Friday, May 11, 2007

Explaining Hitler

When asked if there was any meaning in the Holocaust, historian Raul Hilberg is said to have replied, "I hope not." This is from a man who has spent almost his entire life studying that single event in history! (He is the author of three volume The Destruction of European Jews which is considered a standard reference work on the subject.) This apparent paradox is also the main running theme of Ron Rosenbaum's excellent book Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil. We have to search for answers and yet resist the false consolations that those answers may provide.

Holocaust can be a bewildering subject for a beginner (such as myself). And I am not just talking of its unavoidable lugubriousness of the subject which can take an emotional toll. Intellectually too there are just too many books, too many interpretations, too many theories. Even if one has time, energy and motivation, a serious and systematic study on one's own is impossible. In this respect Rosenbaum's book fits the need of a good overview and a work of synthesis very well. It is written in the form of an extended reportage, so Rosenbaum doesn't just recount all the theories but rather he goes to meet all the scholars and experts on the subject personally, he muses and speculates on their psychological motives, sometimes even spars with them, at other times expresses his doubts and then moves on to the next subject. Behind every theory and explanation he invariably sees some need to extract meaning or consolation and in this way he casts doubt on everything.

Modern trends in historiography have invariably minimized the role of individual agency in historical affairs, instead they are more interested in abstract socio-cultural-environmental forces which shape individual and collective destiny. In other words they are more interested in the "system" rather than specific human beings. Rosenbaum resists this school of thinking arguing that it minimizes Hitler's role and responsibility for what happened. In historian's terminology this is called the "functionalist" school. At the opposite side is the "intentionalist" school which says that the initiative for the Holocaust came from above, i.e. from Hitler. (Wikipedia has more details.)

Even within the two schools there are multitudes of theories. For example, what was the source of Hitler's anti-semitism? There are a host of wild speculations, all unverifiable of course. Most of them are popular only because they are sensational and prurient in nature. Unfortunately a major part of the book is concerned with these pseudo-historical and psychosexual nonsense. I won't get into all that here. The other question about when Hitler decided on the "final solution" is equally controversial. The dominant view is that he decided on the exact course of action late into the world war. Did he even give exact orders? Another controversial question because no document with Hitler's authorization of the program exists. Other Hitler questions are equally intractable. Was he consciously evil? Or was he convinced of his moral and intellectual rectitude? Again most historians and philosophers take the later view, in line with the thinking about evil in western philosophy.

Rosenbaum doesn't like it but most of the serious and important work on the subject has happened in the functionalist camp. No one really believes in the "No Hitler No Holocaust" theory anymore. And the debate there is considerably more bitter too. Was it the thousand years of Christian anti-semitism? Was there something specific about the German culture and history that turned ordinary anti-semitism into an "eliminationist anti-semitism," as Daniel Goldhagen, author of the controversial bestseller Hitler's Willing Executioners claims? Were bureaucrats like Adolf Eichmann just morally indifferent careerists or were they motivated by a specific hate? In other words was it a case of "the banality of evil" as Hannah Arendt claimed? Rosenbaum dismisses such glib pronouncements, justifiably so I think. Rather disappointingly he doesn't get into the famous "Historian's Dispute" -- the debate among the German historians about Holocast, spurred by right wing historians who claimed that Nazism was a response to Bolshevism, which was equally worse evil. (Wikipedia link here.)

There are many other questions like: was Holocaust unique or was it just another genocide? Again no consensus. Or what does holocaust say about the existence of God and the problem of evil? How do theologians respond to it? There is apparently an entire branch of theology dedicated to this topic called Holocaust theology. It is a fascinating topic and also very painful to read about how people of faith think about the event. There is also a bizarre section where George Steiner talks of the Jewish "invention of conscience" and "the blackmail of transcendence" by three of the most famous Jews in history -- Moses, Jesus and Karl Marx. All these ideas he gives to the fictional Hitler in his novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. Hitler in the book also says that jews invented the concept of "master race." Well in that sense every religion is a racist ideology, and indeed they invariably are.

There are also so many other things in the book which I didn't mention in the summary above. It is quite thick actually almost 700 pages. Though I would personally have preferred a more sober, academic and concise survey but his journalistic freewheeling style also makes this book somewhat a pageturner, though in the end also very depressing. Some more details in other reviews here and here.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

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Well in that sense every religion is a racist ideology, and indeed they invariably are.
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Huh, I think you are reading too much and thinking too little here. The current trend of historiagraphy that is making up schools of thought and filtering everything through it is to me a very funny way of making sweeping generalizations while actually masking for clear thinking.

