On limitations: Lessons learnt and lessons not learnt from German history
Ladies and gentlemen,
When I was asked to speak about the lessons we can learn from the German history, I was a bit hesitant. Because the longer I’ve studied the history of the genocide the less I understand how it could have happened. Much research has been done and we have many reports from witnesses. But still our understanding is limited, maybe it must be limited due to the monstrosity of the Holocaust. So instead of providing an overview on German history, I would rather like to share some personal reflection with you when talking about lessons learnt from the Holocaust. Because in the end I still have more questions than answers.
The Holocaust was uniquely evil in its genocidal singularity. It was a war against Jews in which, as Nobel Peace Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel put it, “not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”
The genocide of European Jews was possible not only because of state sanctioned culture of hate and industry of death but because of crimes of indifference, because of a conspiracy of silence. This is linked to the phenomena of bystanders, which the historian Raul Hilberg described. The bigger a group of people is who are witnessing an accident or a tragedy, the less likely it is that one individual will stand up and help. There is a strong tendency within such a group to rely on another person to take the first step. So even if the majority of the bystanders would see the need to help the victims, nobody does. The silence of the bystanders is an important aspect when discussing the question of why millions of Jews could be evicted and killed without any major resistance from the rest of the population. Another aspect, of course, would be the deep-rooted anti-Semitic sentiment that prevailed in Europe over centuries and that culminated in the Holocaust.
When talking about lessons learnt from German history, I would like to focus on the limitations that we are subject to in our understanding of the Holocaust. For there are things in history that are too terrible to be believed, but not too terrible to have happened. They are beyond vocabulary.
An important aspect of the limitation of language is that words might ease the pain but at the same time they might also dwarf the tragedy.
When talking about the limitations of language, one has to mention Primo Levi. Like many Holocaust survivors writing about their experiences, Primo Levi felt the need to bear witness and at the same time expressed doubt about whether he could use language to communicate his experiences adequately. Still, 35 years after the end of the Holocaust, he felt haunted by history. As a foreword to one of his books he chose the following poem: “Since then, at an uncertain hour/that agony returns. / And till my ghastly tale is told/this hear within me burns.”
Near the end of his life, his memory of his year in Auschwitz remained “much sharper and more detailed than anything before or since.” He could not bear to let remembered details fade away.
Part of his compulsion to write about Auschwitz reflected an attempt to cope psychologically with the injury done to him in order to “become human again… neither a martyr, nor debased, nor a saint.”
Like so many other Holocaust survivors, Primo Levi committed suicide. His death more than 40 years after the liberation shows the ongoing nature of the psychological wound inflicted on him. And it leaves us with the question of what the term liberation means for the victims of genocide and mass atrocities.
Postwar Germany seemed to be too occupied with the reconstruction of the country. Therefore dealing with its own past and healing the wounds were not high on the agenda. In addition, there was a disturbing continuity of former Nazi judges and politicians still being in power, which led to the fact that the trauma of the survivors was not dealt with. The complicity of silence during the Holocaust was prolonged for too many years after the war.
It was only the student movement of the so-called 1968 generation that started raising critical questions about the involvement of their fathers and grandfathers in the war. And it was due to the screening of the Hollywood TV series “Holocaust” in 1978 that a wider population in Germany was confronted with its history. The four-part series with Meryl Streep told the story of the Holocaust from the perspective of the fictional Jewish Weiss family. It was watched by 20 million Germans, which made up 50% of the population. The huge public debate it provoked was so intense that a right wing neo-Nazi group even tried to prevent the series from being screened by blowing up a TV transmission tower.
Another example how culture contributed to dealing with the past was the 1985 documentary “Shoah” by French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann. Until today, this nine hour documentary is the most comprehensive attempt to explain the mechanism of genocide and mass atrocities. I remember the very intense interview that Lanzmann conducted with the Polish resistance member Jan Karski, who could not hide his own trauma having witnessed the extermination camps and the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto.
Let me briefly mention the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, the author of the book “Man’s Search For Meaning”. Frankl had survived different concentration camps. According to his own experience, it is important to find meaning in all forms of existence, even the most brutal and dehumanized ones. It is only by finding meaning that there is a reason to continue living. Frankl’s meaning was to tell the world about what had happened. This intention helped him to survive.
This experience is also mirrored in the story of the Jewish pianist Alice Herz-Sommer who survived the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. In that camp she was forced to play music for the Nazis. Later she would say that although the circumstances had been grim and the piano in very bad condition, she would try to perform the music in the best possible way in order to pay respect to the composer and culture itself. This was the sort of meaning that she had found and that had helped her survive the genocide.
From an outside point of view, this is maybe the most difficult part to understand; how it is possible to find meaning under the circumstances of mass murder and barbarism. But we will find this sort of explanation with many Holocaust survivors.
All these limitations of language and understanding result in barriers to healing. This conference, which is already the fourth conference organized by Heinrich Boell Foundation on the topic of Dealing With The Past, will focus on different aspects of healing from trauma after genocide, war crimes and mass atrocities. Amongst others, we will talk about truth and justice, gender based violence, the role of families and societies and what art and culture can contribute to healing of individuals and societies.
Unfortunately, I have to close my remarks on a rather pessimistic note. Whenever mass atrocities, crimes against humanity or genocide occurs we hear the slogan “Never Again.” We heard it after the Holocaust, we heard it after Yugoslavia, after Rwanda and South Sudan, and now we have to witness the mass atrocities against Rohingya in Myanmar.
Have we ever learnt the lessons? And what is the role of the younger generation in preventing those things from happening again? Is there enough education about history? As the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel put it by referring to the limitations of education: “Cold blooded murder and culture did not exclude each other. If the Holocaust proved anything, it is that a person can both love poems and kill children.”
The new right wing movements in Europe, their strong xenophobic and anti-Semitic language gives reason for concern. Progress that has been made in recent decades with the establishment of democracy and human rights cannot be taken for granted.
Genocide happened before and there is no reason to believe that it cannot happen again.