I’m not really happy with this one, but here it is all the same. *grin* ~L
Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman.
Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?.
Berkeley: University of California, 2000.
(God) After Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Carol Rittner and John K. Roth (eds.).
From the Unthinkable to the Unavoidable: American Christian and Jewish Scholars Encounter the Holocaust.
Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.
New York: Penguin, 1994.
John K. Roth and Michael Berenbaum (eds.).
Holocaust: Religious and Philosophical Implications.
New York: Paragon House, 1989.
Despite an ever-growing body of literature on the Holocaust, the greatest crime of the Hitler régime remains an inexhaustible space for work on the ethical-historical implications of mass murder. Yet to the extent that the Holocaust is construed as a isolated chapter in human history—one bounded by the precise contours of racist ideology and fascist organization—its wider lessons are obscured. As John Roth observes, “we are still living in a world—sixty years after the liberation of Auschwitz—that has been repeatedly revisited by mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.”1 But the Holocaust is much more than an “immense human failure”; it points to what we as a species are capable of in the modern period, when tools of awesome destructive potential lie in the hands of beings with an innate moral sense little improved by millennia of cultural development. Whether we subscribe to a religious model that makes man a reflexion of the divine, or hold that man is inseparable from his ancestral, animal nature, the capacity for violence and habit of following the crowd are scarcely deniable—and it is their combination that make the ethical questions of the Holocaust of perennial significance.
It is not our intention here to argue against the uniqueness of the Holocaust in Jewish or European civilization; nor would we advocate a purely comparative approach that placed the Holocaust beside such things as the Pol Pot massacres or the multi-generational Native American genocide. Instead, what is urged is a line of study separate from and parallel to the aforementioned—one whose concern is the historical record of atrocity and whose analytical tools are borrowed from disciplines such as psycho-analysis, sociology, philosophy, and evolutionary psychology. In the space of a few decades, “the Holocaust moved from being unthinkable to being thinkable and then to being unavoidable,” then promptly turned a corner and “became unthinkable all over again”.2 Our contention is that the scale and thoroughness of the Holocaust, and the varied ways in which it has been apprehended, present unparalleled opportunities to study the fragility of social relations and the ease with which a murderous ideology can subvert seemingly solid moral values. In the words of Carol Rittner and John Roth, the Holocaust “did not have to happen. That recognition leaves humankind, morality, religion, and even God on trial.”3
The books here discussed are representative of opposing positions taken after the fact of the Holocaust has receded into the past: one which determines to think through the implications of that event for established systems of moral and social life, and one which resolutely avoids the consideration of its implications precisely because of an unwillingness to question deeply-held beliefs. In this instance, our attention is turned towards religious thinkers convinced of the Holocaust’s unique challenge, and towards the Holocaust-denial movement. But had we writ to undertake a more substantial project in this vein, these positions could just as easily be reversed—with secular-psychological studies on the one hand and determinedly-religious adherence to theodicy on the other.* There exist, indeed, any number of axes along which the ethical and social measure of the Holocaust might be taken; the following reviews point to one such.
“Try as we may to comprehend it—historically, philosophically, religiously—the Holocaust leaves unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions in its wake.”4 The near-silence of academia in the post-war period was decisively shattered by the Six Day War. Since then, attempts by scholars to work through the topic have generated a massive body of work. Collected volumes, then, are unusually valuable for researchers, with views from widely diverse perspectives collected thematically with some regularity. In this, John K. Roth—working with various collaborators—has been particularly prolific, issuing more than twenty titles on the Holocaust, ethics, and genocide, as well as numerous monographs.
The essays collected in Holocaust: Religious and Philosophical Implications, edited with Michael Berenbaum, may represent a high-water mark in this enterprise. This superlative work compiles essays and excerpts from twenty scholars, nearly all of whom take the view that “the Holocaust was an epoch-making event, an experience that demands a rethinking of traditional understandings of God and history.”5 Although it does not exactly keep the promise of its subtitle, with almost no emphasis on secular philosophy and several essays focussed on the events of the Holocaust rather than their significance, the volume remains a successful distillation of more than twenty years of scholarly ferment.
