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Double standards for the United States and Israel?

iran-down-with-usaSteveDennie.com

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Daniel Cristea-Enache, the Director of Romania’s premier culture blog, Literatura de Azi, didn’t mince words in describing the double standards the European media (and, it seems, the public at large) tend to have towards the United States and Israel: “We criticize Israel but not the terrorists that decapitate journalists and put the decapitation videos on the net. We criticize the United States under the Obama administration but not Russia led by Putin. In general, based upon these very “courageous” criticisms, we are led to the conclusion that democracies are guilty of everything bad while totalitarianism, authoritarianism and terrorism are…. What are they, dear critics of the decaying Western culture? Ah, I know: Americans and the Jews are to be blamed for everything!”
My thoughts exactly! Daniel Cristea-Enache hit the nail on the head: there are double standards when it comes to judging Israel and the United States. At least this is my impression too, in reading the media coverage of the anti-Semitic backlash throughout Europe fanned by the recent conflict in Gaza, a subject that I addressed in a previous article on Literatura de Azi:

http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/anti-semitism-today-and-assault-democratic-values

The question is why: Why are Israel and the United States being criticized for human rights violations far more than the authoritarian and fundamentalist leaders and groups that ruthlessly, and very publically, trample upon human rights and life?
I think that, for the most part, the reasons for these double standards differ for different agencies that launch the critiques. The extreme right (racist and neo-Nazi parties) and fundamentalist groups launch this critique based on power politics, rage and openly anti-Semitic and anti-American sentiments. The sanctity of human life in general doesn’t play much of a role in their rhetoric or actions.
On the other hand, the mainstream and leftwing media have more complex reasons for holding the United States and Israel accountable to higher moral standards than, let’s say, autocratic leaders like Putin or terrorist organizations such as ISIS. Some of these reasons I find valid, others I believe have an element of bad faith.

1. A smaller evil is often criticized far more than enormous crimes against humanity. As the French philosopher and biologist Jean Rostand once said, “Kill one man and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men and you are a conqueror. Kill them all and you are a God” (Thoughts of a Biologist, 1938). Stalin succinctly explained the logic of mass murder with impunity in the famous quote: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Like Hitler, he practiced what he preached. Those who do the most harm are often also the ones held to the lowest standards of ethics. At times they’re even glorfied as idols who lived and sacrificed others to create a better society or world.

2. Anti-Semitism is sometimes the spoken or unspoken reason for the unilateral attack on Israel for human rights violations that Arab nations or groups commit as well, often on a larger scale.

3. We judge democracies by higher moral standards than autocracies, totalitarian regimes and terrorist groups. I find a lot of validity in this. The United States has long been describing itself as the bastion of Western democracy in the world. Israel describes itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. These nations should be held to a high standard in their respect for human rights and democratic values. But that doesn’t mean that we should focus exclusively on their faults and violations of their own priciples. We should judge every nation and group by the same universal human rights and ethical standards.

4. We tend to focus on the most visible democratic nations. When I did some research for an earlier article about the Western response to the genocide by the Hutus of the Tutsi population in Rwanda, I was appalled to read that the Western media (and governments) largely ignored or downplayed what was happening. A million people were hacked to death and, during the worst period of mass murder, the world did next to nothing about it. France even supported the murderous Hutu faction (see http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/genocide-rwanda-me-against-my-brother-scott-peterson).

How much does the media and the public at large really care about human rights when one African group tramples upon the human rights of another African group (as was the case in the genocide in Rwanda) or when one Arab group or nation violates the human rights of another? The answer is: not much, and certainly not as much as when Israel or the United States happen to be the culprits. We tend to hold the most visible democratic nations responsible for their human rights violations while turning a blind eye to—or at least not caring as much about–what happens in countries ruled by dictatorships, radical extremists or totalitarian regimes. If we truly care about human rights, we should indict any country or group that violates them, not just the United States and Israel.

Claudia Moscovici
Holocaust Memory

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Filed under anti-Semitism, Claudia Moscovici, Daniel Cristea-Enache, Double Standards for the U.S. and Israel, Holocaust Memory, human rights, Literatura de Azi, Rwanda genocide, the conflict in the Middle East

Chance by Razvan Petrescu

Rubato, by Razvan Petrescu

Rubato, by Razvan Petrescu

Chance, by Razvan Petrescu

translated from Romanian by Claudia Moscovici

The hollow noise of the spades got lost in the sound of the rain. The three

men worked without verve, quietly, sloshing through the mud. The ditch deepened

and they disappeared, little by little, in its midst. From the street one could

only see the flaps of their hats, soaked by the rain. Shovelfuls of black earth

were constantly hoisted in the air, deepening the hole in the ground. The smaller

bits of earth would roll unto the asphalt. After awhile, the conductor appeared.

From adistance it resembled the stomach of an enormous fish, buried there since

God knows when. The crack could be seen clearly, stretching for approximately

half a meter. What a hole… Go see if we have what we need, in the car. Don’t

forget the bolts. Laur hoisted himself out of the hole and started walking

to the truck. The windshield was shinny, covered by round raindrops. He opened

the trunk and started looking through the tool box. After a few  seconds, he

checked his watch. Boys, it’s time that we grab something to eat. It’s ten after

three. The other two raised their heads. What time did you say? Three? Well I’ll

be darned, we were so busy we lost track of time… Then leave all that and

let’s get the lunch bags. They’re under the bench. Laur leaned down, felt them,

smelled them, his mouth started watering. He returned with the lunch bags

underarm and sat down on the rim. Did you bring the bottle? Of course! Here it

is. He sniffed it. Sighed. What stupid drizzle. It’s okay, it will stop.

Begonie rubs his numb hands. After a few minutes, the rain stopped. Their wet

windbreakers were stuck to their backs. With impatient gestures they opened the

newspapers in which their food was wrapped. The noise of wet, torn paper.

Cracked and dirty fingers, avid, grabbing. Where’s the onion? Aha! It’s damn

spicy! Be quiet and take some cheese. It soothes your heart, doesn’t it? The food

disappeared fast, leaving greasy traces in their beards. Little long stains that

shone dimly. Come on man, hurry up. Trandafir removed the bottlecap with his

teeth, took a gulp and handed the bottle to the others. Their veiny necks moved

up and down, like pistons. Now it’s raining on the inside, even harder, Begonie

laughed. Cheers! From time to time a car would pass by fast by the three men

perched on the little mound of earth. They stared blankly ahead and chewed their

food. Wrinkled, jaundiced faces, stained around the mouth. The sky was purple.