What Hannah Arendt said about the Holocaust was to me the most frightening and so I think most truthful in that sense. That it was caused by bureaucracts who were doing their job like sloppy joes do theirs and it was made easy with the fact that murder was reduced by just dispensing paper work and pressing buttons.

And I also think that the Holocaust was not limited to Hitler and the Nazis but at the same time there are a nuber of other factors as well and as such saying that religions are themselves responsible for giving ideas is well the kind of scandalous post-modern theories people cook up these days.

The primary ones were economic which naturally affected the culture which became paranoid and vengeful(watch Fritz Lang's 'M') and certainly the fact that the rest of the world treated Germany after the First World War(which was far more ambiguous).

That the Holocaust was the culmination of years of anti-semitism though is plainly true but then one should actually look at the list of people who are anti-semitic and see how someone as anti-Christian as Voltaire said nasty things about Jews and Mikhail Bakunin and others contributed to it. How otherwise enlightened people who weren't religious were part of that.

Racism is something that has no justification, neither religious nor rational as to why it comes that probably has to do with Fear and paranoia.

Alok said...

As I said in the post, I don't find myself agreeing to any one specific explanation. I certainly agree that there was more to it than just Hitler.

I didn't say that anti-semitism was limited to religious people. In fact much of Nazi anti-semitism was based on pseudo-scientific theories and a perverse interpretation of Darwinism.

But then who will deny that at the root of the racist thinking lies religion, the idea that a particular set of people are blessed with the knowledge of God, "a master race". In fact there are many obvious racist passages that can be attributed to the Jewish God himself. George Steiner, through a character in his novel, says that Jews were the inventors of the concept of "the master race"! No body is saying that religion is the sole motivation for people to murder each other. Just that it creates a fertile ground where hatred and irrationality prosper.

The history of anti-semitism is again very complicated. It has become even more complicated in recent years with people trying to conflate it with anti-zionism. I don't think anybody can call Voltaire, Bakunin or Marx anti-semites. It is unfortunate that Jews have been identified as capitalists, financial exploiters, insufficiently nationalistic, bolshevists, and accordingly hated by people opposed to these ideologies. Same with many modern day critics of Israel too. you can't call them anti-semites.

I have some very serious problems with Hannah Arendt's Banality of Evil theory. Her Eichmann in Jerusalem is on my to-read list. Have been thinking of writing about it. Will do it once I have read it.

antonia said...

there is so much to say about this all. i tend to agree with arendt, too and there were many things that contributed to the Holocaust. Given the right mixture of circumstances and people (like what anonymous said, the economical situation and the end of the first world war) it could happen anywhere. about the final solution, you wrote about this, there was this conference in 1942 when they discussed the details about the final soution, so there were definitely orders. There was a lot of antisemitism all around in europe these days and all the intellectuals (I don't know for sure whether this goes for Voltaire) had one or two antisemitic opinions, it was just common sense at that time, like today we have the islamic people who get bashed. it certainly would be interesting to replace in all the headlines the word islamic with jewish and to compare it then with the headlines from WW2. what convinced me of Hanna Arendts view was hat I worked myself in the world war archives in the neteherlands for a bit and did some research on some transports for which I had to read lots of personal files. you could find every possible story, but mostly it was just people did their job and they grew just into it, it was not like nationalsocialism came over night, people just slowly got used to it, (like we now slowly get used to it that in the name of terrorism you can get away with thrashing basic human rights which soem years before would have been a lot more difficult for politicans to push through, all those security laws.) People plainly were just not thinking, they made their jobs and as things got tough they got scary and some had family, so there you have a lot of situations in which it is better to close your eyes and to pretend you did not know. People who really had the means to prevent things, people in high positions mostly were corrupt. and the average plain citizen didn't think. Not to excuse this. only want to say that it is pretty easy to create situations in which you get people to do the most ugly things. few, very few with principles did go into resistance, but the most just didnt care. then other very few did go in the other direction, hardcorenationalsocialism. The country that is so proud of having sheltered Anne Frank, the Netherlands, here actually, when you compare in percentages how many jews in each country have died, interestingly it is the netherlands that has the highest percentage of its jews nuked, not germany, and then comes poland or so - of course germany had occupied the netherlands, but there was much more ugly collaboration than one wants to imagine....and this is also what Hannah Arendt said, that there were high jewish institutions who collaborated, who nuked their own people....that's something that corresponds with my own findings. lots of collaboration (from the side of high jewish organizations) and lots of denunciation (from the side of the plain citizens). it's sad shit.

