The Warsaw experience of Janina Bauman

Janina Bauman, along with her sister Sophie and her mother Alina, miraculously survived the slaughter of the Jews of Warsaw and the crushing of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in April, 1943. Born in 1926, Janina was only thirteen when the German army invaded Poland and besieged Warsaw. Her remarkable 1986 memoir, Winter in the Morning: A Young Girl’s Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond 1939-1945, conveys both the circumstances and some of the emotional consequences of this horrific experience. (The book is also available on the Open Library; link.) Janina had managed to preserve many of her diaries from those years, so the text is grounded in her own contemporaneous observations and thoughts. Her father and her uncle Josef were among the 14,500 victims of the Soviet massacre of Polish officers at Katyn Forest in 1940. And most of her friends and family members were murdered during the Nazi terror and waves of Aktion in the Warsaw ghetto. Her family suffered from both Nazi genocide and Soviet atrocity, both arising from merciless totalitarian regimes. The survival of Janina, Sophie, and their mother Alina was the result of their own courage and resourcefulness, the aid they received from their extended family and non-Jewish friends from before the war (Auntie Maria), the willingness of a number of non-Jewish strangers to shelter them at critical moments, and a few moments of monumental good luck. (For example, Janina’s mother’s ability to speak German fluently saves their lives during transport to an extermination camp.)

Much of the book is factual and autobiographical in tone, sometimes even laconic. The text conveys a good deal of the texture of life in the ghetto — struggling to find food, to avoid capture and execution on the streets, to find secret ways of continuing school, and occasionally having friendships, even boyfriends. Here is a passage from fifteen-year-old Janina’s diary, from a time shortly after Janina’s family has been forced into the Warsaw ghetto (April 18, 1941). Their conditions are tolerable, but severe suffering and deprivation are all around them.

‘Don’t you think the way we live is highly immoral?’ I asked. ‘We eat our breakfast, lunch and supper, we occupy our minds with the French Revolution or Polish poetry, or just which one of us L. fancies the most; then we go to bed with a good novel and peacefully fall asleep. At the same time they are starving and dying.’ ‘There’s nothing we can do for them,’ said Zula sadly, ‘for the hundreds and thousands of them.’ ‘Of course not. But for some of them perhaps? Each of us for somebody?’ ‘Would you and your family be willing to take home these two begging boys?’ asked Hanka very seriously. ‘To share not only food but also beds with them, live with them for better or worse?’ I had no ready answer to her question, and the more I think about it now, the clearer I see the answer is ‘No’. (42)

But Janina does find ways of helping others in these desperate conditions. She helps to organize a collective effort to grow vegetables for the destitute in the ghetto (she turns out to be very good at cultivating the garden), and she writes of her efforts to join the armed Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto. (She was excluded from the Home Army resistance group because she was Jewish.) (Zula and Hanka were her closest friends. Zula was later raped and murdered by German soldiers, while Hanka survived the war.)

Here is a passage describing the Aktion (mass removal of Jews from the ghetto to death camps) on July 22, 1942. 

The first three days of the Aktion I spent in the flat, following Julian’s firm instructions not to set foot in the street…. On the fourth day I could wait no longer, and, ignoring Mother’s pleas, set out to the ‘little ghetto’. At first the streets seemed uncannily quiet, almost deserted. I walked fast, not looking around, quick, quick along Leszno Street, until I plunged into the tangle of narrow lanes leading to Roman’s flat. There, all of a sudden, I found myself in the middle of a panic-stricken crowd. In a little square a score of men — both Jewish policemen and civilian helpers — tried to hold a swarm of screaming people inside a ring of tightly locked hands. Other policemen ran up and down the back alleys searching for more victims, pulling them violently along, pushing them by force into the ring. Just concealed behind a large building, two lorries waited for their human load. A couple of Nazi soldiers leant leisurely against them. Their guns ready to fire, they watched the round-up lazily, talking and laughing in the bright sunshine of the mid-summer day. 

I hardly had time to be frightened when one of the men forming the deadly enclosure broke away from the ring, rushed at me, seized my arm, and began to pull me, as if intending to force me into the ring. He was just pretending. I recognised him at once: he was Mr. N., Stefan’s friend. As an employee of the Jewish Council he had evidently been ordered to take an active part in the round-up. His face was white, twisted with fear and agony, his hands trembling. With feigned brutality he pushed me into a dark gate and whispered imploringly, ‘Run away, child, run back home as fast as you can!’ He showed me a narrow passage between two buildings. Terrified, I darted away without another word. (66-67)

The book is primarily a narrative account of the young Janina’s own experiences. But the author sometimes offers general observations about the experience as well. Several passages are especially meaningful —

During the war I learned the truth we usually choose to leave unsaid: that the cruellest thing about cruelty is that it dehumanises its victims before it destroys them. And that the hardest of struggles is to remain human in inhuman conditions. (preface)

And here is an expression of shame, or survivor guilt, at having escaped the ghetto to a temporary refuge with strangers on the Aryan side of the wall:

A torrent of bitter thoughts washed away the last trace of ecstasy. I was in an unknown place, facing an unknown future among strangers. My own cruel but familiar world where I belonged remained behind the walls. I had deserted it, running for my safety, for the luxuries of a fragrant bath and a soft bed. I had deserted my people, leaving them to their terrible fate. In the early hours of the night, flooded with tears of agony and guilt, I crept out of bed and stretched myself out on the carpet. There, cold and miserable, I finally fell asleep. (100-101)

It is very interesting that Zygmunt Bauman, the husband of Janina, writes that his own willingness to write about the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s was triggered by reading his wife’s personal experience through this book. Janina is explicit in saying that she had never previously shared her experience with him. Zygmunt too had never addressed the experiences of anti-Semitism, genocide, and totalitarianism that he had witnessed, until the 1980s. (It is interesting to note that Bauman directly addresses the question of “shame” in his discussion of the Holocaust in Modernity and the Holocaust (205).)

Several issues arise in Winter in the Morning that are important points of debate today: the role of Polish Catholics in supporting the Nazi extermination of Polish Jews, on the one hand, and their role in sheltering Jews, on the other; the role played by Ukrainian police and soldiers in enforcing Nazi commandments in the ghetto, including murder; and the role played by the Jewish Council and the men who served as Jewish policemen in the ghetto in carrying out the mandates of the Nazi regime. (Hannah Arendt raises the issue of the possible culpability of the Jewish Councils in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.) On the whole, Bauman’s stance towards the Jewish Council and the Jewish policemen is a measured one, and she mentions life-saving efforts by the Jewish Council and by individual Jewish policemen in the ghetto — as well as their collaboration in several waves of Aktion leading to the deaths of the majority of the Jews living in the ghetto. As an adolescent observer, she was not in a position to know about the activities of these organizations at a higher level; she saw only their local activities in the streets and urban destruction of the ghetto — including in the scene of terror during the July Aktion described above.

Janina Bauman’s memoir is an important contribution to later generations’ ability to address the Holocaust in a human way, with compassion and a degree of understanding of the horrific human experience it embodied for many millions of men, women, and children. Her narrative is part of our collective memory of that trauma.

Another important document about the Warsaw ghetto is Hanna Krall’s interview with Dr. Marek Edelman, published as Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation With Dr. Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Polish 1977; English translation 1986); available on Open Library (link). Edelman was a leader in the armed Jewish resistance during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and survived to become a leading cardiologist. Edelman’s recollections are stark and unblinking in his testimony to murder, rape, humiliation, and unmeasured cruelty to the Jews of the ghetto; and he is informative about the efforts made by the Jewish Combat Organization to gather arms and resist the final round of extermination undertaken by the Nazi regime.

Edelman demonstrates courage in his account. But his life also displays a significant and important level of understanding of the evil of the Holocaust. In their afterword to Shielding the Flame the translators quote an important set of comments by Edelman at the time of the Polish martial-law government’s 1983 commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising:

Forty years ago we fought not only for our lives. We fought for life in dignity and freedom. To celebrate our anniversary here where social life is dominated throughout by humiliation and coercion would be to deny our fight. It would mean participating in something contrary to its ideals. It would be an act of cynicism and contempt. I shall not participate in such arrangements or accept the participation of others who do so, regardless of where they come from or whom they represent. Far from these manipulated celebrations, in the silence of the graves and in people’s hearts, there shall live the true memory of the victims and the heroes, the memory of the eternal human striving for freedom and truth. (122)

Here Edelman makes an important point about history and memory, and the political use to which commemoration is all too often put. And his point is broad enough to encompass both the crimes of the Nazi occupation of Poland and the subsequent Soviet-backed dictatorship of Poland. Timothy Garton Ash makes a similar point about memory in his preface to the book:

The gulf between Poles and Jews today is not just a matter of physical separation. There has also been an extraordinary divorce of Polish and Jewish memory. A Polish child growing up in the 1970s learned next to nothing about the immense Jewish part in Polish history, let alone about the Polish part in Jewish history. (viii)

Again — memory, its importance, and its suppression.

A key question for me in the past year has been how historians should confront the evils of the twentieth century. Tim Snyder answers the question in one way, painting a very large canvas over the “bloodlands” of Central Europe. But — as Snyder insists — it is crucial to have a basis for empathy and compassion for the human beings who were tormented, humiliated, and destroyed by these massive and numbing atrocities. It is crucial to confront the personal memoirs of genocide and atrocity, like Bauman’s or Edelman’s, if we are to put a human face on the cold historical facts of the Holocaust, and to have a more acute understanding of the human realities of children, adults, and old people as they confronted cruelty, violence, humiliation, and extinction.

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Literary theorist Julia Hell provides a fascinating treatment of the relationship between Janina Bauman’s memoir and Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust, along with writings by W. G. Sebald and Peter Weiss, through the lens of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (“Modernity and the Holocaust, or, Listening to Eurydice”; link). It is a very interesting piece. Here is a brief summary of Hell’s approach:

Seen through this particular lens, Bauman’s texts, especially Modernity and the Holocaust (2000 [1989]) and related essays and lectures, emerge as deeply entangled in a cultural imagination that is obsessed with issues of representation, acts of looking, and the nature of human bonds in the wake of the Holocaust, a cultural imagination that tried to capture these topics by returning to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. (126)

And Hell attempts to identify traces of the Orpheus/Eurydice story in Janina’s narrative as well:

Let me gather the bits and pieces of the Orphic story that have surfaced so far: with respect to the Orphic topography, we have the frequent use of the inferno on the one hand; on the other hand, we have a river dividing the almost-dead from the living. That is, Janina Bauman’s story situates Eurydice in hell. And then we have the different figurations of Eurydice — the woman being led from the inferno by her mother and aunt or the woman waiting to be rescued ^ the Orphic topography of love and death, the underworld of the ghetto, the river dividing world and underworld, and the woman, who was doomed to die, the man who might or might not save her. What I want to draw attention to is the fact that Janina Bauman takes hold of particular moments in Eurydice’s story: the moment of danger when Eurydice is about to die, the moment of being about-to-be rescued, the moment of being rescued. (140)

This is an intriguing effort at explaining the narrative structure and language of Janina Bauman’s memoir. It gains plausibility when we recall from the text of Winter in Morning that Janina was a passionate reader of literature during the years of her adolescence in the terrors of Warsaw. She mentions reading most of Russian literature in one of the sanctuary apartments she and her sister and mother were able to find. It is entirely possible that Janina had read and absorbed The Divine Comedy in one half-illuminated cellar or another.

