As is tradition, we’ll first provide the full quote by Wiesel and then explain the relevant context of the quote that makes it more clear what the author was talking about.
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.Elie Wiesel
Who Was Elie Wiesel?
The recently deceased Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) was a writer, activist, and noble prize winner but also, and perhaps most relevant to the meaning of this quote, a holocaust survivor. Born in Romania in 1928 to Jewish parents and a resident of Hungary, Wiesel was 16 years old when Germany extended the Holocaust into Hungary in 1944 with just one year of World War II remaining.
Despite nearly missing out on Hitler’s Final Solution, Wiesel and his father were immediately sent to Auschwitz Extermination camp before ultimately being sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. Wiesel’s father would die shortly after the transfer to Buchenwald, just before the camp’s liberation by U.S. forces on April 4th, 1945.
After the Holocaust, Wiesel attended the prestigious Sorbonne in France, where he studied subjects ranging from Philosophy to Literature to Psychology. Following his education, he began working as a journalist for an Israeli newspaper before feeling obligated to write about his experiences during the Holocaust, a topic he had shied away from for a decade following his camp’s liberation.
Ultimately Wiesel would move to the United States, where he would become a prolific author, lecturer, and professor. Though he authored over 40 books during his time, perhaps none were as impactful as his 1956 autobiography of his experiences, Night, and his 1961 companion book Day (a third book in the trilogy, Dawn took place in-between Night and Day). Wiesel is still remembered as an activist who refused, throughout his career, to let atrocities of previous generations be forgotten.
What Did Wiesel Mean By “The Opposite of Love is Indifference”
Returning to the quote in question, Wiesel joins a company of authors who point to the indifference, and lack of genuine care, of German citizens during the Holocaust. It wasn’t that, as is often portrayed, the majority of German citizens were in favor of the execution (or deportation) of the Jewish citizens but that they didn’t seem particularly concerned about it. For Wiesel, this was the deepest betrayal of all.
Subsequent authors would point to the German’s indifference toward the Jews as a driving factor in the success of Hitler’s extermination plan. Author Victor Klemperer wrote in his spellbinding memories I Will Bear Witness about how his fellow citizens thought Hitler’s regime was odious and full of thugs. However, their only help was found in bland reassurances “don’t worry; they’ll be out of power soon.”
In a quote even more cited than the Wiesel quote, the German pastor Martin Niemöller‘s poem “First they came …” expands on this disapproval without action:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.Martin Niemöller
Contemporary Use of Wiesel
The use of Wiesel’s quotes is as prolific as his writing with references being made in podcasts, art, and film throughout the western world. The quote was used, also without context, in The Lumineers’ 2012 hit Stubborn Love with the line:
It’s better to feel pain, than nothing at all
The opposite of love’s indifference
As of 2022, the Wiesel quote is still popular and routinely searched around the world. Where is the quote most popular? It might stun you, but since 2004, the quote is the most popular in Nigeria and the Philippines. If you’re wondering why the Wisel’s quote about the indifference might be so relevant to those two countries, perhaps think about it a little more.
Nigeria, the Philippines, and India (a place where the quote is also popular) is home to the highest concentration of poverty in the world. Indeed, Elie Wisel’s quote has not only been long lasting but also has influenced other moral contexts.