The idea of good and evil, out of fashion for a while, is back. In the pop-culture game of what's "in" and what's "out," you could say that morality is "in," moral relativism is "out."
Even babies seem to know that. "Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone," says Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist who discerns moral judgments in infants as young as 5 months. "With the help of well-designed experiments," he writes in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, "you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life."
Such fine distinctions are harder to find in certain adults. Terry Eagleton, a British Marxist intellectual who defends the existence of God, goes so far as to question whether evil can exist in the absence of God. In his book "On Evil," he writes that Satan had to understand God's transcendence "in order to turn it down." Without God as an antagonist, how can evil be measured? Satan shrinks when secularized.
If these arguments stretch moral insights, the Topography of Terror in Berlin, which this week opened its new museum on the site of the Nazi Gestapo, brings us back to a picture of hell on earth. Visitors can see where layers of evil emanated from the heart of the German capital. Here, 7,000 little Eichmanns and Himmlers, many of them ambitious university graduates eager to climb the career ladder, scurried about doing their evil business. There was nothing banal about it.
The opening of the Topography of Terror coincides with the publication in English of Peter Longerich's book, "Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews." He draws on primary sources and archives in Eastern Europe dating from the 1930s, sources inaccessible to historians before the Soviet Union collapsed. These documents show how anti-Jewish attitudes were a central tenet of Nazi rule, shaping policy in all directions -- official and informal, political and cultural, ideological and pragmatic, personally and collectively. The Nazis, he reasons, carved out political territory for persecuting the Jews "comparable with that of foreign policy, economic policy and social policy."