Chapter 6 The Engorgement of Evil: The Holocaust from War Crime to Trauma Drama by



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Chapter 6

The Engorgement of Evil:

The Holocaust from War Crime to Trauma Drama

by

Jeffrey C. Alexander



If we bear this suffering, and if there are still Jews left, when it is over, then Jews, instead of being doomed, will be held up as an example. Who knows, it might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good, and for that reason and for that alone do we have to suffer now.

-- Anne Frank, 1944
Holocaust” has become so universal a reference point that even contemporary Chinese writers, who live thousands of miles from the place of Nazi brutality and possess only scanty knowledge of the details of the Holocaust, came to call their horrendous experiences during the Cultural Revolution “the ten-year holocaust.”

-- Sheng Mei Ma, 19871
In this chapter, I employ the theory of cultural trauma to explain how a specific and situated historical event, an event marked by ethnic and racial hatred, violence, and war, became transformed into a generalized symbol of human suffering and moral evil, a universalized symbol whose very existence has created historically unprecedented opportunites for ethnic, racial, and religious cooperation, for mutual recognition, and even for world peace.2 This cultural transformation has been achieved because the originating historical event, traumatic in the extreme for a delimited particular group, has come over the last fifty years to be redefined as a traumatic event for all of humankind.3 Now free floating rather than situated -- universal rather than particular -- this traumatic event vividly "lives" in the memories of contemporaries whose parents and grandparents never felt themselves even remotely related to it.

Mass Murder under the Progressive Narrative

In the beginning, in April l945, the Holocaust was not the "Holocaust." In the torrent of newspaper, radio, and magazine stories reporting the discovery by American infantrymen of the Nazi concentration camps, the empirical remains of what had transpired were typfified as "atrocities." Their obvious awfulness, and indeed their strangeness, placed them for contemporary observors at the borderline of that unfortunately abused category of behavior known as "man's inhumanity to man." Nonetheless, qua atrocity, the discoveries were placed side by side -- metonymically and semantically -- with a whole series of other brutalities that were considered to be the natural results of the ill wind of this second, very unnatural, and most inhuman world war.

These and other anti-Jewish activities carried out by German Nazis and their henchmen had once been only putatative atrocities. From the late thirties on, reports about them had been greeted with widespread public doubt about their authenticity. Analogizing to reports of German atrocities during World War I, reports that later had been thoroughly discredited afterward, they were dismissed as a kind of Jewish moral panic.4 From April 3, l945, however, the date when the GIs first liberated the camps, these reports were now, and retrospectively, accepted as facts, as signs in the Peircian sense.5 That the victims of the "mass murders" were severely traumatized, the American and world wide audience had no doubt. Their particular and unique fate, however, even while it was widely recognized as representing the grossest of injustices, did not itself become a traumatic experience for the "audience," that is, for those looking on, either from near or from far.

Symbolic Extension and Psychological Identification

For an audience to be traumatized by an experience which they themselves do not directly share, symbolic extension and psychological identification are required. This did not occur. For the American infantrymen who first made contact, for the general officers who supervised the rehabilitation, for the reporters who broadcast the descriptions, for the commissions of Congressmen and influentials who quickly traveled to Germany to conduct on sight investigations, the starving, depleted, often weird looking and sometimes weird acting Jewish camp survivors seemed like a foreign race. They could just as well have been from Mars, or from Hell. The identities and characters of these Jewish survivors rarely were personalized through interviews or individualized through biographical sketches; rather, they were presented as a mass, and often as a mess, a putrified, degrading, and smelly one, not only by newspaper reporters but by some of the most powerful general officers in the Allied high command.6 This depersonalization made it more difficult for the survivors' trauma to generate compelling identification.

Yet possibilities for universalizing the trauma were also blocked by its particularization. This mass murder was immediately linked to other "horrors" in the bloody history of the century's second world war and to the historically specific national and ethnic conflicts that underlay it. Above all, it was never forgotten that these victims were Jews. In retrospect, it is bitterly ironic, but it is also sociologically understandable, that the American audience's sympathy and feelings of identity flowed much more easily to the non-Jewish survivors, whether German or Polish, who had been kept in better conditions and looked more normal, more composed, more human. Jewish survivors were kept for weeks and sometimes even for months in the worst areas and under the worst conditions of what had become, temporarily, displaced persons camps. American and British administrators felt impatient with many Jewish survivors, even personal repugnance for them, sometimes resorting to threatens and even to punishing them. The depth of this initial failure of identification can be seen in the fact that, when American citizens and their leaders expressed opinions and made decisions about national quotas for emergency postwar immigration, displaced German citizens ranked first, Jewish survivors last.

