A biweekly column about Jewish things.
As a Jewish child, I was taught to accept Holocaust survivors’ judgments and emotions—all of them. What a survivor forgave, I was taught to forgive. What aroused a survivor’s anger aroused my anger. And when a survivor said she would not forgive, or counseled sadness instead of anger—I accepted this too.
This was as it should have been. Jewish children should learn to be witnesses to the evils of the Holocaust. If by some chance a survivor reads this essay, and tells me I’ve dishonored the martyrs, I will ask forgiveness. And if a survivor tells me I’ve gotten matters correct, I won’t feel I have authority to agree. But because all Jews steward the Holocaust’s memory, and because what’s done with that memory is gravely important, I feel morally obligated to write without license.
In the exchange between Andreas Lombard and Michel Gurfinkiel concerning Holocaust memory in German public life, Lombard argues that today, German Holocaust memory is not primarily about making amends to the Jews. It is instead about anointing Germany the conscience of a world which, having witnessed the Absolute Sin of the Holocaust, will be cleansed only by the atoning self-negation of that sin’s perpetrators.
German “negative nationalism” is secular and millenarian. “We [Germans] are to be the new avant-garde movement. . . . By the Cunning of Reason, the unsurpassable crime becomes the indispensable spur toward the unsurpassable achievement of global justice and perpetual peace.” This millenarianism means the end of Germany—and of all other nations. Militant particularism caused the Holocaust, so the argument goes; therefore, all distinctions must be eliminated—by Germany and for the sake of atoning for German crimes against the people who redeemed particularity, the Jews (Lombard sees the irony).
If Lombard is correct, then this is another exercise in German vainglory. Nonetheless, Lombard believes Germany has an “ongoing duty to remember” the Holocaust. Gurfinkiel accuses Lombard of thinking that “Remembering is part of the problem.” “Now more than ever,” Gurfinkiel writes, “we need to remember Auschwitz,” to instruct us about present dangers. I do not think Lombard would object to this use of memory. Lombard objects to a belief in the Holocaust’s “metaphysical singularity.” This kind of singularity has two possible consequences: first, that Germany must repent forever, perhaps through a slow suicide; second, that perhaps alone among sinning nations, Germany is unforgivable by self, God, and the world.
Gurfinkiel insists upon the singularity of the Holocaust as “Absolute Evil.” Gurfinkiel worries “that Lombard is tempted to downplay the singularity of the Holocaust, downgrading it from an absolute evil to—so to say—regular evil. He does not go quite so far, but the fact that he plays with such a view is troubling.” I myself detect no such temptation in Lombard’s essay, and indeed Gurfinkiel quotes Lombard as saying that “the Holocaust was a singular crime.”
But what about Gurfinkiel’s more ambitious claim that the Holocaust is in its own “absolute” class? I think it is possible to believe both that the Holocaust was a uniquely radical evil and that it shares features with other evils (by my reading, this is Lombard’s view). The Third Reich fought, Gurfinkiel correctly notes, “a war against the biblical God.” But others have attempted wars against the Almighty, and all evil, at root, has this feature. The Holocaust was not a regular evil if by “regular” is meant “common” or even “easy to understand.” But when we call it evil, without equivocation, we can also acknowledge that evil comes in as many forms as mankind’s ancient capacity to do evil can produce.
But perhaps the Holocaust’s metaphysical uniqueness consists in its anti-Jewish character. Whoever kills those through whom God introduced himself to the world attacks God most directly. That is certainly true. But Hitler was not the first anti-Semite, nor the first anti-Semite to be so fanatically and essentially an anti-Semite, nor the first anti-Semite to want every Jew dead. Nor, I expect, will he be the last. The Nazis were, by far, the most successful in their genocidal program. But Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Majdanek could not have been built except on a continent drenched in centuries of Jew-hatred. The Holocaust is both distinct from and united with the long history of crimes against the Jews.
Some believe that the Holocaust is metaphysically singular because it was uniquely senseless. Its perpetrators were mad in a special way. We should be stunned into silence, period. I think this is a failure of imagination. Evil people do not suffer from mysterious delusions that could be cured with enough humane therapy. The Nazis were free, men like you and me. They acted for reasons. We can understand those reasons. Understanding them does not excuse them—it is what allows us not to excuse them. If the Holocaust were the work of an inscrutable force, its human instruments would not merit blame.
