The Unforgivable

1.

Because, and this is the awful privilege of our generation and of my people, no one better than us has ever been able to grasp the incurable nature of the offence, that spreads like a contagion. It is foolish to think that human justice can eradicate it. It is an inexhaustible fount of evil [. . .].

—Primo Levi, The Truce (pages 188-189 of 1987 Abacus dual edition with If This Is a Man)

 

Neither Primo Levi nor Jean Améry, both of whom survived Auschwitz, ever forgave those responsible for Auschwitz, and all that that name has come to represent. Améry clung to his “resentments,” as he called them himself. He repeatedly insisted upon them publicly, including in an essay in At the Mind’s Limits bearing that title. Being of a different temperament and having a different writing style, Levi did not speak of “resenting” what had been done to him. Nevertheless, he was no more willing to forgive than was Améry.

Yet both Levi and Améry expressed a conditional willingness to come to a sort of peace with those responsible for the crime of the Holocaust, the very crime to the finally unforgiveable nature of which both always insisted on bearing witness. Améry and Levi each stipulated conditions under which he would be able to offer such peace to those responsible for that unforgiveable crime.

Levi even spoke of “forgiving” the perpetrators if the conditions he articulated were ever met, but only then. In the fourth of the five posts that make up my preceding series on “Making Room for Community,” I already cited a passage from Levi’s “Afterword” to the 1987 Abacus dual edition of If This Is a Man and The Truce—his chronicles of his days in the Nazi death camps and his odyssey of eventual return to Italy after being liberated from Auschwitz by Soviet troops—in which he lays all that out. The passage is worth citing again here (from page 382 of that Abacus dual edition):

No, I have not forgiven any of the culprits, nor am I willing to forgive a single one of them, unless he has shown (with deeds, not words, and not too long afterward) that he has become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and is determined to condemn them, uproot them, from his conscience and from that of others. Only in this case am I, a non-Christian, prepared to follow the Jewish and Christian precept of forgiving my enemy, because an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

As for Améry, early in his essay “Resentments” he writes (At the Mind’s Limits, page 70):

Only I possessed, and still possess, the moral truth of the blows that even today roar in my skull, and for that reason I am more entitled to judge, not only more than the culprit but also more than society—which thinks only about its continued existence. The social body is occupied merely with safeguarding itself and could not care less about a life that has been damaged. At the very best, it looks forward, so that such things don’t happen again. But my resentments are there in order that the crime become a moral reality for the criminal, in order that he be swept into the truth of his atrocity.

SS man Wajs from Antwerp, a repeated murderer and an especially adroit torturer, paid with his life. What more can my foul thirst for revenge demand? But if I have searched my mind [or “spirit”: in German, Geist] properly, it is not a matter of revenge, nor one of atonement. The experience of persecution was, at the very bottom, that of an extreme loneliness [the collapse of all trust, all sense of security, a collapse that comes with “the first blow” of the fist of coercive power against which one can offer no effective defense, as Améry discusses in “Torture,” an earlier essay in the same volume]. At stake for me is the release from the abandonment that has persisted from that time until today.

 

What Améry’s resentment demands is not revenge. The resentment to which he insists on clinging is not a desire to strike back at those who struck him, causing them harm in return for the harm they caused him. The justice he seeks is not that of “an eye for an eye.” His resentment is not the harboring of “bad memories,” that is, of the desire to make “bad use” of the memory of what was done to him by doing the same back to his persecutors.* Indeed, if such harboring of bad memories is what one means by “resentments” (as is not uncommon), then Améry is actually free of resentments. To understand what he is saying, in fact, we must put out of play that common way of taking the term. What is at issue for him is something very different from resentment understood as the harboring of such “bad memories.”

“The moral person,” such as Améry himself, does not demand revenge for wrongs he has suffered. Rather, as Améry writes two pages later (page 72): “The moral person demands annulment of time—in the particular case under question, by nailing the criminal to his deed. Thereby, and through a moral turning-back of the clock, the latter can join his victim as a fellow human being.”

It is important to note the similarity between what Améry says here about how the criminal who has been “nailed to his deed” can then rejoin the human race, and what Levi says above, when he remarks that the enemy who, not just in words but above all in deeds, has become conscious of his crimes thereby ceases to be an enemy. Far from seeking revenge, harboring bad memories, or desiring retribution, it turns out that what both Levi and Améry want is something very different. In truth, they want full reconciliation. Neither will settle for anything less than that the enemy cease to be an enemy and become a neighbor (as Levi puts it), or that the criminal be cleansed of his crime and thereby rejoined to the community (Améry). What both want, lies “beyond guilt and atonement,” to use Améry’s original German title of At the Mind’s Limits. It lies, therefore, beyond all possibility of “forgiving and forgetting,” at least in any usual understanding of those terms. It belongs to what is finally unforgiveable, and can never be forgotten.

2.

The world, which forgives and forgets, has sentenced me, not those who murdered or allowed the murder to occur.