How could this have happened? Was it not obvious to any human observer that this mass murder was different and unique, that it represented not simply evil but "radical evil," in Kant's remarkable phrase, that it was, by far, the most traumatic and bloody event in a modern history already dripping in blood?7 To understand why none of this was obvious, to understand how and why each these initial understandings and behaviors were radically changed, and how this transformation had vast repercussions for establishing not only new moral standards for social and political behavior but unprecedented, if still embryonic, regulatory controls, it is important to see the inadequacy of common sense understandings of traumatic events.



Lay trauma theory

In my introduction to this volume, I suggested that there are two kinds of common sense thinking about trauma, forms of thinking that comprise what I called "lay trauma theory." These commonsensical forms of reasoning have deeply informed thinking about the effects of the Holocaust. They are expressed in the following, strikingly different conceptualizations of what happened after the revelations of the Jewish mass killings.

(a) The Enlightenment version: The "horror" of onlookers provoked the postwar end of anti-semitism in the United States. The common sense assumption here is that, because people have a fundamentally "moral" nature -- as a result of their rootedness in Enlightenment and religious traditions -- they will perceive atrocities for what they are, and react to them by attacking the belief systems that provided legitimation.

(b) The Psychoanalytic version: When faced with the horror, Jews and non-Jews alike reacted, not with criticism and decisive action, but with silence and bewilderment. Only after two or even three decades of repression and denial were people finally able to begin talking about what happened and to take actions in response to this knowledge.

Enlightenment and psychoanalytic forms of lay trauma thinking have permeated academic efforts at understanding what happened after the death camp revelations. One or the other version has informed not only every major discussion of the Holocaust, but virtually every contemporary effort to investigate trauma more generally, efforts which are, in fact, largely inspired by Holocaust debates.8

An Alternative: The Theory of Cultural Trauma

What is wrong with this lay trauma theory is that it is "naturalistic," either in the naively moral or the naively psychological sense. Lay trauma theory fails to see that there is an interpretive grid through which all "facts" about trauma are mediated, emotionally, cognitively, and morally. This grid has a supra-individual, cultural status; it is symbolically structured and sociologically determined. No trauma interprets itself: Before trauma can be experienced at the collective (not individual) level, there are essential questions that must be answered, and answers to these questions change over time. In the introduction to this book, I made a systematic presentation of the alternative model that has been developed by the authors of this book have collectively developed. This model, which emphasizes the cultural rather than simply the social structural or individual elements of trauma, has not only been empirically illustrated but theoretically elaborated in the intervening chapters. In the present chapter, I will contribute further to this theoretical discussion, and relate it to a different but obviously still related empirical case.9



The Cultural Construction of Trauma:

Coding, Weighting, Narrating

Elie Wiesel, in a moving and influential statement in the middle l970s, asserted that the Holocaust represents an "ontological evil" (cite). From a sociological perspective, however, evil is epistemological, not ontological. For a traumatic event to have the status of evil is a matter of its becoming evil. It is a matter of how the trauma is known, how it is coded. Becoming evil is a matter, first and foremost, of representation. Depending on the nature of representation, a traumatic event may be regarded as ontologically evil, or its badness, its "evility," may be conceived as contingent and relative, as something that can be ameliorated and overcome. This distinction is theoretical, but it is also practical, for we will see that decisions about the ontological versus contingent status of the Holocaust were of overriding importance in its changing representation.

If we can deconstruct this ontological assertion even further, I would like to suggest that the very existence of the category "evil" must be seen not as something that naturally exists but as an arbitrary construction, the product of cultural and sociological work. This contrived binary, which simplifies empirical complexity to two antagonistic forms and reduces every shade of gray between, has been an essential feature of all human societies, but especially important in those Eisenstadt has called the Axial Age civilizations.10 This rigid binary opposition between the sacred and profane, which in Western philosophy has typically been constructed as a conflict between normativity and instrumentality, not only defines what people care about but establishes vital safeguards around these shared normative "goods." At the same time, it places powerful, often aggressive barriers against anything that is construed as threatening the good, forces defined not merely as things to be avoided but as sources of horror and pollution that must be contained at all costs.