Guest post by Izabela Wagner on Zygmunt Bauman

Izabela Wagner, author of Bauman: A Biography, is Professor of Sociology at Collegium Civitas (Poland) and fellow at Institute Convergence Migration (Paris). Thank you, Izabela, for this invaluable and insightful guest post!

The Sociological Imagination of Zygmunt Bauman

By Izabela Wagner

Thank you, Dan Little, for your inspiring comment and questions. I want to mention a couple of essential elements that shed some light on your raised issues.

Can we connect the life and the sociological writings and theories that Bauman created during his long career?

It was a question that I tried to respond to in my book, claiming that there is a link. For me, it was obvious, but I agree that this is not a direct or easily visible connection.

After the war they (especially young and active people in Poland) were all (and Bauman in the first rank) turning toward the future. It was the only way to survive the war—building a new world that would be different from the previous one.

I wish to start from this critical question—why ZB didn’t work on Jewish questions before the eighties?

1. Disciplinary context — sociology production conventions.

Bauman was a sociologist educated in the late 1950s. At this period, there was a firm conviction that science should be objective, and the personal-subjective opinions were not “scientific”. Despite the works by Ludwik Flecks (Published in German in 1935, known from its English version Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, but well known in Poland and published just after the war in more epistemological papers in Polish: “Problems of the Science of Science” (1946) and “To Look, To See, To Know” (1947)), the positivistic approach was the most important in social sciences, and qualitative methods, like auto-ethnography and personal experiences in scholarly writing, were excluded.

The use of personal experiences was reserved to fiction writers, and Bauman officially wasn’t. However, he published two novels based on his life, but the Jewish issue is not included. Why? The novels were published in 1953 in a military edition house, and it was in the middle of a fierce antisemitic campaign. At that moment, Bauman was kicked out of the Army (more in Bauman: a Biography).

So, as a sociologist, he conformed to conventions which were in use at that time, and by consequence, he didn’t mobilize his personal experiences in his writing. Moreover, as a Polish sociologist, he focused on problems elaborated by: a) his mentor Julian Hochfeld — open marxism; b) one of the most prominent sociologists in Poland at that moment — Stanisław Ossowski — humanistic marxism. As a sociologist seeking excellence, Bauman’s sociology was theoretical rather than empirical and general rather than specific.

2. Generational context. Why was ZB’s generation—young intellectuals—after WW2 mainly silent about the “Jewish question”? Because they all believed that it was over—this means antisemitism, the division between two categories—Poles and Jews (they knew that it was a work in progress, but it was considered the problem of the past).

ZB was very engaged in the so-called “assimilation”—he didn’t speak Yiddish and was not religious. Except for rare historians, no one worked/published about the war (yes—writers and some scholars published their journals or books-testimonies). We need to take into consideration the post-war context and the large spread of Polish antisemitism. In 1946 took place the Pogrom in Kielce, one of the tragic events in the years characterized by huge hostility towards Jews. (See Julian Kwiek’s recent book, Nie chcemy Żydów u siebie. Przejawy wrogości wobec Żydów w latach 1944-1947 [We don’t want Jews at home. Symptoms of hostility towards Jews in 1944-1947]; and an excellent and groundbreaking book by Joanna Tokarska Bakir, Under a Curse: A social portrait of the Kielce pogrom (to be published by Cornell University Press in 2022).) The open discussion about this dramatic past started fifty years after the end of WW2; a book by Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, started a large debate on the Polish-Jewish relationship.

We also need to remember that in these after-war years, survivors were not heroes—the story and their status were complicated. Again ZB was an active young man—not a passive victim, such as survivors were perceived. His mission and his duty weren’t to analyze the past but built the future.

3. Censorship—a very important factor determining all intellectual and artistic production.

We need to remember (and yet frequently forget—even young scholars working in post-communist countries) that all intellectual output was under censorship! Very hard censure was implemented in Poland. Even if it wasn’t the same level as in the USSR, the author’s work was difficult. It was impossible to publish something without this heavily controlling office. Another “curiosity” strongly limiting the coverage of publications was the scarcity of paper—each editor had a small amount of paper and needed to manage it carefully (this is not a joke). So the authors could not write and publish what they wanted. It was apparent that the authors practiced the auto-censorship. The level of restrictions was dynamic, and during some periods, authors had more freedom. However, before 1989, Poland wasn’t a free-speech country. This is why many scholars—especially historians (Modzelewski, Gieremek) never worked in the contemporary times and the 20th century, but were Middle Ages specialists.

4. The Holocaust experience. ZB was not a survivor in the strict sense. Being absent from Polish territory during WW2, escaping to USSR, he was in another category. However, being in the Soviet Union, he wasn’t an inmate and wasn’t in gulag. His experience of the Soviet Union was not traumatic—he was well treated, and for the first time in his life in this country, he was not at all discriminated against. His wife Janina Bauman (b. Lewinson) was a Holocaust survivor. This biographic experience constituted a considerable difference between them (they both wrote about this difference—more about this in Bauman: a Biography, and in my article, which will be published in a collective book edited by Jack Palmer and Dariusz Brzeziński, Revisiting Modernity and the Holocaust: Heritage, Dilemmas, Extensions in Routledge ‘Classical and Contemporary Social Theory’ (2022). I explain in my chapter, why ZB in Modernity and the Holocaust didn’t include the individual testimonies of survivors and didn’t use his own experiences of life in totalitarian country.

5. Political engagement. Last but not least, ZB’s anti-Zionist attitude: he was against his father’s Zionism. ZB had a deep conviction that Poland was his homeland, and he belonged to that society. At the same time, he believed that Jews belong to the community in which they live, and they have a cultural mission in this world—not as a separate state but as a component of various societies. As Bauman wrote in his autobiographical text, he was against “tribal” divisions. This is why he couldn’t work on Jewish issues; if he did, this would be the recognition of the failure of his convictions; he was an activist (intellectual activist too) who was building the future.

The fact that ZB wasn’t Zionist influenced his approach to the Holocaust. He believed that it was a genocide, a horrible treatment that humans can do to other humans. It was a general, not specific event, which could happen in other places on our planet (here Bauman is following Everett Hughes’ 1962 paper “Good People and Dirty Work” (link), mentioned in the introduction to Modernity and the Holocaust. More about this question will be published soon in Revisiting Modernity and the Holocaust.

I also argue that the current vision about the strategy regarding Holocaust, in these years (around 1989) and in Europe was influenced by Spain and its policy toward their recent past. This “turning-page” attitude (Spain refused to charge fascists after the collapse of the Franco regime) should help people to create European Union, in which unity was vital. Germans “were no more guilty” for Nazi crimes—the new generations were not responsible for the previous generation’s acts so that we can move on. No need to open the old wounds barely healed. I think that behind M&H we can find the similar approach that was so popular about making peace and forgetting history. Today we know that it was a failure—see J-F. Daguzan “Mémoire de la Guerre Civile Espagnole: reconquête d’une mémoire amputée par la moitié” in Confluences Méditerranée, 2014/1 N.88 pp. 171-184; link.

6. The last but not least (contextual) point is the trauma. After the war, most people didn’t speak about it—see the excellent analysis of the interview as a method in Holocaust history by Christopher Browning. He explains that only decades later, historians were able to conduct the interviews only several years after the Holocaust Survivors spoke (the Eichmann process was a significant turning point in this process).

7. Only several years after the war occurred a “Jewish Turn”; this was analyzed by Bryan Cheyette in his excellent article “Zygmunt Bauman’s window: From Jews to strangers and back again” (2020 Thesis Elevenlink). Cheyette shows how disciplinary evolution (history of Holocaust) and the flourishing of survival testimonies in general and Zygmunt’s wife Janina’s critical and well-written book Winter in the morning: a young girl’s life in the Warsaw ghetto and beyond, 1939-1945 (link) influenced Bauman’s work.

So all these elements help to explain why before 1968, ZB was “not interested” in Jewish questions. (Actually, it was rare for anyone to pursue these topics at that time in Poland.)

The Sociological Imagination

I agree with Dan Little on ZB’s sociological imagination being nourished by sociological literature; however, I wish to imperatively add here the influence of creative literature (fiction) as well. Bauman was undoubtedly inspired by books—because it was for him a safe space. He was a person who liked to control his environment. While his childhood’s chaotic and traumatic context contributed to the vast feeling of uncertainty and lack of agency, Bauman’s escape was literature. Books are “safe”—you can manage knowledge. It was his world in which he was at ease. Emotionally he needed to control himself—as all kids of that generation, and as all war-kids. Emotions were dangerous, and self-control was crucial. Like all people who experienced communism, Bauman knew that he must protect his personal life. People never knew if private information wouldn’t be used against them. That was the essential attitude and both unconscious and conscious path/model of safe behavior. It was necessary to navigate in the hostile environment; controlling emotions in the society under communist dictatorship was a survivor behavior.

Janina Bauman was his alter ego and, at the same time, a counterpoint. Highly self-reflecting, her writing is personal and based on her experiences. They collaborated a lot, so finally, ZB’s interest in Holocaust was also influenced by Janina’s experiences. But he also wrote on topics directly connected with his own past. His focus on refugees, on the poor, on discrimination (he devoted a lot of work to it, especially in the last years) was undoubtedly the result of his life trajectory.

It is important to recall that the experience of totalitarian systems influenced Bauman’s work. He understood very well that feeling of being a tiny cog in a giant machine, an eyelet in an over-powerful system, which is using you. Literature was his escape from totalitarianism—writing was his passion, even addiction.

However, his experiences mattered a lot, not in a visible way but as a basso continuo in music—the line of bass that is fundamental for the construction of the piece; however, the public doesn’t perceive it.

As I wrote in Bauman: a Biography (401-402), Bauman followed the Tikkun Olam mission—and this was directly related to his educational and cultural immersion in secular Judaism. This chain—Judaism-Marxism-Socialism—is found in Bauman’s career, and it is difficult to see now which element was the most important; probably all three, but at different moments, one dominated others.

Thank you, Dan Little, for your inspiring questions — I hope this is only the beginning of an inspiring conversation.

******

DL: Readers of Izabela Wagner’s comments here will also be interested in her 2020 essay in Thesis Eleven, “Bauman as a refugee: We should not call refugees ‘migrants’” (link). There she explores the connections between Bauman’s social identity as a Polish Jew, his personal experiences of statelessness, and his writings on the refugee crisis in Europe. Here is the abstract:

ABSTRACT This paper claims that Bauman’s personal experiences deeply shaped his work. In the first part, I draw upon my own research, combining archive documents and interviews data, as well as – for the very first time – details taken from Zygmunt Bauman’s own unpublished autobiography, accessed courtesy of the Zygmunt and Janina Bauman Archive project at the University of Leeds. The second part of the paper draws upon my wider ethnographical study into the lived experiences of asylum seekers, conducted between 2017 and 2019 in Southern Europe. I focus here upon their experience of escape and their present life conditions in order to highlight important parallels with Bauman’s own experiences as a refugee. The conclusion draws both cases together in order to understand a less overt aspect of Bauman’s sociology and to claim that the term ‘migrant’ is both discriminatory and, in academic terms, incorrect. I argue that this diagnosis is reinforced further by the voices of intellectuals who themselves experienced the status of refugees: namely, Zygmunt Bauman and Hannah Arendt.

