Tomorrow it will be 75 years since Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party took office in Germany. Nicholas Kulish writes today in the NYT about the continuing struggle of the German people to come to terms with the Holocaust in their country, including “the building of monuments to the Nazi disgrace” that ” continues unabated,” with new construction beginning in Berlin of two monuments, “one near the Reichstag, to the murdered Gypsies, …; and another not far from the Brandenburg Gate, to gays and lesbians killed in the Holocaust.” These are in addition to the recently opened “Topography of Terror center at the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters” and “a huge new exhibition … at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp,” as well as other building projects recently launched or in the works.
Two points that interest me in Kulish’s short article (both mentioned briefly and warranting further investigation):
The younger generation of Germans, “who are required to study the Nazi era and the Holocaust intensively,” view the Holocaust not as a source of guilt but as motivation for them to be responsible “on the world stage for social justice and pacifism, including opposition to the war in Iraq.”
If this is true, it makes me curious about opposition to the Iraq war by those who are steeped in Holocaust history and likely aware of their own families’ complicity in it or victimisation by it. Some people see Saddam Hussein as Hitler writ small, merrily exterminating his own people; I wonder what course these young people think would have been best in the case of Iraq, considering their own history: don’t interefere, use diplomacy, use another strategy? Second, on the same point, because many people consider WWII a ‘just war,’ one that needed to be fought if any war ever did, I also wonder how the younger generation arrives at a position of pacifism generally.
The second comment that I noticed was Susan Neiman’s, director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, an international public research group. She worries that the young will eventually “express their exhaustion with the topic. ‘I can’t help but feeling that some of the continued, “Let’s build monuments; let’s build Jewish museums,” is a fairly ritualized behavior. … I worry terribly that it’s going to backfire.'”
This framing as ‘ritual’ of the construction of reminder after reminder of a terrible act reminds me of some of James Alison’s thoughts about the sacred centre in his article after the events of 9/11/2001. The sacred centre offers those of us not actually involved in the crisis itself a sense of transcendent meaning, of good clean purpose, in lives that are often cluttered with the banal and with “little betrayals, acts of cowardice, uneasy consciences.” The sacrificial centre is invoked to generate a feeling of unanimity, which can then harden to become militant goodness, and so on; and which can resemble, not in intent but perhaps in outcome, the technique well-understood and effectively and terribly used by the Nazis themselves, of bringing people together for a ‘great purpose,’ which often and seamlessly leads to opposing and scapegoating those who won’t come together for the ‘great purpose,’ to creating the belief that this is thing that really matters, to instilling fear in those who refuse to believe it. Humans seem prone to being, as Alison puts it, “sucked into” the sacred centre. It makes us feel good.
Or, maybe, this younger generation won’t so much become exhausted by participating in (or being expected to participate in) the sacred centre as they will come to see the buildings and the history as a reminder of something … ordinary. Not transcendent, not filled with purpose and meaning, but very ordinary, and as some may already understand in their pacifism, very capable of being re-enacted any time, any where.