Holocaust as Suicidal Enterprise

The Holocaust as Suicidal Enterprise


by Ludo Abicht

In her autobiographical work Dies ist nicht mein Land — Eine Jüdin verlässt die Bundesrepublik,[1] Lea Fleischmann describes a faculty meeting at the high school where she was teaching. A colleague had been unjustly reprimanded by the director, and the 43 teachers, including Fleischmann, remained silent: “It won’t be all that bad. I don’t want to make myself unpopular, as I often come late anyhow. Next week Frau Ulhnann (the director) has to write an evaluation of me. All this crosses my mind, and at the same time my soul is burned by the thought that an injustice is happening here. You’re witnessing it, and you don’t say anything.” The link is easily — maybe too easily — established between this collective cowardice and the Nazi honors that had victimized her parents and her people. Against this ugly, obedient “German,” the author equates “Jewishness” with courage, revolt and the unwillingness to participate in this dehumanizing experience.


This typical example of traditional German authoritarianism shows one of the problems that the literature about the Holocaust confronts us with: how does one critically assess this episode in European history without either equating this authoritarianism with fascism or running the risk of offending the memory of the victims, especially at a time of renewed anti-Semitic and openly fascist activity?[2]

In very different ways both Günther Anders and Bernt Engelmann try to transcend this dilemma as an unacceptable choice. Although neither of them claims to be objective or “neutral” — both are German Jews, both are militant humanists and socialists — their works reflect an uncompromising attempt to place the discussion within the contemporary public sphere of a “Germany without Jews,” but a country still uneasily struggling with its guilt-ridden Jewish problem which is actually a German problem. Anders [*178] starts his reflections from his very personal impressions and experiences, whereas Engelmann takes a sociological, even statistical approach in the style of his ongoing critical exposure of German history and the developments in the German Federal Republic today. Their attempt, however, necessarily entails the breaking of a number of tacitly agreed upon explanations and taboos. This becomes abundantly clear in Engelmann’s treatment of the symbiosis of Germans and Jews before and even after Hitler’s takeover.


It is possible that the sudden explosion of public discussion in West Germany after the showing of the tv film “Holocaust” has begun to clear the path for a more mature, less inhibited critical debate of all the aspects and implications of the tragedy. This includes those aspects which the Left and/or the official Jewish representatives have hitherto managed carefully to avoid. If this assumption is true, then both books will have been published right on time.


Günther Anders: The Poet as Moralist


Besuch im Hades consists of four separate parts, held together by the subjective views of the author and the central topic: Parts 1 and 3 are Anders’ travel diary during a 1966 visit to Auschwitz and his native Breslau, part 2 is a selection of excerpts from his philosophical diaries, written in the USA between 1944 and 1949, and part 4 was written in 1979 during the debates following the showing of “Holocaust” in Europe. This timespan of about 35 years makes it hard to consider this publication as one book. Yet, it enables us to discover the similarities and discrepancies between the early and the later reflections on the same events. As a student of Husserl, Anders has always been concerned in philosophical questions but with a moral orientation. He is an internationally known opponent of the Vietnam War and nuclear energy and traces his ethics and commitments back to his experiences as a boy in World War I followed by persecution and exile during the Third Reich.


Contrary to what the title suggests, the book starts rather surprisingly with a series of reflections after Anders and his companion have already left the “Hades” of Auschwitz. In discussing the meaning of the death camp, he focuses on the atypical fate of Edith Stein, once a student of Anders’ father Wilhelm Stem and Edmund Husserl. After her conversion under the influence of Max Scheler, she became a Catholic nun who pleaded with the Pope to intervene on behalf of the threatened Jews, and who, a Jew herself, was finally murdered in Auschwitz, surrounded by her own people and yet considered a renegade and a traitor. Anders compares her absolute, totally non-opportunistic religious conversion to Husserl’s own convenient Protestant baptism, a typical and equally useless form of assimilation of many Jews in the German-Austrian middle-class before World War II. But [*179] this comparison becomes irrelevant and absurd faced with a policy that took neither religious nor cultural assimilation into account and decided arbitrarily who belonged to the real German people. Edith Stein, more steeped in the great German traditions than most Germans and definitely more Christian than most Christians, did not. To Anders her fate symbolizes more than anything else the permanent insecurity of the Jewish people in the diaspora. For, if this complete integration of Edith Stein did not save her and thousands of others, we should begin to look for other ways to stop the madness of imminent genocide. Will the vivid memory of the massacre be powerful enough to finally take away the threat?