Kołakowski on Stalinism and reform

A recent post featured the evolution of the thought of Zygmunt Bauman. There I mentioned a comparison with his Warsaw contemporary, Leszek Kołakowski, and suggested that Kołakowski’s break with Stalinism was earlier and more profound than Bauman’s. I am not able to find a full-length biography of Kołakowski, but his history parallels that of Bauman. He was born in Radom, Poland, in 1927, and in 1939 had personal and tragic experience of the Nazi invasion of Poland. And, like Bauman, he was expelled from Poland in 1968 and spent much of the rest of his career in the west (at Oxford, in Kołakowski’s case, and at Leeds, in Bauman’s case). Here are a few lines from Steven Lukes’ biographical statement on Kołakowski in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

After the Nazis invaded Poland, Kolakowski’s father was arrested by the Gestapo and later executed. His remaining family found refuge in a village in eastern Poland where Kolakowski’s secret, largely solitary education was aided by teachers from the Polish underground. … Kolakowski had embraced Communism as the Russians drove the Germans out of Poland, thinking it promised a better world of equality and freedom, but he then moved away from Soviet-style Marxism and became increasingly influential on the younger generation of Poles as a leading voice for democratization and reformed Communism, or what came to be called ‘revisionism’. This led to his expulsion from the university, constant police surveillance, the banning of his publications, and his departure for the West. (link)

Here is a document written in 1971 that expresses the depth of Kołakowski’s critique of Polish Communism. In this piece Kołakowski published a short but profound critique of Stalinism as a system, “In Stalin’s Countries: Theses on Hope and Despair” (link). This short essay appeared in Paris in its Polish version in 1971, and was published in Paris in Politique Aujourd’hui in July-August 1971. The essay is highly valuable as an indication of the nature of the reformers’ critiques in Poland of the rigidities of Stalinist Communist systems. It is written clearly and cogently, reflecting Kołakowski’s talent as a philosopher and a writer. And it presents the case for the possibility of change in Poland and other Communist dictatorships.

Kołakowski begins his account by rehearsing the reasons that some believe that reform of Soviet-style Communism is impossible:

Stalinism, in the strict sense — that is, the bloody and cruel tyranny of an individual — was the most perfect material embodiment of the principles of the system: later transformations, and particularly the considerable relaxation of terrorism as practiced by the government, although important for the security of individuals, have not in any way changed the despotic nature of the regime, any more than they have limited the specifically socialist forms of oppression and exploitation. (2)

But notice the rhetorical strategy that Kołakowski adopts: he presents the extreme views of the most severe critics of the Soviet system first, and offers commentary. And, he notes, the extreme view rules out reform entirely: change control of the economy or information, and you destroy the foundations of communism. Therefore communism cannot be reformed or changed; its despots will never relinquish power over even the most minor issues. But Kołakowski himself does not take this view:

Now, my opinion is that this thesis is not correct, and that to defend it amounts to [adopting] an ideology of defeatism rather than a revolutionary appeal. I base my conviction on four general principles: first, we are never in a position to define in advance the limits of the capacity for change… of any social organization; and experience has not at all demonstrated that the despotic model of socialism is absolutely rigid. Secondly, the rigidity of a system depends in part on the degree to which the men who live within that system are convinced of its rigidity. Thirdly, the thesis which I am challenging is based on an ideology of “all or nothing,’ characteristic of men formed in the Marxist tradition; it is not in any way supported by historical experience. Fourthly, bureaucratic socialist despotism is pervaded by contradictory tendencies which it is incapable of bringing into any synthesis and which ineluctably weaken its coherence. (7-8)

Kołakowski’s optimism concerning the possibility for change within “despotic socialism” (but, one might reasonably argue, within Franco fascism as well) is the willingness of individuals and groups to think and act differently from their prescribed roles. Individuals can resist in a variety of ways, and their resistance, in a long and slow tempo, can lead to profound change.

This is why resistance to oppression and exploitation — within the system of Soviet despotism — takes place in the worst social conditions. No class of exploiters in history has ever had such extensive power at its disposal. But if this concentration of power is a source of strength, it also conceals weaknesses, as the whole post-Stalinist history of communism testifies. (9)

If I speak of a reformist orientation, it is in the sense of a faith in the possibility of effective pressures that are partial and progressive, exerted in a long-term perspective, that is, the perspective of social and national liberation. Despotic socialism is not an absolutely rigid system; such systems do not exist. (16)

What system does Kołakowski himself favor? It appears to be a form of democratic socialism, rather than either despotic socialism or liberal capitalism:

It is probable that, if they had the freedom to choose, the majority of the Polish working class and intelligentsia would opt for socialism, as would the author of this article. For socialism — that is to say for a sovereign national system which involves control by society over the utilization and development of the means of production and over the distribution of the national income, as well as over the political and administrative organization, working as an organ of society, and not as the master which rules over society in the guise of “serving” it. (18)

This paragraph entails democratic socialism as the favored ideal (not liberal capitalism), because it places the people in control of economy and government. And it rules out the arbitrary and despotic use of power that was universal in Poland, the USSR, and the rest of the Soviet bloc.

Kołakowski also has a view about the future of the Soviet bloc (as of 1971):

In spite of the military power of the Soviet empire, and in spite of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the centrifugal tendencies within the “bloc” cannot be contained, and the corrosion of nationalism will continue to erode a structure which has lost the cement of ideology. (19)

His essay ends with a call for a free Poland:

Our own dignity entitles us to proclaim aloud the old words: “liberty,” “justice” and “Poland”. (20)

This essay was written in 1971, only three years after the March 1968 protests in Warsaw that led to Kołakowski’s and Bauman’s expulsion from Poland. But notice as well: it was written only about a decade before the rise, and eventual success, of the Solidarity movement in Gdansk and other Polish cities, leading ultimately to the fall of Communist government in Poland. And the centrifugal tendencies that Kołakowski describes within the Soviet bloc led eventually to the collapse of despotic socialism throughout Eastern Europe. So in many ways Kołakowski was pretty close to the truth about the coming several decades in Poland and Eastern Europe. What he did not anticipate is the next chapter: the turn to nationalistic, far-right government in Poland, Hungary, and other former-Soviet bloc nations. But, as Hegel said, “the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk.” (Here is a very brief description of Alain Touraine’s 1981 research in Gdansk on the Solidarity movement (link), and his account of the pathways through which worker non-violent resistance resulted in fundamental change in Poland.)

As I attempted to do in the case of Zygmunt Bauman, it is intriguing to ask how history, life experience, and academic influences combined to create the intellectual world of Leszek Kołakowski. Much of Kołakowski’s work was focused on the history of philosophy, the meaning of religion, and the ideology and deficiencies of Marxism. (His greatest book is his three-volume work, Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders – The Golden Age – The Breakdown.) Is there any evidence in his academic work of the imprint of the experience of war, genocide, murder, and authoritarian rule? His decades-long engagement with the topic of Soviet-style dictatorship plainly reflects his own experience as a brilliant Polish intellectual in the post-War period and high-ranking Communist Party member. He understood the nature of Soviet-style authoritarianism. But — like Bauman — there is little in his work that involves deep reflection on Nazism, genocide, anti-Semitism, ordinary evil-doers, and the use of terror by totalitarian states to achieve their ends. (Here he stands in contrast to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.) And yet Poland stands at the heart of the Bloodlands described so vividly by Tim Snyder. So we seem to confront a puzzle: why were both these brilliant intellectuals, both leading professors in the Polish academy, both children of the 1920s — why were they both somehow reluctant to reflect on the horrors confronted by Polish Jews from 1939 to 1945?

How Bauman became Bauman

Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) was an influential voice in the world of sociological theorizing. In the second part of his career — following his expulsion as a dissident and a Jew from Poland in 1968 — he came to be recognized as a non-conventional thinker about “modernity” and the modern world. His idea of “liquid modernity” (link), late in his career, was a very interesting and original way of thinking about the twentieth century. But Bauman was not just a theorist; he was a participant in history — the subject of anti-Semitic mistreatment and bullying as a child in Poland, a refugee, a socialist and communist activist, a Soviet-trained soldier and political officer in the Soviet-installed Polish army, a stateless person again after his expulsion from Poland in 1968 during the major “state pogrom” of that year, and eventually a critic of Stalinist Communism. He was a thinker, a doer, and a contributor to sociological theory.

A particularly interesting question is whether we can connect the life and the sociological writings and theories that Bauman created during his long career. Did his life experiences give him the some of the intellectual resources necessary to comprehend the catastrophes of genocide, mass enslavement, and totalitarianism? It will be surprising to find that the answer seems largely to be, no. There is little of the historical realities that Bauman observed and participated in to be found in his writings. (The Bauman Institute at the University of Leeds has a comprehensive bibliography of Bauman’s writings throughout his career; link.) 

Izabela Wagner’s thoughtful and thorough Bauman: A Biography is an excellent source for trying to answer the question: how did Bauman become Bauman? (And, we might add, when?) What experiences and conditions helped to create the sociological imagination of this singular man, and how did his personal history contribute to the creation of such an exceptional and original intellectual? 

Several features of character were evident in the young Bauman and persisted through the end of his career: intellectual curiosity, independence of mind, courage, humor, and measured cautiousness. His intellectual training — first in the USSR and then in Warsaw — was deeply embedded within an especially dogmatic ideological framework — the strictures of dialectical materialism and Marxist-Leninist thought as embodied in official Soviet ideology. And yet as a young sociology PhD student in Warsaw in the 1950s Bauman was exposed to a “dissident” strand of sociological thinking that contributed to a broader perspective on the regime that he served. Out of that chemistry came a surprising mix — a sociology that expressed itself in Marxist-Leninist terms, an openness to sociological research from Europe and the United States, and a view of society and the state that reflected a more “humanist” and democratic view (like that of Leszek Kołakowski). But here is the surprise for an intellectual historian: none of this seems to reflect the concrete historical life circumstances that Bauman experienced; rather, it is very similar to the kind of trajectory a talented graduate student takes through engagement with a number of intriguing philosophical perspectives.

It is worth reflecting on Bauman’s history as a committed and sincere communist from his teenage years in the 1930s onward until the early 1960s. Writers like Judt and Orwell have criticized leftist intellectuals unforgivingly for their failure to observe and denounce the massive crimes of Stalin in the 1930s. But these are exactly the years in which Bauman gained his communist identity — briefly in Poland and then more deeply in exile as a high school student in the Soviet Union. Wagner spends a good deal of time on the formation of Bauman’s identity as a communist youth and eventually communist functionary. She argues that it is a perfectly intelligible journey for a young Polish Jew who cared about social justice and equality. A return to the political and social arrangements of pre-war Poland was not even remotely attractive to Bauman, given its profound anti-Semitism and the enormous social inequalities it embodied. Communism, Wagner argues, provided a coherent view of a future in which all citizens would be treated equally, anti-Semitism would not exist, and social inequalities would disappear. Of course that is not at all how things turned out — in Poland or in the USSR. 