The introduction sets up the problem of faith after monumental disaster, and addresses the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust. The authors are sympathetic to the positions of thinkers like Emil Fackenheim and Elie Wiesel, who charge that the Holocaust is unlike all previous events in Jewish history; yet they note that some scholars, such as Michael Wyschogrod, are critical of focussing on the Holocaust, preferring to keep the emphasis on God’s acts of redemption. It is perhaps telling that Wyschogrod was not invited to contribute.
Part one sets out to identify the place of the Holocaust in history, and the contributors all make their cases for uniqueness—though some, such as Berenbaum himself, with a note of inclusivity. Yehuda Bauer, in a piece which admirably details the suffering of other peoples, reneges on the inclusive promise of such details by making the tautologous argument that genocide can apply only to racial, national, or ethnic groups—specifically excluding religion as a motivator.6 His argument that religion has become a voluntary issue also belies the facts, as seen recently in Malaysia.7 Berenbaum argues, in the spirit of Wiesenthal’s incorporation of non-Jewish suffering, that bringing together other acts of genocide “do not innately obscure the uniqueness of the Holocaust; they clarify it.”8 He critiques Bauer’s scepticism regarding the Americanization of the Holocaust—the task of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council to make the Holocaust a living issue—and suggests that “the question of audience should not be confused with content.”9 By bringing the Holocaust to a wider audience, and placing it in dialogue with other events of the twentieth century, we can “let our sufferings, however incommensurate, unite us in our condemnation of inhumanity rather than deride us in a calculus of calamity.”10
The third part of the present volume sets up a debate that is key to any attempt to riddle the ethical and religious implications of the Holocaust—that of the rôle granted a God of History and the theodic interpretations of Torah. Excellent representative selections from Elie Wiesel, Richard Rubenstein, Emil Fackenheim, Eliezer Berkovitz, and Irving Greenberg are capped off with an exchange between Wiesel and Rubenstein. The latter disappointingly fails to clarify Wiesel’s position on God’s part in the Holocaust, but the selections themselves are an excellent introduction to a complex body of literature.
A more recent collection by Roth, From the Unthinkable to the Unavoidable: American Christian and Jewish Scholars Encounter the Holocaust, edited with Carol Rittner, draws together specifically American and religiously-motivated voices. This has the advantage of offering an incisive portrait of religious thought after the Holocaust, and the Christian perspectives reflect the growing Americanization of the Holocaust mentioned above. That larger engagement is addressed with reflexions on history and memory, as when Abraham Peck recalls his friends’ reaction to his father’s stories of the Holocaust (“Why is he telling me this?!”11), or when Rittner looks back to her first experience with the enormity of the Holocaust—a fact she had missed entirely when reading The Diary of Anne Frank at school.12
But the book’s real accomplishment lies in its bringing to the table the complex relationship of Christian tradition to the Holocaust. Many of the authors not only wade bravely into this oft-evaded problematic, but describe their own experiences in directly grappling with the issue. Eva Fleischner was a Catholic graduate student in historical theology when she encountered the Holocaust—through the novel Treblinka by Jean-François Steiner.13 Having had her “eyes opened” by this and succeeding books, she kept them open by focussing her studies on the rôle of the churches. John Pawlikowski began agitating for Jewish-Christian dialogue whilst a Servite Fathers seminarian, where he was heavily influenced by one of his teachers, John Dominic Crossan.14 And Alice Eckardt makes an impassioned plea for Christian renewal in the wake of honest acknowledgement of the historical complicity of the churches in anti-Jewish atrocities, insisting that the Holocaust represents a point of rupture after which Christian ideas on Judaism and the Jews had to be reformed.15 The topic could have been better represented, by for example inviting contributions from scholars like William Nicholls or members of the Jesus Seminar; but the treatment here is still a welcome change from the frequent and shameful silence.