It had darkened gradually, like the cheek of a giant dead man. Goddamned life!

Trandafir swore looking up. Who the heck wants to work in this kind of weather?

The team with similar names; men with the names of flowers. This lucky bouquet

that smells like… Listen, forget the poetry and tell me where you put

the hammer. Because I don’t see it. It’s there in the ditch. Don’t worry, nobody

will steal it. You’d better take a swig too. That’s right. Thin vapors emerge

from their clothes, their lips, the earth. Tell me, will we finish it in two

hours? Begonie glanced for a few moments at his muddy shoes, sighed, then let

wind loudly. Eh, we finish or not, today? I don’t know, Laur, my man, since

even my mother-in-law doesn’t have a crack like this. But we may get to the

bottom of it, before the evening. The wind started to blow. The greasy papers

slowly floated around the leftover bread, cheese, bacon and onion rimes. Is the

flask empty? There’s a bit more, here! Trandafir threw his head back and gulped,

noisily, the last drop of vodka. He smacked his lips, pleased. It’s good! Now

all that’s missing is a whore, to… On this wetness, that’s all you need! A wet

whore. To screw her holding an umbrella over your head… You could hear a growl

and a giggle. Wait a minute. I want to tell you something. You boys, with your

worries. Yes, boss, yes. Laur, hit him over the head with something. Good. And

what I wanted to tell you, is that she had an ass like you’ve never seen in your

sorry  life. Why sorry? Because. You didn’t see it. A booty all the way to

here.Your pants fell down on their own when she moved it. She rumbled like a

heater. I don’t even remember  how I took my clothes off… Listen, didn’t she

faint when she smelled your stick? What, you think that she didn’t? Laur grinned

showing his teeth covered in the cheap material. What can I say, Trandafir, you’re right.

But since you were born you polluted the air. As if you smelled like lilacs. You

smell like a corpse, if you want the truth. I’m wasting my breath anyway. You’re

an expert on women like I am on foreign languages. They continued to fight for a

few more minutes, then they hit each other, then, after awhile, they fell

silent. They glanced at the solitary tree that was sketched on the corner of the

street. It grew thin, cutting a complicated line against the violet afternoon

sky. A heavy truck passed by very close  and splattered them with drops of mud.

Mother fucker! Hand me a cigarette! Laur removed a wrinkled package, half-wet.

He lit up a cigarette cupping his hand, then handed the pack to the others. They

smoked in silence, coughing from time to time and spitting phlegm. Man, it’s

damn cold. I’m frozen solid. That’s it, I’m splitting. Begonie got up, threw the

package and jumped out of the hole. He grabbed the shovel and stuck it deeply

under the pipe. There was a dry noise, followed by a rumble. Afterwards,

nothing. What are you doing there, Boss? Quiet. Wouldn’t you know it, this one

broke a bone.  Hey! Answer me, man, for once! Begonie raised his head over the

rim of the trench. He smiled from ear to ear. Trandafir and Laur looked at him

quizzingly. Why are you smiling? I heard something crack in there. What was it?

Begonie winked. Come down in here, I have to show you something pretty amazing.

The two of them jumped in without needing other explanations. Eh? What do you

say? Isn’t it wonderful? He lifted it up, twirling it on his finger. Laur and

Trandafir stared at the blackened skull, then burst into laughter. How did this

get here? Maybe it’s your grandmother. She escaped from the cemetery.  Watch out

that she doesn’t bite your finger. Let’s take it to the museum. Dead for the

canal. Maybe she’ll give us some vodka. Another burst of laughter and they got

out of the trench. They laughed with tears, grabbing their stomachs. The mud

blinked gently. After they were done, they wiped their cheeks with their sleeves

and quieted down abruptly, exhausted. Begonie pushed his hat back, scratched his

crotch and said between his teeth, “Boys, I’ve got to tell ya, I have to pee.

So, if nobody’s opposed… He grinned and set the cranium down. He urinated at

length until the liquid started reversing through the eye holes. The other two

watched without a sound, with an awkward smile. Begonie zipped up his pants.

That’s it, let’s get back to work, he said in a raspy voice. Or else we’ll be

here until night. They began to work again.  The sounds rose, spreading

rhythmically on the street. It was quiet in the neighborhood. People gathered in

living rooms, among kitchen utensils. Slippers, little shoes, coats and

umbrellas drying on the racks, few words. Here’s the soup. The sun rose slowly

behind the apartment buildings, golden, humid. Laur, leave that hammer alone,

for God’s sake. Do you hear me? Begonie straightened up, irritated. Where are

you? Hammer! he screamed at the top of his lungs. Trandafir also stopped

working; blew his nose with his fingers and glanced around. Raindrops fell to

the ground, trembled on tree branches, sparkling from time to time. Laur gently

lifted the skull and wiped it carefully. It was so light… Alas! In the palm of

his hands unknown words grew, racing faster and faster towards his temples.

Alas! “Poor Yorik. I knew him… He hath borne me on his back a thousand

times….” What the hell are you talking about? Are you nuts? “Those lips that I

have kissed I know not how oft…” Trandafir and Begonie exchanged glances. Man,

speak like a human being. What’s come over you? Laure, throw that thing away and

stop joking around! All of the sudden the sounds disappeared and he quieted

down. “WHERE BE YOUR GIBES NOW? YOUR GAMBOLS? YOUR SONGS?”

All of the sudden the  sounds disappeared and he quieted down.

With an awkward motion he put the skull  on the  ground and closed his eyes.

Maybe it’s the weather! He got up and wiped his face with his hand, with a tired gesture.

He felt the sweat drying on his temple. He spit to the side, then turned and looked at his comrades.

With the words stuck in their throats, Trandafir and Begonie remained motionless.

(short story from the volume "Rubato”, by Razvan Petrescu, Editura Curtea Veche, 2011) 
Republished on Literatura de Azi: http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/şansa#sthash.Skg9TqNA.dpuf

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Filed under Chance by Razvan Petrescu, contemporary fiction, Rubato by Razvan Petrescu, Rubato Curtea Veche Publishing, Rubato Editura Curtea Veche, Sansa, Sansa de Razvan Petrescu

Between Fanaticism and Terror

HitlerStalinWikipediaCommons

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

During WWII much of Europe was caught in a vice between fanaticism and terror; between Hitler and Stalin. The plight of tens of millions of people falling victim to Stalinism on the one hand and Fascism on the other is eloquently captured by a Polish prisoner in Russia:   “I think with horror and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the Bug, on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the Red Army as their last hope” (Gustaw  Herling, A World Apart, 175-76).

The similarities between the two dictators obsessed with acquiring unlimited power are far greater than their differences. Yet it’s worth noting that they selected their targets differently. Stalin’s purges covered every segment of society, almost indiscriminately: the Communist party; the Politburo; even the army, navy and air force in a time when preparations for war should have been a priority. On the other hand, Hitler honed in on one main target: the Jews. His single-minded focus on destroying the Jewish people could only be called, in his own words, “fanaticism”. He remarked: “Any violence which does not spring from a firm spiritual base will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook” (Mein Kampf, 171). What could have led a human being to want to efface the Jewish people from the face of the Earth? There are many hypotheses about what might have caused Hitler’s hatred, ranging from psychological to sociological and biographical explanations. These explanations, however, only make sense in hindsight. Nothing in Hitler’s adolescence, when pathology usually shows up, gave any clear sign of the tremendous anti-Semitic hatred that was lurking within him.

Biographers state that Hitler was a mediocre student, receiving bad grades in physics, mathematics and German. His did better in art, but wasn’t that original. As a young man, he pursued his artistic career in Vienna for about six years. Some state that Hitler’s anti-Semitism grew out of his frustration that he wasn’t accepted to the prestigious Vienna Art Academy. They speculate that he may have blamed his failure on the Jews. Yet there’s evidence to the contrary as well.  Hitler continued to sell his art and make a living from the art sales, supplemented by funds from his family.  Interestingly, as Raul Hilberg states, “Apparently, two of the dealers were Jews.” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 4).

WWII seems to have been a major turning point in Hitler life. Yet even then nobody could have guessed that this mediocre soldier would rise to absolute power—and wield destruction—throughout Europe. He was decorated the Iron Cross First Class during the war, but only the second or third time he was recommended for it: incidentally, by a Jew (Lieutenant Gutmann). At the end of the war, Hitler was gassed and spent time recuperating in a hospital. There he had time to contemplate what might have brought about the humiliating defeat of Germany. The company commander of the unit to which Hitler belonged in 1919 asked the question why Germany had lost the war. Hitler wrote down an answer that was to echo the major themes of Mein Kampf, his autobiographical treatise written in prison and published in 1925-26. He distinguished between an anti-Semitism based on reason, which would have staying power, and an anti-Semitism based on emotion, usually expressed in pogroms, which wouldn’t efface the Jews from the face of the Earth. (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 5)

So to return to our earlier question: why did Hitler target the Jews as the main scapegoat and object of his vitriol? He himself offers a direct answer to this question in Mein Kampf:

“The art of leadership,” Hitler states, “as displayed by really great popular leaders in all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary… Where there are various enemies… it will be necessary to block them all together as forming one solid front, so that the mass of followers in a popular movement may see only one common enemy against whom they have to fight. Such uniformity intensifies their belief in their own cause and strengthens their feeling of hostility towards the opponent” (Mein Kampf, 110).

This statement reflects the cold and calculated reasoning Hitler alluded to as early as the note of 1919.  He targeted the Jews as his scapegoats and victims for strategic reasons. Hitler’s explicit intent is to simplify the root of all social and economic problems to the Jews—outsiders in practically every European culture–and coalesce all forces and people against this common enemy. This choice isn’t primarily a matter of genuine emotion, nor only of a pathological, sick hatred. As for Stalin during the Great Terror, it’s primarily the product of an insatiable, malicious will to power. This ultimate answer–which boils down to evil for its own sake–could have never offered a satisfactory response to the question most often scribbled by victims on cell walls, in prisons, concentration camps and gulags, a question which still echoes to this day:  “Zachto—Why?

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory 

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, history, Hitler, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, Holocaust, Holocaust Memory, why the Jews

America First

America First, CharlesLindbergh.com

America First, CharlesLindbergh.com

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

If any country could have helped save a significant proportion of the European Jews from the Holocaust it’s the United States. Reliable news about concentration and death camps started trickling into the country, via the World Jewish Congress and the State Department, in 1942. Moreover, the U.S. had a large number of Jews who, unlike European and Soviet Jews, were free from the Nazi threat. American Jews did not face annihilation. As the United States did not have a significant Nazi movement, Jews in the U.S., numbering approximately 4,800,000 million, could hope to influence public policy. In fact, most American Jews supported President Roosevelt. Granted, few Jews in the U.S. were rich and powerful and only one—Henry Morgenthau, U.S. Secretary of Treasury—was a prominent figure in the Roosevelt administration. Nevertheless, as Raul Hilberg documents in Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders (HarperCollins Publishers, 1992), there were two relatively influential Jewish organizations in the U.S. at the time that could have swayed national policy and made a difference in the fate of the European Jews.

The main Jewish Organizations in the U.S. during WWII

The first organization, the (non-Zionist) American Jewish Committee, was headed by Cyrus Adler. The second organization, the (Zionist) American Jewish Congress (which expanded into the World Jewish Congress) was headed by Rabbi Stephen Wise. Both organizations could have taken a decisive stance on behalf of their fellow Jews in Europe once they found out that the latter were faced with total annihilation. For the most part, however, they offered only belated, and cautious, support.

More significantly, saving the Jewish populations in Europe was never a priority for the Roosevelt administration, whose efforts focused entirely on winning the war. Making the war a priority is perfectly understandable, of course. But saving the Jews in Europe, or at least making a concerted effort to help them, would not have impeded the war effort. The policy of both the American Jewish organizations and particularly that of the Roosevelt administration—America First—became the determining factor in the decision not do to much to help save millions of European Jews from deportation, slave labor, death squads, starvation and disease in ghettos and concentration camps.

Information about death camps 

In 1942, the Allies received reliable information about Hitler’s plans to annihilate the Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe. This information came from three main sources:  Nazi leaders uncomfortable with Hitler’s plans to destroy the Jews; Polish officers opposed to the Nazi regime occupying their country; and Jewish escapees or other eyewitnesses. Hilberg notes in Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: “During July 1942… several Germans crossed into Switzerland with fundamental revelations. One of them was Ernst Lemmer, a founder of the German Democratic party in 1918 and Minister in West Germany during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Lemmer… met with several Swiss public figures in Zurich that July and told them about ‘gas chambers, stationary and mobile, in which Jews were killed’” (236). Lemmer was not alone. Other trustworthy sources corroborated this information. Gerhart M. Riegner, the leader of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva (the sister organization of Wise’s American Jewish Congress), began collecting this data. He then met with the British and American consuls to warn them about Hitler’s plans for the annihilation of the European Jews. Gerhart asked the Allied governments to investigate these claims and to inform Rabbi Wise in the United States about them. The government officials didn’t deliver this information immediately.  When Rabbi Wise finally received the news, he and other Jewish leaders set up a meeting with President Roosevelt.

The meeting between U.S. Jewish leaders and Franklin D. Roosevelt

This meeting took place on December 8, 1942. The Jewish delegates were conservative in their estimates. They stated that 2 million Jews had been killed by death squads and in concentration camps, whereas the actual figure was double. But they were sufficiently alarmed to ask the President to respond.   They proposed that the U.S. offer Germany and its allies a warning.  They also suggested that the government collect more information about Hitler’s plans to kill the Jewish population in Europe by mass shootings, gassing and other means. By any standard, these were modest requests. Even if implemented they might not have accomplished much. Roosevelt, Hilberg informs us, “assented to the warning proposal and asked whether the delegates had other recommendations. When the Jewish leaders could not think of anything, Roosevelt switched to other topics” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 245). Following this meeting, however, the President didn’t keep his word. The U.S., for the most part, did not offer safe haven for Jewish refugees; it did not bomb the Auschwitz gas chambers (despite doing recognizance flights around Auschwitz and bombing its factory); it did not do anything to prevent the deportations and killings of approximately 400,000 Hungarian Jews as late as 1944, after Germany occupied the country.

The Roosevelt administration, like the American Jewish organizations themselves, did not want to give the impression that the United States was fighting a “mercenary” war on behalf of the Jews. The noninterventionist efforts of Charles Lindbergh, under the motto “Defend America First,” did not succeed in keeping America out of the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The next day the United States Congress declared war on Japan. But such nationalist pressures did succeed in generating a noninterventionist policy when it came to the tragic fate of the European Jews, many of whom could have been saved were it not for the policy of “America first”.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Filed under Adolf Hitler, contemporary fiction

Genocide Indifference

Children starving in the Warsaw ghetto, Wikipedia Commons

Children starving in the Warsaw ghetto, Wikipedia Commons

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Practically everyone knows that the Holocaust is the biggest genocide in human history.  But not everyone cares about this anymore. I’m not referring only to pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic groups. I fear that, as the last surviving Holocaust victims pass away, genocide indifference is becoming a mainstream phenomenon.  Part of the reason for this detachment may be that the Holocaust reminds us of an almost unimaginable horror and cruelty. The facts themselves are very difficult to absorb. The Holocaust involved the mass murder of approximately six million Jews: about two-thirds of European Jewry. Between the years 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws were established by Adolf Hitler, until 1945, when the Allies liberated Europe, the Jews were systematically deprived of their civil rights, source of income, jobs, savings and property. They were segregated and isolated from non-Jewish friends, neighbors and colleagues in ghettos, where they fell prey to starvation and disease. They were subjected to slave labor. They were rounded up by the SS and by paramilitary units to be shot in front of long ditches (which usually they, themselves, were forced to dig). They were packed up a hundred people into sealed cattle trains with no windows to concentration camps, traveling for days usually without food, water or the chance to relieve themselves. In the camps, they endured conditions of filth, forced labor, brutality, disease and hunger. Those selected for hard labor usually died within a few months from these grueling conditions. Those immediately selected for death were herded into facilities that resembled showers to die an excruciating death by inhaling a toxic gas that took fifteen to twenty minutes to work. Struggling to reach the last pocket of air, the strong trampled on the frail and small. Yes, almost everyone knows this. But does everyone care about it? Or are we becoming indifferent to this genocide of the past? I’d like to explore here some of the possible reasons for Holocaust indifference:

1. Knowledge doesn’t imply caring. In Israel one day is dedicated to remembering the Holocaust and its many victims at school and in the media. In the U. S., The Diary of Anne Frank is taught in most middle schools in a unit on the Holocaust. New generations are exposed to the subject, yet the depth of its tragedy may not register.  This brings me to my second reason: historical distance or presentism.

2. Historical distance. We are decades away from the genocide that the Nazis perpetrated on the Jews, Gypsies, Poles and Slavs during WWII. Why focus on this unpleasant past? Some say, let’s live in the present. There are so many horrible things happening in the world today. Why not work on fixing them instead? My answer is that without knowledge of history it’s difficult to confront the problems of the present. Without learning from history, we may not easily recognize the dangers of autocracy; the vulnerability of democracies; the toxic charisma of sociopathic leaders; the lies or partial truths we are told to justify inhumane actions. Only by learning about the dangers—and horrors—of the past can we recognize them in the present and avoid them in the future.

3. Desensitization. It’s well known that people can become desensitized to gruesome events by familiarity and repetition. The fact we hear often about the Holocaust in history classes or the media doesn’t mean that the horror touches us on an emotional level. In fact, as Raul Hilberg explains in Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders (HarperCollins Publishers, 1992), gradual desensitization to cruelty against Jews was one of the main reasons why so many ordinary people could participate in the killing machinery of the Holocaust.  Initially, the German soldiers hesitated to kill civilians. After a few months in the death squads, however, they felt comfortable enough to kill even children without a second thought: “Again and again, witnesses recall that small children were thrown out of windows, or tossed like sacks into trucks, or dashed against walls, or hurled live into pyres of burning corpses” (p. 54).

4. Ethnic or religious blindspots. Many people have a sense of ethnic belonging and care most about their social group. After all, nobody can care about every bad thing that happens in this world. But caring only about your social group not only diminishes the capacity for empathy, but also gives you a potentially dangerous blindspot. Those who care only about their ethnic or religious group are more likely to support harm done to other groups. They are also more likely to miss the obvious: the bad things that happened to others can happen to your group too. Ethnic and religious discrimination sets a dangerous precedent. Conversely, when you care about the rights of others you defend your human rights too.