But the central point here — the question of the formation of the social imagination of Zygmunt Bauman — is that his historical experience in the 1930s and 1940s might have given him a particular and well-defined framework for understanding the potential for evil in modern totalizing states. It did not. Little of his life experience prior to 1945 seems to have had a profound influence on his sociological imagination, or on the topics that he chose to pursue as an academic sociologist. In particular, his early career in the 1950s and 1960s contains almost no reflection on the Holocaust, genocide, political murder, or the origins of totalitarianism. This is evident by examining the extensive bibliography of his writings compiled by the Bauman Center mentioned above. 

As a rising sociologist and professor in Warsaw, Bauman chose a cautious path that nonetheless continued to adhere to the idea of “open Marxism” — a more humanist alternative to Stalinist doctrine. And in the early 1960s he became — once again, cautiously — an intellectual source of inspiration for students at the University of Warsaw who demanded greater freedom, greater democracy, and less bureaucracy in their government. Bauman, like other academics, was under constant surveillance by the secret service. The activities and activism of University of Warsaw students led to a major demonstration at the university in March 1968, violently suppressed by the regime, and followed quickly by a hate-based campaign by the Gomułka government placing all blame on “Jewish” elements in the university. This resulted in a massive purge of Jews from government jobs, including in the universities, and to the expulsion of many thousands of Jews (including Zygmunt and Janina and their children) from Poland.

Bauman’s experience in post-war Poland (1945-1968) demonstrated the profound failure of the Communist ideal as well as the insidious power of anti-Semitism in post-war Communist Poland, and these experiences did have an effect on his subsequent development as a social thinker. But it is unclear whether these experiences led to a profound change in the ways that Bauman undertook to understand the social world. (Significantly, his contemporary Leszek Kołakowski broke from support for the Communist regime in Poland a decade earlier than Bauman, and Kołakowski’s shift seems more profound than Bauman’s.)

The question posed above seems to have a fairly clear answer, then: Bauman’s life experience in the 1930s through 1950s (from his teenage years as a persecuted Jewish boy in Posnan through his service in the Polish Army and his appointments at the University of Warsaw) had surprisingly little influence on his worldview and his intellectual framework. His sociological imagination appears to be the result of his engagement with other academic sociologists rather than with the realities of social life in the horrific decades of war and genocide. Most significant were the intellectual and academic influences to which he was exposed — Marxist-Leninism, open Marxism, Western sociology — and his own creative imagination in raising questions within those various frameworks. Bauman contributed little to understanding the horrific realities of the twentieth century (unlike Hannah Arendt, for example), and he confined much of his writing to a level of abstract theorizing that offered little help in understanding totalitarianism, the Holocaust, or the criminality of Stalinism.

Even his signature ideas — modernity and liquid modernity — have little concrete engagement with the specifics of the totalitarian regimes of violence and murder that he experienced under Hitler and Stalin. In a later post I will discuss his 1989 book, Modernity and the Holocaust, which does indeed engage the genocidal regime of the Nazi period. Here are a few sentences:

It is not the Holocaust which we find difficult to grasp in all its monstrosity. It is our Western Civilization which the occurrence of the Holocaust has made all but incomprehensible — and this at a time when we thought we had come to terms with it and seen through its world-wide, unprecedented cultural expansion. If Hilberg is right, and our most crucial social institutions elude our mental and practical grasp, then it is not just the professional academics who ought to be worried. (84)

But note — this book was written and published in 1989 — a half century after the Nazi crimes that Bauman himself witnessed. In a surprising way, Bauman’s intellectual and scientific work seems always to be at a great distance from the historical realities that he himself experienced. And that is indeed surprising. The comparison is perhaps not a fair one, but think of Orwell, and the close parallels that existed between his lived experiences of poverty, class, war, colonialism, and fascism, and the depth and insight of his writings. Can we imagine Orwell without Catalonia? Not at all. But it is not at all difficult to imagine Bauman without Poznań, Majdanek, or the Red Army.

(Here is a recollection of Bauman by several of his colleagues in English sociology; link.)

Did the Iliad have an author?

Did the Iliad have an author? Since this is probably the best known text from the ancient Greek world,  one might find the question a puzzling one: of course the Iliad had an author; it was Homer. But it turns out that this answer is no longer accepted by experts in classical literature — and hasn’t been for at least ninety years. Adam Kirsch’s recent piece in the New Yorker, “The Classicist Who Killed Homer,” sheds light on the topic, and also raises highly interesting questions about the nature of imagination, narrative, and story-telling. Kirsh’s piece is a discussion of Robert Kanigel’s biography of Milman Parry, Hearing Homer’s Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry. Parry was a young professor of classics at Harvard in the 1930s, and his treatment of “Homer” created, according to Kanigel, a permanent change in the way that classicists conceived of the making of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The time of Homer — or at least, the time at which the oral poems that eventually became the Iliad and the Odyssey originated — is perhaps five or six centuries before the time of Socrates; it was ancient history, even for the ancient Greeks. Homer is indeed discussed by Aristotle, Herodotus, and Plutarch, but with essentially no basis in historical fact. So how could modern scholars — scholars in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries — arrive at evidence-based conclusions about the authorship of these great works? This is the question that Parry sought to answer; and here is Kirsch’s summary of Parry’s considered conclusion: 

Parry’s thesis was simple but momentous: “It is my own view, as those who have read my studies on Homeric style know, that the nature of Homeric poetry can be grasped only when one has seen that it is composed in a diction which is oral, and so formulaic, and so traditional.” In other words, the Iliad and the Odyssey weren’t written by Homer, because they weren’t written at all. They were products of an oral tradition, performed by generations of anonymous Greek bards who gradually shaped them into the epics we know today. Earlier scholars had advanced this as a hypothesis, but it was Parry who demonstrated it beyond a reasonable doubt. (73)

The primary clue that Parry pursued was the most evident stylistic fact about the poems: their meter and their continual use of stylized epithets for the key actors. The epithets and the meter of the verses give the oral poet a manageable framework from which to create line after line of verse.

Rather, [the poet] had a supply of ready-made epithets in different metrical patterns that could be slotted in depending on the needs of the verse, like Tetris blocks. As Parry wrote in one of his papers, “The Homeric language is the work of the Homeric verse,” not the other way around. (75)

Most interesting is the account that Kirsch provides of Parry’s method of research and argument. Biblical scholars came to the conclusion that the Hebrew Bible was not the work of a single author as well. But their arguments were largely textual: each of the books had a distinctive style and vocabulary, and it was straightforward to argue that these texts are an amalgam of multiple earlier texts. Parry proceeded differently in his treatment of the Iliad and the Odyssey. From a textual point of view, these poems are fairly consistent over their thousands of lines. But Parry asked himself a different question: how do pre-literate communities compose and transmit their stories? And he investigated this question through fieldwork in the 1930s. He undertook to observe the process of the creation of an oral tradition in the making. He functioned as a kind of “ethno-poeticist” — an observer and collector of oral traditions in these “spoken-word” communities of Yugoslavia.

Here is an especially interesting part of Parry’s research in Yugoslavia:

Parry’s research showed that, in an oral-performance tradition, it makes no sense to speak of a poem as having an authentic, original text. He found that, when he asked a guslar to perform the same poem on consecutive days, the transcripts could be dramatically different, with lines and whole episodes appearing or disappearing. With the guslar he considered the most gifted, a man in his sixties named Avdo Međedović, Parry tried an experiment: he had Međedović listen to a tale he’d never heard before, performed by a singer from another village, and then asked him to repeat it. After one hearing, Međedović not only could retell the whole thing but made it three times longer, and, in Lord’s recollection, much better: “The ornamentation and richness accumulated, and the human touches of character imparted a depth of feeling that had been missing.” (75)

What is interesting to me in this experiment is the light it sheds on the cognitive and creative process of the oral poet him- or herself. What seems to be going on in this account is a complex act of narrative cognition: hearing the unfamiliar story, linking it to a broader context of allusions and metaphors within the ambient oral tradition, remembering the story, and retelling the story with embellishments and refinements that make it more complex and more aesthetically satisfying to the listening audience. Parry seems to be observing the process of “oral poetry composition and transformation” in action, through the skilled intellectual and poetic work of the guslar Međedović. It is skillful improvisation joined with an immersion in a tradition of heroes and other stories, leading to a better and even more satisfying story. If this were Tolstoy’s work, we might say that the refinement of the story is the result of a repetitive process of drafting, editing, rewriting, and enhancement; but that iterative process is plainly absent in Međedović’s performance. Instead, Međedović is given the frame of the story and the key details, and — in real time — he weaves together an ornamented and rich version of the story “with a depth of feeling that had been missing.” This is a very plausible mechanism for explaining the richness and complexity of the storylines of the Iliad and the Odyssey — not a single Tolstoy writing an epic, but a series of more and less talented “guslars” in the pre-Athenian world rehearsing, refining, and extending the stories in a way that is astonishing in its comprehensiveness and richness by the time it was collected and recorded.

Kirsch doesn’t provide this analogy, but we might say that Parry proceeded somewhat analogously to Darwin in his careful observation of finches and other organisms in the Galapagos, supporting eventually a powerful hypothesis about the genesis of species (natural selection based on differential reproductive success). In Parry’s case, the result is an account of the multigenerational genesis of stories told by specialized story-tellers like Međedović — or the proto-Homers who contributed to the construction of the Iliad and the Odyssey over a period of centuries.

Notice how different this process of story composition and transmission is from other kinds of familiar narratives — novels and academic histories, for example. When David Hume attempted to tell the story of a century of English politics in The History of England, his narrative is structured by written sources, extensive notes, and a narrative plan. And it is an iterative process of editing and revision, with a conception of the whole that guides corrections throughout the narrative. When Tolstoy composed War and Peace, he too had the opportunity of revision, reconciliation, and recomposition, to ensure consistency of plot and character development. The oral poet, by contrast, is doing his creative work in real time; no corrections, no going back to an earlier chapter, no reminding himself/herself of the gist of the plot in earlier stages of the story. This presents an entirely different problem of creative cognition for the oral poet that is quite different from that facing the historian or the novelist. Memory, metaphor, fable, and humor through the unexpected all play a role in the oral poet’s performance.

Is there a field of cognitive psychology that studies narrative improvisation? Interestingly enough, there is. Here is an interesting research report (link) from a group of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology who have studied improv theater. The group includes Brian Magerko, Waleed Manzoul, Mark Riedl, Allan Baumer, Daniel Fuller, Kurt Luther, and Celia Pearce. They describe the object of their research in these terms:

Improvisation is a relatively understudied aspect of creativity and cognition. One way of viewing improvisation is as the act of real-time dynamic problem solving [12]. One of the most recognizable manifestations of improvisational problem solving comes from the theatre arts community. Improvisational theatre – or simply improv – is a rich source of data for reaching a better understanding of improvisational problem solving and cognition [11, 32]. This is in part due to the diversity of performative activities in improv, which allows us to manipulate independent variables for purposes of experimentation, and the decoupling from real-world problems (e.g., emergency management) that are hard to control or recreate. Focusing on improv theatre, we can more specifically define improvisation as a creative act to be the “creation of an artifact and/or performance with aesthetic goals in real-time that is not completely prescribed in terms of functional and/or content constraints.” Our definition here intentionally focuses on the process of creating; improvisation is viewed as an active endeavor that is equally, or more, important than the final product. That is, how you get to an outcome is more important than the outcome.

