Striving for consensus in Nazi Germany?

Nathan Stoltzfus’s Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany has a remarkable and startling thesis: though the Nazi regime used absolutely unconstrained violence and coercion in its conquest, domination, and annihilation of its enemies (Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, the USSR), its approach to ruling Germany was strikingly different. Stoltzfus maintains that Hitler and the Nazi regime sought to cultivate broad support among Germans for its war and extermination aims, while building a strong consensus around ideology and values in the German homeland.

Except for a tiny fraction of the population, consisting of Jews, political dissidents, social outsiders, and the congenitally “incurable,” National Socialism strove to bring all Germans into line with the thinking that they should be the master of others. The effort to extract the maximal effort of the people in conquering the continent and killing millions outright was conducted with concern for the “German-blooded” people. Nazi propaganda directed German women to become the mothers of the nation through appeals to love of Nazi leaders and heroes, as well as for their own children. The National Socialist People’s Welfare (NSV) was an enormous agency dedicated to benefiting productive, racially valuable Germans. kl 54

In fact, Stoltzfus suggests that post-war Germany has fallen for a myth of its own wartime history: the myth of a violent, coercive dictatorship that compelled the German people to carry out his evil purposes.

The Germans have earned high praise for facing the crimes of their past, showing more reluctant countries how to do it. Still today there are signs of a retrenchment among some historians, as well as in the official commemorations in Germany, in the comforting belief that Hitler ruled his own “race” of people by intimidation and terror more than by incentives and rewards, that the Gestapo crushed all opposition, and that the dictatorship set its course according to its ideology and proceeded in a straight path toward it, steamrolling any obstacles with brute force. kl 102

But according to Stoltzfus, this is a myth. On the homefront, Stoltzfus appears to argue, Hitler was a calculating politician, aiming at creating a supportive and contented public, rather than a ranting dictator using murder, torture, and imprisonment to coerce his nation to his goals. And the German public was largely willing to support his policies.

Robert Gellately makes a similar case in Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.

Hitler wanted to create a dictatorship, but he also wanted the support of the people. The most important thing he could do to win them over was to solve the massive unemployment problem. Although it is clear that his regime beat the Great Depression faster than any of the Western democracies, it still took time.

The new regime made no bones about using coercion in many forms against its declared enemies, but it also sought the consent and support of the people at every turn. As I try to show in the book, consent and coercion were inextricably entwined throughout the history of the Third Reich, partly because most of the coercion and terror was used against specific individuals, minorities, and social groups for whom the people had little sympathy. (kl 195)

Thus, the Nazis did not act out of delusional or blind fanaticism in the beginning, but with their eyes wide open to the social and political realities around them. They developed their racist and repressive campaigns, by looking at German society, history, and traditions. The identification and treatment of political opponents and the persecution of social and racial outsiders illustrated the kind of populist dictatorship that developed under Hitler. (kl 264)

And Gellately argues that the German public was aware of many of the details of the violence of the secret police and the use of concentration camps and rejects the view that these facts were withheld from the German public:

This book challenges these views. It shows that a vast array of material on the police and the camps and various discriminatory campaigns was published in the media of the day. In the 1930s the regime made sure the concentration camps were reported in the press, held them up for praise, and proudly let it be known that the men and women in the camps were confined without trial on the orders of the police. kl 299

The most compelling evidence of this interpretation of Hitler’s populist dictatorship, for Stoltzfus, is the fact that there were occasional signs of public disapproval of Nazi actions, including resistance by Germany’s churches to euthanasia, protests against imprisonment of Jewish husbands of non-Jewish wives, and public protests over other issues; and the Nazi regime sought to change its behavior to conform better to the expectations of the public. These are the compromises in the title of Stoltzfus’s book.

