Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Lessons of the Holocaust by Michael R. Marrus

Some of the discourse on lessons involves eloquent or rhetorically appropriate commentary. I have always appreciated the radical journalist I.F. Stone’s humane observation : “the lesson of the Holocaust is that to treat other human beings as less than human can lead to the furnaces,” but I do not hear it so much recently. I am less enthusiastic about the Canadian parliamentarian and human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler’s frequently declared ‘” the Holocaust is uniquely evil in its genocidal singularity,” the meaning of which escapes me. However, taken as a whole, the category of lessons is remarkably unclear. Part of the problem is that the lessons sometimes contradict each other. Some are predictive. A series of lessons include variations on the themes of Jews being “canaries in the coal mine.” Closely related is the claim that the lessons are universal and should be projected globally. From this comes lessons to the effect that “it” happened to Jews, but it could happen to anyone. Then, different lessons have been crafted that derive from different victims’ experiences. Some survivors, as we know, emerged crushed by brutality and indescribable cruelty; others accented small acts of kindness or selflessness that saved their lives. Contrasting lessons emerge from each group. Some readers of Holocaust history might derive from Daniel Jonah Goldhagen a lesson about incorrigible German “eliminationist” antisemitism. But admirers of author Daniel Mendleson’s finely crafted inquiry into the fate of his murdered relatives in wartime Poland might prefer what the author once told an interviewer for National Public Radio, namely that “anybody is capable of anything” – certainly the most capacious lesson of any I have encountered in my own reading.

To complicate matters, Holocaust lessons change as new problems arise and new generations consider its history. “The horizon is shifting,” I read in a blog produced by the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, “With it the role and reach of Holocaust organizations must inevitably evolve.” Maine’s Holocaust Center offers a “suite of free films, panels and workshops to discuss bullying and a related program of restorative justice,” pursuing its mission “to advance  the cause of ethical literacy.” This sounds like admirable work. But some might well be concerned with the way in which those who oversee such programs are increasingly detached from the Holocaust itself, the event from which they claim to take their inspiration . All the easier it is, therefore, to misinterpret, distort and even abandon the history of the Holocaust, the elements of which may seem too remote and to horrifying to pursue without an excessive investment of time and energy. And it is here where we need to underscore the variability of lessons.

This is perhaps best demonstrated through examples. Here are some of the most commonly articulated universal lessons that raise questions for which there are no conclusive answers. I stress that these are examples, hardly an exhaustive list.

The Holocaust as a school for tolerance

This is the explicit commitment of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, in which the main exhibit on the Holocaust is accompanied by a “Tolerancenter”, where “visitors focus on the major issues of intolerance in our daily lives.” I certainly have no quarrel with admirable objectives such as these.. To historians, neve-the less, the idea that “intolerance” or “prejudice is what the Holocaust is all about would be laughable if this were not  a serious matter, maintained seriously by men and women of obvious good will. Let us be clear: people in history have forever been “intolerant” and “prejudiced” by our twenty-first century, North American definitions, without necessarily slaughtering each other and committing genocide in a manner that practically defies belief for any society. The Holocaust is about mass killing, on a continental scale, of a particular group of victims, and not about intolerance and prejudice. Throughout history, societies have commonly stigmatized, exploited, brutalized, punished, and persecuted groups and individuals – and seen worse- without slaughtering them so obsessively or seeking to wipe them of the face of the earth – why and how did the barriers of law and custom and religion seem to collapse under the Third Reich and how did the German’s manage to organize killing on such a vast scale? Narrowing the Holocaust to an issue of intolerance and prejudice not only prompts a misunderstanding od such wrong-doing in our world today, it also misstates the significance of the event, the authority of which we are then borrowing disrespectfully.