Like the topic of skilled bodily performance discussed elsewhere here (link), there is a great deal of room for important research on the question of improvisational narrative composition. This refreshes my own notion that many of the most ordinary parts of human life repay fascinating results when studied from a fresh point of view.

(I realize that I myself have had a little bit of personal experience of this kind of story-telling. Over the past six years or so I have developed a tradition with my grandchildren of an ongoing series of stories about a young French boy (Pierre) who worked with the French intelligence agency in the 1960s. Pierre has many adventures, and each story is initiated by a “seed event” that I bring to mind and then embroider with many exciting and laughable adventures. Among other things, I’ve learned that drama and humor must be mixed — the boys love absurd situations and wordplay as much as they enjoy complicated and sinister plots with figures like the mysterious X and Y. Most recently on vacation we enjoyed a few new stories based on Pierre’s secret visit to Dien Bien Phu and Dien Bien Phuie. In a very simple way, this is the work of a guslar! Here are a few of the stories that I’ve written down and recorded for the grandchildren during the pandemic; link.)

Decision-making for big physics

Big science is largely dominant in many areas of science — for example, high-energy physics, medical research, the human genome project, and pandemic research. Other areas of science still function well in a “small science” framework — mathematics, evolutionary biology, or social psychology, for example, with a high degree of decentralized decision-making by individual researchers, universities, and laboratories. But in areas where scientific research requires vast investments of public funds over decades, we are forced to ask a hugely important question: Can governmental agencies act rationally and intelligently in planning for investments in “big science”?

Consider the outcome we would like to see: adoption of a well-funded and well-coordinated multi-investigator, multi-institutional, multi-year research effort well designed to achieve important scientific results. This is the ideal result. What is required in order to make it a reality? Here are the key activities of information-gathering and decision-making that are needed in order to arrive at a successful national agenda for an area of big-science research.

  1. selection of one or more research strategies that have the best likelihood of bringing about important scientific results
  2. a budgeting process and series of decisions that make these strategies feasible
  3. implementation of a multi-year plan (often over multiple research sites) implementing the chosen strategy
  4. oversight and management of the scientific research sites and expenditures to ensure that the strategy is faithfully carried out by talented scientists, researchers, and directors

In A New Social Ontology of Government: Consent, Coordination, and Authority I argue that governments, agencies, and large private organizations have a great deal of difficulty in carrying out large, extended plans. There I highlight principal-agent problems, conflicting priorities across sub-groups, faulty information sharing, and loose coupling within a large organization as some of the primary sources of dysfunction within a large organization (including a national government or large governmental agency). And it is apparent that all of these sources of dysfunction are present in the process of designing, funding, and managing a national science agenda.

Consider item 1 above: selection of a research strategy for scientific research. At any given time in the development of a field of research there is a body of theory and experimental findings that constitute what is currently known; there are experts (scientists) who have considered judgments about what the most important unanswered questions are, and what technologies or experimental investments would be most productive in illuminating those questions; and there are influential figures within government and industry who have preferences and beliefs about the direction that future research ought to take. 

Suppose government has created an agency — call it the Office of High Energy Physics — which is charged to arrive at a plan for future directions and funding for research in the field of high energy physics. (There is in fact the Office of High Energy Physics located within the Department of Energy which has approximately this responsibility. But here I am considering a hypothetical agency.) How should the director and senior staff of OHEP proceed? 

They will recognize that they need rigorous and developed analysis from a group of senior physicists. The judgments of the best physicists in the national research and university community are surely the best (though fallible) source of guidance about the direction that future physics research should take. So OHEP constitutes a permanent committee of advisors who are tasked to assess the current state of the field and arrive at a consensus view of the most productive direction for future investments in high-energy physics research.

The Standing Scientific Committee is not a decision-making committee, however; rather, it prepares reports and advice for the senior staff and director of OHEP. And the individuals who make up the senior staff themselves have been selected for having a reasonable level of scientific expertise; further, they have their own “pet” projects and ideas about what topics are likely to be the most important. So the senior staff and the Standing Committee are in a complex relationship with each other. The Standing Scientific Committee collectively has greater intellectual authority in the scientific field; many are Nobel-quality physicists. But the senior staff have greater influence on the decisions that the Office makes about strategies and future plans. The staff are always there, whereas the Standing Committee does its work episodically. Moreover, the senior staff has an ability to influence the deliberations of the Standing Committee in a variety of ways, including setting the agenda of the Standing Committee, giving advice about the likelihood of funding of various possible strategies, and so forth. Finally, it is worth noting that a group of twenty senior physicists from a range of institutions throughout the country are likely to have interests of their own that will find their way into the deliberations, leading to disagreements about priorities. In short, the process of designing a plan for the next ten years of investments in high-energy physics research is not a purely rational and scientific exercise; it is also a process in which interests, influence, and bureaucratic manipulation play crucial roles.

Now turn to item 2 above, the budgeting issue. Decisions about funding of fundamental scientific research result from a political, legislative, and bureaucratic process. Congressional committees will be involved in the decision whether to allocate $5 billion, $10 billion, or $15 billion in high-energy physics research in the coming decade. And Congressional committees have their own sources of bias and dysfunction: legislators’ political interests in their districts, relationships with powerful industries and lobbyists, and ideological beliefs that legislators bring to their work. These political and economic interests may influence the legislative funding process to favor one strategy over another — irrespective of the scientific merits of the alternatives. (If one strategy brings more investment to the home state of a powerful Senator, this may tilt the funding decision accordingly.) Further, the system of Congressional staff work can be further analyzed in terms of the interests and priorities of the senior staffers doing the work — leading once again to the likelihood that funding decisions will be based on considerations other than the scientific merits of various strategies for research. (Recall the debacle of Congressional influence on the Osprey VTOL aircraft development process.) 

Items 3 and 4 introduce a new set of possible dysfunctions into the process, through the likelihood of principal-agent problems across research sites. Directors of the National Laboratories (like Fermilab or Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, for example) have their own interests and priorities, and they have a fairly wide range of discretion in decisions about implementation of national research priorities. So securing coordination of research efforts across laboratories and research sites introduces another source of uncertainty in the implementation and execution of a national strategy for physics research. This is an instance of “loose coupling”, a factor that has led organizational theorists to come to expect a fair degree of divergence across the large network of sub-organizations that make up the national research system. Thomas Hughes considers these kinds of problems in Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects That Changed the Modern Worldlink

These observations do not imply that rational science policy is impossible; but they do underline the difficulties that arise within normal governmental and private institutions that interfere with the idealized process of selection and implementation of an optimal strategy of scientific research. The colossal failure of the Superconducting Super Collider — a multi-billion dollar project in high-energy physics that was abandoned in 1993 after many years of development and expenditure — illustrates the challenges that national science planning encounters (link). Arguably, one might hold that the focus at Fermilab on neutrino detection is another failure (DUNE) — not because it was not implemented, but because it fails the test of making possible fundamental new discoveries in physics.Several interdisciplinary fields take up questions like these, including Science and Technology Studies and Social Construction of Technology studies. Hackett, Amsterdamska, Lynch, and Wajcman’s Handbook of Science and Technology Studies provides a good exposure to the field. Here is a prior post that attempts to locate big science within an STS framework. And here is a post on STS insights into science policy during the Cold War (link).

The Holocaust “comparability” debate

The question of how to understand the Holocaust has troubled historians since the first knowledge of the war of extermination against the Jews of Europe became widespread in the 1940s. Is the Holocaust unique in human history? Can the crimes of the Holocaust be compared to other periods of genocide in the twentieth century? Is there a connection between Hitler’s war on the Jews and German character, German colonialism, or German philosophy?

The most recent iteration of the debate is taking place through a spate of articles, books, and internet contributions by talented scholars like Neil Gregor, Michael Rothberg, Jurgen Zimmerer, Achille Mbembe, Dirk Moses, and others, and the debate has been intense. A. Dirk Moses, author of The Problems of Genocide, frames the debate in a contribution to Geschichte der gegenwert (History of the presentlink) that has stimulated a series of excellent responses in the New Fascism Syllabus (link). Moses’ article is short and polemical, provocatively titled “The German Catechism” (link). Moses believes that the politics of the Federal Republic of Germany over the past several decades have led to a dogmatic and limiting set of assumptions about how scholars and the public should understand and remember the Holocaust. And he believes this set of strictures makes it difficult to bring forward the facts of genocide and atrocity that were part of the European colonial practice in Africa and other parts of the world. Moses puts his view in these terms:

For many, the memory of the Holocaust as a break with civilization is the moral foundation of the Federal Republic. To compare it with other genocides is therefore considered a heresy, an apostasy from the right faith. It is time to abandon this catechism. (link)

Moses describes the debate as revolving around a “catechism” of beliefs about the Holocaust which, according to some, should never be questioned:

  1. The Holocaust is unique in that it involves the unrestricted annihilation of Jews for the sake of their annihilation.In contrast to the pragmatic and limited goals for which other genocides were undertaken, a state here tried for the first time in history to wipe out a people solely for ideological reasons.
  2. Since it destroyed interpersonal solidarity in an unprecedented manner, the memory of the Holocaust as a breach of civilization forms the moral foundation of the German nation, often even of European civilization.
  3. Germany bears a special responsibility for the Jews in Germany and is obliged to show particular loyalty to Israel: “Israel’s security is part of the raison d’être of our country.”
  4. Anti-Semitism is a prejudice and ideologem sui generis and it was a specifically German phenomenon. It should not be confused with racism.
  5. Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. (link)

The discussion of Moses’ polemical piece has alternated between general support for Moses’ ideas in broad strokes and criticisms of the sharper edges of his piece. On the “support” side is a very thoughtful piece by Neil Gregor (link), including this general remark about the importance of understanding the Holocaust in a broader historical context: “For a long time, the history of National Socialism has made much greater sense to me when understood as European history as well as German history, and I have always thought it important to locate it within wider histories of European colonialism and racial science, to read its ideological drives within the contexts of more generic nationalism, militarism and anti-democratic thought, and to see it as having been incubated by powerful tendencies in not just German, but European histories from the nineteenth century onwards.” Gregor also offers a series of thoughtful hesitations about Moses’ article, mostly having to do with its categorical and polemical tone.

The heart of the debate has to do with the status of the Holocaust in world history. Is the Shoah historically unique and incomparable to other terrible events? Does it represent a “civilizational break”? Do historians diminish the moral importance of the Holocaust by discussing it in the context of broader historical circumstances and actions in Europe and the world? Is a concern for colonial violence and European racism in Africa, Palestine, or other parts of the colonized world a tacit diminishment of the importance of the Holocaust? Is it possible — as historians do in the nature of their work — to analyze the Holocaust in a comparative mode, considering regimes of killings in other parts of the world as well?

