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.
At the end of a comment piece I wrote last month for the Guardian website I talked about Germany’s “economic narcissism”. A lot of the comments on the piece focused on my use of the phrase, so I thought I’d try to explain in more detail what exactly I meant. By using the term, I wasn’t simply trying to say that Germany was responding to the euro crisis in a selfish way. It seems to me that, in the end, whether you think Germany is pursuing its own economic interests or the long-term interests of Europe as a whole depends to a large extent on the economic theory in which you believe. By using the term “economic narcissism” what I had in mind was something related but slightly different: the way the debate in Germany about the euro crisis is so inward-looking.
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 call it moral narcissism: the tendency to think about morality in terms of how your actions make you feel about yourself rather in terms of their consequences for others. I argued in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, that German foreign policy debates, for example about the Kosovo and Iraq wars, tend to be narcissistic in this way – they focused, it seems to me, on German identity rather than on the fate of the people in the places where the crises were happening. So I was interested to see that my colleague José Ignacio Torreblanca made a similar point – but in Weberian terms – about Germany’s response to the euro crisis in an op-ed in the FT recently. He suggested that current German foreign policy was gesinnungsethisch rather than verantwortungsethisch – that is, it is based on Max Weber’s concept of an “ethics of conviction” rather than an “ethics of responsibility”. According to this kind of conscience-centred (rather than consequence-centred) thinking, all that matters is being right – regardless of the effects.
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?