The New York Review of Books for February 14 2008 carries an article of more than 4,000 words by Tony Judt, adapted from a lecture he gave in Bremen last year on being awarded the Hannah Arendt prize. Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem is a work that no serious student of the fate of European Jewry under the Nazis can bypass, and it is therefore entirely appropriate that Judt should centre these reflections of his - 'The "Problem of Evil" in Postwar Europe' - on the ways in which the Shoah or Holocaust (I use the two expressions interchangeably) is remembered and written about today. The general tenor of what he has to say on the subject is regrettable, however. Because Tony Judt's is a name that is respected in the academic world and beyond, I take the space I need here to subject his essay to critical scrutiny.
After a period of relative inattention in the years following the Second World War, the Shoah was increasingly taken up from some time after the 1960s, Judt says, until it became a universal reference point - in films, television, books, specialist studies, memoirs, school curricula. So it remains today. Now that it is so generally emphasized, is everything all right? Judt's immediate answer is that he isn't sure. But by the time he has spelled out the sources of his uncertainty, the burden of the argument has become clear and it is that he thinks that things are not all right. He goes through five difficulties he has with the amount of attention now given to the Holocaust. In what follows I summarize these, recording at the same time the difficulties I have with his difficulties.
1. Judt's first difficulty arises from the fact that the way the so-called Final Solution is remembered in Western Europe is not in harmony with the memories of the Second World War in Eastern Europe. Why - he reports people asking there - the sensitivity to the mass murder of the Jews? What was so distinctive about it? What about the non-Jewish victims? And the victims, also, of Stalinism? That these other victims, whether of Nazism or Stalinism, are worth every bit of historical and memorial attention they get, and if this is not enough, then more attention still, is not a point I would dispute. But beyond that, I'm puzzled why this East European perspective should pose any difficulty for Tony Judt. For the question why people should be so sensitive about the destruction of European Jewry is not a good one, and the irritation behind it is not an impulse worthy of respect. These are responses based either on ignorance or on something worse than ignorance and which Judt himself has identified a few paragraphs earlier in his piece in talking of 'the powerful incentive [there was] in many places to forget what had happened, to draw a veil over the worst horrors'. These places include Eastern Europe for the obvious reason that there were East Europeans who colluded with the persecution of the Jews, with expropriation of Jewish property, deportation and all the rest of it.
Why so much attention should be aroused by the mass murder of any very large number of people - in this case millions, but the same would apply were it 'only' tens of thousands - is not the kind of question that should be indulged. It is hard to imagine Judt or any other morally serious person asking, for example, why people should be so focused on what happened in Rwanda in 1994 when there have been victims aplenty in other parts of Africa; or on what is happening in Darfur now, when the people of Zimbabwe or the Congo are also suffering. To draw attention to these other victims and to say that there isn't enough of it, where there isn't, is perfectly proper. To ask why people should be so sensitive to what happened in Rwanda or is happening in Darfur, or to ask what is so very distinctive about the killing in one or other of those two places, would be morally obtuse. Killing of this magnitude doesn't have to be distinctive to justify anyone's attention; it just has to be what it is - the mass murder of human beings.
So it is hard to fathom why Tony Judt, or we West Europeans, should consider that we have a difficulty here. That some East Europeans have a different view from many West Europeans isn't a compelling reason for thinking so. The difficulty is rather theirs who frown upon the impulse of others to remember a major historical crime. Let us defer, therefore, coming to any conclusive judgement about the meaning of Tony Judt's first difficulty.
