In If This is a Man, Primo Levi writes that he and the 650 other Italian Jews who were sent with him to Auschwitz in February 1944 were relieved to hear the name of their destination. What is now a metonym for the Holocaust was at that time still “a name without significance”, he writes, “but at least it implied some place on this earth”. That extraordinary line resonated with me when I first visited what remains of the camp near Krakow in Poland. Nearly 70 years after Levi was sent there, it seemed strange that Auschwitz is still actually “some place on this earth” – that is, not just a metaphysical break, as Adorno saw it, a uniquely terrible historical event, but also simply a physical location. As you approach the camp by car and see the signs for Oświęcim, the Polish name for the place, it seems incongruous – and even somehow obscene? – that normal life goes on here.
I’ve been fascinated by Horst Mahler – who, it has just emerged, may have been a Stasi informant in the 1960s – since I wrote a profile of him for The Times in 2003. The son of a Nazi, he became a socialist lawyer in the 1960s and represented leaders of the West German student movement such as Rudi Dutschke. After its collapse, he founded the Red Army Faction (RAF), the West German left-wing terrorist group, and spent the whole of the 1970s in prison until he was released with the help of another young left-wing lawyer named Gerhard Schröder. Just after Schröder became Germany’s Social Democrat chancellor in 1998, Mahler became a neo-Nazi and represented the far-right NPD. He is now in prison serving a seven-year sentence for denying the Holocaust – a criminal offence in Germany. But what, if anything, does his strange political journey tell us?
Since returning from a trip to India recently (I’ve been going since I was a kid but this was my first visit in a decade), I’ve been thinking about Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist leader who fled to Berlin during World War II in order to form an alliance with the Nazis and later organised and led the Indian National Army (INA), which consisted of Indian prisoners of war who fought alongside the Japanese against the British in Burma and Imphal. I’ve always been interested in Bose, who, it seems to me, went spectacularly wrong because although his own cause was just, he completely failed to see beyond it. In particular, he failed to see the connections between India’s struggle for independence and the struggle against fascism in Europe. But despite his association with Nazism, Bose is still a revered figure in India. Marine Drive, the famous seafront promenade in downtown Bombay – my favourite place in the city – has even been renamed after him.
Perhaps no other place in Germany embodies Adorno and Horkheimer’s idea of the “dialectic of enlightenment” more than Buchenwald. The concentration camp, which I visited for the second time last weekend, is located on the Ettersberg, a hill just five miles away from Weimar – the home of German classicism. It therefore provides a particularly powerful illustration of the intimate connection between German culture and German barbarism. In fact, in 1937 the camp was literally built around an oak tree at which Goethe is supposed to have sat and discussed literature and life when he lived in Weimar in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In a sense, therefore, Buchenwald – which President Obama visited last year – stands, more than any other concentration camp or death camp, for Nazism as a Zivilisationsbruch, or civilisational break.
In my last post, I talked about the backlash against Germany’s culture of memory. In a sense, this development is historically inevitable. But is it also somehow built in to the way Germans think about guilt and in particular in the etymology of the terms that Germans use to describe dealing with the Nazi past? For example, the German word for guilt, Schuld, is also the word for a debt – which can by definition be paid off. (Nietzsche famously uses this etymological connection in On the Genealogy of Morals to argue that that the concept of guilt ultimately derives from the idea of debt.) Perhaps the most striking illustration of the idea of guilt as a debt that can be paid off is the restitution – in German Wiedergutmachung (literally, “making good again”) – that West Germany paid to Israel after World War II. So is there something specific about the way Germans think about guilt that has influenced the way they deal with the Nazi past and in particular created a desire to draw a line under it?
For a while now, I’ve wondered whether there is a shift taking place in Germany’s attitude to the Nazi past. It seems to me, although it is of course diffcult to prove this in a scientific way, that, rightly or wrongly, Germany increasingly sees itself as a “normal” country for which Nazism and in particular the Holocaust is no longer of special relevance. So when I was in Berlin this week, I was interested to see the cover story in the magazine of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit about attitudes to the Nazi past among German teenagers. The headline was: “Was geht das mich noch an?” or “What’s it got to do with me?” The analysis was based on an attitude survey of 14-19 year-olds, most of whom affirmed the importance of ongoing remembrance. But, more worryingly, teachers interviewed for the article also said their students were often uninterested in the Holocaust or even, when shown photos of mass executions, expressed sympathy for the perpetrators rather than the victims.
After finishing Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones – see my recent post – I went back and re-read Ordinary Men. Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, Christopher R. Browning’s extraordinary but troubling study of the involvement of a unit of part-time policemen in the Holocaust. Using detailed interviews carried out by state prosecutors in the 1960s, Browning reconstructs how this group of average, middle-aged men from Hamburg readily killed and deported tens of thousands of Jews in a series of actions in support of the SS in the Lublin district of occupied Poland in a 16-month period from July 1942 to November 1943. He argues that most of the men were not so much anti-Semitic Nazis as “ordinary men” who killed out of obedience to authority and peer pressure. In my post I suggested The Kindly Ones could be read as an illustration of how a perpetrator might use Browning’s “ordinary men” thesis to absolve himself. But is the thesis itself right?