During 1943 as well, Hitler preferred to appease rather than repress two spectacular street protests by women, even as the People’s Court increased sentences for treason. By mid-1943, complaints and jokes about the regime leaders were so prevalent that prosecutors thought that singling one person out for punishment on such an offense was untenable, and the SD was concerned about an inner collapse on the home front. kl 512

Taken separately, each instance of regime compromise might be explained as an exception that it made for specific sectors of Germans: workers, the churches, women. Taken together, the various cases of the dictatorship’s willingness to compromise in ruling the people illuminate a pattern of response to social dissent, regardless of which group was dissenting. The regime’s willingness to make concessions to the working class in order to assuage its dissatisfactions is well documented.51 But it also preempted or ameliorated signs of sustained opposition in public by other social groups as well, an approach that is hardly surprising considering its earnest manipulation of demonstrations and rallies in an effort to influence opinion and “nationalize the people.” kl 566

In this respect, if Stoltzfus and Gellately are correct, the domestic dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin were radically different. Stalin treated the population of his nation as the enemies of socialism and of the regime, and his tools of control were entirely drawn from the war chest of arrest, terror, imprisonment, and murder. Soviet citizens were terrified into submission — with the partial exception of support for the “Great Patriotic War” and Comrade Stalin’s brilliant generalship. If there is such a thing as a “scale” of totalitarianism, this suggests that the Soviet Union under Stalin was a vastly more fully totalitarian state than the domestic Nazi state in Germany.

The reason this argument by Stoltzfus is especially important today is that it is not just about history — about Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Rather, it seems to suggest a playbook for contemporary “wannabe” autocrats and dictators, including a recent president of the United States. The strategy that Hitler pursued, according to Stoltzfus, was to put forward a compelling nationalist ideology affirming the German nation, a powerful and vitriolic racism against Jews and Slavs, and an assurance that “the leader” can achieve the national interest by leading the nation and waging merciless war against its racial enemies. This is the stuff of radical right-wing populism today. Stoltzfus appears to recognize this continuity:

While his dictatorship murdered millions in the name of ideology, Hitler managed the relationship with the Germans of the Reich in ways that place him among those whom scholars now identify as “soft” dictators, who prefer the tactics of persuasion, enticement, cooptation, and compromise to work their will. These scholars associate “soft” tactics with dictatorships of the twenty-first century by contrasting them in one fell swoop with caricatures so gross they characterize both Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes. kl 204

Had he not been aiming to reshape the Germans into a Nazi national community, with a new Nazi superego, Hitler could have relied more fully on terror. But he was convinced that the existing German mythos could only be replaced by edging it out with another ideology the people found acceptable. In Nazi practice, as Hitler foresaw it, force could be deployed to secure the people’s worldview once a majority was behind it, as he continued toward winning all but the fringe. kl 230

“Soft dictatorship” at home, with a willingness to compromise when public opinion appears to demand it, along with consistent planning and action in support of the underlying racist ideology — that is a very different understanding from the traditional view of Nazi dictatorship. And yet it is a worrisome illustration of the power that charismatic, malevolent leaders can exercise over a mass society.

Vasily Grossman on Treblinka

Vasily Grossman was an important Soviet writer and journalist from the 1930s through his death in 1964. He was a Ukrainian Jew born in 1905, and his mother died in a mass execution of Jews in Berdichev, Ukraine, in 1941. He was a man of the “bloodlands”, in Tim Snyder’s term. During World War II he became one of the best-respected war correspondents in the Soviet Union, and he accompanied the Red Army through many of the bloodiest battles of the war against Hitler, including the battles of Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin. He was also present with the Red Army at Babi Yar in Kiev in 1943. His writings under a totalitarian state and throughout the Holocaust present an unusual example of courage and independence in a time in which the forces of dictatorship and repression were supremely powerful across both Nazi and Soviet spheres. His greatest work was Life and Fate, a thousand-page novel aimed at expressing the human and political realities of the battle of Stalingrad. The novel was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988 and 1989 because of its supposed anti-Soviet tendencies, long after Grossman’s death.

