Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Holocaust and the "lessons of history"

We hear a lot of talk about the "lessons of history," especially at commemoration ceremonies like the ones around the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

But more and more, I see that meaningful lessons of history are very difficult to draw. It's all very well to talk about general concepts like "opposing genocide," "standing up against aggression" and so forth. But concrete situations in contemporary politics always have their particulars that have to be taken into account.

And it's sadly obvious that the "lessons of history" are often invoked in a superficial way marketing window-dressing to suport or oppose current policies. It often seems that the lessons of history are more often than not used to justify making the same old mistakes and creating similar horrors to those in the past.

So I think it's important to try to understand past events like the Holocaust in their particular historical situation as much as possible. We always bring a particular set of understanding and biases to looking at them, of course. And it's important to be aware of those. In addition, we often are simply able to understand situations better in retrospect than contemporaries could. So making judgments is certainly valid. But all judgments are not equally valid, either.

The aspects of the Holocaust that stand out to me as I think about them in the context of the Auschwitz observances this week would fall into the following categories.

1. War. The Holocaust, the systematic mass murder of Jews and other targeted groups, took place in the context of war. In my previous post, I quoted a Ha'aretz editorial that says it "was not done in the heat of battle." And that's true. These were not, for the most part, atrocities that took place in the context of immediate battles. It was systematic murder.

But the systematic mass killings took place in the context of the Second World War. More specifically, they started in the second half of 1941, after the invasion of the Soviet Union. Even in the normal course of things, war unleases passions and requires actions that must be restrained or prevented in normal civilian life in times of piece, making it easier to commit atrocities unthinkable in normal life. And it makes it easier in practice for governments to keep secrets and to suppress dissent.

We could come up with all kinds of "what if" scenarios in which the Holocaust might have happened. But it actually didhappen in the context of Germany's all-out war against the Soviet Union.

2. Anti-Semitism. The Jews were the main target of Hitler's genocidal intentions. And the actual killings were preceded by a long history of German and European anti-Semitism. Christian anti-Semitism provided the historical background. And both Catholics and Protestants were guilty of promoting it.

But there were also particular sources that fed into Nazi anti-Semitism. The pseudoscientific racism developed by rightwingers in the late 19th century was an important one. Hitler's own political thought was decisively influenced by the poisonous swamp of anti-Semitic politics in Vienna in the years prior to the First World War. I once saw a definition of National Socialism (Nazism) that I think is a very useful one, which is that Nazism was the movement that put the German sword at the service of Austrian lunacy.

The anti-Semitism that had been promoted by individual parties and groups became the ideology of the governing party in the early years of the Third Reich. All other parties were suppressed, and the Nazi dictatorship tried to suppress open criticism of their doctrines, anti-Semitism among them. Historical attitudes provided the background for the Nazi Party to carry out years of concentrated propaganda as the ruling party in 1933-1941. Hitler's anti-Semitism led to the conception of the Holocaust. The influence of anti-Semitic ideology on the part of much of the German public made its implementation possible.

3. Ethical judgment. Most people seem to agree with the saying, often attributed to the philosopher George Santayana, that if we don't learn from history, we are condemned to repeat it. But I was struck several years ago seeing a report about a survey that had been done of German youth at what in America we would call high-school age (roughly 14-18). It found that kids who knew *more* about the Holocaust were *more* likely to be attracted to far-right groups that support anti-Semitic ideology.

Now, I don't know how good that particular study was. And I don't know if other studies have shown similar results. But it impressed on me the fact that *knowing* about the past doesn't mean in itself that we will draw useful or constructive lessons from it. Ethical and moral judgment is required as well.

4. Political criminality. It's importantto remember that the murders we collectively call the Holocaust were acts thatwere against the law. Not only international law, but against German law at the time. For those things to happen, large numbers of people - government officials, Nazi Party leaders and members, military officers and ordinary citizens - had to be willing to disregard their own laws, and the standards of conduct which those laws embodied.

And, in fact, the National Socialist movement had a strong element of lawlessness from the start, using its street gangs to attack opponents. But the party came to power through the parliamentary system of the Weimar Republic. The party itself never gained a majority in elections, not even the semi-free one in early 1933 after Hitler had already become Chancellor. But the party was by no means exclusively exclusively an insurrectionary party.

But, in fact, Hitler began to rule outside the law very early on. The Nazis never even bothered to formally abolish the democratic Weimar constitution. They just ignored it. Their lawlessness reached its depths in their wars of aggression and the Holocaust.

Saying this is not to blame Germans collectively for the crimes of the Nazis. Those who actually ordered and actually committed those crimes are the ones responsible for them. But it is to say that part of the context for the Holocaust as it actually occurred was a long deterioration in the rule of law from 1933 to 1941.


I'll end by saying that, as important as this issue is, studying about the Holocaust can invoke strong feelings of sadness and depression and disillusionment. I once had a professor that suggested that in it's literal meaning, "disillusionment" is more of a good thing than a bad thing. If we dis-illusion ourselves, we're getting rid of illusions. And, for people in the reality-based community, that should be a good thing.

The word actually means something different of course, implying strong disappointment and even disorientation.

As enlightening as studying about the Holocaust can be, it needs to be taken in measured bites depending on one's tolerance for learning about depressing events.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i have such a low tolerance for this particular chapter of human history.  i visited some camps when i was living in europe, and i have never gotten over it.  they come back in dreams, often.  i can't watch movies, can barely read, about it.  i am however paying more attention to this anniversary than i thought i could - because i fear some terribly similar elements loose in our world today.  one can follow the traces of those elements through your article here, and it's pretty freaking scary.