Adorno and the Holocaust

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.

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Thoughts on Buchenwald


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.

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Guilt in German

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?

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What’s it got to do with me?

Holocaust Memorial

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.

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Ordinary men or ordinary Germans?

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?

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Extermination and narration

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?

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Germany and the West

The German historian Heinrich August Winkler delivered the first Ralf Dahrendorf lecture at the LSE yesterday on the West as an “incomplete project”. Winkler, who was himself deeply influenced by Dahrendorf, skilfully sketched the history of  the “normative project of the West”, which he said did not begin with the Enlightenment but instead had much older roots. Challenging Max Weber’s “very German point of view” in the preface to his writings on the sociology of religion, he argued that what makes the West unique is its political rather than economic or cultural achievements – above all the separation of powers and secularisation. Winkler also made some interesting remarks about Germany’s “deviations” from the West – the theme of his magnum opus, Der lange Weg nach Westen (The Long Road West). Germany, he said, was a paradox: it played a central role in developing the normative project of the West (e.g. Immanuel Kant – who like Winkler came from Königsberg) but also produced the most radical European rejection of it: Nazism.

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Moments of redemption

Yascha Mounk’s review of my book, which appeared in n+1 (a hip Brooklyn-based magazine set up by novelist Benjamin Kunkel) last week, was one of the most illuminating and thought-provoking I’ve read. Mounk brilliantly explains the argument of the book but also makes several points that I guess were implicit in the book but which I hadn’t seen quite so clearly until I read his review. Perhaps the most interesting relates to post-war Germany’s search for what he calls a “moment of redemption”. For the West German centre right, this moment was 1945, which they thought of as “zero hour” – in other words what Mounk calls a “clear moment of rupture” with the Nazi past. The Achtundsechziger, on the other hand, rejected this idea of a clear break and devoted much energy to pointing out the continuities between the Third Reich and the Federal Republic. (They were to some extent right; they went wrong, I argue in the book, when they went from the individual to the structural level.)

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Nazi and Israeli propaganda

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”.

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Tony Judt’s 1968

In the latest essay in the series that began with the extraordinary piece, “Night”, that I mentioned in a previous post, Tony Judt shares his memories of 1968 and its aftermath on the NYRB blog. I particularly liked his description of the “unutterably serious” revolutionaries he came across on a visit to West Germany and their attempts to purge the Nazi past through free love:

The notion that a twenty-year-old in Western Europe might exorcise his parents’ guilt by stripping himself (and his partner) of clothes and inhibitions—metaphorically casting off the symbols of repressive tolerance—struck my empirical English leftism as somewhat suspicious. How fortunate that anti-Nazism required—indeed, was defined by—serial orgasm. But on reflection, who was I to complain? A Cambridge student whose political universe was bounded by deferential policemen and the clean conscience of a victorious, unoccupied country was perhaps ill-placed to assess other peoples’ purgative strategies.

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