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. 

Experiencing war, genocide, and totalitarianism (Tony Judt)

photo: Manès Sperber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporations and the Nazi regime

It is apparent, 90 years after the beginnings of the Nazi period, that large corporations played an important and lamentable role in Nazi power and administration, and the implementation of the atrocities of slave labor and mass murder. This is true for domestic German industries, like I.G. Farben and Siemens; and it appears to be true for some multinational companies with subsidiaries in Germany, including the major automobile companies such as General Motors and Ford Motor Company. In his important book Industry and Ideology: I. G. Farben in the Nazi Era Peter Hayes summarizes the involvement of I.G. Farben in these terms: “By 1943, the concern’s 334 plants and mines across Germany and occupied Europe were turning out more than 3 billion marks’ worth of goods and earning net profits of more than 0.5 billion. Nearly 50% of IG’s 330,000-person work force had come to consist of conscript or slave laborers, among whom were some of the perhaps 30,000 inmates of Auschwitz who eventually died in the company’s new factory and mines near the camp” (xxi-xxii). And one of its subsidiaries was the industrial source of Zyklon B, the extermination gas used to kill more than a million concentration camp victims.

There are two important questions to address here. First is the question of involvement and complicity itself: what was the extent of the involvement of major companies in the Nazi genocide and slave labor system, and were their executives and governors aware of the crimes to which their corporate resources were being devoted? This is an enormously important question, given that the likelihood of significant moral complicity in the crimes of the Nazi period by companies and large organizations. 

But the second question is, if anything, more important and more difficult. What were the features of corporate organization that led to knowing participation in these monstrous crimes by executives, leaders, and other operatives? Is this fundamentally the result of corporate and organizational dysfunction, beyond the reach of individuals within those organizations? Or is it possibly the indication of direct, personal evil-doing by executives, managers, and boards: a knowing and continuing engagement in evil relationships, leading to slave labor and mass murder, for the purpose of corporate business success and profitability? Were corporate leaders of industrial enterprises in Germany themselves fervent Nazis, committed to Hitler’s ideology? Consider Peter Hayes’ assessment of the question of ideological support by corporate leaders in the foreword to the new edition of Industry and Ideology: “Very few studies still posit enthusiasm for or even general acceptance of Nazi economic policy among the nation’s industrial and banking elite during the late 1930s” (x). Perhaps; but certainly there were committed Nazi supporters among German’s executive class, including Willy Heidinger, director of IBM’s German subsidiary Dehomag (mentioned below).

Rather than ideology, Hayes emphasizes “business rationality” as the motivating factor for business executives during the period. And he cautions that these same motivations may recur in many other contexts.

The amoral pragmatism and professionalism that propelled Farben’s executives dwell within all large-scale organizations, whether they be corporate or political, whether they seek to maximize power or profits, whether they claim to serve the individual, a class, or a race. These drives make Farben an instructive case study in the plasticity of private interests and the consequences of permitting any single-minded doctrine to grasp the levers of a state. Lest that point be lost and readers distance themselves too far and easily from Farben’s behavior, I have emphasized here the specious rationality of the concerns’s deeds and largely let the self-evident wickedness of some of them speak for itself. (xxvi)

Hayes argues that there was a parallel organizational motivation at work leading executives to conform their business practices to the will of the Nazi regime a kind of accommodating instrumental rationality:

No one who grapples henceforth with the role of industry in the initiation and intensification of the Nazi forced-labor system will be able to do without the terms devised by Lutz Budrass and Manfred Grieger to describe a “clandestine entrepreneurial ethic,” a “morality of efficiency,” that came to dominate industrial decision making during the war years more than concern for profit or fear of punishment. (xi-xii)

It would appear that this “morality of efficiency” involves a truncated worldview that looks something like this: “We make X (synthetic oil, punchcard machines, automobiles, …); our organizational goal is simply to design and manufacture these goods as efficiently as possible, without concerning ourselves about the uses that others will put them to (and perhaps without regard to the origin of the resources, including labor) that the regime puts at our disposal to facilitate the process”. A “morality of efficiency”, then, is a deliberate form of tunnel vision or myopia, in which the product and process are the sole object of attention, whereas the uses and intentions of the state are not.