2. His second difficulty is a historiographical one: now that 'we are encouraged to think about those sufferings [i.e. of the Jews] all the time', there is a danger that historians, reading the perspective of the present back into the past, may inflate the place the Holocaust actually had at the time in the meanings, the preoccupations, the experiences, of those who lived through the war. But if we think like this, think that the Second World War was about the Holocaust, we will not teach 'good history', Judt says. He's right. Again, however, I don't see that this is a difficulty of general scope, rather than just a necessary concern in the training of historians and history teachers. It is practically a law of nature that in any widely populated field of human endeavour there will be mediocre and indifferent productions alongside the examples of excellence or merely competence. Where novelists are many, some novels will be poor; where poetry abounds, some of it will not serve to decorate everyone's day. Just so, if there is much written, spoken and taught about the tragedy of European Jewry and its place in the war that was its backdrop, then some of that will be of better quality and some of it of worse; there will be examples of poor history. So what? The better can be relied on to make its way in the world and outlast the not so good. Judt himself allows that in 'moral terms' (his emphasis) it is proper that the central issue of the war should now be Auschwitz. If on this account we get some poor history, that is simply an inevitable product of the moral focus that is a proper one according to Judt himself. Unless, that is, he thinks that, its moral centrality notwithstanding, there is just too much attention being given to the Shoah today. But we need a reason, in that case, for thinking that this much attention is too much. And we don't yet have it. Could it be that Judt's difficulties are not themselves reasons supporting that conclusion but are rather inferences from the preconception that this much attention is too much attention - so that what Judt's essay gives us are not parts adding up to a reasoned whole, but instead an originary meaning essential to the whole and which bathes the individual parts in its illumination?
3. Judt's third difficulty has to do with the word 'evil'. I quote him at length on this:
Modern secular society has long been uncomfortable with the idea of "evil." We prefer more rationalistic and legal definitions of good and bad, right and wrong, crime and punishment. But in recent years the word has crept slowly back into moral and even political discourse... However, now that the concept of "evil" has reentered our public language we don't know what to do with it. We have become confused.Given Judt's concern about our becoming confused, he couldn't have given better evidence of it than the number of his own confusions collected in these paragraphs.
On the one hand the Nazi extermination of the Jews is presented as a singular crime, an evil never matched before or since, an example and a warning: "Nie Wieder! Never again!" But on the other hand we invoke that same ("unique") evil today for many different and far from unique purposes. In recent years politicians, historians, and journalists have used the term "evil" to describe mass murder and genocidal outcomes everywhere: from Cambodia to Rwanda, from Turkey to Serbia, from Bosnia to Chechnya, from the Congo to Sudan. Hitler himself is frequently conjured up to denote the "evil" nature and intentions of modern dictators: we are told there are "Hitlers" everywhere, from North Korea to Iraq, from Syria to Iran. And we are all familiar with President George W. Bush's "axis of evil," a self-serving abuse of the term which has contributed greatly to the cynicism it now elicits.
Moreover, if Hitler, Auschwitz, and the genocide of the Jews incarnated a unique evil, why are we constantly warned that they and their like could happen anywhere, or are about to happen again?
First, while the Holocaust doubtless plays its part in generating references to human evil, I don't think anyone could plausibly maintain that there is a shortage of alternative sources. From other mass atrocities of historical notoriety, through smaller-scale acts of political murder and torture, to ghastly individual crimes in the private sphere, the word 'evil' has plenty to keep it on the lips of humankind. Why the Holocaust should be lumbered with special responsibility here isn't clear. The idea, just to entertain it for a moment, that if the Holocaust hadn't happened modern conversation would be freer of the idea of evil is merely quaint.
Second, look at the list of items that Judt compiles to show the profligacy with which public discussion has recourse to the word 'evil'. This list includes: Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Chechnya, the Congo, Sudan, Saddam's Iraq and North Korea. God Almighty (if I may allow myself an imprecation sustained by the beliefs of others). To speak the word 'evil' in any of these cases doesn't seem the least bit exorbitant. Of course, if that word exhausts your verbal or intellectual tool-kit, you won't have much of an understanding of any of the events or political patterns that stand behind these names. But why it should be a difficulty or a worry to anyone that, for example, genocide is spoken of as evil, or an evil, is entirely mysterious.
It may be noted, in passing, while we're on the subject of naming evils, that one name that has got in on the act here is that of George W. Bush. Talk about a universal reference: rather like the Holocaust for evil, Bush's name has today become the embodiment of much badness for Western liberal intellectuals, so it is perhaps no surprise that he is now attached to showing the difficulties that can arise from... remembering the destruction of the European Jews.