With so many Jewish and Christian writers now entering the discussion, there is a need for careful analysis of the major lines of thought. In his concise and insightful work, Zachary Braiterman engages with three of the most consequential thinkers in the post-Holocaust Jewish tradition. Additionally, his book is on its own a powerful intervention in the debate over theodicy in Hebrew thought. Through an extended discussion of the history of theodicy, Braiterman works to extract anti-theodic elements in the sacred texts of Judaism, offering them as a counter-weight to the (admittedly more numerous) theodic rationales found in Torah (e.g., Job). This allows readers to view the modern interventions of Rubenstein et al. in the context of a lengthy tradition that has always disputed the theodic interpretation—that is, we can read these authors as both with that past theology and as signalling a new chapter within it.
But the supreme virtue of Braiterman’s text lies in a close reading of the life-works of three theologians who have spent their careers attempting to plumb the meaning for Jewish faith of the Holocaust. His first choice, Rubenstein, is unarguably the easiest to address from an anti-theodic standpoint. Often grouped (somewhat erroneously) with the otherwise Christian Death of God theologians, Rubenstein has taken a great deal of criticism from his earliest comments on theology, and especially after his landmark publication in 1966 of After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism. The book’s title commanded attention: it implied that theology after Auschwitz could not remain as it was, irrespective of the scant attention previously accorded the topic by such luminaries as Mordecai Kaplan and Martin Buber. Rubenstein makes explicit what a great many survivors had maintained but never properly elaborated—he argued that “to posit a just and omnipotent God covenanted to Israel and active in its affairs could only mean that God justly willed the murder of six million Jewish people.” He consequently “attacked belief in the God of History, the notions of covenant and election, the hallowed texts of Jewish tradition, and the scandal of theodicy.”16 Coming from a rabbi, such a thorough-going rejection was electric.
Yet as Braiterman is at pains to point out, Rubenstein’s rejection was never as neat as it appeared, and it was often the case that his rhetoric signalled a cleaner break with tradition than he was willing to make. Rather than arguing that God was no longer relevant or had never existed at all, Rubenstein had intended instead a kind of renewal—a shift in the perception of God held by the Jewish people. The use of the phrase ‘Death of God’ put Rubenstein in Nietzsche’s company, which for those with only a surface reading or second-hand knowledge of Nietzsche was more than enough to condemn by association. But, like Nietzsche, Rubenstein was in fact a very spiritual thinker, who attacked only that “ultimate actor in history” — a “God of History” in the form of a “perfect, unchanging Creator and Lawgiver who stands in isolated splendour outside of his creation.”17 Indeed, as Braiterman reminds us, Rubenstein took issue with the Protestant Death of God theologians, seeing in the loss of the traditional idea of God not a liberation but “tragedy and upheaval” as man struggles to redefine the ancient relationship with the divine.
The means with which Rubenstein attempts his reconstruction of Jewish theology do come in for sharp criticism. He is upbraided for selective reading of traditional texts, and for applying “contorted logic” to passages placed in unusual contexts.18 However, Braiterman is also unequivocal about Rubenstein’s accomplishment, and despite harsh words in some places, is at pains to defend him from critics. Observing that he was “working in a virtual vacuum”, with new ideas that stood out against a heavy tradition—a task, therefore, which “demanded rough and shocking language”.19 The problem was not with religion as a whole, but with theodicy, and yet this was no fringe concept; dislodging it required that it be recognized widely as a problem. The way to accomplish that was to demonstrate, in an offensive manner if need be, that the concept itself was offensive in the post-Holocaust world, and Rubenstein did this with remarkable verve.
Braiterman’s most substantial, and strained, reading is of Orthodox rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz. Born in Transylvania, Berkovitz received a yeshiva education and, unlike the other two thinkers discussed, was not a philosopher per se, but a classical theologian immersed in the Jewish tradition. His work focussed on the idea of faith, and he asserted that faith “did not mean mere belief in the existence of an infinite, omnipotent God”, but rather must “signify trust, reliability, and endurance”, even in the face of the Holocaust.20 Berkovitz argued that the memory of God’s works in the past was more than enough to sustain his people into the future.
