Cultural Cohesion, p.60Clive James
Nowadays it has become fashionable to mock Mann’s supposed equivocation vis-à-vis the Nazi regime in its first years, because of the time that passed before he publicly condemned it. At the time, his own children were angry with him for the same reason. We have to remember that his prestige, worldly goods and most appreciative reading public were all locked up in Germany; that he was deeply rooted in its complex society; and that at his age he did not fancy leading the very kind of rootless cosmopolitan life for which he had condemned men like Kerr. But his 1933–34 diaries (which one can safely recommend Goldhagen to read whole so that he will not in future run the risk of quoting a misleading fragment from a secondary source) reveal unmistakably, and over and over, that he loathed the bestiality of the new regime from its first hour. All Mann’s Tagebüche through the 1930s and the war years—and hurry the day when the whole fascinating corpus is properly translated—show that he never wavered in his utter disgust at what the Nazis had done to his country. As for his opinion of what they were doing to the most defenceless people in it, he went public about that in his 1936 essay on anti-Semitism, in which he definitively penetrated, and devastatingly parodied, the unconscious logic of the Nazi mentality: “I might be nothing, but at least I’m not a Jew.”
. . .
Historical research has by now established beyond question that the Nazi Party was principally financed not by the great capitalists of Brecht’s imagination but by the Kleinleute—the little people. Reduced to despair by inflation and by the Depression, they assigned their hopes and their few spare pennies to the cause of the man they thought might rescue them from nothingness. He did, too—so triumphantly that they didn’t suspect until the eleventh hour that he was leading them into a nothingness even more complete than the one they had come from. The Holocaust would have been unimaginable without the Nazi Party; the Nazi Party would have been unimaginable without Hitler; and Hitler’s rise to power would have been unimaginable without the unique circumstances that brought the Weimar Republic to ruin. To hear Goldhagen tell it, mass murder was all set to go: a century-long build-up of eliminationist anti-Semitism simply had to express itself. But the moment when a historian says that something had to happen is the moment when he stops writing history and starts predicting the past.
After the Second World War, the British historian A. J. P. Taylor began publishing a series of books and articles which added up to the contention that Hitler’s regime was the inevitable consequence of Germany’s border problem, and that his depredations in the East were just a harsh version of what any German in his position would have been obliged to do anyway. Hitler’s war, Taylor argued, brought Europe back to “reality,” out of its liberal illusions. Then, in 1951, the German historian Golo Mann—one of Thomas Mann’s three sons—made a survey of Taylor’s historical writings, and took them apart. He accused Taylor of predicting the past. The Weimar Republic, Mann pointed out, had been no liberal illusion and might have survived if extraordinary circumstances hadn’t conspired to undermine it. German nationalism was not a demon that always strode armed through the land—it was in the minds of men, and could have stayed there. This confrontation between the frivolously clever Taylor and the deeply engaged Golo Mann was a portent of the intellectual conflict that blew up in Germany more than thirty years later, when the learned historian Ernst Nolte foolishly went to print with an opinion that sounded like one of Taylor’s brainwaves cast in more turgid prose: he stated that Nazi Germany, by attacking Russia, had simply got into the Cold War early, and that Nazi extermination camps had been the inevitable consequence of tangling with an enemy who was up to the same sort of thing. This time there were plenty of German historians and commentators ready to oppose such views, because by now the perverse urge to marginalize the Nazis had penetrated the academic world, and had been identified as a trend that needed to be stopped. Younger historians who had looked up to Nolte hastened to distance themselves from him; the glamorous Michael Stürmer, in his virtuoso summary of modern German history Die Grenzen der Macht (The Limits of Power), consigned Nolte’s theory to a dismissive passing reference. Stürmer also wrote a sentence about Hitler that is unfortunately likely to remain all too true: “Even today, the history of Hitler is largely the history of how he has been underestimated.”
Why is this so? Strangely, anti-Semitism has probably played a part. We tend to think of him as an idiot because the central tenet of his ideology was idiotic—and idiotic, of course, it transparently is. Anti-Semitism is a world view through a pinhole: as scientists say about a bad theory, it is not even wrong. Nietzsche tried to tell Wagner that it was beneath contempt. Sartre was right for once when he said that through anti-Semitism any halfwit could become a member of an elite. But, as the case of Wagner proves, a man can have this poisonous bee in his bonnet and still be a creative genius. Hitler was a destructive genius, whose evil gifts not only beggar description but invite denial, because we find it more comfortable to believe that their consequences were produced by historical forces than to believe that he was a historical force. Or perhaps we just lack the vocabulary. Not many of us, in a secular age, are willing to concede that, in the form of Hitler, Satan visited the Earth, recruited an army of sinners, and fought and won a battle against God. We would rather talk the language of pseudoscience, which at least seems to bring such cataclysmic events to order. But all that such language can do is shift the focus of attention down to the broad mass of the German people, which is what Goldhagen has done, in a way that, at least in part, lets Hitler off the hook—and unintentionally reinforces his central belief that it was the destiny of the Jewish race to be expelled from the Volk as an inimical presence.
