This book is a study in perceptions. Its central focus is the Holocaust, but rather than providing a narrative of the event, its goal is to examine the manner in which a variety of perspectives on violence have molded European views and redefined individual and collective identities in a process of emulation, mutual reflection, and distortion. Hence the book is conceived somewhat as a hall of mirrors wherein repeated images, seen from different angles, provide a prism through which we can distill a clearer understanding of the origins, nature, and impact of the atrocity that occurred in the heart of our civilization and has become the defining event of the twentieth century.

What concerns me most is the moment of encounter. When we look into a mirror, we see our own reflection; but when we see ourselves reflected in another person’s eyes, our mutual gaze transforms a mere impression into an event. History is all about this encounter, the moment in which impression is transformed into event. Yet the history of the Holocaust is conventionally written from only one perspective, either that of the killer or that of the victim. A narrative of the past that remains within the bounds of a single perspective is an incomplete history, for it lacks precisely that moment of encounter from which events are born. In his contemplation on Auschwitz, the writer-survivor Ka-Tzetnik (Yehiel Dinur) recounts just such a moment, as he stares into the eyes of the SS man sending him to the gas chamber and realizes that had their roles been reversed no disruption to the scheme of the universe would have occurred. It is at this point, forty years after the event, that he gains an understanding of the Holocaust that no amount of obsessively retelling his own perspective had hitherto afforded.

Just as vampires were declared inhuman by dint of lacking a reflection, so, too, we are deprived of our humanity when it is no longer reflected in the eyes of the beholder. Elie Wiesel writes that as he looked at the mirror for the first time just after being liberated from the camps he could not reconcile his reflection with his self-awareness; the dead face that stared at him from the mirror remained etched on his mind for the rest of his life. Robert Antelme recounts that camp inmates would look at themselves in a broken mirror, trying, increasingly in vain, to recognize their individual humanity in facial features that progressively came to resemble those of their comrades, as the deprivations and brutalization they endured eroded their unique physical characteristics. Yet the mirror is also the instrument of knowledge: the Taoist sage uses his heart as a mirror to transcend subjectivity and reflect everything, even if, since the mirror reflects only phenomenal reality, it is just the first step on the path to understanding. Conversely, mirrors lead to madness, a descent into total subjectivity by passing over to the other side of the glass. When Alice in Through the Looking Glass crosses over to the other side of the mirror, she enters the world of her own imagination; she steps into herself to discover the horrors and fantasies, passions and fears that could not be reflected on the surface of the glass.

In the first part of this century, European images and practices of violence produced an increasingly destructive dynamic of imitation, distortion, and radicalization. At the fulcrum of these, mirroring images of destruction is the Holocaust, as reality and fantasy, as past event and historical burden. In a century characterized by a quest for perfection, stark reality and intoxicating illusion became each other’s distorted reflection. Utopia has been the engine of our epoch’s aspirations and disillusionments, violence and annihilation. As utopians smashed their way through sordid reality, the utopias they established contained mere fragments of past ideals. Nazism’s racial utopia was the genocide of the Jews. But as we contemplate the Holocaust through the mirror of time, the seeming madness of the event makes it appear increasingly unreal; for in order to imagine ourselves into that world, we must cross over to a universe that inverted the very notion of a shared humanity.

The twentieth century has been the site of a titanic struggle over competing conceptions of humanity. This struggle was waged not merely in the minds of intellectuals and in university lecture halls but also in the popular media and on the streets of great cities, on battlefields, and in concentration camps. Its roots can be traced at least as far back as the French Revolution and European colonialism, and it was neither limited to the world wars nor to the West, although much of its ideological baggage originated in Europe. It was, and in parts of the world still remains, a conflict over abstract ideas grafted onto conventional struggles for power and hegemony and carried out with the destructive weapons of modern technology. In essence our century has tried to define what and who is human, and then to set rules as to how human beings should live in society and who must be excluded from it altogether. Looking at themselves in the mirror, or seeing themselves reflected in others’ eyes, people asked: Am I a human? Are they human? The answers to such questions were not necessarily the outcome of philosophical contemplation, nor did they result simply in further intellectual discussion. Rather, they engendered a destructive urge that wiped out vast numbers of human beings and ravaged whole countries, while also releasing tremendous creative energies. The rationale for this surge of violence was the need to define or redefine, maintain or drastically change individual and collective identity. Yet it was this very process of unmaking and remaking humanity—whereby each annihilatory bout and its requisite multitude of tortured and mutilated individuals, each assertion of impossible atonement, each new march along the narrow path between utopia and hell was a mirror image of all that had preceded it, in reality and imagination—that made for the appearance of new and unforeseen identities forged in the crucible of destruction.

