27 January 2015

The Shoah, through American eyes

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we should remember that there are several ways for an American to remember the Shoah, some of them helpful and others far less so. World War II is a living memory for some, but it is a living memory which is rapidly fading. As a millennial, my grandparents lived through the War – at least one of them witnessed the Pacific theatre firsthand. But of these grandparents, two of them are now dead. And my Jewish grandmother was lucky to have been born to immigrant parents in Wisconsin rather than stay in Europe, where she would have been forced into an Austro-Hungarian ghetto or into a Nazi concentration camp. As such, my experience of the Shoah is the same as that of any American Jew whose family immigrated early: I know of the Shoah only intellectually, through films and through books, and not through a personal narrative. But insofar as it was an attack on specifically ethnic, not religious, Jewishness everywhere, it nevertheless has a personal impact that does echo down to this day.

So what do we do with it?

First off, not only Jews suffered in the Shoah. The suffering of the Jews was particular and unique in terms of the full social and historical depth of the animosity toward them drawn upon by the Nazis and in terms of the symbolic value the death of the Jews held for their persecutors. But in the end it was a shared suffering – shared with Poles and Russians and Serbs, shared with trade unionists and political leftists of all sorts, shared with Romani, shared with the disabled and mentally-ill, shared with homosexuals, shared with all manner of social outcasts and scapegoats. One unproductive way to look at the Shoah is to wrongly essentialise the suffering of one’s own group, and to use it as a totem against others who were hurt and whose communities were destroyed.

On the other hand, there was a unique dimension to the Shoah, unlike any other event in Western history. To look at it as an atrocity like unto all other atrocities committed by world powers throughout history also is reductively relativistic, and therefore wrong, because it excuses all the people who do not deserve to be excused. The spiritual rot of anti-Semitism took hold at the very heart of the Western world, at the very pinnacle of the most intellectually-advanced Western society, and culminated in an industrialised bloodshed of such enormity that, for a brief time, it shocked the Western world into introspection about its own commitments. In this, the Shoah was very much unique, and Jewish suffering in it was unlike unto anything else in the history of the West. That the Germans in their utterly blind, Nimrodic spiritual pride, were so convinced of the superiority of their civilisation that so many of them were seduced by Hitler’s poison, deserves to be marked off. The Nazi hatred of the Jews itself masked a hatred of all godhoods but their own. There is an example there that now needs to be rightly understood by the modern West.

Whether it actually is so understood is another matter.

The Holocaust was born of the first and gravest of sins – hubris, the sin of the Evil One. We must take care that its remembrance does not do the same. It is actually not as clear to me anymore which is worse – the denial of the Holocaust or the manipulative use of the Holocaust to justify further acts of Western civilisational hubris (the wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and the Ukraine), and to indulge in the idea that the world and its people are ours to reshape in our own image. The former, though it goes without saying that it is a morally repugnant wilful blindness and deserves the highest censure, has at least the virtue of being a direct reactiveness, a pride expressed in the bluntest of possible forms: ‘I could not have done that’.

The latter, on the other hand, though its intentions are sincere – ‘never again’ as a battle-cry in the name of human rights and democracy – nonetheless masks the same spiritual illness that had taken hold of the Nazis. The pride takes a subtler turn. For the civilisation that understands itself as the ‘thousand year kingdom’, or in terms of the neoconservative and democratic-idealist discourse the ‘end of history’, dissent is tantamount to an existential threat and must be utterly erased. It is no accident that the cheerleaders of the war in Iraq compared Saddam to Hitler, or that Gadhafi, Assad, Putin and Xi have all come in for the same utterly-undeserved comparison from precisely the same people. It was a psychological need to highlight the cosmic and world-historical consequences of the failure to act to stamp out the dissenters from our designs and calculations. The same hubristic spirit of the will to power, of the self-justifying drive for mastery over man and nature, that drove the Nazis to their spectacular fall into the most animalistic depravities against the Jews, still wriggles like a worm around the very heart of liberal, democratic Western civilisation. Thus, to take the Holocaust as an object lesson in the self-justification of the merits of liberal democracy, rather than as an indictment of our spiritual disease, ultimately strikes me as equally wrong.

For this reason alone, the Holocaust ought to remain close to our minds. We as Westerners stand before it – not as the prosecutors, but as the accused. The fact of Jewishness places an additional burden upon those of us who are Jewish as well as Americans, because even though we have not personally suffered in the enormity of the Shoah, we have been chosen inescapably as witnesses for the prosecution. And we will remain witnesses. But as the beneficiaries of American civilisation and military action, we are very much not exempt from the indictment upon which the Nazis have been judged. We need to remember the Shoah, but we need to remember it rightly. Contra Nietzsche, memory must not yield to pride. We must attain from the Holocaust that spiritual knowledge that comes only through our willing repentance, or the battle-cry of ‘never again’ will ring truly hollow indeed.

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