Why the Holocaust is not about the Past

Lecture in HONR199

March 27, 2001

As we begin our third and final section of the course, and given the large two-week hiatus we have just enjoyed, it seems that this may be a good time for me to step back and discuss the general issues of the course as a whole. One thing that many of you have begun to realize is that, despite its apparent subject matter, this course has never actually been about the past. Indeed, if it has been about history at all, it has always been a course about what Michel Foucault calls "a history of the present" (Discipline and Punish). What I did not want to give you, what perhaps the Holocaust can never give you, is the past as a closed construct-as something that is stable, completed, and therefore capable of being studied and thus forgotten. In this, I follow Jurgen Habermas who states in the article you read for today:

intensified methodological awareness signals the end of all images of history that are closed or ordained by government historians. The inevitable pluralism of readings, which is by no means unmonitored but on the contrary rendered transparent, only reflects the structure of open societies. It provides an opportunity to clarify one's own identity-forming traditions in their ambivalences. This is precisely what is needed for the critical appropriation of ambiguous traditions, that is, for the development of a historical consciousness that is equally incompatible with closed images of history that have a secondary quasi-natural character and with all forms of conventional, that is, uniformly and prereflexively shared identity. (226-7)

Not only would I say that the Holocaust is not actually about the past (about what has passed and is therefore closed to us because in the past) but I would say that the Holocaust proves for us that no history is actually about the past. The old conception of history-sometimes called positivism-was perhaps best exemplified by the German historian, Leopold von Ranke. As he states at one point, "You have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future. The present attempt does not yield to that high office. It will merely tell how it really was."

What the Holocaust underscores is, first of all, just how impossible it is to tell history "how it really was." The Holocaust provides us with a certain incommensurability, not only on the level of content (how can one adequately represent the horror of this event?) but also on the level of magnitude: the Holocaust encompassed so many levels of society that it is impossible to claim that one has presented the event "the way it really was"; such an accounting is impossible, perhaps even dangerous, which is precisely why Claude Lanzmann decides to give you the Shoah in bits and pieces, though the experiences of far-flung and completely disparate first-person perspectives). For this reason, I chose to give you the history of the Holocaust in bits and pieces as well: through the chronology of events that I included in your Reader, through the list of major figures that I provided, through the web sites I pointed you to, many of which document individual concentration and extermination camps, and through the historical details that you continued to amass over the course of the Eichmann trial (especially after reading Hannah Arendt or Daniel Goldhagen and after listening to Robert Gellately). Were I to have given you one single historical narrative of the period (say in a single opening lecture or a single historical overview), I would have, by necessity, skewed your perception of those events. As Berel Lang puts it, "Any representation... represents the exclusion of others" (300); any such choice entails political effects: who's history are you being given? To what effect? For what political purpose? The fact is that "history" (which is to say the discipline of history or historiography) is, by necessity, a selection. Every "history" is an effort to make the heterogeneity of events in any given present conform to some understandable narrative trajectory. The past is nothing but a sequence of "presents"—full of the uncertainties and confusions of our own present—but history reconstructs those presents into an understandable master-narrative.

Andreas Hillgruber's book, Two Sorts of Destruction: The Smashing of the German Reich and the End of European Jewry, illustrates just how dangerous such choices can be. By choosing to focus exclusively on the bravery of soldiers on the German Eastern front, who sacrificed themselves in the struggle against communism, Hillgruber chooses to recast their stories as "'tragic' heroic epic" (a point made by Habermas on p. 218). In so doing, however, Hillgruber also happens to neglect mentioning the crucial role of the Wehrmacht as support system for the SS Einsatzgruppen, who effected the deaths of about 2 million of the 6 million Jews killed during the Nazi regime. And, of course, let's not mention the deaths of 20 million Soviet soldiers and civilians at the hands of that Wehrmacht in the course of the war. It is this sort of revisionist historiography that first raised the ire of J¨ürgen Habermas and began the historikerstreit, a debate about history that occurred largely in mainstream newspapers in Germany in the 1980s, but that then continued in academic circles throughout the 90s and still continues today.