Since 1998 there have been numerous investigations of corporate behavior during the Nazi period, stimulated by class-action lawsuits concerning liability for slave labor. These lawsuits have led a number of corporations to open their archives to independent historians for careful scrutiny. One of the fruits of this new wave of research on corporate behavior under Nazi dictatorship is a volume edited by Christopher Kobrak and Per Hansen, European Business, Dictatorship, and Political Risk, 1920-1945. The book confines itself largely to the question of the business environment created by the rise of the Nazi dictatorship and the power of Nazi party organizations in the control of industry, and its editors are cautious about offering normative judgments about corporate behavior during this period. (I will return to this point below.) Currency controls, direct government mandates, and attractive contracts with large German government agencies all served to create a distinctive business environment for multinational enterprises.

In particular, many of the contributors to the volume pay special attention to the degree to which companies doing business in Germany had latitude to make decisions steering their companies away from the increasingly clear goals of the Nazi regime. Mira Wilkins focuses on the separation of ownership and control that was a crucial organizational fact for numerous multinational corporations in this period:

Owners may not (and usually do not) have full control over managers. The principal-agent problem is multiplied many times over within MNEs. Information is asymmetrical. “Control” is always constrained, but in different manners. Increasingly, I find the concept of managerial control in a purely domestic context elusive, but far more so in an international one. Under dictatorship, rules and regulations limited the decision-making of outward and inward MNEs (and domestic enterprises) in varying degrees. Managers of an affiliate within the host country may understand, interpret, or follow the rules and regulations in accord with the parent company’s interests or with their own separate agenda. (23)

Here is Wilkins’ summary of the situation of multinational enterprises with subsidiaries in Germany in the 1930s:

Ford in Germany encountered a similar quandary. Sir Percival Perry, head of the British Ford company and until 1937 chairman of the board of the German Ford affiliate, sent Edsel Ford in the United States in 1933 numerous letters on German government interventions. “The Nationalist Socialist Party — Nazis — interfere with everything and although their interference is not exactly officially Government, yet it is political and very influential,” he reported in June 1933…. Like it or not (and many executives in IG Farben did not like it), IG Farben managers came to recognize that business and politics in Nazi Germany were closely bound. So, too, Ford officials realized that they had to take steps to adjust to certain political realities. What seems increasingly clear are the restraints on corporate choices and the differences that developed within individual MNEs between financial, legal, administrative, and operational strategies and structures. (26)

Wilkins does indeed describe a quandary: Ford (or Farben) would harm or even destroy its business in Germany if it refused to cooperate with German political imperatives. But some of those imperatives should have been refused nonetheless.

Lars Heide explores this “principal-agent” problem between parent and subsidiary in greater detail with regard to the example of IBM and its German subsidiary Dehomag. Heide argues that Dehomag, under the direction of the management of Willy Heidinger, had achieved almost complete autonomy with respect to IBM’s corporate management in the United States. Heide takes this evidence to refute the arguments made by Edwin Black in his controversial book about IBM during the German dictatorship. Heide argues that the US-based executives could do very little to control Heidinger’s decisions and actions. (Heide also documents that available research does not support Black’s claim that IBM punchcard technology was used by German authorities to identify Jews for deportation (171).)

While Heide argues that IBM’s US-based corporate leaders had little effective control over the IBM subsidiary, the company continued to profit from the business success of Dehomag in the Third Reich. Dehomag became “IBM’s most successful affiliate” (150), with a very extensive business involvement in the Nazi war machine. And Heide makes it clear that Heidinger was himself a vocal supporter of the Nazi dictatorship. The issue of control vs. ownership came up again in the case of IBM and Dehomag:

Simultaneously, the German campaign in May-June 1940 provoked pressure on IBM’s relation with its German subsidiary. The conquest of Benelux and France caused Thomas J. Watson of IBM to return a German decoration that he had received in Berlin in 1937 while Chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce working for appeasement with Nazi Germany. From June 1940, this act triggered a Heidinger Putsch to regain majority control of Dehomag, apparently supported by the German authorities. However, the IBM majority ownership was rescued by the introduction of enemy company custodianship when the U.S. entered the war. The custodianship gave Heidinger’s management free hands, which implied that he had regained his company but for the ownership. (168)

A note is needed concerning the stance the editors and contributors have taken towards the question of moral responsibility of corporations:

For a long time, business and other historians, working on the interwar period and dictatorships, have concentrated on the question of what business contributed to the rise of dictatorships and why. For understandable reasons, the ethical and moral questions have had a rather high priority. With a great deal of justification, there has been no shortage of condemnation of companies and business managers who profited from cooperating with the dictatorships of the interwar period. However, moral condemnation of historical actors and events is not really the role of historians. It is more important to try to understand what happened and why. Moreover, we want to extend the analysis of how this period affected the strategies and structures of modern business…. (x)

