Socrates the hoplite

An earlier post considered the Melian massacre and the Athenian conduct of war during the Peloponnesian War (link). Since we know that Socrates served as an armored infantry soldier during that war (a hoplite), it is reasonable to ask whether Socrates would have carried out atrocious orders involving the execution of prisoners, enslavement of women and children, and other acts of retaliation and punishment against the enemies of Athens.

In particular, would Socrates the hoplite have obeyed the order to slaughter the innocent? Ancient historian Mark Anderson offers a detailed analysis of the known context of Athenian warfare and Socrates’ military history, and concludes that Socrates did not express moral opposition to these acts of war (link). Anderson argues at length that Socrates was a hoplite during exactly these kinds of campaigns of retaliation, and that he never expressed any moral objection to them. Against the arguments of Gregory Vlastos and other scholars of Athenian philosophy, Anderson argues that the historical record of Socrates’ military service is fairly clear, and it is evident that his participation was voluntary, courageous, extended, and supportive. Anderson argues on the basis of these facts that Socrates did not offer moral objections to this dimension of Athenian military strategy.

Consider first the argument by Gregory Vlastos that Socrates offered a “moral revolution” on these topics. Vlastos is one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated scholars of ancient philosophy, and his book Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher is a much-respected study of Socrates. 

Much of the book is relevant to the question considered earlier of the changing nature of morals and values over time (link). Vlastos appears to accept the view advocated several times here that humanity creates its moral framework through long human experience. Here is what Vlastos writes about the morality of a time and place:

By the morality of a society I understand those norms of right and wrong, rules of conduct or excellences of character, publicly acknowledged within it, whose function it is to foster human wellbeing. The sense of justice centers in the concern that those norms be applied impartially. (179)

Here is a clear expression of the idea that values are created over time rather than discovered as timeless truths.

Protagoras in that speech propounds a comprehensive theory of the origins of culture which views all cultural institutions, including morality, as inventions through which men win the struggle for existence against wild beasts. (187)

Further, Vlastos believes that Socrates was one of those thinkers who succeeded in challenging and changing the moral culture of his time. According to Vlastos, Socrates rejected retaliation on very strong philosophical grounds. And this would involve the rejection of the strategy of exterminating the populations of cities in rebellion against Athens.

Vlastos’ central aim is to show that Socrates rejected the Athenian moral idea of retaliation against those who have wronged you (lex talionis). This traditional Athenian view of the moral acceptability of retaliation comes to bear in concrete detail when, as reported by Thycydides, the Athenian Assembly of citizens is asked to consider the extermination of Mytilene for rebellion (exactly the fate that befell Melos several years later):

… that rebellious Mytilene, now subdued, should be exterminated, all its adult males executed without trial, and all its women and children sold into slavery. In the speech for the proposal Cleon invokes justice on its behalf and, as we might expect, it is the justice of the talio. (184)

Vlastos works hard to distinguish between punishment and revenge: punishment is morally justified, whereas revenge is motivated by abiding hate. “The distinction of punishment from revenge must be regarded as one of the most momentous of the conceptual discoveries ever made by humanity in the course of its slow, tortuous, precarious, emergence from barbaric tribalism” (187).

Crucially, Vlastos believes that Socrates alone among his contemporaries recognizes the moral repugnancy of revenge. “So far as we know, the first Greek to grasp in full generality this simple and absolutely fundamental moral truth is Socrates” (190).

So how does Vlastos understand Socrates’ moral reasoning when it comes to retaliation? He focuses on Socrates’ arguments in the Crito. There Vlastos singles out two moral conclusions:

II. “Therefore, we should never return an injustice.”

IV. “Therefore, we should never return evil for evil [to anyone].” (194)

So, Vlastos concludes, for Socrates, retaliation in the case of personal actions is always unjust and wrong. And this would imply, if appropriate equivalence could be maintained, that retaliation against Mytilene as was proposed to the Assembly, or against Melos, as was carried out, was wholly unjust and immoral. But there is a catch: Vlastos is not entirely convinced that what is wrong for the individual Athenian is also wrong for the state. As a philosopher and a man, Socrates cannot support the resolution to retaliate against Mytilene; indeed, he cannot be a party to the deliberation (195). But it is not clear that Socrates takes the additional step: if the state decides to retaliate against Mytilene or Melos, it lacks the authority to do so. Socrates does not invoke a duty of civil disobedience upon himself as a citizen; he does not assert that as a citizen he can challenge the state’s right to take actions it has duly deliberated.

So there we have Vlastos’s argument for Socrates’ moral philosophy when it comes to doing good, acting justly, and exacting retaliation. Can we conclude, then, that Socrates the hoplite would have rejected Cleon’s authority, duly authorized by the Citizen’s Assembly, to execute the male citizens of Mytilene or Melos?

Mark Anderson thinks not. In fact, he finds Vlastos’ treatment of Socrates’ moral ideas about massacre to be fundamentally flawed. It is unpersuasive because it is entirely based on the philosophical texts without serious attention to historical details documenting what is known about the military career that Socrates experienced as a hoplite. Socrates’ military experience was entirely voluntary — Anderson suggests that he must have had to struggle to be selected as a hoplite, given his age and poverty — and extensive, taking years of his life. Further, Anderson claims that Vlastos makes major and consequential errors about the nature of Socrates’ military life (274). And Anderson rejects Vlastos’ contention that Socrates had achieved a major moral revolution through his statement in Crito that one must never do injustice (275). In particular, he rejects the idea advanced by Vlastos in an earlier essay that “not doing injustice” has the implication of rejecting traditional Athenian “military culture” by Socrates (Gregory Vlastos, 1974, “Socrates on Political Obedience and Disobedience,” The Yale review 63:4).

[Vlastos] argues that Socrates would have refused to participate, for two reasons: first, the proposed punishment was unprecedented in its ferocity, nearly genocidal, and barbaric (Vlastos 1974, 33); second, it was indiscriminate inasmuch as it condemned the innocent democrats along with the renegade oligarchs. Vlastos concludes that Socrates, had he been commanded to do so, would have declined even to relay the orders to those charged with carrying out the executions (Vlastos 1974, 33-34).

But Anderson argues two important points: first, that Socrates did in fact participate as a hoplite in campaigns in which exactly these sorts of mass killings occurred; and second, that Socrates never expressed moral objection or dissent to these actions, whether in the Platonic dialogues or in other historical sources about Socrates.

