Philosophy after the Holocaust

The sustained, extended atrocities of the twentieth century — the genocide of the Holocaust, the Holodomor, totalitarian repression, the Gulag, the Armenian genocide, the rape of Nanjing — require new questions and new approaches to the problems of philosophy. What are some of those new questions and insights that philosophers should take up? How can philosophy change its focus in order to better recognize and address the evils of the twentieth century?

If philosophy matters at all, its importance derives from the honest efforts of philosophers over the past millennia to answer fundamental questions about the good of a human life and the nature of a good society. Philosophy is about values and the prospects for a peaceful, free future for all of humanity. Its most basic problems have to do with how we human beings create meaning and values for ourselves, and how we can create structures of social life that permit the unfolding of the freedoms and capabilities of each of us. The evils of the twentieth century demonstrated that there are dark alternatives that can be realized in history on the largest scale imaginable: mass killing, enslavement, dehumanization, degradation, and totalitarian subordination of whole peoples. How can philosophy address these terrible realities? How can philosophy contribute to humanity’s ability to prevent those atrocious outcomes in the future?

First, philosophy must be engaged in the realities of human life and history. There is an urgent need for greater concreteness and historical specificity in philosophical discussions in ethics, social and political philosophy, and the philosophy of history. Philosophy can become more genuinely insightful by becoming more concrete and historical. One way to achieve this specificity is to include study and reflection about the first-person documents deriving from participants’ experience. Philosophers are inclined to couch their ideas at a high level of generality. But understanding the evils of the Holocaust requires us to find ways of making even better use of these first-hand experiential sources, without the suspicion of “bias” that often hampered previous historical uses of them. Survivors’ testimonies and interviews, travelers’ reports, and other first-person statements of what happened to individual people must be treated with seriousness, compassion, and a critical eye. Piecing together a single incident on the basis of a few hundred survivors’ reports turns out to be extremely difficult (Christopher Browning). And yet without the reports of participants, survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators, it is virtually impossible to come to a deep human understanding of the realities of the experience of roundups of Jews in Berdichev or daily life and death in Treblinka. A crucial part of the learning we need to do from the Holocaust or the Holodomor is to gain the painful understanding of the individual human suffering experienced by each individual, in the tens of millions. This suggests the relevance of “phenomenological” and descriptive approaches to human life circumstances, informed by real historical understanding of the concrete and lived experience of participants.

Second, it is plain that the scope of events like the Holocaust requires new thinking about historical knowledge. The topic is enormous, encompassing world war, a totalitarian state, organized murder in dozens of countries, a pervasive and varied ideology of hate, and associated violence and murder by affiliates and collaborators throughout a vast region. Specialized historical research is needed into a vast range of topics and locations — for example, Ukrainian nationalist collaborators, the command structure of Einsatzgruppen, the role of Krupp and Farben in the genocide of Europe’s Jews. All of these specialized investigations are crucial to a broad collective understanding of this continent-wide catastrophe. And yet they contribute to a patchwork of areas of understanding of the Holocaust, distributed over hundreds of journals, monographs, and institutes. A historian who specializes in the genocide against Ukraine’s Jews may know little or nothing about the circumstances of the extinction of Hungary’s Jews in 1944. There is thus a critical role for historical synthesis at a higher level of scope – like the work of Timothy Snyder and Alexander Prusin – that helps to knit together factors that would otherwise seem separate.

Third, there are the familiar questions of explanation that must be confronted by historians and philosophers concerning the Holocaust, on a vast scale. What were the political, social, and ideological causes of Germany’s genocidal intentions? What were the features of organization and control through which these intentions were brought to implementation in such ferocity and persistence across Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states in just a few months in 1941? It is crucial to maintain an understanding of the “ conjunctural and multi-causal” nature of large episodes like the Holocaust, and historians should be cautious about simple, single-factor explanations.

Similarly, there are questions of understanding of human actions during these evil times. What were the political and ideological circumstances that led ordinary central European men and women to engage in murder and torture against their Jewish neighbors? How can we understand this mentality and these choices? What were the states of mind of senior military officers in the Wehrmacht who carried out genocidal orders? What about the ordinary soldiers who were sometimes called upon to commit murder against the innocent? How can we understand these actions?