A very basic thread of this debate is the relationship between the crimes of the Holocaust by the Nazi regime and the crimes of colonial powers in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. From outside the debate — and outside Germany — it seems clear that it is necessary to be able to consider the historical causes of multiple human catastrophes — as Timothy Snyder does in treating the Holocaust and the Holodomor in the same book (Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin). This effort at placing large events in a historical context and considering their dynamics in comparison to other historical processes is at the heart of the historian’s craft. This does not imply one evil is the same as another; it simply reflects a very ordinary moral conviction that it is crucial to honestly recognize the crimes of the past, whoever the perpetrators and whoever the victims.

The fifth item in the catechism is especially politically charged in the context of today’s geopolitical realities. It implies that criticisms of the military and governmental policies of the state of Israel are inherently anti-Semitic. And yet this position is plainly fundamentally unacceptable from a moral point of view. It is evident that scholars and citizens alike must be free to express their disapproval and alarm about official actions of the government of Israel in its treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, the occupied territories, and Israel itself. The equation of criticisms of state policies by Israel with anti-Semitism connects directly with international disagreements about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS), as well as efforts in Germany and the United States to limit support for BDS. Again, whatever the justice of the demands associated with BDS, it seems evident on its face that a liberal state cannot enact legislation prohibiting support for the BDS movement.

A recent eruption in the controversy about memory and the Holocaust is a debate that arose in Germany in 2020 concerning the writings of Achille Mbembe (link). Mbembe is a noted Cameroonian scholar on post-colonial history, with a long record of highly-regarded scholarship. He has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. “The occupation of Palestine is the biggest moral scandal of our times, one of the most dehumanizing ordeals of the century we have just entered, and the biggest act of cowardice of the last half-century” (foreword to Apartheid Israel: The Politics of an Analogy). He has expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) as a response to policies and military / police actions of the state of Israel against Palestinian citizens. The controversy was taken up officially in Germany by Felix Klein, the first Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism. Mbembe was accused of anti-Semitism for his position on BDS, and he was accused of relativizing the Holocaust, apparently because of his use of the concept of apartheid in application to Israel. Mbembe has vigorously denied the charge of anti-Semitism at all levels.

One of the historians whose work has been at the center of the debate about comparability is Michael Rothberg. His Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization makes the effort to draw own the relationships that exist at multiple levels — structural and moral — between the extermination campaign against Europe’s Jewish population and the systematic violence and murder that occurred through colonial governance in Africa and elsewhere. The idea of the “multidirectionality” of memory plays a key role in his treatment; instead of comparison, we are invited to consider a range of facts and causes of the evils of genocide, slavery, and mass violence. Here is how he formulates the basic issue in Multidirectional Memory (discussing Walter Benn Michaels’ treatment of the parallel facts of US slavery and the Holocaust):

In this passage Michaels takes up one of the most agonizing problems of contemporary multicultural societies: how to think about the relationship between different social groups’ histories of victimization. This problem, as Michaels recognizes, also fundamentally concerns collective memory, the relationship that such groups establish between their past and their present circumstances. A series of questions central to this book emerges at this point: What happens when different histories confront each other in the public sphere? Does the remembrance of one history erase others from view? When memories of slavery and colonialism bump up against memories of the Holocaust in contemporary multicultural societies, must a competition of victims ensue? (kl 154)

Rothberg is a participant is the current debate about historical memory, and his interpretation of the Mbembe affair is especially helpful for readers trying to understand the terms of the debate (link). Here is Rothberg’s summary of the circumstances of the affair in Germany:

Mbembe, one of the world’s most prominent theorists of race, colonialism, violence, and human possibility, was slated to speak in August 2020 at a cultural festival in Germany, the Ruhr Triennial. A regional politician, Lorenz Deutsch, decided to try and block Mbembe’s appearance by issuing an open letter that presented a handful of citations from Mbembe’s work mentioning the Holocaust, apartheid, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. On the basis of these short and decontextualized excerpts, Deutsch accused Mbembe of “anti-Semitic ‘Israel critique,’ Holocaust relativization, and extremist disinformation.” Deutsch’s interpretation of Mbembe’s work—which I consider tendentious, partial, and misleading—was taken up and affirmed by a more prominent voice, that of Felix Klein, the German Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and for the Fight against Antisemitism. Although the Ruhr Triennial was canceled because of the coronavirus, Deutsch and Klein nevertheless wanted its director censured and Mbembe disinvited because the latter had allegedly profaned the Holocaust, demonized Israel, and offered support to BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions). BDS, a non-violent campaign that calls for the end of the occupation, the return of refugees, and equal rights for Palestinians, was deemed intrinsically antisemitic in a controversial 2019 Bundestag declaration, despite protests by intellectuals and activists, including many Jewish ones. Mbembe stated that he was not a member of the BDS movement, but even a tangential association with BDS has proven enough to tarnish reputations in contemporary Germany—as the director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, Peter Schäfer, also learned last year. (link)

Rothberg suggests that we would be well advised to reconceive the issues by recognizing that comparison is not the most fundamental issue; instead, the subtext of both historians’ debates has to do with responsibility and the denial of responsibility.

The juxtaposition of Historikerstreit versions 1.0 and 2.0—as well as the wide-ranging discussions about Holocaust memory, colonialism, slavery, and Israel/Palestine that continue in Germany and elsewhere—clarifies the need to link memory to solidarity and historical responsibility: that is, to the ethical and political commitments that subtend public forms of remembrance. Beyond comparison lies the implication of the intellectuals who debate comparisons in the histories they dispute. In the simplest terms, we can say that the original Historikerstreit involved a clash among Germans over Germany’s particular responsibility for the Holocaust. In the new discussions, the participants are not all Germans and the histories at stake are more than European. Far from diluting the participants’ implication in historical and contemporary injustices, however, this enlargement of the field of comparison sharpens the question of responsibility. The new Historikerstreit is not a controversy only for Germans and Europeans, but it is not one they can evade either.

Dirk Moses offers a very extensive reply, rebuttal, and reinforcement of his views in a concluding post in the series (link). There is a great deal of developed argumentation in his closing article, and it is worth reading carefully. However, it doesn’t become less polemical. If anything, Moses raises the stakes in his polemics, making German white supremacy the key to the German catechism that he attacks. But as numerous contributors to the debate have already shown, the motivations and moral positions of the scholars and thinkers whose work led to what Moses describes as “the catechism” were anything but reactionary and racist.

Plainly these debates are complicated and intertwined with academic, political, and emotional allegiances. Johannes von Moltke’s contribution to the New Fascism colloquium is an especially thoughtful effort to disentangle the many threads of the debate (link). Here is a very concise statement of Moltke’s position from the end of his article in the New Fascism colloquium:

However, especially in view of the analogy that Moses admittedly furnished by his choice of imagery, it is worth noting that the parallels end right there. For where Moses critiques the catechism in the name of greater differentiation, where Rothberg and Zimmerer call for more multidirectionality and comparison, the far-right advocates for its outright abolition as the only way to free the Germans from the burden of guilt. To them, the problem lies, neither in the singularity thesis nor in the ritualization of Holocaust memory per se, but in their “psychological and political effects on the German Volk.” The purpose of critique, consequently, is not inclusiveness, recognition, or solidarity across multiple identity groups but ethnonationalist retrenchment. Agreeing at first blush with the thesis of a catechism that rules Germans lives, Sellner winds his way to conclusions diametrically opposed to both the letter and the spirit of Moses’s intervention. If for the former the catechism demands to be countered by “inclusive thinking,” the latter sees it only in terms of its “inescapable consequences”: “the exchange of the population through replacement migration as well as the routine, targeted traumatization of indigenous youth.” By which he presumably means “bio-Germans.” Moses, Rothberg, and Zimmerer want a different culture of memory; Sieferle and Sellner want none.

The contributions to the extended series in New Fascism Syllabus are deep and provocative. The series is an important contribution to the large topic of how to make sense of the atrocities of the twentieth century, and a collection of the articles would make an excellent short book. These contributions by leading scholars of genocide and the Holocaust provide a great deal of insight into the difficult question of how to confront evil in history. 

Experiencing war, genocide, and totalitarianism (Tony Judt)

photo: Manès Sperber

Tony Judt’s historical writings about the twentieth century are brilliant, and highly relevant to the research I’m pursuing on the evils of the twentieth century. His book of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, is a valuable part of this corpus. Most of the chapters take the form of discussions of a single intellectual figure from the twentieth century — Arthur Koestler, Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt, Eric Hobsbawm, Albert Camus, and many others. (There are also a handful of essays on several important events of the twentieth century.) Most of the essays are versions of pieces that appeared first in publications such as the New York Review of BooksNew Republic, and The Nation. These pieces are valuable, not because they are detailed and objective biographical studies of their subjects — they are not — but because they reflect Judt’s own original ideas about how intellectual work, personal life, and historical circumstances intersect. These are themes that recur in depth in Thinking the Twentieth Century through conversations between Judt and Tim Snyder (link), and they illustrate an important and deep truth: historical circumstances influence thinkers, and thinkers influence history. And there is great heterogeneity in each of the elements of this cycle — personal circumstances, individual intellectual/political development, and historical trajectories.

Of particular interest to me are Judt’s reflections on several thinkers who were most deeply engaged in understanding totalitarianism and the Holocaust — Arthur Koestler, Primo Levi, Manès Sperber, and Hannah Arendt. Judt describes the unique contribution of men and women like these: their ability to perceive and describe the currents of the histories through which they lived in original and non-conventional terms.

But there is another history of our era, a “virtual history” of the twentieth century, and it is the story of those men and women who lived through the century and also saw through it, who understood its meaning as it unfolded. There were not many of them. They did not need to wait for 1945, or 1989, to know what had happened and what it had meant, to see beyond the illusions. For various reasons, they saw across the veil earlier. (pp. 63-64)

The least known of these (to me, anyway) is Manès Sperber. Sperber was born as a Jew in Galicia in 1905 in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire, and wrote in German and French. Like Koestler, he was a Communist in the 1930s and a critic of Soviet Communism from the 1940s onward. Sperber was the author of Qu’une larme dans l’ocean, and published as a trilogy in English, beginning with Burned Bramble (Like a Tear in the Ocean, Vol 1). He published an autobiography as well, also published in three volumes in English, beginning with God’s Water Carriers (All Our Yesterdays, Vol 1).

Judt provides original insight on the question of the relationship between a particular person’s identity and history, and their ability to perceive and understand the large historical events to which they are witness. In the case of Sperber, Judt emphasizes the relevance of Sperber’s Jewishness in his personal intellectual-political development, and his family and life origins in eastern and central Europe. Language, family, religion, and the experience as living as an outsider in multi-ethnic cities such as Vienna and Paris came to play major roles in the development of Sperber’s understanding of the Holocaust. Sperber’s Jewish identity, Judt believes, is a deep part of his historical and political experience. Speaking of Sperber’s post-war memoirs, Judt writes:

The memoirs themselves do not directly discuss the impact of Auschwitz, which is the theme of a number of postwar essays by Sperber collected in a volume called Être juif. But if one reads Sperber’s “recovered” awareness of Jewishness back into his story of the years 1905-46, the narrative acquires a forceful new dimension. In what looks like just another twentieth-century European life, we find a distinctively Jewish story. (p. 69)

The essay sheds light on Judt’s own understanding of the relation that existed for many important European figures between their own Jewish origins, their German / Hungarian / Polish national identities, and the crimes of the Shoah. And, incidentally, it raises intriguing questions about the formation of Judt’s own historical identity.

