The Truth of Auschwitz


The truth of Auschwitz is that there is no truth in Auschwitz.   Auschwitz is the place where there is no longer truth.

As I recall, it is Primo Levi who somewhere tells of an episode when he was an inmate at Auschwitz in which he or another prisoner asks why something or another is done.  The guard or capo (I can’t remember which, but it  does not matter for my purposes here) replies, “Here, there is no ‘why.'”  Auschwitz is the place where there is no why any longer; what gets  done, gets done, that’s  all.

By the same logic, Auschwitz is the place where “truth” vanishes.  Auschwitz is a sort of black hole where deceit, betrayal, and denial are so condensed and concentrated that no ray of truth can any longer break out from there, just as in an astronomical black hole matter is so condensed and concentrated, and the resulting gravity is so great, that no light, no sort of “information” at all, can any longer escape from it. 

Those reflections occurred to me when I read, last weekend, a commentary in the Sunday, January 9, 2009, New York Times by Jacob Heilbrunn, called “Telling the Holocaust Like It Wasn’t,” in which Heilbrunn critiques the rash of recently released films (Valkyrie, Defiance, The Reader, etc.) that all, in one way or another, concern “Auschwitz,” that is, the Holocaust.  Heilbrunn sets the tone for his whole critique by citing a scene from one of those films:  “Toward the end of the new film about postwar Germany ‘The Reader,’ a holocaust survivor in New York curtly instructs a visiting German lawyer named Michael Berg that he would do  well  to remember that the camps were neither a form of therapy nor a university.  ‘Nothing,’ she says, ‘came out of the camps.  Nothing.'”

Despite that opening, however, Heilbrunn begins the two paragraph closing of his commentary with the  following remark, which effectively takes back what he says in that opening passage.  “Perhaps,” he writes, “nothing came out of the Holocaust other than the determination  to prevent a repetition  of the  crimes.”

With such an ending Heilbrunn, despite himself one may assume, undercuts the very critique he would seem to want to advance, the heart of which can be found early on, right after he cites the scene from The Reader, where he writes that “the further the Holocaust recedes into the past, the more it’s being exploited to create a narrative of redemption.”  Yet that is, ironically, just what his own ending remarks then proceed to do, creating a redemption story of their own.

But if, as I put it to begin this post, only this time with emphasis added, the truth of Auschwitz is that there is no truth in Auschwitz–that Auschwitz is that place where there is no place for truth at all any longer–then any attempt, including Heibrunn’s  own, to tell a tale of any truth at all coming out of Auschwitz, becomes unacceptable.  To tell any such tale, including his own, becomes blasphemous and obscene, an exploitation, to use one of  Heilbrunn’s own  terms, of what is never to be exploited.

My hope is that the preceding remarks will help to contextualize the entry from my philosophical journal given below, an entry which continues my reflections on the works of Dominick LaCapra, especially, for the last few posts as well as for this one, his book Representing the Holocaust.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

LaCapra, Representing, p. 73, on [former President] Reagan’s 1985 trip [with then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl] to Bitburg cemetery [where many German soldiers, including many SS members, are buried, in what was then West Germany]:  “Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan were at one in attempting to ’emancipate’ Germany from what they saw as a debilitating memory.  In Reagan’s case, the notion of emancipation was tantamount to  unearned, celebratory forgetting that invited the return of the repressed.  It simply ignored the  problems of public acknowledgement, mourning, and working-through.”  Then, [he writes, on] p. 74:  “. . .Reagan misconstrues the process whereby one can achieve a condition that allows one to let bygones be bygones, and he does not address the possibility that a viable and legitimate democracy cannot be based on celebratory oblivion but requires a critical attempt to come to  terms with the past.”

This analysis applies as well to the Bush administration’s orchestrating of the American reaction ([“reaction,”] not “response,” I  might add) to 9/11/2001.  Except the analogy would, in that case of 9/11 and the Bitburg incident, be between Bush  and Kohl, rather than between Bush and Reagan.  That is, the atrocities which are being consigned [by Bush after 9/11] to a convenient (for whom? one should ask) oblivion–in the immediate casting of everything in the language of good and evil, and all  the rest of the baggage of the “war on terror”–were those perpetrated by the US itself, just as the Nazi atrocities Kohl was glad to join Reagan in assigning to oblivion were committed by Germany itself.

Still, on p. 74, LaCapra goes on to quote Regan’s response to the discovery that Bitburg included graves of SS men.  Reagan, in the New York Times of April 19, 1985, is  quoted as saying:  “. . . these young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in German uniforms, drafted to serve to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazi’s.  They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.”

As LaCapra rightly bemoans, Reagan here conflates crucial distinctions between victims and perpetrators, and the mixed cases, as it were, in between.  He does not mention, though I’m sure  he’d agree, how Reagan also conflates the distinction between the SS and the regular German military, as well as that between the concentration camps and the extermination camps.

More important, to  me, is  that one can see structural similarities again here between the Bitburg episode and the Bush reaction to 9/11.  For one thing, the Bush reaction conflates the distinction between those who died in the Twin Towers as a result of the attacks on 9/11, and who were certainly in the obvious sense “victims” of that strike/attack, but who themselves had varying degrees of complicity in the destruction brought about by US policies and acts over the years(just as the German camp administrators from Camp Commandant to Kapos and Sondercommandos, had varying degrees of complicity in the Nazi camps), [with those victims who had no such complicity] .  In that sense, [University of Colorado professor Ward] Churchill’s remarks that the Twin Towers victims were “little Eichmanns” is  not off the  mark entirely, overstated as it may be–even offensively so. 

It seems to me Churchill himself is conflating, at least at the level of his rhetoric, a distinction between perpetrators as such (which Eichmann was) and accomplices, and then conflating important distinctions between different levels of complicity among the latter (accomplices).  Considered in general, the  victims of the collapse of/attack on the Twin Towers could not unreasonably be categorized as active accomplices, insofar as they helped administer the sub-structural mechanisms of  the  march of global capitalism.  Their analogue in Nazi Germany might be, for example, the workers in the chemical plants that produced the Zyklon B eventually used, by those who at that point in the system come closer to being perpetrators (or go all the way to it), to  exterminate Jews in the extermination camps.

As for other [categories of] victims of  9/11 in New York, we might take the rescue forces–firemen, police, health-care workers, etc.–who died in the aftermath of the strike of the two planes into the Twin Towers.  This category of the victims of 9/11 cannot necessarily be regarded as accomplices of American violence worldwide.  Rather, they are like what American military euphemism calls “collateral damage.”

That category marked by the US military euphemism would also include “innocent bystanders”–that is, those who were neither cogs in the engines of global capitalism (the majority of workers in the Towers), nor actively self-involving rescuers and helpers to  those caught in the destruction, but were merely “accidentally” present at the time–e.g., tourists visiting the World Trade Center, or delivery people, etc..  They (such innocent bystanders) would be analogous, I’d say, to the mass of the population of Dresden subjected to the Allied fire-bombing of  that city in WW II.

That last analogy also brings me to one more:  the attack on 9/11 by militant Arabs is analogous, it seems to me, to the fire-bombing of Dresden by the Allies.  To the degree there is such an analogy between the two, to that degree whatever moral reservations or judgments apply to  the 9/11 attacks applies just as much to the fire-bombing of Dresden (or to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for  that matter).  And to the exact degree the bombing of Dresden was justifiable, so  would the attack on the Twin Towers be.

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