Beyond the Conceivable: Studies on
Germany, Nazism, and the Holocaust
by Dan Diner
(University of California, 286 pp., $45)
Click here to purchase the book.What is the connection between the collective memory of Germans and Jews and the epistemology of historical scholarship about the Holocaust? What roles do political history and social history play in this enterprise? Why has there been a trend toward universalizing the causes of the Holocaust in both collective memory and historical method, and what are the arguments for a reassertion of historical specificity? Why do utilitarian and materialist explanations continue to elide the causes of the mass extermination of the Jews? What is the purpose of a historiographically renewed emphasis on contingency as opposed to tidy teleological accounts? These are the questions that Dan Diner addresses in his valuable book; and they are not as esoteric or as narrowly academic as they sound.
Diner is director of the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture at the University of Leipzig and professor of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is a leading intellectual and scholarly figure among the small number of Jews born right after the Holocaust who grew up in West Germany (mostly in Frankfurt) and in Israel and decided to make a life in the Federal Republic. A contemporary of Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Diner came of political age within the New Left of the 1960s, but emerged early on as a distinctive voice for Jewish concerns within that not terribly philo- Semitic movement. In Germany in the mid-1970s, he spearheaded the criticism of West German terrorism and leftist anti-Semitism. In 1993 he published a much discussed--and deeply critical--examination of anti-Americanism, which appeared in this country in 1996 as America in the Eyes of the Germans; and in 1999 his Das Jahrhundert Verstehen, or Understanding the Century, explored Europe in the twentieth century through the lens of ethnic conflict and geopolitics. Though prominent in Germany's public debates over Holocaust memory, Diner is known in this country primarily among historians.
It has become a truism of American intellectual and scholarly life that the presence of persons from a variety of ethnic, gender, and class backgrounds has had a profound impact on the character of American scholarship. This is not to succumb to the essentialist claim that understanding requires membership in particular groups, but to acknowledge that the presence of difference within our intellectual and academic institutions has created a debate and a dialogue that has transformed the way we think about our past and our present. But the context of post-Nazi Germany--and postwar Europe, for that matter--as it concerns the project of facing Nazism and the Holocaust has been quite different. As a consequence of the Holocaust, the same critical mass of Jewish scholars and intellectuals did not exist in postwar West Germany or East Germany. Nor was there anything comparable to the civil rights movement that would transform the thinking of non-Jewish Germans about anti-Semitism and Jews. To the extent to which the particulars of the Jewish catastrophe entered into German scholarship and public discussion, they did so as a result of Allied victory and postwar occupation, revived anti-Nazi traditions among the Germans, and prodding from Israeli, British, and American politicians, scholars, and intellectuals.
Since the 1970s, however, a new factor has entered the German intellectual scene: a successor generation of Jewish intellectuals and scholars born soon after 1945 and raised in the Federal Republic who gained footholds in journalism, politics, and the academy and made their voices heard. It may be a "commonplace," as Diner writes, that we have become sensitive to "the presence of differently positioned collective memories running parallel along differently gauged narrative tracks," but this does not diminish the importance of ascertaining whether there are distinctive forms of "German" and "Jewish" collective memory and examining their respective impact on the historical scholarship written by Jews and non-Jewish Germans, in Germany and elsewhere. In fact, Diner's study of the historiography of Nazism and the Holocaust written in Germany in recent decades has led him to conclude that "Holocaust historiography's linkage between epistemological and existential premises is particularly striking." Most German historians of the Nazi era tend to write with different foci and methods from those of most Jewish historians. There are some exceptions, of course, but the rule, as every graduate student in history learns, is that there is a link between who people are and the kind of history that they write.
Several of these essays demonstrate Diner's talents as an insightful and shrewd historian able to integrate intellectual history and international history. His work puts one in mind of James Joll and Felix Gilbert. Assessing Karl Haushofer, a German general in World War I and an influential professor of geopolitics afterwards known for his advocacy of Eastern expansion up through the Nazi years, Diner exposes his ethnocentrism, his anti-Semitism, and his apologetics for German continental imperialism as resting on apparently natural laws and biological determinism; and more generally he underscores the primacy of political and ideological motivations over economic motivations in Nazi visions of Eastern Europe. Haushofer, who was close to the Nazi leader Rudolf Hess, is yet another example of a prominent conservative scholar who came of age before 1933 and lent legitimacy to Nazism's ideological brew. He articulated an anti-modernist, agrarian, anti-capitalist, and anti-Semitic mlange that portrayed Hitler's Germany as the antidote to the machine civilizations of the East and West. "Space," especially space in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, was the antidote to the overcrowding of urban Jewish civilization and the tentacles of the Western Anglo-Saxon naval powers.