This issue of historical revisionism was also explored during the Holocaust Remembrance Conference this last weekend. Officially dubbed "Denying History," the conference began with Michael Shermer's highly engaging talk, "Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened?" in which he examined the strategies of the most virulent Holocaust Revisionists, including Ernst Zundel, David Irving, and Fred Leuchter. (And in the readings for today, you've now learned of Ernst Nolte, Michael Stürmer, Andreas Hillgruber, and Robert Faurisson). The fact is that Holocaust revisionists are everywhere, and all the more vocal thanks to the self-promoting power of the internet. As you may recall, I told you that when I did a search for "Shoah" and "Lanzmann" on google.com, about 80-90% of the hits I received were of Holocaust revisionist, many of them associated with the Journal of Historical Review, which Shermer took pleasure in debunking during his talk. The fact is that a high-school or university student who unsuspectingly conducts such a search could easily come away perplexed, since one actually has to dig to find a web page that claims anything other than that the Holocaust and Lanzmann's Shoah, in particular, are fabrications or, worse, an evil Jewish plot. And the revisionist are often very savvy, mimicking the look of respected journals and publications, so that it's often quite hard to tell them apart unless you know something about them.

What the Holocaust appears to make perfectly clear is that history is not about the past but about the present, about our struggles in the present, and even more specifically perhaps about a just relation to the future. I would therefore once again counter Ranke's claim that you can have history without either judgment or commitment to the future. What conservative and revisionist historians make clear is that the battle over history (what was officially termed the historikerstreit in Germany-that is to say, the battle over history) is a battle precisely over the future. Michael Stürmer, one of those conservative, revisionist historians and, not by coincidence, a speech writer for Helmut Kohl during his reign as German Chancellor, makes this point crystal clear: "in a land without history, whoever fills memory, coins the concepts, and interprets the past, wins the future" (Wolin xiv). What the historikerstreit controversy makes clear is just how important history is for crucial elements in the present: for national identity, which grounds such disparate institutions as the judicial system, politics, foreign relations, and culture. It is this battle over history that then gets replayed over and over not only in the cultural representations of the period (which we have now analyzed on various fronts) but in the political representations of the period, particularly monuments, memorials and museums. Indeed, it's for this reason, that I wanted to spend a good portion of this class discussing this issue (including our forthcoming field trip to visit two memorials in Chicago) and it's for this reason that I was especially interested in bringing James E. Young to campus. Not only is he the foremost American specialist on the question of memorialization, he is right now actively involved in these debates. In 1997, he was appointed by the Berlin Senate to become part of a five-member Findungskommission for Gemany's national "Memorial to Europe's Murdered Jews," to be built in Berlin. And he has been flying over there ever since to engage in the ongoing debates about the monument. He was also the Guest Curator of an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, entitled "The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History" (March-August 1994, with venues in Berlin and Munich, September 1994-June 1995), so he also has hands-on experience with museum exhibitions. As he will illustrate, the past is still very much a hot political issue for the present particularly as it affects the issue of national identity. And, indeed, during his public lecture, James Young will be exploring some of the ways that postmodern ideas have begun to affect the memorialization of the Holocaust in Germany. This is an issue that is also explored by Andreas Huyssen in the reading you'll be doing for next week. And Robert Sovinski, an award-winning teacher here at Purdue and member of the Landscape Architecture Department, will next Tuesday illustrate the problems inherent in traditional and otherwise suspect forms of memorialization in present-day Poland.

The fact is that these issues speak to the heart of our current postmodern condition, which is why I felt the need to clarify certain postmodern ideas in the first third of this semester. The inevitable question the postmodernist must raise is: What happens to nationalism after the Holocaust? After all, the twin totalitarian regimes of Stalinist Russia and Hitlerite Germany proved just how dangerous unbridled nationalism can be. Indeed, everything that was once held sacred has been put under question because of this phenomenon. Robert Gellately perhaps put it most eloquently in our class.


