Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Interpreting the Holocaust

Human history is a record of many things, but especially a record of the evil humanity has inflicted upon itself. With most of the misery and death about which I read in histories up to the 20th century, I empathize with the those who suffered, and my anger mounts in proportion to the heinousness of the crime. The atrocities perpetrated against the Jewish people, however, leaves a profound disquiet to settle over me. It's a sort of saddened fury that wells up in the face of a feeling of utter powerlessness. Perhaps because, 60+ years hence, I am powerless to do anything; or because I search for an answer about how I would  act in similar circumstances, but cannot find one.

The politically correct answer is that you would oppose the Nazis to your very last breath, or would have, had to lived in Germany during the 1930s or Europe during the 1940s. Many did at the time; though, given the scale of the Nazi program, obviously not enough. Wariness towards snap judgments is needed. The politically correct answer is also an intellectually naive answer. Moral uprightness can be confused with blindly presumptive self-righteousness, which is what condemnation pronounced from a comfortable distance of 60+ years very easily becomes.

Now a research team, beginning a number of years ago, has patiently documented evidence of more than 42,000 'ghettos, slave labour sites, concentration camps, and killing factories' established by the Nazis around Europe. Even people who study the Holocaust are surprised by the size of the number.

The number of locations represents between 15 and 20 million human lives cut short by policies directed at the purification of the German race. Approximately 2/3s of the total Jewish population of Europe, or 6 million persons, were slaughtered with extreme prejudice, in addition to a large number of others who did not meet Nazi standards of racial purity or physical excellence.

Though the number of Jews who died was less than 2/3 of the total number who died, the Holocaust is appropriately remembered as the Jewish Holocaust. The Nazi regime made it their specific goal to eliminate the Jewish people. Their greatest successes were in Poland, where almost 90% of the Jewish population was put to death.

What is surprising is that many are surprised the number of incarcerations sites is so large. Though we probably shouldn't be too surprised, as it speaks to a disconnect between the way things were, and the way we want to remember the past. How the story of the Third Reich is told gets mixed up with all kinds of other very immediate considerations. 

Following the Second World War, the question of wider German responsibility for Nazi atrocities has been raised time and again. Was the horror of the death camps the result of the actions of a few who had managed to gain control of government? What did the average German know at the time?

The question of German responsibility is a slippery one. The distinction one might be inclined to draw between tacit acceptance and active participation. If responsibility also entails guilt, does guilt accrue to tacit acceptance of a state of affairs like the mass incarceration and extermination of a significant portion of the population? What about acquiescence to the actions of others that is not merely acquiescence to the actions of citizens, but to the actions of a governing authority whose legitimacy rests on the fact that citizens elected them into office?

But questions like these distract from the blindly obvious. In his masterful Third Reich Trilogy, Richard Evans relates the content of a speech by Joseph Goebbels recorded and broadcast across Germany,
Germany at least does not intend to quail before this Jewish threat; rather, to meet it with the timely, if necessary total and most radical exter . . . [correcting himself] exclusion of Jewry! [loud applause, wild shouting, and laughter.]
The 'threat' was a shadowy (because non-existent) cabal of 'International Jewry' who were supposedly pulling the strings in Washington, London, and Moscow. Hitler seems not to have understood, or to have wilfully misunderstood, why England and the United States would enter the war against Germany. The only possible explanation in his mind was a Jewish conspiracy, which was already supposed to have control of Stalin in Moscow. Goebbels' not so innocent slip-up and the crowd's response is fairly good indication that everyone knew what was going on, at least, at some level.  Even if people had only ever witnessed the extradition of neighbours--better yet, because they had witnessed the extradition of neighbours, and afterwards looted newly-ownerless properties--everyone knew.

Now, I won't pretend to be a hero. The relatively pampered existence a North American lives is a wonderful antidote to development of heroic qualities. Watching superhero movies--as entertaining as they are, or because they are nothing more than entertainment--cannot change that. I won't fool myself into knowing exactly how I would respond in similar circumstances.