After the Soviet victory at Stalingrad Grossman accompanied the Soviet 62nd Army into Poland, and was the first journalist to visit the site of the the recently-destroyed extermination camp of Treblinka in September 1944. Treblinka was a place specifically designed for mass murder, only sixty kilometers from Warsaw in Poland. Grossman’s 1944 documentary essay on Treblinka, “The Treblinka Hell” (link), is detailed, grim, and unblinking; it should be an essential element of our efforts to understand the realities of the Holocaust. Grossman’s article is one of the first extensive reports on the details of Nazi extermination of the Jews. It is brutally honest and explicit, and — unlike the preferred Soviet narrative — it is explicit in recognizing that this was an extermination camp for Jews, along with a small number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs. The article is a remarkable piece of documentary journalism and historical reportage. Further, as Zsuzsa Hetenyi notes in “Facts and Fiction in Vasily Grossman’s Prose” (link), the piece also has much of the narrative evocativeness and empathy that Grossman displays in his fiction writing. It is a powerful piece of contemporary witness reportage of the realities of the Shoah.

When capture by the Red Army appeared imminent, the Germans at Treblinka made every effort to destroy all the evidence of what had taken place there:

Early in the morning of July 23, the guards and SS men took a stiff drink and set to work to wipe out all trace of the camp. By nightfall all the inmates had been killed and buried. Only one man survived — Max Levit, a Warsaw carpenter, who was only wounded and lay beneath the bodies of his comrades until nightfall, when he crawled off into the forest. He told us how as he lay there at the bottom of the pit he heard a group of some thirty young lads singing a popular Soviet song, “Vast is my Native Land,” before being shot down; heard one of the boys cry out: “Stalin will avenge us!”; heard the boys’ leader, young Leib, who had been everyone’s favourite in the camp, scream after the first volley: “Panie Watchman, you didn’t kill me! Shoot again, please! Shoot again!” 373

Grossman and other Red Army investigators learned a great deal about the workings of the camp, including the names of the commander and many guards. Prisoners in Camp 1, the labor camp, received a food ration of 170-200 grams of bread — less than 530 calories, a starvation diet. Random murders by the guards were frequent, including murders of children. Conditions in Camp 1 were hellish. And yet Camp 2 was much, much worse. Camp 2 of Treblinka was a death camp. “Everything in this camp was adapted for death.” Train after train arrived in the camp every day, and no one departed. “For thirteen months or 396 days, the trains returned empty or loaded with sand; not a single one of those who were brought to Camp No. 2 ever returned.” And who were these people? “Who were the people brought here by the trainload? Mainly Jews, and to a lesser extent Poles and Gypsies” (377).

By the spring of 1942 almost the entire Jewish population of Poland, Germany and the western districts of Byelorussia had been rounded up in ghettos. Millions of Jewish workers, artisans, doctors, architects, engineers, teachers, art workers, and other professionals together with their wives and children, mothers and fathers lived in the ghettos of Warsaw, Radom, Czestochowa, Lublin, Bialystok, Grodno, and dozens of other smaller towns. In the Warsaw ghetto alone there were about 500,000 Jews. Confinement to the ghetto was evidently the first, preparatory stage of the Hitler plan for the extermination of the Jews. (377)

The trains that came to Treblinka from the West-European countries — France, Bulgaria, Austria and others — were another matter entirely. These people had not heard of Treblinka and up to the last minute they believed they were being sent to work. The Germans painted alluring pictures of the pleasures and conveniences of the new life awaiting the settlers. Some trains brought people who thought they were being taken to some neutral country. Victims of a gruesome hoax, they had paid the German authorities large sums of money for passports and foreign visas. (377)

Some of Grossman’s prose is haunting and poetic, and contributes to a more human understanding of the evil and grief of the Shoah —

Anything up to 20,000 people passed through Treblinka every day. Days when only six or seven thousand came out of the station building were considered wasted. The square was filled with people four and five times a day. And all of these thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people with the frightened, questioning eyes, all these young and old faces, these pretty dark-haired and fair-haired girls, the stooped and baldheaded old men, the timid youngsters — all of them merged into a single flood that swept away reason, human knowledge, maidenly love, childish wonder, the coughing of old men and the throbbing hearts of living human beings. (380)

Grossman goes through every step of the journey from disembarkment from the train to killing in the gas chamber, and the indignities and brutality — and murder — that occurred in between. The gas chambers at Treblinka made use of carbon monoxide generated by large engines to asphyxiate the victims, or pumps that evacuated the oxygen from the chamber, leading once again to asphyxiation.