Hardly a passive observer, Socrates actively supported Athens’ imperial war effort. As we shall see, he willingly fought with some of the men and on some of the very campaigns that the standard accounts assure us he would have condemned. Moreover, the extent of his military activity is much wider than anyone has recognized. The relevant evidence demonstrates that Socrates fought in many more battles than the three that are commonly acknowledged. On the Potidaean campaign alone he may have seen action at Therme, Pydna, Beroea, and Strepsa. Before returning to Athens he probably served at Spartolus and ‘other places’ (Thucydides ii 70.4). On the Amphipolitan expedition he served possibly at Mende, definitely (for a time, though perhaps for a very brief time only) at Scione, then at Torone, Gale, Singus, Mecyherna, Thyssus, Cleonae, Acroathos, Olophyxus, Stageira, Bormiscus, Galepsos, and Trailus. (277)

There is a record of Socrates on this [Potidaea] campaign. We know that during the long siege he stood out among the soldiers as something of an eccentric (Symp. 21ge-220e). We hear nothing, however, of his standing out as a moral revolutionary suggestively questioning his comrades about the justice of Pericles’ military aggression. That Socrates, so far as we know, raised no objections to serving on this campaign suggests that neither militarism nor imperialism violated his conception of the noble and good life. (279-280)

Socrates served in Cleon’s army, and he supported Cleon. But here is Cleon’s record of massacre:

Cleon was ruthless; he was brutal to rebellious cities; but Athens needed him. The empire in the north was crumbling; much of Thrace was in open rebellion. The Athenians were livid (iv 122.5, 123.3). The punishment from which they had spared the citizens of Mytilene they imposed upon the defeated Scionians, at Cleon’s insistence. They retaliated against Torone almost as severely. Thucydides did not record the sufferings of the many other cities that fell to Cleon’s army, but we may be sure that they too felt the bronze edge of the lex talionis. (281)

When Brickhouse and Smith 1994, 153-154 declare that Socrates never actively supported Athens’ ‘evil’ acts, they do so expressly in connection with the Athenians’ treatment of Scione. But Socrates may very well have been with the contingent that stormed Scione in the summer of 423. Or he may have sailed with Cleon the following summer. Either way, he served at Scione and he arrived there in full knowledge of the campaign’s objectives; he knew that the men were to be executed and the women and children enslaved. Thus the assertion that Socrates never participated in Athens’ ‘evil actions’ cannot be correct. If he were under a legal obligation to serve on these campaigns, then Brickhouse and Smith have gone wrong again. If, as I believe, he served willingly and eagerly, their error is compounded. (282)

In other words, it is Anderson’s contention that Socrates was an active participant in Cleon’s campaigns of retaliation against cities in rebellion, involving the massacre of the men and the enslavement of the women and children. And further, there is no record of moral objections raised by Socrates to these actions — viewed at close hand as a combatant — in any of the Socratic corpus. This implies, to Anderson anyway, that Socrates did not have a moral objection to these military and imperial tactics.

This is a densely argued and damning portrait of Socrates as soldier-citizen-philosopher. Anderson makes a compelling case that Socrates did not rebel against the prevailing Athenian military culture, he did not reject massacre and enslavement as instruments of retaliation in war, and he did not act on the basis of a moral theory of just war — Athenian or any other. “Nowhere in the dialogues does Socrates give any indication that he had moral objections to hoplite warfare. To the contrary, in the Protagoras he says it is ‘noble’ and ‘good’ to go to war” (287). “Socrates fought such battles and was such a man. He did not fight at Marathon himself, of course; but he stood proudly in the long line of hoplites that stretched back to those who did. He identified with these men and accepted that their way–the way of the hoplite–led most nearly to the good life” (288).

To our question above, then, it seems as though there is a reasonably clear answer: in his life choices and in his words, Socrates the hoplite did indeed support the campaigns of slaughter that we would today regard as atrocities.

Tony Judt on twentieth-century Marxism

Tony Judt was especially astute when it came to linking history and intellectuals. One strand of thought in his collection of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, is a critical engagement with several twentieth-century thinkers associated with Marxism (and sometimes anti-Marxism), including Althusser, Kołakowski, E.P. Thompson (briefly), Raymond Aron (briefly), and Eric Hobsbawm. With the exception of Kołakowski, Judt’s perspective on these thinkers is negative, usually because of their failure to honestly reckon with the crimes of Stalinism (Althusser, Hobsbawm). And there is often a disparaging tone to his rhetoric.

In the case of Althusser Judt’s tone and critique are especially harsh. He portrays Althusser as an ignorant pundit rather than a serious philosopher, he finds Althusser to be contemptible for his efforts to gloss over the crimes of Stalinism, and he has complete scorn for Althusser’s “structuralism” as an explication of Marx’s theories. On Althusser’s ignorance of history and philosophy:

He seems to know nothing of recent history (among his howlers is an indictment of the “Polish fascist” Pilsudski for starting World War II). He appears only late in life to have discovered Machiavelli and other classics of Western philosophy, and he even admits to a skimpy and partial acquaintance with Marx’s texts (something one might have inferred from his published work). He is also unsophisticated to the point of crudity in his political analysis. He seems to have learned nothing and to have forgotten nothing in the last twenty years of his life. Thus there is much talk of “the hegemony of bourgeois, imperialist capitalism”; and he is dismissive of the dissidents of the Soviet bloc (“cut off from their own people”) and contemptuous of writers like André Glucksmann for “putting around unbelievable horror stories of the Gulag.” Those words were written in 1985! (p. 113)

Judt believes there is no content to Althusser’s “theory of structural practices”. And this shortcoming dovetails with the issue of Althusser’s failure to confront Stalinism:

This subjectless theory of everything had a further virtue. By emphasizing the importance of theory, it diverted attention from the embarrassing defects of recent practice. In such an account, Stalin’s crime was not that he had murdered millions of human beings, it was that he had perverted the self-understanding of Marxism. Stalinism, in short, was just another mistake in theory, albeit an especially egregious one, whose major sin consisted of its refusal to acknowledge its own errors. (p. 108)

I am inclined to agree with Judt’s assessment of Althusser’s structuralism. My own assessment in The Scientific Marx (1986) of Althusser’s structuralist Marxism was negative as well:

A second important example of this “theoretist” approach to Capital can be found in structuralist Marxism, particularly that of Althusser and his followers. In this case, instead of an economic interpretation of Marx’s system, we find an effort to describe Capital as a general theory of the “structures” that define and animate the capitalist mode of production. For example, Hindess and Hirst hold that Capital is fundamentally an abstract theory of the capitalist mode of production that derives the “logic” of the system from the concept of the mode of production. Here too the aim is to portray Capital as a unified set of theoretical principles, with the rest of the work being treated as illustrative material or derived consequences. This account shows the same predisposition identified earlier to construe Capital as an organized theoretical system, and the same reductionist necessity to downplay those portions of the work which cannot be easily assimilated to the theoretical model. (Scientific Marx, 17)

Judt’s discussion of Leszek Kołakowski gives special attention to Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders – The Golden Age – The Breakdown and is much more favorable. 