Third, Judt sees it as problematic that the Holocaust should be considered by some as both a unique evil and a repeatable one. He is aware that the claim that the Holocaust is unique is controversial, because he has earlier gestured towards the view that there is an answer to the question why the Shoah is distinctive, without saying what that answer is. I have for my own part argued (here at length, and here more briefly) that there may indeed be a morally significant sense in which the Holocaust was unique, but that if it is, this is not because of any particularity of Jewish victimhood or suffering; it is rather to do with the nature of the Nazi crime. However that may be, the problem Judt makes of the idea of Holocaust singularity is only testimony to his own confusion. An event can be at once unprecedented, and therefore unique to date, and repeatable. Even apart from this, one can perfectly well believe both that the genocide against the Jews had some morally singular features and that it stands as a warning for the future - this not because of its singularity, but just as a genocide, i.e., because of what it shares with other genocides. That, I venture to suggest, is what the vast majority of those who emphasize the Shoah as a warning do in fact believe.
Fourth, as an additional sign of the omnipresence in contemporary usage of the idea of evil, Judt goes on to say, immediately after the passage I have quoted above:
Every time someone smears anti-Semitic graffiti on a synagogue wall in France we are warned that "the unique evil" is with us once more, that it is 1938 all over again. We are losing the capacity to distinguish between the normal sins and follies of mankind - stupidity, prejudice, opportunism, demagogy, and fanaticism - and genuine evil.I shall come back to the theme of anti-Semitism shortly. But this verges on argument by clowning. Anti-Semitic incidents are to be taken seriously where they occur for a simple reason: anti-Semitism is a form of racist prejudice and racism is a serious matter, a poison in the body politic, in the places where it is secreted or reveals itself. But there is also a specific history of the form of racism that is anti-Semitism, a history the final fruit of which was Auschwitz and Treblinka. There may be some amongst those who invoke these horrors who really do think that it is always 1938, or 1942. But most of them don't think so - no more than people who remind us of the history of lynching in the US think that drawing the noose as a racist symbol in 2007 actually throws the country back to the 1890s when 'a black person was lynched almost every other day'. These are potent historical reminders of what racism has produced and they have their place in moral and political argument. They are not meant to equate anti-Semitic graffiti with the gas chambers except in the minds of a few know-nothings.
4. Much the same may be said about Judt's fourth difficulty - a concern he has about 'tunnel vision' or, as he also puts this, 'invest[ing] all our emotional and moral energies into just one problem'. What problem is that? Why, anti-Semitism. Judt writes:
[A]nti-Semitism, like terrorism, is not the only evil in the world and must not be an excuse to ignore other crimes and other suffering. The danger of abstracting "terrorism" or anti-Semitism from their contexts - of setting them upon a pedestal as the greatest threat to Western civilization, or democracy, or "our way of life," and targeting their exponents for an indefinite war - is that we shall overlook the many other challenges of the age.I leave aside terrorism; that is not my topic here. But the suspicion I voiced earlier about Judt's not working from (good) reasons to a conclusion, but rather from a founding preconception towards confecting some (bad) reasons, is really confirmed by these remarkable statements. I don't know what audience or set of interlocutors he has imagined for himself, but if there are people who believe that anti-Semitism is the only evil in the world and the greatest threat to Western civilization, I doubt there would have been many of them listening to his lecture on Hannah Arendt, I doubt there are many (relatively speaking) in the world at large, and a man of Judt's intellectual capacities and reputation could do with addressing himself to listeners of a higher calibre than he has fashioned with this fourth difficulty of his.