Haushofer presented this mix, in Diner's words, as "an ethnocentric imperialist scientization of international politics." The imperialism of Haushofer's dreams and of Nazi Germany "did not claim legitimacy in economic terms--that is, through the abstraction of exchange and the hierarchy of productivity--but in terms of the world's political repartition: a repartition granting imperial control to a Grossraum led by the German Reich. Force alone could execute this project. In the end it mobilized a world coalition against it." Diner's essays on Carl Schmitt, and on the assault of Nazi legal theorists upon the idea of universal legal norms, illustrate the now familiar point that many of the best and the brightest placed their talents in the service of destroying liberal values and liberal institutions. Diner's discussion of Nazi international legal theorists is another sobering reminder of how the attack on the Enlightenment was central to the racial theorizing of the legal profession.
But the core of this book lies in the five essays on "perceptions of the Holocaust." Here Diner works through the key issues of Holocaust historiography in the context of postwar West German and then German intellectual life. He begins with an extended essay on the leader of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer, and his efforts to understand anti-Semitism and the mass exterminations. Diner shows understanding for Horkheimer's neglect of the prominence of anti-Semitism in his analyses of Nazism in the 1930s, arguing that the mass annihilation was not foreseeable. Yet he also notes that Horkheimer's tone in his famous essay "The Jews and Europe" is "conspicuously smug ... bordering (clearly against his intent) on satisfaction. The smugness inflects a criticism of the Jews and goes beyond the needs of Horkheimer's analysis, which sets them up as personifications of capitalism." Moreover, he chides Horkheimer for his attack on liberalism, for his assumption that liberalism bears within it the roots of fascism, and for his assertion that the Jews would not be particular victims of Nazism.
Again, Diner is not arguing complacently, with the benefit of hindsight, that Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School of the 1930s should be taken to task for failing to grasp the "civilizational rupture," or for not seeing "fascism in Germany in the 1930s as what it turned out to be: Nazism on the road to Auschwitz." Diner prefers to stress instead the drawbacks of historical teleology and the need to grasp historical contingency. There is wisdom in this. And yet it is worth remarking also that the historiographical picture is more complicated. After all, there were others, not burdened with the "sophistication" of social theory, who did not succumb to the widespread underestimation of Hitler and his goals.
Diner then turns to the rather different analysis of the dialectic of Western reason that Horkheimer presented with Theodor Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1947. There the critical theorists viewed anti-Semitism not in the orthodox Marxist manner, as a utilitarian tool of class domination, but instead as a "projection" to the point of paranoia of bourgeois self-hatred. Diner underscores the degree to which Horkheimer and Adorno departed from the economism and the utilitarianism of the 1930s and instead pointed out "the stubborn persistence of myths," such as that of the international Jewish conspiracy, which "recur as secularized, rationalized idiosyncrasy whose origins lie in the relationship of the Christian religion to the Jews." Diner reminds us that in this now-classic account of modern anti-Semitism, the authors stressed that "the anti-Judaic effect of Christianity, the resentment against the Jews from which the religion draws its inspiration, was also preserved. While it found expression in political form, its psychic energies continued to receive nurture from an older source."
Diner's essay, originally published in 1984, evokes its contemporary context. Just as Horkheimer and Adorno shifted after the Holocaust from the Marxist orthodoxies of the 1930s to critical reflections on the dialectic of enlightenment and the after-effects of Christian hostility to the Jews, so Diner in the 1980s articulated his own evolution away from the neo-Marxism of the New Left to an evolving liberalism of the 1980s and 1990s. Diner, whose parents survived Auschwitz, quotes Horkheimer's aphorism "After Auschwitz": "We Jewish intellectuals who escaped death by torture under Hitler have only one task: to help see to it that such horrors never recur and are never forgotten, in solidarity with those who died under unspeakable torments. Our thought, our work belongs to them; that we escaped by accident should make our solidarity with them not doubtful but more certain. Whatever we experience must stand under the sign of the horrors intended for us as for them. Their death is the truth of our life; to express their despair and their longing, we are there." Diner's work illustrates that Horkheimer's credo of memory's claims on intellectuals of his terrible time also inspired the work of the successor generation.
Diner returns to the theme of the anti-utilitarian nature of Nazi ideology and policy in his title essay, "Beyond the Conceivable: The Judenrat as Borderline Experience." While the leaders of the Jewish councils sought to appeal to the "amoral interests" of the Nazis in using Jewish labor in war production, the SS placed "the extermination of the Jews above all economic interests and the war's demands." Works ranging from Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism to Lucy Dawidowicz's The War Against the Jews, 1933- 1945 have made this a familiar point in the historiography of Nazism, World War II, and the Holocaust. But Diner is not simply repeating a platitude. Again, the context of his interpretation contributes to its force. Just as Arendt's and Dawidowicz's focus on the anti-utilitarian character of Nazism struck dissonant notes in the 1950s and 1970s, so Diner's reminder of Nazism's ideological imperatives takes issue with a return of materialist, utilitarian, and rationalist biases in social theory and history in recent decades.