Grossman reflects as a human being on this sequence of monstrous inhumanity:

Great is the power of humanity; humanity does not die until man dies. And when there comes a brief but terrifying period in history, a period in which the beast triumphs over man, to his last breath the man slain by the beast retains his strength of spirit, clarity of thought, and warmth of feeling. And the beast who slays the man remains a beast. In this immortal spiritual strength of human beings is a solemn martyrdom, the triumph of the dying man over the living beast. Therein, during the darkest days of 1942, lay the dawn of reason’s victory over bestial madness, of good over evil, light over darkness, of the power of progress over the power of reaction; an awesome dawn breaking over a field of blood and tears, an ocean of suffering, a dawn breaking amid the screams and cries of perishing mothers and infants, amid the death rattle of the aged. The beasts and the philosophy of the beasts foreshadowed the end of Europe, the end of the world; but people remained people. They did not accept the morals and laws of fascism, fighting with all the means at their disposal against them, fighting with their death as human beings. (389-390)

And how many were there of these innocent victims? Grossman tries to estimate the dead in different ways, based on the frequency of train arrivals and the capacity of the ten gas chambers. He estimates that three million men, women, and children were murdered at Treblinka in the 13 months of its operations. This is probably an over-estimate; the camp was not as efficient in killing as Grossman believed. The article on Treblinka published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum gives an estimate of 925,000 Jews and an unknown number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs (link). But whether three million victims or one million, Treblinka was a place of unspeakable evil.

And what about the guards and executioners? What was their psychology? Grossman has a view on this question as well, and it stands in counterpoint to Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil.

It must be noted here that these creatures were by no means robots who mechanically carried out the wishes of others. All witnesses speak of a trait common to all of them, namely, a fondness for theoretical argument, a predilection for philosophizing. All of them had a weakness for delivering speeches to the doomed people, for boasting in front of their victims and explaining the “lofty” meaning and “importance” for the future of what was being done in Treblinka. They were profoundly and sincerely convinced that they were doing the correct and necessary thing. They explained in detail the superiority of their race over all other races. (400)

Grossman describes the uprising at Treblinka, which, according to Grossman’s account, was surprisingly successful. Prisoners succeeded in burning much of the camp and killing some of the guards and executioners, and about 300 prisoners escaped. Most were subsequently tracked and killed, but about a third survived to tell their story. The mutiny and the German defeat at Stalingrad appear to have led to the Germans’ efforts at erasing Treblinka completely in 1943. Grossman reflects on the Nazi efforts at erasing Treblinka:

What was the object of all this destruction? Was it to hide the traces of the murder of millions of people in the hell of Treblinka? But how did they expect to do this? Did they really think it possible to force the thousands who had witnessed the death trains moving from all corners of Europe to the death conveyor to keep silent? Did they believe they could hide that deadly flame and the smoke which hung for eight months in the sky, visible by day and by night to the inhabitants of dozens of villages and small towns? Did they think they could make the peasants of the Wulka village forget the fearful shrieks of the women and children which lasted for thirteen long months and which seem to ring in their ears to this very day? (405)

The essay has moments of poetic transcendence. Here are Grossman’s words describing his own entrance into Treblinka as part of the Stalingrad Red Army:

We enter the camp. We are treading the soil of Treblinka. The lupine pods burst open at the slightest touch, burst open by themselves with a faint popping sound; millions of tiny peas roll on the ground… The earth ejects crushed bones, teeth, bits of paper and clothing; it refuses to keep its awful secret. These things emerge from the unhealed wounds in the earth. (406)

And here are the closing words of the article, Grossman’s own assessment of this great evil:

Every man and woman today is in duty bound to his conscience, to his son and his mother, to his country and to mankind to examine his heart and conscience and reply to the question: what is it that gave rise to racism, what can be done in order that Nazism, Hitlerism may never rise again, either on this or the other side of the ocean, never unto eternity.

The imperialist idea of national, race, or any other execeptionalism led the Hitlerites logically to Majdanek, Sobibor, Belzec, Oswiecim and Treblinka.

