How has Totalitarianism and the Holocaust discredited the ideals of the Enlightenment? 

Expert Answers
teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Enlightenment, which I will paint in broad strokes, began in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It privileged reason over tradition and religion. According to this system of thought, rationality was a hallmark of civilization. Enlightenment thinkers believed in human progress, having faith that science would make human life better and that society would become more and more civilized as a result of technological advances. Empiricism, the idea that knowledge comes from observed experience and that such observations could refine our understanding of the universe and lead to freedom from superstition and restrictive traditions, became a cornerstone of Enlightenment thought. Language was understood as a clear windowpane leading to truth.

During the nineteenth century, the Western world made unprecedented leaps forward due to science. New knowledge of disease and sanitation, the invention of the railroad, the telegram, the telephone and other technologies changed life in ways unimaginable at the start of the century. As the world entered the twentieth century, infant mortality dropped dramatically, life expectancy increased by bounds, and the standard of living rose to new heights. It seemed to many that science and rationalism could only make life could better and that modern society was headed for a bright future. Progress seemed assured.

During the twentieth century, however, science and technology  were exploited in ways detrimental to human freedom. As Adorno and Horkheimer discuss in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, humankind's domination of nature to make life better could also be turned against other humans to make their lives far worse. Or as German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained, technology could become the master and humankind the slave. This played out in the holocaust, where rationalism was used not to help humans, but instead to refine the systematic slaughter of millions of other human beings, from infants to the elderly, on the basis of being Jewish. Perpetrators of the holocaust used factory methodology to create the most efficient possible killing machine, from coordinating train schedules to maximizing productivity to murdering thousands a day using gas. 

Totalitarianism, particularly associated with Stalinism in Russia and National Socialism in Germany, used science and technology against humans beings. Both regimes established elaborate systems of technological surveillance and used radio, film and other advanced forms of media to spread propaganda. The underlying idea of totalitarianism was to use technology to control, not liberate, other humans.

After World War II, as Europe and much of the rest of the world lay in ruins and the so-called civilized world came to grips with the holocaust, a good deal of soul searching ensued, as Bronowski, among others, documents. How could European civilization have used rationalism and science in such barbaric ways? People began to question the principles of the Enlightenment, a project that continues to this day. How did science bring us to the technology of genocide, rationalism to the totalitarian state? Since World War II, intellectuals have sought to explore the limits of Enlightenment thinking and to question whether rationalism alone can solve our problems or if instead it holds within its own methodology dangerous seeds of destruction. This has also led to questioning of rationalist and empiricist methods of control used in colonial states: have scientific or quasi-scientific principles been employed more to buttress white supremacy and power than to advance human freedom? Many would say yes and that the totalitarianism and genocide perpetrated against Europeans in the 20th century had its roots in the Enlightenment categorization and control of non-white populations. All of this has worked together to discredit Enlightenment thought.