Elie Wiesel

The Anatomy of Hate

VTR Date: September 24, 1989

Guest: Wiesel, Elie


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: “The Anatomy of Hate”
VTR: 9/24/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now, ours is surely not the first, nor the only century it has been so, but hate has been so dominant a theme in this century, it’s astounding so little serious attention has been paid to it, to the very phenomenon of hate, to the anatomy of hate, to the end that mankind might someday be beyond hate. And it is Beyond Hate that the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity has titled its newest international project engaging in it some of the world’s most creative and experienced thinkers and institutions to explore, first the psychological roots of hate, second the economic, social, religious and political conditions which can transform negative attitudes and feelings into violent and destructive behavior, third, the ubiquity of human conflict at every level, inter-personal, inter-group and inter-national. And last, the strategies by which we can move toward a more productive modus operandi in resolving or preventing human conflict. This creative inquiry which began at Boston University, and will continue in a series of seminars culminating in an international conference was inspired by the intensely provocative colloquium of seventy-five Nobel laureates that my guest today, together with French President Francoise Mitterand, convened in Paris early in 1988 to examine mankind’s prospects for peace and human dignity in the twenty-first century.

Himself the distinguished, much admired winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, like our nation’s founders, Elie Wiesel has pledged his life, his fortune, his sacred honor to the cause of peace over war, of love and compassion over hate, and as always, I welcome him to THE OPEN MIND, in very much his own fashion, with a question. For when at Boston University he concluded the first of his seminars, this one on the Anatomy of Hate, my guest said, “I had the feeling that most participants were afraid of the subject. Somehow they are afraid of facing the word ‘hate’”. And I want to begin by asking Elie Wiesel just what he meant, “afraid of the subject”?

Wiesel: The subject evokes and elicits violence and debased emotions and therefore it’s easier for a scientist, for a scholar, to use other words, nicer words, and I had that feeling in Boston where we had really the best minds in the United States and from Europe, but they did not address the subject. It wasn’t hate, it was conflict resolution, which is important …

Wiesel: … psychology and psychiatry and philosophy … but why people hate one another, and what is it about a human being that he or she should be capable of such hatred, often for no reason. Take anti-Semitism … the anti-Semite … in Australia, has never seen me, has never heard of me, and yet he or she hates me simply because I am Jewish. And I’m speaking to you about hate … do we mean them, do they mean us? What is it about hate that brings people together only really to destroy each other? So people are afraid of that challenge, and it is a challenge.

Heffner: Do we mean “them”, do they mean “us”, or is hate something else? Something more amorphous, unfocused.

Wiesel: Oh, I think it’s human, first of all. I think every human being is, almost by definition capable of hatred. But what I learned in Boston really, I learned that a child, until the age of three, is not capable of hatred. A child begins to hate at the age of three. In other words, the child has been taught how to hate. Now what is hatred? Of course, it is bigotry, it is fanaticism, all the elements, it’s envy, it’s jealousy, it’s rancor, bitterness. You can use any vocabulary, and the vocabulary may be transposed and transfixed into a different one, simply by changing the minus to plus or the plus to minus, and then what is good becomes bad.

Heffner: I’m a little puzzled because at first it sounds as though you’re saying to hate is to be human …


Wiesel: Oh, no.

Heffner: No?

Wiesel: No, no.

Heffner: All right.

Wiesel: I mean every human being is capable of hatred, but to hate is actually to dehumanize oneself, it’s like being sick. Every person can be sick, but they have to fight it.

Heffner: Of course, then there are the words, as you re-state them, of the old song, “you have to be taught to hate”. But everyone seems to be taught to hate. Is that an unfair observation?

Wiesel: I think you are too pessimistic now, Dick. Not everybody’s taught to hate. In many places in the world today there is much bigotry and much fanaticism, and people are contaminated, they’re influenced, of course. But I would also say that in every … in every place in the world under the sun we are trying to fight hate, in different ways. Education … whenever good educators meet, they’re children, they are disciples, they try to vanquish hate. Whenever the good journalist writing a good piece, a good column, I think, or doing a good TV program, it is automatically becoming a weapon against hate.

Heffner: You know, it’s interesting, you said that in Boston there was a focus on conflict resolution, and I know from what you have said that you intend conflict resolution to be the subject of one of your seminars, one of your conferences. Why do you think people moved? You say “because they were afraid” … are they afraid of what they feel in themselves?