However, Braiterman uncovers a stain in Berkovitz’s later writings where things were not so neat and tidy. Berkovitz begins to assert that there is in the world of faith “a new element of anger and mistrust”, that at times the ancient notion of covenant “commands contention”.21 This post-Holocaust shift did not, however, turn Berkovitz from historical forms of faith. The solution which he hit upon was to deny the ability of non-survivors to judge, or to adopt the positions taken by, those who endured the trials of Nazi brutality. He alludes to Rubenstein in making the claim that one who only heard about the Holocaust had no right to follow the path of those, like Wiesel, who lost their faith in it. Berkovitz has no harsh words for the survivors themselves: he “justifies their defiance and even calls it holy.” But, “he himself cannot adopt their rebellion. To do so would mean that he must ignore those Jews whose faith survived intact. How dare he reject faith in providence when they did not?!”22
Finally, Braiterman introduces the career of Emil Fackenheim by observing that he “stands at the midpoint of post-Holocaust Jewish theology”, drawing on elements of both previously-discussed thinkers’ work.23 He is best known to-day for having formulated a “614th Commandment” stating that Jews were forbidden to grant Hitler “posthumous victories” by despairing of God and the world in the aftermath of the Holocaust. As with his defence of Rubenstein, Braiterman is at pains to point out the rhetorical nature of this seemingly-extraordinary injunction—one which seems to demand a positive commitment to Judaism that is rooted in unbearable tragedy. As Braiterman himself observes, there are problems inherent in positioning the Holocaust as the focal point of Jewish life; but he argues convincingly that this statement of Fackenheim’s “was just a trope (in and of itself barely adequate) that stood for the far more critical motif of supernatural revelation.”24
Fackenheim’s early steadiness, as evinced by the 614th Commandment, is overtaken after 1970 by a sense of rupture in the Holocaust, leading to a “pronounced theological minimalism and unequivocal love for Israel” and a series of “uniquely ambivalent readings of the Hebrew Bible and its God.”25 Although committed in all of his work to maintaining the supernatural God of revelation, Fackenheim shifts to an emphasis on “‘root experience’—a past event with the normative power to legislate to the present.”26 Similarly to the rabbinical response to the destruction of the Second Temple—after which prophecy was no longer accepted and the nature of the covenant was changed—Fackenheim argued that “appeals to personal epiphanies are precluded from the ambit of revelation.”27 The sort of radical rejuvenation of Judaism urged by Rubenstein was thus shunted aside and the existing structure of revealed Judaism reinforced. Yet in contrast to his early work, in texts like God’s Presence in History Fackenheim’s theology is reduced to “anti-theodic fragments and the dumb will to endure.”28 He is unwilling to suggest a new approach to God, and unable to maintain the theodic arguments of the Orthodox faithful, leaving only the “avowal of ignorance” held to by those “who faithfully accept a mysterious providence whose workings they cannot fathom.”29
Commenting on the continuation of antisemitism and anti-Judaism in theological work, long after the Holocaust should have forced a reconsideration of such doctrines, A. Roy Eckardt castigates Christian thinkers for continuing to promulgate Jewish deicide and apocalyptic treatments of the Second Coming. He suggests that, so long as such thinking continues, the threat of the Holocaust will never recede: “One Shoah is finished; preparedness for sequels is in the workshop.”30 The question of whether another Holocaust could happen is largely an empty one: the world has changed too much for anything with similar characteristics, and predicting an event with an unknown character is clearly impossible. What is certain, however, is that many of the fundamental elements that might contribute to a future genocide are alive and well, and we will close our discussion of material on ethics after the Holocaust by considering the emerging historiography on one of these elements: denial.
The Holocaust denial movement is instructive because it involves the insistence that facts conform to ideology, and highlights the human ability to learn only those data which reinforce a belief. It may strain credulity that race ‘science’ could be used to wage a war of extermination again, but racism is but one ideology with a history of inciting violence. What the denial movement shows beyond any doubt is that rational explanations are no shield against the spread of murderous ideologies. Further, that the instinct for fair play (Gallup polls have shown over 30 per cent accepting that it is possible the Holocaust did not happen) and free expression (it is often argued that the deniers have a right to express ‘their side’ of the argument) commonly seen in the United States make the improbable at least worth consideration.31 And finally, what these books show most clearly is the refusal of history to confront the failure of the dream of reason. That is, each of these authors makes broad arguments about the nature and motive of deniers, and in so doing opens a space for reflexion on the continuing possibilities for, and apology of, genocide; yet they do so in ways that signal a need to believe that the deniers are merely aberrant, and not also representative of the human way of belief.