We must remember that racism, fascism will emerge from this war not only with bitter recollections of defeat but also with sweet memories of the ease with which it is possible to slaughter millions of defenseless people.

This must be solemnly borne in mind by all who value honour, liberty and the life of all nations, of all mankind. (408)

There is a strong moral voice in Grossman’s writings. Here Grossman tries to express why it is important to speak honestly about the facts of mass murder and genocide. He believes profoundly that the Holocaust, mass extermination, and totalitarianism must be confronted honestly and without fear.

It is the duty of a writer to tell the truth however gruelling, and the duty of the reader to learn the truth. To turn aside, or to close one’s eyes to the truth is to insult the memory of the dead. The person who does not learn the whole truth will never understand what kind of enemy, what sort of monster, our great Red Army is waging battle against to the death. (399)

Grossman is one of the most important and passionate contemporaneous observers of the Shoah (and the crimes of Stalinism as well), and his texts and novels demand our attention. In collaboration with Ilya Ehrenberg, Grossman compiled a massive set of documents offering witness to the crimes committed against the Jews, by the Nazis and by the Stalinists, in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry. The manuscript was complete by 1944, but characteristically, Soviet censors never permitted publication of the massive compilation. A Russian edition was published in Kiev in 1991.

Snyder’s big idea about genocide: state smashing

Tim Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning is an exceptional and innovative history of the Holocaust, and of the mass killings that occurred during the Second World War in the territories he refers to as the Bloodlands.

There are tormenting questions raised by the facts of the Holocaust and the deliberate killing of six million Jewish men, women, and children. Some of these questions are obvious, but Snyder argues that we haven’t asked the most important questions yet. We have not yet understood the Holocaust in the ways we need to if we are to honor the victims and prepare humanity for a future in which genocide does not recur.

The most difficult question is that of historical causation: what factors caused the massive genocide that occurred in 1941 and following years? The conventional answers to this question revolve around familiar factors: the aftermath of the First World War, the extensive realities of anti-Semitism, Hitler’s single-minded ideology, and the successful efforts by Germany to build a military and police apparatus that was very efficient in waging war and massacring vast civilian populations. But Snyder doesn’t believe that these conventional ideas are correct. They are all relevant factors in the rise and power of the Nazi regime, but they do not by themselves suffice to explain the ability of the regime to kill millions of innocent people in a matter of months.

The dominant stereotype of Nazi Germany is of an all-powerful state that catalogued, repressed, and then exterminated an entire class of its own citizens. This was not how the Nazis achieved the Holocaust, nor how they even thought about it. The enormous majority of the victims of the Holocaust were not German citizens; Jews who were German citizens were much more likely to survive than Jews who were citizens of states that the Germans destroyed. 337

Rather, Snyder argues that the most fundamental factor that facilitated the Holocaust was the “state smashing” that occurred through Nazi military aggression and Soviet occupation of many of the countries of Central Europe. Snyder refers to the “double occupation” that was part of the period of the 1930s and 1940s: occupation by the Soviet Union of the Baltic countries, the Ukraine, half of Poland, and much of the remainder of central Europe; and then the conquest of these same territories by German military and police forces, beginning in 1939 in the rapid conquest of Poland and in 1941 in the rapid military conquest of much of the territory between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, extending to the outskirts of Moscow.

Snyder puts forward a powerful thesis: the Holocaust and the annihilation of six million Jews resulted most importantly from the destruction of state institutions in the countries that were occupied by USSR and Nazi Germany. It was the destruction of state institutions, systems of law, and rules of citizenship that led to the mortal peril of Jews in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and parts of the Soviet Union itself. Hitler’s war on the Jews was the ideological driver of his policies. But his ability to carry out his plans of mass murder depended on the smashing of the states of the countries it attacked, defeated, and occupied. And in this destruction the Soviet Union and the NKVD had played a crucial role during the 1930s.