Fifth, philosophy is forced to reconsider common assumptions about human nature, morality, benevolence, and rationality that have often guided philosophical thinking. The simple assumptions of the social contract tradition – whether minimalist in the hands of Hobbes or more nuanced in the hands of Rousseau – do not suffice as a basis for understanding real human history. It is true that sociality, a love of freedom, and a degree of benevolence can be discerned in human affairs; but so can cruelty, hatred, betrayal, and irrationality. It is inescapable that human beings are neither wild animals nor benevolent and rational citizens. Instead, it is important to follow out Herder’s ideas about the contingency of culture and values, and reconstruct more nuanced understandings of human nature in specific historical and social settings (link).

Philosophy for a democratic people

These points have to do with understanding the past, in the aim of preparing for a better future. But understanding the present is also a crucial task — both for philosophers and for citizens. Philosophy needs to help citizens in a democracy to diagnose the malevolent tendencies of hatred and authoritarianism as they emerge, rather than after they have come to full fruition. And philosophy needs to provide citizens with the habits of mind of engagement and motivation that permit them to resist those tendencies while resistance is still feasible. If the common human impulses of “looking the other way” and remaining passive guide our behavior when authoritarianism and hatred emerge, it will be too late to oppose those tendencies once they have seized states and political movements. Hungary’s citizens have been silent too long for the health of their democracy. If Donald Trump had been swiftly removed from office through impeachment and conviction following the January 6 insurrection based on a bipartisan consensus, think about how much more secure democracy in the United States would be today.

In the year 2022 citizens in western democracies have two highly sobering examples before them that need their attention. First is the plain and determined effort by former president Donald Trump to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election and to subvert the institutions and laws that surround the election process in order to do so. The investigations undertaken by the House January 6 committee make it clear that Trump’s efforts, and the concerted and organized efforts of his supporters, amounted to an attempted coup against American democracy. The democracy of the United States was at its greatest risk since the American Civil War.

The second example from 2022 is even more terrible: the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine in February, 2022, and the atrocious war against innocent civilians that has ensued. Russian forces have tortured and mutilated civilians, executed civilians, targeted hospitals and sanctuaries with artillery and bomb attacks, and have sent untold thousands of civilians to “filtration camps” in Ukraine and Russia. All of these tactics are war crimes over and above the war crime of conducting aggressive war against a neighboring country (link). International institutions like the United Nations have been powerless in opposing this war of aggression, while the European and North American military alliance NATO has provided substantial support to Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. The devastation that Ukraine and its citizens face is comparable to the harm it suffered from Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1943. This event underlines the continuing potential of totalitarian regimes to undertake atrocities against the innocent.

The first example illustrates that democracies are vulnerable to attack by unscrupulous political leaders and their loyal and sometimes violent followers. Democratic political institutions are not a guarantee against seizure of power by anti-democratic political forces and leaders. Further, there is a growing level of ideological support from “ordinary people” for the anti-democratic and racist political appeals of political leaders inspired by Trump, and there is a growing network of violent individuals and organizations who are prepared to use force against the state and against their fellow citizens to achieve their ends. Equally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine illustrates the point that authoritarian dictatorships wield substantial power and capacity to impose suffering on other populations. The potential for evil persists in contemporary societies.

But there is an even more fundamental lesson to learn, about the need for public activism and civic engagement in support of democratic institutions. (That is the motivation for the image at the top of groups demanding legislation supporting gun safety.) We citizens in democracies need to be much better prepared to defend our institutions and our values, if the forces of hate and extremism are not to prevail. Democracy is not just about voting in elections; it is about engaging in peaceful mobilization and protest in support of democratic values, and against the efforts of the extremist right to dismantle our institutions.

Philosophy needs to be engaged in the world we face, and to actively contribute to preserving our democratic values. It is crucial for philosophers themselves to recognize that the atrocities of the twentieth century represented a singular moment in human history: a moment when states, parties, leaders, and ordinary citizens engaged in monstrous crimes, and a moment that must be confronted if those crimes are not to recur in the future. Philosophy must find fruitful ways of contributing to that dialogue. Is philosophy up to the task, or are philosophers forced to retreat to the study and consider only the most abstract and universal problems that have so often defined the field?

One Reply to “Philosophy after the Holocaust”

  1. A great post and a massively important argument.
    See also: Jonathan Glover, Humanity; Richard Overy, Interrogations (testimony of the Nuremberg defedants); Keith Lowe, The Fear and the Freedom


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