Deborah Lipstadt’s 1994 book Denying the Holocaust brought discussion of denial into the mainstream, with favourable reviews throughout the popular and academic press. It also sparked a legal fire-storm which ultimately destroyed the career of David Irving, an erstwhile British historian and Hitler apologist. Irving took exception with being called a denier in Lipstadt’s book, and given the direction of Britain’s libel laws—the accused must prove their innocence—he thought that he could silence her and gain some useful publicity in the process. What happened instead, as ably recounted in Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler, was that the Holocaust itself, and denial by extension, were placed on trial. With the detailed testimony of expert witnesses accepted into the court record, and Irving’s reputation destroyed by the media coverage, Holocaust denial has receded—for now. But what Lipstadt’s book shows, along with that of Shermer and Grobman, is that the political and ideological motives of denial remain compelling and will not die easily.
Lipstadt brings deniers into focus in order to highlight the danger posed by racial extremists masquerading as respectable figures. Her best example is a Southern California organization called the Institute for Historical Review.32 Prior to the publication of her book and the subsequent Irving trial, the IHR had been working to pawn itself off as a serious scholarly enterprise, and that pretence is shattered by her devastating analysis. Yet despite her characterization of their threat, the ease with which the IHR could be connected to extreme racist and antisemitic groups and publications partially belies that threat. What is, however, more than demonstrated is that right-wing groups in the United States, even those with proven popular appeal, can betray a continuing fascination with Hitler and an affinity for violent antisemitism. (She cites the careers of David Duke and Pat Buchanan, for example.33) Lipstadt shows that with increasing sophistication, individuals who had “once argued that the Holocaust, however horrible, was justified now contend that it was a hoax”: an accusation which gains in popular appeal when it is linked to Middle East terror and scepticism regarding the instinctively pro-Israel stance of the United States.34 With indefinite turmoil in the region, the rhetoric of such groups—who blame Israel for making the United States a target for terror, and blame Jews for inculcating support for Israel into the mainstream—cannot entirely be dismissed out of hand.35
Offering a succinct history of the denial movement, from the immediate post-war period up to the 1990s, with sections on the radical right, the IHR, the gas chamber ‘debate’, and the insidious effect that media coverage of the movement is having on American campuses, Denying the Holocaust is a major achievement. Yet two things mar the book and qualify its success: the lack of detail on the deniers’ claims, and the refusal of the author to confront the deniers themselves. The former is addressed only briefly, as an appendix, and a great many denier arguments are ignored. Despite the absurdity of their claims, the arguments must be incontrovertibly refuted if history is to prevail over myth.
The latter is founded in her characterization of the Nazis as irrational. She asserts that “reasoned dialogue has a limited ability to withstand an assault by the mythic power of falsehood, especially when that falsehood is rooted in an age-old social and cultural phenomenon.” The Holocaust is thus grounded in the “mythic appeal of antisemitism” and there remains “no rational basis” for the Nazi policies.36 This statement can be challenged on two fronts. Firstly, the Nazis certainly saw themselves as rational, even scientific, in their aims. Setting aside the repugnance of their ideology, it is probably just as rational as other murderous policies, such as forced collectivization. Rationality is a poor metric for ethical judgements. And secondly, a huge array of common human beliefs could be equally tarred with the epithet “irrational”, from the weird (UFOs) to the sacred (transubstantiation) to the commonplace (nationalism). Dismissing the Nazis as irrational entirely misses the point, since much of what we believe is equally irrational, and such beliefs can also mislead us into atrocities. Building on this belief in denier irrationality, she contends that debate with them is misguided, as it gives the illusion that they hold a legitimate position. Even ignoring the implications of this for other areas of human knowledge, we can object to this position on the simple basis that it allows the idea to survive and spread unopposed.