Why were state institutions so important? Not because they consistently came to the support of persecuted minorities. They were important rather because states establish systems of law, rights, and citizenship. And states establish institutions, bureaucracies, and judicial systems that preserve those rights of citizenship. States provided a basis for oppressed groups to defend themselves within the institutions and bureaucracies of the state. The experience of the attempt in Germany in the 1930s to remove citizenship rights from its own small Jewish population — less than 1% of the population — was illustrative: it took years to succeed. Statelessness was a crucial feature of the deadly vulnerability of the Jews of Eastern Europe.

The state stood at the middle of the story of those who wished to kill Jews, and of those who wished to save them. Its mutation within Germany after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and then its destruction in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in 1938 and 1939 transformed Jews from citizens into objects of exploitation. The double assault upon state institutions in the Baltic states and eastern Poland, at first by the Soviet Union in 1939 and 1940 and then by Nazi Germany in 1941, created the special field of experimentation where ideas of a Final Solution became the practice of mass murder. 320

Why did both Germany and the USSR undertake such deliberate efforts to destroy the states of the territories they occupied, and the political elites who had played roles in those states? Both Nazi and Soviet states sought to create absolute political dominion in the territories they controlled. This meant killing the “political elites” in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, … This motivation explains the Soviet atrocity of the massacre by the NKVD of over 20,000 Polish military officers at Katyn Forest in 1940; they sought to decapitate any possible Polish political alternative to Soviet rule in the portion of Poland they had occupied (Surviving Katyn: Stalin’s Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth). And it meant destroying the civic and political institutions of these states. Both Nazi and Soviet murder machines were entirely ruthless in killing potential sources of political opposition. Mass killings of civil servants, mayors, governors, judges, and politically engaged citizens occurred, first by the Soviets and the NKVD and then by the Nazi occupiers.

Snyder offers the case of Denmark as support for this position. Denmark too was occupied by Nazi forces, and the Nazi regime was interested in destroying Danish Jews. However, he argues that the survival of its political institutions made extermination of Denmark’s Jews impossible. Snyder discusses the efforts of Rudolf Mildner, Gestapo chief in Denmark, in attempting to carry out genocide against Denmark’s Jews. “He was confronted in Copenhagen with institutions that had been abolished further east: a sovereign state, political parties with convictions and support, local civil society in various forms, a police force that could not be expected to cooperate” (216). And when that citizenship protection failed, Jews in Denmark were killed. “The Jews who were denied state protection in Denmark shared the fate of Jews who lacked state protection in Estonia or, for that matter, everywhere else: death” (217).

Snyder argues that the bureaucracies of a modern state work to protect the individuals and groups who fall within their scope. “Citizenship in modern states means access to bureaucracy. Bureaucracy has the reputation of killing Jews; it would be closer to the truth to say that it was the removal of bureaucracy that killed Jews. So long as state sovereignty persisted, so did the limits and possibilities afforded by bureaucracy” (221).

This point is highly consequential for our reading of the nature of totalitarian murder. And in fact, Snyder believes that the centrality of “state smashing” in the Holocaust is the clue to preventing genocide in the future. We need to build and defend the institutions of law, judiciary, and citizenship; these institutions are the bulwark against horrifying atrocities in the future.

If we are serious about emulating rescuers, we should build in advance the structures that make it more likely that we would do so. Rescue, in this broad sense, thus requires a firm grasp of the ideas that challenged conventional politics and opened the way to an unprecedented crime. 320

Mass killings generally take place during civil wars or regime changes. It was the deliberate policy of Nazi Germany to artificially create conditions of state destruction and then steer the consequences towards Jews. Destroying states without such malign intentions produces more conventional disasters. 336

This concern by Snyder for the persistence of resilient institutions of state also helps explain the passion and seriousness he brings to his concerns about the degradation of the institutions of democracy that has occurred in the United States and Europe in the past decade (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century). It is not merely that we care about democracy; it is that the institutions of state are themselves the most important bulwark against atrocities directed against individuals and groups by the powerful. When Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, or Donald Trump work deliberately to undermine the judiciary, the institutions of voting, the citizenship rights of minority groups in Brazil, Hungary, or the US, these actions are not just undesirable in a generic sense. They are highly dangerous for the future. They leave the citizens of their states with diminishing protections against arbitrary power, violence, vilification, and sometimes murder.

