In Germany during the last few weeks there has been a debate about the question of the difference between a critique of Israeli policy and anti-Semitism – a subject that I discussed in a previous post. The debate centres on the 45 year-old German journalist Jakob Augstein, who was recently called an anti-Semite by the Simon Wiesenthal Center because of his criticism of Israel in his columns for Spiegel Online. He was brought up by Rudolf Augstein, the founder editor of Spiegel, and is a major shareholder in the company that owns it. But it emerged in 2002 that his biological father is actually Martin Walser, the 85 year-old writer who is most associated with attempts to draw a Schlußstrich, or final line, under the Nazi past. So influential is Walser perceived to have been – Chancellor Gerhard Schröder seemed implictly to approve of the remarks Walser made in his famous speech at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt in 1998 – that academics have written of a “Walserisation” of Germany during the last decade and a half.
I’ve always been fascinated by Walter Rathenau, the German foreign minister who was assassinated by anti-Semitic nationalists in Berlin in 1922. The son of Emil Rathenau, the founder of the groundbreaking Berlin-based electrical company AEG, he had run the German ministry of war’s crucial raw materials department during World War I and created what some see as the first planned economy. However, after the war, he and other leading Jewish figures were blamed by the right for the German defeat as part of the so-called Dolchstoßlegende – the myth of a “stab in the back”. In particular, as foreign minister, Rathenau became fatally associated with the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles. In a sense, his assassination symbolises the beginning of the end of the dream of Jewish assimilation in Germany.
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?
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?
One of the paradoxes of the Holocaust is that the more we know about it, the less we feel we understand it. Perhaps because of the way that in the last fifty years the Holocaust has become the West’s central negative moral reference point (see the brilliant epilogue to Tony Judt’s Postwar on this), it has become ever harder to comprehend the mentality of those responsible for it. In that context, The Kindly Ones – Jonathan Littell’s 900-page novel told from the perspective of an SS Sturmbannführer (equivalent to a major) who is intimately involved in the Final Solution – is a remarkable achievement of imagination. The novel, which was originally published in French as Les Bienveillantes and won the Prix Goncourt in 2006, powerfully evokes the everyday life of doctors and lawyers who quote Tertullian and Herodotus and discuss Kant and Kierkegaard in between killing Jews. But to me there was something unconvincing about the narrator’s account of “how it happened”, as he puts it in the first sentence of the book. So is this a flaw? Or is it perhaps actually deliberate?
I received a scathing response to my recent review in the TLS of Jeffrey Herf’s book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World from Tarif Khalidi, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the American University in Beirut. In a somewhat caustic letter to the editor, Khalidi questions whether, as someone who is a not a specialist on the Arab world, I was qualified to review the book and even whether Herf, a professor of European history at the University of Maryland, was qualified to write it. “The Arab/Islamic world is currently the last region on earth where non-experts can freely claim scholarly authority,” Khalidi writes. He also rejects the idea that Herf’s book, a study of the Nazis’ attempts to reach out to Muslims during World War II (which he appears not to have read), might be important for the debate about “Islamofascism”. Finally he says that my review “merely echo[es] tired and tiresome Israeli propaganda”.
I’ve just finished reading Paul Berman’s brilliant new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, which came out in April. Based on a 28,000-word essay that appeared in The New Republic in 2007, it’s a devastating critique of the Swiss Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan but also of liberal intellectuals like Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash who, Berman argues, have wrongly seen Ramadan as a “progressive”. In the preface, Berman says he sees Ramadan – the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood – as “a representative man of our age” on whom “half a dozen major conflicts and controversies converge”. The failure of writers such as Buruma to take him on is therefore for Berman a symptom of a bigger problem. The book thus develops the arguments Berman made in Terror and Liberalism about the recent failure of western liberals to recognise Islamism as a totalitarian movement and to confront it as they confronted other totalitarian movements in the twentieth century.