Wiesel: They’re afraid … they’re afraid to touch something which is ugly. Conflicts have been glorified, heroes emerged out of conflicts, but who emerged out of hate? So people don’t like the word “hate”, and conflict resolution is a beautiful concept, and it’s by the way, very necessary. It’s true. I think, for instance, in the Soviet Union today, Gorbachev would need a few of our experts from Harvard and Boston University and MIT, he would need them, but how to handle his own conflicts inside the Kremlin. Every week he seems to be in a position, in a situation where he’s forced to do something, to fire one, to take another, and then Scrtnsoksm and Armenia, things are happening there. I think here in the United States, the scholars in various universities have managed to come up with theories, how to handle conflicts. But hate is something else, it’s irrational, and who wants to deal with irrational problems, irrational urges? And yet, it’s all linked, I think. Hate is at the basis, at the core of many events that occurred in this century and are still occurring in many places under the sun today.

Heffner: More so in this century than before, Elie?

Wiesel: Maybe not, but we know more about then. In ancient times there were wars, always …

Heffner: But that’s not what you’re talking about?
<br Wiesel: No, because then it was different. Today … I would even say something else … today we manage, that means our civilization, unfortunately, has managed to dehumanize hatred, or to push hatred to such a level of absolute that terrible crimes were committed without hatred. Example, during the Second World War the killers in the death camps didn’t really hate their victims, they despised them, they viewed them as subhumans, and you only … a human only hates a human … another human being … so all of a sudden we realize that it’s possible to envisage a tragedy, incommensurate in its implications and scope, and yet all, all this could be done without hatred.

Heffner: Yet, again I’m – I’m puzzled. Forgive me, but let me try and understand. You say “in the camps”, you bear witness to the fact that, as you saw it, there was not hate, there was … what?

Wiesel: It was something else. But then you and I are friends, and you know that in my, my hesitation, when it comes to that period, I don’t like to use other ideas, or previous concepts … I think it’s a new, it’s a new event, a unique event that cannot be repeated, that has not been emulated and will not be emulated ever again, and …

Heffner: And, therefore, you don’t want it used as a metaphor.


Wiesel: It’s not a metaphor, no it shouldn’t be a metaphor. It’s a point of reference, yes. Everything should be referred to it, but not compared to it. How can I explain it to you? Naturally those Nazis were educated to be anti-Semites, anti-Semitism meant hatred … still does. It meant hatred, of course, for almost twenty centuries on a religious level, shouldn’t deny that. On a religious level many Christians, Catholics and Protestants actually grew up hating Jews because that was the law, that was the religious law, as though God had wanted them to hate his people, and it prepared the way, there’s no doubt about that, it prepared the way. But then when it came to the killing, and I … to this day I don’t understand how it was possible, how could a man or a woman, [participate in the killing of ten thousand people a day, and not even feel it. Now, had there been hate, it would not have been as systematic. Hate means a pogrom, it’s an explosion, but during the War it was scientific, it was a kind of industry. They had industries and all they produced was death. Had there been hate, the laboratories would have exploded … they didn’t, it went on. A parallel universe, when people came there, the killers killed, the victims died and the sky was blue, and somewhere a man who was in charge of the book, bookkeeping wrote “Today they killed 10,494”. It went on and on. Had there been hate, it would not have been possible.

Heffner: Where is there hate today in the terms that you would use to define hate? Where do you see it?

Wiesel: Oh, I don’t compare, therefore, I think there was no more … after the War, massacres continue. Dick, the closest we ever came to that example was Cambodia, and I must tell you I was in France two weeks ago and I, I was shocked when I learned that … at the conference on Cambodia … the Khmer Rouge representatives were received with full honors, they had the red carpet … and they were treated like good, you know, statesmen and diplomats … my God, these are killers. They represented killers, but international diplomacy being what it is, of course, it had to go on and give them the honors due to all representatives. Cambodia was close to it, but even there it was different because there they … they educated the children to kill their parents. They didn’t kill another people, they killed themselves. But the way they killed each other … for a purpose. The purpose in Germany … what was the purpose in killing Jews? To free … to purify Germany from its Jewish element? The vocabulary, again, is not of hatred there …

Heffner: Yes.

Wiesel: … it’s about prophylaxis … you exterminate cockroaches, to purify your kitchen, and that was what they wanted to do.

Heffner: Maybe hatred itself wasn’t dealt with at Boston sufficiently in your estimation. Maybe because it is so hard to define or to identify. We’re not doing all that good a job ourselves, right here at this table.

Wiesel: Because we are going around it and we are trying to enter it … neither I nor you … are willing to deal with something ugly. That’s really it.

Heffner: Is that because, as you sometimes say, and forgive my use of the metaphor, again, that you sometimes, often say about the Holocaust that there is no way in which those who did not participate, who were not victims, or the victimized, or the … or those who put them to what they were put to, can understand it. Is that because we cannot put ourselves inside the feeling … hate?

Wiesel: I imagine we could, after all, we read literature.

Heffner: Have you ever hated anyone? Or anything?