Over the past couple of decades increasing attention has been devoted to the violent legacy of Western civilization and especially to European imperialism, the world wars, the crimes of Communism, and the Holocaust. In many ways, the following pages are part of this ongoing discussion. At the same time, however, this book attempts to provide a very different perspective on an issue that has become increasingly controversial, namely, the centrality of the Holocaust for our era. In recent years, a growing number of commentators have expressed criticism of what appears to them as an undue, disproportionate, and even distorting emphasis on the genocide of the Jews. The German historians’ controversy of the mid-1980s, for instance, focused on the relative importance of the Holocaust, its centrality for the course of German history, and the extent to which it could be construed as a singular, unprecedented event. Even more recently, a number of French scholars and intellectuals have argued that the excessive preoccupation with the genocidal policies of the Nazi regime has diverted attention from other cases of mass murder both in the past and in the present.

My own intention is not to argue directly with such opinions. Rather, I am interested in examining the crucial relationship between war, genocide, and modern identity. Within the European context—as well as its various offshoots in other parts of the world—there can be no doubt that the Holocaust is, both historically and as a historical burden, an event of unparalleled importance. This is precisely why so much intellectual energy and ingenuity was required by those who have tried to contextualize, relativize, or marginalize it. Yet I am not making a plea here for the centrality of the Holocaust, since this appears to me far too obvious to merit much discussion. Rather, my main argument is that we cannot understand the manner in which individuals; ethnic, religious, and ideological groups; and nations perceive themselves or interact with others, without considering the impact of our century’s preoccupation with violence. This does not mean that all societies are influenced to the same extent by wars and genocides, nor that other, nonviolent, indeed wholly antiviolent and humanistic undertakings in the past hundred years are any less central to many nations and civilizations. It is my assertion, however, that the project of remaking humanity and defining identity has been at the core of this century, and that much of this project was characterized by a tremendous destructive urge followed by a long and as yet uncompleted process of coming to terms with the disasters it has produced and is still producing in many parts of the world.

In other words, while this book is devoted primarily to German, French, and Jewish discourses on war, genocide, and identity, and therefore refers extensively to the Holocaust, this should in no way be seen as an attempt to diminish the importance of other genocides and cases of mass murder or their role in defining individual and group identities. Conversely, although my focus on these nations is partly due to my greater familiarity with their history, it is also rooted in my belief that the Holocaust is indeed a crucial event for Western civilization, and that however much we learn about other instances of inhumanity, we cannot avoid the fact that this genocide, in the heart of our civilization, perpetrated by one of its most important nations (with the collaboration or complicity of many others), can never be relegated to a secondary place. This fact as such has nothing to do with “victimology” and everything to do with grasping the potentials of the world in which we live and the culture we share. It is for this reason, too, that I find debates over the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust unhelpful. A historical event can only be understood within its context, just as its significance can be grasped only at some historical distance.

Even in this narrower framework, I do not intend to provide a historical narrative or a comprehensive analysis of all that might be involved in this process. Rather, I propose four distinct but related discussions, each of which has a direct bearing on the book’s main argument. First, I explore the glorification of war, violence, and genocide. Here, most clearly, identity is seen as the product of violent action against groups defined as outside the national, racial, or ideological collectivity. Second, I discuss the disillusionment from violence and destruction. Such disillusionment may revise perceptions of the past and thereby also redefine identity, but it can also lead to competition over representations of this past and thus threaten to undermine any solid sense of identity. Moreover rejection of violence may either limit its impact or allow it to operate unchallenged: collaboration with oppression in the name of nonviolence. Third, I turn to the impact of constructing elusive enemies, namely, those who defy clear definitions of identity and therefore become the focus of anxiety and aggression. Elusive enemies are a crucial component of modern war and genocide, and their persistence after the event, precisely because they can never be identified, makes for the perpetuation, though often in a highly altered form, of past phobias and violent urges. Finally, I analyze the predilection toward apocalyptic visions and the relationship between utopia and violence. Here we find elements of the previous three perspectives in a more radical but also more hopeful form: violence is glorified but must lead to the end of history; disillusionment is the engine of action rather than passivity, rebellion rather than submission; elusive enemies are the objects of destruction but their disappearance ensures purity and relief from anxieties of pollution. In this context humanity’s greatest aspirations, highest virtues, most generous instincts and most enchanting visions become part and parcel of an apocalyptic upheaval of boundless devastation and atrocity. It is this legacy of hope and disillusionment, beauty and terror, sacrifice and murder that the following pages attempt to explore.



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