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A Poster for Resnais' Classic Documentary

While doing some research for a lecture on Holocaust films (which included a minor Holocaust film festival at my house, including Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard, without a doubt one of the toughest 31 minutes in the history of cinema), I’ve been pondering the question as to why people still insist that the Holocaust is so impossible to understand, when on so many levels, it is a fully explicable episode in the history of modern Europe, a history that remains haunted by it past and by the irrationality and brutality that all our talk of progress has failed to eliminate from the cultural landscape.

Omer Bartov, in his excellent study Murder in our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), gets to the heart of the reasons for this disconnect, when he argues, if implicitly, that we are still beholden to the myth of progress, still blinded by the view of history that insists on seeing an ongoing process of growth and development (both moral and scientific) rather than embracing the chaos that is the hallmark of all authentic human history.  What Bartov argues so clearly here that the Holocaust was a part and parcel of rationalisation and modernity, not an anomalous eruption of the irrational, bur a simple surfacing of fact that modernisation and rationalisation have no necessary moral value, either good or evil.  A few excerpts:

War, slaughter, and genocide, are of course as old as human civilization itself.  Industrial killing, however, is a much newer phenomenon, not only in that its main precondition was the industrialization of human society, but also in the sense that this process of industrialization came to be associated with progress and improvement, hope and optimism, liberty and democracy, science and the rule of law.  Industrial killing was not the dark side of modernity, some aberration of a generally salutary process, rather it was and is inherent to it, a perpetual potential of precisely the same energies and ideas, technologies and ideologies, that have brought about the ‘great transformation’ of humanity.  But precisely because modernity means to many of us progress and improvement, we cannot easily come to terms with the idea that it also means mass annihilation.  We see genocide as a throwback to another, premodern, barbarous past, a perversion, an error, an accident.  All evidence to the contrary, we repeatedly believe that this time, in this war, it will finally be stamped out and eradicated, never to reappear again. (p. 4)

It would seem that our main difficulty in confronting the Holocaust is due not only to the immense scale of the killing, nor even the manner in which it was carried out, but also to the way in which it combined the most primitive human brutality, hatred, and prejudice, with the most modern achievements in science, technology, organization, and administration.  It is not the brutal SS man with his truncheon whom we cannot comprehend; we have seen likes throughout history.  It is the commander of a killing squad with a Ph.D. in law from a distinguished university in charge of organizing mass shootings of naked women and children whose figure frightens us.  It is not the disease and famine in the ghettos, reminiscent perhaps of ancient sieges, but the systematic transportation, selection, dispossession, killing, and distribution of requisitioned personal effects that leaves us uncomprehending, not of the facts but their implications for our own society and for human psychology.  Not only the ‘scientific’ killing and its bureaucratic administration; not only the sadism; but rather that incredible mixture of detachment and brutality, distance and cruelty, pleasure and indifference.  Hence the genocide of the Jews, its causes, and its context, must be seen as part and parcel of a phase in European civilization that blended modernity and premodernity into an often dangerously explosive mixture (though, of course, also a highly creative one, not only in the science of murder) (p. 67).

The Holocaust can therefore be seen as the culmination (but neither the beginning nor the end) of a process begun the late eighteenth century and still continuing, whose first paroxysm of violence was the Great War, and whose subsequent repercussions can be seen among the millions of victims of the post-1945 era.  It is characterized by the missile-wielding religious fanatic, or the cool-headed scientist directing a slave colony of rocket builders, the brutal guard with a given quota of bodies to be disposed of on a daily basis, and the official busy with his schedule of trains bringing anonymous masses of passengers to destinations from which they never return.  It is also characterized by two types of professionals essential to the fabric of modernity – the physician and the lawyer (67).

Oddly enough, Bartov makes a point similar to one I’ve made elsewhere about the ways in which we react to suicide bombing in the contemporary world – not that suicide bombings are on any level equivalent to the Holocaust.  It is not too much to suggest that the horror that people feel when faced with modern violence is perhaps largely due to a simple and sustained failure to grasp the fact that modernity is not morally on the side of the angels (at least not necessarily).  Additionally, like so many before him, Bartov makes the failures of representing the Holocaust into a moral issue:

Western representations of the Holocaust fail to recognize that this extreme instance of industrial killing was generated by a society, economic system, and civilization of which our contemporary society is a direct continuation.  In other words, we can note a powerful reluctance to admit that industrial killing is very much a product of modernity … while the Holocaust belongs both its past and its future – our present – and can therefore not be marginalized as an aberration representative only of itself, at the same time, it must not be contextualised to the extent that it becomes part of a general history of progress or degeneration, heroism or atrocity.  The centrality of the Holocaust for the human experience of modernity has been recognized even by those who seek to deny that it had ever happened … There may perhaps not be any lessons to be learned from the genocide of the Jews; but, all the same, we must know that killing goes on, and even if we are safe from it today, we may become its victims tomorrow.  This is not a memory, not even a history, for the murder is in our midst and our passivity will be our nemesis (pp. 9-11).

Others have made a similar point, though too many of them insist that the proper response to the Holocaust is a reverential silence.  Siegfried Krakauer, in his classic book The Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), argues that the cinema, whose relationship to reality he perceives is more chemical than interpretive – something that many critics Bazin among them, have long insisted – is a mirror for the realities of human history:

The mirror reflections of horror are an end in themselves.  As such, they beckon the spectator to take them in and thus incorporate into his memory the real face of things too dreadful to be beheld in reality.  In experiencing the … litter of tortured human bodies in the film made of the Nazi concentration camps, we redeem horror from its invisibility behind the veils of panic and imagination.  And this experience is liberating in as much as it removes a most powerful taboo.  Perhaps Perseus’ greatest achievement was not to cut off Medusa’s head but to overcome his fears and look at its reflection in the shield.  And was it not precisely this feat which permitted him to behead the monster? (p. 206)

So what does all of this mean?  It remains an open question, though we must not neglect the fact that so many of the things that shock us about the modern, rationalised world should not be, in the end, all that surprising.