It began with words

Public personalities who have called for restrictions on hate speech in the media and on the Internet have historically invoked the Holocaust with the claim that “it began with words,” suggesting that unfettered speech was a fundamental cause of the Holocaust, if not the fundamental cause. Again, demonizing others has unfortunately been common in many societies and for that matter exists in many parts of the world today, without the kind of genocidal massacres we associate with the Holocaust. While no one claims that the subject of antisemitism is unimportant for a study of Nazism, most historians would certainly challenge the idea that it paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power or that it mobilized Germans to a genocidal attack on Jews.

Some years ago, historian William Sheridan Allen summed up a consensus succinctly when he said that more Germans became anti-Semites because they became Nazis than became Nazis because they were anti-Semites. Then, too, claims about the salience of antisemitism dissolve when examined comparatively. Was German antisemitism, for example, any more widespread or venomous than, say, Polish or Hungarian or Romanian antisemitism? Probably not. And how would it compare, for that matter with Canadian antisemitism in the pre-war era? If you were situated in the 1890s and were told that one of the European states of the day would be responsible for a Holocaust, which would you chose? More often than not, anyone who knew anything about European antisemitism would probably select tsarist Russia. And after that , most certainly France. Germany would not be high on the list. So, why Germany?

All it takes for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing

There are few who believe that good men should “do nothing.” But “all it takes?” The slogan is all call for civil courage which that urges us to stand up, to speak against social justice but at the same time assumes a softened version of the Holocaust that is politically safe and even comforting because it involves no killers, only victims and witnesses. In any assessment of the rise of Nazis or the Holocaust it would also be an outrageous misstatement to claim that “good men did nothing” to oppose Nazism- or even, for that matter, to resist the Final Solution. Too few, certainly. Too late, as is so often the case in human affairs . But “all it takes’ and “do nothing”  hardly constitute a serious assessment. It is a childishly simple view of how genocide functions and slights the resistance that did occur to no effect whatsoever.

One person can make a difference

Arguably, the history of the daily lives of Jews under Nazism suggests precisely the opposite- how even the most resourceful, the bravest, those who were willing to hurl themselves against the machinery of destruction, more often than not failed even to slow the killing,. Coming from a religious discourse that may celebrate acts of goodness wherever they appear, this claim probably has more to do with our hunger for a redemptive messages than anything else.  It may gratify us to identify heroes who sacrificed themselves or who became martyrs to a good cause. But formulating such cases lessons of the Holocaust obscures the historical reality of wartime genocide and falsifies the situation that bystanders actually faced.

Siding with victims

“Indifference and inaction always means coming down on the side of the victimizer, never the victim.” Goes another familiar slogan.  There is a considerable historical discourse on what might have been done to rescue Jews during the Holocaust, and there are specialists in Holocaust lessons who relentlessly pursue long-gone actors, charging that they could and should have done more to save the victimized. Who could deny such assertions, in general terms at least? In hindsight, there few instances, and few individuals, for whom this is not true for virtually every human-made catastrophe – either in our personal lives or in public affairs. Afterwards, we can always identify how things might have been done better.

During the Second World War, when so few, including the victims themselves, grasped the reality of the Final Solution, and in the throes of a world-wide conflict of unimaginable destructiveness, people did not have the luxury to act as we might like to think we would act – and it is so easy to imagine them doing now. What is important if we want fully to understand is to assess the situation people faced with as clear-eyed judgment and as a full awareness of the evidence as possible. Disagreement about such things is inevitable and historians are by no means unanimous that, practically speaking, large numbers of Jews could have been saved from the Nazis’ implementation of mass murder and they also disagree on whether prioritizing rescue was a conceivable choice for decision makers involved in a desperate struggle against the Third Reich.

