Nazis, Lies and Videotape

by Gerald Dworkin

I recently watched the latest Claude Lanzmann documentary on the Holocaust called the Last of the Unjust. It is a four hour interview with Benjamin Murmelstein who was the last of the Judenrat in Theresienstadt. These were Jews who were selected to act as advisors to the Nazi administrators who ran the camp. Murmelstein has been the subject of much dispute in terms of the role he played. It is fascinating to listen to Murmelstein, a former rabbi in Vienna and a scholar of mythology, as he details his Shoah_film interactions with Eichmann, his denial that he was aware that camps such as Auschwitz and Sobibor were death camps (although he admits there were clues that he should have taken more seriously), and the many moral dilemmas that someone in his role faced. At one point, when pressed by Lanzmann, he says that people in his position should be “condemned but not judged.” I leave it to the reader as an exercise to figure out whether this can be understood in a way that makes sense.

Having watched this film I was led to reflect upon the magnificent Lanzmann documentary Shoah and the questions it raises about the ethics of lying. Kant is notorious for denying that it is ever legitimate to lie –even to the murderous man who comes to your door and demands to know whether a particular person is hiding in your house, whom the man wishes to kill. Alan Wood has recent given the most plausible attempt to defend the Kantian view by arguing that Kant distinguishes between a declaration, which only takes place when one warrants that one is telling the truth, and a falsification which takes place in a context where there is no such warrant. Wood claims that Kant’s theory should say that if our false statement is not a declaration then it is permissible because not a lie. If it is a declaration, but extorted from us, i.e. we are forced to say something as opposed to keeping silent, then that should be permissible. In effect, says Wood, Kant misunderstood his own theory.

I turn away from the thickets of Kant interpretation to the question of what exceptions to the general prohibition against lying we ought to accept, in particular how to respond to Nazis–at the door, or as we shall see, otherwise.

I take it as true, and even obviously true that the Nazi at the door asking about Jews hidden inside may be lied to. It may also be true, although more controversial, that one is obligated to lie. It is even more controversial that if there is such an obligation one ought to do so irrespective of what other consequences would follow from lying. So, for example, if the person doing the hiding is the head of the Resistance movement, and it is likely that at some point his lie will be discovered resulting in his death, it can be argued that he ought not to lie.

But even if one accepts that it is permissible to lie in these circumstances it is much more difficult to give an account of why it is permissible. Here are just a few of the competing explanations. a) Because the Nazi does not have a right to the truth in these circumstances. b) Because having an exception to the general prohibition against lying would have best consequences in the long run. c) Because sincerity at all times is a requirement but it assumes a certain set of background conditions. And the Nazi case is one in which those conditions are not present.

I believe this last condition is a promising way of trying to understand why what may be called “defensive lies” are permissible. We start with a certain ideal of the relationships that should hold between persons. These include an ideal of mutual co-deliberation which assumes that all parties are co-operating in a scheme which exemplifies such an ideal. When the aggressor opts out he makes the point of honesty—to enable your hearer to better participate in mutual deliberation—impossible. The usual ideal of respecting the other as a participant in a realm of equal respect for freedom either cannot be met or the point of valuing that freedom is no longer present.

So we need a theory of the second-best to guide us in such circumstances. Whether we ought to use coercion or deception or bribes is a matter for casuistry but the fact that lying is intrinsically wrong will not have the same force in this situation.

I now want to consider how all this might apply to a very different situation involving a Nazi who is being lied to. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah consists in large part of an extensive interview with former SS-Unterscharfuhrer Franz Suchomel who worked at the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps. Lanzmann told him that the interview will be taped but the tape will not be released for thirty years due to the sensitivity of its content. In addition Lanzmann filmed the interview with a secret camera secreted in a briefcase.

Because Suchomel is both unaware he is being filmed and believes that the tape recording will be locked up for 30 years, he opens up and gives graphic and specific details of the mass murders to which he was a witness. He does so without any remorse and often makes jokes about the songs Jews were forced to sing before being killed.

In addition Lanzmann interviews Einsatzgruppen SS officer Heinz Schubert. Lanzman assumes the identity of a Dr. Sorel who is collecting oral histories from the men in the Einsatzgruppe.. Schubert asks Sorel/Lanzmann to turn off the tape recorder, which he does and the interview continues again secretly filmed by a hidden camera. As before there is another gruesome and specific account of how the death camps operated.

There has been some discussion of the ethics of this deception and lying– these are not the same thing but I leave for another day a discussion of why it is , or is not, worse to lie rather than deceive– by the filmmaker with most people arguing that the immense value of the historical information justified lying to Nazis who certainly witnessed, and probably participated, in these atrocities. Lanzmann argues that it was necessary to “deceive the deceivers.”

I want to argue that it was not permissible to lie and deceive the Nazis in this context. This is not justifiable by analogy with the Nazi at the door. That case is one in which there is an immediate and grave injustice that will occur if the truth is told. And it is not possible to simply refuse to speak which would simply arose suspicion and forced entry. The Nazi at the door by virtue of his intention to kill the innocent has placed himself outside of the context in which individuals are committed to reciprocity and respect for the equal freedom of all. Note that it is not that if allowed to act he will commit a great wrong. After all it might be the case that he has a heart attack as soon as he enters the house. It is the fact that he has chosen as his end a great evil. He is committed by his current intentions to a denial of the background conditions which justify the point of honesty.

The Nazi who is being interviewed, as evil as he may have been in the past, as evil as he may be now, is not by the form of interaction he is engaging in –an interview– revealing that it is impossible to view him as satisfying the conditions which make honesty possible and give it great value.

This argument is not, at bottom, then a consequentialist argument. It is, of course, possible that there are two arguments each of which shows that a lie is permissible. I believe that consequentialist arguments in this context cannot account for the fact that lies are intrinsically wrong, i.e. while they may have disvalue because of their consequences they also have disvalue just because they are lies. Obviously, I have said nothing to show this.