How Can We Understand Their Hatred?
by Elie Wiesel
page was compiled
and edited by
Burch, an editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry.
You can click here to read his essay: "What
I learned from Elie Wiesel and other Jewish Holocaust Survivors, about achieving
There is divine beauty in learning,
just as there is human beauty in tolerance.
Even if only one free individual is left,
he is proof that the dictator is powerless against freedom.
But a free man is never alone; the dictator is alone.
The free man is the one who, even in prison,
gives to the other prisoners
their thirst for, their memory of, freedom.
Fanaticism today is not a nice word; it carries an
unpleasant connotation. But in ancient times, fanatics enjoyed a more favorable
reaction from the public. They were linked to religion and, more specifically,
to religious experience. In the Bible, Pinhas was praised for slaying a sinner.
The Prophet Elijah was admired as an extreme opponent of the wicked Queen
Jezebel. Later, in Islam, fana (meaning the
annihilation of the will) described the Sufi’s desire to attain ecstasy in his
union with the divine.
Today, in our modern language, fanaticism refers to
excessive behavior, uncritical political opinions, ethnic zeal and religious
bigotry. How did this come to be?
Previous centuries suffered from tribal and religious wars
and from national extremism, but our last century was ravaged mainly by
ideological and secular hatred. Nazism and communism moved fanaticism to
unprecedented dimensions—dimensions future historians may term as absolute.
Stalin used Terror just as Hitler used Death to oppress tens of millions of
people: Never have man-made ideologies introduced so much evil into society;
never have they given Death so much power.
Early in my own life, I experienced the consequences of
fanaticism. On Sept. 11, like so many others throughout the world, I saw its
terrible consequences again. Glued for days to the television, I witnessed
unthinkable acts of terror. How, I asked myself, after the last century’s
horrors, could fanaticism still hold sway?
On reflection, I believe that fanaticism appeals to people
for a variety of reasons. But on the deepest level, fanaticism is seductive
because it makes the fanatic feel less alone. The fanatic fails to
understand that the tragedy of man is that, in essential matters, we are each
condemned to be alone—we can never break out of the “self.” How does one
cease being one’s own jailer? By becoming each other’s prisoner. The fanatic
thinks he can tear down the walls of his cell by joining other fanatics. No need
to think—the Party does the thinking for him, and the deciding for him.
The fanatic is stubborn, obstinate, dogmatic: Everything
for him is black or white, curse or blessing, friend or foe—and nothing in
between. He has no taste for or interest in nuances. Does he seek clarity?
Driven by irrational impulses, he wants everything to be visible and necessarily
The fanatic simplifies matters: He is immune to doubt and
to hesitation. Intellectual exercise is distasteful, and the art and beauty of
dialogue alien to him. Other people’s ideas or theories are of no use to him.
He is never bothered by difficult problems: A decree or a bullet solves them ...
immediately. The fanatic feels nothing but disdain toward intellectuals who
spend precious time analyzing, dissecting, debating philosophical notions and
hypotheses. What matters to the fanatic is the outcome—not the way leading
And more: The fanatic derides and hates tolerance, which he
perceives as weakness, resignation or submission. That is why he despises women:
Their tenderness is to him a sign of passivity. The fanatic’s only interest is
domination by fear and terror. Violence is his favorite language—a vulgar
language filled with obscenities: He doesn’t speak, he shouts; he doesn’t
listen, he is too busy yelling; he doesn’t think, he doesn’t want anyone
In other words, the fanatic, intoxicated with hatred, tries
to reduce everybody to his own size.
He has a goal and is ready to pay any price to achieve it.
Or more precisely: He is ready to make others
pay any price in order to achieve it.
The fanatic feels important, for he presumes being capable
of altering—and dominating—the course of history. Using the obscure power of
hatred, he feels he can—and must—take charge of man’s fate. Working in the
dark, forever involved in plots and counterplots, he thinks his mission is to
abolish the present state of affairs and replace it with his own system. No
wonder that he, the human failure, now feels proud and superior.
The fanatic who kills in God’s name makes his God a
To stem fanaticism, we must first fight indifference to
evil … We fight indifference through education; we diminish it through
Let me conclude with this thought:
Of all the “isms” produced by the past centuries,
fanaticism alone survives. We have witnessed the downfall of Nazism, the defeat
of fascism and the abdication of communism. But fanaticism is still alive. And
it is spreading fast. As horrible as it may sound, racial hatred, anti-Semitism
and bin Laden terrorism are popular and still glorified in certain communities.
How can the fanatics be brought back to moral sanity? How
can the killers and suicide warriors be disarmed?
If there is a simple answer, I do not know it. All I know
is that, as we embark on this newest century, we cannot continue to live with
fanaticism—and only we ourselves can stem it.
How are we to do this?
We must first fight indifference.
Indifference to evil is the enemy of good, for indifference
is the enemy of everything that exalts the honor of man. We fight indifference
through education; we diminish it through compassion. The most efficient remedy?
To remember means to recognize a time other than the
present; to remember means to acknowledge the possibility of a dialogue. In
recalling an event, I provoke its rebirth in me. In evoking a face, I place
myself in relationship to it. In remembering a landscape, I oppose it to the
walls that imprison me. The memory of an ancient joy or defeat is proof that
nothing is definitive, nor is it irrevocable. To live through a catastrophe is
bad; to forget it is worse.
And so, as we move forward from Sept. 11, let us continue
to remember. For memory may be our most powerful weapon against fanaticism.