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The ‘Problem of Evil’ in Postwar Europe

The first work by Hannah Arendt that I read, at the age of sixteen, was Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.1 It remains, for me, the emblematic Arendt text. It is not her most philosophical book. It is not always right; and it is decidedly not her most popular piece of writing. I did not even like the book myself when I first read it—I was an ardent young Socialist-Zionist and Arendt’s conclusions profoundly disturbed me. But in the years since then I have come to understand that Eichmann in Jerusalem represents Hannah Arendt at her best: attacking head-on a painful topic; dissenting from official wisdom; provoking argument not just among her critics but also and especially among her friends; and above all, disturbing the easy peace of received opinion. It is in memory of Arendt the “disturber of the peace” that I want to offer a few thoughts on a subject which, more than any other, preoccupied her political writings.

In 1945, in one of her first essays following the end of the war in Europe, Hannah Arendt wrote that “the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe—as death became the fundamental problem after the last war.”2 In one sense she was, of course, absolutely correct. After World War I Europeans were traumatized by the memory of death: above all, death on the battlefield, on a scale hitherto unimaginable. The poetry, fiction, cinema, and art of interwar Europe were suffused with images of violence and death, usually critical but sometimes nostalgic (as in the writings of Ernst Jünger or Pierre Drieu La Rochelle). And of course the armed violence of World War I leached into civilian life in interwar Europe in many forms: paramilitary squads, political murders, coups d’état, civil wars, and revolutions.

After World War II, however, the worship of violence largely disappeared from European life. During this war violence was directed not just against soldiers but above all against civilians (a large share of the deaths during World War II occurred not in battle but under the aegis of occupation, ethnic cleansing, and genocide). And the utter exhaustion of all European nations—winners and losers alike—left few illusions about the glory of fighting or the honor of death. What did remain, of course, was a widespread familiarity with brutality and crime on an unprecedented scale. The question of how human beings could do this to each other—and above all the question of how and why one European people (Germans) could set out to exterminate another (Jews)—were, for an alert observer like Arendt, self-evidently going to be the obsessive questions facing the continent. That is what she meant by “the problem of evil.”

In one sense, then, Arendt was of course correct. But as so often, it took other people longer to grasp her point. It is true that in the aftermath of Hitler’s defeat and the Nuremberg trials lawyers and legislators devoted much attention to the issue of “crimes against humanity” and the definition of a new crime—“genocide”—that until then had not even had a name. But while the courts were defining the monstrous crimes that had just been committed in Europe, Europeans themselves were doing their best to forget them. And in that sense at least, Arendt was wrong, at least for a while.

Far from reflecting upon the problem of evil in the years that followed the end of World War II, most Europeans turned their heads resolutely away from it. Today we find this difficult to understand, but the fact is that the Shoah—the attempted genocide of the Jews of Europe—was for many years by no means the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe (or the United States). Indeed, most people—intellectuals and others—ignored it as much as they could. Why?

In Eastern Europe there were four reasons. In the first place, the worst wartime crimes against the Jews were committed there; and although those crimes were sponsored by Germans, there was no shortage of willing collaborators among the local occupied nations: Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians, Croats, and others. There was a powerful incentive in many places to forget what had happened, to draw a veil over the worst horrors.3 Secondly, many non-Jewish East Europeans were themselves victims of atrocities (at the hands of Germans, Russians, and others) and when they remembered the war they did not typically think of the agony of their Jewish neighbors but of their own suffering and losses.

Thirdly, most of Central and Eastern Europe came under Soviet control by 1948. The official Soviet account of World War II was of an anti-fascist war—or, within the Soviet Union, a “Great Patriotic War.” For Moscow, Hitler was above all a fascist and a nationalist. His racism was much less important. The millions of dead Jews from the Soviet territories were counted in Soviet losses, of course, but their Jewishness was played down or even ignored, in history books and public commemorations. And finally, after a few years of Communist rule, the memory of German occupation was replaced by that of Soviet oppression. The extermination of the Jews was pushed even deeper into the background.

In Western Europe, even though circumstances were quite different, there was a parallel forgetting. The wartime occupation—in France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, and, after 1943, Italy—was a humiliating experience and postwar governments preferred to forget collaboration and other indignities and emphasize instead the heroic resistance movements, national uprisings, liberations, and martyrs. For many years after 1945 even those who knew better—like Charles de Gaulle—deliberately contributed to a national mythology of heroic suffering and courageous mass resistance. In postwar West Germany too, the initial national mood was one of self-pity at Germans’ own suffering. And with the onset of the cold war and a change of enemies, it became inopportune to emphasize the past crimes of present allies. So no one—not Germans, not Austrians, not French or Dutch or Belgians or Italians—wanted to recall the suffering of the Jews or the distinctive evil that had brought it about.