The Holocaust was a radical instance of the worst kind of evil—but will it always be the worst thing ever done? Are men so averse to evil now that, given sufficient materials and imagination, they could not surpass Hitler? I imagine some philosopher saw the Kishinev pogrom and pronounced that men could not do worse, only to learn a few years later to hold his tongue the next time he had a charitable thing to say about the limits of the evil men can do.
There are some people who, all this being said, know in their hearts that the years between 1939 and 1945 stained the human soul an essentially alien and unreproducible scarlet. I will not disagree. I do not know.
And what about Germany today? Most of the perpetrators are dead. But something called Germany exists across time, acts, and in a sense has a national spirit. This is true of the Jews, of America, and of other nations. Lombard and Gurfinkiel both operate with something like this view of collective identity. As a friend of mine said to me in a different context: Whatever justifies patriotic pride justifies patriotic shame. The German nation tried to destroy the Jews. If there is guilt to bear, the German nation is the entity that bears it.
Even if you believe that men have not done worse than Auschwitz—can Germany ever deserve forgiveness? Should it forgive itself? Even if atonement is possible, should Germany continue to repent? These are questions for God above. And yet because they are important to affairs here below, we have to try to answer.
I think we should believe that atonement is, in principle, possible. However low the Nazis were, God is infinitely higher. Where was Mengele when God laid the foundations of the earth? My astonishment at visiting Auschwitz six years ago is both more poignant and less psychologically dominating than my faith that God receives contrite sinners. To cleanse a soul of guilt––of all God’s powers, I find this the most sublime and mysterious. I cannot imagine limits to it that God does not set himself.
The Nazis did not exterminate the image of God in their victims or in the German people. All live and die God’s children. Denying the possibility of God’s forgiveness is, as Lombard quotes Kierkegaard as saying, a form of hubris. It says that God’s mercy cannot overcome certain kinds of evil, that there is a corner of the universe that the Master of the Universe cannot penetrate. I have no warrant—unless God has explicitly granted one, can anyone have a warrant?—to rule out, in principle, the possibility that Germany can atone. And human beings must be even more open than they think God to be, because it is God’s law and not ours that sinners traduce.
But perhaps there is a warrant for perpetual judgment against Germany and Germans. Perhaps Germany, driven mad with hatred of God’s chosen people, is the 20th-century incarnation of Amalek. And God says that Amalek must be destroyed. Germany’s will to self-annihilation may therefore concord with the Divine will.
Many people far wiser than I have spoken on both sides of this question. But let me submit this: Part of what made the Holocaust so shocking is that pre-Nazi Germany had many elements of a humane culture, as does Germany today. There are resources for an authentically German civilization uninfected by National Socialism. Amalek, so far as we know, was congenitally cruel and so perennially hopeless.
Even if Germany is not beyond atonement, Germany may not stop repenting. Lombard writes: “Schuld, the German word for guilt, is related to the word for debt . . . and debt has to be accounted for precisely. Good is mixed with the bad, and if we are morally serious we must think about it with an accountant’s precision—even when it comes to the German people between 1933 and 1945.”
Germans need new words for these things. How are spreadsheets to assess Novardok, Brisk, Warsaw, Lodz, Yiddish culture, and the cousins I never had? The Holocaust is not an outstanding debt to be denominated and then repaid in the same currency in which it was incurred. Men cannot calibrate sin. It is a maddening but solid fact that we can violate the Divine order but cannot mend it by our own counter-actions. Germany will always be the nation that tried and failed to exterminate the Jews. If God announces that Germany is forgiven, perhaps Germany could forgive itself. But even forgiveness would not extirpate the certain capacity for wickedness that will always come more easily to Germany than to other nations. If Germany’s current attempts to address the Holocaust retard its national life, it should find new ones.
One thing in particular Germany should always do to atone: Germany must stake its national honor on the welfare of the Jewish people. When the E.U. or the U.N. decides to boycott the Jewish state, the loudest “no” should come in German. The cause of the Jews should be the cause of the Germans.
There are Jews who think that suggesting forgiveness is theoretically possible is treacherous, that if Germans now wish to end their nation’s life, good riddance. I cannot agree. If Germany chooses, as we all may choose, to serve God with a humble heart, I do not think its past sins, however profound, will permanently alienate it from God’s good graces. I find that an intolerable limit on God’s mercy. But perhaps this is unfounded, and I should not have written about things beyond my understanding.
Cole S. Aronson studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Judean hills.