Wiesel: I’m sure I had hated … I’m sure I had hatred in me when I was young and I was angry, but anger and hate … it’s close … but real hate, let’s say, after the War, I must say I didn’t, I was shielded. I could have … I could have and maybe I should have …

Heffner: Why do you say that?

Wiesel: Because it was … it was a normal reaction, after all. After such an experience, it would be normal for us to hate … hate the killers, hate the accomplices, hate … why not?

Heffner: I … Elie, I’ve never heard you say that before.

Wiesel: It’s true … but I feel it would have been normal … I don’t think it happened, but it could have happened, but the fact that it didn’t happen is abnormal.

Heffner: Do you regret …

Wiesel: Oh, no.


Heffner: … for yourself that it did not happen?

Wiesel: Of course not, of course not. I, I really … I must tell you I’m grateful to history, to God, to, to … I don’t know who, for having been spared.

Heffner: You would have been poorer had you …

Wiesel: I, I think I would have destroyed myself because hate, that is one of the lessons of hate … that the hate destroys not only the hated, it destroys the hater. And I think it would have destroyed us. What happened? What happened was after the War personally I got sick and the day of liberation, one day later I got sick, I was in a coma for ten days, and then almost immediately I went to France, and I began studying again. I threw myself into the books that I had left closed, and I came into, into that universe. That saved me. That means I wanted to open again, I became extremely religious, extremely pious, I went through, I went through a religious experience as profound as I had in 1943, just before I went into the camp … that saved me, the passion for study.

Heffner: But there were those who say that religion is, itself, if not a provocateur, a key to hate in some ways.

Wiesel: Could be … could be. Look at Khomeni, after all Khomeni and what, what Iran was doing. Dick, my good friend, how many wars are fought on behalf of God? And how much hatred has been spread in the name of love for God? Of course, all this is possible, it happened. In our religion, take the Bible … the Bible, I think is … I believe, is one of the most humanizing documents that exists in recorded history, and yet, certain pages there are tough pages. What we were supposed to do to our enemies…

Heffner: You are drawing upon my own concerns expressed to you last Passover.

Wiesel: (Laughter) I remember, sure. But certainly … but not only then, even later, Joshua, the book of Joshua, when Joshua came into the Holyland, the conquest of Canaan, it wasn’t … it wasn’t something that I, I look at it with pride, not at all.

Heffner: There were those who wrote, at your Boston Conference, that the nation… nationalism … the nation-state has been such an extraordinary force in creating hate, and as I read … let’s see, I forget precisely which one … which one of the many papers it was … I couldn’t help but make … oh, yes it was Conor Cruise O’Brien, who said, “The cult of the nation proved to be the most efficient engine for the mobilization of hatred and destruction that the world has ever known”. I made my own note, and the note was a question, and it was a word “religion”.

Wiesel: Religion … of course. I think religion has more … why, why compare?

Heffner: All right.

Wiesel: Excuse me. The moment you compare, it’s wrong because …

Heffner: I think you are going to teach me not to use metaphors, and I …

Wiesel: I’m sorry … that’s right.

Heffner: … appreciate that …

Wiesel: … that’s right, we don’t compare, we shouldn’t compare. There was enough hatred propagated because of the nation … the nationalism …

Wiesel: … the chauvinism … and enough hatred because of religion. Both are bad. In other words, the moment a religion says, “I alone possess truth”, it may become a vehicle of hate because anyone who says, “No, I am the one”, is hated. The same is true of nationalism, the moment that I say that my nation is more, is more important than yours, worthier than yours, then it’s becoming a vehicle of hate.

Heffner: It is easy to see, in the one instance that we turn then to a kind of internationalism, we turn to a United Nations or some parallel or perhaps more effective organization. Do you feel the same way about religion?

Wiesel: Even … I don’t even think it’s possible in political arenas, I don’t think that nations will give up their sovereignty. Not now, not in our lifetime. I don’t think that we will have ever a world government. I wish we could, but we won’t.

Heffner: You say “ever” or “in our lifetime”?

Wiesel: I mean ever … I mean nation’s giving up sovereignty in our lifetime and have a world government, I mean, ever because it will always have oppositions, and you will have other people who will say, “No, we want to be alone”. That’s why I am not really that utopian. I think we should simply try to educate … is to be more tolerant … it’s a minimum meaning I, as a Jew, I really believe that the Jewish tradition contains beauty and morality for me, as a Jew, and I also believe that the Christian has exactly the same right to say that Christianity makes him beauty or her beauty and morality for him or her. If the Christian will not try to convert me, I would respect the Christian very much.


Heffner: So you are not looking for unity, you are looking for diversity.

Wiesel: Diversity and respect, yes.

Heffner: And do you expect … you say we will not find that unity either in terms of nationalism or religion. Do you think we will find that respectful diversity?