Alok said...

Yes there was a Wannsee conference but some historians believe that the top leadership gave the orders in very general terms and it was the lower bureaucracy that went about executing the plans in the most effective manner it could do. That way Eichmann and his defence that he was just following the orders and set of rules don't hold down very well. He wasn't just doing his job indifferently, he wanted to do it as efficiently as possible and he was extremely efficient, and so was the whole bureaucracy.

the other problem with "banality of evil" thesis is that it just sounds too glib, almost like a cliche. it is like saying "there's a hitler in all of us." It is just a linguistic refuse which helps us hide away from complicated things like individual responsibilty.

And in the end Moral indifference and moral laziness are ethical positions too. I just don't think it is a useful phrase and it helps us in any way to think about "evil". I need to read and think more about these subjects. Right now it just doesnt *feel* right to me.

Anonymous said...

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the other problem with "banality of evil" thesis is that it just sounds too glib, almost like a cliche. it is like saying "there's a hitler in all of us." It is just a linguistic refuse which helps us hide away from complicated things like individual responsibilty.
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But it isn't a linguistic refuge. As for individual responsibility that is exactly what Arendt is talking about. Consider this, how could a Hitler come to power without winning over the German people in the late 30's. He tried to raise hell five years earlier and got send to jail, he came out when Germany was in economic depression when it was just recovering from the loss of prestige and morale from the first war and you have people paranoid about the future and where would they go from here. It was that mentality that allowed Hitler to win over.

As for 'there's a Hitler in all of us'...that's not what she is arguing. What she is saying is that there's an Eichmann in most of us.

The individual responsibility that she is talking about is the responsibility of the common man in resisting totalitarianism which of course means you and me. That we can't say that we couldn't do anything but rather we have to accept responsibility and resist evil, which of course means risking death.

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Yes there was a Wannsee conference but some historians believe that the top leadership gave the orders in very general terms and it was the lower bureaucracy that went about executing the plans in the most effective manner it could do. That way Eichmann and his defence that he was just following the orders and set of rules don't hold down very well. He wasn't just doing his job indifferently, he wanted to do it as efficiently as possible and he was extremely efficient, and so was the whole bureaucracy.
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The theory that Holocaust was carried out mainly by the lower levels and not by the higher ups is plain baloney. Everyone was part of it and if the higher ups were more efficient it was not because they were evil or whatnot it was simply due to the fact that they rarely saw their victims and had gotten so used to it that they were ble to rid themselves of any guilt that they may have had.

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And in the end Moral indifference and moral laziness are ethical positions too. I just don't think it is a useful phrase and it helps us in any way to think about "evil".
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If you consider 'lack of ethics' a moral and or ethical position. The same token can measure baldness as a hair colour.

Anonymous said...

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But then who will deny that at the root of the racist thinking lies religion, the idea that a particular set of people are blessed with the knowledge of God, "a master race". In fact there are many obvious racist passages that can be attributed to the Jewish God himself. George Steiner, through a character in his novel, says that Jews were the inventors of the concept of "the master race"!
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I haven't read what Steiner has written in his book but since it's a novel what one characters says may or may not represent what Steiner believes. The most famous part in 'The Brothers Karamazov' is completely against Dostoevsky's beliefs.

And in any case people don't even know how to read the Old Testament or the Tanakh as it is known to the Jews and they don't even undersand what they mean by YHWH. So people who criticize it blindly do so with the same misconceptions as the Christian world have of it.

In any case the concept of God in Judaism and Christianity is so different completely from each other that it's little surprise how a former minor religious sect in Judaism became what it is today.

And when they say that the Old Testament God is immoral or whatnot they of course don't know what they are talking about that is they don't know which God they are talking about.

Or that is they place an interpretation of God outside the religion of Judaism and apply it Judaism.

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The history of anti-semitism is again very complicated. It has become even more complicated in recent years with people trying to conflate it with anti-zionism.
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Who said anything about Zionism? Granted Zionism would never have any necessity for being invented if there had been no anti-semitism. But anti-Zionists include many Jews as well, in fact the earliest anti-Zionists were none other than the religious elders of the Jews since Zionism was a secular concept and most of the founders were secular atheists.