If a cultured, educated, democratic, advanced, industrial, religious society like Weimar Germany could have been led into the atrocities of the Holocaust within a single decade, how exactly can we claim immunity? Herein is the heart of our current, postmodern condition. After the Holocaust, after this horror in the heart of civilized society, everything once held dear must be questioned. Law and police enforcement, Nazism proved, are in fact tied to power and violence and are no guarantees against oppression. Democracy is no guarantee since Hitler was originally brought to power legally-and was arguably supported throughout his regime, as suggested by the endless plebiscites Hitler held, all of which suggested unanimous support from the general public for each of his major policies. (This is an issue that was, of course, explored by the last scene performed by your classmates in Brecht's The Private Life of the Master Race.)


Just as law and democracy failed to protect us from this atrocity, so did science and technological progress. Not only did science and progress not save us, they actually aided the Holocaust through the technology of extermination (which allowed the Nazis to liquidate people at a much faster rate than was possible with the primitive technology of Einsatzgruppe execution). Indeed, science fell right in line through Josef Mengele's horrific experiments on inmates at Auschwitz, leading to research that is still used today by leading scientists. Arguably, it was also the increasing efficiency of social relations, ever more modeled on the scientific model through specialization and bureaucratic order, that allowed such a massive project to be implemented in the first place. This is the issue explored by Michel Foucault, who explored in Discipline and Punish how society since the eighteenth century has been increasingly organized along the lines of Jeremy Bentham's highly efficient panopticon. Max Weber in your readings during the trial explored the effect of this reorganization on the make-up of society:

Experience tends universally to show that the purely bureaucratic type of administrative organization-that is, the monocratic variety of bureaucracy-is, from a purely technical point of view, capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency and is in this sense formally the most rational known menas of carrying out imperative control over human beings. It is superior to any other form in precision, in stability, in the stringency of its descipline, and in its reliability." (337)

It is, has he goes on to state, "the most crucial phenomenon of the modern Western state" (337), because "The whole pattern of everyday life is cut to fit this framework" (337). So powerful is it that even revolution does not dislodge it: "Even in case of revolution by force or of occupation by an enemy, the bureaucratic machinery will normally continue to function just as it has for the pervious legal government" (338). Indeed, this was the case after the fall of Nazi Germany. Although Eichmann and SS officers were tried, the general bureaucratic structure remained almost completely in place. What remained in place is arguably precisely what made the Holocaust possible: the unemotional rationality of the specialist:

The dominance of a spirit of formalistic impersonality..., without hatred or passion, and hence without affection or enthusiasm. The dominant norms are concepts of straightforward duty without regard to personal considerations. Everyone is subject to formal equality of treatment; that is, everyone in the same empirical situation. This is the spirit in which the ideal official conducts his office." (340)

Hence, the trial of Eichmann. What I wanted you to explore in that exercise is not only the difficulty of determining responsibility after the Holocaust, but also how easy it is to get sucked into the logic of the bureaucratic machine: je ne suis pas responsible; it is out of my jurisdiction; I was merely a cog in the machine; I was just doing my job, fulfilling my "duty without regard to personal considerations." Indeed, that logic is so effective that Eichmann was found not guilty in this very courtroom and has been found not guilty four out of five times that I've run this exercise. Each time I've conducted the trial, the prosecution has had all sorts of trouble effectively establishing the issue of individual responsibility for actions regardless of extant orders or power structures. This is not to chastise the prosecution group-I thought you did an admirable job as the exceptionally close decision illustrated-but to underline just how important such an exercise really is, because the fact is that, despite all the rhetoric about freedom and justice in America, we do not know how effectively to understand individual responsibility, which always entails a responsibility to disobey when a law is unjust. It is this issue that was explored by Philip Zimbardo in the Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram in the shock experiment. As Stanley Milgram writes in the Postscript to that famous psychological experiment, in which he tested the willingness of American men, ages 20 to 50, to inflict dangerous levels of shock to victims,

The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or-more specifically-the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority. (75)

(Leon Trachtman, one of the Holocaust survivors speaking at last weekend's conference also made this point, by the way.) What I wanted you to come to realize is that Nazi Germany is not much different from our own society: the same belief in scientific rationality, the same bureaucratic structures, the same judicial and parliamentary system (at least at the start), and the same panoptic system of police control. If anything society has become organized along ever more panoptic lines (thanks to new technologies of surveillance) and along ever more rational lines as the victory of an economic way of thinking has overtaken all other forms of value. This is the point being made by Richard Wolin towards the end of his introduction. The fact is that

the cognitive-instrumental sphere has attained predominance at the expense of the other two spheres [morality-law, on the one hand, art on the other], [both of] which in turn find themselves marginalized. Instrumental reason, in alliance with the forces of the economy and state administration, increasingly penetrates the sphere of everyday human life-the "life world"-resulting in the creation of 'social pathologies.'... The term Habermas has coined to describe this process is felicitous: the colonization of the life world" (xxiii-xxiv).

Think about the way that instrumental reason is in the process of transforming the university system; indeed, there was a perceptive article about just this trend in yesterday's New York Times:

As we in the academy begin to use business-speak fluently, we become accustomed to thinking in commercialized terms about education. We talk no longer as public intellectuals, but as entrepreneurs. And we thus encourage instead of fight the disturbing trend that makes education a consumer good rather than a public good. If we think this way, our decisions will be driven, at least in part, by consumers' tastes. Are we ready to think that we should only teach what students want or be driven out of business? (Michele Tolela Myers, president of Sarah Lawrence College, New York Times, A23)

Just think about how pervasive economic thinking is in our contemporary society. Businesses in general are perfectly willing to accept a certain amount of death and suffering provided the profit margin remains strong: from laying off competent workers to poisoning the public (through chemicals and additives) to eliminating entire species to destroying the planet. And yet we accept such actions on a day-to-day basis. We make fun of the Japanese for refusing to lay off company workers in times of economic downturn. We turn a blind eye to inner-city violence, to homelessness, to the poor. We accept economic injustices every single day because it is our dominant ideology.

And so I put it to you: if it is so hard to determine responsibility outside the laws, authorities, and bureaucratic structures of society, outside our dominant ideologies, what guarantee do we have against having our own bureaucratic and political structures put to work to evil ends today? How would we go about fighting against such a system? And what precisely is the point of no return on the road to barbarity? Have we, dare I say it, perhaps already begun to walk the path towards barbarity? Would we even know it if we passed the point of no return? Clearly, as the McCarthy hearings in the United States proved, we ourselves are not immune from finding people guilty solely for holding ideas that run counter to the dominant ideologies of a given government. What is to prevent such injustices from happening again, and on a yet worse scale? Follow the world news, and you see genocide after genocide sweeping the world, which suggests that the fact of the Holocaust is itself not a guarantee against repetition: Bosnia and Rwanda are just the most recent events in a twentieth century overtaken by genocidal violence. But perhaps injustice is hardest to see when it is closest to home and obscured by our most dearly held ideologies: the colonization of our life-world by the logic of economic rationality, which now threatens even the university, one of the last bastions of freedom in our society. As Michele Tolela Myers puts it in that New York Times Op-Ed piece,

I think we have a responsibility to insist that education is more than learning job skills, that it is also the bedrock of a democracy. I think we must be very careful that in the race to become wealthier, more prestigious, and to be ranked Number One, we don't lose sight of the real purpose of education, which is to make people free—to give them the grounding they need to think for themselves and participate as intelligent members of a free society. Obsolete or naive? I surely hope not.

What is easy to forget, and what the Eichmann case I hope illustrated, is how all injustice can only ever occur because of the participation of everyday citizens: through support of the local government, through an individual's unwillingness to protest, through active involvement in government policies, either by anonymous denunciations or actual acts of indifference or even violence. The fact is that, as Hannah Arendt put it, what we are facing in examining the Holocaust is not a monstrous aberration safely located in the dead past-the image of the evil Nazi that we know from Hollywood kitsch-but a "banality of evil" that, in every instance of injustice, gets implemented through the acts of everyday citizens and in the most mundane of everyday acts.

Indeed, I would say that it all comes down to one act and you engage in that act every single day of your conscious lives: the act of recognition that occurs every time you address someone with a "hello"-that phatic statement, in itself meaning nothing, that undergirds our shared humanity: the recognition of the power of an other over you. Herein lies the irreducible power of each and every individual and also our last and best guarantee against oppression and injustice: your power to speak your mind and be heard. It was Italy's and Bulgaria's and Denmark's unwillingness to give up this freedom that foiled the Nazi race laws at every turn when officials tried to apply them in those countries. What I hope this truth should make clear to you is how important the day-by-day decisions you make really are. How exactly do you react to unfair words, unjust acts? How vigilant are you about injustices done in the name of law or nationhood or economic gain? The danger in exploring the Holocaust is in thinking that it was unstoppable, given the massive police machinery used to implement it. I brought Robert Gellately to class because he has, throughout his work, illustrated just how much the Gestapo and the Nazi regime in general relied on the acts of everyday citizens. The danger today is to subscribe to a pervasive post-60s apathy-the feeling that our actions have no effects given the incredible power of existing power structure-hence all the paranoia narratives about government power from the X-Files to Enemy of the State to The Matrix. The fact is that power resides—not out there with THEM—but in each one of you. As Michel Foucault put it in "The Subject and Power,"

When one defines the exercise of power as a mode of action upon the actions of others, when one characterizes these actions by the government of men by other men-in the broadest sense of the term-one includes an important element: freedom. Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free. By this we mean individual or collective subjects who are faced with a field of possibilities in which several ways of behaving, several reactions and diverse comportments may be realized. Where the determining factors saturate the whole there is no relationship of power; slavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains. (In this case it is a question of a physical relationship of constraint.) .... The relationship between power and freedom's refusal to submit cannot therefore be separated. The crucial problem of power is not that of voluntary servitude (how could we seek to be slaves?). At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom. (221-22)

Injustice inevitably occurs when one refuses to accept the power of others over you. This refusal unfortunately lies at the heart of economic rationality, since the essence of such rationality is to reduce humanity to calculable figures, marketable desires, debits on a ledger. But you see the same loss of recognition in film and video; extreme violence in such media is not evil in and of itself. (Indeed, when violence is presented as something repellent, disgusting, film and video can actually lead to positive effects.) There is a danger only when such violence is coupled with an inability to recognize the humanity of others. It is for this reason, it seems to me, that high school killings, which are increasingly in the news, are almost always directed at anonymous people, not at specific individuals who wronged the perpetrator (jocks in general, authority figures in general, women in general). In fact, this is the first lesson of any self-defense class. [GIVE ANECDOTE] The fact is that the battle occurs every day in every decision. It is for this reason that the Holocaust is not about the past, in the traditional sense. What I mean is perhaps best described by a German-Jewish intellectual who, in despair, ended up committing suicide in 1940 on the Franco-Spanish border, just weeks, even days before he might have escaped Vichy France, that is Walter Benjamin. He states: "To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it 'the way it really was' (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger" (681). It means seizing hold of the past not as a "sequence of events like the beads of a rosary" (Benjamin 685) but in all its complexity, with all the contending forces that make the future so uncertain in any given moment of time.

Hence my turn to alltagsgeschichte in this course, that is the history of the everyday. It has transformed Holocaust historiography in the last decade—and Robert Gellately is one of the most prominent of these historiographers (as Mary Nolan also argues at the end of her article). What alltagsgeschichte seeks to do is to understand the Holocaust on a day-by-day level; it seeks to reconceive the past as open, as perpetually in a state of uncertainly. Benjamin terms this moment of uncertainty, "jetztzeit," literally the time of the now: As he states,

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the 'state of emergency' in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm." (682)

What Habermas is calling for in his idea of post-conventional or post-national identity is precisely such a permanent state of emergency, a permanent state of vigilance against any desire to represent the present as a historical norm. And that moment of crisis occurs on the most quotidian level, I would argue. In your relationship to me, to him, to every person you pass on the street, to every interaction you engage in, and to every individual that has passed on the earth. As Benjamin puts it, "There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply" (680). It is for this reason that the Holocaust is not about the past; it is for this reason that the struggle is not passed. We fight it here and our only weapon is the ability to argue our minds and thus to be recognized before others-be it in the writing of strong argumentative papers or in the act of standing before our peers before a court of justice. The power is yours.

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