Thursday, May 31, 2012
Wilson's book is a tour de force of the unraveling of bourgeois Christianity in the English speaking world during the Victorian Era. He guides us through the minds of the great believers-at-all-costs and unbelievers, including both the at-all-costs and the because-I-must types, with skill, wit, and precision. In his own sympathy for the various figures of this period, he leads us to sympathize with the plight of those who wouldn't and those who couldn't believe. This sympathy, in turn, leads us to a great understanding of our own modern situation as we fall in at the tail end of the dismantling of bourgeois Christianity.
In spite of the excellence of this book, however, I have two complaints to lodge against it and its author. The first: as I mentioned twice in the preceding paragraph, this is a book about bourgeois Christianity and about those members of the bourgeoisie (and, yes, that includes Karl Marx) who came to disbelieve in it, and came to disbelieve in it largely because both it and they were (and are) bourgeois. What might have been a great credit to this book, or perhaps to another study as it might not have fit in this book, is the effect that, for example, Darwin's and Lyell's theories or perhaps the biblical criticism a la the Tubingen School had upon believers of other classes in society and castes of mind.
The other complaint is that A.N. Wilson seems himself to advocate a form of Christianity that is no-Christianity at all; while complaining – rightly – about the watered-down pseudo-religiosity of the Deists, Wilson seems very close to their ideas, especially in the conclusion of his book. Whether that is the effect he intended, I do not know, but it is the impression I received. A Christianity without the Resurrection, with a God who intervenes directly and is/can be experienced by mystics and saints, etc. – that is, a Christianity without passion, asceticism, and zeal -- is not Christianity at all.
The usual notion of prayer is so absurd. How can those who know nothing about it, who pray little or not at all, dare speak so frivolously of prayer? A Carthusian, a Trappist will work for years to make of himself a man of prayer, and then any fool who comes along sets himself up as judge of this lifelong effort. If it were really what they suppose, a kind of chatter, the dialogue of a madman with his shadow, or even less -- a vain and superstitious sort of petition to be given the good things of this world, how could innumerable people find until their dying day, I won't even say such great "comfort" -- since they put no faith in the solace of the senses -- but sheer, robust, vigorous, abundant joy in prayer? Oh, of course "suggestion," say the scientists. Certainly they can never have known old monks, wise, shrewd, unerring in judgment, and yet aglow with passionate insight, so very tender in their humanity. What miracle enables these semi-lunatics, these prisoners of their own dreams, these sleepwalkers, apparently to enter more deeply each day into the pain of others? An odd sort of dream, an unusual opiate which, far from turning him back into himself and isolating him from his fellows, unites the individual with mankind in the spirit of universal charity!
This seems a very daring comparison. I apologize for having advanced it, yet perhaps it might satisfy many people who find it hard to think for themselves, unless the thought has first been jolted by some unexpected, surprising image. Could a sane man set himself up as a judge of music because he has sometimes touched the keyboard with the tips of his fingers? And surely if a Bach fugue, a Beethoven symphony leave him cold, if he has to content himself with watching on the face of another listener the reflected pleasure of supreme, inaccessible delight, such a man has only himself to blame.
But alas! We take the psychiatrists' word for it. The unanimous testimony of saints is held as of little or no account. They all affirm that this kind of deepening of the spirit is unlike any other experience, that instead of showing us more and more of our own complexity it ends in sudden total illumination, opening out upon azure light -- they can be dismissed with a few shrugs. Yet when has any man of prayer told us that prayer had failed him?
Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
For a long time during those frightful years [of the Holocaust and World War II] I waited for a great voice to speak up in Rome. I, an unbeliever? Precisely. For I knew that the spirit would be lost if it did not utter a cry of condemnation when faced with force. It seems that that voice did speak up. But I assure you that millions of men like me did not hear it and that at that time believers and unbelievers alike shared a solitude that continued to spread as the days went by and the executioners multiplied.