Wiesel: I would begin in a very small way, person to person, teacher and students, student and student. It’s enough. I think I told you once when I was young, I was convinced that I could hasten the coming of the Messiah. Every Jewish child believes that. If I could only pray enough, with enough fervor and enough purity, I could hasten redemption, universal redemption. Now I know I will never do that. I cannot. Maybe you can, I cannot.

Heffner: No, no, no, I would just … I was smiling …

Wiesel: But …

Heffner: … because I was wondering why you had given up.

Wiesel: I have given up, but … but what I think we should do now, what I can do now, is bring redemption for one minute to one person, and there I really believe that whenever two persons … it’s almost simplistic … when two persons reach an understanding based on a kind of mutual respect for dignity and with a smile, redemption has been hastened. So it is very little, but that’s the work that I am trying to do.

Heffner: But then, then I turn to these conferences and I wonder whether you … well, no not whether, I wonder what you are trying to achieve in them. What do you want to see come from your conferences, the one in Boston, the one that may come in Moscow, the one that may come Oslo, what do you want, what is your objective?

Wiesel: It may surprise you … not much. All I really want is to bring people together, both colors together, and I … I have a firm conviction that if we bring people around the same table something will happen, something good. So that’s already, for me, the first aim and the first goal. Afterwards, is only … already something which I didn’t even expect, an unexpected reward. The first reward is to bring people together, speaking different languages, coming from different disciplines, representing different areas of concern and loyalty, and yet, all of us are trying, around the table, at the same time to help, after all, to help solve a little bit of the problem that is plaguing us, has been plaguing us for so many centuries.

Heffner: Do you think participants in that kind of meeting, at least in the one that has taken place, thus far in Boston, are able to … I won’t say limit their sights because I think the sight you have exposed here is much, much, much, much broader than anyone could possibly imagine the one-to-one, the one-on-one approach. That isn’t the way scholars, educationalists, others function is it?

Wiesel: No, there is a … there is a marvelous sentence in the Talmud. The Talmud says that scholars increase peace in the world, so my teacher Sol Lieberman used to say that proved the Talmud had a sense of humor.

Heffner: (Laughter)

Wiesel: Because anyone who knows the academic world, to say that scholars bring peace into the world, there is so much hatred among scholars, as well. We know that, of course. But I think it’s possible … I, I believe in the miracle that if you have people and you motivate them enough … they’re not coming for money, we cannot pay that much, but simply to be there and listen and talk and open up and not to care about glory or beginning an argument, making a point, I think it’s beautiful, but then … who knows, who knows, then a statement may be formulated, a manifesto may be composed. Can you imagine if we have, for instance, in the Soviet Union another session of the Anatomy of Hatred and so forth, and we come out with a manifesto against hate, signed by so many scholars and statesmen and poets and writers, why not?

Heffner: What … what would you say, “damn hate or I hate hate”?

Wiesel: Oh, no, no.

Heffner: What would you say, seriously?


Wiesel: I would really try to show the danger of hate because hate corrupts, it corrupts the values, it corrupts the sight and hate actually is a destroyer, it’s not death yet, but it destroys, and therefore hate is always at the service of death, and I would try to show, with examples, from so many places, how hate has destroyed the victim, the environment because all around the hater, and the hated there are millions of people who must choose either their accomplices or they’re fellow victims.

Heffner: Elie is that a notion that is understood that hate destroys the hater?

Wiesel: Well, it has to be made clear. That’s what I feel. If the hater were to know how much his or her hate will destroy him or her, I think, I think that would be the first opening in the wall. That means the hater will hesitate a second before continuing to hate. Now, we want … we are not going to change the pro-apartheid people, who are fanatics about it. Or the Ku Klux Klan who are still here or the White Supremacist, they are beyond … I won’t even work on them. But there are other people who are, who are prey to fanaticism, there is, to them, I imagine a certain glory is saying :Only what is I is good. Only our group is the best, and we should help our people, our community”. There is the danger there. If you’d strive and you explain the danger of hate to the hater, maybe because of self-preservation we could achieve something.

Heffner: I’ve just been given the signal that we have 30 seconds left, but I must ask you whether in this first conference, there were scholars who explained the physiological basis for what you are saying. Is there a physiological basis that hatred consumes the hater?

Wiesel: I think there is, but it wasn’t explained yet. I think we concentrated too much on politics and on psychiatry. Now, it was a great conference, I learned quite a lot of it, and the book will come out soon and you will see it. But the next seminar I think will go deeper into the subject.

Heffner: And when there is one I hope you’ll come back here and talk about it.

Wiesel: And you’ll be there to, anyway.

Heffner: Thank you, Elie Wiesel. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program about today’s guest, his theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, good night and good luck.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; the Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.