If only three of us would speak

— three moaning in a meager chorus —

We’d soon and easily be entering

Your ears and hearts.


For three are father, mother and the child,

Three deaths each heart could measure,

But we, the millions, are today forgotten.

As we are millions and millions too many. (“Numbers,” 1945)


In his “philosophical diaries” (1944-1949), Anders is struck with the poverty of our traditional, classical “imagination.” The reality of Auschwitz forces us to redefine this ability: “Because its object, the phantastic reality, is phantastic in itself, imagination (die Phantasie) has to function as an empirical method, as an organ to perceive that which is factually enormous.” In his “Analytics of the Sublime,” Kant concluded that man could never match the potential for human grandeur. Anders reverses this inability: the gap he observes is no longer between reason and imagination, but between human actions and imagination, and the consequences have proven to be terrible, as people who perpetrate the most heinous and monstrous crimes are no longer capable consciously to realize the monstrosity of their deeds. The optimism of the Kantian enlightenment has turned into an almost absolute pessimism, for, even if our attempts at transcending this inability would become universally accepted, it still would remain an open question whether we could really “imagine” the possibility of an apocalyptic end. The reaction of both the victims and the tormentors to the Holocaust shows the dangerous limits of our humanistic tradition: new genocides have happened since the end of World War II and, again, people have failed to react in a significantly different and more effective way. Despite Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and the existential philosophers, and especially despite the permanent inhumanity of our own century, we still cling to the comforting ideologies of human progress and developing “humanization” of the private and the public spheres, still unable to imagine further horrors, including our own self-destruction.


Anders’ journey to his “roots” in Breslau reinforces these observations: after 50 years of exile he feels like a Silesian coming home to the Breslau of [*180] Kaiser Wilhelm and the First World War. But the Jews and the Germans have left, and the few German speakers he meets take it for granted that he, too, is an old Nazi, looking for the former SA-Allee in a Polish city. This alienation in time and history is stressed by the totally different reactions of his younger, American companion, who only sees present-day Bratislava and cannot possibly share his emotions. And the childhood memories exemplify the contradictions of the German-Jewish experience. He thinks of older friends, who enthusiastically volunteered to serve the Kaiser in 1914, and who ended in Birkenau in 1944; of his mother who frantically organized the ladies’ relief organization for the heroic boys on the Eastern and Western fronts, who thought of herself as a hundred percent German and patriot, and who later was forced to adopt the first name “Sarah” in her non-Aryan passport as a token of degradation and ridicule; of his father, who proudly celebrated July 12, “Dreyfus Day,” as a reassuring symbol of the final victory of reason and tolerance in Western Europe.


But the irony does not stop here: Anders’ father developed a set of philosophical theories which he called “personalism.” This concept was first adopted by Max Scheler. From there it found its way into the philosophy of Emmanuel Mounier and the progressive Catholics around Esprit and finally emerged as the ideology of the ruling Diem clique in South Vietnam: “My father, my father, if you only knew!” This descent into Hades, Auschwitz and Breslau, by far the largest section of the book, sets the tone for the subsequent discussion of the German reception of the tv “Holocaust” series.


The lesson brought about by the telecast of this mediocre and distorted product should not be forgotten: “Only through fiction can the facts, only through individual cases can the innumerable be made clear and unforgettable.” Consistent with his earlier theories about the gap between action and imagination, he rejects the usual explanation of a past the majority of the Germans have “repressed,” for “repression” presupposes at least some trauma, and Anders doesn’t believe those traumas ever existed. Of course, they had been confronted, at least after the war, with the documents of the Holocaust, but he doubts that they were fully grasped. The horror had been “reduced to its enormity” and had therefore never reached the popular consciousness. The fact that only a personalized, fictionalized story finally reached that consciousness through a tv soap opera is no automatic cause for hope, for “none of the prevailing religious or philosophical ethics” are prepared to deal with Hiroshima or Auschwitz, and the question whether it is still possible or even makes sense to establish such a new morality must remain unanswered. This would imply a moral and social revolution of hitherto unthinkable dimensions, far beyond the obsolete and corrupt liberal-humanistic ideology or even its dialectical materialist variant. Anders does not reject the class nature of fascist anti-Semitism, but he is no longer convinced that a mere socio-economic restructuration will guarantee the development of a new ethic, strong enough to overcome the total amorality Auschwitz revealed. He calls this amorality “ontological,” as it [*181] enabled the destruction of individuals and groups simply on the basis of their “being” (being Jewish, being Gypsy, being “different”), rather than on account of their allegedly harmful or “bad” behavior.


