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?
Today, on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, German politicians will once again express contrition for the Holocaust, as they have since Helmut Schmidt became the first German chancellor to visit Auschwitz in 1977. But does “working through the past”, as Theodor Adorno put it in a famous essay in 1959, mean anything in Germany today beyond simply commemorating the past? In particular, should the Nazi past play a role in German foreign policy? If so, it must surely mean that Germany should do everything it can to prevent Iran, the world’s most openly anti-Semitic regime whose president denies the Holocaust and calls for Israel to be wiped off the map, from acquiring nuclear weapons. But is it?
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.
This is interesting in a morbid kind of way. The Springer corporation yesterday gave Israel the original blueprints for the Auschwitz death camp. Apparently, Springer, which publishes Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling tabloid, acquired them last year. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is in Europe for discussions with George Mitchell, accepted them on behalf of the country. The blueprints, which include sketches of for the original concentration camp (Auschwitz I) and the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp (Auschwitz II) that was built later, will now be displayed in Yad Vashem.