Today In Fact, 14 June

Is it possible to write poetry, to be a philosopher, to apply ethics after Auschwitz? Teddy Adorno famously declaimed that it is impossible to honourably use the systems of thought that led directly to the horror of the holocaust. The same argument applies to Africans who blithely trumpet the value of “Ubuntu” in the face of our genocide in Rwanda and Burundi. We humans all have, since the beginning of history, killed and tortured and murdered each other with gay abandon. Entire populations have been destroyed and put to death by their fellow humans.

Some have argued that it is religion that motivates us to do this. Others insist its atheism and authoritarian regimes that promote genocide. No matter the organizational and ideological system, the common denominator in this evil is the ordinary humans who choose to kill and murder their fellows.

I think a partial explanation may be that the perception a people have of their national and cultural humiliation at the hands of another group, drives a deep and murderous reaction. The Turks felt humiliated by the intellectual and cultural dominance of Armenians, the Germans felt humiliated by their defeat in the First World War and the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the Afrikaners felt humiliated by their defeat in the Boer War, The Hutu felt humiliated by the dominance of the Tutsi.

These perceptions, whether true or not, unify a people and a group but only in reaction against the other. Evil is weak because it depends upon our reaction to harm and humiliation done against us. Evil is strong because so many of us submit to the logic of revenge and an identity founded upon humiliation.

After Auschwitz we have to fashion a way of living and thinking that gives dignity and is able to find dignity in each other. We must do this or we all will perish. Attacking foreigners because they seem to be doing well, hating blacks because they are somehow “other”, applying the logics of us and them leads directly to the gates of Auschwitz: “Arbeit macht Frei”.

Today in 1940, the first victims of Auschwitz were marched through those gates. In the five years that this network of some 45 concentration and death camps in Poland operated, it has been estimated that between 1 and 4 million people were murdered there.

I have an estimate too. Somewhere around 700 members of my family were killed in those five years because they were Jews living in Poland. I also know that many other members of my family, did the killing, because I have German and Polish family who were not Jews but supporters of the Nazi racist and anti-Jewish ideology.

Within me, within my genetic make-up and my family history, course the lives and deeds of both Nazi and Jew, both European colonizer and African victim. Can I forgive myself? How can I write and declaim anything worthy of dignity while being made of such horror?

Teddy Adorno had a recurring dream; that he had actually died in Auschwitz and that his life after Auschwitz was just a fantasy of his real self as he lay dying in a gas chamber. Are we living in a dream fantasized by the millions who have died in holocausts? Is there a way we can wake-up and recast our thinking and our lives that chooses dignity over humiliation, honour over evil?

– Posted by Douglas Racionzer (