Hannah Arendt, in her long, courageous, and much-misunderstood career, had her weak moments. In her popular Eichmann in Jerusalem (first published serially in The New Yorker) she undoubtedly pushed her useful notion of the detached desk worker too far. But she was resoundingly right when she refused to grant the Nazis the power of their fait accompli. She declined to suppose, as Hitler had supposed, that there really was some international collectivity called the Jews. Echoing the fourth count of the Nuremberg indictment, she called the Holocaust a crime against humanity.
The Jews were the overwhelming majority among Hitler’s victims, but he also killed all the Gypsies and homosexuals he could find. He let two and a half million Russian POWs perish, most of them from the gradually applied technique of deprivation. The novelist Joseph Roth, drinking himself to death in Paris before the war, said that Hitler probably had the Christians in his sights, too. We can never now trace the source of Hitler’s passion for revenge, but we can be reasonably certain that there would have been no satisfying it had he lived. Sooner or later, he would have got around to everybody. Hitler was the culprit who gave all the other culprits their chance. To concentrate exclusively on the prejudice called anti-Semitism—to concentrate even on his anti-Semitism—is another way of underestimating him.
. . .
At the end of this bloodstained century, which has topped by ten times Tamburlaine’s wall of skulls, lime and living men, the last thing we want to believe is that it all happened on a whim. In the Soviet Union, the liquidation of bourgeois elements began under Lenin. By the time Stalin took power, there were no bourgeois elements left. He went on finding them. He found them even within the Communist Party. They didn’t exist. They never had existed. He killed them anyway. Eventually, he killed more people than Hitler, and it was all for nothing. Far from building socialism, he ensured its ruin. His onslaught had nothing to do with social analysis, about which he knew no more than he did about biology. Unless you believe in Original Sin, there is almost no meaning that can be attached to his behaviour, except to say that he was working out his personal problems.
In China, Mao Zedong went to war against the evil landlords and the imperialist spies. Neither group actually existed. The death toll of his countrymen exceeded the totals achieved by Hitler and Stalin combined. They all died f
A shorter version first appeared in The New Yorker, April 22, 1996;
later included in Even As We Speak, 2001
The preceding review is reprinted in a form substantially different from the way it first appeared in The New Yorker. The way it looks here is much closer to the way I first wrote it. Goldhagen’s book was big news at the time, so Tina Brown very properly decided that my notice should be promoted from the “back of the book” reviews department to “Critic at Large” status in the middle of the magazine. This unlooked-for elevation, however, proved to be a mixed blessing, because in a position of such prominence the soi-disant Critic at Large often finds himself not as at large as he would like. Suddenly he is held to be speaking for the magazine as much as for himself, and inevitably it is decided that his personal quirks should be suppressed, in the interests of objectivity. My animadversions on Goldhagen’s prose style were held to be a potentially embarrassing irrelevance: to dispute his interpretation of factual events was going to be contentious enough, without getting into the subjective area of how he wrote his interpretation down. I didn’t think that it was a subjective area; I thought the callow overconfidence of his jargon-ridden style was a clear index of how he had been simply bound to get his pretended overview of the subject out of shape from the start; but I knuckled under or we would have all been stymied.
It wasn’t, after all, as if the editors wanted to change the main thrust of the piece. There is a fine line between being asked to say something differently and being required to say something different, but it is a clear one. When they do want you to say something different, of course, it’s time to take the kill fee and quit. But this piece was guaranteed to give me trouble whatever the circumstances. Goldhagen’s book aspires to be wide-ranging over both the political and cultural background to the Holocaust, and if you hope to show that his reach exceeds his grasp, you have to be pretty wide-ranging yourself, over a literature that it takes half a lifetime to absorb. It was probably as much a blessing as a curse that I had to write the piece against a deadline, and that I had to do much of the work on it while I was filming in Mexico City, away from my own library and any other library that held the relevant books. To a great extent I had to rely on what was in my memory. In retrospect, the restriction feels like a lucky break. Otherwise I would have ended up writing a review longer than the book, and it would have had footnotes hanging off it in festoons.
There is something to be said for being forced into ellipsis. Skimpiness, however, is inevitably part of the result. You wouldn’t know, from Goldhagen’s book, that the question of the Jewish contribution to German-speaking culture was far more complicated than he makes out. Unfortunately you wouldn’t know from my review just how complicated it was. It was elementary work to rebut his line with a few simple examples. The editing process reduced them to even fewer, but the obvious point was made. It was also fudged. Goldhagen is clamorously wrong on that particular topic, but the evidence by which he might think himself right is stronger than I had the time, the room or—less forgivable—the inclination to make out. As my admired Marcel Reich-Ranicki explains in his Der Doppelte Boden (augmented edition, Fischer, 1992), some of the Jewish writers, though they enjoyed huge public acclaim, had ample motive for feeling rejected. The novelist Jakob Wassermann, for all his success as a best-seller, despaired of social acceptance. Among Jewish artists in Germany after World War I that state of mind was not rare, and in Austria it was common. Its epicentre had been registered by Arthur Schnitzler at the turn of the century, in a key passage of his great novel Der Weg ins Freie (The Path into the Clear), where a leading character spells out the impossibility of true assimilation with a mordant clarity not very different from the polemical Zionism of Theodor Herzl. There can be no doubt that Schnitzler was speaking from the heart.
The question abides, however, of whether he was speaking from a whole heart or only a part of it. Though insecurity was ever-present and outright abuse always a threat, the Jewish artists and thinkers, if assimilation to the German-speaking culture was what they wanted, had good reasons to think it was being achieved in those last years before 1933. Their influence, even their dominance, in the various fields of culture was widely acknowledged. On playbills, in concert programmes and on publishers’ lists there were Jewish names that attracted an audience totalling millions. The career of Stefan Zweig, alone, would be enough to make Goldhagen’s cultural theory look fantastic. Zweig’s books were customarily translated into about thirty languages but his sales in the German-speaking countries would have been enough on their own to make him wealthy. It shouldn’t need pointing out that his sales couldn’t have been that big if they had been confined to an audience of Jewish background, a qualification which applied to only 300,000 people in the whole of Germany. Zweig was part of the German literary landscape, together with the liberal values he professed. Hans Scholl, the master spirit of the White Rose resistance group in Munich, had already turned against his Hitler Youth upbringing, but his trajectory towards outright subversion was accelerated after one of Zweig’s books was taken away from him by a Nazi official. Scholl thought that if the Nazis were against that, they were against the Germany he cared about. (Goldhagen’s failure to so much as mention the White Rose, incidentally, is the kind of omission that makes a mockery of his scientific vocabulary. In science, the fact that doesn’t fit the theory eliminates the theory, not the other way about. Hans and Sophie Scholl were gentiles born into a household formed by liberal German culture, were well aware that Jews had helped to form that culture, and were ready to die for it rather than betray it. If Goldhagen wants to go on asking why the German population did not rise up, he might consider the manner in which those two brave young people perished. The guillotine is a big price to pay for a conviction.)
A necessary conclusion, about the large and well-informed German-speaking audience for the arts, would be that if they were all eliminationist anti-Semites, they must have been strangely ready to sideline their otherwise overmastering prejudice when it came to matters of aesthetic enjoyment. It’s not a conclusion that Goldhagen feels bound to draw, because he doesn’t even consider the matter. Nor does he consider that the abuse heaped on Jewish artists by the Nazi propaganda machine before the Machtergreifung was a measure of the success they had achieved in becoming a part of the landscape. Finally and fatally, he doesn’t consider that the massive and irreversible damage done to German-speaking culture by the repression, expulsion and murder of the Jews was the full, exact and tragic measure of how they had been vital to it. Once again it is an awful thing to find oneself saying, but it has to be said: the Reichskulturkämmer, if they were still in business, couldn’t have done a better job
But a young historian can be forgiven for lacking the kind of cultural information that would bring such questions to the forefront. The richness of what the German-speaking Jews achieved before the Nazi era takes time to assess. Harder to understand is Goldhagen’s apparent supposition that nothing much has happened in Germany since the Nazi era when it comes to his own field—history. You would never know, from his book, that whole teams of German historians, in the full knowledge that they are trying to make bricks from rubble, have dedicated themselves to the study of the catastrophe that distorted their intellectual inheritance. As in any other country at any time, there have been a few historians who have devoted prodigious resources to missing the point. Of the star revisionists mixed up in the Historikerstreit, Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber at least had the merit of being too blatant to be plausible: they pretty well blamed the Holocaust on the Soviet Union. Klaus Hildebrand and Michael Stürmer were more insidious because there was nothing wrong with their facts: after the Red Army crossed the German border, the retreating Wehrmacht really was fighting heroically for its country’s heritage. Unfortunately their suggestion that post-war German patriotism might thus claim a solid base was hopelessly compromised by the consideration that part of the heritage was the Holocaust. In his various essays and open letters about the Historikerstreit, Jürgen Habermas (who, it is only fair to concede, admires Goldhagen’s book) was marvellous on the equivocations and the delusions of the revisionists, but on the main point he didn’t need to be marvellous: it was too obviously true. The revisionist historian can’t reasonably hope to have a Germany that is not obsessed with the past. There can be no putting off shame to achieve maturity. The shame is the maturity.
Cultural Cohesion by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes