The Holocaust and the Risk of Silence

On Friday, I gave an introduction at our Jockey Club to selections from Hegel's Philosophy of History (the 1830 Lectures on World History). During the discussion, a debate erupted regarding whether the Holocaust was comparable to other historical atrocities—whether every century and people have suffered their own respective catastrophes, therefore rendering Auschwitz a symbol of the defining tragedy of the 20th century in the West. 

This affirmation of a type of historical relativism was, of course, not swallowed easily by everyone present. It prompted additional conversations between friends after the Jockey Club about what is so unique about Auschwitz. Why is it utterly incomparable to other historical disasters? What type of violence does it do the lives of its victims and survivors to relegate their fate and experience to just another bad period in the course of history?

Emil Fackenheim explored exactly this question in To Mend the World. He there expresses the key issue as follows:

"To this day philosophers keep on acting as if, philosophically, there is no difference between the six million and one child dying of cancer, just as theologians keep on acting as if, theologically, the 'case' of Auschwitz were 'covered,' respecitvely, by Good Friday or the ninth of Av" (11).

In other words, how are the deaths and suffering of the Holocaust different from that of any innocent individual under any circumstances? 

In tandem with this concern, Fackenheim underlines that the Holocaust presents an immediate, factual challenge to the presence of a loving God in the world and to the upholding Jewish and Christian faith. He, like Adorno, also emphasizes the imperative that philosophers and theologians theoretically face the Holocaust, rather than to evade it by generalizing it as one of many historical disasters.

In responding to this set of problems, Fackenheim clearly delineates what he sees to be the five "basic facts" pertaining to the uniqueness of the Holocaust. He articulates that it was a systematic pursuit of the "Final Solution" as an end in itself, which had the goal of total extermination of a people whose crime was simply existing (admittedly, for me, Fackenheim's account prompts the question of whether the non-Jewish deaths of the Holocaust can be understood through the same theoretical and theological lens as the systematic murdering of the Jewish people, but I will leave this question aside for now). In his final point, Fackenheim also asserts the banal normalization of the "jobholders" and "idealists" carrying out the genocide.

Fackenheim's utterance of the five facts on the unprecedented nature of the Holocaust are worth quoting in their entirety:

1. Fully one-third of the whole Jewish people was murdered; and since this included the most Jewish of Jews—East European Jewry—Jewish survival as a whole is gravely in doubt.

2. This murder was quite literally 'extermination'; not a single Jewish man, woman or child was to survive, or—except for a few that were well-hidden or overlooked—would have survived had Hitler won the war.

3. This was because Jewish birth was sufficient cause to merit torture in death; whereas the 'crime' of Poles and Russians was that there were too many of them, with the possible exception of Gypsies only Jews had committed the 'crime' of existing at all.

4. The 'Final Solution' was not a pragmatic project serving such ends as political power or economic greed. Nor was it the negative side of a positive religious or political fanaticism. It was an end in itself. And, at least in the final stage of the dominion of the Third Reich (when Eichmann diverted trains to Auschwitz from the Russian front), it was the only such end that remained. 

5. Only a minority of the perpetrators were sadists or perverts. For the most part, they were ordinary jobholders with an extraordinary job. And the tone-setters were ordinary idealists, except that the ideals were torture and murder.

I am grateful to Jewish philosophers such as Fackenheim for not only articulating the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the danger of either justifying it or refusing to talk about it, but also clearly demonstrating what this event single-handedly did to our philosophico-theological tradition. 

Every time I have the impetus to write or discuss the Holocaust, there is also something within me that withers. I am suddenly beset by a dry mouth of despair. The accounts I have read and heard from Holocaust survivors overcome me and the reality immediately sets in that my words will never be adequate to the suffering and immanent death of all who lived and died under the Nazi regime. I remember my visit to Auschwitz in the cold winter of 2015—the accompanying feeling that this embodied experience on the murdering grounds of such an irrational, unique "irrational outburst" (to use the words of Ernst Bloch) in history would preclude the possibility of any future words capturing what happened. Indeed, there would be a violence and irony in trying to apply systematic theory to an event that was so systematically executed.

But herein lies the problem—our conviction that philosophy must always somehow be adequate. A la Hegel, we presume that our concepts, systems, and theories—in other words, "thought"—can and will sufficiently present reality for the purposes of our analysis.

It is in a similar terminology that Adorno describes Hegel's failure in the context of dialectics:

"If Hegel's dialectics constituted the unsuccessful attempt to use philosophical concepts for coping with all that is heterogeneous to those concepts, the relationship to dialectics is due for an accounting insofar as his attempt failed" (Negative Dialecitcs, 4). 

In the same paragraph, Adorno reminds us that philosophy's "critical self-reflection must not halt before the highest peaks of history" (Negative Dialectics, 4).

What if we were to liberate ourselves from the norm of adequacy in our philosophical practice and discussion? If we were to consider the Holocaust a direct assault to systematic theory? If on the one side, it is intensely problematic for thinkers with a rational view of history or theory of salvation somehow justify the place of the Holocaust in their view of the whole, I see Fackenheim and Adorno as telling us that the dry-mouth syndrome, the shuddering in silence and tears, that overcomes us in the moment we are compelled to discuss the Holocaust, is also pernicious.

We who do philosophy have already made the decision to speak; to establish logical connections; to exercise critique; to use concepts to explain and present the world. We have made the decision to keep working critically, rationally and logically, which, if we are to be consequential, also necessitates considering the Holocaust as one of the most profound, direct challenges to the coherence of logical theories. 

The Holocaust additionally forces us to question potential presence and absence of the transcendent. By this I mean that both definitively affirming or denying that there is God—that there will be an end time which is totally different from the present conditions—risks escapism. If we assert that there is a God and an end time, then we risk complacently waiting, thereby evading the critical self-reflection of theory mandated by Adorno above. On the other side, to say with certainty there is no God and the end time will never come to be is an act of hubris that ignores the cries and hopes of the victims of the Holocaust for a better life.

Saturday, January 27th was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I tried to write this post on that day after having read the grievances of a Jewish friend of mine on how the Holocaust was being unjustly rationalized and its uniqueness downplayed within our own philosophical circle. I couldn't find the words to adequately respond, so I read part of Wieslaw Kielar's Anus Mundi: Fünf Jahre Auschwitz to at least take in a survivor's personal account of Auschwitz on that day. 

Then I thought of Fackenheim and Adorno. Of Adorno's iteration of the "new categorical imperative . . . imposed by Hitler upon unfree mankind: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen" (Negative Dialectics, 365). 

And I realized that there's both a violence of uttering an inadequate conceptual portrayal of the suffering and death of the Holocaust. But there is also the less acknowledged danger of saying nothing at all.