Judt’s essay on Primo Levi is powerful and poignant. An Italian Jew who was trained as a chemist, Levi participated in anti-Nazi partisan fighting in Italy and was transported to Auschwitz. Levi survived his twenty months in Auschwitz, and his Survival In Auschwitz is a powerful testimony to his experience. The question of identities comes into Judt’s account of Levi:

Primo Levi had various identities and allegiances. Their overlapping multiplicity did not trouble him—though it frustrated his Italian critics and perplexes some of his readers in the American Jewish community— and he felt no conflict among them. In the first place, he was Italian, and proud of it. Despite the country’s embarrassing faults, he took pride in it: “It often happens these days that you hear people say they’re ashamed of being Italian. In fact we have good reasons to be ashamed: first and foremost, of not having been able to produce a political class that represents us and, on the contrary, tolerating for thirty years one that does not. On the other hand, we have virtues of which we are unaware, and we do not realize how rare they are in Europe and in the world.” (p. 48)

Judt tries to weave together these influences of Levi’s identity — his Jewishness, his origins in the Piedmont, his training as a chemist — to account for the voice that Levi creates in his writing.

Thanks to the war, Primo Levi’s Jewishness moved to the center of his being: “This dual experience, the racial laws and the extermination camp, stamped me the way you stamp a steel plate. At this point I’m a Jew, they’ve sewn the star of David on me and not only on my clothes.” This was in part a result of his encounter for the first time with other Jews—the Libyan Jews at Fossoli (exhibiting “a grief that was new for us”) and the Ashkenazim in Auschwitz. Jewishness posed difficulties for Levi, and not just because he had no religion; his concern with work, with Homo faber—man the maker—made him peculiarly sensitive to the etiolated, over-intellectual qualities of Jewish life: “If man is a maker, we were not men: we knew this and suffered from it.” (p. 53)

Levi’s experience as a survivor was also problematic for him:

As a survivor, Levi’s trajectory was quite representative. At first, people didn’t want to listen to him—Italians “felt purified by the great wave of the anti-Fascist crusade, by participation in the Resistance and its victorious outcome.” Giuliana Tedeschi, another Italian survivor of Auschwitz, had a comparable experience: “I encountered people who didn’t want to know anything, because the Italians, too, had suffered, after all, even those who didn’t go to the camps. . . . They used to say, ‘For heaven’s sake, it’s all over,’ and so I remained quiet for a long time.” In 1955 Levi noted that it had become “indelicate” to speak of the camps—“One risks being accused of setting up as a victim, or of indecent exposure.” Thus was confirmed the terrible, anticipatory dream of the victims, during and after the camps: that no one would listen, and if they listened they wouldn’t believe. (p. 54)

This is a theme in Levi’s experience that is especially important to Judt: given Judt’s insistence on the crucial role that honest confronting of the facts of the Holocaust and other historical evils, the effort to silence or modulate the testimony of participants is wholly abhorrent.

Judt also provides an insightful discussion of the political and historical thought of Hannah Arendt. He locates Arendt’s central contribution in her efforts to understand the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. “Hannah Arendt was throughout her adult life concerned above all with two closely related issues: the problem of political evil in the twentieth century and the dilemma of the Jew in the contemporary world” (pp. 73-74). Judt acknowledges the criticisms that have been formulated concerning Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism; but he believes she had fundamental intuitions about the totalitarianism and cruelty of the twentieth century that are of lasting importance. And he places her attempt to understand historical evil at the center of her contribution.

If Hannah Arendt understood something that so many others missed, it was because she was more concerned with the moral problem of “evil” than with the structures of any given political system; as she put it in “Nightmare and Flight,” first published in 1945 and reprinted in the Essays, “The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe—as death became the fundamental question after the last war.” (p. 77)

Her analysis of evil did not begin with her treatment of the Eichmann trial and the controversial concept of “the banality of evil” (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil); rather, it is a recurring part of her writing for the decade preceding — in essays included in Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism, for example. Judt especially recommends the essay “The Eggs Speak Up”; link. Here is a very nice statement by Arendt of the deadly danger of totalitarianism:

The one excellent reason for this strange behavior is the insight that, independent of totalitarian movements in any given country, totalitarianism as such constitutes the central political issue of our time. And it is unfortunately true that this country, which in many respects looks like a happy island to a world in turmoil, would spiritually be even more isolated without this “anti-totalitarianism”–even though the insistence of our fighters on the unqualified happiness of the happy island does not exactly form the best of all possible bridges. The point is that to state that totalitarianism is the central political issue of our time makes sense only if one also admits that all other evils of the century show a tendency eventually to crystallize into that one supreme and radical evil we call totalitarian government. (271)

Koestler, Arendt, Sperber, Levi — all were participants in the horrific events of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, as fighters, journalists, refugees, and prisoners. Each made his or her own efforts to articulate part of their experience in a way that contributes to a better geography of these dark times for us in the twenty-first century. And Arendt, a philosopher, attempted to provide explanation and theory that might help to reach a better understanding of the incomprehensible, through discussions of evil and totalitarianism. Two — Koestler and Sperber — were also members of the Communist Party in the 1930s, and were forced to confront the massive atrocities and crimes of Stalin. One, Arendt, had a close personal and love relationship with a committed Nazi philosopher, Martin Heidegger — a friendship she maintained through the end of her life. All were Jewish, and it is evident that their personal histories in Berlin, Zablotow, Budapest, Vienna, or the Piedmont refracted differently in forming their political and historical identities. What I find intriguing about Judt’s work in these essays and elsewhere is his effort to place various intellectual figures into their specific historical context, and his attempt to reconstruct the mental maps that they created on the basis of which to understand the world in which they lived. (Similar work on a very comparable figure is done by Jeremy Adelman in his outstanding biography of Albert Hirschman, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman (link).)

(Martin Heidegger’s Nazi affinities and the nature of Arendt’s relationship to Heidegger are both important topics. Elzbieta Ettinger’s Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger explores the Arendt-Heidegger relationship in detail. Farin and Malpas’s volume Reading Heidegger’s Black Notebooks 1931-1941 provides an extensive discussion of Heidegger’s Nazi and anti-Semitic beliefs.)

Multinational corporate accountability and control during the Nazi period

In a previous post I considered the question of the culpability of multinational corporations with affiliates in wartime Nazi Germany (link). There I discussed a number of books that address this question, including Billstein, Fings, Kugler, and Levis’ very important 2000 contribution, Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors, and Forced Labor in Germany during the Second World War. This book provides a detailed business history during the Nazi period of the activities of General Motors (through its subsidiary Opel) and Ford Motor Company (through its German subsidiary Ford Werke in Cologne), including especially the use of forced labor by both companies. Here I want to focus on a crucial question of corporate responsibility: to what extent were these practices under the knowledge and control of the US-based corporate executives? 

Begin with General Motors. Adam Opel AG was General Motors’ subsidiary in Germany, and was the largest producer of automobiles and trucks for the Reich. GM acquired Opel during the Great Depression and took full ownership and control in 1931. Ample evidence is provided in Billstein et al concerning Opel’s use of forced labor during the war years. However, there is disagreement over the degree of management control exercised by General Motors in the US over its Opel subsidiary in Germany. 

Bradford Snell’s testimony to Congress in 1974 addressed this question (link, pp. 16-23). The Snell report to Congress maintained that US senior executives continued to exercise virtually full control over Opel’s operations for the first 11 months of declared war between Germany and the US. However, GM and other researchers have rebutted this claim vigorously. GM claimed that the “enemy property custodian” appointed by the German authorities had sole authority over the management and operations of Opel. Billstein et al take a nuanced view of the question in Working for the Enemy. They take issue with Snell’s assessment that GM exercised “complete management control” at Opel (35), but they argue that Opel executives and managers continued the general strategies preferred by GM before the war. And they argue that US executives of GM during the pre-war years were eager to gain contracts for vehicles and other materials that were crucial for the Nazi government’s military buildup. “In fact, the evidence suggests General Motors’s willing collaboration in the conversion [to armaments production]” (36).

Billstein et al raise a crucial and foundational question: could GM have vetoed the conversion of Opel’s manufacturing capacity to wartime production in the 1930s and the use of forced labor in the 1940s if they had wished to do so? Henry Ashby Turner, Jr.’s General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe’s Biggest Carmaker sheds more light on the business activities and decision-making of General Motors during the Nazi regime. Turner has special expertise on this question, since he directed the documentation project during 1999-2000 sponsored by General Motors to review its private corporate archives during the Nazi period. Turner has special authority in his judgments about GM’s wartime behavior because of his direct involvement in the 1999-2000 review of General Motors’ internal documents and records during the relevant time period. Further, Turner is an acknowledged expert on the corporation’s behavior during the period. (The complete archive of all documents recovered and reviewed has been deposited in digital form at Yale University’ Sterling Memorial Library, designated as the General Motors-Opel Collection.) Based on systematic review of massive quantities of internal GM documents in 1999-2000, Turner concludes that GM’s management control over Opel was extremely limited after 1941. 

The question of management control of Opel’s operations is a crucial one. To what extent did GM’s headquarters in the US direct operations and strategies at Opel? Turner addresses this question directly. Legally GM had complete authority over Opel prior to 1941, as the sole owner of its shares; so GM had the ability to remove members of the board and the director, and to accept or reject the annual report. In practice, however, its ability to control was attenuated by distance and language. And its investment in Opel was entirely hostage to the Nazi regime: profits could not be repatriated, the enterprise could not be sold to a German buyer at a “fair market value”, and the Nazi regime had the political and legal ability to compel compliance with its policies — including “Aryanization”.

The American executives assigned to Opel exercised wide-ranging discretionary authority. Under Sloan’s leadership, GM operated on a managerial principle of “co-ordinated decentralization” that reserved control over allocations of capital to the central leadership but otherwise left most decisions to the corporation’s various divisions, which were monitored by a hierarchical system of committees. The Americans at Opel were, however, from the outset heavily dependent upon the German members of the managerial staff, who far outnumbered them. Of necessity, they had to rely upon these colleagues for information about what was happening at the firm and elsewhere in the country as well as for communications with employees and government officials. Returning to the United States frequently for vacations and for consultations at GM’s New York headquarters at a time when trans-Atlantic sea travel required a week or more each way, the American executives were absent for substantial periods of time. As a result, those charged with responsibility for Opel exercised at best a tenuous control over the firm. (6)

The archives reviewed in 1999-2000 establish clearly that while under ownership and legal control by General Motors (between 1940 and the end of the war), Opel made extensive use of forced labor. However, Turner’s considered view is that General Motors had little actual management control over Opel’s decision-making after the declaration of war between Germany and the United States in 1941. The American strategy from the United States was to “camouflage” the US ownership of Opel and to maintain the value of their investment of Opel pending the end of the war. And in fact Alfred P. Sloan expressed an explicitly non-interventionist philosophy of business management in a letter to a shareholder quoted in the book: “an international business operating throughout the world, should conduct its operations in strict business terms, without regard to the political beliefs of its management, or the political beliefs of the countries in which it is operating” (Turner, 27).

