BOOK REVIEW / After the freeze, into the flames: 'Probing the limits of representation' - Ed. Saul Friedlander: Harvard, 19.95
Saturday 01 August 1992
The freeze, of course, was only an illusion. The changes which burst forth in the Eighties were already under way long before and, looking back, we see we should have known this all along. One rather obvious barometer of change could have been found in the varying responses, since 1945, to the sequence of events rather unsatisfyingly known as the Holocaust, the extermination of the bulk of European Jewry by the Nazis.
After 20 or so years of stunned silence on the subject, broken only by a few survivors' memoirs and the occasional screenings of documentary films about the camps, a trickle of novels and feature films gingerly and rather embarrassingly touching on the subject began to appear in the Sixties. At the same time public memory, in both Germany and Israel, began to stir, and historians started to publish on the subject. Soon the stream had turned into a torrent, with academic conferences, special journals and even special university departments being devoted to it.
However, serious debate about the issues did not perhaps begin until there emerged in Germany in the 1980s what has become known as the Historians' Quarrel. This was sparked off by two articles in which the distinguished elderly philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, questioned the relatively sophisticated attempts at revisionist history of the Nazi era by the leading historians, Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber.
The ensuing and very public debate raised once more the question of whether Nazism had been a typical expression of the 'German national temper' or an exceptional and aberrant episode in Germany's history. But it also fed into the more general debate sparked off by Michel Foucault and Hayden White about whether it was possible ever to get at 'what really happened' in history.
In 1991 Saul Friedlander, who has not only written a moving memoir about his childhood in occupied France, but has also been in the forefront of those historians exploring the nature of the Holocaust and of recent responses to it, organised a conference at the University of California, Los Angeles, which brought together leading historians and students of literature and film, to explore the double theme of historical representation and the Holocaust. Harvard have now published a number of the papers, and they make enthralling reading.
The subjects include critiques of Hayden White (White himself contributes an essay) and of all the leading participants in the Historians' Quarrel: analyses of the work and reception of Holocaust writers such us Celan, Pagis and Appelfeld, and of films such as Syberberg's Hitler and Reitz's Heimat; a study of Nazi medicine; and an exploration of the possibility of using psychoanalytic tools for the understanding of the Holocaust, and of the responses to it.
These are vast subjects, but the contributors are never either vague or dogmatic: the horror and importance of their subject brings out the best in all of them, and makes of this book something no one interested in the Holocaust, the nature of historiography or the place of memory in human life - in other words, no one with any curiosity - can afford to ignore.
Behind all the essays lie the questions raised on the one hand by Adorno's remark that 'After Auschwitz to write a poem is barbaric', and on the other by Hayden White's argument that all historical writing is at bottom rhetoric, and that our view of the past will always depend on how we choose to narrate it. If there is a central unifying theme, it is the assumption of all the contributors that both Adorno and White have to be taken seriously, but that doing so does not mean either remaining silent or accepting a complete relativism.
The first essay, by Christopher Browning, sets the tone: the Holocaust must never be taken as an abstraction, for 'Ultimately it took place because people killed other people'. Browning wants to get away from the view that what happened was the result of criminals and madmen being let loose or of a bureaucratic machinery shielding everyone involved in the murders from a consciousness of what was going on. He has studied not the Himmlers and Eichmanns but the members of Reserve Police Battalion 10l, which consisted of reserve policemen from Hamburg, mostly middle-aged family men of predominantly working- class background.
On 13 July 1942 they were ordered to put to death the Jews of the Polish village of Jozefow. How many refused? What reasons did they give? How did those who carried out the order react? Starting with this specific episode, Browning questions White's generalisations and argues that 'there are no distinct and separate categories of attestable fact on the one hand and pure interpretation on the other'. There is, rather, a spectrum, and the historian will always have to use his judgement, instinct and tact. Nor should he fear the argument that empathy with the killers is dangerous: we must both empathise and condemn, for these were, after all, human beings like us - and yet they did it and not us. He notes the revulsion of the majority of the men at what they were ordered to do, but ends: 'Eventually, of course, they got used to the killings. But in that too, they were all too human.'
Typical of the best of the essays is Perry Anderson's analysis of Hillgruber's Two Kinds of Ruin, which juxtaposes the destruction of East European Jewry by the Nazis and of the German army in the East by the Russians. Anderson finds Hillgruber's study wanting not because it does anything so crude as to deny outright the Holocaust or the Germans' involvement in it, but because of its constant failure of tone: 'Any juxtaposition of Jewish and German fates demands an exceptional - moral and empirical - delicacy that was beyond the compass of this historian.'
In a similar vein, the films of Syberberg and Reitz, and the paintings of Anselm Kiefer, are shown to be serious attempts to come to terms with those terrible events, but ultimately to be betrayals of the truth - myth-making and sentimentality finally win out. Not that Habermas's vision of Western civilisation, with which he seeks to counter what he sees as the darkness at the heart of German history, is allowed to escape unchallenged. 'Habermas's call,' writes Vincent Pecora, 'is simultaneously the only responsible political position to adopt, and a liberal's dream fraught with contradictions.'
The darkness, Pecora argues, is there at the heart of the European Enlightenment. Nazi ideology is terrifying, yet it is only an intensification of earlier European and, sadly, Christian attitudes. This must be faced if we are to understand what happened and even what goes on happening, for example, in the attitude of certain Israelis to the Palestinians.
Refusing grand generalisations, yet keenly aware that the past is never simply a collection of mute facts, the authors of these impressive essays advance our understanding not just of the awful events of the Nazi era but also of the perennial difficulties and temptations of representation. We can only be grateful to Saul Friedlander for having brought them all together.
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