The Material “Base”: Controlling the Means of Symbolic Production

Yet, if this grid is a kind of functional necessity, how it is applied very much depends on who is telling the story, and how. This is first of all a matter of cultural power in the most mundane, materialist sense: Who controls the means of symbolic production?11 It was certainly not incidental to the public understanding of the Nazis' policies of mass murder, for example, that for an extended period time it was the Nazis themselves who were in control of the physical and cultural terrain of their enactment. This fact of brute power made it much more difficult to frame the mass killings in a distinctive way. Nor is it incidental that, once the extermination of the Jews was physically interrupted by Allied armies in l945, it was America's "imperial republic," -- the perspective of the triumphant, forward-looking, militantly and militarily democratic new world warrior -- that directed the organizational and cultural responses to the mass murders and their survivors. The contingency of this knowledge is so powerful that it might well be said that, if the Allies had not won the war, the "Holocaust" would never have been discovered. If it had been the Soviets and not the Allies who "liberated" most of the camps, and not just those in the Eastern sector, what was discovered in those camps might never have been portrayed in a remotely similar same way.12 It was, in other words, precisely and only because the means of symbolic production were not controlled by a victorious post-war Nazi regime, or even a triumphant communist one, that the mass killings could be called the Holocaust and coded as evil.



Creating the Culture Structure

Still, even when the means of symbolic production came to be controlled by "our side," even when the association between the Holocaust trauma and evil was assured, this is only the beginning, not the end. After a phenomenon is coded as evil, the question that immediately follows is, How evil is it? In theorizing evil, this refers to the problem, not of coding, but of weighting. For there are degrees of evil, and these degrees have great implications in terms of responsibility, punishment, remedial action, and future behavior. This why Kant carefully distinguished, in his late work, between normal evil and "radical evil."

Finally, alongside these problems of coding and weighting, the meaning of a trauma cannot be defined unless we determine exactly what the "it" is. This is a question of narrative: What were the evil and traumatizing actions in question? Who was responsible? Who were the victims? What were the immediate and long-term results of the traumatizing actions? What can be done by way of remediation or prevention?

What these theoretical considerations suggest is that even after the physical force of the Allied triumph and the physical discovery of the Nazi concentration camps, the nature of what was seen and discovered had to be coded, weighted, and narrated. This complex cultural construction, morever, had to be achieved immediately. History does not wait; it demands that representations be made, and they will be. Whether or not some newly reported event is startling, strange, terrible, or inexpressibly weird, it must be typified in the sense of Husserl and Schutz, that is, it must be explained as a typical and even anticipated example of some thing or category that was known about before.13 Even the vastly unfamiliar must somehow be made familiar. To the cultural process of coding, weighting, and narrating, in other words, what came before is all important. Historical background is critical, both for the first "view" of the traumatic event and, as "history" changes, for later views as well. Once again, these shifting cultural constructions are fatefully affected by the power and identity of the agents in charge, by the competition for symbolic control, and the structures of power and distribution of resources that condition it.



Nazism as the Representation of Absolute Evil

What was the historical structure of "good and evil" within which, on April 3, l945, the "news" of the Nazi death camps was first confirmed to the Amercan audience? To answer this question, it is first necessary to describe what came before. In what follows, therefore, I will venture some observations, which can hardly be considered definitive, about how social evil was coded, weighted, and narrated during the interwar period in Europe and the United States.

In the deeply disturbing wake of World War I, there was a pervasive sense of disillusionment and cynicism among mass and elite members of the Western “audience,” a distancing from protagonists and antagonists that, as Paul Fussell has shown, made irony the master trope of that first post-war era.14 This trope transformed "demonology" -- the very act of coding and weighting evil -- into what many intellectuals and lay persons alike considered to be an act of bad faith. Once the coding and weighting of evil were delegitimated, however, good and evil became less distinct from one another, and relativism became the dominant motif of the time. In such conditions, coherent narration of contemporary events becomes difficult if not impossible. Thus it was that, not only for many intellectuals and artists of this period but for many ordinary people as well, the startling upheavals of these interwar years could not easily be sorted out in a conclusive and satisfying way.

