The Dartmouth Observer
Wednesday, December 29, 2004
The Holocaust in Context
John's done an excellent job debunking Goldhagen's thesis. Leaving aside the details of John's critique (which Christopher Browning addresses in his latest book on The Origins of the Final Solution), Goldhagen is guilty of several fallacies of causation outlined by David Hackett Fischer in his wonderful little treatise Historians' Fallacies. The first is the reductive fallacy, by which a complex event (in this case, the Final Solution) is reduced to a simplistic explanation (virulent anti-Semitism). The second and related fallacy is the fallacy of responsibility as cause, which Fischer describes as "merging two different questions and demanding a single answer: 'How did it happen?' and 'Who is to blame?'" Ideologies in themselves, however hateful they are, are not the causes of great historical events (although they may be sufficient to explain individual actions); it is when these ideologies find expression in the institutions of power that things happen.
Why, then, do we "privilege" (to use a piece of contemporary jargon) the Holocaust over all other historical examples of mass killling? John suggests that there are many more "relevant" instances to study for the purpose of "moral instruction," and proceeds to rattle off a few of them: extermination of the native Americans (North and South), Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan. He could have added Cambodia, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Stalinist Russia, et al.
I'm not sure what John means by "relevant." If relevance is related to closeness in time, then the example of the native Americans doesn't seem that relevant; if it means culturally, then the examples of Rwanda and Sudan don't really matter to Americans or the West. As for me, while I regard all these examples as essential, I do think the Holocaust has a special (not in a moral sense) place in the historical consciousness of the West, and let me explain why.
To begin with, the Holocaust involved the Jewish people, and they occupy a special place in the history of the West. No historical group, at least within Western history broadly conceived, can claim to have been persecuted in the ways that the Jews were for several thousand years.
The Holocaust was also part of a larger historical picture in its time, by which I mean of course WWII. If the Great War was pointless in its destruction, WWII -- leaving aside the temporary alliance between the Allies and Soviet Russia -- was imbued from the start with a strong moral purpose: the destruction of fascism. The Holocaust did not take place in deepest Africa, and it did not involve the peoples of a single country in the way that the Cultural Revolution did. It took place within the context of the largest war the world has (not just had) ever known.
And third, it took place in Germany, the great hope for the (old) new world order envisioned by Wilson and the League of Nations; the home of Goethe, Kant, Schiller, Hegel, and Ranke. How could a distinguished nation commit such an atrocity? This is the question that all historians of the Holocaust ask themselves. Goldhagen is content to dehumanize all Germans as absolutely committed to the killing of all Jews; by contrast, as Christopher Browning describes in Ordinary Men, most Germans were not by instinct or by custom killers. The Nazis, as many have pointed out, were men of culture, not illiterate Cambodian peasants or Rwandan tribesmen.
Finally, the nature of the genocide committed by the Nazis was distinctively modern. While it may be true that most Jews died of starvation and disease, there is no denying that the form of genocide "perfected" by the Nazis was unique to history. The Nazis turned killing into an industry, impersonal and mechanized.
Friday, December 24, 2004
Holocaust: Hype and Misrepresentations
This also could have been titled “Against All Ignorance” or “The Holocaust.” But I’m really not that pretentious.
I. Any decent person should know about the Holocaust.
At the risk of callously treating an extremely sensitive question, I ask "Why?" The supposed knowledge of the Holocaust that we educated have is oftentimes inaccurate re-tellings of Second World War history. I agree that Auschwitz represents many of the inchoate pathologies of some Western ideals and concepts. I do not believe, however, that the superficial, inaccurate, frustrating discourses and invocations concerning the Holocaust in any way add to a person's intellectual or moral well-being.
Most persons who profess opinions about the Holocaust oftentimes do so from the standpoint of moral superiority, whether that of a professional or lay person. In much of the armchair scholarship surrounding Holocaust studies, most narratives and hypotheses about why the Holocaust happened (it would be more accurate to say why the Nazis believed the mass extermination of many of peoples of Europe was strategically necessary and justified) begin from the standpoint of assuming that the Nazis, Germans, or Hitler wanted to annihilate every last Jew from the earth. (To be fair, there is a lot of literature, that I will quote here, that does not make this erroneous assumption.) This article of faith is a largely incorrect, if popular, assumption. I wish to correct these false beliefs and then propose an actual model for the remembrance of the Holocaust.
Jonah Goldhagen provides an excellent example of a problematic analysis of the Holocaust in his book suggestively titled Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Goldhagen, in analyzing the Holocaust in comparative perspective, often wrote of the German “willingness to kill” Jews during World War Two. For him, the preceding Holocaust scholarship’s inability to describe adequately why the Holocaust happened in Germany obscures the obvious and underlying German hatred of Jews. He begins: “[Other explanations of the Holocaust] ignore, deny, or radically minimize the importance of Nazi…ideology, moral values, and [their] conception of the victims for engendering” a basic desire to hate and kill Jews. (13) Goldhagen’s theory, in contrast, comments on the deep nature of German anti-Semitism to explain the Holocaust: “the perpetrators, ‘ordinary Germans’ were animated by anti-Semitism, by a particular type of anti-Semitism that led them to conclude the Jews ought to die.” (14, emphasis in the original) The German hatred of the Jews had become so great, and his opinions of the Jew so low, that the Holocaust was the only possible answer available to the German Jewish Question. “Simply put, the perpetrators, having consulted their own convictions and morality, and having judged the mass annihilation of the Jews to be right, did not want to say “no” [to genocide].” (19) Goldhagen puts much effort in trying to prove that the Germans were particularly anti-Semitic to the point of requiring the eradication of the Jewish race. For him, the conflict between German and Jews began in the early pre-school propaganda of children’s books, “The Devil is the father of the Jew”, and ended in the morbid oblivion of the abattoir. Moreover, even though “the Jews of Germany…wanted nothing more than to be good Germans” and the “Eastern European Jewry [was extremely] Germanophil[ic]”, in his mind it was not surprising, in retrospect, to have observed the Nazi mass slaughter because “the will for the comprehensive killing of Jews in all lands” was a result of the race hatred of divided German society. (414)
There are two problems with casting the Holocaust in this light. The first is that nearly 72% of Germany's Jews, through institutionalized discrimination and cultural intimidation, were forced to emigrate before the Germans initiated World War Two. (Browning, The Final Solution and the German Foreign Office, 14.) The second problems involves the curious little fact that the mass annihilation of European Jews, as opposed to merely German Jews, or, on the other hand, all Jews, did not begin until 1941.
The German government targeted Jews because it genuinely believed that the Jewish people, as a political-biological entity, posed an actual threat to the German national future in the form of Marxist-Communism, on the one hand, and as a degrader of that pure Aryan blood, on the other. Hitler warns in Mein Kampf : “If, with the help of his Marxist creed, the Jew is victorious over the other peoples of the world, his crown will be the funeral wreath of humanity and this planet will, as it did thousands of years ago, move through the ether devoid of men.” (300) With such rabid, delusional, and psychotic anti-Semitism—from which a large number of our European counterparts currently suffer to a lesser degree—it is quite logical to intuit how the Nazis could be responsible for the murder of so many Jews. Though logical, the mass murder of Jews was not the sole option for the Nazi. In fact, it was not even the first option.
The first option chosen by the rabidly anti-Semitic Third Reich was that of institutionalized legal and cultural discrimination. In order to protect those Germans from the Jews, the Reich abolished Jewish political and economic rights. Exclusion of Jews from service in the government, the practice of medicine, participation in the academy, and the holding of any positions of power and influence become commonplace in pre-war Germany. The ban on German-Jewish intermarriage flowed naturally from the aforementioned cases of discrimination. Forced emigration became the immediate aim of the German government after all the institutional discrimination was in place. The SS Security Service memorandum nicely summarizes early German Jewish policy: “the aim of Jewish policy must be the complete emigration of the Jews…[T]he life opportunities of the Jews have to be restricted, not only in economic terms. To them Germany must become a country without a future, in which the old generation may die off with what still remains for it, but in which the young generation should find it impossible to live, so that the incentive to emigrate is constantly in force.” (Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews, 201) This policy was so successful that almost three-quarters of Germany’s Jewish population emigrated to safety from that totalitarian nightmare. By 1942, however, Germany began on a campaign to mass exterminate many of the Jews. Why? There are three pieces of evidence which I believe addressed my second question.
