Inhumanity is part of human nature

Motherland means safety – says Jean Améry. Writing these words in his 1966 book At the Mind’’s Limits, in the chapter entitled How Much Motherland Does a Man Need? the Frenchman Jean Améry, born Franz Meyer in Austria in 1912, knew what he was talking about. He had lost his homeland and it took him 27 years to fully grasp what that loss – by then irreversible and irretrievable – entailed: he realized that by returning to a space one never regains the time lost.

Safety means certainty; and in turn, we can feel safe wherever we do not expect anything unexpected, where we do not have to fear anything completely and utterly strange – that is, completely and utterly incomprehensible and thus, as Wittgenstein would say, anything that not only does not come with instructions but not even with a hint of how to deal with it. Améry realized he had lost his motherland when he found himself surrounded by signs that to him were as illegible as the Etruscan script: Faces, gestures, clothes, houses and words, while continuing as sensory perceptions, no longer signified anything. And if motherland is the headquarters of order, predictability and self-confidence, a strange country is the domain of disorder, surprise and confusion. Returning to one’s motherland after a prolonged absence one can discover or at least guess at, the order of meanings in the chaos of experience; but an émigré, who has ended up in a foreign country as an adult, won’t be able to recognize these signs instinctively; rather it will be an intellectual act requiring a certain mental effort.

As we acquire our mother tongue we would not even notice it has a grammar, were in not for our teachers pointing it out to us, at first to our surprise, later also to our irritation. Grammar is the Cerberus blocking the entrance to all languages – with the exception of the mother tongue (it is precisely the lack of a Cerberus at the gates that makes it our mother tongue).  Grammar in our mother tongue is a reliable, yet unobtrusive guide, a thoughtful, yet invisible guardian angel; in all other languages it is a demon lurking in the darkness at the top of Jacob’s ladder. As Günther Anders, quoted by Améry, said: No-one can spend years moving about exclusively within the limits of languages he is not fluent in, languages which he can at best merely try to imitate incompetently, without falling victim to the poverty of his speech.  For in these circumstances the mother tongue also starts crumbling away bit by bit, and mostly in such inconspicuous and gradual ways that we do not notice its loss. Until the moment of revelation that comes some 27 or more years later, when we realize that the irretrievable loss of our motherland is as irreversible as the loss of safety. This is the moment when we realize that La table will never be the same as the table, and that at best it can be a place where we can eat our fill.

Exile robs the émigré of his identity, and thereby of his confidence.  By the same token, it robs him of the belief that what he considers to be true really is true. And since this belief is the shield protecting him from knowing what is true and what is not, sooner and later exile will also strip the émigré of his knowledge. The unshakeability of the globe relies on the strong shoulders of Atlas’’ identity.  And its foundations crumble when those shoulders begin to tremble. And exile will make sure they will tremble.

Truth is what we all know to be true because we believe in its truthfulness – we believe we know that which is obvious to all of us. Obviousness is an alloy of knowledge and belief. Obviousness cannot be acquired, procured or concocted.  Something is either obvious or not obvious – tertium non datur. Something is obvious only and exclusively if it appears as such to everyone who believes in its obviousness and if nobody can question my right to embrace everyone within the personal pronoun we.  If these conditions are met, I have an identity. If not, all I have is a hint of identity or an idea of an identity; a kind of application for an identity that might be accepted or rejected in a court authorized to adjudicate in this matter, if such a court existed and if it undertook to examine our case. But no such court exists – and the foundations of the globe begin to crumble. And once they do, they can never be stopped.

In my case these conditions were not met. I was lucky to be offered a choice, which is wonderful. Except that my choice, as a private matter, is not binding on anyone but me. And that may be wonderful, but not quite.

Henryk Grynberg, who managed to smelt a noble chunk of literature out of the motley ore of Polish exile, said (in a book entitled Émigré, what else): Suicides are also émigrés, maybe even more so. Exactly.

Totalitarianism as a computer game

Slavoj Žižek (a character lifted straight out the age of dada and épater les bourgeois into an age when there is nobody left to be épatéd because everyone has already been épatéd up to their eyeballs and driven completely mad by épatation of every kind)  said recently that two German films that show the everyday life of the Ossis at a time before the nickname for the East Germans was coined, do not capture the essence of communist totalitarianism; moreover, that they falsify its reality. If you want to know and tell others what life under communism was like, he declares, you should make films based on Varlam Shalamov’’s Tales from Kolyma and, by implication: the truth of communism was concealed in the barracks of Magadan rather than permeating the streets of Tambov or Yaroslavl. And the truth of Nazism must have been located in Dachau and Auschwitz, rather than breeding in the village whose story is told in such excruciating detail in the TV series Heimat.

I would ask Žižek, if it was worth it (which it is not), why is it that those fortunate enough to have been born too late to personally experience totalitarianism should want to exert their brains in order to grasp the nature of totalitarianism, a history that is, for them, long dead.Their need for stomach- churning atrocities is fully satisfied by Reservoir Dogs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Friday the Thirteenth, as well as by daily helpings of television horror and hundreds of variations on computer games involving the wholesale murder of weirdos. Surely, compared with the refined artistry of cinema, television, Nintendo or Play Station, the everyday life in the barracks of the concentration camps or the communist bloc must seem like some abortive creations produced by provincial amateurs and manufacturers of cheap kitsch. These lucky beasts have known almost from the day they were born that monstrous things are the creation of monsters and sordid things are created by scoundrels, and that monsters and scoundrels therefore have to be exterminated before they get a chance to exterminate us, and that, since those who are being exterminated are the spawn of the devil it must follow that those who subdue them are nothing but angels? So as they sit at their computers with their faces ablush, trying to defeat the electronic monsters at their own wicked game, to respond to their trickery with their own, even more refined, tricks and mow them down in their multitudes before they start mowing down ours, it does not in the least offend their own high opinion of themselves. After all, these electronic monsters ambushed them out of pure cruelty whereas they, on their part, were only trying to save themselves and while they were at it, the rest of the world, from the brutes. Humanity is divided into executioners and their victims, and once the latter finally exterminate the last of the former, we can safely store brutality in one of the deposits of memory (or forgetting) and slam the door behind it. If brutality is the creation of brutes we are without blemish – quod erat demonstrandum.

Oh, how I wish that things were that simple! If only totalitarianism could be reduced to releasing from their cages a couple of beasts who in normal, i.e. decent times are kept under lock and key!… If only suffering were indeed ennobling, if it afforded safe conduct to innocence and moral virtue!… If only the perpetrators lack of virtue would not leak staining the victims and witnesses of their crimes, if only the victims marched to the executioner’’s block pure and immaculate!… If only the world could be neatly and tidily divided, as they did in both kinds of barracks (or at least made a fervent effort trying to, and if they did not succeed then certainly not for lack of zeal!) into those who are omnipotent and those who succumb to their omnipotence, into those who act and those who submit to their action. Then the Communist and the Nazi totalitarianisms would be just another two of those bloody episodes in which the history of mankind abounds. An episode in which some beat and others are beaten. An episode that has to be (and can be) ended by whipping those who had done the beating and decorating those who were beaten.  And after ending them, we could lock their yellowing and withered relics in archives, knowing they will never again trouble those of us who have locked them away.

Unfortunately, despite Žižek’’s advice, the horrors of totalitarianism cannot be grasped by contemplating Kolyma or Dachau, the laboratories for testing the boundaries of human enslavement, to quote Hannah Arendt. To fully grasp this horror, to see it where it is at its most poisonous and sinister, and where it shows no signs of expiring, we have to get beyond the confines of barbed wire.

Survivor syndrome

Suffering is always painful but rarely ennobling.It is obvious that causing suffering morally taints the perpetrator. But the victims do not get away safe and untainted either by the destruction of moral impulses and inhibitions.… Do they wait for their chance to pay back the executioners in their own coin? Yes, but first they learn the secrets of life in which this coin is currency. Right after the war, American psychiatrists who treated people who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust described the ailment tormenting their patients as guilt syndrome: Why am I alive when so many others died in front of my eyes?! However, they changed their view very quickly. Guilt syndrome vanished from psychiatric vocabulary to be replaced by survivor syndrome. They are out to get me, to finish me off, and they are sure to succeed if I don’t get there first, if I don’’t strike the first blow.…

Survivor syndrome is hereditary: successive generations pass on the poisoned fruit of a martyrology that is disappearing into the past.  Descendants of victims cultivate only the communal categorical myth and hereditary martyrdom without having experienced the events that generated these messages; this circumstance makes survivor scholarship, spun from the experience of martyrdom, impervious to practical tests. The vision of a world conspiracy, freed from factual tests, pervades and dominates the survivor milieu. It enables individual survivors, speaking with Alain Finkielkraut, to participate in the glorification of their martyred ancestors and, on this basis, to demand compensation and licence to act ruthlessly – without paying the price their ancestors had to pay for their descendants’ memory.

Both victims and silent witnesses of atrocities, who were forced, in Jan Błoński’’s words, to participate in the bloody spectacle now know only too well that there are ways  — inhuman perhaps? maybe so, but certainly effective – of getting rid of human problems, be they real or imagined. And that inhumanity is part of human nature. And that means that someone, somewhere, sometime, might resort to those ways again. And therefore one might also have to resort to them if the fear becomes unbearable…. The price of survival is the killing of those who can and want to kill you and therefore have to kill you.…

Survival syndrome suggests that the point of life is survival – with the proviso that, whoever is the first to strike a blow will survive the one or the ones who did not manage to do so.  If the blow is struck in good time, hitting the target and knocking it out, there is no need to fear revenge or punishment. The post-Holocaust world has promoted preventative wars.  As the experience of Iraq demonstrates, the world is willing to unleash genocidal passions in the name of preventing presumed genocide.  And as the experience of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo shows, our world has no scruples when it comes to those who (who knows?) would not have hesitated to strike a blow if treated with scruples. Both sides have found the lessons of the Holocaust useful.

Why Schindler beats Korczak

In Schindler’’s List Steven Spielberg tells it like it is:  at the time of furnaces and contempt what mattered was to survive. Thus it must have also mattered that some people survived instead of others. To the sounds of critical applause Spielberg enlists the same sinister instrument of modern genocide in the service of the art of survival which Raoul Hilberg considered to be the first step to extermination of European Jewry (their fate was sealed, he writes, the moment the first German local officials drew up the first lists of the Jewish inhabitants of their cities). Schindler, the film’’s hero, hailed as a redeemer of humanity (in a reference  to the Talmud), refuses to swap his Jewesses – i.e. the ones on his list – for other Jewesses. And audiences applaud as Schindler drags a man off a train leaving for Treblinka, a man who was on his list and, unlike the remaining passengers, was rammed into the cattle truck by mistake and through oversight. As Janina [David]recalls, future victims in the Warsaw ghetto who wore numbers rebelled against future victims without numbers who were trying to squeeze into their marching column.Innocent people will die because of you! they shouted- in the language of perpetrators. God, leading people to their extermination, mixes up their languages.…

After Janina’’s Brussels talk on the various ways of interpreting the lessons of the Holocaust in cinema, a Belgian film maker asked her why the film Korczak, a key work by Andrzej Wajda, was not shown in American cinemas and why it was ignored by American critics. That’’s simple, Janina replied. Wajda’’s (and Korczak’’s) message stands in glaring contrast to the dominant version of Holocaust scholarship. Korczak did not save a single life – not even his own! All Korczak did was save human dignity of two hundred children from being abused and polluted. So why respect him and why honour his memory?

Elias Canetti was perhaps the first to warn of the poisoned legacy of the Holocaust. The most elementary and obvious form of success is survival. This criterion of success has bred the cult of survivors and elevated the attitude of survivors onto a pedestal. By accepting this attitude – Canetti lets alarm bells ring – they want to survive their contemporaries, and if things come to the worst, they are willing to kill in order to survive others. They want to survive in order not to be survived by others.

That nice neighbour is a beast

Summing up the lessons she derived from the years of contempt, furnaces and extermination, the wise Janina wrote that the executioners used to dehumanize their victims before putting them to death and that one of the hardest challenges of her life was to stay human in inhuman conditions.  Albert Camus wrote that genocide is nothing new in the history of mankind; what is new is genocide carried out in the name of human happiness, historic justice or other equally noble goals.  And, as demonstrated by genocide carried out on behalf of racial purity, just like genocide carried out in the name of class purity, what is new is also the ease with which decent people, exemplary fathers of families, faithful husbands, kind neighbours, can be convinced that the lofty goal of purifying the world makes zealous participation in the purge a virtue and obligation for decent people. Perhaps the most shocking information found in Hannah Arendt’’s report of Adolf Eichmann’’s trial was the opinions of distinguished psychiatrists who were asked to examine the defendant’s soundness of mind. They all agreed that Eichmann was not only normal by all common standards of normalcy but that he could be considered a model virtuous citizen – and in fact was regarded as such by his neighbours.

One shudders at the thought of what kind of activity this neat and nice neighbour, whom I only know from exchanging daily pleasant greetings and smiles, might be involved in his office hours… Totalitarian times leave behind a sediment of suspiciousness.  But suspiciousness towards oneself (If things had come to the worst, I might have joined in too….) – no matter how thoroughly suppressed and pushed into the darkest recesses of our minds – only fans the flames of suspicion against our neighbour. In order to get rid of the fear and repulsion of one’s own meanness, which has lain dormant until now but might awaken at any time, we have to turn meanness into something inborn, something that only the neighbour owns. Christopher Browning’’s conscience was shaken by the discovery that, if ordinary people recruited into the 101st Auxiliary Battalion were capable of such atrocities, then all of us, ordinary people, were capable of such bestial behaviour. To protect his own conscience and that of his readers, Daniel Goldhagen revised Browning’’s sentence:  if ordinary Germans from the 101st Battalion were capable of such atrocities, all of them, all Germans, were ready to commit such crimes. And not because the beast slumbers  within each man and can be harnessed to perform any task, no matter how wicked, as long as we find the right stick and harness;  but because the Germans, possessed by their hatred of the Jews, were happy to carry out the most wicked acts against the Jews.

Two versions of totalitarianism

The lasting (how lasting?!) legacy of both totalitarian regimes is moral devastation.  Manichean moods, to which Stanisław Ossowski refers in his concern about the future of a nation exposed to a test that is beyond its powers of endurance, have always been an instinctive reflex; they are not the kind of mood we succumb to today, get rid of tomorrow and forget the following day, but rather features of the normal, usual way of perceiving the world, reinforced by sound reason and sanctified by the calendar of public rituals, of one’’s own place in the world and a recipe for one’s own survival.

In this respect the legacy of the two totalitarian regimes [Nazism and communism] would appear at first sight to be identical.   However, there are profound differences between these two legacies. The German totalitarian system affected the Germans in a different way than it did the Poles. And the totalitarian system imported from the Soviets, which tried to take root in Poland, promising the Poles a share of future benefits and forcing them to participate in procedures aimed at speeding up and easing the arrival of those benefits, had an impact on the Poles quite different from that of the other, brutally alien, Hitlerite totalitarianism which situated the Poles from the very beginning and openly, without reservation, on the other side of the wall, among its victims.

And this is where the analogy breaks down and there is simply no point in discussing, in the same breath, the five years of Hitler’’s occupation and the half century of the Polish People’’s Republic, as if their essence were exhausted by belonging to the same chapter in the nation’’s martyrology. And it certainly does not make it any easier to come to terms with the legacy of either totalitarian period.


Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Polish in the Gazeta Wyborcza on 18 May 2009.