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The ‘Problem of Evil’ in Postwar Europe

A second difficulty concerns historical accuracy and the risks of overcompensation. For many years, Western Europeans preferred not to think about the wartime sufferings of the Jews. Now we are encouraged to think about those sufferings all the time. For the first decades after 1945 the gas chambers were confined to the margin of our understanding of Hitler’s war. Today they sit at the very center: for today’s students, World War II is about the Holocaust. In moral terms that is as it should be: the central ethical issue of World War II is “Auschwitz.” But for historians this is misleading. For the sad truth is that during World War II itself, many people did not know about the fate of the Jews and if they did know they did not much care. There were only two groups for whom World War II was above all a project to destroy the Jews: the Nazis and the Jews themselves. For practically everyone else the war had quite different meanings: they had troubles of their own.

And so, if we teach the history of World War II above all—and sometimes uniquely—through the prism of the Holocaust, we may not always be teaching good history. It is hard for us to accept that the Holocaust occupies a more important role in our own lives than it did in the wartime experience of occupied lands. But if we wish to grasp the true significance of evil—what Hannah Arendt intended by calling it “banal”—then we must remember that what is truly awful about the destruction of the Jews is not that it mattered so much but that it mattered so little.

My third problem concerns the concept of “evil” itself. 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.5 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.

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? 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. We have lost sight of what it was about twentieth-century political religions of the extreme left and extreme right that was so seductive, so commonplace, so modern, and thus so truly diabolical. After all, if we see evil everywhere, how can we be expected to recognize the real thing? Sixty years ago Hannah Arendt feared that we would not know how to speak of evil and that we would therefore never grasp its significance. Today we speak of “evil” all the time—but with the same result, that we have diluted its meaning.

My fourth concern bears on the risk we run when we invest all our emotional and moral energies into just one problem, however serious. The costs of this sort of tunnel vision are on tragic display today in Washington’s obsession with the evils of terrorism, its “Global War on Terror.” The question is not whether terrorism exists: of course it exists. Nor is it a question of whether terrorism and terrorists should be fought: of course they should be fought. The question is what other evils we shall neglect—or create—by focusing exclusively upon a single enemy and using it to justify a hundred lesser crimes of our own.

The same point applies to our contemporary fascination with the problem of anti-Semitism and our insistence upon its unique importance. Anti-Semitism, like terrorism, is an old problem. And as with terrorism, so with anti-Semitism: even a minor outbreak reminds us of the consequences in the past of not taking it seriously enough. But anti-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.

On this, too, Hannah Arendt had something to say. Having written the most influential book on totalitarianism she was well aware of the threat that it posed to open societies. But in the era of the cold war, “totalitarianism,” like terrorism or anti-Semitism today, was in danger of becoming an obsessive preoccupation for thinkers and politicians in the West, to the exclusion of everything else. And against this, Arendt issued a warning which is still relevant today:

The greatest danger of recognizing totalitarianism as the curse of the century would be an obsession with it to the extent of becoming blind to the numerous small and not so small evils with which the road to hell is paved.6

My final worry concerns the relationship between the memory of the European Holocaust and the state of Israel. Ever since its birth in 1948, the state of Israel has negotiated a complex relationship to the Shoah. On the one hand the near extermination of Europe’s Jews summarized the case for Zionism. Jews could not survive and flourish in non-Jewish lands, their integration and assimilation into European nations and cultures was a tragic delusion, and they must have a state of their own. On the other hand, the widespread Israeli view that the Jews of Europe conspired in their own downfall, that they went, as it was said, “like lambs to the slaughter,” meant that Israel’s initial identity was built upon rejecting the Jewish past and treating the Jewish catastrophe as evidence of weakness: a weakness that it was Israel’s destiny to overcome by breeding a new sort of Jew.7

But in recent years the relationship between Israel and the Holocaust has changed. Today, when Israel is exposed to international criticism for its mistreatment of Palestinians and its occupation of territory conquered in 1967, its defenders prefer to emphasize the memory of the Holocaust. If you criticize Israel too forcefully, they warn, you will awaken the demons of anti-Semitism; indeed, they suggest, robust criticism of Israel doesn’t just arouse anti-Semitism. It is anti-Semitism. And with anti-Semitism the route forward—or back—is open: to 1938, to Kristallnacht, and from there to Treblinka and Auschwitz. If you want to know where it leads, they say, you have only to visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, or any number of memorials and museums across Europe.

I understand the emotions behind such claims. But the claims themselves are extraordinarily dangerous. When people chide me and others for criticizing Israel too forcefully, lest we rouse the ghosts of prejudice, I tell them that they have the problem exactly the wrong way around. It is just such a taboo that may itself stimulate anti-Semitism. For some years now I have visited colleges and high schools in the US and elsewhere, lecturing on postwar European history and the memory of the Shoah. I also teach these topics in my university. And I can report on my findings.

Students today do not need to be reminded of the genocide of the Jews, the historical consequences of anti-Semitism, or the problem of evil. They know all about these—in ways their parents never did. And that is as it should be. But I have been struck lately by the frequency with which new questions are surfacing: “Why do we focus so on the Holocaust?” “Why is it illegal [in certain countries] to deny the Holocaust but not other genocides?” “Is the threat of anti-Semitism not exaggerated?” And, increasingly, “Doesn’t Israel use the Holocaust as an excuse?” I do not recall hearing those questions in the past.