Bernt Engelmann as Seemingly Objective Pragmatist.


Whereas Günther Anders’ ethical questions pointed to the moral bankruptcy underlying the Holocaust, the author and polemicist Bernt Engelmann approaches the same facts from a seemingly amoral, pragmatic perspective: “So let us free ourselves of disgust, horror and guilt feelings. Let us break through the taboo that until now has prevented us from taking a closer look at the causes and the consequences of the persecution of the Jews that culminated in the mass murder of the 1940s, and at the same time prevented the impartiality and objectivity that are necessary to research the truth.


Let us instead try to carefully order the evidence, to register it correctly and to strike a balance, whatever the outcome may be — firmly convinced that one can only learn something, even from the most terrible mistakes, when one is able to recognize them” (p. 10).


Engelmann understands this impartiality and objectivity quite literally, as he is even prepared to look at the Holocaust from the viewpoint of the anti-Semites and Nazis themselves, for whom the results certainly surpassed their most ardent wishes. They have indeed succeeded in curing Germany from “the Jewish disease,” in creating a virtually “Jew-free” (judenreines) post-war society. So, if they were right in the first place — and Engelmann is willing to let this theory go unchallenged — things must look much better and brighter today than, e.g., during the days of the “Jew-dominated” Weimar Republic.


But even if we hypothetically accept the distorted viewpoint of the Nazis, we must come to the conclusion that it was still not advantageous for them to eliminate the Jews. In eight out of the ten chapters of his book, Engelmann demonstrates in a chilling, detached way how the destruction of the Jewish part of the German population has affected specific areas of German cultural, technological and even military developments. Before they could begin with the elimination of the “Jewish virus” from the endangered German national body, the Nazi “race researchers” had to define this virus as clearly distinct from its environment. And this proved from the start to be an impossible task: as a result of the complex racial history of the Jews, especially since the 19th century, the “blood relationships” in the medical sense of the word, were much closer between German Jews and “Aryans” than between Jews in Europe and the Middle East, for example. Thus, contrary to their own theories, they began to identify people according to the religion of their grandparents and great-grandparents, thereby including the Jews, who had converted to Christianity, and the Christians, who had adopted the Jewish faith. Furthermore, the cultural integration of Jews and [*182] converts in German-Austrian life, from Rahel Levin to Johann Strauss, and from Lorenzo da Ponte to Adolf von Baeyer, had been so thorough, that Nazi historians had to rewrite entire chapters of the biographies of such eminently German geniuses as Franz Lehar and Richard Wagner, whose works they ought to have banned as the degenerated products of Jewish artists.


As we know, all this did not confuse the Nazi architects of the “Final Solution,” among them the partially Jewish Reinhard Heydrich(Süss), in the least, and the carefully planned genocide was carried out. Engelmann starts his research in the field of medicine: before 1933 Germany was the world’s most important center of medical research and teaching. This he measures by the disproportionally high number of Nobel Prize winners, scientific discoveries and the leading role of the medical schools. After World War II the center completely shifted to the USA. A careful examination of the list of researchers and professors in both countries indicates the prominent place of German-Jewish scientists, many of whom were refugees from the Nazi persecutions, and this despite the quota system that kept the Jewish presence at an “acceptable” minimum. At the same time the so-called harmful effects of “Jewish medicine,” such as the defense of premarital sexual relations, birth control and the “commercial specialization” of the profession — as opposed to the allegedly Aryan family practice — have become the general rule in a Jew-free Germany. Besides exposing these accusations as totally unfounded myths, the present-day state of the medical science, including psychoanalysis, in Germany shows, according to Engelmann’s findings, nothing but a marked and miserable impoverishment.