It has been explained to me since that the condemnation was indeed voiced. But that it was in the style of the encyclicals, which is not at all clear. The condemnation was voiced and it was not understood! Who could fail to feel where the true condemnation lies in this case and to see that this example by itself gives part of the reply, perhaps the whole reply, that you ask of me. What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally. When a Spanish bishop blesses political executions, he ceases to be a bishop or a Christian or even a man; he is a dog just like one who, backed by an ideology, orders that execution without doing the dirty work himself. We are still waiting, and I am waiting, for a grouping of all those who refuse to be dogs and are resolved to pay the price that must be paid so that man can be something more than a dog.
Albert Camus, "The Unbeliever," in Jaroslav Pelikan (ed.), The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought
Monday, May 28, 2012
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Monday, May 21, 2012
Sunday, May 20, 2012
Saturday, May 19, 2012
Thursday, May 17, 2012
While Friedrich Nietzsche has had a significant impact on my own life, I can honestly say that I had very little idea, until I read this book, just how great an impact he has had on the lives of so many others. Ratner-Rosenhagen does an excellent job of covering the history of Nietzsche's engagement with American thinkers, from Emerson's impact on Nietzsche through to Nietzsche's impact on modern American thinkers. I think the most fascinating part of the book is the “Interlude” in which she discusses some of the letters she discovered at the Nietzsche Archive written by American admirers to his sister, who took over the estate after Nietzsche's mental collapse and death. The only complaint I can leverage is that I don't think Ratner-Rosenhagen cast her net quite wide enough. While she does a very good job of covering certain figures whom Nietzsche has clearly had an impact upon, I would have liked to have seen a fuller treatment that included a greater diversity even if this necessitated that less detail be paid to each individual. I recommend this book for anyone with either than interest in American intellectual history and/or a love for Nietzsche; happily, I have both, which made this book a real treat.
The Demolition of Man (Book Review: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity by Primo Levi)
In his book Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi uses the phrase “the demolition of man” to refer to the process by which the Nazis attempted to, and largely succeeded in, stripping the inmates of the concentration camps of their humanity.1 This powerful phrase accurately summarizes the process of dehumanization concocted by the Nazi concentration camp authorities; theirs was a process of demolition that began immediately upon arrival in the camp and ended, for approximately 6 million Jews and an additional 6 million others, in death by starvation, gassing, or brutality. Levi's use of the phrase occurs as he describes his initial entry into the camp system. As he describes it, he and those with him had been stripped of all of their possessions to include even their clothes. Their hair had been shaved off. Finally, even their name was taken from them as they were instead given a number, tattooed on their arm, by which they were to be identified. Lacking any properly human identity, they had become nothing more than a number and a prisoner indistinct from the mass of other prisoners.
Clearly reflecting the importance of this point, the subtitle of Levi's book, featured only on the title page, is given as “The Nazi Assault on Humanity.”2 This image of “the demolition of man” or the “assault on humanity,” is one that recurs many times through Levi's book, as well as in other sources on life in the concentration camps.
One example that stands out from the many which Levi offers is the use of a German word, fressen, in reference to the prisoners' meal consumption, that refers to the feeding of animals rather than the proper word for human eating, essen. As Levi points out, however, the word is not used derisively but actually is descriptive of the way that the prisoners are eating, “on [their] feet, furiously, burning [their] mouths and throats, without time to breathe.”3 This is notable because it seems to indicate that the prisoners had, through this process of dehumanization, come to, in some sense, accept their own inhumanity. This is one of the many indicators which Levi provides that the prisoners, after being stripped of their humanity and treated inhumanly, had come to see themselves as something less than or other than fully human. Such an outcome, surely a large part of the aim of the Nazi system, can only be seen as a success of the brutality which was imposed upon the inmates of the concentration camps.