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No body is saying that religion is the sole motivation for people to murder each other. Just that it creates a fertile ground where hatred and irrationality prosper.
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There is no escaping this fertile ground where hatred and irrationality prosper. It exists with and without religion. The purpose of religion was indeed to combat it initially but then like all left wing movements they eventually became twisted by others into something else.

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It is unfortunate that Jews have been identified as capitalists, financial exploiters, insufficiently nationalistic, bolshevists, and accordingly hated by people opposed to these ideologies.
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But that's precisely racism. If there people who are opposed to these idelogies can't see the whole picture without having a Manichean view of things then they are very racist. The mentality is thus...if a banker was a Christian you wouldn't know until he told you so but if you found that a banker was Jewish you would keep that belief until you met poor Jewish families.

If you live in a society where for one group, the particular is accepted only on evidence while for another, the general needs to proven while the particular is accepted as given then that society is racist as are most societies today like America, England and others.

For instance in today's world in Western countries and for that matter in India(since you're from there) most people immediately almost subconsciously connect terrorism and Islam when the fact that the terrorist factions represent a very minor percentage of the global Islamic population is not even in their minds.

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Same with many modern day critics of Israel too. you can't call them anti-semites.
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Who said anything about Israel? In any case many of the most vocal modern day critics of Israel are nowhere but in Israel itself. The Ha'aretz happens to be the most politically left-wing paper in the entire Middle East. But it's not the same thing as my point.

Anti-Semitism that is discrimination towards Jews on basis of religion or ethnicity is something that's deep within the European and the Western subconscious and many of them haven't come to terms with it. And it has nothing to do with religion at all. The gospels of the New Testament as they exist in the Greek versions(the oldest extant translation from Aramaic) does not even mention Jews during his trial. That all was added by years of translations into other languages. There is no justification for it even there.

Alok said...

First of all, thanks for replying in detail. Next time I write a post I will have to think more :)

Now I am not getting into the nitty-gritties of judaism or any particular religion here. I confess I am extremely ill informed in these subjects. But at a basic level all religions, some more some less but invariably all, are hostile to rationality and critical thinking. Coupled with this the fact that religion creates artificial divisiveness among people makes it clear how religion and racism are linked. You believe in this, this and this, you automatically become one of us otherwise you are an other. This is clearly racism...

About other thinkers and writers that you named in your earlier comment... Can non-religious people be racist? Of course. As I said most of the Nazi racism was ratioanlized not by medieval christian texts but rather pseudo-scientific theories and interpretation of darwin.

The lesson is that we have to critically think about all sources of racism, whether religion or muddled thinking or non-thinking of other kinds and resist all of them.

And you got me there with bald man, hair colour analogy... Will have to think about that!

Anonymous said...

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You believe in this, this and this, you automatically become one of us otherwise you are an other. This is clearly racism...
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So according to that logic(this is not what you intended), political parties too are racist. If you are left wing join that party or become a socialist and or anarchist and of course a Marxist but if you are right wing join this party and swim in capitalist excess.

You clearly didn't intend this but the logic is at it's basic level invalid. It's humanity's essential nature to form societies and within those societies tribes, groups and parties and naturally when people grow up they search for people to whom they can share their life with not in the marital sense but in the sense of community. This is itself harmless, the problem begins when you believe that you have the truth and no others or you are superior to the others. This is probably the root of racism, a need to stress yourself above the rest even within a group just like the Underground Man preached in one of his more lucid rants.

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But at a basic level all religions, some more some less but invariably all, are hostile to rationality and critical thinking.
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What does this have to do with religion and racism? In any case this is simply a very loaded and very fallacious proposition.

The Jews have made tremendous contributions to logic and thinking. They were also the first to place the written word as paramount and had centuries of almost journalistic recordings because to them YHWH is nothing but the logic on which the world is set on.

To them God is not only nature but the reason for the very earth we tread upon, the air we breathe. In short an impersonal God. When Einstein famously said that he did not believe in a 'personal' God but believed in Spinoza's God, he was referring to the fact that he was a believing Jew and that the God he believed in didn't need to be personalized.

All science, maths etc. have discovered that the world works on a kind of logic, this logic to the Jews is none other than YHWH itself.(not 'itself' not 'himself')

Even in the Gospel of John, the line, 'in the beginnign was the word and the word was God' means the same thing though it won't help to read St. Paul's letters alongside it. The greek version has the word 'logos' in place of 'word'. Logos means other than word also language and of course logic. If you take language it'll put a whole new spin on the Tower of Babel story.