The author finds this picture even more startling when he turns to the world of theater, film, music and the performing arts in general. Precisely those names who made the German-Austrian culture world famous in the Weimar period were the ones who were silenced, driven into exile or killed. Engelmann includes here the Jews as well as those non-Jewish artists and performers, sponsors and critics who preferred emigration to the cultural wasteland of a forcefully Aryan German Reich. However, these “big names” (Bruno Walter, Otto Kiemperer, Marlene Dietrich, Albert Bassermann, Richard Tauber, Max Reinhard, Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, Bert Brecht, Paul Hindemith, Josef von Sternberg, Fritz Lang, etc.) are only the tip of the iceberg. One does not have to look for important people. On the contrary, it becomes hard to find the names of those valuable artists who were not part of this exodus, Grundgens being maybe one of the great and sad exceptions. The Nazi “Kulturpolitik” virtually wiped out the once flourishing German film industry, as this policy hit about 40% of the actors and more than 50% of the producers and directors, many of whom contributed greatly to the development of British and American film. And as Goebbels had proclaimed the equation Jewish = “Marxist,” the same measures were taken against any artist vaguely suspected of leftist convictions or sym-[*183]-pathies so that the socially critical members of the “purely German” artistic world were also forced to leave with the Jews. The same applies to literature, where more than three quarters of the important authors[3] were driven into exile, sent to the concentration camps or, as in the case of Marx, Heine, Luxemburg and Kafka, whose books were burned and taken from libraries and bookstores, they were posthumously eliminated. Moving into the field of politics, Engelmann finds that the political attitudes of the Jewish community were not very different from those of the educated middle-class to whom they belonged, thereby invalidating the anti-Semitic myth of the Judaeo-Bolshevik conspiracy. Even the often claimed “international orientation” of the European Jews has to be rejected as false, for the overwhelming majority of them were staunch and active nationalists who — again in disproportionately high numbers — volunteered for military service in World War I.


This brings us to the central and most controversial theme of the book: far from benefiting the Nazis, Engelmann argues, the persecution and extermination of the Jews was one of the main causes of Hitler Germany’s military defeat. Already in World War I the German Supreme Command issued proclamations in Yiddish, reminding the Eastern European Jews of their century-old cultural relationship with Germany and the advantages of joining the Germans in their struggle against the anti-Semitic Czarist regime. Engelmann asserts that these feelings remained mutual long after the end of World War I and the potential for using the Eastern European Jews as allies was real. We can summarize his arguments about the military question with the following points:


1, If the 2.8 million “non-Aryans” in the Greater German Reich had sent the average 12% of the population to the army, about 336,000 men and women would have enlisted.


  1. About 400,000 German soldiers (SS, service personnel, members of the “death squads”), more than the entire Waffen-SS in 1943 and almost the size of the Bundeswehr today, were involved in the “Final Solution” instead of the war itself.


  1. Nazi Germany had lost the potential support of about eight million Jews in Eastern Europe, many of whom became very active in the Soviet resistance forces.


  1. Even Goring admitted secretly in 1942 that the loss of specialized researchers and skilled engineers (about 40% of the university instructors) had been harmful to the German cause.


  1. Maybe most fateful of all for the Nazis: practically all the nuclear physicists who were responsible for the proposal that led to the “Manhattan Project” and the building of the bomb (e.g. Victor Weisskopf, Eduard Teller, Leo Szilard, Eugen Wigner) were Jewish-Austrian or Jewish-[*184]-German scientists who had been trained in Germany and left on account of the anti-Semitic climate and persecution in their homelands. The support of another refugee, Albert Einstein, was crucial to obtain the approval of President Roosevelt. Also Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Rudolf Ernest Peierls and Franz Eugen Simon, to mention only a few internationally known names, had been directly or indirectly affected by Hitler’s or Mussolini’s anti-Semitic policies, and Engelmann sees no reason to believe that most of them would not have stayed in Germany, Austria or Italy. And even if (and the possibility is real) the remaining nuclear physicists could have produced “the bomb,” the Nazi regime’s contempt for “the speculations of Jewish science” effectively prevented the realization of such a project.


After all of the above, Engelmann’s conclusions become predictable: from a purely German national perspective the persecution of the Jews was a suicidal enterprise with respect to culture, science, political philosophy and even military research and practice. No sentimental or hypocritical post-factum philo-Semitism can cover up this impoverishment of public life in the German states that succeeded the Great German Reich after 1945. “And worst of all: The citizens don’t seem to miss a thing.”


This may be true for the majority of the West Germans, but the reader of Engelmann’s provocative book surely misses many other things. For one, he does not live up to his initial promise (Introduction, p. 10) to present a coherent and conclusive scientific argument for his assertions. The method he uses is largely inductive and often speculative, and many a fact seems to have been selected to fit the thesis. Especially when he discusses the potential Jewish contribution to the Nazi war effort, he makes a daring jump from middle-class World War I patriotism in the Jewish community both in Germany-Austria and abroad to a possible uncritical support of an imaginary non-racist National Socialism. The historical record, however, shows that anti-Semitism had always been one of the core elements of Nazi ideology, from Hitler’s pre-war fascination with Aryan theories to the publication of Mein Kampf, and from the systematic anti-Semitism of the founding meetings of the NSDAP to the “Final Solution.” Of course, Engelmann will not deny these facts, but they make his artificial distinction between the real racist policies and some possible “purely nationalistic” fascism rather specious. But worse than this speculation is his virtual neglect of all the average, “non prominent” Jews who were murdered. In Eichmann in Jerusalem Hannah Arendt made the point that such elitist thinking was one of the main causes of the destruction of European Jewry. And while he mentions in passing the attitude of the Germans and many of the assimilated Jews toward the poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants, he, unlike Herbert S. Levine and Thomas Rothschild in Fremd im eigenen Land,[4] [*185] doesn’t say a word about the general West German treatment of the new immigrants, euphemistically called “Gastarbeiter,” who today have replaced the poor Eastern Jews on the social scale.


