Hannah Arendt and the German understanding of the Holocaust

On the occasion of tomorrow’s Holocaust remembrance day, I’ll continue my previous post and elaborate about the German dilemma regarding the Holocaust and its meaning.

Generally speaking, Germany is quite ambivalent about what the extermination – which very few would deny – should mean. On the one hand, there is a wide recognition that Jews were targeted, persecuted, humiliated and murdered. On the other hand, there is also a certain refusal to acknowledge that this constitutes a crime in itself, committed particularly against the Jewish people. Germans feel more comfortable with the thought that their persecution of Jews was a part of a general tragedy, which in turn should teach us a general, universal lesson about mankind, about dictatorships, and about what human beings are unfortunately capable of inflicting on each other.

This approach to what is otherwise understood mostly as a particular Jewish catastrophe (with particular Jewish lessons derived from it) isn’t limited to Germany, of course, and can be found in Jewish texts as well. One prominent example is Hannah Arendt’s notion that the Holocaust wasn’t actually a crime “against the Jewish people” – as claimed by the State of Israel in Eichmann’s trial, which Arendt reported about for the New Yorker – but rather a crime “against mankind, committed on the body of the Jewish people”.

This is a fine, yet meaningful distinction that revokes any Jewish “ownership rights” to the catastrophe, although many Jews (myself included) consider it a part of “their” heritage. In other words, Arendt’s differentiation between individual Jewish people as the means to an end (the crime) and mankind as the actual target and victim (against which the crime was committed), creates a very different understanding of the Holocaust than how most of us think of it. I’ll try to explain it this way:

During the war, the Germans killed about 3 million Poles (excluding about 3 million Jews from Poland). Many of these Poles were from Warsaw. It is a fact that the German military destroyed the western part of Warsaw quite extensively while crushing the Polish uprising in 1944 (I’m not referring here to the Jewish uprising a year earlier). So these are the facts – but what exactly should they mean to us nowadays? This is the crucial question. One option would be to understand this as a crime in itself – a “crime against Warsaw” or against “the people of Warsaw”, whose history would then be perceived as different than that of “the Polish people”. But another option is to look at the destruction of Warsaw as a (very important) part of something larger, namely the general war Germany waged against the Polish people; in other words, as an (important) episode within a larger story of loss and suffering.

While both options could make sense in theory, in real life it is only the latter: Warsaw’s particular fate cannot be detached from the Polish story in general, because in Poland, the people of Warsaw were not – and are not – “a people” of their own, but an immanent part of the Polish people. Therefore, the German atrocities in Warsaw do not constitute a different crime altogether, but rather a part of their general warfare against the Polish people, a part that was committed – as Arendt would have put it – on the body of Warsaw. In a very similar manner, Arendt looks at the Jewish fate during World War II not as a crime against the Jewish people in particular, but as a crime against mankind in general, “committed on the body of the Jewish people”.

Hannah Arendt Stamp

In 2006, a German stamp was issued to honor Hannah Arendt, who was born in Germany in 1906 (public domain)

I cannot deny the philosophical value of Arendt’s interpretation. But there’s also something very disturbing about it. Because it basically means that the Jewish people aren’t, and can’t be, a normal people (like the aforementioned Poles), but rather a metaphor for mankind, an allegory at best; it means that we aren’t “a people” at all; that there are “Jewish people” as individuals, but not “the Jewish people” as a whole, in whose name a Jewish state could have the right to put Eichmann on trial (an act of sovereignty that Arendt indeed criticized).

This is, in my opinion, the key issue behind the German ambivalence: The willingness to openly acknowledge the killing of “people”, yet not necessarily the destruction of “a people”, specifically the Jewish people. If there are Jewish people, but there isn’t “a Jewish people”, then there was no specifically Jewish catastrophe, but a general human tragedy. In this light, the “traditional” roles can be overcome. Even the Jewish victims from Germany can now be understood as German victims of this one big, all-embracing tragedy – a tragedy in which, instead of the usual perception of Jews and Germans, “mankind” acts in both roles, as the perpetrator and the victim at the same time.

Such a moral relief could not have been given by just anybody. The fact that Arendt was, of course, Jewish – and to a certain extent also a victim of the Nazi regime – gave her writings a unique moral capital. In my opinion, this is what made Arendt unusually popular in Germany, compared with her rather limited influence in other countries.

This German ambivalence about us, the Jews, goes even further: Many educated Germans actually try to avoid the term “Jews”, specifically when talking about the war, although the same persons wouldn’t even think of denying the Holocaust. Yet from their perspective, referring to the victims as “Jews” is close, too close, to victimizing them a second time. They would rather speak of the people, the human beings, who were persecuted, deported and murdered because they were perceived “as Jews”. After all, they say, this is exactly how the Nazis marginalized and dehumanized them – by making them into “Jews”.

In fact, it is not uncommon to be told in Germany that the very notion of “a Jewish people” is a racist idea, not to mention a “Jewish state”. I’ve heard it countless times when discussing Jewish identity, both publicly and privately, in Germany – but interestingly, I never heard Germans talk like that about Poles, Hungarians, Swedes or any other people for that matter, whose right to exist as a nation is never in doubt. And so, in the very same country that declared January 27th an annual remembrance day almost a decade before the United Nations made it international, it is okay to publicly call Israel’s very existence “illegal” (yes, there are people who do that in some German cities, and they are allowed to “educate” others about why Israel shouldn’t exist). It might seem like a contradiction to us (and for me it definitely is), but from the German perspective, the two issues aren’t necessarily linked to each other.

Some Germans – usually the educated, as odd as that might seem – take it one step further and claim that even the Holocaust can’t “justify” the idea that the Jews are “a people”; for them, this idea is ethically wrong not in spite of the Holocaust, but precisely because of it. With this in mind, it is not a coincidence that the so-called “Holocaust memorial” in Berlin isn’t dedicated to “the Jewish people” as the victim, but to “the Jews of Europe” as individuals (a choice that can also be understood, and not just from the German perspective, as a very positive statement).

Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that Germany has a very official remembrance day, but not a “Holocaust remembrance day”. As explained in my previous post, the German version of January 27th is not specifically about the Jewish catastrophe as separate from or different than other Nazi crimes. Tomorrow, in what exemplifies well its dilemma, Germany will commemorate “the victims of National-Socialism”. They commemorate, yes, but in their own way, with their own perspective and interpretation.

As Jews, it’s easy to be offended by such an attitude, specifically if its coming from the side of the perpetrators. But they would say: Of course we’re entitled to our own perspective – after all, we were the ones who actually did it…

About the Author
Yoav Sapir is a guide with Berlin Jewish Tours. He studied German-Jewish history in Jerusalem, Vienna, Heidelberg and Berlin.