5. Nationalist pride. I think nationalism and patriotism can be very positive phenomena. They give those living in a country a sense of cohesion and pride. But there is such a thing as misplaced patriotism. There are some things that your country has done that nobody should be proud of. Denying that they happened or shifting blame is not a constructive way to keep the glory and unity of one’s country intact. Now that so many formerly communist countries have become democratic, it’s time that they face the truth about their role in the Holocaust. Today’s generations are not to blame for what their ancestors did. But they are to blame for the truth that they deny. In short, there are no good reasons for genocide indifference.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, genocide, genocide indifference, Holocaust indifference, Literatura de Azi, literature salon, Nazi Germany, reasons for Holocaust indifference, the Holocaust

Hannah Arendt on the dangers of conformity

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

The controversy surrounding Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the banality of evil  centers upon the perception that the author blamed the Jewish leaders for being coerced to play an active role in the Holocaust. Arendt states: “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter in the whole dark story” (117). She goes on to argue: “The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and fearless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people” (125). In my opinion, this statement constitutes a factual observation rather than a moral indictment. It was common knowledge, way before Arendt pointed it out, that the Nazis used the local Jewish leaders to create Jewish Councils in countries under Nazi control. It was equally well known that the role of the Jewish Councils was to round up the Jews in the ghettos, govern them temporarily and write up the lists of the misfortunate people that were supposed to be deported to  concentration camps.  Yet Arendt doesn’t cast moral blame upon the Jewish leaders. She makes it very clear that they were largely motivated by a mixture of fear, incomplete knowledge (of Nazi plans) and wishful thinking. They hoped that by cooperating with the Nazis they could appease the enemy and save at least part of the local Jewish population from harm. That proved to be a false hope.

Yet Arendt suggests that those who have never been placed in such an impossible situation shouldn’t throw stones at those who were. Some even asked the victims: “Why did you not protest?” (11) She points out the insensitivity of this question, which rests upon the implicit value judgment that the victims could and should have protested. Yet, in that horrific context, almost nobody did. “But the sad truth of the matter,” Arendt observes, “is that the point was ill taken, for no non-Jewish group or people had behaved differently” (11). This is an important point, since non-Jews were not only much greater in numbers than Jews—hence their protests would have carried more force—but also they were not as oppressed, so they would have had more opportunities to protest.

I believe that Arendt doesn’t specifically indict the Jewish leaders for their (coerced) complicity in the Holocaust, as some claim, but rather offers a general warning about the dangers of conformity to evil plans. One of the most striking examples she offers of the evil of conformity is the Nazi conference aimed to organize the implementation of the Final Solution. The Nazi leaders discussed the logistics of killing millions of innocent people as if deciding genocide were just another day at the office. None of them voiced any moral objections or even mentioned humanitarian considerations. They focused instead on the practical difficulties of deporting and exterminating millions of people. This meeting decided the fate of millions. Yet the Nazi leaders treated it as a routine administrative matter and networking opportunity: as she puts it, “’a cozy little social gathering’ designed to strengthen personal contacts” (113).

Arendt also offers an important counterexample, of the Danish people, who refused on principle to adopt immoral measures against the Jews. “What happened then,” Arendt observes, “was truly amazing; compared with what took place in other European countries, everything went topsy-turvy” (172). Not only did the Danish military commanders reject the Nazi discriminatory measures against the Jews on humanitarian grounds but also, surprisingly, even Dr. Werner Best, the SS military commander sent over by Hitler to Denmark to oversee such measures, refused to implement them.

Still discussing the principled position of the Danes, Arendt returns to the question of the role of the Jewish leaders. She illustrates that Jews who had the support of the local non-Jewish population—and thus some genuine hope of saving their people through resistance—could, indeed, behave courageously. The Dutch Jewish leaders refused to round up fellow Jews for deportation. They even forewarned people in synagogues about when the SS would go door to door to seize Jews and deport them. More strikingly, when faced with widespread opposition, even the local SS leaders lost their “toughness” on the Jewish question.

The exceptional case of Denmark in the history of the Holocaust shows, according to Arendt, “That the ideal of ‘toughness,’ except, perhaps, for a few half-demented brutes, was nothing but a myth of self-deception, concealing a ruthless desire for conformity at any price…” (175).  Evil actions often stem from the indifference or cooperation of a large number of ordinary individuals with inhumane orders designed by very few–yet powerful–evil leaders. Because it doesn’t take much initiative to conform—sometimes the failure to protest is enough–the “banality of evil” continues to pose a real danger for any country in any era. Conformity by the majority with the wrong principles and laws makes it possible for a few disordered human beings to inflict immeasurable harm upon humanity. This is the root of the banality of evil.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

 

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Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: What is the banality of Evil?

Adolf Eichmann during trial, Wikipedia Commons

Adolf Eichmann during trial, Wikipedia Commons

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

The wonderful new movie, Hannah Arendt (2012), directed by Margarethe von Trotta and starring Barbara Sukowa, shows that Arendt’s series of articles on Adolf Eichmann’s trial, covered by The New Yorker in 1961 and subsequently published under the title of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Books, New York, 1963), was a double-edged sword in her career.  On the one hand, it gave Arendt a broader mainstream visibility, in part because of the international controversy it generated. On the other hand, this very controversy cost her several valuable friendships and even jeopardized her reputation in the academia. The controversy hinges upon the manner in which Arendt describes the nature of evil that characterizes the worst genocide in human history: the Holocaust.

Her explanation, captured by the phrase “the banality of evil,” posits that evil deeds are, for the most part, not perpetrated by monsters or sadists. Most often, they are perpetrated by seemingly ordinary people like Adolf Eichmann, who value conformity and narrow self-interest over the welfare of others. The concept of the banality of evil seems intuitive enough. Nontheless, it generated a huge controversy, primarily because critics interpreted it as exonerating Adolf Eichmann and indicting the victims of the Holocaust: particularly the Jewish leaders who were compelled by the Nazis to organize the Jewish people for mass deportations and eventual extermination.

Was Arendt putting the criminals and the victims in the same boat? Or, even worse, does her notion of the banality of evil end up blaming the victims? I don’t think so. In what follows, I’d like to explain why by outlining Arendt’s two explanations of the banality of evil: the first one being people who naturally lack empathy and conscience in any circumstances (like Eichmann) and who thrive in totalitarian regimes; the second understood as evil actions (or callous indifference) that even people who do have a conscience are capable of under extreme circumstances.

