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.
In a piece about Germany as a geo-economic power that I recently wrote for Internationale Politik, a German foreign-policy journal, I argued that Germany’s “special relationship” with Israel might in future weaken. It seems to me that the relationship is all that remains of the foreign policy based on the idea of Auschwitz as Germany’s raison d’état that Joschka Fischer sought to develop (a theme of my book, Utopia or Auschwitz). Although Chancellor Angela Merkel is personally committed to the Jewish state, I think she is under increasing pressure from an anti-Israeli public opinion and from Germany’s economic interests with the Arab world. I also wonder whether a dramatic event – such as an Israeli military strike on Iran – could be a tipping point that creates a rupture between Germany and Israel in the way that the Iraq war did between Germany and the US.
I was pleased to see a review of Utopia or Auschwitz in the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which is published by the United States Holocaust Museum. The reviewer, Philip Spencer, raises the interesting question of whether the West German student movement misunderstood Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School’s interpretation of the Nazi past. Spencer says the Frankfurt School had a “sophisticated” view of the Holocaust as a “radical break” whereas the student movement “over-generalized” the Holocaust so that it became “only one case of genocide among many”. I think this is basically right. But it also seems to me, though perhaps I didn’t bring this out clearly enough in the book, that the tension between these two views of the Holocaust existed within the work of Adorno himself. So perhaps the student movement didn’t so much distort Adorno as read him selectively.
Alongside the debate among foreign-policy analysts about a “post-Western world” that I discussed in a recent post, there has also been another, oddly disconnected debate about the future of the West as a normative project that, particularly since 9/11, has been dominated by two opposing groups. On one side of the argument are anti-imperialists, who see the relationship between the West and the rest of the world predominantly in terms of the concept of empire and are therefore critical of Western policy and even of the concept of the West. On the other side of the argument are what might be called “Enlightenment fundamentalists” (the term comes from Timothy Garton Ash, who, in an article in the New York Review of Books in 2006, described the Dutch-Somali writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a “brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist”), who attempt to defend the values of the West, which they see as being under threat.
I recently read Theodor Herzl’s novel Altneuland (1902), which Walter Laqueur aptly describes in the preface to the third edition of his History of Zionism as “political science fiction”. In it, Herzl imagines the future Jewish state – which, he had argued in Der Judenstaat (1896), would be propelled into existence by the misery of Jews in the diaspora – as it might be in the twenties. But, ironically, after insisting in Der Judenstaat that he was not describing a Utopia, he proceeded in Altneuland six years later to do exactly that: Herzl’s imaginary new society is a kind of paradise in which the economy based on the principle of “mutualism” runs smoothly, education is free and women have equal rights. Most strikingly of all, however, Jews and Arabs live in perfect harmony. “Why should we have anything against the Jews?” asks an Arab character in the novel. “They have enriched us and they live with us like brothers”.
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?