Believing the unbelievable - the enduring lesson of Auschwitz

Where is the man who with his own lungs breathed a gas chamber, ask revisionists. To which the answer is, gassed
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The philosopher Theodor Adorno's famous assertion - that "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" - was not his final thought on the subject. "Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream," he later wrote; "hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living - especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living."

The philosopher Theodor Adorno's famous assertion - that "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" - was not his final thought on the subject. "Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream," he later wrote; "hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living - especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living."

So that's all right then. We can write our poems as we can scream our screams, it's just living to which, after Auschwitz, we have lost our entitlement.

Adorno's logic would seem to lock us in a terrible circularity: the very act of survival calling for "the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz". In other words, if we are human we die, if we live we do so at the cost of our humanity. But it is by no means intended punitively. Far from precluding survivors from what remains of the human family, Adorno asks us to imagine how, by virtue of their survival, they might feel they have precluded themselves. So his argument is an expression, if this isn't too bourgeois and banal a word, of pity.

That survivors will be plagued, as Adorno further imagines, by dreams that they are not living at all, that their whole existence since has been imaginary, would seem to be borne out in many cases by their long silences, as though words have lost their sufficiency, and then later, as though the walls containing silence have suddenly collapsed, by the terrible urgency with which they deliver their testimonies at last. Like so many Ancient Mariners, they tell their tale wherever they can find a listener, and having told it, they must find another listener to tell it to again. It is without doubt a crucial calling - to keep alive the memory of what happened; to memorialise the names and maybe even the faces of those it happened to; and yes, yes, to ensure there will be no repetition, though repetition peeps at us every day wherever one person is granted sovereignty over another. But the Ancient Mariner's compulsion is like a death in life, no matter how necessary his horror story is to us - the now sadder, wiser recipients of it.

Unless we are insensate, to be modern almost requires that we aspire to the condition of survivor ourselves. At its most innocuous, the ambition resembles a sort of fellow-feeling, an entering too vividly into other people's anguish. At its most offensive, it is spiritual ghoulishness. In between, it reflects a proper conviction that Auschwitz represents, in Adorno's words again, a "caesura or irredeemable break in the history of civilisation". And after such a caesura only a fool would suppose he can live a life no different to the one he might have lived before.

(Half the country's kids have never heard of Auschwitz - there being no band of that name - but they exist in the darkened knowledge of it, their nihilism a direct consequence, the oblivion they seek in artificial stupefactions a confirmation of Adorno's expectation of non living.)

Laurence Rees's series about Auschwitz, currently being shown on BBC2, refuses to indulge any of the vicariousness which often mars Holocaust documentaries. It moves meticulously, at a sort of moral snail's pace, resisting melodrama or hyperbole, and resisting metaphysics too - so far, at least, not seeking to explain "evil" - allowing the evolution of the most ambitious act of diabolism ever to have been brewed in the mind of man to unfold matter-of-factly, as it must have done for many of those who, little by little, became its active agents. If it's understanding we want - and I sometimes wonder why we want it, or imagine it is somewhere other than under our noses - then this is the painstaking course it should take: one brick laid upon another.

"The compelling objectivity of these photos," Günter Grass wrote, "the shoes, the spectacles, the hair, the corpses, spurns any dealing in abstractions; it will never be possible to comprehend Auschwitz, even if it is surrounded with explanatory words." This series allows the shoes and the spectacles to do the explaining.

None of which, of course, will stop the revisionists and deniers taking the edifice apart again. If evil is gradual literal-mindedness, the final triumph of the bureaucrat, then the mind of the revisionist historian is its consummation. He is in perfect harmony with the very event he denies, proving its slow accretion of malignities in the slow accretion of his own.

Scales and tape measures are his tools, architects' plans and memoranda his elements, pedantry his mindset. You will see him on a roof, looking for the hole through which Zyklon B could have been deposited; you will find him in a gas chamber, calculating the number of people it could have held, then multiplying the answer by how many chambers in how many camps, by how many days in the week, by how many weeks in the year.

There is a philosophical desperation of nit-pickery in revisionist historians which would make them fascinating to study if one could bear the proximity. For theirs is the greatest flight from existence imaginable - the ultimate proof of Adorno's contention that life after Auschwitz is untenable: measuring away the truth, seeking a mitigation now by an inch, now by a yard, imagining that they can weigh what was into something that it wasn't if they can lose a hundred here, a thousand there, chip chip chipping away at the millions until they can show that not a hair on a single head was harmed.

Where is the man who with his own eyes saw or with his own lungs breathed a gas chamber, they ask. To which the answer is, gassed.

"No one will believe you," the Nazis said.

That's the sole lesson of Auschwitz. Believe.

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