It is quite impossible to convey in a short review the astonishing range of Kołakowski’s history of Marxist doctrine. It will surely not be superseded: Who will ever again know—or care—enough to go back over this ground in such detail and with such analytical sophistication? Main Currents of Marxism is not a history of socialism; its author pays only passing attention to political contexts or social organizations. It is unashamedly a narrative of ideas, a sort of bildungsroman of the rise and fall of a once-mighty family of theory and theorists, related in skeptical, disabused old age by one of its last surviving children. (132)

Judt believes that Kołakowski arrives at a fundamental insight about the role of Marxism in 20th-century history — the propensity of his followers to regard Marx’s writings as total theories encompassing both the present and the future. These forms of dogmatism laid the seeds of the totalitarianism of Communism as a political-economic system:

Solving the problems of mankind in one stroke; seeking out an all-embracing theory that can simultaneously explain the present and guarantee the future; resorting to the crutch of intellectual or historical “systems” to navigate the irritating complexity and contradictions of real experience; saving the “pure” seed of an idea or an ideal from its rotten fruit: Such shortcuts have a timeless allure and are certainly not the monopoly of Marxists (or indeed the Left). But it is understandably tempting to dismiss at least the Marxist variant of such human follies: Between the disabused insights of former Communists like Kołakowski and the self-righteous provincialism of “Western” Marxists like Thompson, not to speak of the verdict of history itself, the subject would appear to have self-destructed. (136)

Judt also provides an extensive discussion of E.P. Thompson’s polemic with Leszek Kołakowski:

The “Open Letter” was Thompson at his priggish, Little-Englander worst: garrulous (the letter runs to one hundred pages of printed text), patronizing, and sanctimonious. In a pompous, demagogic tone, with more than half an eye to his worshipful progressive audience, Thompson shook his rhetorical finger at the exiled Kołakowski, admonishing him for apostasy: “We were both voices of the Communist revisionism of 1956. . . . We both passed from a frontal critique of Stalinism to a stance of Marxist revisionism. . . . There was a time when you, and the causes for which you stood, were present in our innermost thoughts.” How dare you, Thompson suggested from the safety of his leafy perch in middle England, betray us by letting your inconvenient experiences in Communist Poland obstruct the view of our common Marxist ideal? (p. 136)

This portrait has much of the rhetorical excess from which Judt’s polemical essay “Clown in Regal Purple” (link) suffers in regard to Judt’s treatment of Charles Tilly (link), and seems to reflect intellectual animus as much as substantive critique. A clear indicator of the animus: after discussing Kołakowski’s response to Thompson, Judt writes a few lines later: “No one who reads it will ever take E. P. Thompson seriously again” (136). That is a bit hard, given that few historians would doubt the importance, rigor, and enduring insights of Thompson’s most important work, The Making of the English Working Class (link). 

Judt believes that Marxism was historically important in the twentieth century, but its importance was largely destructive. Judt believes that Marxism gave rise to social and political theories that led fairly directly to Communist totalitarianism. So he argues that it is of more than academic interest for us to try to understand the nature of Marxist thought throughout the first half of the century.

Marxism is thus inextricably intertwined with the intellectual history of the modern world. To ignore or dismiss it is willfully to misinterpret the recent past. Ex-Communists and former Marxists—François Furet, Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler, Leszek Kołakowski, Wolfgang Leonhard, Jorge Semprún, Victor Serge, Ignazio Silone, Boris Souvarine, Manès Sperber, Alexander Wat, and dozens of others—have written some of the best accounts of twentieth-century intellectual and political life. Even a lifelong anti-Communist like Raymond Aron was not embarrassed to acknowledge his undiminished interest in the “secular religion” of Marxism (to the point of recognizing that his obsession with combating it amounted to a sort of transposed anticlericalism). And it is indicative that a liberal like Aron took particular pride in being far better read in Marx and Marxism than many of his self-styled “Marxist” contemporaries. (137)

Marxism was important, Judt believes, because it gave a unified narrative that ordinary engaged people could understand about how society might move forward to a more just future.

The Marxist project, like the older Socialist dream which it displaced and absorbed, was one strand in the great progressive narrative of our time: It shares with classical liberalism, its antithetical historical twin, that narrative’s optimistic, rationalistic account of modern society and its possibilities. Marxism’s distinctive twist—the assertion that the good society to come would be a classless, post-capitalist product of economic processes and social upheaval—was already hard to credit by 1920. But social movements deriving from the initial Marxian analytical impulse continued for many decades to talk and behave as though they still believed in the transformative project. (138)

Most importantly, Marxism highlighted the features of contemporary capitalist society that were most visible and repellent to ordinary people: exploitation, alienation of ordinary life, inequality, and the indignities of class. However, for a number of years, the Marxist narrative appeared to be refuted by the postwar expansion in the standard of living, the accessibility of public education, and health and welfare protections.

Marxism, as the Polish historian Andrzej Walicki—one of its more acerbic critics—openly acknowledges, was the most influential “reaction to the multiple shortcomings of capitalist societies and the liberal tradition.” If Marxism fell from favor in the last third of the twentieth century, it was in large measure because the worst shortcomings of capitalism appeared at last to have been overcome. The liberal tradition—thanks to its unexpected success in adapting to the challenge of depression and war and bestowing upon Western democracies the stabilizing institutions of the New Deal and the welfare state—had palpably triumphed over its antidemocratic critics of Left and Right alike. A political doctrine that had been perfectly positioned to explain and exploit the crises and injustices of another age now appeared beside the point. (140)

But — as Judt recognizes in the final few pages of the essay on Althusser — twenty-first century capitalism persists in presenting humanity with many of the same crippling problems that Marx identified in the nineteenth century: staggering inequalities, extensive deprivation for working class and underclass men and women, and alienating forms of daily life. The seemingly unbridled power of corporations to have their way in the market and in public policy makes the language of civic equality seem hollow. And we now know the terrible potential of right-wing extremist movements — whether National Socialism in the 1930s or right-wing nationalist populism in the 2000s — to mobilize mass support for dictatorship and repression. The stability of liberal democracies is no longer assured; authoritarian leaders like Orban, Erdogan, and Trump have demonstrated their willingness to smash democratic institutions and norms. 