Here are the closing lines of Black Earth:

Understanding the Holocaust is our chance, perhaps our last one, to preserve humanity. That is not enough for its victims. No accumulation of good, no matter how vast, undoes an evil; no rescue of the future, no matter how successful, undoes a murder in the past. Perhaps it is true that to save one life is to save the world. But the converse is not true: saving the world does not restore a single lost life. The family tree of that boy in Vienna, like that of all of the Jewish children born and unborn, has been sheared at the roots: “I the root was once the flower / under these dim tons my bower / comes the shearing of the thread / death saw wailing overhead.” The evil that was done to the Jews—to each Jewish child, woman, and man—cannot be undone. Yet it can be recorded, and it can be understood. Indeed, it must be understood so that its like can be prevented in the future. That must be enough for us and for those who, let us hope, shall follow. 343

Snyder has made a very important contribution to how we understand the genocide of the Holocaust, and how we can best strive to prevent such moments in the future.

(Here is a powerful piece of memory in music and video, for the tragedy of Babi Yar; link.)

Probing atrocity in Miropol

photo: execution site at Babi Yar, Kiev, Ukraine, September 1941

It is challenging to form a mental picture of the significance and reality of the events and enormity of the Holocaust. Many of the summary facts that we “know” about the Nazi plan for extermination of the Jewish people are both inadequate to capture the human meaning of this period, and misleading or inaccurate, as Tim Snyder argues (Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning). How can we gain a better and more personal understanding of these horrible events from the 1940s?

First-person accounts and oral histories represent one form of access to the realities of the mass killings that occurred across Europe, and especially in Eastern Europe. But an especially powerful recent book takes a somewhat different approach. This is Wendy Lower’s The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, a book that proceeds from a single photograph of a single instant of brutality and murder, and helps the reader develop an extensive understanding of the human realities that led to this moment. The photograph is taken in the midst of a mass killing outside the town of Miropol in the Ukraine in October, 1941. The Jews of Miropol were forced to walk into the forest, were gathered at a previously prepared shooting pit, and were murdered by rifle fire. The photograph is unusual in that it is at close range and captures identifiable faces of both the murderers (two German soldiers and two Ukrainian militiamen) and the victim, a mother holding a child by the hand as she is shot. Lower wants to understand the photograph in detail, and to learn the identities of the individuals involved.

Lower combines the skills of an experienced historian, a resourceful crime investigator, and a compassionate observer of family tragedy in a time of mass killing. Her goal is ambitious: she would like to uncover the identity of the victims in the photograph, the killers, the photographer, and the possibility of holding the responsible persons to account in the present. And she accomplishes much of this set of goals. She gains a great deal of detailed knowledge about the Ukrainian and German personnel who were present. She forms an educated guess about the family identity of the victims in the photograph. And she learns a great deal about the photographer. Along the way she provides enough detail about the context of German military and Final Solution activity in 1941 to give the reader a fairly good idea about how this event relates to the larger orchestrated Aktions against the Jews of Eastern Europe from 1941 to 1944 — the bulk of the killing during the Holocaust.

Miropol was a small town in occupied Ukraine in the fall of 1941. It is some 220 kilometers west of Kiev, the site of the massacre at Babi Yar in September 1941. In Miropol in October several hundred Jewish men, women, and children were exterminated by gunfire. This is the Aktion recorded in the photograph at the center of The Ravine. In Kiev only a few weeks earlier, the largest massacre of Jews in the Holocaust in the occupied Ukraine and Soviet territories occurred, involving the murder over a few days of over 34,000 human beings. In 1943 the Nazis made an effort to conceal the evidence of the massacre, and the Soviets concealed the fact that the victims were Jewish, preferring instead to refer to “Soviet civilians”. No memorial was created for the Jewish dead at Babi Yar until 1991, fifty years after the massacre. There appears to be no memorial for the Jewish dead at Miropol; the handful of photographs by Škrovina alone serve as memorial. But The Ravine represents a different kind of memorial. The reader comes away with a sober and human recognition of these many hundreds of innocent victims of murder, and the lives that were stolen from them.