1.     Adolf Eichmann and the banality of psychopathy

Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962) was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Nazi regime and one of the key figures in the Holocaust. With initiative and enthusiasm, he organized the mass deportations of the Jews first to ghettos and then to extermination camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Once Germany lost the war, he fled to Argentina. Years later, he was captured by the Mossad and extradited to Israel. In a public trial, he was charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was found guilty and executed by hanging.

In her accounts of the trial, Arendt is struck by the contrast between Eichmann’s monstrous deeds and his average appearance and banal, technocratic language. Unlike other Nazi leaders notorious for crimes against humanity, such as Amon Goeth or Josef Mengele, Eichmann didn’t seem to be a disordered sadist. More remarkably given his actions against the Jewish people, unlike Hitler, Eichmann wasn’t even particularly anti-Semitic.

Although six psychiatrists testified during the trial to Eichmann’s apparent “normality,” in her articles Arendt emphasizes the fact that his normalcy is only a mask. In fact, she highlights the aspects of his behavior under questioning that were anything but normal: his self-contradictions, lies, evasiveness, denial of blame about the crimes he did commit and inappropriate boasting about his power and role in the Holocaust for crimes there’s no evidence he committed. Arendt is particularly struck by this man’s absolute lack of empathy and remorse for having sent hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths. To each count he was charged with, Eichmann pleaded “Not guilty in the sense of the indictment.” (p. 21) This leads Arendt to ask: “In what sense then did he think he was guilty?” (p. 21) His defense attorney claimed that “Eichmann feels guilty before God, not before the law,” but Arendt points out that Eichmann himself never acknowledges any such moral culpability.

If he denies any moral responsibility it’s because, as Arendt is astonished to observe, he doesn’t feel any. Although, surprisingly enough, none of the forensic psychologists see Eichmann as a psychopath, Arendt describes Eichmann in similar terms Hervey Cleckley uses to describe psychopathic behavior in his 1941 groundbreaking book, The Mask of Sanity. First and foremost, Eichmann is a man with abnormally shallow emotions. Because of this, he also lacks a conscience. Even though he understands the concept of law, he has no visceral sense of right and wrong and can’t identify with the pain of others. His extraordinary emotional shallowness impoverishes not only his sense of ethics, but also his vocabulary. Arendt gives as one of many examples Eichmann’s desire to “find peace with his former enemies” (p. 53). Arendt states that “Eichmann’s mind was filled to the brim with such sentences” (p.53). These stock phrases are a manifestation of Eichmann’s empty emotional landscape; his behavior towards the Jews even more so.

It is surprising to me that in a review of Hannah Arendt the movie that also focuses on Eichmann in Jerusalem, Mark Lilla believes that Hannah Arendt was duped by Eichmann’s mask of sanity. He argues that Arendt’s search for a more general explanation of evil blinded her to Eichmann’s particular disorder: “But the other impulse, to find a schema that would render the horror comprehensible and make judgment possible, in the end led her astray. Arendt was not alone in being taken in by Eichmann and his many masks, but she was taken in.” (Mark Lilla, “Arendt and Eichmann: The New Truth,” The New York Review of Books, November 21, 2013). In her description of Adolf Eichmann as a man without conscience and empathy, I didn’t see any evidence that she was duped by him in the same way the psychiatrists testifying at his trial obviously were.

Yet, Arendt emphasizes, even ordinary people capable of empathy and remorse can still cause extraordinary harm in unusual circumstances.  This constitutes the second understanding of the banality of evil she develops: namely, the banality of conformity, which is what I’ll cover next week.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

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Hannah Arendt on the Role of the Masses in mass horrors

 

Nazi Germany, photo from the Wikipedia Commons

Nazi Germany, photo from the Wikipedia Commons

Hannah Arendt on the Role of the Masses in mass horrors

by Claudia Moscovici

Totalitarianism isn’t an easy phenomenon to grasp. One of the most difficult things to understand is how could hundreds of millions of people all over Europe and the Soviet Union have allowed the horrors of the Holocaust and the mass purges to take place. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt offers one of the best explanations for these mass horrors. “Mass” is the key word here. Arendt’s explanation consists of describing this modern social entity called “the masses,” which she distinguishes from the mob (itself capable of spurts of violence, such as during pogroms) as well as from classes (based on economic self-interest). The masses are a quintessentially totalitarian phenomenon.  Arendt posits that one of the key features of the totalitarian state is its system of indoctrination, propaganda, isolation, intimidation and brainwashing—instigated and supervised by the Secret Police—which transforms classes, or thoughtful individuals able to make relatively sound political decisions, into masses, or people who have been so beaten down that they become apathetic and give their unconditional loyalty to the totalitarian regime.

The masses versus the classes

Unlike social classes, Arendt explains, the masses are amorphous and easily swayed. They’re moved by superficial rhetoric and empty fervor rather than united by a common identity or shared economic interests. According to Arendt, “The term masses applies only when we deal with people who either because of their sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 311). Of course, this political and social apathy isn’t enough to lend support to totalitarian movements. An additional, and crucial, factor comes into play. The apathetic masses must come under the spell of charismatic evil leaders, like Hitler and Stalin, who gain control over society and kill in them the last vestige of human decency and individualism. If “the masses” don’t exist in sufficient numbers in a given society, then totalitarian rulers create them. This was the main purpose, Arendt contends, of Stalin’s relentless purges, which destroyed any real class identity and ideological conviction. Even the nuclear family and bonds of love deteriorated, as friends feared friends and parents lived under the reasonable fear that their own children could at any moment turn them in for “deviationism” from the party line.

Social groups versus atomized individuals

The masses are vast in number but isolated in nature. Totalitarian society creates an immense collection of atomized individuals. There’s no other way to command an absolute obedience to the regime: even when the government’s policies change radically, demanding one thing of its followers one day and the opposite the next. This unconditional loyalty, Arendt argues, “can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement, his membership in the party.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 323-4) This false sense of belonging can’t be based on any real social identity, since totalitarian movements are arbitrary in their demands, fickle in their objectives and changeable in their actions. Perhaps their only stable feature is the ruthlessness of their punishments: the constant reign of terror.

