27 JANUARY 2013

Dr. Mary Stewart

On the 68th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau

We know all about the Holocaust, don’t we? Last year Auschwitz had nearly 1.5 million visitors, ten times more than a decade ago - it has become, to quote a recent German film, a place ‘for tourists to come’. But the more we really learn, the more we may find, like the philosopher Theodor Adorno, that language itself fails us in the face of such horror. In any case the victims’ stories are not really ours to tell: watch BBC1 at 10.25 tonight [1]if you want to hear the almost unbearable truth directly from a survivor. But silence isn’t really an option either, given the existence of Holocaust deniers like David Irving, so if we want to do more than, as one writer put it, ‘leave the Holocaust hanging like a picture on the wall’, we have to seek some approach, so - with great trepidation and no promise of metaphysical insights - I am starting as concretely as possible, with a question: what has all this really to do with us?  and with a building, the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

You will find there are actually two buildings side by side, one in harmonious neo-classical style dating from the 1730s and which once housed the Royal Judiciary of Brandenburg, the other lacking all harmony, shaped like a broken star and unmistakeably conceived by the architect Daniel Libeskind. What greater disjunction could there be between the two ages these adjacent buildings represent?  The age of Enlightenment with its rationalist order, set against an era of profound dislocation: together they clearly offer a symbolic representation of the terrible rupture in European culture wrought by the Holocaust. Yet the buildings are not in fact separate: you enter the museum through the neo-classical building, and pass - underground  - into the new section, where three corridors face you. At the end of the first one you open a heavy door that slams behind you, leaving you in an immensely high, silent, cold chamber lit only by a tiny slit at the top. This is the path of the Holocaust into imprisonment, death and obliteration. When you emerge to pursue the second corridor, you are led out-of-doors into a garden full of crazily tilting columns and undulating paving, making you feel queasy and seasick as you try to walk about: this is the path of uprooting and exile. Then finally the third, wider corridor leads you into the museum proper, which documents the Jewish life in Berlin over the centuries: this is the path of survival, though still not an easy one as the building again makes you aware, with its unexpected changes of direction and jagged windows. These are then the three infinitely painful paths that faced 20c. European Jews. Some find the symbolism simplistically overt, even absurd in seeming to suggest visitors can share in the experience of those caught up in the Holocaust. But I think that is to view it wrongly. These brief imaginative immersions vividly remind us of what victims faced, but each also forces us onwards  - physically in space, and mentally too - into the main museum and into understanding not only the story of persecution, inescapable though that is, but also just what was at stake in the collective ‘Holocaust’. The most shocking thing we encounter is in fact the story of how fully integrated many Jews were. Many great names of German, indeed European culture are documented there – the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn, Albert Einstein – but there are also middle-class interiors from Jewish homes, showing alongside precious books or sacred objects something as touching and surprising as a Christmas tree. Jews were part of normal German life and culture, if not of all its institutions: the Holocaust was directed not against strangers, but against neighbours, against the very heart of the country’s intellectual life. This is why the symbolism of the two disparate yet ultimately linked buildings is so important and potent: the apparent caesura in modern European history – between rationalism and alien savagery - was not a caesura at all but a home product, a culture turning on the best in itself.

How do we make any sense of this? Historians argue endlessly, but one challenging view is that of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, of which Simon reminded me. In his book Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) Bauman argues that the Holocaust was not just an unforeseeable Hobbesian eruption of pre-modern barbarity, but rather a problem and product of our modern civilisation itself. Where Freud suggests it is the constraints of society that keep psychopathic tendencies in check, Bauman argues it was precisely the structures of modern civilisation that made the Holocaust ultimately realizable. The Final Solution can be seen as an extreme outcome of bureaucratic culture, the product of procedural rationality and taxonomic categorisation aimed at control of perceived ‘alien’ elements, whether Jews, Roma or gays. It is not of course that modern bureaucracy must lead to a Holocaust, that would be absurd, but viewing society primarily as an object of administration, as something to be ‘mastered’, is a significant enabling factor, Bauman argues. In fact Hitler’s desire to make Germany ‘judenfrei’ (free of Jews) had direct precedents in Nationalist circles a century or more earlier[2]; Hitler’s hatred was certainly more extreme still, and spoke to a ready sense of grievance after the débâcle of the Versailles Treaty, but a key difference also lies in how his modern state could be organised. With perverse efficiency Hitler’s men developed new processes to meet new ‘demand’, as more and more territories were rapidly conquered: what started with social exclusion of Jews and ‘encouraged’ emigration, then led on to painstakingly organized deportation (with each train journey to the ghettoes or camps carefully docketed and paid for) and so on incrementally to the terrible ending we are commemorating today. (With bitter irony, the very same bureaucratic efficiency was also successfully deployed on the prohibition of foxhunting with hounds - as too cruel.)

I find this argument on modernity persuasive, because it starts to shed light on that profound puzzle of how, in a cultured nation - alongside the undoubted psychopaths - ordinary, basically moral individuals, like us, could become involved in such immoral ends: through acceptance of a bureaucratic system which step by step authorized destruction for ‘national security’. The civilizing process may have made us dislike and shun violence, Bauman suggests, (and the psychologist Steven Pinker even posits an evolutionary diminution of violence in his most recent book, The Better Angels of our Natures: A History of Violence and Humanity, 2012), but - for Bauman - through that very civilizing process we have also invented the means to make our aversion to violence irrelevant when certain acts seem required in the name of civilized values like ‘order’. Interestingly, this has been confirmed by recent work on the rediscovered transcripts of bugged PoW conversations both in Britain and the USA[3]: military personnel ensured that their focus was always limited to their own special competence (e.g. registration of Jewish prisoners, punctual arrival of death squads), thus remaining able to ignore the moral consequences of their work. And we can all be susceptible, not just soldiers or bureaucrats: the German historian Götz Aly[4] has shown that even early on the Nazis’ pro-working-class social agenda effectively bred suspicion of intellectuals and thus rendered the largely Jewish cultured middle-class vulnerable. You can get a good sense of just how effective this was if you read Hans Fallada’s reissued 1940s novel Alone in Berlin. [5]

But what has all this to do with us, now? Surely we are not in such moral danger? If we follow Steven Pinker, extreme genocidal events (like Bosnia) will only occur in shallow-rooted democracies, but both Bauman and Aly more worryingly imply that all systematically administered modern societies tend to produce an unreflective myopic conformism. Our very efficiency in mastering our own complex modern lives is also what inures us to the potential outcome of our highly developed systems, and cruelty takes many forms. Just how vital that insight remains for us all was made clear by the new President of Germany, Joachim Gauck, a former East German pastor who knows a thing or two about state-generated suffering and put it thus in a speech about Europe and the Holocaust: ‘Humanitarian values do not reside in a safe haven. They disintegrate or suffer damage wherever reason and morality stand in opposition to each other. Our civilisation is not a final stage of history, but a temporarily secured form of existence.’[6]

Maybe, then, we should reverse the heading for this term’s sermons: it is human indifference that has so often helped to produce profound suffering in the modern world. Where God is in all this I leave to the theologians, but if I ventured a speculation I would refer to Franz Kafka’s wonderful little tale Auf der Galerie (“Up in the gallery/In the gods”): redemption, whatever it might mean, would be possible only if we could be ruthlessly honest about the pain we create. No wonder Daniel Libeskind sited his tortured building next to an embodiment of state organisation: may none of us forget the dark potential of that connection, made so very real in the tattooed arms and countless, haunting faces of the Holocaust.


[1] “Prisoner A26188: Henia Bryer”

[2] e.g. Hartwig von Hundt-Radowsky, Ernst Moritz Arndt, Friedrich Rühs

[3] Sönke Neitzel & Harald Weitzer Soldaten:On Fighting, Killing and Dying, 2012; Felix Römer, Kameraden – Die Wehrmacht von innen, 2012

[4] Götz Aly, Warum die Deutschen? Warum die Juden? 2011

[5] Hans Fallada, Jeder stirbt für sich allein,1947; translated by Michael Hofmann as Alone in Berlin, 2009

[6] Welche Erinnerungen braucht Europa? Speech given on 28.3.2006 at the Robert Bosch Stiftung, Stuttgart