—Jean Améry, “Resentments” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 75)

 

Not long after making that remark about the world and its ways, Améry repeats what he has already said about wanting something beyond guilt and atonement. “It can be a matter,” he writes (page 77), “neither of revenge on the one side nor of a problematic atonement, which has only theological meaning and therefore is not relevant for me, on the other.” On the reader’s behalf, he then asks: “What then is it a matter of—since I have spoken expressly of a settlement in the field of historical practice?”

Améry tells us he is not seeking revenge through abusing in turn those who have first abused him. What is more, he tells us that he came out of Auschwitz no more of a “believer” than he was when he went in—which is to say that throughout it all he remained void of any religious faith—and therefore has no concern with such purely religious questions as atonement is typically taken to be, namely, a question of somehow “getting right with God” after one has “sinned.” Yet he still speaks of seeking a “settlement,” as one might speak about a legal issue, a matter in which one seeks “justice”—justice not as meted out by some Father in some Heaven, but as can be sought and found at the level of concrete “historical practice.” Accordingly, the question to be asked is just what would constitute the grounds for such a “settlement” at the level of such “historical practice” itself.

“Well then,” writes Améry in answer, “the problem could be settled” by conjoining two things, one on the side of the plaintiff, as it were, the accusing party, and the other on the side of the defendant, the accused. Settlement at the level of historical practice could be found “by permitting resentment to remain alive in the one camp,” the camp of the aggrieved, accusing plaintiff, while simultaneously keeping alive the “self-distrust in the other camp,” the camp of the accused—the very self-distrust that is itself “aroused by” awareness and acceptance of the plaintiff’s resentment.

Thus, the settlement of the case of such an unforgiveable wrong as the Holocaust would be neither a forgiving nor a forgetting of what had been done. It would be no such thing. Rather, it would be an honoring of the living memory of what had been done—a memorializing of it—in and as the honoring of the very resentment the survivors continued to feel, on the one hand, and the self-mistrust, the continuing self-suspicion, that full acceptance of such resentment would awaken and keep awake in those responsible, on the other. Only then would peace prevail and reconciliation occur —beyond all questions of guilt and atonement, forgiving and forgetting.

3.

Just what might such a reconciliation actually look like, a reconciliation in which the resentment of one party is honored by the other, in whom the resentment of the first has at last awakened a self-distrust that must equally be honored? A reconciliation effected by allowing the wound of resentment to remain open in those who had been wounded, while opening and keeping open an answering wound of self-mistrust in those who had done the wounding? Granted that honoring the resentment of the wounded—rather than compounding their wounds in the rush to “forgive and forget,” so that everything can “get back to normal” for everybody else—requires opening in turn, and keeping open, a wound of self-distrust in those who wounded them. But just what would it actually be, to do that: to open and keep open such a wound of lack of self-trust in the perpetrators of the initial offense?

With regard to the particular offense at issue for Améry, that of Auschwitz and all that went with it, here is the answer he gives right after raising the question (At the Mind’s Limits, pages 77-79), an answer worth quoting at length:

Goaded solely by the spurs of our [that is, the survivors’] resentment—and not in the least by [any supposed] conciliatoriness [on the part of the perpetrators] that, subjectively, is almost always dubious and, objectively, hostile to history—the German people would remain sensitive to the fact that they cannot allow a piece of their national history [namely, their shameful Nazi past] to be neutralized by time [or by monetary reparations paid to Israel or others, we might add]. If I remember rightly, it was Hans Magnus Enzenberger [an important German author and cultural figure who was born in 1929 and grew up in Nazi Germany] who once wrote that Auschwitz is Germany’s past, present, and future. But unfortunately he is not what counts, for he and his moral peers are not the people. But if, in the midst of the world’s silence, our resentment holds its finger raised, then Germany, as a whole and also in its future generations, would retain the knowledge that it was not Germans who did away with the dominion of baseness. It [the German people] would then, as I sometimes hope, learn to comprehend its past acquiescence in the Third Reich as the total negation not only of the world that it plagued with war and death but also of its own better origins; it would no longer repress or hush up the twelve years [of Nazi rule] that for us others really were a thousand [which is how long Hitler promised the Third Reich would last], but claim them as its realized negation of the world and its self, as its own negative possession. On the field of history there would occur what I hypothetically described earlier for the limited, individual circle: two groups of people, the overpowered and those who overpowered them, would be joined in the desire that time be turned back and, with it, that history become moral. If this demand were raised by the German people, who as a matter of fact have been victorious and already rehabilitated by time, it would have tremendous weight, enough so that by this alone it would already be fulfilled. The German revolution would be made good, Hitler disowned. And in the end Germans would really achieve what the people once did not have the might or the will to do, and what later, in the political power game [of the “Cold War”], no longer appeared to be a vital necessity: the eradication of the ignominy.