First, the success of the German blitzkrieg across Europe brought millions of Jews, enemy combatants in their eyes, under its control. The amount of energy needed to convince Germany’s relatively small number of Jews to emigrate would have been insufficient to have dealt with the millions now on their hands. The refusal of other European (and American) nations to accept more Jewish refugees, combined with the lack of places to which Germany could deport Jews, created many logistical problems for the Nazi bureaucracy. Himmler, the architect and guardian of Nazi deportation policies, drafted a statement in 1940 stating: “I hope to completely erase the concept of the Jews through the possibility of a great emigration of all Jews to a colony in Africa or elsewhere…[H]owever cruel and tragic…this method is still the mildest and best, if one rejects the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of people out of inner conviction as un-German and impossible.” (Browning, Nazi Resettlement Policy, 3-27, emphasis added.) A few months later Himmler clarified: “biological extermination…is undiginified for the German people as a civilized nation.” After the German victory, “we will impose the condition on the enemy powers that the holds of their ships be used to transport the Jews along with their belongings to Madagascar or elsewhere.” (Browning, Nazi Resettlement Policy. 16-17; Gotz Aly, Final Solution: Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews, 3)
Mass extermination was “practical” for two reasons. First, the Germans were used to destroying entire civilian populations for logistical reasons. In France and some areas of Eastern Europe the Germans limited their killing to exterminating rivals and rebels whereas in the areas of Eastern Europe that had been designated Lebensraum entire populations were destroyed or depopulated. Accordingly, Nazi rule exposed “all of them to alien rule, and some to deportation, terror, and mass murder. Very, very few people wanted the Germans there, regardless of how they conducted themselves under occupation.” (Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History ,426) Michael Burleigh further noted that the future German plans toward France and the western countries were extremely destructive. “Hitler was interested in German dominance of the continent, with a view to exploiting its resources for his great schemes in the East, not in some sort of amicable partnership….At the height of their power the Nazi leaders were contemplating the disappearance of some of Europe’s smaller states and the drastic attenuation of France herself, which they regarded as the hereditary foe, lynchpin of Versailles, and a source of democratic ideals which they had just comprehensively vanquished.” (Burleigh, 426) Second, the Germans had already effectively emptied Germany of the mentally ill and deformed. Adapting gas chambers and methods of extermination to the most recent problem was a small technocratic challenge, easily overcome by the German bureaucracy. By the end of 1942, Germany had already murdered about two-thirds of the Jews, roughly 3.8 million, that it was going to murder under the Final Solution. (We also still have to deal with the fact that a large number of Jews who died during the Holocaust, whom I included in this estimate anyway, did not die from shooting, hanging, phenol injection, or gassing but rather from sickness, disease, undernourishment, and hyperexplotation. If we were to speak of Jewish deaths in the same method by which we speak of aboriginal deaths in the Americans during the Spanish conquest, these would not count toward the Holocaust total.)
This knowledge about the historical events surrounding that infamous mass murder in no way benefits the average person. Why is it that we should remember the Holocaust and treat it so sacrosanct? There are many more relevant historical mass killings that the Brits, or anyone else for that matter, could look to for moral instruction. The genocides of the Native American tribes, the destruction of the aboriginal peoples of the Americas, the mass killing within the Yugoslavian civil wars of succession, that bloody episode in Rwanda, or, even more recently, that tired little conflict in the Sudan would all be appropriate topics about which to scold persons for their lack of knowledge. An episode in Germany that reduced the population of Europe by hardly 1% over the period of years 1939-1945, though polemicized, infamous, and an article of faith for many, isn’t really that relevant in the grand scheme of things.
II. The Comparison of The Intifadah to the policies of the Thrid Reich is wrong-headed, and, above that, stupid.
Arthur Chrenkoff opines: “Where does one even begin to tackle this sort of absurdity? That if there is "not much of a difference" between the Second World War and the Second Intifada, where are today's concentration camps, where is Auschwitz, where are the gas chambers and the crematoria, where are the mass graves, where are the Einsatzgruppen and the SS? Or maybe it's not that Germans don't know what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians - maybe they don't know what their own grandfathers have done to the Jews? Maybe Germans think that the Holocaust consisted of Wehrmacht shooting a few Jewish kids throwing stones at the Panther tanks, or Luftwaffe taking out a Jewish Fighting Organisation leader in retaliation for a suicide attack on a Munich beerhall?”
I agree with Chrenkoff that the Israelis are not fighting a war of extermination against the Palestinian people. I, however, would like to ask Chrenkoff if drawing comparisons between “the Second World War and the Second Intifada” are as “absurd” as he would like them to be. For instance, the discrimination and disenfranchisement of Israeli Arabs in Israel’s 50 plus years of existence has been comparable to Nazi disenfranchisement of Jews before it starting killing them. The expulsion of Arabs in the Arab-Israeli wars, the encourage emigration that is still an official Israeli policy, and the confiscation of Arab possessions during this conflicts is not dissimilar from pre-war Nazi policies. The once active settler policies of various Israeli governments, both right and left until Sharon, after the 1967 Six Day War, is eerily similar to the German settler policies unleashed on Eastern and Western Europeans during the Second World War. Moreover, the explicit preference given to Jews worldwide, similar to the German preference given to Germans in all lands, smacks of the Nazi past.
Let me be clear here. I am not arguing, as it is fashionable to do these days, that the Jewish state will be setting up death camps anytime soon. I, however, see the almost mutually exclusive tensions generated by the two pillars of Israel: of being a democracy for the Jews. Almost as problematic as the conservative Christian notion of salvation for all persons (excepts prostitutes, liberals, Jews, gays, etc), the Zionist idea of a democratic state for Jews, built in land which, until recently has not had a Jewish majority for some millennia, suffers from the centrifugal forces of inclusion (democracy) and exclusion(ethnicity/religion). As a Zionist myself, I struggle with how Israel should keep its Jewish majority and remain democratic in the face of a demographic shift against its ideal. Lesser regimes would have engaged in mass killing in the face of organized para-military resistance and a population explosion of an “enemy nation.” Comparisons to the Nazi past are not only relevant, but necessary, that Israel may guard her heart against the seductive strategic logic of mass killing.
III. What exactly did we mean when we said "Never Again"?
The world made a pledge to “never again” let the Holocaust happen. “Never again” has turned into an almost universal expectation that every person should actively and consciously recall the gruesomeness of the Holocaust to prevent future genocides. In so far as the world has stood by time and time again when multiple mass killings explode around the globe since World War Two—in communist states starving their people to death between purges, in fundamentalist terror in the Middle East, in anti-colonial revolutionary struggles, in Western armed interventions into other states, in anti-communist liquidations, in counterguerrilla operations, and in ethnic conflicts—I am starting to believe that the promise was actually “Never again in 1942 will we allow Germany to kill Jews.”
Valentino proposes a solution to this mess: “Only by comparing the Holocaust to other episodes of mass killing can we asses its significance. Only by understanding its similarities and differences can we draw lessons from the Holocaust that might help us prevent or limit this kind of violence in the future. Indeed, the contribution that studying the Holocaust can make to the understanding of genocide and mass killing in general is one of the most important reasons why honor our obligation to never forget it.”
Elie Wiesel: “I have tried to keep memory alive, I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.” We should remember the Holocaust, then, in so far as it helps us to understand the mass terror that mass murder unleashes upon the world, whether by Western governments in poorly planned interventions and calculated hate, or by political instability. Jean Baudrillard: “Forgetting the extermination is part of the extermination itself.”
Tuesday, December 21, 2004
Victor Davis Hanson is coming to Dartmouth. To debate Ron Edsforth. I am mightily pissed not to be there. Grhh.
Update: so too is Daniel Pipes (see right column). I wonder if he's debating Gene Garthwaite? Probably not.
Tuesday, December 14, 2004
More historical relativism
A poll taken some weeks ago in England found that 50% of Englishmen hadn't heard of Auschwitz. As I said back then, the result wouldn't be that bad if a substantial portion of the ignorant had heard of the Holocaust.
