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.)

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