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How to Write about the Holocaust


No. 410: Saturday, June 25, 2011

As in many other things, not being an "authority" on the Holocaust makes it easier for me to formulate some basic ideas about it than for those whose lives and careers are directly dependent on it. I recently read Alvin Rosenfeld’s The End of the Holocaust (Indiana UP 2011), which is mostly devoted to noting the failures of Western culture’s memory of the Holocaust. While I sympathize with most of the views the author expresses, and certainly share his concluding apprehension concerning those in Iran and elsewhere who are happily dreaming of annihilating Israel in a "second Holocaust," I would like to suggest a different, less polemical perspective on the subject.

The Holocaust provides an extreme version of the paradoxes that arise whenever we attempt to react as individuals to any real-world event. To simply take the event as a given is to abdicate our human responsibility to assign meaning, yet to insist on finding for it a "personal" meaning is to make our own judgment the measure of social value. The Holocaust poses this paradox in a maximally urgent manner because while it presents a spectacle so morally repugnant that we feel obliged to invent a personal way of "testifying" to it, it is a thing of the past that all our acts of repentance and charity cannot redeem. Hence it arouses reactions of denial, minimization, focusing on minor "positive" elements, de-Judaizing, attacks on the "Holocaust industry," etc., as ways of reducing it to more tolerable dimensions; and at the other extreme, it inspires the suicide of survivors who cannot bear the guilt of having been "chosen" over so many others, coupled with the sense of irredeemable violation that suggests one no longer deserves to live.

But the intensity and frequent moral inadequacy of these responses testifies to the fact that the Holocaust’s historical impact goes well beyond the realm of direct reactions and their exploitation in rhetoric and imagery. To take a controversial example, when "happy" stories of the Holocaust such as Schindler’s List are accused of emphasizing cases that are in fact statistically trivial, I think a point missed is that the "happy ending" reflects not in fact the story of the Holocaust itself but of what is hoped to be its place in history—as the source of a new sensitivity to oppression, including but not limited to the Jewish resolve that has sustained Israel. For the justification for Schindler’s List as "the story of the Holocaust" includes as well the postwar liberation of the European colonies and the Blacks in the American South. Here and in general, I find it more useful to judge such works in their overall historical context rather than as attempted revisions, or re-visions, of the Holocaust. For the real story of the Holocaust cannot be made into a meaningful fiction, since the vast majority of its characters, those whom we desperately wish to memorialize, were not actors at all, only victims.

My thesis has long been that reaction to the Holocaust lies at the origin of the whole victimary trend of modern thought, in both what I consider its praiseworthy accomplishments and those I admire less—although like nearly all political actions (except those that can be defined in terms of the Nazi-Jew paradigm of the Holocaust, which is why this very designation is, unsurprisingly, paradoxical) these are subject to the Hayekian principle that the "market" is smarter than its participants, so that a policy that may strike me as unjustified may in fact turn out to have a salutary effect on, say, the achievement of racial equality.

On the level at which this thesis is situated, specific reactions to the Holocaust as a historical event are no longer at issue; the question becomes how to understand the overall movement of thought that we claim this event brought about. To answer those who contest this claim, we must define victimary thinking and show how its categories can be conceived as reactions to the Holocaust. The point of such a discussion is not to prove that those who have made use of victimary categories in political and social thought "had the Holocaust in mind," nor is it useful to argue with someone who denies either the Holocaust’s reality or its significance. The burden would rather be on such a person to provide an equally coherent alternative model, and only at this point would argument become productive.

But in fact the very notion of victimary thinking has no equivalent in everyday discourse, and not surprisingly there really are no other universal explanatory models. Most intellectuals reject the very idea of "victimary thought" and see themselves rather as defending the oppressed against their oppressors. In contrast, those who accept the idea of the victimary and who are generally critical of the phenomenon it designates are not wont to seek justifications for it in history.

Victimary thinking may be defined without circularly referring to the Holocaust. It is the way of thinking for which any difference between ascriptive or "objective" groups that can be understood as imputing values of superiority and inferiority is absolutely condemned as immoral and inhuman. In this context "ascriptive" may be taken broadly to include sexual orientation and religion as well as the usual categories of race, gender, nationality, social class, etc.

Let me now outline, as I have done in a number of Chronicles (e.g., 90, 287, 337, 380, 385, 392, 399…) a skeleton history of postwar victimary thinking. In the first phase, which in the United States was the era of "Civil Rights," the form of victimization that was condemned was de jure inequality, whose obvious parallel with the Nazi-Jew relationship was rarely stated and, I imagine, seldom thought. The point is not that the living memory of the Holocaust was instrumental in creating a sense of repugnance, but that the Holocaust was experienced historically as a demonstration of the evil of differential relationships on racial lines. No doubt the Holocaust itself took place at a moment of history in which a certain (notably anti-colonial) struggle had already begun and must be understood in part as a reaction to it, as a strong assertion of the validity of "racial superiority" at a moment when this notion, so unproblematic in the previous century, had begun to come under fire. But in the next turn of the dialectic, the horror of Nazism itself, even independently of the still little-mentioned specifics of the Final Solution, was sufficient to fuel what turned out to be successful struggles for racial equality and colonial liberation. This phase of history, whose last triumph was the demise of apartheid in South Africa in 1990-91, is to the extent that historical developments may be so considered, relatively unproblematic; today only a tiny fringe would find acceptable, let alone prefer, the racial/colonial hierarchies of an earlier era.

The "Jewish question" was relatively absent from the vision of Nazism that provided the impetus for these developments, which focused less on the six million than on the general horror of Nazi racism and tyranny. In this period the Jews, rather than insisting on their role as victims, tended rather to be ashamed of it; the question commonly asked of survivors was, "why didn’t you/they fight back?"

It was only in the second, mature phase of postmodernism that victimary thinking fully came into its own. At much the same time, the idea of "the Holocaust" acquired currency, along with the now-familiar images of piles of bodies and suitcases, emaciated prisoners, the Warsaw Ghetto in flames, "selection" on the Auschwitz ramp… as well as the iconic and much-abused figure of Anne Frank, to whom Rosenfeld devotes two full chapters of his book. In this second phase of victimary thinking, those who claimed to be or defend victims learned a new rhetoric of results. It was not enough to demand equal rights; to obtain full equality one had to be compensated for past ills, to be granted a "level playing field." Victimary thinking has operated ever since with this expanded model, with which is associated a deconstructive theory of history. In this perspective, giving Blacks or women equal rights today cannot suffice to reverse not so much the direct results of past discrimination as the mind-set, indeed, the shared ontology of a world that affirms racial and gender superiority/inferiority. Although the domination of many areas of the university system, corporate hiring, etc., by such considerations has provided victimary groups with considerable financial and other advantages, victims are not expected to be satisfied simply to have acquired "rights" and advantages in the present. On the contrary, they are called as witnesses to the applicability of the Nazi-Jew model to human society in general. For from the beginning, the ethical and intellectual values of these societies have been complicit in the oppression of peripheral victims for the benefit of central authority.

The power of the Holocaust model is simple and absolute. If one wishes to claim, for example, that certain social roles are better fitted to men than women—or, say, that marriage should be restricted to that between a man and a woman—the implicit Nazi analogy renders these judgments as ugly as the caricatures in Der Stürmer. It is of great significance that anti-Jewish prejudice, unlike the standard racial variety, is based on the denial of what is generally an objective superiority—one that can be traced back to the Hebrews’ firstness as the inventors/discoverers of monotheism. The Nazi-Jew paradigm colors all other victimary oppositions with an undertone of envy. Whatever the value of the evidence that, say, Blacks are less intelligent on average than Whites, or women less gifted in the sciences than men, there is certainly no evidence that Jews are less intelligent or gifted than non-Jews—au contraire. If victimary groups are persecuted ultimately for their superiority, then no discrimination of any kind can be objectively justified. Hence the existence of statistical differences between groups with regard to success in any given endeavor (unless the victimary group actually does better, as with Blacks on basketball teams or women in college admissions) is considered prima facie evidence of discrimination.