Lower begins with this particular photograph — a photograph of several German soldiers and Ukrainian militia men in the act of shooting a Jewish mother holding a child at the edge of a burial pit. It is a haunting photograph. But Lower goes much beyond this particular photo, including archival evidence, more photographs, interviews with witnesses and participants, and records from both Nazi and Soviet sources. She is a resourceful, talented, and determined researcher, and her ability to unearth many of the details of this atrocity is continually surprising. She brings the skills and concentration of a forensic investigator to her work.

Especially interesting is Lower’s treatment of the role of photographs in this kind of investigation. She is very clear that photography is purposive and intentional. It is not generally a “flat representation of what occurred”; instead, the photographer has a story he or she in interested in discovering and telling. So photography is creative and “subjective”. And this proves to be true of the photographer of this particular image, a Slovak named Lubomir Škrovina, who had a narrative he was recording through a series of exposures. But at the same time, photographs prove to be a source of remarkable insight into the human realities of the moment captured in the negative — details that were invisible to the photographer. And Škrovina himself turns out to be different from how he first appears. Initially Lower takes him to be an accomplice or collaborator, but eventually discovers that he was a dissident and a supporter of the Slovak resistance movement, and was interested in recording the atrocities he witnesses under German occupation for the outside world. Lower writes of Škrovina as a moral human being and his subsequent actions during and after the war:

But being there certainly shaped his subsequent choices and the risks he undertook, which affected him and his family. He refused to stay on the front, feigned illness, spent months in a nerve clinic, then resumed contact with Jews in his town, including sheltering some in the attic of his family home. He helped Dr. Gotthilf secure a place in the forest with his comrades in the Slovak National Resistance, although Škrovina ultimately could not save him or his wife and child. Škrovina was antifascist and anti-Soviet. He had felt no pride wearing any government-issued uniform. He hated the war. (91)

Several specific and important insights emerge from Lower’s narrative. First is the importance of doing what we can to recognize and remember the individuals and families who were extinguished there. Lower’s point about the killing of families is especially poignant: fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, sons, and daughters, all destroyed. Second is the important reminder that Nazi violence was carried out by its allies in occupied countries — Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine — and that these armed groups and police units were merciless and remorseless towards their Jewish neighbors. What Lower uncovers at Miropol is a microcosm of Babi Yar.

Theodor Adorno once said that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But here is a good reason not to agree with Adorno. Consider the beautiful, sorrowful, and indicting poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961, Babi Yar. Yevtushenko helps us to mourn and recognize these children, women, and men who were murdered at Babi Yar. And he points a finger of accusation against the continuing anti-Semitism rampant in the Soviet Union in which he lived. Wendy Lower’s book is not poetry, but it is just as eloquent in its evocation of the human realities of this tragic moment in Miropol, and in the great expanse of the bloodlands of Eastern Europe.


Yevgeny Yevtushenko

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
        Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
                a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
The Philistine
                    is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
                    Beset on every side.
            spat on,

Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
                        a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
                            ‘Beat the Yids. Save Russia!’
Some grain-marketer beats up my mother.

O my Russian people!
                        I know
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites—
                                        without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
                    Anne Frank
                   as a branch in April.
And I love.
                  And have no need of phrases.
My need
                  is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
                               or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
                               we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much—
embrace each other in a darkened room.
They’re coming here?
                                Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
                                spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
                                Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
                                No, it’s the ice breaking . . .
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
                        like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
                            and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
                            turning grey.
And I myself
                    am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
                each old man
                        here shot dead.
I am
                every child
                    here shot dead.
Nothing in me
                    shall ever forget!
The ‘Internationale,’ let it
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
                        I am a true Russian!

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.

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. 

The Warsaw experience of Janina Bauman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again — memory, its importance, and its suppression.

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

*     *     *     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

Guest post by Izabela Wagner on Zygmunt Bauman

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

The Sociological Imagination of Zygmunt Bauman

By Izabela Wagner

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

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

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

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

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

1. Disciplinary context — sociology production conventions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sociological Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

How Bauman became Bauman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.