Judt argues that intellectuals and social change have always gone hand in hand; intellectuals help us think about the future and how to create a pathway of progress to better circumstances for humanity. Judt plainly rejected the notion that Marxism could play that role. But in the current moment, we have a deficit of convincing intellectuals and broad social movements that might help us envision and secure a more egalitarian democracy. We urgently need broad and appealing visions of a more palatable future for all members of society. Where are the social thinkers who will speak for progressive liberal democracy? Rejecting “Marxism” cannot be extended to intolerance of creative thinking by a range of democratic socialist theorists. Social democracy, democratic socialism, and non-Marxist socialist thought are broad and important ideas in our current context. Are there socialist thinkers in the past who gave greater attention to individual freedom and wellbeing whose work repays a rereading (for example, Alexander Chayanov, murdered by Stalin in 1937 (linklink))? Do contemporary thinkers like Erik Olin Wright and others associated with the Real Utopias project have important contributions to make in the current setting (link)? We need progressive public intellectuals who can speak to the disaffected in contemporary society; otherwise, the Orbans and the Trumps will pursue their politics of division and hate, and will determine our futures in quite ugly ways. (Quite a few earlier posts have addressed this problem — for example, linklinklink.)

(For what it is worth, the Democracy Index estimates that the most democratic nations in the world are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Ireland, Denmark, Canada, Australia, Switzerland. Significantly, the Nordic countries make up five of the top ten nations on this list — nations that have adopted strong versions of “social democracy” as a foundation for their social contract. This too is part of the progressive tradition of thought within which Marx did his work.)

Evil and the philosophy of history

images: Two residents of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad)

Vast numbers of words have been written about the atrocities of the twentieth century — about the Holocaust, about Stalin’s war of starvation against Ukraine’s peasants, about the Gulag, and about other periods of unimaginable and deliberate mass suffering throughout the century. First-person accounts, historians’ narratives, sociologists’ and psychologists’ studies of perpetrators’ behavior, novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights, exhibition curators … all of these kinds of works are available to us as vehicles for understanding what happened, and — perhaps — why. So perhaps, we might agree with Zygmunt Bauman in an early stage of his development and judge that the job has been done: we know what we need to know about the terrible twentieth century.

I do not agree with that view. I believe another perspective will be helpful — even necessary — if we are to encompass this century of horror into our understanding of our human past and be prepared for a better future. This is the perspective of the philosopher — in particular, the philosopher of history. But why so? Why is it urgent for philosophy to confront the Holocaust? And what insight can philosophers bring to the rest of us about the particular evils that the twentieth century involved?

Let’s begin with the question, why does philosophy need to confront the Holocaust? Here there seem to be at least two important reasons. First, philosophy is almost always about rationality and the good. Philosophers want to know what conditions constitute a happy human life, a just state, and a harmonious society. And we usually work on assumptions that lead, eventually, back to the idea of human rationality and a degree of benevolence. Human beings are deliberative about their own lives and courses of action; they want to live in a harmonious society; they are capable of recognizing “fair” social arrangements and institutions, and have some degree of motivation to support such institutions. These assumptions attach especially strongly to philosophers such as Aristotle, Seneca, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel; less strongly to Hobbes and Nietzsche; and perhaps not at all to Heidegger. But there is a strong and recurrent theme of rationality and benevolence that underlies much of the tradition of Western philosophy. The facts about the Holocaust — or the Holodomor, or the Armenian genocide, or Rwanda — do not conform to this assumption of rational human goodness. Rather, rationality and benevolence fall apart; instrumental rationality is divorced from a common attachment to the human good, and rational means are chosen to bring about suffering, enslavement, and death to millions of individual human beings. The Holocaust, then, forces philosophers to ask themselves: what is a human being, if groups of human beings are capable of such destruction and murder of their fellows?

The two ideas highlighted here — rationality and benevolence — need some further explication. Philosophers are not economists; they do not and have not thought of rationality as purely a matter of instrumental cleverness in fitting means to achieving one’s ends. Rather, much of our tradition of philosophy has a more substantive understanding of rationality: to be rational is, among other things, to recognize the reality of other human beings; to recognize the reality of their aspirations and vulnerabilities; and to have a degree of motivation to contribute to their thriving. Thomas Nagel describes this view of rationality in The Possibility of Altruism; but likewise, Amartya Sen embraces a conception of reason that includes sociality and a recognition of the reality of other human beings.

Benevolence too requires comment. Benevolence — or what Nagel refers to as altruism — is a rational motivation that derives from a recognition of the reality of other people’s life — their life plans, their happiness and suffering, their fulfillment. To be benevolent is to have a degree of motivation to care about the lives of others, and to contribute to social arrangements that serve everyone to some degree. As Kant puts the point in one version of the categorical imperative in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, “treat others as ends, not merely as means”. And the point of this principle is fundamental: rationality requires recognition of the fundamental reality of the lives, experiences, and fulfillment of others. Benevolence does not mean that one must become Alyosha in the Brothers Karamazov, selflessly devoted to the needs of others. But it does mean that the happiness and misery, life and death, of the other is important to oneself. Nagel puts the point very strongly: strict egoism is as irrational as solipsism.

But here is the crucial point: the anti-Semitism of the Nazi period, the dehumanization of Jews, the deliberate and rational plan to exterminate the Jews from all of Europe, and the racism of European colonialism — all of this is fundamentally incompatible with the idea that human beings are invariably and by their nature “rationally benevolent”. Ordinary German policemen were indeed willing to kill Jews at the instruction of their superiors, and then enjoy the evening singing beer songs with their friends. Ordinary Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were prepared to serve as policemen, carrying out Nazi plans for Aktion against thousands of other residents of the ghetto. Ordinary Poles were willing to assault and kill their neighbors. Ordinary French citizens were willing to betray their Jewish neighbors. How can philosophy come to grips with these basic facts from the twentieth century?

The second reason that philosophy needs to be ready to confront the facts of the twentieth century honestly is a bit more constructive. Perhaps philosophy has some of the resources needed to construct a better vision of the world for the future, that will make the ideal of a society of rationally benevolent citizens more feasible and stable. Perhaps, by once recognizing the terrible traps that Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and Soviet citizens were led into, social and political philosophy can modestly contribution to a vision of a more stable future in which genocide, enslavement, and extermination are no longer possible. Perhaps there is a constructive role for political and social philosophy 2.0.

And there is another side of this coin: perhaps the history of philosophy is itself interspersed with a philosophical anthropology that perpetuated racism and anti-Semitism — and thereby contributed to the evils of the twentieth century. This is an argument made in detail by Michael Mack in German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses, who finds that negative assumptions about Jews come into Kant’s writings in a very deep way: Jews are “heteronomous”, whereas ethical life requires “autonomy”. These statements are anti-Semitic on their face, and Mack argues that they are not simply superficial prejudices of the age, but rather are premises that Kant is happy to argue for. Bernard Boxill makes similar claims about Kant’s moral philosophy when it comes to racism. Boxill believes that Kant’s deep philosophical assumptions within his philosophical anthropology lead him to a position that is committed to racial hierarchies among human beings (“Kantian Racism and Kantian Teleology”; link). These concerns show that philosophy needs to be self-critical; we need to ask about some of the sources of twentieth-century evil that are embedded in the tradition of philosophy itself. Slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, gender oppression, colonial rule, and violence against colonial subjects all seem to have cognates within the traditions of philosophy. (In an important article that warrants careful reading, Laurie Shrage raises important questions about the social context and content of American philosophy — and the discipline’s reluctance to engage in its social presuppositions; “Will Philosophers Study Their History, Or Become History?” (link). She writes, “By understanding the history of our field as a social and cultural phenomenon, and not as a set of ideas that transcend their human contexts, we will be in a better position to set a future course for our discipline”(125).)

