Moral Luck

Arianne Shahvisi

Anyone who’d like to look a Nazi in the eye is working against the clock. An eighteen-year-old member of the Nazi Party in 1945 would now be coming up to a hundred. Soon there will be none left. When the film director Luke Holland was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2015, he was interviewing the last surviving Nazis to build an archive of their first-hand accounts of complicity. He kept going as his health declined. One of my colleagues was Holland’s haematologist, and a few of us were invited to watch some unedited footage of German nonagenarians in dowdy sitting-rooms recounting, with nostalgia, unease or insouciance, their involvement in the operation of the Nazi state. Afterwards, another colleague broke our stunned silence with the remark: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ At first I thought she meant we were lucky to have not been Jewish, disabled, Romani or gay in Germany in the 1930s, but she meant we were lucky not to have been Nazis.

The phrase ‘there but for the grace of God’ is generally attributed to the 16th-century Protestant martyr John Bradford, on seeing convicts being led to execution. He wasn’t referring to the misfortune of their being murdered by the state, but to their having been weak-willed enough to commit capital sins. Only God’s grace kept him from equivalent wickedness. Bradford was burned at the stake in his mid-forties for his religious views. His last words, to the man dying beside him, are supposed to have been: ‘Be of good comfort brother; for we shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night!’ If anyone were to be pitied, it should be his judge or executioner.

‘There but for the grace of God’ is now more commonly uttered in a broader sense. But Bradford’s version might be seen as a case of what Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams identified in the 1970s as ‘moral luck’: the observation that at least some, and perhaps all, right or wrongdoing is merely fortuitous. A person’s transgressions are the result of circumstances they could not have controlled; or of details of their character or upbringing which they did not choose; or, in its strongest form, are just what a deterministic universe had in store for them.

More than half a million Germans migrated to the United States in the two decades before the rise of the Third Reich, largely for economic reasons. It would be absurd to claim they were morally superior to those who stayed and participated in the Nazi regime. They were simply spared the moral test that so many of their compatriots, whether through action or inaction, failed. There must have been potential Görings, Eichmanns and Hösses among them who instead led lives of private or localised cruelty and cowardice. By corollary, at least some of those who were swept up into the Nazi Party were unlucky rather than bad. Recognising the role of moral luck encourages empathy and humility, but it also threatens the notions of culpability that help us to make sense of evil.

Luke Holland died in 2020, a few months before the release of Final Account. Watching it again I could not find my way to thinking: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ I was, and remain, quite sure that I wouldn’t have been a Nazi. This isn’t self-deception or a claim to moral superiority, but a function of the precise counterfactual I have in mind. The Nazis wouldn’t have been keen on an irascible leftist woman with a Kurdish father, so either I’d have quietly hated them on selfish grounds, or I’d have spoken up and been killed, like the million other political victims. (In addition to the more obvious bones of contention, Nazi Germany sold Turkey the planes and chemicals for the Dersim massacre, in which tens of thousands of Kurds and other minorities resisting Turkification were killed.)

But counterfactuals are just that; we can choose what we modify and what we hold constant. What if I’d been blonde, German and centrist in Leipzig ninety years ago? My truculence might easily have been turned to other uses. But in what sense would that person be me? (We can push the counterfactual further until we’re asking such questions as: ‘If I’d been a bit of a fascist at that time would I have been a Nazi?’) Our social identities matter here, as elsewhere. Those who tolerated or supported Nazism did so because it benefited them or at least didn’t directly hurt them to do so. Most of those who resisted would not have been welcome in the Nazi state.

We should be sceptical when people with no marginalised identities or history of solidarity take it for granted that they would have opposed Nazi rule. It is a commonly held delusion in the UK because its war against the Axis powers has become an outsized part of the sanitised national identity. But the intuition often amounts to a strong sense of identification with Britain and with one’s own forebears, rather than a robust antipathy to the oppression of minorities. Feeling sure that you’d have taken the position your country took in a war isn’t the same as being opposed to fascism, and may even suggest a propensity towards it.

We don’t need to transpose versions of ourselves into past atrocities to examine or prove our decency. Hypothetical moral tests are prone to grade inflation, especially when everyone already knows the answers. If we want to play at time travel, we should look at how we’re doing now and extrapolate backwards. Are we the kind of society that would open its doors to frightened, desperate, scapegoated people? Do we have the moral clarity to bring everything to a halt at the news that twenty thousand children from the same ethnic group have disappeared or been killed in the space of nine months?

Most of us have God’s grace on our side: we’re not in the position of having to decide whether to participate directly in a genocide. But that comes with other responsibilities. It’s one thing to enact violence when you are raised on lies and fear in a racially segregated state and conscripted into its murderous machinery. It’s another to look on from the outside and do nothing, or to speak up only to make excuses.