Fanaticism versus idealism

The masses are fanatical rather than ideological (adhering to a firm set of political or economic principles) or idealist (aspiring, utopically, to moral or political perfection). Far more extreme than a mob, upon which fanaticism has a short-lived hold, the masses can be under the spell of a charismatic evil leader even when it’s no longer in their self-interest. How is this self-defeating attitude possible? Arendt explains: “identification with the movement and total conformism seem to have destroyed the very capacity for experience, even if it be as extreme as torture or fear of death.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 308)

The philistine versus the bourgeois

Totalitarian movements transform ordinary human beings into philistines. Arendt describes the philistine as a bourgeois who is isolated from his class. The philistine focuses so much on his own narrow needs that he views victims as “others” rather than as fellow human beings. “Nothing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and the private morality or people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives,” Arendt claims. “After a few years of power and systematic co-ordination, the Nazis could rightly announce: “The only person who is still a private individual in Germany is somebody who is asleep.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 338-9) Decades after its publication, The Origins of Totalitarianism remains the most rigorous and systematic explanation—and offers the most elegant political philosophy–for how such mass horrors could have occurred in the 20th century. The book also serves as a necessary reminder that they can happen again for as long as humanity can be dehumanized by totalitarian regimes.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

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Literatura de Azi (Today’s Literature): Perpetuating culture in the Internet age

design by Laurentiu Midvichi

design by Laurentiu Midvichi

Literatura de Azi (Today’s Literature): Perpetuating culture in the Internet age

by Claudia Moscovici

The notable Romanian literary critic Daniel Cristea-Enache recently launched Literatura de Azi, a  literary and culture blog that features essays by Romanian critics, fiction writers and artists.  The blog includes sections on literary criticism by Daniel Cristea-Enache himself, Alex Stefanescu, Dan-Liviu Boeriu, Ovidiu Nimigean, Lia Faur and Anca Goja; poetry by Emil Brumaru and Radu Vancu; creative writing by Selian Turlea; artwork selected by the painter Laurentiu Midvichi, music selected by Gabriela Pop, and my own section of book reviews on the Holocaust.   The list of contributors will continue to grow as the blog expands. Literatura de Azi also benefits from an excellent and energetic team of editors: Odilia Rosianu (Editor-in-Chief), Anca Goja and Romina Hamzeu (Managing Editors), Irina Ionita (Editor), Nona Carmen Rapotan (Junior Editor) and Adrian Pop (Web Master). Promoting culture via the Internet is no easy task: first of all because many consider “culture” and “the Internet” to be a contradiction in terms; secondly because it’s easy for whatever is considered “culture” to get lost in the deluge of all kinds of information. In fact, this is a problem the world of publishing faces in general.

Both publishers and authors are becoming increasingly concerned with the question of how to promote books effectively, capture the interest of readers and generate sales. Given the number of books out there, without an outstanding publicity campaign, each given book risks passing unnoticed. The competition for readers is tremendous given that an astronomical number of books are published each year. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) cites that roughly 2,200,000 books are published annually. Out of curiosity, I looked up the two countries I write about most which, not coincidentally, are also those where I’ve lived: the U.S. and Romania. In 2010, 328,259 were published in the U.S. and in 2008 14,984 books were published in Romania. Given this large number of books published in the U.S. alone, it’s difficult to believe how difficult and competitive the process of publishing can be (as I explain in an earlier article on the subject):

in English:

in Romanian:

And yet publishing your manuscript is only the beginning of the gargantuan task of rising to the surface in an ocean of information. On the one hand, the mass media and the Internet in particular makes sharing our cultural products easier in some ways, by facilitating access to an audience. For instance, anyone can self-publish and promote a novel nowadays, through blogs, twitter,  youtube and other popular venues on the internet. But this apparent democratization of culture also makes it a lot tougher to stand out from the crowd. Each cultural product–be it a novel, a collection of poems, a song, a film or a painting–competes with tens of millions of others. It’s hard to find or discern anymore what we value and what we don’t in this tidal wave of information that assails us from all directions on a daily basis. So how do quality books, and culture in general, rise to the surface? 

noise

To draw another analogy, it’s as if we heard talented classical musicians playing their instruments at the same time as others howl, scream, talk and yell in various languages. Or, if you prefer to avoid making any value judgments, as if we heard them playing at the same time as other talented musicians practice other songs. Either way you look at it, what reaches our ears will sound like a maddening cacophony, to the point that we can no longer discern the music we prefer from  the surrounding noise we’d like to ignore.

Daniel Cristea-Enache

Daniel Cristea-Enache

In a world of information (and publication) overload, publicizing culture becomes both a necessity and a challenge. This is precisely what Daniel Cristea-Enache explains in an editorial called  “Romania of the Year 2014” (Romania Anului 2014) on Literatura de Azi (Literature of Today): 

in English translation:

“Today, almost a quarter of a century after the anti-communist revolution, it’s clear that the Romanian people and their social sphere have changed. The internet first registered this transformation, then it accelerated it. Readers–especially the younger generations–don’t obtain their information from traditional channels (it’s noteworthy that newspapers have declined even more dramatically than cultural journals) but from the Internet. We can protest this reality; we can be nostalgic; we can pull our hair out; we can laugh with a sense of superiority; we can sigh with regret: but this is the reality we face and it won’t change just because we want it to. It’s not reality that will adapt to us, in an open and pluralist society. We have to adapt to the increasing predominance of the Internet. The immediate question that arises is: if we notice this predominance, do we oppose it or do we make use of it?” (Daniel Cristea-Enache)

in Romanian:

“Astăzi, la aproape un sfert de secol de la Revoluție, e limpede că lumea românească și spațiul ei social s-au schimbat. Internetul întîi a constatat schimbarea, apoi a accelerat-o. Cititorii – mai ales cei tineri – nu își mai iau informația de pe canalele tradiționale (e semnificativ că ziarele au căzut încă mai dramatic decît revistele culturale), ci de pe net. Putem să protestăm împotriva acestei realități, putem să fim nostalgici, putem să ne smulgem părul din cap, putem să rîdem cu superioritate, putem să suspinăm cu jale: aceasta este realitatea și ea nu se schimbă după cum vrem noi. Nu realitatea are a se adapta la noi, într-o societate deschisă și pluralistă. Noi avem a ne adapta la realitatea dominației, tot mai accentuate, a internetului. Întrebarea care se pune imediat este dacă, o dată ce constatăm această dominație, ne împotrivim ei sau o folosim.” (Daniel Cristea-Enache)