There is a yet another reason why philosophy needs to engage seriously with evil in the twentieth century: philosophy is meant to matter in human life. The hope for philosophy, offered by Socrates and Seneca, Hume and Kant, is that the explorations of philosophers can contribute to better lives and greater human fulfillment. But this suggests that philosophy has a duty to engage with the most difficult challenges in human life, throughout history, and to do so in ways that help to clarify and enhance human values. The evils of the twentieth century create an enormous problem of understanding for every thoughtful person. This is not primarily a theological challenge — “How could a benevolent deity permit such atrocities?” — but rather a philosophical challenge — “How can we as full human beings, with our moral and imaginative capacities, confront these evils honestly, and have hope for the future?”. If philosophy cannot contribute to answering this question, then perhaps it is no longer needed. (This is the subtext of Shrage’s concerns in the article mentioned above.)

I’d like to position this question within the philosophy of history. The Holocaust and the Holodomor are events of history, after all, and history seeks to understand the past. And our understanding of history is also our understanding of our own humanity. But if this question belongs there, it suggests a rather different view of the philosophy of history than either analytic or hermeneutic philosophers have generally taken. Analytic philosophers — myself included — have generally approached the topic of the philosophy of history from an epistemological point of view: what can we know about the past, and how? And hermeneutic philosophers (as well as speculative and theological philosophers) have offered large theories of “history” (“Does history have meaning?” “Does history have direction?”) that have little to do with the concrete understandings that we need to gain from specific historical investigations. So the philosophy of history that considers the conundrum of the Holocaust and the pervasive footprint of evil in the twentieth century will need to be one that incorporates the best thinking by gifted historians, as well as reflective deliberation about circumstances of the human condition that made these horrible historical outcomes possible. It must join philosophy and history. But it is possible, I hope, that philosophers can help to formulate new questions and new perspectives on the great evils of the twentieth century, and assist global society in moving towards a more harmonious and morally acceptable world.

One additional point is relevant here: the pernicious role that all-encompassing ideologies have played in the previous century. And, regrettably, philosophy often gives rise to such ideologies. Both Stalinism and Nazism were driven by totalizing ideologies, subordinating ordinary human beings for “the attainment of true socialism” or “Lebensraum and racial purity”. And these ideologies succeeded in bringing along vast numbers of followers, leading to political ascendancy of totalitarian parties and leaders. The odious slogan, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, led to horrific sacrifices in the Soviet Empire and in China; and the willingness to subordinate the whole population to the will of the Leader led to the evils of the Nazi regime. Whatever philosophy can usefully contribute in the coming century, it cannot be a totalizing theory of “the perfect society”. It must involve a fundamental commitment to the moral importance and equality of all human beings and to democracy in collective decision-making. A decent human future can only be made piecemeal, not according to a comprehensive blueprint. The future must be made by ordinary human beings, not ideologues, revolutionaries, or philosophers. 

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.

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.

Forced labor and multinational corporations

What role did American multinational auto companies play in the rearmament of Germany during the early period of Nazi rule? And to what extent did these companies participate in Nazi practices like forced (slave) labor and Aryanization for which they should have been held morally responsible?

An early discussion of the responsibility of American corporations for their conduct in Nazi Germany was provoked by Bradford Snell’s testimony to Congress in 1974 (link, pp. 16-23). Snell, a specialist Congressional staff member, argued that the auto companies played a crucial role in supplying the German state with the vehicles and equipment needed for its conduct of war in Europe:

In Germany, for example, General Motors and Ford became an integral part of the Nazi war efforts. GM’s plants in Germany built thousands of bomber and jet fighter propulsion systems for the Luftwaffe at the same time that its American plants produced aircraft engines for the U.S. Army Air Corps. (17)

Snell makes clear the economic and business cost of non-cooperation by the auto companies:

Refusal to aid in prewar preparations, of course, was unthinkable. It would have resulted in confiscation and irreparable economic harm to GM and Ford stockholders. In any event, due to their concentrated economic power in both economies, they were able to shape the conflict to their own private corporate advantage. Whether in fact their profit-maximization determinations were also in the best interests of international peace or, more specifically, in accord with the national security objectives of the United States at that time is entirely unclear. (17)

It was, of course, in the best interests of GM and Ford to cooperate in the Axis war effort. Although GM, for example, was in complete management control of its Russelsheim warplane factory for nearly a full year after Germany’s declaration of war against the United States on December 11, 1941, its refusal to build warplanes at a time of negligible demand for automobiles would have brought about the economic collapse of its Opel plant. (22)

Here is Snell’s summary conclusion: “In sum, they maximized profits by supplying both sides with the material needed to conduct the war” (16). Importantly, however, Snell does not provide detailed evidence or analysis of the degree to which the US-based corporate headquarters of these companies were in a position to exert management control over their German subsidiaries. And he does not address the question of internal management decision-making at these companies and their use of forced labor. In fact, significant data about forced labor in these plants only became available to researchers in the 1990s.

In 1974 there was only limited documentation of the decision-making and management structure of the auto companies in their German subsidiaries. However, a series of class-action lawsuits emerged in the 1990s that prompted the auto companies to open their private business archives to inspection, and several books have been written since 1998 that document the kinds of collaboration that occurred between multinational companies and the Nazi regime. Two in particular are of special interest here: Billstein, Fings, Kugler, and Levis, Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors, and Forced Labor in Germany during the Second World War (2000), and Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe’s Biggest Carmaker (2005). Also important in this context is Neil Gregor’s book, Daimler-Benz in the Third Reich (1998), which provides a great deal of documentation of Daimler-Benz’s willing use of forced (slave) labor in its factories. 

These books are important for our concerns because they address the issue of how to understand the evils of the twentieth century, including mass killings, slave labor, and the destruction of human lives and dignity on a grotesque and massive scale. There is the question of evil state action to consider; the question of the evil deeds of particular individuals, from Rudolph Hoess to the ordinary policemen of Reserve Police Battalion 101 described by Christopher Browning (link), to the question of the public that accepted these horrendous actions. But along the way, there is the question of the actions and decisions of business firms that continued to operate in Germany, supplying the crucial war materials needed for blitzkrieg and operating according to Nazi principles. Those principles included official anti-Semitism and the use of forced labor of civilians and prisoners of war. There are many important questions that need to be addressed in this field, but the most important is the question of responsibility and culpability. To what extent were the US-based corporate executives aware of these practices, and to what extent did the company have effective control over their German subsidiaries?