By 1936, after three years of Nazi rule, Opel and the GM executives in charge of it had undergone a far-reaching adaptation to the Third Reich. Faced with a ruthless regime and a company workforce the Nazis had brought under their control, the Americans responsible for the firm had acquiesced in the politicization of factory life and intimidation of their employees. To cope with the xenophobia promoted by the regime, they had withdrawn into the background and sought to conceal the firm’s foreign ownership. (30)

What about Ford Motor Company and the corporate relationship between Dearborn and its subsidiary in Germany, Ford Werke Cologne? The view taken by Billstein et al of Ford’s corporate behavior during the Nazi period is quite negative. The primary source of evidence upon which they depend is a set of interviews conducted by the city of Cologne of individuals who had been forced workers at Ford Werke during the war years, and who had accepted an invitation to return to Cologne to help to document the realities of forced labor at the complex during this period. Excerpts of these interviews are included in the book, and they are very powerful. But they do not shed light on the organizational question: where does responsibility for the use of forced labor fall — in Cologne or in Dearborn?

The key finding of the Ford archive review (link) mentioned in the prior post is the conclusion, endorsed by Simon Reich, that Ford headquarters in Dearborn had essentially no knowledge or control of Ford Werke management decisions after the declaration of war in 1941 — including the use of forced labor. Further, the review finds that Ford Werke made minimal profits over the period of wartime manufacture. (Here is a summary statement by Simon Reich of the central findings of the archival research; link.) The Ford report confirms that Ford Werke Cologne made use of forced and slave labor during the wartime period, but the report is unequivocal in asserting that there is no documentation in the 98,000 pages of archive materials that suggests either knowledge, acquiescence, or control by Dearborn of this practice in Cologne, and Reich endorses this conclusion. The report takes the view that Ford Werke was functionally autonomous from its nominal owners in the US during the wartime years, and that its management in Cologne was eager to cultivate business and military relationships with the Nazi regime in order to maintain the business viability of the operation.

This discussion is a complex one. It is clear that Opel, Ford Werke, and all other heavy industries in Germany were fully involved in the Nazi war effort, and searched aggressively for opportunities to gain military contracts for trucks, tanks, aircraft, engines, and other technologies that were essential for Hitler’s ability to wage war against Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Belgium, Ukraine, Lithuania, and the USSR. Further, it is clear that these companies conformed to Nazi policy concerning the use of forced labor, Aryanization, and slave labor. Moreover, from other case studies in the auto industry, it seems clear that refusing the use of concentration-camp labor was a feasible choice — witness that Opel largely avoided making use of KZ labor while Daimler-Benz was very willing to use that labor (Gregor 194). Rightly, officials of these German companies were investigated and interrogated after the war concerning their conduct towards workers during the war. (It would be very interesting to see a case study of a major business under Nazi jurisdiction where management nonetheless managed to avoid committing crimes against their own workers and other civilians. Were there industrial companies in Norway that managed to maintain decent labor practices under Nazi occupation?) 

This suggests that it is important to assess culpability for illegal and immoral actions taken by these companies when these actions are uncovered. If Opel or Ford Werke provided only starvation rations for its forced workers; if these companies used lethal force as a way of controlling their forced-labor contingents; if the companies provided unconscionably low levels of medical care for their unwilling workers; if these companies actively sought out the use of concentration-camp prisoners as slave labor; then the officers and executives who were responsible for these actions should be held responsible.

But what about the parent corporations? In the cases of Opel and Ford Werke, the balance of available documentation today seems to indicate (based on largely independent study of corporate archives) that it is most credible that the US headquarters had little knowledge and virtually no effective control over its subsidiaries in Germany after about 1940. If we find the independent reviews of GM and Ford archives largely credible — along with the assessments of these reviews by independent and respected historians Turner and Reich — then it would appear that the responsibility for corporate decisions made by Opel, Ford Werke, and Daimler-Benz falls chiefly on the German officers and decision-makers who conducted the affairs of those companies in the period from about 1940 until the end of the war, as well as the Nazi agencies and divisions that largely governed them. In particular, it would appear that responsibility for the use of forced labor in Russelsheim and Cologne cannot be assigned to New York and Dearborn headquarters for the parent companies. 

Does this mean that multinational corporations bear no responsibility for the actions of their subsidiaries? Certainly not. Rather, we might judge that World War II seems to represent a special case for multinational corporate responsibility. The circumstances of total war appear to have severed the arrangements of oversight and control that normally exist between parent and subsidiary. In more normal circumstances — Ford in Argentina, Coca Cola in India, Exxon in Nigeria — we should expect that the multinational corporation has an overriding duty to oversee and control the actions of its subsidiaries in other countries. Those duties extend to ensuring minimal labor standards, a non-violent relationship to labor unions, and a good-faith environmental stewardship of its operations. And if it fails in these duties, its officers should be held accountable. And the “non-interventionist” language put forward by Alfred P. Sloan cannot be accepted. Rather, the multinational corporation has a duty to be vigilant about the political and military choices being made by the governments of the countries in which it does business.

Three war-crimes trials took place after the end of World War Two involving German industrialists who were responsible for making use of forced labor by conquered civilians, use of slave labor from concentration camps, plundering and despoliation, membership in the Nazi party, and other crimes. These were among the “subsequent Nuremberg trials” conducted by US military authorities. These included trials of executives from IG Farben, Krupp, and Friedrich Flick. Here is an important finding from the dissent by Judge Paul Hebert in the Farben trial concerning the charge of the use of slave labor and the defense of “necessity” by Farben executives: “Willing cooperation with the slave labor utilization of the Third Reich was a matter of corporate policy that permeated the whole Farben organization… For this reason, criminal responsibility goes beyond the actual immediate participants at Auschwitz. It includes other Farben Vorstand plant-managers and embraces all who knowingly participated in the shaping of the corporate policy.” Jonathan Wiesen’s West German Industry and the Challenge of the Nazi Past, 1945-1955 is an important exploration of the moral responsibility of German industry and corporations for the crimes of the Nazi period.

Much of the evidence currently available to historians about corporate behavior by the auto companies and other major industries resulted from class-action lawsuits by survivors of the use of forced labor, including especially a suit led by the Ukrainian woman Elsa Iwanowa in 1998 and 1999. These lawsuits led to a sudden willingness on the part of General Motors and Ford Motor Company to make their corporate archives from the Nazi period available for study by researchers. Here is the 1999 judicial opinion issued by U.S. District Court for the district of New Jersey dismissing the Iwanowa class-action lawsuit by against Ford Motor Company and Ford Werke; link. Though the lawsuits were largely unsuccessful, they contributed to the establishment in Germany of a $1.7 billion fund, the German Companies Foundation Initiative: Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future, which was designed in part to provide financial compensation for individuals who had been forced to work in German factories, mines, and construction sites during World War II (Wiesen, kl 203). (The fund has now grown substantially.) The US District Court opinion is worth reading carefully, in that it provides a reasonably full background to the use of forced labor at Ford Werke; the conditions of labor in the Ford Werke factory; and the structure of international and German law with respect to the issue of forced labor.

Explaining GOP behavior

If only Chuck Tilly were still with us … I’d give a lot to hear his interpretation of the behavior of GOP officials throughout large swaths of the country, in state governments and in Congress. But I’d like to hear from Cicero, Machiavelli, and Hannah Arendt as well. Perhaps only theorists who have witnessed the collapse of a republic can find the words necessary to describe our current condition when it comes to the behavior of our GOP politicians. What has become of a simple and principled dedication to the principles of democracy? What has become of politicians who care more about the wellbeing of our country than about their own political fortunes? What has become of integrity?

Think of the range of extremism from the right to which our country is now subject: extremist elected officials like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Josh Hawley, and other seemingly unhinged political voices channeling QAnon; servile compliance with the lies and authoritarian impulses of Donald Trump by establishment politicians like Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, and Kevin McCarthy; and the concerted efforts by Republican majorities in Red states to restrict access to the right to vote, aimed at communities of color. These seem to be separate manifestations of a broad impulse towards raging, irrational authoritarianism on the part of virtually all segments of GOP leaders and rank and file politicians. There are the small number of anti-Trump Republican leaders like Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and others. But they seem to be almost invisible embers in the conflagration of our current crisis. 

So how should we understand the motivations of these various players? The first group seem easiest to understand. These are the political entrepreneurs selling their snake-oil to the extremist fringe, the base, of ideologically disaffected people on the extreme right. They both pander to these emotions of suspicion, distrust, antagonism, and hatred, and they fan them. This is the right wing extremism that Cas Mudde dissects in his books and writings about right wing populism (for example, The Far Right Today and (with Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser) Populism: A Very Short Introduction).

The second group seems to fall in the obvious category of cynical, unprincipled, and craven politicians who have no commitments beyond their calculations about retaining their offices and keeping a majority of voters in their districts. His history makes it apparent that Mitch McConnell is nothing more than a cynical political operative in the strict Machiavellian sense. Manipulating outcomes in support of his party and his own personal political fortunes is his entire story. The Twitter hashtag #ProfilesinCowardice is entirely descriptive of this group.

GOP figures in the third group — elected officials holding majorities in legislatures in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, … — are also unprincipled, but their motives are clear and goal-directed. They are looking to change the rules of the game, through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and new restrictions aimed at reducing the votes going to their Democratic rivals. This effort has been underway for decades and has accelerated in the past two years. Their efforts aren’t about ideology or rhetoric, but instead aimed at securing a permanent grip on power. They are blatantly anti-democratic; they care nothing about the sanctity of the vote and the right to vote for everyone, irrespective of race, wealth, or political preferences. They care only about their own party’s ability to dominate their state’s legislature. And there is a sub-text: the shifting demographics of the US population towards greater diversity is profoundly unsettling to these politicians, and they are doing what they can to stave off the political changes that these shifts seem to imply. (For extended analysis, see Kloos and McAdam, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America.)

The themes that cut across all three groups are insidious: white supremacy, xenophobia, rejection of the legitimacy of government, and a willingness to believe even the most absurd conspiracy theories. These themes contribute to a potent and toxic mix — witness the fantastically unconstitutional effort to enact legislation banning “Critical Race Studies” from schools and universities (link). How can such an effort be understood as anything but a totalitarian effort at imposing thought control on teachers and students? What became of our liberal conviction that independence of mind is a cherished part of a democratic citizen?

What is most worrying about these separate threads is how they converge on a broad and powerful assault on our democracy. And they come together as well in contributing to a broad anti-democratic constituency drawing large numbers of voters. 

Our democracy is at risk, and people of integrity need to speak up for our basic values: the rule of law, the fundamental equality of all, the inviolability of our rights and liberties, and the crucial requirement of neutrality of state institutions across persons and parties. Recall Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s fears for the trajectory and fate of contemporary American democracy in How Democracies Die:

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere. 

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. (1)

How can we find our way back to a shared social understanding — a social compact — about the framework of our democratic society and its crucial importance for the future of our country? How can political leaders and followers alike be helped to see that a democracy depends upon trust, upon dedication to the integrity of our political institutions, and a degree of good will by all for all? How can we reclaim our democracy from those who seem determined to destroy it?