The strongest part of this argument has to do with the Depression years, when Allied immigration [policies turned increasingly towards restrictions in the late 1930s, following the Anschluss with Austria and the events of Kristallnacht.  Still, in country after country where policies towards Jews have been examined, historians have identified fierce opposition to opening the door to refugees in general, Jews in particular. Once the lethal machinery of destruction began to operate Jews were almost completely inaccessible to Allied rescue possibilities, and in any event such ‘humanitarian intervention,” as we came to call it in the 1990s, efforts on behalf of millions of people in wartime, was about as foreign an idea to Allied governments as modern-day human rights might be to nineteenth -century imperial powers. Such notions were generations in the future [which none-the-less refutes the notion that the WWII generation was ‘The Greatest’].

My quarrel is not necessarily with the probity of any of the purported lessons as as various people have drawn them. Some of these may be exemplary. The problem is not with intentions or goals quite true; many are often very well-intentioned, even exemplary; the problem is insufficient acquaintance with Holocaust history. . .  


Marrus's thesis is that more often than not 'lessons' come at the expense of history- they distort and trivialize what actually happened. He does it himself. I was fascinated, in particular by his rejection of Hannah Arendt's observation of Eichmann's representing the banality of evil which on the face of it, in consideration of the revelations of the Sesson interviews long after the trial, seems correct .(…/the-sessen-interviews-by-…)
Raul Hilberg himself rejected Arendt's characterization, as he reflected in the "Politics of Memory" thus:
"She did not recognize the magnitude of what this man had done with a small staff, overseeing and manipulating Jewish councils in various parts of Europe, attaching some of the remaining Jewish property in Germany, Austria, and Bohemia-Moravia, preparing anti-Jewish laws in satellite states, and arranging for the transportation of Jews to shooting sites and death camps. She did not discern the pathways that Eichmann had found in the thicket of the German administrative machine for his unprecedented actions. She did not grasp the dimension of his deeds. There was no "banality" in this "evil"."(…/politics-of-memory-by-rau…)
Yet later in the book, as if looking into the dark mirror of his own past, assembling his own cast of characters in
'Perpetrators Victims and Bystanders' he seems to have made a significant concession to Arendt's idea when he wrote:
" For me, the destruction of the Jews already was the setting, the irremovable reality, and within this extraordinary outburst I looked for all that was ordinary. I had done so from the beginning, when I dealt with everyday bureaucratic procedures, and now I was pursuing the same object as I examined the lives of people. In their daily routines, these individuals, like agencies, sought stability, particularly their own private equilibrium. It did not matter whether they were perpetrators, victims, of bystanders; they all manifested a need for continuity and balance.
The craving for the familiar, the habitual, the normal, emerged as a leitmotif wherever I looked. Psychologically this clinging was aimed at self-preservation, and its manifestation runs like a thread through the upheaval. At a basic level they provide an explanation of how these groups managed to go on - the perpetrators with their ever more drastic activities, the victims with their progressive deprivations, the bystanders with the increasing ambiguity and ambivalence of ther positions. When Sigmund Freud delivered a lecture about war during the first major conflagration of the twentieth century, he said that mankind needed a passing check from the burdens of civilization. What I began to note was the reverse side of this phenomena: the adhesion to time-honored products of this civilization in the midst of unprecedented destruction...."
So,the 'banality of evil' might be revised to 'the banality of tradition in evil times', no? And, might not Eichmann have exaggerated the enthusiasm with which he pursued the destruction of the Jews among his Nazis friends in Argentina in equal proportion to the way he downplayed them annd portrayed himself as an unthinking cog in an irresistible 'machine' when on trial in Jerusalem? He was just 'trying to fit in' in both cases, as far from enacting a Kierkegaardian existentialism as any of us really are and thus equally inept and banal before the 'ultimate', retrospective judgments of history?
So,isn't it true that the 'lessons of the Holocaust' are really the lessons,not of the Holocaust per se, but of all of History, an observation that can be made of "The Present Age', as Soren had it, a character of the 'eternal present' in all human affairs perhaps even during the most revolutionary of upheavals.So easy to see the evil gone by, so difficult to encompass their totality in our own time.

or,maybe,evil is what you don't see, the rest is 'go-along/get along'

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