The Holocaust and history

In my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, I argued that Germany’s 1968 generation had a tendency to relativise the Holocaust. For the Achtundsechziger – the children of what they themselves called “the Auschwitz generation” – Nazism was a kind of negative moral reference point. As a result, they saw the possibility of a recurrence of the Holocaust in a whole range of other events and threats around the world, from the Vietnam war in the sixties to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the nineties. But in making such comparisons, they consciously or unconsciously relativised Auschwitz, which became a free-floating signifier rather than a specific historical event that happened in one place at one time. The story of Germany’s 1968 thus raises a historiographical (or perhaps even philosophical?) question: was the Holocaust unique? Or can it be compared to other historical events? If so, to what exactly, and how, can it be compared?

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Sebald and the Holocaust

Will Self delivered a brilliant lecture on W.G. Sebald and the Holocaust in London last night. Self, who has written before about his affinity with the German writer who spent most of his life in East Anglia, suggested – if I understood him correctly – that Sebald was unique among  non-Jewish writers in post-war Germany in facing the Nazi past and in particular mourning the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Speaking beneath a screen displaying Gerhard Richter’s haunting, blurry portrait Onkel Rudi (above), he said Sebald’s novels and essays constituted a “literature of atonement” that set him apart from other post-war German writers such as Günter Grass and Martin Walser (I was slightly surprised to hear a British writer who doesn’t read German even refer to Walser, a figure who is not much known here). Perhaps most interestingly, to me at least, he suggested that the reason for this was that Sebald moved to Britain in the sixties instead of remaining in Germany.

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Pen and sword

I just watched Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Paul Schrader’s strange 1985 biopic (if it can be called that) of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, who committed seppuku, or ritual suicide, in Tokyo in 1970 after a failed attempt to inspire an uprising against the post-war state by the Japanese army. I’d wanted to watch the film for a long time, mainly because I am a big fan of Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver has been one of my favourite movies since watching it in a film studies class at school) but also because Mishima is such an interesting figure. Mishima was a real-life Schrader (anti-)hero – lonely, ascetic, tortured and ultimately self-destructive. But this is also a film about the struggle to reconcile life and art – or, as Mishima put it, to achieve “the harmony of pen and sword” – which is why perhaps critics see it as Schrader’s most personal film.

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Random thoughts on the German language

Favourite word: generalstabsmäßig – General Staff-like, as in with military precision
Weirdest phrase: ein inner Reichsparteitag – an inner Nuremberg rally, as in a private celebration of the triumph of the will
Most useful word that doesn’t exist in English: Auseinandersetzung
Most evocative word: Mandel – see Paul Celan
Nicest-sounding word: Schmetterling – butterfly
Most annoying Fremdwort – foreign word: Handy – mobile
Philosophically weirdest word: aufheben – see Hegel
Existentially most interesting word: Freitod – suicide = free death
Most important word for understanding Germany: Geist – mind/spirit

New German theories of colour

Back in 1985, the Social Democrats and Greens in the state of Hesse formed the first ever “red-green” government in German politics. When it collapsed less than two years later, it seemed destined to be a footnote in German political history. In fact, it turned out to be the prototype for a string of other “red-green” governments and ultimately for the national government under Gerhard Schröder in 1998. In the city-state of Hamburg the Christian Democrats and Greens are currently negotiating an agreement to form a “black-green” coalition under Ole von Beust that may eventually re-draw Germany’s political map in a similar way to that first “red-green” experiment. It also parallels other recent attempts elsewhere – for example by David Cameron in the UK and by former Bush speechwriter David Frum in the US – to formulate Green conservatism.

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