5. Judt's final difficulty, as it had to be in view of what has gone before, is the relation of the Holocaust to arguments about Israel and the Palestinians. It has several components, some of which have already been foreshadowed in what has gone before. (a) Judt deplores the way the Holocaust is invoked to deflect criticism of Israel by the suggestion that such criticism is a stimulus to anti-Semitism or just is anti-Semitism without further ado. (b) In fact, the reverse is true, he says: it is the taboo on criticism of Israel and a too intense focus on the Holocaust that are stimulants to cynicism and anti-Semitism. (c) Relative to other minority groups in the US and Europe, the Jews are not especially stigmatized, threatened or excluded; they are successful, and prominent in many spheres. (d) The Holocaust may 'lose its universal resonance' if it is too closely attached to the defence of a single country; as things are, if you ask outside the West, ask amongst Africans and Asians, what lessons there are from the Shoah, the responses 'are not very reassuring'.
What is striking about these arguments of Judt's is their unqualified, their completely one-sided, character. It is true that the Jewish tragedy in Europe is sometimes misused to justify or excuse Israeli policies that should not be defended. But to say this without noting that there is also anti-Semitic hostility to Israel, in the Arab world and in the West, some of it perfectly overt and some of it more discreet, is to pretend that anti-Semitism is a smaller problem than it is. To lament such misuses of the Holocaust without mentioning the misuses in the opposite direction that equate Israel with the spirit and the methods of the Nazis is to see with only one eye. The same goes for writing as if the most serious sources of anti-Semitism might be arguments used by defenders of Israel or an over-emphasis on the Shoah. Really? This is a centuries-old hatred, and yet here we find ourselves in a situation where it is defence of the Jewish state and memory of the genocide against the Jews that are the stimulants of anti-Semitism; these, at any rate, are Tony Judt's sources of choice.
Judt does not see fit even to notice what many others have perceived as a real trend during the last decade, a resurgence of anti-Semitism. But attacks on Jews have been on the increase in many countries. To take only the example of Britain, you might think it was of some significance that the Jewish community is 'forced to provide a permanent system of guards and surveillance for its schools, religious centres, and communal institutions'.
And then Judt reprises, with his fifth difficulty, the theme already announced with the first of them: namely, that outside of the West awareness of the Holocaust and responses to the question of what lessons should be drawn from it would not reassure us. And this is our difficulty, not theirs. Why? Can you imagine something similar transposed on to another major ethnic experience of suffering? Being told that because, say, in Sweden or Ukraine, there wasn't much of an awareness of, or there was a cynical disregard for, the experience of New World slavery, this suggested we shouldn't go on making too much of the victims of that terrible institution and the trade in human beings that went with it? I don't think so.
A few words now in conclusion. Is there too much about the Holocaust - too much writing, too much memorializing, too much reference? The whole weight of what Judt has to say pushes towards the conclusion that there is, though without his providing, as I have tried to show, a single compelling argument for this. But my own answer to the question is: no, there is not too much. I offer a moral and a political argument in support of that answer.
Morally - humanly - if you were to spend an hour of every day during a lifetime remembering, learning, lamenting, teaching what was done to the victims of the Nazi genocide you could not encompass all the cruelty and all the pain of those years. We do better to take note of Primo Levi's poem 'Shema':
Consider that this has been:This is true not because of what happened to those Jews, but because of what happened to those people; and it is therefore likewise true, exactly true, for the other millions of victims of other genocides - in Turkey, in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in Darfur, wherever.
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
As I have argued before, there is not too much attention given to the Holocaust or any other genocide, there is too little. Think only of the energy and attention that is being given, in the US and globally, to the American presidential election; or think of a major sporting event like the football World Cup; and then think how it might be, politically, if there were a planetary consciousness, a world-wide human rights movement, so cognizant of the worst crimes of the past, not turned away from them towards easier preoccupations, that people marched and agitated in their tens and hundreds of thousands whenever there was a genocide in process or threatening, demanded that the governments of the world and the institutions of world governance would treat these situations as urgent. Can Tony Judt, or anyone, be confident that this would not make the world a better place?
But Judt has all these difficulties with Holocaust remembrance, and he has them by way of honouring Hannah Arendt - Hannah Arendt who suggested the possibility that 'mankind in its entirety... might have been grievously hurt and endangered' by the crime of exterminating whole ethnic groups. It is hard to imagine a more unworthy tribute to her.