However, there are, on the other hand, many events which Levi describes which capture an image of an enduring humanity that shines through again and again and refuses to be entirely demolished in spite of the inhumanity in which it is buried. One especially moving example is Levi's fight with his own mind to remember the words of Dante's masterpiece The Divine Comedy. As he goes about the daily activities which life in the concentration camps has forced upon him, Levi struggles to recall the lines of poetry that lay buried in his memory. Finally, he reaches a passage which makes him feel as if he had heard “the blast of a trumpet, the voice of God,” reciting:4
Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.
The effect of remembering and reciting these lines causes him to “forget who I am and where I am” for just a moment. Remembering, however briefly, that he is a human being and that the circumstances which have been forced upon him are unbecoming of a human being seems to have been a moment comparable to a mystical experience for Levi.
Such religious allusions are sprinkled throughout those passages of Levi's book that focus upon a continuing humanity in the camps or express a desire to return to being a human being in the fullest sense of the word. In the passage on the German words used for eating, for instance, Levi contrasts the way the prisoners ate with the way that human beings are supposed to eat: “seated in front of a table, religiously.”5
The person of Wachsmann, only briefly discussed by Levi, is also notable in this regard. Wachsmann, a fellow prisoner and a rabbi, is described by Levi as “thin, fragile and soft.”6 Levi expresses surprise that such an unlikely figure has survived for as long as two years in the concentration camps and has even retained “an amazing vitality in actions and words.”7 Interestingly, Wachsmann, in spite of the pared down language, exhaustion, and intellectual stifling that predominated in the camps, also “spends long evenings discussing Talmudic questions” with a fellow rabbi.8 The humanly search “after knowledge and excellence” which is described by Dante in the verses quoted by Levi is here again embodied in religious language, this time in a person of religious significance.
This recurrence of religious language in discussions of humanity by Levi seems to point to a nearly divine significance to being human. For Levi, after having his humanity stripped of him, having any experience as a human being is colored in religious language as a sacred event.
This makes for a remarkable contrast with the ideology that led to the concentration camps in the first place. Nazi ideologues like Arthur Rosenberg had attributed a sacred significance one specific group of people: the so-called “Aryan” race. According to Rosenberg, in his The Myth of the 20th Century, “a new faith is awakening today: The faith that blood will defend the divine essence of man; the faith, supported by pure science, that Nordic blood embodies the new mystery which will supplant the outworn sacrament.”9 This, of course, necessarily meant that those who were non-Aryans did not partake in this “divine essence of man” and were, consequently, less than fully human.
Levi provides the reader with a contrast to the Nazi's limited and distorted view of humanity by exhibiting the ways in which such a system as emerged from their ideology both acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy and refutes itself through those small acts of humanity that persist even within such a system. As examples of the former, Levi offers the petty, daily cruelties which prisoners even inflicted upon each other, such as the theft of any unattended item or the withholding of food to those who need it by those who are stronger. Such cruelties are the result of the breakdown of normal social conventions within a dehumanizing system like the concentration camps. As examples of the latter, however, Levi offers figures like Rabbi Wachsmann discussing the Talmud, his own struggle to recite verses of poetry from Dante, and the unexpected kindnesses bestowed upon him by other inmates.
The Nazis, in their systematic “demolition of man,” did a great deal to strip a great many people of their humanity. Stripped of their last possessions and any personal identity, millions of men and women were forced to become numbers and to fall in line with a system that demanded absolute and unquestioning obedience and which forced them into a situation in which they had to struggle for their very existence against their fellow prisoners. A large portion of them died as a result of the brutality they incurred or were put to death in the gas chambers, by hanging, or by some other method. In spite of all of this, however, Levi offers a vision, sometimes faint and other times far more clear, of the endurance of humanity through any circumstances that are forced upon it. Levi's book, and his own life, are testaments to the impossibility of “the demolition of man.”
1 Primo Levi, Survival In Auschwitz (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 26.
2 Ibid., i.
3 Ibid., 76.
4 Ibid., 113.
5 Ibid., 76.
6 Ibid., 68.
9 Arthur Rosenberg, Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts (Munich, 1931), 114. Quoted in Karl A. Schleuenes, The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: Nazi Policy toward German Jews, 1933-39 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 52.