I do claim, however, to know what tragedy is. The Holocaust was a tragedy of immense proportions. It was a tragedy because people were led like lambs to the slaughter in service of the perverted ideal of racial purity. It was also tragedy because the entire Western world seems to have lost the moral compass to find its way home to humanity. Only after the War, when the Americans and the British came face to face with camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald and were forced to draw the obvious Nazi rhetoric with the reality of actions taken against the Jewish population, did it seem capable of gaining its bearings once more.

I do also claim to have a reasonable picture of why the tragedy occurred  By the end of the 19th century, a quasi-scientific theory of evolution was being applied across Europe and North America to the social. It stood to reason, some argued, if our physics builds us better guns, then our biology can build us better humans. These arguments gained a wide hearing.

The consequence of evolutionary arguments was that human beings were regarded as nothing more than animals, their bodies fodder for a super-race that would inevitably replace them. The very people who gifted Europe with the idea that the human being was more than an animal, was created in the image of a God who could not be imaged in the form of anything, were sacrificed in the pursuit of new gods that were nothing more than animal specimens of physical excellence.

And most everyone seems to have been blind to the obvious depravity of it all.


Tyler said...

All well said.

What bothers me most about the question - how many/who knew exactly what was happening in Germany/France/Austria/Poland...? - is the emotion it puts on the table.

Blame is one of the strangest phenomenons we exhibit. It's useful in a certain sense; when we know who did something we don't like, we can seclude them or reprimand or take action to avoid repetition. However our desire to extend the blame/avoid-blame focus of analysis well past the last day useful actions can arise from blaming is a strange misguidance.

What powerful emotions, blame and guilt. And what a strange relationship between the two. When a German friend reacts poorly to discussion of the Holocaust, are they feeling the distaste of enforced blame, or of received guilt? Or both? The limits of our language...

In any event, the problem set is strange: Many people are (i) unquestionably anti-Nazi; (ii) unquestionably anti-racism; (iii) entirely ready to acknowledge "Germany" is to blame; (iv) intensely uncomfortable with the idea that specific, even long dead, ordinary German individuals share in guilt.

I misspoke. Long past the last days effective actions can follow blame, the force of the acceptance of blame retains its capacity to heal. When I accept the collective blame for the collective evils of my community, I facilitate the reconciliation of all. The corollary of this, of course, is to say that refusal to accept blame when due facilitates bonding within the community and a sense of victimhood, ironically, within those alleged of sharing in guilt.

Only one of these serves any good.

But we could live in a world where once the effective actions that can follow blame are exhausted, the emotion we put first on the table is the desire to reconcile, rather than taking the circuitous route through the realm of blame and guilt. The long route is nice for many parts of life, but in this case, it's too easy to fork toward insularity when you start with the object of appropriating blame, rather than reconciliation.

Richard Greydanus said...

Let me try a medical metaphor out here. The standard Augustinian interpretation of evil is that it is parasitic on the good natures of things. The individual is supposed to 'repent' and turns away from evil actions as a purgative exercise, thus restoring their 'health'. In communities, however, the purgative exercise usually involves a different sort of turning--not necessarily repentance, but expulsion. We, as a community, turn away from X in order to protect the integrity of the community from X. According to the Mosaic Law, for example, the sins of the community are expiated by driving a 'scapegoat' into the desert.

Through the process of driving the scapegoat into the desert, it becomes very easy for a community to distantiate itself from its former actions. Indeed, if blame cannot be assigned to individuals, who can accept personal responsibility, turn, and repent, it gets lost in the amorphous mass of community, which is always purging itself of perceived 'infections', because they are a threat to the integrity of community.

The individual identifies themselves with the community, but reacts differently to charges of personal responsibility and to charges of communal responsibility. That's just the way of things.

Responding to your suggestion, the best example of which I can think for accepting the collective blame of the community comes from the Prophet Isaiah's Song of the Suffering Servant (ch. 53). The scapegoat motif is at play.

It's nice that the Suffering Servant takes on the sins of the community, of course, but what happens when the community refuses to let an individual stand in as their proxy? This is not an insignificant question, as it gets at the problematic heart of Jewish-Christian relations, and so, it also feeds into the evil perpetrated by Nazis against the Jewish people.

I'm not sure the problem is entirely soluble. In any case, I don't think you appreciate the spontaneity of emotions. We don't so much put emotions on the table, as they lead us around by a short leash. But I don't disagree with the idea that certain emotions need to be held in check.