Diner's sharpest criticism of the aftereffects of the utilitarian and materialist bias in Holocaust historiography appears in an extended essay on the work of the German historians Gtz Aly and Susanne Heim. In 1991, Aly and Heim published Vordenker der Vernichtung: Auschwitz und die deutschen Plne fr eine neue europische Ordnung, or Planners of Destruction: Auschwitz and the German Plans for a New European Order. Based on the examination of newly discovered planning documents of mid-level officials in the Reich Security Main Office, they argued that a re-ordering of European populations that entailed the murder of millions was driven by economic and demographic reasons rather than anti-Semitic ones. They interpreted the Final Solution as the grotesque outcome of the instrumental rationality that the Frankfurt School had described and denounced, with the difference that they described a much weakened connection to the Jews as target. The reception of Aly and Heim's work testified to the enduring after-effects of the Marxism of the 1960s, especially in West Berlin, where they lived and worked.
The implication of the work of Aly and Heim, as well as that of the sociologist Zygmunt Baumann, was that the Holocaust was the product of modernity more than of the contingencies of German history and European antiSemitism. Shrewdly if infelicitously, Diner rejects this view, which "epistemically levels out social and political phenomena preceding and following the rise of Nazism--flattening these phenomena in their relevance to the central phenomenon they frame. What is ultimately at stake here is not a fuller understanding of the Final Solution. Rather it instrumentalizes the event and conscripts it in service of a drastic civilization critique: a dogmatic rejection of what Heim and Aly conceive of as modernity and rationality." Just as Arendt in 1950 criticized the utilitarian and rationalist bias of her time, so Diner takes Aly and Heim to task for their effort to find the roots of mass extermination in "rational" and "economic" motives administered by a "modernizing" technocratic elite re-ordering of the demography of Central and Eastern Europe. As he puts it, for these authors, "in quasi-magical fashion, the more materialist a motive claims to be, the more credible its stated significance."; "In the context of German history, Diner is the disquieting voice recalling the link between collective memory and academic history; but in the Israeli context he defends a perspective of "cumulative contingency" in place of the "negative teleology" of some Zionist narratives."
It was an odd battle to have to fight in the 1990s. In 1968, Timothy Mason, the British Marxist historian of Nazi Germany, published what became a classic essay on "the primacy of politics" in Nazi Germany. Mason posed the dilemma for Marxist historiography of how to account for a regime that departed murderously and wildly from the kind of rationality that a Marxist would expect from a capitalist class pursuing its interest. Avram Barkai, Peter Hayes, Harold James, and Richard Overy are among the economic historians who, while cataloging the disgrace of complicity by German business, also stress the extent to which the imperatives of racial ideology interacted with and then overrode capitalist logic as determinants of government policy. In Germany in the 1990s, however, "the vague and overgeneralizing critique of modernity" remained a fashion in the culturally pessimistic left. Diner adds that this focus on the supposedly enduring logic of capitalism fosters a "detemporalization," that is, a departure from Nazism's place in time.
One of the most intriguing elements of Diner's book is the manner in which he mobilizes the notion of historical specificity against a "leftist" analysis of the past. In the grand days of modernist politics, roughly from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, people in politics and scholarship had a workable and shared understanding of left and right. On the one hand there were the great "bourgeois ideologists," such as Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith, who, according to Karl Marx, Karl Korsch, George Lukacs, and Simone de Beauvoir among others, violated the norms of historical specificity. They did so by presenting historically contingent circumstances of class, gender, and market as the products of historically unchanging forces, most often human nature. On the other hand, the modernist leftist critics argued that under capitalism racial or gender hierarchies were historically specific and thus potentially transient forms of social organization. The restoration of historical specificity thus stood at the core of a criticism of the "second nature" and "reification" that surrounded historical structures in a fog of permanence.
In the context of modern German history and social theory, those who most often denied human agency, and replaced proper nouns with references to historically unspecific processes, were the luminaries of the conservative--and in some cases the Nazi--intellectual pantheon, a point that Diner makes in his discussion of Haushofer and Nazi legal theorists. In post-Nazi Germany, the Heideggerian era in social theory enjoyed a modest boost in no small degree because it could combine apparent profundity with an appealing apologia that it was modernity, or capitalism, or the West, or the Enlightenment, but not specifically Germany and the Germans, that had to be held to account and transformed. The burden of German history thus became the anguish of the modern world in general. The Communists had a leftist version of this story, and its influence was enormous and often state-sponsored. It was the familiar tale: universal capitalism had a particularly bad chapter in Nazi Germany but was now happily past in the Soviet bloc. From a variety of sources, the roots of the Holocaust no longer seemed to be found in German history. Instead they were to be sought in the historically unspecific mists that the tradition of the left had previously criticized as bourgeois mystification.