That is why, to take a famous example, when Primo Levi took his Auschwitz memoir Se questo è un uomo to the major Italian publisher Einaudi in 1946 it was rejected out of hand. At that time, and for some years to come, it was Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, not Auschwitz, which stood for the horror of Nazism; the emphasis on political deportees rather than racial ones conformed better to reassuring postwar accounts of wartime national resistance. Levi’s book was eventually published, but in just 2,500 copies by a small local press. Hardly anyone bought it; many copies of the book were remaindered in a warehouse in Florence and destroyed in the great flood there in 1966.

I can confirm the lack of interest in the Shoah in those years from my own experience, growing up in England—a victorious country that had never been occupied and thus had no complex about wartime crimes. But even in England the subject was never much discussed—in school or in the media. As late as 1966, when I began to study modern history at Cambridge University, I was taught French history—including the history of Vichy France—with almost no reference to Jews or anti-Semitism. No one was writing about the subject. Yes, we studied the Nazi occupation of France, the collaborators at Vichy, and French fascism. But nothing we read, in English or French, engaged the problem of France’s role in the Final Solution.

And even though I am Jewish and members of my own family had been killed in the death camps, I did not think it strange back then that the subject passed unmentioned. The silence seemed quite normal. How does one explain, in retrospect, this willingness to accept the unacceptable? Why does the abnormal come to seem so normal that we don’t even notice it? Probably for the depressingly simple reason that Tolstoy provides in Anna Karenina: “There are no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him.”

Everything started to change after the Sixties, for many reasons: the passage of time, the curiosity of a new generation, and perhaps, too, a slackening of international tension.4 West Germany above all, the nation primarily responsible for the horrors of Hitler’s war, was transformed in the course of a generation into a people uniquely conscious of the enormity of its crimes and the scale of its accountability. By the 1980s the story of the destruction of the Jews of Europe was becoming increasingly familiar in books, in cinema, and on television. Since the 1990s and the end of the division of Europe, official apologies, national commemoration sites, memorials, and museums have become commonplace; even in post-Communist Eastern Europe the suffering of the Jews has begun to take its place in official memory.

Today, the Shoah is a universal reference. The history of the Final Solution, or Nazism, or World War II is a required course in high school curriculums everywhere. Indeed, there are schools in the US and even Britain where such a course may be the only topic in modern European history that a child ever studies. There are now countless records and retellings and studies of the wartime extermination of the Jews of Europe: local monographs, philosophical essays, sociological and psychological investigations, memoirs, fictions, feature films, archives of interviews, and much else. Hannah Arendt’s prophecy would seem to have come true: the history of the problem of evil has become a fundamental theme of European intellectual life.

So now everything is all right? Now that we have looked into the dark past, called it by its name, and sworn that it must never again be repeated? I am not so sure. Let me suggest five difficulties that arise from our contemporary preoccupation with the Shoah, with what every schoolchild now calls “the Holocaust.” The first difficulty concerns the dilemma of incompatible memories. Western European attention to the memory of the Final Solution is now universal (though for understandable reasons less developed in Spain and Portugal). But the “eastern” nations that have joined “Europe” since 1989 retain a very different memory of World War II and its lessons, for the reasons I have suggested.

Indeed, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the resulting freedom to study and discuss the crimes and failures of communism, greater attention has been paid to the ordeal of Europe’s eastern half, at the hands of Germans and Soviets alike. In this context, the Western European and American emphasis upon Auschwitz and Jewish victims sometimes provokes an irritated reaction. In Poland and Romania, for example, I have been asked—by educated and cosmopolitan listeners—why Western intellectuals are so particularly sensitive to the mass murder of Jews. What of the millions of non-Jewish victims of Nazism and Stalinism? Why is the Shoah so very distinctive? There is an answer to that question; but it is not self-evident to everyone east of the Oder-Neisse line. We in the US or Western Europe may not like that but we should remember it. On such matters Europe is very far from united.

  1. 1

    This article is adapted from a lecture delivered in Bremen, Germany, on November 30, 2007, on the occasion of the award to Tony Judt of the 2007 Hannah Arendt Prize.

  2. 2

    Nightmare and Flight,” Partisan Review, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1945), reprinted in Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954, edited by Jerome Kohn (Harcourt Brace, 1994), pp. 133–135.

  3. 3

    For a harrowing instance, see Jan Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton University Press, 2001).

  4. 4

    For a fuller discussion of this shift in mood, see the epilogue (“From the House of the Dead”) in my Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin, 2005).

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