Lecture at The Engelsberg Seminar 2014

Civilisation and Auschwitz

There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
Walter Benjamin

In Voltaire’s Candide, the young protagonist is taught by his mentor, Pangloss, that we
live in the best of worlds, that even the cruelest of tragedies, the most meaningless of
fates, the most inhuman of atrocities, have a purpose in the large scheme of things. As
Candide is forced to roam the world in search for his beloved Cunégonde, his acquired
faith, l’optimisme, is persistently and severely tested by every misfortune possible and
can, in the end, only be upheld by him leaving the best of worlds to its own machinations
and instead cultivating his “own garden”. The contemporary target of Voltaire’s satire
were philosophers and theologians who postulated the harmonious design of the world
and thus the ultimate compatibility of human evil with divine purpose.
Although this particular kind of faith-based optimism has lost ground to
Darwinian arbitrariness, I don’t think Voltaire would have had any difficulties in finding
similar targets today, most obviously among those present-day philosophers and
theologians (under the name of economists) who postulate the existence of an invisible
hand steering the world for the best, often arguing that the progress of economics, science
and technology is going hand in hand with a corresponding progress in human morals and
values. As Steven Pinker does in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, there are
those who argue that modern society is making us more “civilised”, less prone to
violence, more tolerant and humane in our attitudes. This may or may not be true, but the
case for moral progress is based on a relatively short period of human existence. Only a
few generations ago modern man set a new record in human destructiveness: the largest
number of people killed in the shortest period of time. Sixty million people killed in six
years remains an unsurpassed feat, as is the instantaneous lethal effect (225,000 deaths)
of two atomic bombs. The fact that human violence, with increasing precision, can be
exerted from a distance (drones targeted at single individuals can be steered from a
control room 7,000 miles away), does not necessarily imply that the human penchant for
violence has diminished, only that the use of violence has become increasingly virtual
and de-personalised.
On his journey, Candide painfully learns that there is nothing inhuman about
atrocity. Torture, rape, mass killing, slavery, expulsion and genocide are part and parcel
of human history and, not least, the history of Western civilisation, however one defines
it. Lofty human ideals and values have in no way been incompatible with the most
gruesome of human actions. On the contrary, they have often been committed in the
name of those ideals. One could even argue that there is a link between the progress of
Western civilisation and its potential for dehumanisation and destruction. As Zygmunt
Bauman argues in his book, Modernity and the Holocaust: “The Holocaust was born and
executed in our modern rational society, at the high stage of our civilisation and at the
peak of human cultural achievement and, for this reason, it is a problem of that society,
civilisation and culture.”
The relationship between values and actions is not straightforward and ultimately
depends on how we define values. Values may be defined as collectively assimilated
human norms and ideals (ie the values of a specific culture or religion), but they may also
refer to individual disposition or inclination to act in specific ways in specific
circumstances. Values in the latter sense are fostered by what Han Joas calls “experiences
of self-formation and self-transcendence”; they become ingrained in a person’s character.
In The Genesis of Values, Joas goes further: “Value commitments clearly do not arise
from conscious intentions and yet we experience the feeling of ‘I can do no other’, which
accompanies a strong value commitment not as a restriction, but as the highest expression
of our free will.” Whatever actions such values inspire, they are more driven by intuitive
impulse than by rational reflection and are, therefore, less amenable to opportunistic
change and adaptation. These are the kind of values that become manifest in what we do
and not in what we say we ought do to.