At this point victimary thinking becomes problematic, for it incorporates two contradictory principles derived from the originary moral model. On the one hand, the firstness of the first user of the sign is not allowed to confer an advantage when it comes to distributing the products of the sparagmos; the exchange of signs, and of the things that are ritually distributed as a result of the exchange of signs, is in principle perfectly symmetrical. On the other hand, in more advanced societies the different roles are expected to be distributed according to the ability to perform them and not by victimary categories. The creation of such categories in the postwar era, however obviously necessary they may appear to us, is a radically new development that is best understood as the legacy of the Holocaust. It is in effect the extension of the Holocaust paradigm to the whole ensemble of social relations. Nothing like "affirmative action" had ever existed, even among persons with great sympathy for groups that are today considered victims and that in the past were simply thought of as deprived of equal rights, such as slaves in the South or women not given the vote. Needless to say, this new victimary consciousness has not done away with social hierarchy, but it has eliminated many selection criteria previously considered "objective," such as aptitude examinations for civil service work, and spawned affirmative action programs of various kinds, not always in compensation for past prejudice.

Rosenfeld’s material offers confirmation of my assertion that results-oriented victimary thought is a product of the Holocaust, not merely in the broad sense that victimary thinkers make abundant and often reckless use of Holocaust analogies, but more specifically that the very outrageousness of the Holocaust metaphor is essential to creating and imposing the new victimary paradigm on human relations.

Let me take as an example a passage quoted by Rosenfeld from Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique, the key manifesto of American postwar feminism. This passage can serve us as a test case of "how to talk about the Holocaust," since it lends itself admirably to Rosenfeld’s critique at the same time as its very enormity justifies my argument that the paradigm inaugurated by the Holocaust is at the heart of modern victimary thought.

[T]he women who "adjust" as housewives, who grow up wanting to be "just a housewife," are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps—and the millions more who refused to believe that the concentration camps existed. In fact, there is an uncanny, uncomfortable insight into why a woman can so easily lose her sense of self as a housewife in certain psychological observations made of the behavior of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. In these settings, purposely contrived for the dehumanization of man [sic], the prisoners literally became "walking corpses." Those who "adjusted" to the conditions of the camps surrendered their human identity and went almost indifferently to their deaths. Strangely enough, the conditions which destroyed the human identity of so many prisoners were not the torture and the brutality, but conditions similar to those which destroy the identity of the American housewife. . . .

It was said . . . that not the SS but the prisoners themselves became their own worst enemy. Because they could not bear to see their situation as it really was—because they denied the very reality of their problem, and finally "adjusted" to the camp itself as if it were the only reality—they were caught in the prison of their own minds. . . . All this seems terribly remote from the easy life of the American suburban housewife. But is [not] her house in reality a comfortable concentration camp? (48, quoting p. 305-07)

Here is Rosenfeld’s reaction to this passage:

"In reality," her house is nothing of the sort, and a clear-thinking person knows that the comparison is a foolish one. . . . [W]hat we confront in Friedan’s book goes beyond merely hyperbolic thinking to something close to the shut-down of thought itself. For no one who thinks at all lucidly can possibly see a connection "in reality" between the situation of middle-class American housewives of the postwar period, no matter how bored they might be, and the wartime condition of inmates in the Nazi camps. (48)

In the paragraphs that follow, Rosenfeld attempts to explain Friedan’s use of this comparison, using ideas from Christopher Lasch and Tzvetan Todorov. But at bottom his "explanation" is simply a restatement of the facts. Rosenfeld alleges that "a politics of suffering and victimization has been developing within American society over the past several decades . . . whose proponents draw on the pervasive presence of Holocaust images in order to garner for themselves a certain moral superiority that victims have come to enjoy in our society." Well, yes, but explaining the use of victimary imagery by "a certain moral superiority that victims have come to enjoy" is mere tautological wordplay.

But the basis for my remark that it is tautological is precisely my theoretical claim that it is truly the Holocaust that is the source of this rhetoric, which is not always as clearly derivative of its model as this particular example. And this means that calling it "rhetoric" and emphasizing as Rosenfeld does the "images" of the Holocaust in Friedan’s passage in fact obscures the real impact of the Holocaust on victimary thought. For these vocabulary elements need not be present in the text, and indeed, the course of victimary rhetoric has been to abandon the Nazi image, except to the extent it can be associated with the "West" and particularly with Israel. When Edward Said proposes "orientalism" as the model for the West’s dismissive and ultimately oppressive attitude toward its "other," the last thing he wants us to think of is the West’s oppression of its internal other, the Jews. In principle, at least, Rosenfeld should be happy with this development, as indeed he might be if it were not the flip side of Muslim-inspired neo-antisemitism that reviles Israel while reprinting Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But precisely, the filiation of victimary thought with the Holocaust is not one of images but of paradigms, and the paradigm of oppressor vs. oppressed race/social group/gender/etc., is far more durable and significant than images of stacked bodies and false shower rooms.