The use of forced labor in auto and truck manufacturing plants

Labor shortages were a critical problem throughout wartime Germany, and at the Russelsheim Opel plant in particular. (Extensive documentation of Nazi use of forced and slave labor between 1933 and 1945 is provided by Ulrich Herbert, Hitler’s Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich.) Billstein et al and Turner provide a good deal of detail about the practices of Opel with regard to forced labor. Skilled workers were drafted into the armed forces from the GM-owned Opel ranks in large numbers, and plant managers were unable to persuade the labor control authorities Arbeitsamt to exempt skilled workers from further conscription cohorts. Conscription then broadened to include unskilled workers. A possible solution was seen in enemy prisoners of war. The first Opel Russelsheim prison camp was built in July 1940 and was soon occupied by 600 French and Belgian prisoners (Billstein et al, 47). In October 1941 the state authorized the use of Soviet POWs as industrial workers under severe conditions of oversight and confinement, but few of the several million POWs taken during the Barbarossa operations survived to be deployed as industrial slave workers (Billstein et al, 54). In February 1942 the SS central agency approved the Ostarbeiterlasse permitting the conscription of Soviet civilians (and later other civilians from Eastern European conquest zones), and Opel Russelsheim was the first location to receive a consignment of forced workers from the East. A report from September 1942 lists 2449 forced laborers, including Russian civilians, French POWs, and other foreign civilians (Billstein et al, 56). Opel did not make use of concentration-camp labor, according to Billstein et al:

Opel was the only large German vehicle producer not to employ KZ camp prisoners in the period that followed, at either of its two production plants. The company’s tradition was conservative, and not at all anti-Semitic. Opel’s forced laborers, both prisoners of war and civilians, were guarded by company Werkschutz. Concentration camp prisoners were guarded by SS henchmen. (Billstein et al, 63)

What about Ford Motor Company and the extensive use of forced labor in Ford Werke Cologne? More insight into this question has emerged as a result of the same class-action lawsuits initiated in 1998 by former forced workers. In 2001 Ford Motor Company completed a very extensive review of its corporate archives as well as those of Ford Werke and German and US government sources (link), in a report supervised and validated by Simon Reich, a well known scholar of the period. The findings of this review are quite different from those offered by Billstein et al. The Ford Archive Report provides a fairly extensive set of facts about the use of forced and slave labor at Ford Werke Cologne. Here is an overview:

The use of foreign and forced labor at Ford-Werke began in 1940, and generally followed the same pattern as at other industrial facilities in Germany. Foreigners from Eastern and Western Europe, as well as Italian and French POWs were put to work at Ford-Werke. These men and women lived in barracks constructed by Ford-Werke adjacent to its plant site, in what became known in Cologne as the “Ford camp.”[308] After the Reichsbahn [the German railways], Ford-Werke was the next largest employer of forced workers in Cologne.[309] Late in the war, men from the concentration camp Buchenwald worked at Ford-Werke as slave laborers. (See Section 7.7.) (49)

Postwar reports indicate that the first civilians from Eastern Europe began working at Ford-Werke in the spring of 1942. An internal Ford-Werke memorandum written in June 1945 stated, “As far as we can remember, the first Russian men and women came to us in March 1942.”[319] Other postwar documents reported that the Eastern[320] workers arrived in April 1942.[321] In oral history interviews conducted during the 1990s, several Russian and Ukrainian former workers recalled arriving between April and June 1942.[322] Wartime financial records from Ford-Werke reported 320 Eastern workers in May 1942, with the numbers increasing each month to a maximum of 900 workers in October 1943. Between November 1943 and August 1944, the number of Eastern workers indicated in these records varied between 777 and 882.[323] (50)

Forced and foreign workers were a sizable percentage of the total workforce at Ford Werke. The Archive Report indicates that “the highest number of foreign and forced workers at any point during the war was approximately 2,000. This peak occurred in August 1944” (51). This is roughly 40% of the workforce. Here is a graph of the composition of the Ford-Werke labor force from 1941 to 1944 (52):

The report makes an attempt to assess pay rates and living conditions, and notes consistently that conditions and pay were substantially worse for eastern workers than western workers. Food rations for Russian and eastern European workers were especially poor:

Statements from denazification files report that Russians – children as well as adults – received poor food rations.[439] In an interview conducted in the 1990s, one former Eastern worker recalled that her rations typically consisted of three slices of bread and unsweetened coffee for breakfast, soup made from turnips and flour siftings for lunch, and bread and coffee again for dinner. (64)

This is clearly a starvation diet for an adult worker, amounting to perhaps 700-800 calories per day.

The report also provides clear documentation that Ford Werke made use of slave labor from the Buchenwald concentration camp:

On the same day that Schmidt and von Gusmann attended the Schaaf meeting [8/1/1944], the main Buchenwald concentration camp prepared a list of 50 prisoners to send to Ford-Werke.[467] Included in the group of prisoners deployed to Ford-Werke were Russian and Czech political prisoners, Poles, and two Germans, one of whom was described as a “criminal” and the other as “work shy.” Among them were carpenters, bricklayers, a painter, a tailor, a cabinet maker, plumbers, electricians, agricultural workers, shoemakers, a barber and a nurse.[468] Their first day of work was August 13, 1944.[469] … Buchenwald transfer lists show that at least 65 different men were assigned to the Ford-Werke satellite camp at one time or another, and that several were transported elsewhere or fled from Ford-Werke and new prisoners brought in to replace them.[470] Most documentation from the period indicates that there were 50 or fewer Buchenwald inmates at Ford-Werke at any given time from August 1944 through the end of February 1945.[471] A 1944 list of Buchenwald satellite camps designates “Ford-Köln” with a capacity of 50 prisoners. (68-69)

This is a long list of moral wrongs committed by Ford Werke — extensive use of forced labor, including POWs and civilians from occupied countries; some use of slave labor from the Buchenwald concentration camp; and a pervasive and dehumanizing differentiation across groups of workers concerning their treatment, housing, and food, with harsh and meager conditions for eastern workers and more moderate conditions for workers from France, Belgium, and other countries of western Europe. It would seem evident that the corporate directors of those companies in Germany bear significant moral and legal responsibility for these actions. In a later post I will turn to the question of the possible culpability of the parent companies, General Motors and Ford Motor Company. It will emerge there that careful review of company archives by independent researchers strongly suggests that the US-based corporate leaders had neither knowledge nor control over events in their German subsidiaries after 1940.