Is There Anywhere We Can Go from Here?


Aside from these substantial flaws in his argumentation, Engelmann’s concluding remarks about the state of affairs in present-day Germany echo the equally somber conclusions of Günther Anders, who recognizing the vital necessity of a new, post-Holocaust morality, is rather despairing that such a radical change would or even could ever occur under the present circumstances. And the Jewish presence in the GDR is so minimal, that a meaningful comparison is virtually impossible, though the few known factors do not suggest a significantly different pattern,[5] in spite of the official anti-fascist orientation and the welcome absence of even the slightest neo-fascist activity. If we accept this assessment of the situation, the discussion is practically closed. In their own lives, however, neither Anders nor Engelmann has resigned himself to this sad and threatening reality: Engelmann is a vocal member of the West German democratic Left, and Anders remains an active fighter against nuclear energy power and military build-ups. A renewed attempt to sterilize “the womb out of which that here crept” (Brecht, The War Primer) will have to go beyond the usual critique of anti-Semitism and, at the same time, beyond the understandable but simplistic anti-Germanism. For a link between some form of liberal philo-Semitism (in a “Jew-free” society) and a continued discrimination against e.g. foreign workers is readily established as Germans ease their conscience about Jews while the hatred for the alleged “alien element” (Fremdkörper) remains virulent. But blanket anti-Germanism has to be countered as well since it helps cover the historical truth and absolve the non-German nations and individuals of their part in anti-Semitism and the Holocaust — which in no way means that we should belittle the emergence of a new German Right and its ugly practices. The Berufsverbote are a reality, and so is Franz Josef Strauss.


The Right in Germany has always made good opportunistic use of knife- in-the-back theories. Though it is difficult to calculate the role the Versailles Treaty and the anti-German attitude in pre-World War II Europe played in furthering the Nazi rise to power, a certain responsibility cannot be denied. Surely Günther Grass exaggerated when he put the blame for a [*186] reemergence of West German nationalism squarely on the “anti-German hysteria” in the neighboring countries.[6] But, again, there is nothing more conducive to a kneejerk nationalist reaction than the feeling of isolation and unfair treatment by “the others.” After 35 years, the time for taboos and myths of any kind has long run out, in Germany as well as abroad.



Bernt Engelmann, Deutschland ohne Juden. Eine Bilanz. Munich: Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, 1979. 525 pages.

Günther Anders, Besuch im Hades. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1979. 218 pages.

[1] Lea Fleischmann, Dies ist nicht mein Land — Eine Jddin verlasst die Bundesrepublik (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 1980). See also the review by Annette Gerhardt in Die Neue (May 8, 1980), p. 7.

[2] See Henryk M. Broder, Deutschland erwache (Cologne, 1978), a very convincing collection of essays and documents about the neo-Nazis and their sympathizers in West Germany today.

[3] For example, it would be impossible to teach any course on 20th-century literature if one were to stick to Goebbels’ list of authors acceptable to the national socialist definition of “German.”

[4] Fremd im eigenen Land, eds. Henryk M. Broder and Michel R. Lang (Frankfurt am Main, 1979). Levine: “On the day when most of the Germans will fully accept their foreign neighbors as fellow citizens and when the ‘Gastarbeiter’ will feel comfortable and at home in Germany the last remnants of the German-Jewish problem will have been solved. Not before” (p. 278). Rothschild: “The equation is quickly made: he doesn’t like those people, so he doesn’t like the others, and all of them cheat us. So: “The foreigners are all Jews anyway.” (p. 356).

[5] See the prolonged discussion around Christa Wolf’s fictional autobiography Kindheitsmuster, 1977.

[6] In a speech delivered at the Brussels Europalia Festival in November, 1977.

SOURCE: New German Critique, No. 20, Special Issue 2: Germans and Jews. (Spring – Summer 1980) pp. 177-180


Tagged as: