In the past I’ve had occasion to call this “Holocaust inconsequentialism”: Yes, it happened, we’re all so sorry, but the fact that the world allowed and the entire continent of Europe collaborated in industrialized mass murder shouldn’t have any consequences for how we view the present situation. Or for how we assess the nature of human nature. But “holocaust inconsequentialism” only differs from Holocaust denial in that it is practiced by more sophisticated types who would never consider themselves (and mostly aren’t) anti-Semites. In fact most are Jews and not, I should add, “self-hating Jews,” as some have called them. Rather they are inordinately self-loving Jews, who like to pride themselves as having transcended their parochial pasts, not shackled to the supposed limiting shtetl or ethnic mentality, but rising above all that unpleasantness to a realm of Pure Kantian Ideal. Unaware of the blindness that believing only the best about humanity entails.
If we agree on the fatuousness of those who fling “holocaust-obsessed” around as an epithet for anyone holocaust-concerned or -cognizant, how obsessed, concerned, affected should one be, then? There remain serious questions about the tragedy that are worthy of further consideration. Indeed in the past few years newly available archives of former Eastern European police states such as Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine have opened a Pandora’s box of new Holocaust questions and exacerbated old debates, mostly involving the often shocking complicity of Eastern European anti-Semitic populaces in the machinery of extermination and the wartime and postwar “nationalist” pogroms against Jews that ran parallel to Hitler’s Final Solution. (It wasn’t only Germans who were enthusiasts for extermination. Far from it.) It’s all very ugly, as this essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the divisive conflicts among Polish historians demonstrates.
Most salient recent debate has focused on Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, which I wrote about here in Slate and which raises a whole other series of questions about comparative evil—and comparative responsibility—in Stalin’s and Hitler’s mass murders and their different methodologies of mass murder: Stalin apparently preferred deliberate mass starvation—often leading to cannibalism—to Hitler’s gas chambers. The tactic raised his body count, according to most estimates, above the Führer’s, and also raised the question of whether his mass slow death was more or less cruel than the Nazis’ quick shooting and gassing. Recent review essays by Frederic Raphael in the London Times Literary Supplement and Christopher Browning in the New York Review of Books demonstrate the complexity of the questions the newly opened archives prompt, questions about how the nations of Europe reacted (or failed to react) to prewar threats of extermination and their wartime complicities in the extermination.
Reading their arguments and the debates they invoke makes me wonder if we’re “holocaust-obsessed” enough. If there still are many more questions about the phenomenon to pursue. The nature of human nature for instance. George Steiner once told me he believed the Holocaust “removed the reinsurance on human hope,” meaning the conceptual safety net beneath which our belief in the capability for evil could not go. Now we know it can go far lower. But how far below does this unimaginable hell stretch?
One thing the new evidence has done is re-enforce a perception I’ve had that Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” description of Eichmann—the concept of “banality of evil” itself—is now looking ever more foolish. I’ve argued that Arendt arrogantly and ignorantly bought into Eichmann’s defense that he was “just following orders” in a way that absolved him from the “radical evil” that she, Arendt, once believed in. When it turns out Eichmann was a bloodthirsty Jew-hater who, even after the war was effectively lost, was trying desperately to extract every last Jew from Hungary to be murdered. Above and beyond the call of duty that “following orders” implies.
How holocaust-obsessed should we be? Perhaps if we were more “holocaust-conscious” (a term I’d prefer), we wouldn’t have stood by as Rwandans were slaughtered. Or waited till after Srebrenica to care about the Bosnians. Perhaps if we were more Holocaust-conscious the historically ignorant and often racist idiots who promote the idea of “American exceptionalism” (America was established and ordained in grace and glory by God and was never complicit in sin) might take note of the fact that this nation was founded upon two genocides—that of the Native Americans and that of the African-American slaves. Whose death toll over three centuries is almost incalculably high.
And perhaps if we were more “holocaust-obsessed” and surveyed the way genocides have spread over the landscape of history, covered the map of the world like bloodstains, we would be less Pollyannaish about the future. Perhaps we’d be more alert to intervene before the killing started or at least before it finished. Perhaps, as I’ve suggested in my most recent book, we’d realize that any nuclear war even a “small” one is a genocidal event. A definition that should call for more urgency than a sluggish crawl toward arms control.
But the second point I’d like to make—the second big question about the algorithm of suffering—is the broadening of holocaust concern beyond one’s “own” holocaust. I know there are excesses in this line—in emphasizing the similarity of all mass murderers—excesses that can trivialize the unimaginable magnitude of the suffering of the European Jews, and they’ve recently been well-documented by Indiana University’s Alvin H. Rosenfeld in a book called The End of the Holocaust. I’ve written in praise of the book, particularly his stance against all the weepy attempts to turn the Holocaust into a lesson about the “triumph of the human spirit” in the face of evil and other such clichés. The obscenity of such execrable phenomena as the unbearably self-congratulatory Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful.
But it was something I read in another review of the Rosenfeld book, by a scholar I admire, Walter Reich, that raised the issue of “transferability,” which I think deserves consideration.
Reich—who holds the Yitzhak Rabin memorial chair in international affairs, ethics and human behavior at George Washington University, will always have my respect for doing a rare thing in Washington: He resigned as head of the U.S. Holocaust Museum because he refused to give a man responsible for the murder of Jews, Yasser Arafat, a tour of the Holocaust Museum as the State Department had asked him to. Realpolitik is one thing, Reich was in effect saying, but this is a bridge too far.