The Auschwitz All Around Us

Coming to terms with the idea of evil
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I picked up Tony Judt's masterful Postwar this weekend and came across a fairly interesting discussion of how Germans thought about the Holocaust in the aftermath of the War. Judt is discussing Konrad Adenauer's attempt to broker Wiedergutmachung, or reparations, to Israel for the Holocaust. But getting everyday Germans to recognized their complicity in the great crimes proves difficult:

In making this agreement Adenauer ran some domestic political risk: in December 1951, just 5 percent of West Germans surveyed admitted feeling ‘guilty’ towards Jews. A further 29 percent acknowledged that Germany owed some restitution to the Jewish people. The rest were divided between those (some two-fifths of respondents) who thought that only people ‘who really committed something’ were responsible and should pay, and those (21 percent) who thought ‘that the Jews themselves were partly responsible for what happened to them during the Third Reich.’

When the restitution agreement was debated in the Bundestag on March 18th 1953, the Communists voted against, the Free Democrats abstained and both the Christian Social Union and Adenauer’s own CDU were divided, with many voting against any Wiedergutmachung (reparations). In order to get the agreement approved Adenauer depended on the votes of his Social Democratic opponents.

The payment of Wiedergutmachung, which did happen stands in direct contrast to how the German people saw themselves:

Any suggestion that Germany, and especially the German armed forces, had behaved in ways that precipitated or justified their suffering was angrily dismissed. The preferred self-image of Adenauer’s Germany was that of a victim thrice over: first at Hitler’s hands—the huge success of films like Die Letzte Brücke (The Last Bridge, 1954), about a female doctor resisting the Nazis, or Canaris (1955) helped popularize the notion that most good Germans had spent the war resisting Hitler; then at the hands of their enemies—the bombed-out cityscapes of post-war Germany encouraged the idea that on the home front as in the field, Germans had suffered terribly at the hands of their enemies; and finally thanks to the malicious ‘distortions’ of post-war propaganda, which—it was widely believed—deliberately exaggerated Germany’s ‘crimes’ while downplaying her losses.

Parcel to that was the idea of a noble, apolitical Wehrmacht which had been corrupted by the Nazis:

Germans did not so much forget as selectively remember. Throughout the fifties West German officialdom encouraged a comfortable view of the German past in which the Wehrmacht was heroic, while Nazis were in a minority and had been properly punished.

To those of us who've studied the Civil War, this is a very, very familiar line. I'm not sure how Rommel fits in here, but my intellectual instincts say that he'd be a natural hero for this kind of sentiment. The idea of blaming some crazed, maniacal monster for the evils of actual men is another familiar theme. Here at home, it's very hard to accept white supremacy as a structure erected by actual people, as a choice, as an interest, as opposed to a momentary bout of insanity.

Early in his book The Seventh Million, Israeli historian Tom Segev visits with the author, and Holocaust survivor, Yehiel De-Nur. Segev quotes De-Nur coming to the realization that ultimately the Holocaust was not the work of God, but the work of man and thus, in some profound way, condemns us all—"Wherever there is humankind, there is Auschwitz...Because it was not Satan that made Auschwitz but you and I."

Accepting that the structures of evil are not mystical, but are the work of actual humans who parent children is terrifying. It is terrifying to understand that you could be under the chain or you could be holding it, that evil is common and can't be passed off to some amorphous evil in the hazy past, or condemned to the fringes of the present.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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