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Monday, May 14, 2012
The Nazi Party always was predominantly anti-Christian in its ideology. But we who believe in freedom of conscience and of religion base no charge of criminality on anybody's ideology. It is not because the Nazi themselves were irreligious or pagan, but because they persecuted others of the Christian faith that they become guilty of crime, and it is because the persecution was a step in the preparation for aggressive warfare that the offense becomes one of international consequence. To remove every moderating influence among the German people and to put its population on a total war footing, the conspirators devised and carried out a systematic and relentless repression of all Christian sects and churches.
We will ask you to convict the Nazis on their own evidence. Martin Bormann, in June 1941, issued a secret decree on the relation of Christianity and National Socialism. The decree provided:
"For the first time in German history the Führer consciously and completely has the leadership of the people in his own hand. With the Party, its components, and attached units the Führer has created for himself and thereby the German Reich leadership an instrument which makes him independent of the church. All influences which might impair or damage the leadership of the people exercised by the Führer with help of the NSDAP, must "be eliminated. More and more the people must be separated from the churches and their organs, the pastors. Of course, the churches must and will, seen from their viewpoint, defend themselves against this loss of power. But never again must an influence on leadership of the people be yielded to the churches. This (influence) must be broken completely and finally."Only the Reich Government and by its direction the Party, its components, and attached units have a right to leadership of the people. Just as the deleterious Sequences of astrologers, seers, and other fakers are estimated and suppressed by the Estate, so must the possibility of church influence also be totally removed. Not until this has happened; does the State leadership have influence on the individual citizens. Not until then are people and Reich secure in their existence for all the future." (D-75)And how the Party had been securing the Reich from Christian influence, will be proved by such items as this teletype from the Gestapo, Berlin, to the Gestapo, Nuremberg, on July 24, 1938. Let us hear their own account of events in Rottenburg.
"The Party on 23 July 1939 from 2100 on carried out the third demonstration against Bishop Sproll. Participants about 2500-3000 were brought in from outside by bus, etc. The Rottenburg populace again did not participate in the demonstration. This town took rather a hostile attitude to the demonstrations. The action got completely out of hand of the Party member responsible for it. The demonstrators stormed the palace, beat in the gates and doors. About 150 to 200 people forced their way into the palace, searched the rooms, threw files out of the windows and rummaged through the beds in the rooms of the palace. One bed was ignited. Before the fire got to the other objects of equipment in the rooms and the palace, the flaming bed could be thrown from the window and the fire extinguished. The Bishop was with Archbishop Groeber of Freiburg and the ladies and gentlemen of his menage in the chapel at prayer. About 25 to 30 people pressed into this chapel and molested those present. Bishop Groeber was taken for Bishop Sproll. He was grabbed by the robe and dragged back and forth. Finally the intruders realized that Bishop Groeber is not the one they are seeking. They could then be persuaded to leave the building. After the evacuation of the palace by the demonstrators I had an interview with Archbishop Groeber who left Rottenburg in the night. Groeber wants to turn to the Führer and Reich Minister of the Interior, Dr. Frick, anew. On the course of the action, the damage done as well as the homage of the Rottenburg populace beginning today for the Bishop I shall immediately hand in a full report, after I am in the act of suppressing counter mass meetings...."In case the Führer has instructions to give in this matter, I request that these be transmitted most quickly...." (848-PS)Later, Defendant Rosenberg wrote to Bormann reviewing the proposal of Kerrl as Church Minister to place the Protestant Church under State tutelage and proclaim Hitler its supreme head. Rosenberg was opposed, hinting that nazism was to suppress the Christian Church completely after the war (See also 098-PS).