What we observe in Friedan is an early, and for today’s reader strikingly naïve, use of this paradigm. But let us note how she uses it, before the Berkeley uprising of 1965, before the campus/French revolt of 1968, at a time when "affirmative action" (which dates—dixit Wikipedia—from a JFK Executive Order in 1961) was in its infancy and "diversity," which college presidents today cannot form two consecutive sentences on any subject without mentioning, was as yet unknown. Friedan cannot claim that her housewives suffer physically, nor even that they are mentally tortured by… whom exactly? The SS is mentioned only to be dismissed, since not even the most uncompromising feminist could find an analogy between these women’s poor husbands and the SS. The real point is that the prisoners themselves became their own worst enemy, that the housewives/prisoners internalize their oppression and adjust to it. Today such language might be accused of "blaming the victim"; it is made palatable only by the extreme nature of the overall model, which allows the assimilation of the housewives’ oppression to Nazism on the condition that it be a Nazism without Nazis.

For the fact that the women’s material conditions are at the antipodes of those of Auschwitz inmates, far from leading us to dismiss Friedan’s comparison as "the shut-down of thought itself," is precisely meant to caution us against rejecting it. Adjustment is the real problem, and although in the housewives’ world no oppressor is indicated, it is the system of oppression that is at fault. The point of this analogy is that any acquiescence in an oppressive system is the virtual equivalent of accepting the role of the oppressed in the Nazi-Jew model, something that no self-respecting human being should react to with anything but outrage, even unto death. But as Adam Katz would point out, and as the partisans of victimary thinking prefer to ignore, this analogy is only useful to the extent that it is being offered in a social context where it is not valid, where it can have an impact on us precisely because we are not Nazis and are shocked by the accusation that our notion of normality is "really the same as" Auschwitz.

Although Friedan isn’t proposing here anything like "affirmative action," she clearly shows us where the Holocaust paradigm is going. This is no longer Civil Rights language; it is the language of absolute oppression, a pre-philosophical form of deconstruction, for which any acceptation of differential status—such as adjustment to a preestablished gender role—is equivalent to assuming the zombie-like status of prisoners who go unresistingly to their deaths. This is, to use a word that would have a considerable fortune a few decades later, the state of abjection.

However tasteless its rhetoric, Friedan’s book was instrumental in kicking off a neo-feminism that fifty years later has led American women to attend college in considerably higher proportion and with considerably greater success than men, to run for president, and to enter and in some cases dominate formerly male-dominated professions. Thus in condemning Friedan’s rhetoric for its wild reference to the Holocaust, we risk failing to notice what the outcome of reaction to the Holocaust through the mediation of such rhetoric has really been, leading both to the creation of a more gender-equal world and to the problematization of all remaining areas of non-reciprocity, justifiable or not. It is possible to feel disgust with the assimilation of suburban housewives to Nazi prisoners and yet to understand that Friedan’s overall (and generally valid) point in encouraging suburban housewives to look beyond their current roles is an example of the historical power of the Holocaust to generate victimary thought, independently of Friedan’s or anyone else’s specific use of Holocaust metaphors or images.

To conclude with an example of the persistence of this kind of rhetoric nearly fifty years later, here is an extract from the acknowledgement section of a 2008 UCLA doctoral dissertation.

I am . . . compelled to acknowledge the existence of demeaning plantation politics at UCLA, which also significantly and consistently contributed to my UCLA experience. While I carry a tremendous amount of resentment regarding experiences that can best be described as a new millennium form of Jim Crow, I have also gained a tremendous amount of strength from surviving, overcoming and conquering the demon of racism and the racist demons that exist and operate at the University of California Los Angeles.

The Nazis have been replaced by slave-drivers, but the rhetoric makes the same unbridled use of a stigmatized relationship of oppression to condemn phenomena that the author feels no need to describe in any detail. No doubt this example is more of an expression of personal hurt and resentment than an attempt to make other Black students conscious of their oppression. But this only makes it a more convincing illustration of the persistence of a model that, whatever the imagery used here, has its source not in American slavery but in the Holocaust, which brought forth a victimary paradigm that continues to dominate the postmodern era over 65 years after the end of WWII.


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