The result of this latest poll, however, is harder to cast in a decent light. According to the University of Bielefeld in Germany, 51% of pollsters "said that there is not much of a difference between what Israel is doing to the Palestinians today and what the Nazis did to the Jews during the Holocaust...The survey also found that 68 percent of Germans believe that Israel is waging a 'war of extermination' against the Palestinians."
Arthur Chrenkoff expresses my concerns quite well, so you should just read him.
Thursday, December 09, 2004
Dan Drezner asks, "what books are you embarrassed not to have read?"
There are really too many to list. Like several of Drezner's commenters, I haven't read Thucydides. As someone interested in history, I haven't read Herodotus or most of Gibbon. Ditto most of Aristotle (Poetics aside), most of Plato (The Republic aside), Kant, Nietzsche, and just about all modern philosophers. As an English major whose interest in literature has diminished somewhat lately, I'll admit to not having read War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote (managed only 300 pages), Bleak House, Middlemarch, Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, and all of Faulkner. Oh, and despite attending an evangelical school for 10 years, my knowledge of the Bible is shoddy. Don't even get started on non-Western stuff.
Sunday, December 05, 2004
State of The Nation
No sooner has Peter Beinart exhorted the left to get serious about the war against militant Islam, a massive article appears in The Nation to prove him, well, correct. Among the twenty-something odd contributors surveyed,
only Michael Lind gets it:
And in a world in which the greatest threat to civilization is the religious right of the Muslim countries, much of the left persists in treating the United States as an evil empire and American patriotism as a variant of fascism.One other guy talks about the "moral imperative to ending the Bush war in Iraq," but offers no ideas on how to deal with al-Qaeda. The others, by contrast, are content to cast their eyes elsewhere and offer vague generalizations about the need for change and social justice: reform Social Security (Theda Skocpol); "strengthen institutions that provide the social basis for progressive politics" (Eric Foner); create "a new civil rights movement, a mobilization against the Bush regime, against its nascent totalitarianism, with marches on Washington that will stir the dormant American conscience" (Dartmouth's Susannah Heschel); make human rights "a reality for all" (Mary Robinson); win the Hispanic vote (several contributors); "use our blue-state haven [New York] as a laboratory to grow new alternative policies" (Bertha Lewis and Bob Master); "[attack] the dog-eat-dog ideological assumptions of the new corporate state that now dominate American politics. With our bare hands" (Dan Carter); and so on.
Then there's the usual warning about incipient fascism (NYU professor Troy Duster), and the revelation that "Kerry got beaten in Ohio partly by a nefarious plan that denied Democratic precincts an adequate supply of voting machines." The author of that last statement also encourages the left to "Demonize the Republicans for opposing recounts, suppressing voters and installing insecure e-voting systems with proprietary software owned by partisan companies."
Democrats, liberals, leftists - you can and have to do better than this. (Thank God for Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, and Brad Plumer.)
Thursday, December 02, 2004
Who should blog?
When the intranet's down, the bloggers go out to town...
Kevin Drum, at the end of a post on the much-hyped but hitherto non-existent Becker-Posner blog, wonders who we'd like to see blogging. He proposes Richard Dawkins, but his commentators have taken the liberty to include a few dead people as well.
Christopher Hitchens would be a fabulous choice, for temperamental reasons alone (not to mention his intellect). I can imagine him having a comments section that he actually participates in.
Auschwitz? What's that?
A poll has found that 50% of Britons have never heard of Auschwitz. Without wanting to make excuses for such gross historical ignorance, I wonder how many of these people have never heard of the Holocaust? That would appear to be the more salient question.
Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Half-Life 2: Adjectives fail me
Blogging has been scarce for the past week because of Half-Life 2, which is quite possibly the best-looking game ever made. See for yourself. I played Doom 3 when it came out and the visual contrast between the two games could not be more significant. The latter features miles of claustrophobic corridors, fantastically rendered, but all identical: I recall very few scenes that stood out, save for maybe the Hell level and some of the final levels. HL2, by contrast, has both spectacular outdoor vistas and realistic indoor scenes. The water effects and texture work are amazing.
HL2 also plays fantastically. The story, while not developed as fully as it should be (even by the end), is detailed and engrossing (and scary). The characters are nearly life-like thanks to detailed facial modelling - they roll their eyes, shrug their shoulders, and express anger and sadness. The levels are varied and feature all manner of interesting puzzles and challenges. Speakking of which, I have to mention the game's physics engine and the gravity gun that relies on it. There's nothing quite like picking up a sawblade and slicing through a couple of zombies, without having to expend any precious shotgun ammunition. Or, at one moment on Highway 17, picking up a giant metal container with a crane and using it to bludgeon hapless Combine soldiers.
Again, the contrast to Doom 3 could not be greater. In Doom, all you did was move from room to room, shoot whatever was in there, open a locked door or two, and so on. There was no variety in the gameplay, and the monsters you faced became predictable after a while. HL2 confronts the gamer with all sorts of interesting scripted scenarios. Early in the game, without a weapon, you have to run away from the pursuing Combine. Later on, while cruising Highway 17, you face off against a Combine dropship that has to be taken down with a rocket launcher. In the prison, you have to defend your position from waves of Combine soldiers with stationary turrets. There aren't any boss fights in the game (unlike in Doom 3), but this is only slightly disappointing. The last few levels are pretty cool nonetheless.
As I've run out of adjectives, I'll stop here, and get back to regular blogging shortly.
Moore of the Same, or can the left Move On?
* Note to self: worse title ever!
Peter Beinart has a must-read article on the challenge liberals and Democrats face in the aftermath of Bush's re-election. It's quite simple really, as Andrew Sullivan, OxBlog, and others - even Jonah Goldberg - have been saying: is the left willing to discard its negative critique of the Bush administration adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan in favor of a foreign policy that takes seriously the threat of militant Islam? In other words, is the Democratic Party willing to do to Michael Moore what it did to Henry Wallace in 1947 - cast him by the wayside? Says Beinart:
Most Democrats agree with [Moore] about the Iraq war, about Ashcroft, and about Bush. What they do not recognize, or do not acknowledge, is that Moore does not oppose Bush's policies because he thinks they fail to effectively address the terrorist threat; he does not believe there is a terrorist threat. For Moore, terrorism is an opiate whipped up by corporate bosses. In Dude, Where's My Country?, he says it plainly: "There is no terrorist threat." And he wonders, "Why has our government gone to such absurd lengths to convince us our lives are in danger?"Beinart has some equally strong words for MoveOn.org (which as Tim Blair points out, should really be renamed "RemainFixated.org"), whose founder Eli Pariser, when asked at an anti-war rally why he was sharing the stage with ANSWER and other apologists for dictators, said "I'm personally against defending Slobodan Milosevic and calling North Korea a socialist heaven, but it's just not relevant right now."
Beinart then proceeds to sketch a framework for anti-totalitarian liberalism based on an even more ambitious American foreign policy: one that would involve not just killing terrorists, but also nation-building - something Beinart argues the Republicans, for all their talk about promoting freedom abroad, are still instinctually suspicious of. Hmmm. I agree on the importance of nation-building. I just don't know if the "deep-seated opposition to foreign aid and nation-building" on the Right is as strong as it once was (i.e. during the Cold War). Beinart is good at quoting Moore and MoveOn, but he can't seem to find a single quote from a representative Republican or conservative who's skeptical of nation-building. (And no, John Derbyshire and Pat Buchanan don't count.) In fact, it seems to me that a great many conservatives these days are quite supportive of nation-building. And if there is inherent conservative skepticism to foreign aid, it sure wasn't manifested in the $87 billion loan package approved by the House and Senate last year. It seems to me that Beinart is confusing intentions and consequences. He should read Arthur Chrenkoff.
Still, Beinart's lack of evidence on this point doesn't detract from what is a splendid and important piece. Read the whole thing!
Responses from Andrew Sullivan ("the essay we've been waiting for"), Jonah Goldberg ("a wonderful, heartfelt, tough-minded, morally and politically serious wake-up call"), Kevin Drum ("What he really needs to write is a prequel to his current piece, one that presents the core argument itself: namely, why defeating Islamic totalitarianism should be a core liberal issue."), and Matt Yglesias ("I wouldn't put nearly as much weight on dovish sentiments within the base as Beinart does.").