Did the Nazis like life?: A response to Dennis Prager

In his Jan. 4 column, Dennis Prager reproved the dutiful readers of the Jewish Journal, who tried to quarrel with the idea that without God there’s no moral restriction on murder. After reading that, I traded e-mails with a thoughtful friend.

“There is a logical fallacy in his arguments in three ways,” my friend wrote back. “Many murders have been committed in the name of God, for the sake of God, by people who believe in God. Some feel bidden to slaughter Jews; others nonbelievers. Even the Torah demands that we kill Amalek — men, women and children — and eradicate their memory. Philosophers of ethics have not needed to resort to God in order to condemn and prohibit murder. Some such ethicists have been believers; other were not, but for at least 200 years and even in ancient antiquity, the alternative to a belief in God or gods was not, as Prager has it, ethical relativism or nihilism.”

“Maybe so,” I said, “but we should all be careful about finding the combination of words to shake Dennis Prager’s belief in God, since by his logic, God is all that keeps him from loading up the Bushmaster.” What puzzled me was why nobody reacted to his column of Oct. 3, 2012.

[Read Dennis Prager's response: 'A new low']

This is the one where Prager quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the United Nations, about the possible need to bomb Iran before they completed their nuclear testing. Netanyahu said, “Deterrence worked with the Soviets because every time the Soviets faced a choice between their ideology and their survival, they chose their survival.” Now it’s bizarre for the son of a historian to skip over the 25 million Russians who died for Stalin, fighting to push the Germans out of their country, to preserve Stalin’s communism, and he’s sliding by the 2.2 million Ukrainians dead in Stalin’s intentional famine, all to preserve Stalin’s communist rule, but leave that aside to look at how Prager’s next thoughts embellished on the prime minister’s.

“Nazis and communists liked life. Islamists revel in death. An enormous difference.”

Nazis liked life. Dennis Prager said it, and the editor of the Jewish Journal published it.

Does it make one a hysterical progressive to suggest that the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran is dreadful enough without sharpening your argument by saying something good about the Nazis, that the Nazis had some kind of saving virtue?

To say that the Nazis and Soviet communists didn’t revel in death is … well I’m really not sure how to respond, actually. It feels sick to use a Jewish paper to remind everyone that when the Russians were advancing westward in the spring of 1944, the trains that Hitler could have used to carry munitions to the front and the wounded to the rear were diverted instead to carry Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. So, Nazi ideology was sustained and millions were slaughtered, Jews and Germans. Hitler’s own generals tried to kill him, not because he was losing the war, but because he was leading the entire country to death. As the Germans were finally surrounded in 1945, Hitler ordered Albert Speer to blow up the country’s infrastructure, killing his own people, the only order Speer ever refused. I’ll stay out of the imagination that says this isn’t really reveling in death.

God’s word in Deuteronomy 30:19 is not, “Like life, if you and your offspring would live,” but “Choose life.” As Prager says, “An enormous difference.” To like life in the Jewish sense, in any sense other than appreciating the warm belly of a puppy, is to be grateful to God for our own lives and to turn that gratitude into an action for the benefit of others and to save lives, not destroy them for pleasure, and even when making war, to limit the destruction. The Nazis did not observe purity of arms. So, if the Islamist love of death means that Iranians or jihadists can’t be trusted to restrain themselves even at the cost of their own survival, then to say that in opposition to them, “Nazis liked life” is to suggest that during the war, the Nazis exercised restraint and mercy. Prager’s words imply that, by liking life, the Nazis made choices to preserve life, otherwise he’s left with nothing more that expresses “Nazis liked life” than the laughter of the beer halls of Munich. Surely Dennis Prager doesn’t mean to say that the Holocaust could have been worse but for Nazi intervention.

One last thought, for the editors and for Dennis: Please, every fascist skinhead, neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier can now happily link to the Jewish Journal where you declare, “Nazis liked life.” “See,” they can say, “even the Jews have come around.” I urge Dennis and the editors, if it’s possible, to scrub that line from the Web site.  And with that, even this discussion. The Nazis did not like life. I wasn’t there, but that’s what I’ve been told by everyone I know who knew them.

Michael Tolkin is a novelist, essayist and screenwriter.