In this context of the breakdown of representation, racism and revolution, whether fascist or communist, emerged as compelling frames, not only in Europe but also in the United States. Against a revolutionary narrative of dogmatic and authoritarian modernism on the Left, there arose the narrative of reactionary modernism, equally revolutionary but fervantly opposed to rationality and cosmpolitanism.15 In this context, many democrats in Western Europe and the United States tried to withdraw from the field of representation itself, becaming confused and equivocating advocates of disarmament, non-violence, and peace "at any cost." This formed the cultural frame for isolationist political policy in both Britain and the United States.

Eventually, the aggressive military ambition of Nazism made such equivocation impossible to sustain. While racialism, relativism, and narrative confusion continued in the United States and Britain until the very beginning of the second world war, and even continued well into it, these constructions were countered by increasingly forceful and confident representations of good and evil that coded liberal democracy and universalism as unalloyed goods, and Nazism, racism, and prejudice as deeply corrosive representations of the polluting and profane.

From the late 30s on, there emerged a strong, and eventually dominant "anti-Fascist" narrative in Western societies. Nazism was coded, weighted, and narrated in apocalyptic, old testament terms as "the dominant evil of our time." Because this radical evil aligned itself with violence and massive death, it not merely justified but compelled the risking of life in opposing it, a compulsion that motivated and justified massive human sacrifice in what came later to be known as the last "good war."16 That Nazism was an absolute, unmitigated evil, a radical evil that threatened the very future of human civilization, formed the presupposition of America's four year prosecution of its side of the world war.

The representation of Nazism as an absolute evil emphasized not only its association with sustained coercion and violence, but also, and perhaps even especially, the manner in which Nazism linked violence ethnic, racial, and religious hatred. It is hardly surprising, then, that the most conspicuous example of the practice of Nazi evil -- its policy of systematic discrimination, coercion, and, eventually, mass violence against the Jews – was initially interpreted “simply” another horrifying example of the subhumanism of Nazi action.

Interpreting “Kristallnacht”: Nazi Evil as Anti-Semitism

The American public's reaction to Kristallnacht demonstrated how important the Nazis' anti-Jewish activities were in crystallizing the polluted status of Nazism in American eyes. It also provides a protytpical example of how such representations of the evils of anti-semitism were folded into the broader and more encompassing symbolism of Nazism. Kristallnacht refers to the rhetorically virulent and physically violent expansion of the Nazi repression of Jews that unfolded throughout German towns and cities on November 9 and l0, l938. These activities were widely recorded. "The morning editions of most American newspapers reported the Kristallnacht in banner headlines," according to the most important historian of that fateful event, "and the broadcasts of H.V. Kaltenborn and Raymond Gram Swing kept the radio public informed of Germany's latest adventure."17 Exactly why these events assumed such critical importance in the American public's continuing effort to understand "what Hitlerism stood for"18 goes beyond the simple fact that violent and repressive activities were, perhaps for the first time, openly, even brazenly displayed in direct view of the world public sphere. Equally important was the altered cultural framework within which these activities were observed. For Kristallnacht occured just six weeks after the now infamous Munich agreements, acts of appeasement to Hitler's expansion which at that time were understood, not only by isolationists but by many opponents of Nazism, indeed by the vast majority of the American people, as possibily reasonable accessions to a possibly reasonable man.19 What occurred, in other words, was a process of understanding fuelled by symbolic contrast, not simply observation.

What was interpretively constructed was the cultural difference between Germany's previously apparent cooperativeness and reasonableness -- representations of the good in the discourse of American civil society -- and its subsequent demonstration of violence and irrationality -- representations of anticivic evil. Central to the ability to draw this contrast was the ethnic and religious hatred Germans demonstrated in their violence against Jews. If one examines the American public's reactions, it clearly is this anti-Jewish violence that is taken to represent Nazism's evil. Thus, it was with references to this violence that the news stories of the New York Times employed the rhetoric of pollution to further code and weight Nazi evil: "No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening the name of Germany before the world could outdo the tale of beating, of blackguardly assaults upon defenseless and innocent people, which degraded that country yesterday." 20 The Times's controversial columinst, Anne O'Hare McCormick, wrote that "the suffering [the Germans] inflict on others, now that they are on top, passes all understanding and mocks all sympathy" labelliong Kristallnacht "the darkest day Germany experienced in the whole post-war period."21 The Washington Post identified the Nazi activities as "one of the worst setbacks for mankind since the Massacre of St. Bartholomew."22

This broadening identification of Nazism with evil, simultaneously triggered and reinforced by Kristallnacht's anti-Jewish violence, stimulated influential political figures to make more definitive judgments about the antipathy between American democracy and German Nazism than they had up until that point. Speaking on NBC radio, Al Smith, the former New York Governor and democratic presidential candidate, observed that the events confirmed that the German people were "incapable of living under a democratic government."23 Following Smith on the same program, Thomas E. Dewey, soon to be New York Governor and a future presidential candidate, expressed the opinion that "the civilized world stands revolted by the bloody pogrom against a defnseless people ... by a nation run by madmen."24 Having initially underplayed America's official reaction to the events, four days later President Franklin Roosevelt took advantage of the public outrage by emphasizing the purity of the American nation and its distance from this emerging representation of violence and ethnic hatred: "The news of the past few days from Germany deeply shocked public opinion in the United States ... I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a twentieth century civilization."25

Judging from these reactions, it certainly seems justified to conclude, along with the historian of Kristallnacht, that as a result of this outbreak of anti-Jewish violence "most American newspapers or journals" could "no longer ... view Hitler as a pliable and reasonable man, but as an aggressive and contemptible dictator [as a] man [who] would have to be restrained."26

What is equally striking, however, is that in almost none of the American public’s statements of horror is there explicit reference to the identity of Kristallnacht's victims as Jews. Instead, they are referred to as a "defenseless and innocent people," as "others," and as a "defenseless people."27 In fact, in the public statement quoted above, President Roosevelt goes well out of his way to present his polluting judgment of the events as reflecting a typically American standard, strenuously removing his moral outrage from any link to a specific concern for the fate of the Jews. "Such news from any part of the world," the President insists, "would inevitably produce similar profound reaction among Americans in any part of the nation."28 In other words, despite the centrality of the Nazis' anti-Jewish violence to the emerging American symbolization of Nazism as evil, there existed – at that point in historical and cultural time -- an inability for non-Jewish Americans to identify with Jewish people as such. Jews were highlighted as vital representations of the evils of Nazism: their would be understood only in relation to the German horror that threatened democratic civilizationo in America and Europe. This failure of identification would be reflected seven years later in the distantiation of the American audience from the traumatized Jewish camp survivors and their even less fortunate Jewish compatriots whom the Nazis had killed.



Anti-Anti-Semitism: Fighting Nazi Evil by Fighting for the Jews

It was in during this same period during the l930s, in the context of this new dramatic role for European Jews, that there emerged in the United States an historically unprecedented attack on anti-semitism. It was not that Christians suddenly felt genuine affection for, or identification with, those they had villified for countless centuries as the killers of Christ.29 It was that the logic of symbolic association had dramatically and fatefully changed. Nazism was increasingly viewed as the vile enemy of universalism, and the most hated enemy of Nazism were the Jews. The laws of symbolic antinomy and association thus were applied. If Nazism singled out the Jews, then the Jews must be singled out by democrats and anti-Nazis.30 Anti-semitism, tolerated and condoned for centuries in every Western nation, and for the preceding fifty years embraced fervently by proponents of American "nativism," suddenly became distinctly unpopular in progressive circles throughout the United States.31

What I will call this "anti-anti-semitism"32 became particularly intense after the U.S. declared war on Nazi Germany. The nature of this concern is framed in a particular clear manner by one leading historian of American Jewry: “The war saw the merging of Jewish and American fates. Nazi Germany was the greatest enemy of both Jewry and the United States."33For the first time, positive representations of Jewish people began permeating popular and high culture alike. Indeed, it was only during this relatively recent period that the phrase “Judeo-Christian tradition” was born. It emerged as Americans tried to fend off the Nazi enemy that threatened to destroy the sacred foundations of Western democratic life.34




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