Philosophy and the Experience of Unprecedented Evil – from the French Revolution to the Holocaust

Sławomir Mazurek

The Holocaust, according to most of the authors dealing with the subject, was an example of unprecedented evil, i.e., a manifestation of evil incomparable to anything that had happened before. No matter how justified such a statement may be, the Holocaust was by no means the only event in the human history experienced in this way. At least three historical catastrophes preceding it – the French Revolution, the partition of Poland and the Russian Revolution – had been received by a part of European humanity in a similar manner. The author of the paper confronts moral and historiosophical responses to the experience of unprecedented evil elaborated by French traditionalists (de Maistre), Polish romantic messianists (Mickiewicz), Russian religious thinkers (Berdyaev, Frank and others) and contemporary adherents of the politically correct historiosophy of the Holocaust. He demonstrates that each of these responses, as an attempt of overcoming the atrocious experience of unprecedented evil, is unique and incomparable with the others. French conservatives expose moral guilt of victims, Polish romantics focus on their moral obligations toward other victims (including victims of “normal evil”), Russian thinkers warn us of the moral danger involved in believing in the unprecedentedness of the evil we are confronted with, while the historiosophy of the Holocaust emphasizes the moral innocence of victims and the absolute uniqueness of their experience. In conclusion the author acknowledges the moral and philosophical advantage of the romantic response over all others.


Keywords: evil · revolution · Holocaust · romantic messianism

Sławomir Mazurek — Associate Professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Expert on Russian Philosophy; author of several books about so called Russian religious Renaissance, among others: Wątki katastroficzne w myśli rosyjskiej i polskiej (Catastrophical Currents in Russian and Polish Thought 1917–1950); Utopia i łaska. Idea rewolucji moralnej w rosyjskiej filozofii religijnej (The Utopia and The Grace. Idea of Moral Revolution in the Russian Religious Thought).   »  

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