mind of Hitler, and to him alone. He would then be the conscience of the Germans that would dictate what moral values to follow. As Hannah Arendt put it, he would then embody “the law of the land.”4 Hermann Göring explicitly and forcefully refers to an emancipation of this sort when he declares, “I have no conscience. My conscience is Adolf Hitler.”5 Although Göring demanded the implementation of the “final solution” with regard to the Jews, he was not the only one to subject his conscience to Hitler’s demands. Agreeing with the latter were a number of sympathizers who were not “outlaws, monsters, or raving sadists,” but rather, as Arendt explains, the “most respected members of respectable society,”6 such as Adolf Eichmann: even the man who implemented the [End Page 548] plan ratified at the conference in Wannsee by organizing the deportation of the Jews to extermination camps can be numbered among these “ordinary” people. Moreover he later defended himself before the court in Jerusalem that would sentence him to be hanged on June 1, 1962, arguing that he had only obeyed his conscience, which had told him to follow the overriding principle that he should act in such a way that, if the Führer knew about it, he could only approve. Therefore he had chosen—on an impulse that resulted as much from an act of faith as from a process of shirking responsibility—to subject his personal judgment to that of the Führer, the symbolic figure of his country’s law. In other words, his conscience—just like Göring’s—had been deliberately subordinated to Hitler’s, who denied that a universal moral truth had any value on the pretext that such a morality would be “a mutilation” of man. Eichmann’s lawyer marvelously illustrated this thesis when he described what went on at Auschwitz as “a medical matter.” Put differently, ethics was ultimately only a matter of customs and subordinate to history and culture, and this, he claimed, refuted the accusation that his client erred at the level of his conscience and was consequently guilty, as Arendt explains:

[Eichmann’s defense argued] to the effect that what had happened in Auschwitz and the other extermination camps had been “a medical matter.” It was as though morality, at the very moment of its total collapse within an old and highly civilized nation, stood revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, of customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with no more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of a whole people.7

Many contemporaries, like Arendt, found the lawyer’s position “incredible,”8 and this incredulity originates in the assumption that there are such things as intrinsically evil actions that are not merely matters of opinion or custom and, at the same time, that there is such a thing as a moral conscience that forbids us to commit them. It would seem, then, legitimate to condemn Eichmann (who was also endowed with a conscience, even though he did not make immediate [End Page 549] personal use of it, since he subordinated it to someone else), just as it would be legitimate, by analogy...