On Collective Guilt

Ruth_Andreas-TitelWe can’t leave the Holocaust alone. That might be a good thing if we had the courage to view it honestly. We don’t though. We insist that it’s a puzzle we continue to try to solve, ostensibly so that we will know where to place blame, and in that way also know how to ensure that it will never happen again. We refuse, however, to place blame where it really belongs and so we keep turning it over and over, searching for something we will never find.

Why the Germans? Why the Jews? are questions that Götz Aly takes up in a new book the title of which begins with these questions (Metropolitan Books, 2014). Aly’s theory, not particularly novel, is that the social and economic advances made possible for Jews in Germany as a result of a series of legal reforms in the various German states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made them objects of envy. “Not all Nazi voters,” acknowledges Christopher R. Browning in a review of Aly’s book, “were anti-Semitic, but they at least tolerated Nazi anti-Semitism” (“How Envy of Jews Lay Behind It,” The New York Review of Books, January 8, 2015).

“But how to explain,” Browning continues, “this ‘moral insensibility’ and ‘moral torpor’ of 1933-1944, which underpinned the ‘criminal collaboration’ between the German people and the Nazi regime?” The answer Aly offered first in Hitler’s Beneficiaries (Metropolitan Books, 2005), was material gain. Aly’s new work supplements the motive of material gain with a “new morality” involving race theory that would justify such collaboration.

Many Germans remained unconvinced, however, by the new race theory. Many Germans were, in fact, untroubled by the legal reforms that had made possible the flowering of the Jewish middle class. Many Germans had even championed these reforms.

What happened to those people?

The journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, who lived in Berlin during the war, gives us some insight into what happened to them in the diary she kept from 1938-1945. Initially, at least, they were not helping the Nazis. Her entry for Nov 10, 1938, the day after the infamous Kristallnacht,“ gives moving testament to that fact. At half past nine in the morning Andreas-Friedrich took a bus to her office. “The bus conductor looks at me,” she writes,

as if he had something important to say, but then just shakes his head, and looks away guiltily. My fellow passengers don’t look up at all. Everyone’s expression seems somehow to be asking forgiveness. The Kurfürstendamm is a sea of broken glass. At the corner of Fasanenstraße people are gathering–a mute mass looking in dismay at the synagogue, whose dome is hidden in a cloud of smoke.

            ‘A damn shame!’ a man beside me whispers … [W]e all feel that we are brothers as we sit here in the bus ready to die of shame. Brothers in shame; comrades in humiliation” (Berlin Underground 1938-1945 [Paragon House, 1989).

When she gets to the office, her editor, whom she observes, was “rumored to have a tinge of Nazism, ” says “one doesn’t dare look people in the eye anymore” (21).

“They’ve dragged all them all away–all the Jewish men they could get hold of,” begins her entry for the next day.

Only those who were warned in time have escaped the raid. Thank Heavens, a good many were warned. Hundreds managed to disappear at the houses of friends; hundreds sought shelter with strangers and found it. One little seamstress took in two Jewish fugitives; she didn’t even know their names or where they came from. Workingmen in the Frankfurter Allee brought back to the Jewish shop-owners the merchandise that was scattered over the street. They didn’t say a word, just tugged sheepishly at their caps. The chief surgeon of a hospital is hiding a wounded rabbi in the back room from the bloodhounds of the Gestapo.

            While the SS was raging, innumerable fellow Germans were ready to die of pity and shame” (p. 25).

The next line of the translation reads “Almost all our friends have people quartered on them.” If one goes to the original German edition of the diaries, however, the text continues

Women are dashing about the city today with mysterious bundles under their arms, meeting one another on street corners: Shaving articles for Doctor Weißmann. A clean shirt for Fritz Levy, night things for Jochen Cohn. One tries, as much as possible, to look after those in hiding. It isn’t advisable for them to come out of hiding yet. What happened yesterday could continue today (Der Schattenmann [The Shadow Man], Suhrkamp, 2nd ed. 2012, p. 38).