A perturbing question, then, is to what extent and under what circumstances even
values of this character-forming category can be changed, suppressed and ultimately
corrupted by exterior value systems. Nazi Germany remains a bewildering case. What
made so many Germans acquiesce to a value system that rapidly and, in almost every
respect, turned seemingly well-integrated norms of human behaviour on their head? The
excommunication of Germany’s Jews from German society took effect immediately after
Hitler’s rise to power on January 30, 1933. “Jewish” books were burnt, Jewish shops
boycotted, Jewish professionals cleansed from public institutions and all this with
remarkably little opposition. The relentless and intrusive character of anti-Jewish
measures were there for all to see. On August 16, 1933, it was proclaimed that Jews were
to be excluded from choral societies, Gesangsvereinen. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935
that effectively put Jews (or those who were thereby defined as Jews) beyond the social
pale, making a mockery of ideals and values that had until then been considered
emblematic of German Kultur (Bach, Beethoven, Schiller, Goethe etc), were probably as
much upheld by citizen vigilance as by the repressive apparatus of the Nazi state. Within
a few years, the same German citizens that had resented the ascendance of Adolf Hitler
became the passive bystanders to the dispossession, eviction and deportation of their
former neighbors, associates and friends, while also becoming the beneficiaries of their
“aryanised” factories, shops, apartments and personal valuables.
This rapid and radical transformation of collective values and norms in Nazi
Germany has generated the proposition that human values are largely, if not wholly,
determined by exterior “frames of reference” and that any such frame of reference under
specific circumstances might have the force to replace any value system and “normalise”
any kind of actions.
In their much discussed study, Soldaten: on fighting, killing and dying, historian
Sönke Neitzel and psychologist Harald Welzer provide a disturbing insight into a value
system that seems to have lost all connection with deeply assimilated standards of human
conduct and civility. The main source of this study is a trove of secretly taped and
transcribed conversations between German soldiers captured by the allies in the Second
World War. In passages selected by the authors, prisoners exchange detailed accounts of
the most ghastly deeds and actions they performed, or participated in. The tone in these
conversations is often casual and callous, distinguished by a striking lack of remorse and
moral guilt. Some express a certain disgust with the sheer messiness of the mass killing
operations in the East (it should have been done more professionally). Some fear the
wrath of the world if their deeds are to be revealed (“if we killed all the Jews at the same
time, no one would be able to blame us”). You can indeed get the impression that these
perpetrators of wholesale mass murder regard themselves as decent and civilised, only
doing the necessary, albeit dirty work of a superior civilisation. This is, of course,
reminiscent of the infamous speech by Heinrich Himmler, at a closed meeting with SSofficers
in Poznan on Oct 4, 1943, in which he hailed the civilisational feat of “having
remained decent” (anständig geblieben zu sein) after wading through piles corpses.
Welzer and Neitzel take the view that Nazi Germany succeeded in establishing a
frame of reference that not only inverted long-prevailing collective values and norms, but
also managed to transform inner personal values and beliefs and, thereby, individual
standards of morality and normality. Nazi Germany did not become an immoral society,
they argue, neither were the mass killings a symptom of moral degradation; they were
just the manifestations of a new “National Socialist morality”. Many Germans did what
they did because their inner convictions and intuitions told them it was the right thing to
do. This might help to explain why so many Germans of the war generation remained
emotionally attached to the Nazi era and remarkably resistant to the exterior pressures of
denazification. To what extent “National Socialist morality” was embedded in a specific
German history and tradition has remained a matter of contention. In 1945, the British
historian AJP Taylor argued, in The Course of German History, that “it was no more a
mistake for the German people to end up with Hitler than it is an accident when a river
flows into the sea.” A similar thesis has been advanced by the American historian Daniel
Jonah Goldhagen in his book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners.
Succumbing to Nazi morality was, in any case, not a matter of ignorance or lack
of lofty ideals on part of the German population. On the contrary, its most ardent and
visible proponents were often people of higher education and cultural refinement –
writers, film directors, artists, philosophers, musicians – thereby defying the deeply
entrenched idea in Western thinking that cultural progress feeds noble values and cultural
decay forebodes moral decline. In The Republic, Plato stated that an increasing
lawlessness in music and art portends the erosion of law and order in society as a whole:
“After establishing itself there [in music and the arts], lawlessness quietly flows over into
the character and pursuits of men. Then, greatly increased, it steps into private contracts
and, from private contracts, it makes its way insolently into laws and the government,
until, in the end, it upsets everything public and private.”
What Plato did not foresee was a society where the highest expressions of music
and art would be employed in the service of barbarism, where the most heinous acts
would literally be committed to the sound of sonatas; where “cultivated” people would
enjoy Bach in the morning and the choked murmurs from the gas chambers in the
afternoon; where it would be fully possible to celebrate Mozart and outlaw Mendelssohn,
to admire Hölderlin and burn Heine. In many Nazi concentration camps, music was used
for the purpose of torture and humiliation. In Buchenwald, prisoners to be executed were
pulled through the camp on a wagon to the tune of “Alle Vöglein sind schon da”. In
Flossenburg, the violinist Zdenek Kolarsky was forced to embellish the beating to death
of his camp inmates with the Ave Maria variations for G-string by Schubert. Orchestras
with the most macabre tasks existed in Mauthausen, Auschwitz, Dachau and other camps.
The women’s orchestra in Auschwitz, which became the subject of a book and a movie,
had, among its other duties, to be at the permanent disposal of SS personnel. One day, a
female SS officer wanted to have a piece by Chopin played for her. After hearing it, she
went out of the barrack and kicked an old woman who languished outside. (A thorough
documentation of the role of music in the Nazi death and concentration camps can be
found in Milan Kuna’s 1993 book, Musik an der Grenze des Lebens.) Adolf Hitler
himself attached great importance to the role of art and music in his totalitarian vision of
society. At the roots of the Nazi extermination projects lay very outspoken and detailed
aesthetic ideals. Society was to be cleansed of all disturbing features, from everything
foreign, weak, ugly, Jewish. Lines were to be straightened, human bodies to be perfected,
weeds uprooted, degenerate art and music suppressed.
With Nazism, it was proven, if proof was ever needed, that barbarism does not
necessarily stand in contradiction to culture and that, under certain conditions, even the
most noble artistic expressions can inspire the most barbaric acts. The parallel experiment
of Soviet communism seems to provide yet another confirmation of the thesis that, within
certain frames of reference, the malleability of human values and actions may be infinite.
In 1981, the Russian writer and dissident, Alexander Zinoviev, famously postulated the
emergence of a new human species, homo sovieticus, with its values and moral intuitions
radically transformed by the pressures of ideology, conformism and fear.
Only a decade later, homo sovieticus, if there ever was such a thing, was flung
into a wholly new frame of reference – that of crony capitalism – establishing a wholly
different “normality” and, presumably, having yet another transforming impact on values,
incentives and actions. One would perhaps have expected that the political and moral
implosion of Soviet communism and the rapid transformation of collective welfare states
into individualistic market societies, disseminating the values of individual autonomy and
freedom, would bring forth of a more independent-minded and less malleable human
personality. This, however, has not been an apparent consequence of the on-going
individualisation and marketization of human life. Instead, we may observe an on-going
individual conformity to fads, fashions, advertised lifestyles and peer pressures.
Erich Fromm, in his influential 1942 essay, The Fear of Freedom, traces this
longing for conformity in a society with seemingly endless possibilities for individual
self-formation to the development of a personality that feels “powerless and alone,
anxious and insecure”. More recently, Richard Sennett has postulated the “the corrosion
of character” in the wake of “flexible capitalism” diminishing the value of life-long
personal knowledge and experience, weakening individual self-esteem and thus the
resting power of inner values and motivations.
Further contributing to such a “corrosion” might be the emergence of a growing
social group, “the precariat”, characterised by weakening ties to the labour market (and
thus to the institutions of society), diminishing social status and the “precariousness” of a
life in permanent flux and insecurity. The character of a man depends on his connections
to the world, said Horace, today giving rise to the question: to what world? Or, to put it
another way, what civilisation will the generations of tomorrow be connected to – or
disconnected from?
This brings us to the notion of civilisation, or more precisely to civilisation in its
role as civiliser. Civilised is not an attribute of the same category as polite, or courteous,
or virtuous. For the latter, there is no verb; for civilised, there is: to civilise. A civilised
person is what you get when people who define themselves as civilised are doing the
civilising. To claim that some values are more civilised than others is to make a
normative judgement, not an empirical statement. There can be no natural or universal
hierarchy of civilised values – at least, not without introducing a super-human or divine
arbitrator – only hierarchies established by specific people under specific circumstances.
Ultimately, hierarchies of value are only as valid and binding as their power to impact on
human choices and actions.
Still, there are values that most humans would probably deem more universal than
others. We will typically recognise them as values emanating from the human condition
as such, or more precisely from the human predicament of being determined by both
biological predestination and cultural self-construction. There is neither a biological nor a
cultural blueprint for human societies. Some are well-built, others fragile, some flourish,
others languish, some improve the conditions for human life, others worsen them. Values
inducing humans to act for the good of society might, from such a standpoint, be
perceived as higher and more universal than others.
However, since there is no universal blueprint for the good society, there can be
no blueprint for universal values. All human values, no matter how universal in theory,
can only manifest themselves in particular actions by particular people within particular
frames of reference. This may also be understood in reverse; no particular frame of
reference, no matter how universal it proclaims itself to be, can claim universal validity.
The initial conundrum remains: to what extent did German citizens accommodate
their actions to a proclaimed Nazi morality and to what extent did they act out of
personally fostered values and motives? Neitzel and Welzer give primacy to the exterior
frame of reference. Goldhagen puts more weight on “the phenomenological reality” of
the individual “perpetrators” themselves, implying that Germans acquiesced to Nazi
morality because they were imbued with values that made them inclined to do so. It
seems safe to say that the truth lies somewhere in between; the rapid and wide-spread
assimilation of Nazi norms and values was most likely made possible by the confluence
of personal values largely formed in the specific historical and cultural milieu of German
society. While many Germans certainly acted out of opportunism and conformism, many
acted out of personal and emotional affinity with the actions of the Nazi elite, hence out
of that category of values that, in specific situations, might compel individuals to act
without regard for the pressures of opportunism and conformity – or compel them to
initiate and exert those very pressures.
The public facade of the Nazi regime, with its well-choreographed displays of
mass discipline and cohesion, certainly did not inspire acts of individual responsibility,
moral courage and personal independence. The self-destruction of Nazi Germany thus
arguably went hand in hand with the weakening of inner values, which were vital to the
emergence and maintenance of what we might call the Western civilisation and out of
which both Nazi Germany and totalitarian Communism arguably emerged.
The question then arises whether the political, cultural, spiritual and financial
elites of the current incarnation of Western civilisation – global and flexible capitalism –
will be more capable of instilling and upholding such values and strong enough to resist
the corrosive pull of conformism and opportunism; or, with Nietzsche, whether they will
be able to foster the “free spirits” necessary to make human society rise from the
destructive pull of nihilism in the wake of “God’s death”.
I fear not. Not the kind of elites that increasingly, demonstrably and shamelessly
promote unrestrained self-interest, turn their backs on the societies to which they
ultimately owe their fortunes, evading long-term social commitments for short-term
personal profit, propagating and glorifying the cardinal sins of greed and gluttony,
making conspicuous (and increasingly contemptuous) consumption a legitimate way of
life, giving short shrift to codes of civility, courtesy and decency, destroying social trust
instead of building it.
Where this is taking our present civilisation we cannot know. Civilisations might
rise and fall but they tend to do so over centuries, rather than over months or years, which
is now the measure of most things.
What we do know is that human values are formed and fostered by human culture
and that no culture, not even in “the best of worlds”, can shield us from becoming the
barbarians. Civilisation and Auschwitz are not a contradiction in terms.
Candide would probably understand.