Daniel Cristea-Enache goes on to argue that the first strategy is utopic. Literary production can’t avoid the Internet. Nor can it combat singlehandedly its vast and growing influence. He states that perhaps with great effort a single writer can impose upon himself isolation from the contemporary world of mass media; a kind of Rip VanWinkle hibernation. But the whole field of cultural production–literature in itself–certainly can’t follow this strategy. What Daniel Cristea-Enache proposes, and what the entire project of Literatura de Azi epitomizes, is the adaptation of “high culture” to the age of the Internet. This goal abandons the binary opposition between Culture (with all the implicit hierarchies of judgment and value that Pierre Bourdieu and others analyzed) and the Internet (mass media, without standards of value). Cristea-Enache adopts a pragmatic and modern approach to cultural value: namely, that of “transforming the Internet not in the goal of literature but in its cultural instrument, through which literature can reach as many readers as possible.” (“Chestiunea, după mine, este să transformăm internetul nu în scopul literaturii, în ținta ei – ci în instrumentul cultural prin care literatura poate ajunge la cît mai mulți cititori.”)

Being a practical person, Daniel Cristea-Enache practices what he preaches. Literatura de Azi, a blog that has already become in a matter of months a very prominent conduit of literature and culture in Romania (and that has the potential of growth internationally through syndicated columns in several languages) shows that literature, art, film and poetry can, indeed, survive the age of mass media information. But they won’t reach readers and viewers on their own. Holding on to the past or hoping for the best in the present aren’t workable strategies for promoting culture in our times. Promoting culture takes a lot of organization, energy and team work by editors, critics, authors, publishers and readers who still believe in the value of good books and do their best to help them rise to the surface in the sea of information. For more information, see Literatura de Azi‘s website, http://www.literaturadeazi.ro/

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism: Why the Jews?

arendt-hannah-the-origins-of-totalitarianism1

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Hailed as a classic by the Times Literary Supplement and ranked by Le Monde as one of the 100 best books of 20th century, Hannah Arendt’s monumental study, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), sketches a political philosophy of the rise of Nazism and Stalinism. In her discussion of the rise of the Nazi movement in particular, Arendt refutes previous explanations of the dissemination of anti-Semitism and its vicious culmination in the Holocaust.

She dismisses explanations of anti-Semitism that she considers “ahistorical,” which do not take into account how prejudices and discrimination against the Jews, occurring throughout the centuries, turned into the center of racist ideology for the Nazi movements.  To understand the historical difference between previous anti-Semitic tendencies and actions—even ones as severe and deadly as pogroms—and the Nazi extermination camps, Arendt describes the unique nature of totalitarian power.

In the first part of the book, Arendt refutes common misconceptions of anti-Semitism. Her arguments focus upon a central question: Why the Jews? How and why did the Jewish people throughout Europe come to be targeted for discrimination, abuse, mass deportation and extermination?

1. The rise in nationalism did not cause a corresponding rise in anti-Semitism in Europe

One common answer to this question explains the radical rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in terms of the rise in nationalist sentiments and its “xenophobic outbursts”. Arendt contends that just the opposite is true: modern anti-Semitism grew as nationalism declined throughout Europe. Nazi ideology, while making use of nationalist sentiments in its rhetoric, actually emphasized the international character of “race”. Hitler never hid the fact that his aim was to ensure the supremacy of the “Aryan” race in Europe and, if possible, throughout the world by subjugating and even eliminating “inferior races”. He turned prevalent feelings of national fervor, anti-Semitism and xenophobia into a transnational racial war.

2. The Jews were not randomly selected as Nazism’s main target and victims

Arendt goes on to refute another common misconception: namely, that the Nazi movement could have selected any other group as the main target of its hatred and abuse. After all, it did include other groups in its categories of “undesirables,” including the mentally handicapped, Gypsies and even the Poles (or the Slavs in general, whom Hitler planned to enslave if he had won the war).  But nobody can deny that the isolation and extermination of the Jews was Hitler’s—and, consequently, the Nazi movement’s—primary obsession. The Nazis pursued the mass deportations and extermination of Jews even at the cost of an economic loss and even after the battle of Stalingrad, when they began to lose the war. This is not, however, because the Jews are perpetual scapegoats and victims. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well,” Arendt points out. “It upholds the perfect innocence of the victim, an innocence which insinuates not only that no evil was done but that nothing at all was done that might possibly have a connection with the issue at stake.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 5) So then why were the Jews targeted as the Nazi regimes primary enemies and targets?

3. The Jews were targeted by the Nazis not because of their vast influence, as was claimed by fascist movements, but because of their statelessness and powerlessness

Nazi propaganda held the Jews responsible for everything that went wrong—economic crises, Germany’s humiliation after the Treaty of Versailles, unemployment, etc. This implied that the Jews were a unified people that had an incredible political power. Hitler described his war against the Jews as a self-defense against a “Jewish conspiracy” to take over the world. Yet, Arendt maintains, the opposite holds true. “Anti-Semitism reached its climax when Jews had similarly lost their public functions and their influence, and were left with nothing but their wealth.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 4) Arendt plausibly argues that Jewish wealth without political power and social influence began to be seen as parasitical in nature. It stirred envy rather than respect and contempt rather than compassion: at least in people already inclined to finding scapegoats for their troubles.

4. Totalitarianism subjugates perfectly obedient people

No doubt, there’s a personal, quirky and irrational component to Hitler’s obsessive hatred of the Jewish people, which became part and parcel of his insatiable drive for power. Hitler justified his desire for total control not only of the German people, but also of Europe and eventually the world, in terms of “saving” the Aryan race from imminent contamination and eventual destruction by the Jews. Yet he targeted Jewish victims who not only had no desire to take over the world, but also who didn’t have the means to do it. In general, Arendt argues, the victims of totalitarian terror are selected because of their helplessness and innocence, not because of their power and culpability. The assault upon the Jewish people, she goes on to illustrate, was only the first step in a reign of terror of unprecedented proportions that would aim at nothing short of the destruction of ethical values and of human identity itself.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

https://literaturesalon.wordpress.com

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