One man characteristically unable to let a bad argument stand is Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society and inveterate debunker. After arguing for the preservation of free speech and the right of the deniers to make their claims, Shermer and co-author Alex Grobman suggest that scholars then have a “duty” to respond to the deniers’ claim. Their arguments are convincing. They state that, if denial is allowed to gain wider currency, it will help to rehabilitate political views now considered anathema. They suggest that “if people can be convinced that the Holocaust never happened, perhaps they can also be persuaded to believe that slavery is a hoax perpetrated by blacks to coerce Congress to institute affirmative action programs.”37 The argument may seem specious, but only because the example is too extreme as a start; most historical revision begins slowly and takes hold after generations, such that, exemplia gratia, large numbers of Americans now believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and that the current separation was concocted by later generations of disbelievers in order to disenfranchise the majority. As time passes it grows easier to make the facts conform to your vision for them, and if “we allow the distortion of one segment of history without making an appropriate response, we risk the possible distortion of other historical events.”38 Holocaust denial thus transcends the Jewish people, antisemitism, and the Nazis, and must be addressed as an attack on the basic facts—an attack which can and should be countered with the facts.
The other key weakness of Lipstadt’s book is the signal strength of Denying History; that is, they invest a great deal of time into the refutation of critical denier arguments. Some of the most widely-touted ‘evidence’ against the Holocaust has involved the existence of gas chambers using the Zyklon-B pesticide. This material comes in for scathing criticism is chapter six, with not just the credibility of the authors but the substance of their reports interrogated.39 Their evidence is a welcome corrective to Denying the Holocaust, and makes the book a worthy contribution to the historiography. However, Shermer’s background perhaps leads him to a too-easy speculation as to the motives of deniers, and in this way Denying History repeats a flaw of Lipstadt’s work: the deniers are painted as irrational extremists, whose kooky ideas can help us to identify and avoid them. This reductionism fails to appreciate the manifold reasons that people are drawn in by false information, and hopes that if the agendas of the originators are revealed, the arguments will cease to have power. The emotional nature of decision-making suggests, however, that ideas can easily lose the rationale that informed then at their origins, and pass themselves on in new forms.
Both the duty to respond to deniers and the preponderance of facts in doing so point to another issue that begs consideration: the nature of historical knowledge. Like Richard Evans in Lying About Hitler, Shermer and Grobman expend considerable energy attacking “post-modernism” for spreading a “relativism” that is “a seedbed for pseudohistory and Holocaust denial.”40 This is a titanic blunder which leaves the real enemy untouched. By their own formulation, the denier ethos requires that adherents feel “absolute certainty that they have the truth”.41 Challenges to absolute reality are less likely to lead to Holocaust denial than appeals to so-called “historical science” and a reconfigured positivism that is peddled here.42 The authors’ criticism of Foucault, for example, shows no understanding of that author’s position, and the suggestion that post-structuralist theory is somehow at odds with “the facts” is every bit as irresponsible as the relativism they decry would be. And at any rate, the appeals to moral absolutes themselves open the way to atrocity—the Nazis, after all, certainly thought that morality on their side (as, e.g., Claudia Koonz convincingly argues in The Nazi Conscience).
This reduction to “objective” history returns us to the central task for ethics in the post-Holocaust world: that of the challenge such an event offers to conventional thinking. We have seen some authors touching on the philosophical and religious implications that the Holocaust opens, and how often the conclusions force very uncomfortable conclusions. If, for example, anti-Judaism is fundamental to Christian theology, what must be done in the wake of this most awful manifestation of historical antisemitism? Is it possible to reform the various religious traditions without simultaneously undermining them? And what of the problem of objectivity itself: if certainty in the righteousness of one’s cause can lead to a disaster like the Holocaust, do we then need to examine certainty? or only the beliefs themselves? How are we to know that a belief now seen as innocuous, like nationalism or religious faith, cannot to-morrow provide the fuel for the next Holocaust?
It is the task of historians when navigating tortuous minefields like these to aid the philosophers and offer needed context and perspective to debates. The threat of Holocaust denial and racist antisemitism may have slipped into the background, but there are other paths to the Shoah: the continuing rise of Biblical literalism and apocalypticism, for one, offers a far less easily challenged form of antisemitism. History and ethics do not make comfortable bedfellows, but if the philosophers are willing to ask the truly big questions about human nature, we may one day learn to control our destinies and stop the next war.