But contrary to this sentiment, I believe that the moral question is central for historians of this period: in what ways should the current generation hold business organizations of the past to account for egregious actions such as use of slave labor and facilitation of the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population? It is of course relevant to know the context of decision-making and latitude that was available to corporate decision-makers. But we also need to be very clear in our judgments of the business decisions that were made: some were perfectly legitimate business decisions, some were regrettable but understandable compromises with an almost impossible situation, and others were wholly unacceptable crimes. Is it too “present-ist” to maintain that multinational corporations like IBM, General Motors, or Ford should have ceased business operations altogether in Germany once Hitler’s crimes became apparent? 

Of interest in this context is a 1962 article by the progressive American historian Gabriel Kolko, “American Business and Germany” (link), published only a few years after the end of the Nazi regime. Kolko offers a detailed treatment of both the US business press and the business behavior of a number of major US corporations with respect to issues of war and dictatorship in the 1930s, and he finds that the “official views” of the business community (the business press) do not align closely with the actual behavior of US corporations. A key point in the article has to do with multinational cartels and agreements:

American business’ functional role in world affairs in the decade or so preceding the war found expression in cartel and contractual agreements between key American firms and German industry. The economic significance of the involved companies is much greater than their numbers. Although only twenty-six of them could be found among the top one hundred industrial corporations fo 1937, together these twenty-six accounted for over 60 per cent of the total assets of the hundred. More important, these corporations generally were the largest in their respective industries, and as such were price and policy leaders. (718)

He also makes several observations about I.G. Farben and its role within the Nazi dictatorship:

The existence of both the Nazi party and I.G. Farben was, from the point of view of the expansionist goals of both, a fortuitous coincidence. The United Steel Works had a strong Nazi group among its top executives, centered about Fritz Thyssen, from its inception. German industry was naturally extremely conservative and alarmed by the growing strength of the Social Democrats and Communists. The unification of I.G. Farben and the cartels with the Nazis was not forced by any means. When the Nazis came to power the essential cartel structure was maintained as the economy was divided into eight major national units, continued under the same leadership, and guided only insofar as unified national production and price policies were concerned. (718-719)

And further:

American companies not only knew of I.G.’s relationship to the Nazis, but to other American concerns as well. This was inevitable, for I.G. made a large number of exclusive agreements with American firms which bound companies not formal partners to their restrictions. Du Pont, to cite one case, was forced to recognize the agreements of I.G. and Union Carbide and Carbon in certain fields and to keep out of them. By making innumerable similar arrangements I.G. was able to prevent many major American chemical and metal firms from following independent commercial and development policies and building the productive facilities which were later to become vital to the prosecution of the war…. It is almost superfluous to point out that the motives of the American firms bound to contracts with German concerns were not pro-Nazi, whatever else they may have been. The arrangements with German firms were stimulated by a fear of international price and market competition and a desire for predictable economic conditions as a basis for business planning. (720)

Kolko concludes the article with these lines:

In their public relations roles the large American corporations inextricably bound to German industry declared their sympathy for the public’s antagonism to strategic aid to Germany after 1936, but in their actual behavior these firms pursued a course whose dominant objective was to satisfy their private interests. The export philosophy of General Motors, the agreements for postwar re-establishment of cartel arrangements, the conscious disinterest in the political implications of strategic materials sales by Dow, Standard Oil, and others, suggest that the guiding values of business were distinctly class values. Such conflicts between the business community’s actions and the business press indicate the limited usefulness of considering only the business press and corporation press releases in attempting to evaluate the historic relationship of American business to foreign affairs. Equally important, the basic policies of large corporations on the international scene in the 1930s were motivated less by the attraction of new trade frontiers and markets than by their desire for the economic stabilization and predictability which only cartels and market agreements could create. The basis of such “anti-imperialism” by American business was not altruism, but its recognition that its aim of profits with stability could best be attained by international business solidarity. (728)

There is much more to be said about the conduct of corporations during the German dictatorship, and later posts will discuss some recent research on Daimler-Benz, General Motors, and other multinational corporations with respect to the use of slave labor and possible involvement in management of the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population.  

LaCapra on history, memory, and the Holocaust

Child’s drawing from barracks wall in Auschwitz

Dominick LaCapra’s History and Memory after Auschwitz (1998) is an important contribution to the topic of “history’s responsibility in front of the Holocaust”. His aim in this book, and elsewhere in many of his other writings, is to express his “conception of the relations among history, memory, ethics, and politics” (6). 

Here is an especially arresting sentence from the introduction:

I discuss Heinrich Himmler’s famous Posen speech of October 1943, addressed to upper-level SS officers, for it may be taken as the paradigmatic assertion of the sublimity and “glory” of extreme transgression and unheard-of excess in the Nazi treatment of Jews. Often such features are marginalized or downplayed in the emphasis on factors such as the banality of evil, the well-nigh inevitable consequences of totalization (or totalitarianism), the role of bureaucratic routine and cold duty, the inertial force of social pressure, the effects of depersonalizing and fragmented relations to the other, and the significance of a massive technological framework, instrumental rationality, and industrialized mass murder. (3)

LaCapra draws attention here to the striking contrast between these fairly ordinary causal factors often highlighted in discussions of the Holocaust and the “regression to barbarism” represented by much of the treatment of Jews and the insane “sublime elation” of Himmler’s speech.

LaCapra seeks to address the question of “uniqueness or comparability” of the Holocaust:

The more general point … is that the Holocaust was “unique” in a specific, nonnumerical, and noninvidious sense. In it an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression was crossed, and whenever that threshold or limit is crossed, something “unique” happens and the standard opposition between uniqueness and comparability is unsettled, thereby depriving comparatives (especially in terms of magnitude) of a common measure or foundation. (7)

This is a somewhat paradoxical-sounding statement, but it seems to make sense. The “killing fields” of Pol Pot were also unique, different from the Holocaust, horrific, and “an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression”. Each such crossing is “non-comparable”, in the sense that each demands its own sorrow, its own lack of comprehension, and its own determination that “never again” will we permit such violations. There is no common measure; each occurrence is evil in its own unique and horrific way.

LaCapra quotes Saul Friedlander on the topic of the uniqueness of the Nazi extermination of the Jews, including especially Friedlander’s view in Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe that “The Nazi regime attained what is, in my view, some sort of theoretical outer limit: one may envision an even larger number of victims and a technologically more efficient way of killing, but once a regime decides that groups, whatever the criteria may be, should be annihilated there and then and never be allowed to live on Earth, the ultimate has been achieved” (quoted in LaCapra, 26). LaCapra approves of this idea: “The essential consideration is that an outer limit was reached and that, once this limit is reached, something radically transgressive or incommensurable has occurred”. But he also fears that this perspective may “normalize” (banalize) the Holocaust “by prompting a dogmatic assertion of absolutes, a grim competition for first place in victimhood or the type of research into similarities and differences that easily becomes diversionary and pointless” (26).

Here is LaCapra’s considered judgment about how to understand the uniqueness and generalizability of the Holocaust:

I would change metaphors and note the role of a tragic grid that achieved a paramount place in the Holocaust but in other ways is also evident elsewhere in history. It is the grid that locks together perpetrator, collaborator, victim, bystander, and resister, and that also threatens to encompass the secondary witness and historian. A goal of working-through should be the better understanding of this grid and the attempt to overcome it toward a more desirable network of relations. (40-41)

And what about the historian in this tragic grid?

The historian must work out a subject-position in negotiating transference and coming to terms with his or her implication in the tragic grid of participant-positions. The conventional stance for the historian is often closest to that of the innocent bystander or onlooker. But this safe position is particularly questionable in the case of the Holocaust and other extreme or limit-events. (41)

Working through the past in any desirable fashion would thus be a process (not an accomplished state) and involve not definitive closure or full self-possession but a recurrent yet variable attempt to relate accurate, critical memory-work to the requirements of desirable action in the present. (42)

One thing that is especially noteworthy about LaCapra’s approach to the topic of history, memory, and trauma is his use of some basic ideas from psychoanalysis. This is an approach that is somewhat foreign to the ideas that analytic philosophers bring to the philosophy of history, but it seems especially relevant to the question of how to confront the evils of the twentieth century. Here is a very interesting description of how LaCapra treats psychoanalysis as a tool of inquiry in history:

My basic premise in this chapter is that the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis (such as transference, resistance, denial, repression, acting-out, and working-through) undercut the binary opposition between the individual and society, and their application to individual or collective phenomena is a matter of informed argument and research…. One should rather call into question the very idea that one is working with a more or less flimsy analogy between the individual and society and argue instead that there is nothing intrinsically “individual” about such concepts as repression and working-through. These concepts refer to processes that always involve modes of interaction, mutual reinforcement, conflict, censorship, orientation toward others, and so forth, and their relative individual or collective status should not be prejudged. (43)

This perspective makes sense in two different ways in the setting the history of the Holocaust or the Holodomor — first, as a means of making sense of the thoughts and actions of perpetrators and victims (for example, in the lengthy Posen speech of Himmler’s that LaCapra treats in detail); and second, as a way of addressing the historian’s own blindspots, aversions, and rationalizations in the telling of the story. The second part of the passage following the ellipsis captures very well the situation of “collective memory” and historians’ collective efforts to uncover a narrative of a complex and horrific period.

This is a good place to draw attention to the current crisis in Holocaust historiography in Poland occasioned by the libel suit successfully pursued against Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking for entirely legitimate assertions they made in Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland (published in 2018, not yet available in English translation) (link). Their work is based on thorough historical research, and aligns with the moral necessity of facing unhappy truths honestly through historical inquiry. Like Jan Gross two decades before (link), their work honestly confronts the involvement of ordinary Polish people in the murder of Poland’s Jews. The government-backed insistence on “historical research supporting the national dignity of Poland” is entirely inimical towards history, truth, and memory, and is rightly opposed by historians and writers throughout the world.

Compassion and the moral emotions (Nussbaum)

image: Philoctetes injured on Lemnos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in Upheavals she returns to Rousseau:

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

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

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

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

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

Evil and the history of philosophy (Neiman)

As recent posts suggest, I am interested in finding appropriate ways of rethinking the philosophy of history so as to provide us with greater ability to confront the evils of the twentieth century. This involves some concrete questions about how we as human beings define ourselves in the world, in light of the histories our predecessors and contemporaries have created. How should human beings of the twenty-first century relate to the evil events of the twentieth century? And how can humanity grow from confronting this history honestly? I hope to address these questions through the idea that human beings can learn compassion and evil from history, and we human beings can change as a result. The idea is that reflecting upon the history of the Holocaust or the Holodomor seriously and honestly has the potential of changing our natures, making these crimes less likely in the future. 

Susan Neiman offers an abstract and philosophical treatment of evil in Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (2002). (Fred Rush provides a highly thoughtful and detailed review of the book here.) Neiman describes her goals in the book in these terms:

This book traces changes that have occurred in our understanding of the self and its place in the world from the early Enlightenment to the late twentieth century. Taking intellectual reactions to Lisbon and Auschwitz as central poles of inquiry is a way of locating the beginning and end of the modern. (introduction)

The subtitle of her book is meaningful: “an alternative history of philosophy”. She wants to understand how philosophy changed its content by progressing from making sense of the Lisbon earthquake to making sense of the Holocaust. Plainly, her book is more about how philosophers have reacted to “evil” events in general terms, and less about the nature of those events themselves, or their perpetrators. (Indeed, there was no human perpetrator in the Lisbon earthquake.) Like John Kekes (link), she rejects the idea that the problem of evil is largely an issue for theology. But her interest is in philosophy, and how philosophers have conceptualized evil. “My interest is, rather, to explore what changes in our understanding of the problem of evil reveal about changes in our understanding of ourselves, and of our place in the world” (kl 264). And she proposes a novel way of classifying philosophers in the history of philosophy — not as rationalist vs. empiricist, and not primarily driven by epistemology and skepticism; but rather over their fundamental positions on the moral nature of the world: “is there another, better, truer order than the one we experience, or are the facts with which our senses confront us all that there is? Is reality exhausted by what is, or does it leave room for all that could be?” (kl 264). With this way of sorting philosophical approaches, Neiman finds justification in holding that the evolution of western philosophy is driven by the fact of indigestible evil in the world.

Here are the main premises of her argument:

1. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophy was guided by the problem of evil.

2. The problem of evil can be expressed in theological or secular terms, but it is fundamentally a problem about the intelligibility of the world as a whole.

3. The distinction between natural and moral evils is itself a historical one that developed in the course of the debate.

4. Two kinds of standpoint can be traced from the early Enlightenment to the present day, regardless of what sort of evil is in question, and each is guided more by ethical than by epistemological concerns. (introduction. kl 199)

Here is a fairly concise statement of her view of the relationship between the projects of European philosophy and evil:

Since I do not think an intrinsic property of evil can be defined, I am, rather, concerned with tracing what evil does to us. If designating something as evil is a way of marking the fact that it shatters our trust in the world, it’s that effect, more than the cause, which I want to examine. It should follow that I have even less intention of solving the problem of evil than I do of defining evil itself. My interest is, rather, to explore what changes in our understanding of the problem of evil reveal about changes in our understanding of ourselves, and of our place in the world. (kl 244)

I have called this an alternative history of philosophy because its aims are as different as its style and methods. One aim, in the felicitous expression of an anonymous reader, is to reorient the discipline to the real roots of philosophical questioning. I am grateful for the metaphor, which allows me to argue that, in some form or other, the problem of evil is the root from which modern philosophy springs. Once brought to life, philosophical discourse can grow on its own, and its branches may extend or tangle in all directions. Thus entire schools of thought could develop that have little to do with the questions raised here. (kl 290)

Though her primary interest is in developing the “alternative history of philosophy” that she presents, Neiman offers a view of the Holocaust and Auschwitz at a number of points in the book. She describes the atrocities of Auschwitz and Nazi extermination policies:

What occurred in Nazi death camps was so absolutely evil that, like no other event in human history, it defies human capacities for understanding. (kl 118)

Auschwitz, by contrast, stands for all that is meant when we use the word evil today: absolute wrongdoing that leaves no room for account or expiation. (kl 154)

And she provides an extended discussion of Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann in the final portion of the book.

But even here, her interest is less about “what happened?” and “how should we make sense of this episode of human history?” than about how twentieth-century philosophers sought to incorporate this specific and complex evil into their moral reckonings of the world — the “metaphysics” of evil rather than its practical importance in how we conceive of our lives. So it is fair to ask whether Neiman’s approach has much to contribute to these more the more concrete and experiential questions outlined above. But interestingly enough, Neiman’s book does have something to say about this idea. Specifically, Neiman’s treatment of Rousseau emphasizes Rousseau’s view of the malleability of human nature and emotions such as compassion. Neiman holds that this is a crucial part of Rousseau’s approach to the situation of evil in the world as well; in fact, she maintains that it is the feature of Rousseau’s philosophy that made him the “Newton” of the mind, according to Kant.

For Rousseau, both the problem of evil and its solution depend on the idea that evil developed over time. This assumes, in turn, that human beings develop over time, both as species and individual beings. Human nature has been altered…. For Rousseau, by contrast, human nature itself has a history. Our choices affect it.

History is the right kind of category to introduce because it enables us to understand the world and gives us hope for changing it. History leaves space between necessity and accident, making actions intelligible without being determined. If the introduction of evil was necessary, we can be saved only by a miracle. If it was an accident, then the world, where it matters, makes no sense. History, by contrast, is dynamic. If evil was introduced into the world, then it might also be eradicated—as long as its development is not fundamentally mysterious. After Rousseau, we need not deny the reality of evil. We can, rather, incorporate it into a world whose intelligibility is expanding. Exploring evil as historical phenomenon becomes part of our efforts to make the world more comprehensible in theory, and more acceptable in practice. (kl 862)

These are suggestive ideas for the experiential questions, because they point to the fundamental malleability of human culture and morality. Human nature and history are reciprocally intertwined. And this in turn suggests the possibility of the kind of “self-positing” and learning from history that seems most relevant to the approach to evil I want to take when it comes to bringing historical understanding into productive conversation with the extreme evils and atrocities of the twentieth-century.

It is clear that Evil in Modern Thought presents a radical thesis in intellectual history. Neiman argues that philosophers have quite fundamentally misunderstood the driving questions of their traditions: not epistemology, not metaphysics, but theodicy; not the question of how we know about our position in the natural world, or what is the nature of the world we inhabit; but rather, how can nature, humanity, and a benevolent god conspire to create such vast and incomprehensible suffering? Is this reorientation convincing? I find her arguments interesting and thought-provoking, but ultimately unconvincing. Her position is unconvincing, most fundamentally, because it is categorical. Neiman suggests an “either-or” interpretation of the driving questions of philosophy. This seems in the end to be too simple to accommodate the patchwork and plurality of questions, themes, and frameworks that have stimulated the development of various tributaries of European traditions in philosophy. 

More narrowly, Neiman’s point of view is only glancingly relevant to the most pressing question: how should we as human beings respond and change as a result of honest encounter with the facts of the Holocaust, Holodomor, genocide, torture, and enslavement? Here is an allegorical effort to begin to answer this question through an act of imagination (link). And here is a discussion of literary efforts by veterans of the Great War to make sense of their experiences through poetry and narrative (link).