Compassion and the moral emotions (Nussbaum)

image: Philoctetes injured on Lemnos

How can the atrocities of the twentieth century lead to the creation of a better version of humanity? One theme to explore involves the moral emotion of compassion, and the idea that this is an emotion that human beings learn through experience and reflection. Crucially, we need to explore whether knowledge of history can help to inform the development of a culture of compassion. Both John Kekes and Susan Neiman provide some useful insights into the key question: how should a current generation engage with the history of the atrocities of the past century? Kekes contributes to this idea through his discussion of moral imagination, and Neiman contributes through her analysis of Rousseau’s theory of the malleability of human nature.

The philosopher who has shed the most light on compassion is Martha Nussbaum. In “Compassion: The Basic Social Emotion” (link) she explores the importance that compassion and pity play in the moral ordering of human social life. (The subject is treated as well in Part II of Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions.) As the title suggests, Nussbaum regards compassion (or pity) as a prerequisite moral emotion for much of social life; and she believes that it must be learned. Moreover, literature, drama, and history can be crucial components of that learning.

Tragedy, as ancient Athenian culture saw it, is not for the very young; and it is not just for the young. Mature people always need to expand their experience and to reinforce their grasp on central ethical truths. To the young adolescent who is preparing to take a place in the city, however, tragedy has a special significance. Such a spectator is learning pity in the process. (39)

If we believe that the ability to imagine the ills of another with vivid sympathy is an important part of being a good person, then we will want to follow Rousseau in giving support to procedures by which this ability is taught. Much of this will and should be done privately, in families. But every society employs and teaches ideals of the citizen, and of good civic judgment, in many ways; and there are some concrete practical strategies that will in fact support an education in compassion. (50)

Nussbaum approaches the topic of pity or compassion through the story of Philoctetes, as related by Sophocles. She finds that Sophocles provides a nuanced and reflective demonstration of the emotion, within the context of a complicated social story. The value of literature in exploring moral concepts has been a strength of Nussbaum’s approach to moral philosophy for a long time, and its use here is illuminating.

Nussbaum rejects the Humean view that emotions are the contrary of reason, knowledge, or deliberation; instead, she argues that at least some emotions, like pity and compassion, embrace both representation of the world and affective response to the world. Compassion is a crucial part of inter-personal knowledge: “compassion, in the philosophical tradition, is a central bridge between the individual and the community; it is conceived of as our species’ way of hooking the interests of others to our own personal goods” (28). Further, “compassion is a certain sort of reasoning” (29). And “all compassion is “rational” in the descriptive sense in which that term is frequently used—that is, not merely impulsive, but involving thought or belief” (30-31).

Here is the analysis of pity or compassion that Nussbaum attributes to Aristotle:

Pity, Aristotle argues, is a painful emotion directed at another person’s misfortune or suffering (Rhet. 1385bl3ff.). It requires and rests on three beliefs: (1) the belief that the suffering is serious rather than trivial; (2) the belief that the suffering was not caused primarily by the person’s own culpable actions; and (3) the belief that the pitier’s own possibilities are similar to those of the sufferer. Each of these seems to be necessary for the emotion, and they seem to be jointly sufficient. (31)

Nussbaum does not explicitly draw the connection between compassion and evil here that I believe is crucial — in fact, she does not explicitly discuss “evil” in either of these works — but the tie is straightforward. One fails utterly to understand the Holodomor or the killing pits of Poland or the Cathar Crusade if one fails to imagine the pain, suffering, and loss that each of these historical events involved, for millions of human beings. (Nussbaum refers to this particular form of moral blindness in her treatment of Emile in Upheavals; 322.) And, conversely, if one has a strongly developed capacity for the moral emotion of compassion, it is hard to see how he or she could consent to playing the role of an Eichmann or a Stangl. Here is a relevant comment by Nussbaum in the context of the dehumanization of the victims so often observed in the Holocaust and other instances of genocidal conduct:

This fact explains why so frequently those who wish to withhold pity and to teach others to do so portray the sufferers as altogether dissimilar in kind and in possibility. In The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg shows how pervasively Nazi talk of Jews, in connection with their murder, portrayed them as nonhuman: either as beings of a remote animal kind, such as insects or vermin, or as inanimate objects, “cargo” to be transported. (35)

Nussbaum refers in Upheavals of Thought to other demeaning and dehumanizing mechanisms through which committers of atrocities reconcile their actions — for example, by portraying the victims as unclean and disgusting. “Thus the Germans forged the will to carry out the atrocities”(Upheavals, 348).

To what extent are our moral sensibilities subject to growth, education, and development? Like Susan Neiman (link), Nussbaum draws a connection to Rousseau and his treatment of the emotion of pity in Emile. She finds that Rousseau’s analysis of this moral emotion captures the fullness of reasoning and affect that she has described; and, crucially, she finds that Rousseau believes that compassion must be learned:

If Emile really does the cognitive work, if his imagination really contains the thoughts of pity, with all their evaluative material, in such a way that they become part of his cognitive makeup and his motivations for action, then he has pity whether he experiences this or that tug in his stomach or not. No such particular bodily feeling is necessary. To determine whether Emile has pity, we look for the evidence of a certain sort of thought and imagination, in what he says, and in what he does. (38)

And in Upheavals she returns to Rousseau:

I think that this, indeed, was Rousseau’s idea, when he said that Émile would learn compassion without hierarchy if his teacher taught him to focus on the common vulnerability of all human beings. “Thus from our weakness,” he concludes, “our fragile happiness is born.” Surrendering omnipotence is essential to compassion, and a broad compassion for one’s fellow citizens is essential to a decent society. (350)

Moreover, Nussbaum believes that the “teachability” of compassion is important: human beings and human cultures can improve their capacity for compassion through reflective experience.

If we believe that the ability to imagine the ills of another with vivid sympathy is an important part of being a good person, then we will want to follow Rousseau in giving support to procedures by which this ability is taught. Much of this will and should be done privately, in families. But every society employs and teaches ideals of the citizen, and of good civic judgment, in many ways; and there are some concrete practical strategies that will in fact support an education in compassion. (50)

Nussbaum believes that immersion in literature can assist with this learning. But I think she would agree with the idea that a close and honest reading of historians like Tim Snyder, Primo Levi, or Alexandr Solzhenitsyn can help with this form of moral development as well.

So several things seem clear. Compassion is crucial for recognizing the evil of the twentieth century; further, we can deepen our capacity for compassion by honestly confronting the atrocities of the period; and — just possibly — our future history will be better than our past because of this honesty. And Rousseau’s comments about compassion in Emile suggest another possibility as well: that we become different people, and our culture becomes a different culture, through this kind of immersive experience.