My fear is that two things have happened. By emphasizing the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust while at the same time invoking it constantly with reference to contemporary affairs, we have confused young people. And by shouting “anti-Semitism” every time someone attacks Israel or defends the Palestinians, we are breeding cynics. For the truth is that Israel today is not in existential danger. And Jews today here in the West face no threats or prejudices remotely comparable to those of the past—or comparable to contemporary prejudices against other minorities.

Imagine the following exercise: Would you feel safe, accepted, welcome today as a Muslim or an “illegal immigrant” in the US? As a “Paki” in parts of England? A Moroccan in Holland? A beur in France? A black in Switzerland? An “alien” in Denmark? A Romanian in Italy? A Gypsy anywhere in Europe? Or would you not feel safer, more integrated, more accepted as a Jew? I think we all know the answer. In many of these countries—Holland, France, the US, not to mention Germany—the local Jewish minority is prominently represented in business, the media, and the arts. In none of them are Jews stigmatized, threatened, or excluded.

If there is a threat that should concern Jews—and everyone else—it comes from a different direction. We have attached the memory of the Holocaust so firmly to the defense of a single country—Israel—that we are in danger of provincializing its moral significance. Yes, the problem of evil in the last century, to invoke Arendt once again, took the form of a German attempt to exterminate Jews. But it is not just about Germans and it is not just about Jews. It is not even just about Europe, though it happened there. The problem of evil—of totalitarian evil, or genocidal evil—is a universal problem. But if it is manipulated to local advantage, what will then happen (what is, I believe, already happening) is that those who stand at some distance from the memory of the European crime—because they are not Europeans, or because they are too young to remember why it matters—will not understand how that memory relates to them and they will stop listening when we try to explain.

In short, the Holocaust may lose its universal resonance. We must hope that this will not be the case and we need to find a way to preserve the core lesson that the Shoah really can teach: the ease with which people—a whole people—can be defamed, dehumanized, and destroyed. But we shall get nowhere unless we recognize that this lesson could indeed be questioned, or forgotten: the trouble with lessons, as the Gryphon observed, is that they really do lessen from day to day. If you do not believe me, go beyond the developed West and ask what lessons Auschwitz teaches. The responses are not very reassuring.

There is no easy answer to this problem. What seems obvious to West Europeans today is still opaque to many East Europeans, just as it was to West Europeans themselves forty years ago. Moral admonitions from Auschwitz that loom huge on the memory screen of Europeans are quite invisible to Asians or Africans. And, perhaps above all, what seems self-evident to people of my generation is going to make diminishing sense to our children and grandchildren. Can we preserve a European past that is now fading from memory into history? Are we not doomed to lose it, if only in part?

Maybe all our museums and memorials and obligatory school trips today are not a sign that we are ready to remember but an indication that we feel we have done our penance and can now begin to let go and forget, leaving the stones to remember for us. I don’t know: the last time I visited Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, bored schoolchildren on an obligatory outing were playing hide-and-seek among the stones. What I do know is that if history is to do its proper job, preserving forever the evidence of past crimes and everything else, it is best left alone. When we ransack the past for political profit—selecting the bits that can serve our purposes and recruiting history to teach opportunistic moral lessons—we get bad morality and bad history.

Meanwhile, we should all of us perhaps take care when we speak of the problem of evil. For there is more than one sort of banality. There is the notorious banality of which Arendt spoke—the unsettling, normal, neighborly, everyday evil in humans. But there is another banality: the banality of overuse—the flattening, desensitizing effect of seeing or saying or thinking the same thing too many times until we have numbed our audience and rendered them immune to the evil we are describing. And that is the banality—or “banalization”—that we face today.

After 1945 our parents’ generation set aside the problem of evil because—for them—it contained too much meaning. The generation that will follow us is in danger of setting the problem aside because it now contains too little meaning. How can we prevent this? How, in other words, can we ensure that the problem of evil remains the fundamental question for intellectual life, and not just in Europe? I don’t know the answer but I am pretty sure that it is the right question. It is the question Hannah Arendt asked sixty years ago and I believe she would still ask it today.


The Problem of Evil’: An Exchange May 1, 2008

  1. 5

    To be sure, Catholic thinkers have not shared this reluctance to engage with the dilemma of evil: see, for example, Leszek Kolakowski’s essays “The Devil in History” and “Leibniz and Job: The Metaphysics of Evil and the Experience of Evil,” both recently republished with other essays by Kolakowski in My Correct Views on Everything (St. Augustine’s, 2005; discussed in The New York Review, September 21, 2006). But in the metaphysical confrontation memorably portrayed by Thomas Mann, we moderns have typically opted for Settembrini over Naphta.

  2. 6

    Essays in Understanding, pp. 271–272.

  3. 7

    See Idith Zertal, Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood, translated by Chaya Galai (Cambridge University Press, 2005), especially Chapter 1, “The Sacrificed and the Sanctified.”

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