Holocaust on the right side of kitsch

Reading the Holocaust - German National Identity After the Holocaust

July 7, 2000

What is it about the Holocaust that makes anyone think they can write about it, indeed positively have to? True, all life, and most of death, is here. It is a massive, complex historical event, perhaps unique, and possibly the pivotal moment of the 20th century or even, some would argue, of human history. Any exploration of the subject demands extreme caution and careful preparation. Instead, writing about the Holocaust has become the Wild West of the academy: anyone with a quick mind and good pen can have a go, gunning for the big names and prospecting for gold.

Inga Clendinnen is a distinguished historian of the Aztecs who, forced by ill health, retired to an island off the north coast of Australia. She saw this as an opportunity to do some concentrated reading and thinking in an area not her own and chose the Nazi era, which has haunted her since childhood. Her work is heavily informed by anthro-pology and sometimes her previous scholarship provides an original take on familiar issues. But she relies on a patchy selection of secondary and printed primary sources (supplied by her "woman on the mainland") and focuses on current controversies without much awareness of earlier research or debates. Her bibliography is limited to works in English. It is hard to know to whom this book is addressed or why Cambridge University Press should have published it.

Nevertheless, there are some nuggets of wisdom. Clendinnen refuses to accept that the Holocaust is incomprehensible. She concedes it is baffling,but as someone who has worked on mass human sacrifice she is not deterred by its scale or barbarity. To her, the challenge is to understand such behaviour, no matter how inhuman it appears, without resorting to metaphysical explanations such as evil. The greatest barrier to this, she thinks, is the awful truth that they, Aztecs or Nazis, were human and like us.

Her determined empathy leads to some acute observations. She suggests that one reason for the popularity of Primo Levi's writing is that when we read his testimony and imagine ourselves in Auschwitz we have the comfort of his presence: he is our friend in the camp. Without this the material would be unendurable. In other respects, Clendinnen recycles Lawrence Langer's far more original work on survivor testimony.

Nor does she break ground when dealing with the perpetrators, despite her insistence on understanding unpleasant others. In the debate between Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen over the motives of the killers, she opts for the Browning version. It was not the Germans' national character that enabled them to kill Jewish babies: the members of the police units were just men destabilised and brutalised by the discipline of service and the chaos of war, and habituated to murder by racial ideology.

Her anthropological skills also offer some insights into the functioning of the camps, in particular the theatricality of the SS and the ritualisation of violence. Clendinnen maintains that the humiliating, murderous routines imposed on the prisoners allowed the guards to display their power and cultivate an importance that compensated for the fact that their work was less than heroic. However, her analysis comes dangerously close to kitsch. It is redeemed by the simple observation that civilised values are a chosen state, not a natural condition.

Clendinnen's bitty reflections are repeatedly saved by a newly minted apophthegm, just the right side of a platitude. Then again, one quality of the Holocaust is that you can say almost anything about it and sound either profound or provocative. Her final chapter on how it has been represented says nothing fresh. But who can dispute her conclusion that, "Only disciplined critical remembering will resist the erasure of fact and circumstance effected by time, by ideology, and by the natural impulse to forget."

For proof of which look no further than Mary Fulbrook's expert dissection of German national identity since 1945, and the role that historians have played in its formation, deformation and reformation. Fulbrook opens with a bracing discussion of nationalism and national identity, criticising the "usual suspects" (Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson et al ) for static, reductive explanations. She treats national identity as a fluctuating discourse, some parts of which are shared by all members of the nation while others are specific to certain portions of it at particular times. Germany is a fabulous case study because it displays so many variants of identity, not least because of the division of the nation into two states both committed to constructing a viable account of the past and the present virtually from scratch.

In 1945, the very landscape of memory had been obliterated in many German cities. Others were populated by people who had come from elsewhere. The props for historical consciousness had to be reconstructed, but what to include or leave out? In the Soviet zone, later the German Democratic Republic, certain Nazi sites were turned into shrines to anti-fascism, while in the West they were allowed to decay or were hastily demolished. But in the East as in the West, former concentration camps and Nazi buildings were employed as if they had no problematic history.

Fulbrook shows it is wrong to dismiss the treatment of the past in either East or West as voluntary amnesia. In both cases the past was filleted to legitimate the present. The GDR ignored the specific fate of the Jews, but it excoriated Nazism. In the West the persecution of the Jews was never denied, but responsibility for it was displaced onto a criminal gang. The Nuremberg trials paradoxically allowed ordinary Germans to consider their country duly purged, whereas there was a scandalous degree of continuity. By making anti-communism a pillar of West German identity, Chancellor Adenauer deliberately gave former Nazis a sense that not so much had changed.

Fulbrook writes with wit about the East German leadership's forlorn efforts to manufacture a supportive past. Attempts to celebrate liberation conflicted with popular memories of the rape and pillage inflicted by the Red Army. Rebranding itself as the Germany of Dichter und Denker (Poets and Thinkers), the GDR incongruously memorialised a range of impeccably bourgeois figures. Fulbrook is sceptical of grand notions about collective memory, preferring to identify micro-communities each with its own sense of the past. Here the divergence between the official and the vernacular discourse of memory is starkest, a gulf that Fulbrook can illustrate thanks to her unrivalled knowledge of East German social history.

By the time of reunification, many West Germans had lost interest in their eastern neighbours, although they were obsessed with their own past. East Germans felt no burden of history, and knew little of it, since they had grown up in a state that claimed to have started afresh, but they knew a lot about the goodies available over the Wall. It was this, rather than any national consciousness, that propelled the events of 1989-90. The Kohl government had to invent a national identity to unite the diverse Germanies that had drifted so far apart. With this piquant demonstration that national identity is febrile, transitory and anything but essential Fulbrook mischievously concludes that contemporary German nationalism is the product of reunification rather than its cause.

David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history, University of Southampton.

Reading the Holocaust

Author - Inga Clendinnen
ISBN - 0 521 64174 8 and 64597 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £32.50 and £9.95
Pages - 2

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