Organizational evil

image: IG Farben headquarters

A number of posts have confronted the historical realities of atrocities, genocide, and cruelty on a massive scale. The general question tying these discussions together has to do with individual human beings: “How could a normal human being with normal social emotions commit these atrocious acts?” And the individual question can be posed at a variety of levels of activity — the “ordinary men” whom Christopher Browning considers in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland who directly killed thousands of men, women, and children; the mid-level commanders who did not themselves conduct the killings but ordered and organized them; the bureaucrats like Eichmann or Speer who oversaw the massive organizations needed to carry out mass genocide; and the dictators like Hitler and Stalin who deliberately ordered these actions. Concerning each of these men (and occasionally women) we can ask the question, “how could they have done this?”. This is a good question, and one that needs serious and extended study.

But there is another dimension of the evil of genocide: the role that organizations play in carrying out mass acts of atrocity against the innocent. Armies, governments, corporations, religious orders — organizations at many levels of scope were an essential part of the evils of the twentieth century. So it is important to ask the question of evil about organizations as well as about individuals; and the remedies we might consider are not likely to be the same. For example, it might have been effective in attempting to quell murderous ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to attempt to trigger the impulses of compassion, pity, and fellow feeling among the ordinary people whom Michael Mann describes in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing who were readily recruited into killing teams and paramilitary groups that carried out murderous ethnic cleansing of Muslim neighbors; but this strategy is patently impossible with regard to organizations. Organizations do not feel sympathy, pity, or fellow feeling; rather, they carry out the tasks that have been set for them without moral appraisal. Organizations aren’t persons; there is no essential “humanity” in an organization. Organizations are more like machines than they are like individual human beings.

There is a field of research in organizational studies that is dedicated to the examination of “organizational evil,” and much of the content of this field is represented in the very interesting and challenging book edited by Carole Jurkiewicz, The Foundations of Organizational Evil. Jurkiewicz describes the concept of organizational evil in these terms in chapter 1 of the volume:

“Organizational evil” is used here to signify the institutionalization of a set of principles whose purpose is knowingly to harm individuals, with disregard for consequences beyond those that would cause immediate repercussions to the evil-doer. Whereas unethical behavior is episodic and individualistic in nature, evil is systemic and embedded in the culture of the organization. Programs, policies, practices, reward systems, hiring and training, external and internal relations—all are designed with the intention to seek immediate advantage through the deliberate harm of others.

It is noteworthy that contributors to this field are somewhat beguiled by the analogy between individual human beings and “corporate individuals”. This analogy shows up in several forms in the volume, including the application of Kohlberg’s theory of stages of moral development and the application of individual-level theories of psychopathology and the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to organizations. Both analogies are put forward in Chapter 1. For example: 

While the original research was focused on the individual level, it can be extrapolated to the organizational level as well being that organizations are defined as legal persons, as addressed later in this chapter. (chapter 1)

This is a surprising lapse, given the reality that organizations are fundamentally different from individuals in their forms of intentionality, purposiveness, and normativity (link). In particular, the Kohlberg theory of stages of moral reasoning seems to have no real relevance to corporate “persons”.

More convincing is the analysis that Jurkiewicz and Grossman give of the influence that organizations wield on the motivations, emotions, and behavior of the individuals who work within them. The “normalization” of killing documented by Christopher Browning is a relevant example: the validation by the organization and its leaders of the atrocious actions of killing the innocent offers participants part of the motivation needed to carry out their horrific tasks. Jurkiewicz and Grossman put the point in these terms:

As employees identify with the organization, a stable social system develops that perpetuates the culture while, at the same time, being defined by it. The stronger the culture, the more deeply employees share the value system, the greater the employee commitment, and the more willing employees are to submit to behavioral controls imposed by the organization. (chapter 1)

They also argue that, once established, a pattern of organizational imperatives to commit atrocities and compliance by subordinates creates a “leader-to-peer bonding” that makes further atrocity easier. They summarize this line of thought in these terms:

Organizational culture exerts powerful influence over individual behavior, because of both the reward structure and humans’ need to belong, but also significantly because the individual looks to those around him or her to determine what is right and what is wrong. (chapter 1)

Significantly, the authors emphasize that these dynamics can support “extreme evil” (killing squads) as well as more mundane forms of unethical organizational behavior (taking advantage of gullible elderly clients). 

In their contribution to the volume Guy Adams and Danny Balfour provide more detail about how organizations contribute to largescale evil-doing (“The Dynamics of Administrative Evil in Organizations”): 

What distinguishes administrative evil from other forms of evil is that its consequences are masked within the ethos of technical rationality. Ordinary people might simply be acting appropriately in their organizational role, just doing what is expected of them while participating in what a critical observer (usually well after the fact) would call evil. (chapter 2)

With diffuse and scattered information, literally no one in the organization might have a complete enough picture to adequately comprehend the destructive activity to try to reverse course. Those who have enough of a picture to perceive that something is wrong might well assume that higher management must be aware of the problem and has chosen to do nothing about it. (chapter 2).


While the psychological incentive to deny and cover up are clearly powerful, individuals in the organization have made a fundamental shift at the turning point from engaging in harmful or evil activities unknowingly to doing so knowingly. This has been termed the “evil turn” (Darley, 1996). It is evident that the incentives to cover up are socially powerful, if not indeed overwhelming, because it is widely known that a cover-up is highly unlikely to succeed and often results in the complete disclosure of the harmful or evil activities. (chapter 2)

These points all concern the social psychology, incentives, and motivation that exist for participants within an organization. 

As compliance accounts of human behavior suggest, social structures and organizational roles are far more powerful in shaping our behavior than we typically think. Within a culture of technical rationality, a model of professionalism that drives out ethics and moral reasoning offers all too fertile soil for administrative evil to emerge. (chapter 2)

But these authors do not appear to address the most fundamental question: are there features of organizations themselves that facilitate and encourage evil actions and policies in the world, quite apart from the intentions of the leaders of the organization? Are there organizational tendencies or dynamics that facilitate the capture of an organization by individuals or groups for evil purposes? Do evil-doers create organizations, or do organizations create evil-doers?

These points raise a number of important unanswered questions about organizations and the doing of evil. Do organizations sometimes create novel evils, or are they simply inexact tools for the goals of evil leaders and executives — transmission belts rather than motors? Do organizations amplify the willingness of individuals to engage in atrocious actions, or are they merely one relatively small source of influence on individual behavior? Does “organizational behavior” amount to more than an application of the Milgram results or the Stanford Prison Experiment results about the ways in which individual behavior is influenced by peers and authority figures (link)? Can we be at all precise about the role that organizations played in the carrying out of the Holocaust or the Holodomor? What is the connection between ordinary organizational functioning and the “banality of evil”? Are all organizations vulnerable to evil-doing, on a small scale or a large scale?

(See earlier posts on organizational culture and corruption for relevant material from Edgar Schein, Robert Klitgaard, and David Hess.)