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Time's Arrow

PREEMPTING THE HOLOCAUST; \o7 By Lawrence L. Langer\f7 ; \o7 (Yale University Press: 206 pp., $22.50)\f7

November 22, 1998|RICHARD EDER

For a day or two, the Central American floods, whose initial under-assistance and under-reporting has given way to a lurching catch-up, were recounted as the stories of some of the 10,000 dead and their swept-away lives. Pretty soon--already, in fact--we will read of them in terms of relief efforts, environmental foolhardiness and Third World poverty and neglect. We will, as Lawrence L. Langer might put it, universalize them.

Langer, a Holocaust scholar, has been in the forefront of one of two opposite tendencies in dealing with the century's hugest and most terrible atrocity. The first is to explain it, draw lessons from it, regard it as a fall that can in some way be used to help humanity ascend. The other is to fix upon the literal and particular remembrance of a unique horror and deny any particular hope, because forcing hope would deny the horror.

In these essays, dealing in various ways with the narratives, interpretations and art of the Holocaust, Langer battles for the literalists against the universalizers. He quotes Raul Hilberg, a scholar whom he regards as a literalist and who, when asked whether the Holocaust had any meaning, answered:

"I hope not."

Not only our bodies but our minds have a biological tendency to grow over wounds, to heal them. Langer is not categorically against healing, but he is deeply suspicious of it. Healing can trivialize memory. Even a scar is not enough unless it is a scar that deforms our moral countenance; and aches. The irenic French dictum--Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner (To understand all is to forgive all)--would be a red flag for Langer. Without interrogation and a strip search, understanding is apt to smuggle in forgiveness along with its idiot brother, forgetting.

The thesis of "Preempting the Holocaust" is that many distinguished writers and thinkers, seeking to understand and universalize the 6-million massacre, have interpreted it so as to advance their own outlooks and philosophies. By doing so, however lofty their purposes and impressive their arguments, they have diluted the fact itself.

Langer tries to write fairly of the preemptors, though sometimes he will snip a four-word quote out of a sentence and brandish it to deteriorating effect. Several times he hurls at some theoretical argument the baby ripped in two by a SS guard, or a camp doctor who searched out two inmates with good teeth so he could decapitate them and boil their heads for matched paperweights. Intemperate, perhaps, but that is the point: Universalizers need to be reminded of such particularities.

Among his targets he includes Tzvetan Todorov, who argued that despite and even because of their profound evil, the camps asserted human hope through the heroism and nobility of some of the inmates. "Interpreting evil interests me less than understanding goodness," Todorov wrote.

With Judy Chicago, who sought to link the Holocaust with the potentiality of evil in our own society, Langer makes an effort at patience, but it runs out when she wanders into feminism, environmental issues and animal rights (e.g., "I began to wonder about the ethical distinction between treating people as pigs and the way we process pigs"). Clearly it is time to hurl in a ripped-up baby.

The author disputes the "machinery" or "banality of evil" argument: that the Holocaust was implemented by unremarkable people caught up in a system that made atrocity routine. Langer takes issue with a recent study by Christopher Browning of a Nazi liquidation battalion whose members he found to be more or less ordinary.

Langer does not deal with the moral usefulness of such a view. If ordinary people can be brought to do such things, we must hold our consciences and institutions under strict vigilance. For him, general usefulness is not the question; specific truth is. It may be the hedgehog's rather than the fox's truth, but we will always need hedgehogs. Besides, their language is more pointed than fox language.

Langer's phrase is remarkable: "The fact is that when ordinary men agree to mass murder, for whatever reason, they cease to be ordinary men like the rest of us and assume the role of killers." Like many remarkable phrases, this one skirts tautology but does not fall in: Your identity is not the cause of what you do but the result.

One of the most interesting essays concerns a memoir written after the war by Simon Wiesenthal, known as an implacable war-criminal hunter. It includes an odd account of an SS guard, critically injured in battle, who entreats Wiesenthal's forgiveness for the atrocities he has committed. Wiesenthal listens in silence, refusing an answer.

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