The persecution of all pacifist and dissenting sects, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and the Pentecostal Association, was peculiarly relentless and cruel The policy toward the Evangelical Churches, however, was to use their influence for the Nazis' own purposes. In September 1933 Mueller was appointed the Führer's representative with power to deal with the "affairs of the Evangelical Church" in its relations to the State. Eventually, steps were taken to create a Reich Bishop vested with power to control this Church. A long conflict followed, Pastor Niemöller was sent to concentration camp, and extended interference with the internal discipline and administration of the churches occurred.
A most intense drive was directed against the Roman Catholic Church. After a strategic concordat with the Holy See, signed in July 1933 in Rome, which never was observed by the Nazi Party, a long and persistent persecution of the Catholic Church, its priesthood, and its members, was carried out. Church schools and educational institutions were suppressed or subjected to requirements of Nazi teaching inconsistent with the Christian faith. The property of the Church was confiscated and inspired vandalism directed against Church property was left unpunished. Religious instruction was impeded and the exercise of religion made difficult. Priests and bishops were laid upon, riots were stimulated to harass them, and many were sent to concentration camps.
After occupation of foreign soil, these persecutions went on with greater vigor than ever. We will present to you from the files of the Vatican the earnest protests made by the Vatican to Ribbentrop summarizing the persecutions to which the priesthood and the Church had been subjected in this twentieth century under the Nazi regime. Ribbentrop never answered them. He could not deny. He dared not justify.
Justice Robert H. Jackson, Opening Statement before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany, 21 November 1945
Saturday, May 12, 2012
Friday, May 11, 2012
Thursday, May 10, 2012
"If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen." - Primo Levi, Survival In Auschwitz, p. 90
Monday, May 7, 2012
The concentration camps of Nazi Germany were, arguably, societies that were as far from normal, natural social situations as a society can get and still retain the name. Disparate individuals and groups of people were forced together into a situation in which they felt they had to vie with one another for their very survival. As in any human society, a system of complex social arrangements and customs, never clearly discernible or intelligible by outsiders, arose as a means by which communication and cooperation between the society's members could be facilitated. Because of the extraordinary circumstances of these particular kinds of societies, however, the social system within the concentration camps developed unique features which often appear to be a kind of caricature of a healthy human society. In his essay “Social life in an unsocial environment: The inmates' struggle for survival,” Falk Pingel traces some of the features of society within the concentration camps, including both the developments natural and universal to human societies and the degenerative aspects unique to the concentration camps.1 His overview of concentration camp society includes a discussion of the hierarchies of power that developed within the camps, the social divisions within concentration camp societies, and unique features of concentration camp language and interaction between prisoners.
Power hierarchies within the concentration camps largely relied upon the reason for which inmates had been interned in the first place and the order in which they had been interned. Communists, for instance, were among the first to be placed into the concentration camps, which, according to Pingel, “probably explains why, in later years, communists were often successful in gaining positions of 'power' within the system.”2 The Communists also, like other political prisoners who were interned later, were able to create a sub-group for themselves and to draw upon their past to exercise the kind of political resistance they had practiced previous to their time in the concentration camp. In addition, if an inmate from among their particular political faction was chosen for a position of responsibility by the camp authorities, he could use his position to benefit the other members of his group. This created an environment of solidarity among members of their political faction and a means by which to ensure survival of the individual via the group. In this way, social affiliations and obligations which one had developed before the camp continued into the camp and could grant one an advantage in the conditions of the concentration camp.
The political situation outside of the camp also influenced relationships in the camp in other ways. The eugenics agenda of the Nazis, for instance, influenced where certain groups of prisoners were placed within the camp system and how these groups were treated both by the authorities and by fellow prisoners. Jews, for example, “were individually targeted and often segregated from the other inmates.”3 Social taboos that had been present on the outside also continued to influence interaction and treatment on the inside. Homosexuals, for instance, who were forced by the camp authorities to identify themselves with a pink badge on their uniform, were treated as social outcasts by their fellow inmates and kept from entering the mainstream of camp society. What might have been mere disapproval and avoidance outside of the concentration camps, however, could spell certain death within.