How this shall come about in actual practice, every German may picture for himself. This writer is not a German and it is not for him to give advice to this people. At best, he is able to imagine vaguely a national [German] community that would reject everything, but absolutely everything, that it accomplished in the days of its own deepest degradation, and what here and there may appear to be as harmless as the Autobahns. Remaining within his exclusively literary frame of reference, Thomas Mann once expressed this in a letter: “It may be superstition,” he wrote to Walter von Molo, “but in my eyes the books that could be printed in Germany between 1933 and 1945 are less than worthless and one ought not to touch them. An odor of blood and disgrace clings to them; they should all be reduced to pulp.” The spiritual reduction to pulp by the German people, not only of the books, but of everything that was carried out in those twelve years, would be the negation of the negation: a highly positive, a redeeming act. Only through it would our resentment be subjectively pacified and have become objectively unnecessary.

 

In responding to what Améry says in that passage, we want to be cautious. We need always to remember that those are the words of a bitterly resentful man, one who clung to his resentment throughout his entire life after Auschwitz. We would be remiss ever to forget that.

3.

            I travel through the thriving land, and I feel less and less comfortable as I do. I cannot say that I am not received everywhere in a friendly and understanding manner. What more can people like me ask than that German newspapers and radio stations grant us the possibility to address grossly tactless remarks to German men and women, and on top of this be remunerated for it? I know: even the most benevolent will finally have to become as impatient with us as that young correspondent cited earlier who is “sick and tired of it.” There I am with my resentments, in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Cologne, and Munich. If you wish, I bear my grudge for reasons of personal salvation. Certainly. On the other hand, however, it is also for the good of the German people. But no one wants to relieve me of it, except the organs of public opinion-making, which buy it. What dehumanized me has become a commodity, which I offer for sale.

—Jean Améry, “Resentments” (At the Mind’s Limits, page 80)

 

Primo Levi did not speak of “resentments” the way Jean Améry did. Nor did the former tend toward such expressions of bitterness as the latter shows in passages such as the one above. Yet when we put aside differences of temperament and expression, it is often the case that what the two have to say really comes down to the same thing. So it is with what the two of them set out as the conditions that would have to be met, if they were to be reconciled with those who committed, or by failing to act permitted to be committed, what Levi calls “the offense,” and Améry calls “the ignominy”—namely, the unforgiveable crime of “Auschwitz,” in all that that name has come to represent.

As a condition for such reconciliation, Améry proposes that the German people—past, present, and still to come—embrace the equivalent of a self-imposed Morgenthau Plan. That was the plan for postwar Germany named for Henry Morgenthau, the United States Secretary of the Treasury who first proposed it in a memorandum entitled “Suggested Post-Surrender Program for Germany,” written sometime during 1944, the last full year of World War II. The Morgenthau Plan called for Germany to be reduced to the status of a “pastoral state,” one no longer able to wage any sort of serious modern warfare, by destroying entirely the German armaments industry and the whole industrial might of the nation, most especially the industrial plants and equipment in the Ruhr, the very heart of Germany’s industrial power. Once the Cold War heated up, which happened within a few months after the Allied victory and the end of WW II, political expediency quickly induced the Western Powers—now locked in a new enmity, this time with their recent ally, the Soviet Union—to abandon any such plan as Morgenthau’s. Motivated by the pursuit of their own security in the face of the newly discovered threat of what Ronald Reagan would eventually label “that evil empire,” those to whom fell the victory in the west at the end of World War II were quick to abandon the project of reducing to pastureland the now vanquished German nation, and in the process were just as quick to cease giving any real priority to continuing the “de-Nazification” of Germany.

What Améry proposes, if he is to be reconciled with the Germans, the very people who brutalized him and so many others, is not that a new Morgenthau Plan be developed and imposed upon Germany from the outside. That would not satisfy him. It would not pacify his resentment. Rather, only if the German people imposed such a plan upon themselves, as an act of contrition and penance for their ignominious offense, would the resentment of Améry and the others whom the Germans overpowered be stilled.

4.

That, of course, is not in the least likely to happen. Améry himself was perfectly well aware of that. “Nothing of the sort will ever happen, I know,” he writes (At the Mind’s Limits, page 79), just after articulating his conditions for reconciliation in the passage above.

But what about Levi? What about Levi’s requirements for forgiveness, laid down in his “Afterword” to the dual edition of If This Is a Man and The Truce, where he says he will not forgive “any of the culprits”—which includes, he argues elsewhere in the same source, the entire Germans people as a whole, who, if they did not know about “the offense,” were accomplices anyway, since their very ignorance was willful, a not wanting to know—until those culprits themselves first show, not only with their words, but above all in their deeds, that they have “become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and [are] determined to condemn them, uproot them, from [their] conscience and from that of others”? Are those conditions really any less stringent than Améry’s? Are they any more likely ever to be met?

Most surely, the answer is no. As Améry says, “Nothing of the sort will happen.” Nothing of the sort happened in the past. Nothing of the sort is happening now. Nothing of the sort will happen in the future.

Accordingly, whoever aspires to be what Améry calls a “moral person” must honor both Améry’s resentment and Levi’s refusal to forgive. To honor them, on one’s own one must actively resist the whole world’s silence, while simultaneously maintaining suspicion toward one’s self for possible complicity, intentional or not, in keeping that silence.

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

* See the discussion of amnesty—especially with regard to Gorgio Agamben’s treatment of it in his recent book Stasis—in my post, “Making Room for Community (2).”

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