When Christianity spread to Europe in a very altered form the problem began. St.Paul inorder to spread the good book as far as possible made changes to the original like bringing Greek concepts like immaculate conception because Paul(who was Jewish) didn't think that Europe could accept Jesus as he was(which was likely that he was just a prophet turned revolutionary).

When people accuse religion of spreading irrationality they actually talk only of Christianity which under the influence of the Catholic Church was certainly guilty as charged.

Islam like Judaism is also a very logical religion and certainly their idea of Jesus(or Isa as they call him) is far more rational and plausible. In fact the scientific method came from no other place than from Arabia through the works of Ibn-Al-Haytham(who is the father of optics and a major influence on Roger Bacon). Haytham was of course a Muslim. The people who advised the sultans were scientists, philosophers, poets and intellectuals.

So it was only the Catholic Church and later the Protestants who are problems. The Catholic Church also made in roads as well alongside the many stumbling blocks of course. The Jesuits are probably the most organized educational institution of all time and I have never met a Jesuit who could not hold a pleasant conversation. Which was probably why they were disliked within the church. At least they accepted evolution.

Alok said...

I am not against the idea of community just that i don't think religion should be the basis. it is just too arbitrary, too irrational.

I think where we disagree is that When I mention religion I am always thinking of how it is practiced while you are thinking of it in theory. I am sure there are religious texts and religious thinkers who deserve intellectual respect but unfortunately they have got nothing to do with the people who murder each other in the name of religion. Tell the name of medieval arabic scientists to modern day graduates of madarsas and they will look askance. Same is with the philistine Hindutva goons, they won't have a clue about the aesthetic theories of ancient hindu texts.

One advice, Start a blog of your own. Your comments deserve a wider readership...

Anonymous said...

So according to you the principles of religion are moot because of the people who practise them.

By the same token all ideologies everything from democracy to dictatorship to commmunism to anything is also useless since the people who practised them have betrayed it time and again.

Now you'll say they are different and they are but invalidating it because of the way it's practiced is not a rational response. It only means that it's not practiced properly and says nothing about the original meaning and intention of religions.

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Tell the name of medieval arabic scientists to modern day graduates of madarsas and they will look askance. Same is with the philistine Hindutva goons, they won't have a clue about the aesthetic theories of ancient hindu texts.
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The Hindutva ideology has nothing to do with Hinduism in any case. The person who started it, V. D. Savarkar was a confirmed atheist himself.

And many of the madrassas are actually fine educational institutions. They teach kids from poor places science, physics, mathematics, history and later courses even teach kids English as a second language and driving. Certainly a fine path for high education.

In fact, Muslims in majority have been very peaceful and the number of fundamentalist factions are actually very little. And they are also the best critics of themselves like Al-Jazeera happens to be the most accurate information source on Middle East politics today, probably why American forces are trying so hard to restrict them. The problem is that people grow up heavily influenced by English speaking media which is very racist and so they have a poor view of Arabs. In fact many of the Arab revolutionaries and fanatics were provoked mainly because of the Western media.

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I am not against the idea of community just that i don't think religion should be the basis. it is just too arbitrary, too irrational.
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But you are basing it only on how it is practiced and not the principles.

The weird joke is that the reason why secularism, science split up from religion is none other than Christianity itself. Judaism and Islam being very logical religions saw no need for scientists to be segregated from the religious sphere but Christianity being enslaved by dogmas gradually stirred up rebellion and resentment.

You seem to see rationality as having an open mind from some of your posts but seem to stop giving that open mind to religion itself. Perfectly understandable many make that same mistake. I am not asking you to believe or whatnot. Just give religious folk and religions as well due for their extremely important and valuable contributions.

The principles of democracy were inspired by the writings of Thomas Aquinas who based it on the principles of Jesus Christ. St. Augustine way back in the 4th century propounded ideas against literal interpretation of the Bible and even said proposed ways that science can work within the religious sphere. The defence Galileo cited in his trial actually. That it hasn't been followed can hardly be his fault.

The Catholic Church for all it's faults and mistakes and many are it's faults was the only refugee office open in Iraq long after the UN and everyone else left.

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One advice, Start a blog of your own. Your comments deserve a wider readership...
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Thanks. But I honestly don't have the time. I only came because it's good to see young people discuss such important questions.