In the 1980s in West Germany, to the distress of those who had assumed that grasping historical specificity remained a pre-eminent task of the historian, the old conservative universalization of Nazism began to merge with the new leftist variant to produce a terrible strategy of avoidance. Diner's essays remind us that the best minds are often those that are hardest to categorize, those that defy the familiar dichotomies of left and right. The irony of Diner's criticism lies in his deployment of the notion of historical specificity to assail contemporary materialists for lifting Nazi Germany out of its time and its place. "Aly and Heim adopt the stance of marginalized outsiders," he writes, "but, deplorably enough, actually represent a trend increasingly gaining acceptance--the deconstruction of the historical event by historiographical means."
The significance of Diner's work is owed partly to the experience of the New Left in West Germany on its path toward the kind of liberalism that the readers of this magazine would recognize. Diner's writing displays an intellectual and scholarly trajectory similar to the political odyssey of Joschka Fischer that was so memorably described by Paul Berman in these pages last year; and also to the intellectual and political journeys of many others, including the current minister of justice in Germany, Otto Schilly, as well as Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the writer Peter Schneider. While Diner shares a great deal with these contemporaries, he has led the way in prodding and poking them to grasp the Jewish dimensions of German history and the particularities of the Holocaust, and he has done so in a time and a place in which the Jewish community is small. His work has required both courage and skill.
In an interesting twist, Diner also encourages us to think anew about the political coordinates of social history as opposed to political history. In "Historical Experience and Cognition," he examines how the differing perspectives of perpetrator and victim in historical reconstructions of Nazism and the Holocaust lead to conflicting narratives of "banality" and "monstrosity. " He also reverses customary thinking about the relative strengths of social history and political history. Most social historians argue that their focus on the experiences of subordinate groups and classes reverses the elitist condescension and neglect of history's victims that is common, presumably, in political history. But Diner, speaking of the German social history of Nazism produced in recent decades by non-Jewish German historians, sees this approach as "more in harmony with the specific collective experience of the German Volksgemeinschaft." By focusing on social and economic phenomena that occurred before and after the mass extermination, social history neutralizes "the human subject's relation to the event--hence its specific political history. Conversely, concentration on the political implications of Nazism as historical rupture leads, again, to a historiography in proximity with the perspective of Nazism's victims."
Social history, in Diner's view, is "submerged in a complex of `continuities, ' and mainly rooted in a subjective experience of normalcy, is ... in the end, unable to grasp the extreme and exceptional phenomenon of mass extermination." Political history, by contrast, with its focus on the specifics of time and place in exceptional circumstances, is essential for this task. Grasping the "monstrosity" of mass extermination cannot dispense with the political historians' focus on the specifics of decision-making in unique circumstances. For readers familiar with the classic work of German historians such as Karl Bracher and Eberhard Jackel, not to mention recent American work by Christopher Browning and Richard Breitman among others, the indispensable contribution of political historians to writing the history of Nazism and the Holocaust will hardly come as a shocking revelation. Yet in the context of post-1960s West German and then German scholarship--indeed, in the context of the community of European historians--Diner's defense of political history arrives as a welcome and necessary corrective.
Just as he criticizes the "negative teleology" and the neglect of contingency in the historiography of Nazism and the Holocaust, so Diner takes issue with Zionist formulas that neglect the "cumulative contingencies" that made possible the creation of Israel. In the context of German history, Diner is the disquieting voice recalling the link between collective memory and academic history; but in the Israeli context he defends a perspective of "cumulative contingency" in place of the "negative teleology" of some Zionist narratives. He takes issue with biblically rooted eschatology and instead promotes an Israeli collective memory whose focus on contingency "perceives Jewish statehood as a result of an unanticipated and bitter experience of catastrophe, a kind of Zionized Jewish territorialism," in contrast to "the metaphysical view of history that makes the past horror almost a necessity." Diner speaks up for an approach to Israeli history "devoid of eschatology or telos." In this spirit, he supports Israeli historians and intellectuals who make the settlement of the conflict with the Arabs and the Palestinians a matter of practical compromise and secular politics rather than of competing religious claims.
The sparks that Dan Diner made fly in the 1980s and 1990s not only illuminate and elevate debates among historians and intellectuals about Holocaust historiography or German history. They also offer a refreshing example of a scholar who, faced with pressures of collective memory, has managed to think through the claims of the autonomy of scholarship while remaining engaged in central political disputes of his time. Every intellectual aspires to this goal. Few attain it.