The position and activities of those who were able to gain some measure of power within the camps is also demonstrative of the simultaneous adoption of natural social relations and institutions coupled with the perversions of these social features that were unique to the concentration camps. Camp functionaries selected by the Nazi authorities for positions in inmate leadership or in administrative positions were able to enjoy special privileges which resulted from their closer proximity to the guards, such as a lower chance of being selected for extermination or transfer to another camp and the ability to secure certain benefits through bribery. They also were able to exercise authority over their fellow inmates, “including through intimidation and violence through their superior position.”4 The unnatural and impoverished circumstances of the concentration camp also led to egregious abuses of this power. Some of these functionaries, for instance, “used their position to demand sexual favours from their fellow prisoners.”5 Whether through bribery or intimidation, camp functionaries often used their powers to secure a variety of comforts and even indulgences for themselves in the camps.
In addition to the social hierarchies and divisions that developed within the camp, a further notable feature of camp social life as outlined by Pingel is the unique linguistic pattern that emerged among inmates. Concentration camp language was characterized by a certain terseness and forcefulness, limited largely to “short, sharp commands and responses.”6 Pingel describes this use of language in the concentration camp as “primitive.”7 Much as the social hierarchies in the camp devolved to the point of merely attaining personal privilege through dominance rather than the affective use of power to achieve social cohesion, the use of language also reflects a degraded form of social relations. Pingel, in fact, identifies the two institutions and their mutual devolution to a primal stage, claiming that “camp language reflects the hierarchy of power and social life within the camp itself.”8
As the language of the Nazi camp authorities was German, German necessarily became the lingua franca of the concentration camp system. For the many prisoners of other nationalities, this posed a particular challenge as they found themselves excluded from the positions of authority through which they could benefit themselves and their fellow countrymen. The Babel-like nature of the concentration camps also led in a large degree to the terseness of the German spoken in them. All that was required and often all that was possible was learning to comply with and respond to basic orders and commands. This limited use of language fostered a limited purview of concern. The prisoners were prevented by their linguistic differences from developing social relationships more complex than what was required for mere survival. In this way, the language of the concentration camps served to reinforce the rigid hierarchies and social divisions as well as the corrupted use of power which marked camp life.
The inmates of the concentration camps were almost entirely ordinary people forced into extremely extraordinary circumstances. The breakdown of normal social relations among these inmates provides insight into the nature of human societies in general. The prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps were forced into a situation in which they saw themselves as competing against other prisoners, many of whom they would not have associated with outside of the camps, for any comfort or convenience they desired and often even for their own survival. In addition, the Nazi ideology of eugenics and extermination suffused the atmosphere of the camps. Any acquisition of any measure of power was seen as an opportunity to secure personal safety and succor for one's compatriots, a group that never consisted of all of one's fellow inmates in general but only of those with whom one might have had an relationship previous to or outside of the camp system. Normal social cohesion was further impeded by the multiplicity of languages within the camps and the terseness of language that camp life necessitated. As a result, a spirit of corruption, suspicion, despondency, and division permeated the fabricated society of the concentration camp. Reduced to a fight for survival, the prisoners' personal outlooks and social interactions degraded remarkably quickly to a remarkably primitive level.
1 Falk Pingel, “Social life in an unsocial environment: The inmates' struggle for survival,” in Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories, ed. Jane Caplan and Nikolaus Wachsmann (New York, NY: Routledge), 58-81.
2 Ibid., 60.
4 Ibid., 61.
6 Ibid., 70.
Very short book review: Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany: The New Histories by Nikolaus Wachsmann and Jane Caplan
This book offers an excellent survey of up-to-date perspectives from historians on a variety of topics related to the Holocaust and specifically to the concentration camp system, including social interactions within the camps, the treatment of the camps after the Holocaust, the historical factors that led to the concentration camps, and much more. Of particular interest for historians are those areas in which the contributing authors identify that further research is needed to clarify or expand our knowledge.