Then comes the line “Almost all our friends have people quartered on them.” There is no ellipsis to indicate material was omitted. One could argue it doesn’t matter because what makes it into the translation makes clear that the general reaction of Berliners to Kristallnacht was one of horror. Still, the omitted material makes even clearer how widespread among gentiles was sympathy for the plight of the Jews.

Interesting, eh? People running about the city collecting the necessary articles for friends, and in some cases even strangers, they’re protecting. Jews being given shelter by countless German gentiles. Workmen returning to Jewish shop-owners merchandise that had been scattered on the street. What happened to those countless Germans who were sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, to those countless “brothers in shame”?

What do you think happened to them? What happens to people who try to help others as it becomes increasingly clear what such assistance might eventually cost them? Some continue, despite the danger, some go into resistance groups such as “Uncle Emil,“ the one with which Andreas-Friedrich became associated, but most do not.

Andreas-Friedrich “looks lovingly” at the man who whispers “A damn shame!” at the sight of the burning synagogue.

“It occurs to me,” she writes, “that this is ”really the time to call your neighbor ‘brother.’ But I don’t do it. One never does; one just thinks it. And if you really do pluck up the courage for a running start, in the end you just ask, ‘Pardon me, could you tell me the time?’ And then you are instantly ashamed of being such a coward” (p. 19).

Why couldn’t she do it? Why couldn’t she acknowledge to the man that she also condemned what had happened the night before? Why couldn’t any of the people on the bus who were hanging their heads in shame, in silent shame? Why doesn’t one do it?

Years ago I saw a nature program that focused on a litter of wolf cubs. There were three cubs in the den. One emerged, however, days before the other two. He was bold, he was courageous. He was eager to explore the outside world. Ah, I thought to myself, he will be the alpha wolf. He will grow up to be the leader.

One day, though, the brave little cub came home from his explorations with an injured foot. He left again the next day, undaunted by his grisly experience of the day before, but that evening, he did not return. He never returned again. Who knows what had gotten him, but something clearly had.

Several more days passed after the disappearance of the first little cub before the two remaining ones peeked out, trembling, bodies pressed together, from the mouth of the little den. Another day still passed before they had the courage actually to emerge fully from the shelter of their home.

And suddenly I understood why human beings are such a miserable craven lot. Natural selection has ensured that cowardly individuals have a higher survival rate than courageous ones. They live longer, produce more offspring. So it isn’t our fault, really, that we’re such a miserable, craven lot. It’s in our genes.

And yet it is our fault because cowardice isn’t the only thing that’s in our genes. We have somehow also evolved a conscience. We know, as Aristotle expressed it in the Nicomachean Ethics, that there are things we ought rather to “face death” than do (Book III 1). And yet few of us have the courage to face death to do the right thing. Few of us even have the courage to say “brother” to another who affirms the values we purport to hold dear.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the February 16th issue of The New Yorker that the Germans “failed miserably” to draw a line between the innocent and the guilty after the war. She writes, in fact, that to say they “failed miserably” would be “generous” (“The Last Trial”). That’s true, of course, though in a different sense, I think, than the one Kolbert meant, because the line, drawn properly, would encircle us all, all except for the few whose willingness to martyr themselves to do the right thing places them not outside the group, but above it.

We are all guilty of the cravenness that paved the way for the Holocaust, the glass through which we keep seeing darkly, which we keep turning over and over in a vain attempt to escape our own reflection. If we had the courage to recognize ourselves in it, then perhaps we could learn from it. But courage, sadly, is precisely what we lack.

(This piece is dedicated to my dear friend and German tutor of many years, Ebba Mørkeberg 1924-2014.  It originally appeared in the of Feb 17, 2015 issue of Counterpunch.)

The Problem of Evil

I got a wonderful book in the Borders here in Philadelphia before it closed. It was one of the last three days the store would be open and there wasn’t much left in terms of stock. Still, everything was at least 75% off and the lines were shorter than they had been at the beginning of the sale, so I thought it was worth having a look. I got two books, actually, I’ll write about the other one in another post. The one I want to write about now is called The Life of Meaning (Seven Stories Press, 2007). It’s a collection of short pieces by people who have been interviewed for the PBS series Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.

The piece I read this morning was an interview with Menachem Daum, a New York filmmaker whose parents are survivors of the Holocaust. Daum’s father retained his religious faith despite the Holocaust, but his mother’s faith, if not destroyed, was dealt a serious blow. Daum says his mother never explained what specifically had happened to shake her faith, but that he had learned this from an aunt who had arrived with his mother at Auschwitz. “[M]y aunt,” he explains,

revealed to me that my mother had had an infant son in her arms. As they were roused out of the train, a veteran Jewish prisoner hurriedly came up to them. He knew mothers together with their young children would soon be directed to the gas chambers. He urged them to do the unthinkable. […] “You are still young trees. [the prisoner explained] You can have more fruit.” (62.)

And then someone pulled the child from her arms. “I cannot see a God,” Daum’s cousin Dora declared,

who will allow a little baby to be killed for no reason at all, and I really lost my belief then. I had one sister and two brothers who were killed. I was the oldest. I’m the only survivor of my family. Why, what did they do that was so terrible that they should perish? I think that if God is so great and powerful, he could have struck Hitler down before he killed so many Jews. That is my belief. (63.)

I guess, in a way, I’m a deist. I don’t think God intervenes either in the course of natural events or in human affairs to ensure justice. I mean, it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t isn’t it? For me, though, the tragedy isn’t people, not even infants, dying, that’s a part of nature. The tragedy is people killing them. Human beings can accept death, as hard as that usually is. When we think about it, we understand that those who suffer are not the dead. After all, as Epicurus said–“When we are, death is not and when death is, we are not.”

Death is not hard on the dead–it’s hard on the living. It’s hard on the living to lose those they love, to have to go on without the presence of someone who made one’s life infinitely richer and better. We learn to do this though. We learn to turn, eventually, to the living to find from among them someone who can, in some way at least, replace what we’ve lost and we take it on faith that this is possible, that if creation can deliver to us the miracle that it has just taken away, then it must contain other miracles as well.

The tragedy of the Holocaust is less that so many people died than that they were killed, brutally, cruelly, viciously. The tragedy is that when a life is taken in that way, the natural process of seeking solace in the thought that after all, even despite the pain of loss, life is good, that love will come again, like spring, that it is all part of the natural order of things, is made exponentially more difficult. That kind of cruelty is not part of the natural order of things. It is not supposed to happen. That’s why it’s called “inhumane.” It is wrong and we know it is wrong on a very deep level, so when it happens, it shakes our faith in the idea that there is a natural order of things that is good. When we are forced in this way to look down into the abyss of ugliness of which human beings are capable, it requires an almost supper-human effort to continue to see them as loveable, or to see the creation of which they are a part as anything positive. That abyss is a vortex that threatens to pull everything that is beautiful and meaningful down into its unrecoverable depths.

That’s why we like to blame the Holocaust, a la Goldhagen, on the Germans. It’s comforting to think that it’s only this “monster race” that is capable of such depravity, not human beings in general. Unfortunately, the Germans are not a race, and even if they were, “race,” from the perspective of modern science is a meaningless concept in such a context. Depravity is the kind of characteristic that is necessarily species specific. And anyway, as everyone who knows anything about history knows, Germans weren’t the only one’s involved in the killing (see Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands), it was Europeans more generally, as well as much of the rest of humanity through indifference or willed ignorance, Jews even turned against Jews. That’s the horrible truth we really have yet to deal with. The potential for the kind of inhumanity that came to expression in the Holocaust is inherent in human nature. How does one go on believing that life, that creation, is good after being confronted with that fact?

I’m grateful that my own faith has not been tested in that way. I like to think it would survive, but one can never know a thing like that and it would be disingenuous of me to attempt to derive comfort from such speculations. Comfort is there, though, when I wonder, as I sometimes do wonder, whether it is possible for anyone to preserve a faith in the goodness of creation (which faith, to me, is the essence of religion when all the inessential trappings of the various discrete traditions are stripped away) when brought face-to-face with such a horrible truth: Daum’s father did it, and there have been others as well and if, as it seems we cannot help but assume, the future will continue to resemble the past, there will continue to be others. Now that, for me, is a miracle, and it sustains my belief in God.