The banality of the camp

On the first day of the year, Newsweek re-published a piece from the conservative Hoover Institution glorifying the war machine of the 1930s. The author bemoaned the fact that “the collective ethos of the World War II generation [what Brokaw dubbed the “greatest generation”] is fading”. On the recent 74th anniversary of D-Day, we were reminded that few living survivors of WWII still exist and that we should honor their memory and sacrifice.

The only way to do so, of course, is to ensure that what happened in the 1930s and 40s never happens again. The latter half of the twentieth century certainly witnessed further economic devastation and genocide. So we ought to ask what exactly it is to which we should say “never again”.

This phrase, which has recently been adopted from its original use by survivors of gun violence in schools, has fallen victim to two contradictory impulses in the collective western conscience. On the one hand, we are told we must never forget the Holocaust (or Columbine or Sandy Hook or Parkland or …) and yet, on the other hand, we repress these memories to the status of a mythology that has reduced the names “Holocaust” and “Hitler” from being rigid to free-floating signifiers: they have become metonymies for simply “evil” or “genocide”. The historical, cultural, material, and ideological conditions that resulted in Auschwitz have contracted to a dimensionless point called “the Holocaust” that happened at some vague place and time (“Germany during World War II”) whose only definiteness is that it is “in the past”.

What has been forgotten is that the Holocaust was not only an event that can be localized to particular sites (i.e., the camps). While Agamben has been criticized for his analysis of the camp that makes it ubiquitous — in his words, the camp is not merely “a historical fact and an anomaly that … [belongs] to the past, but rather in some sense [it is] the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we still live. … The camp … is the new biopolitical nomos of the planet” — the caricature that, according to this analysis, “everything is a camp” misses the point. The camp is not simply a place. The places that become Konzentrationslager are the physical and material localizations of an ethos or a way of (non-)thinking.

As Agamben reminds us, along with a recent book by the historian Aidan Forth, titled Barbed-Wire Imperialism: Britain’s Empire of Camps, 1876-1903, the modern camp, which first appeared at the end of the nineteenth-century, is the prolongation of the juridical regime of prisons as well as the colonial-imperial regime of managing unwanted populations in the empire. The collaborationist Vichy* government in France, for example, managed their own camps for Jews but also for homosexuals, the Romanis, Spanish refugees, left-wing activists, and other unwanteds or undesirables.

*We today have our own Vichy government dedicated to “national regeneration” and “France alone” (“MAGA”, “America first”), the reversal of the progressive movement of the Third Republic (including hostility to labor unions), an anti-democratic and authoritarian return to “traditional culture”, the repression of dissent, the de-naturalization of foreigners, and of course collaboration with the Nazi genocide.

What made the camps possible was not only the genocidal and sadistic Gestapo. In 1955, the journalist Milton Mayer published a book, titled They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45, in which he interviewed ten ordinary German citizens over the course of a year. They referred to themselves as “wir kleine Leute, we little people”. Among the ten, only one after the war still believed in Nazism as a “democratic” project. “The other nine, decent, hard-working, ordinarily intelligent and honest men, did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now. None of them ever knew, or now knows, Nazism as we [non-Germans] knew and know it; and they lived under it, served it, and, indeed, made it” (emphasis added). When one of the ten men, a baker, was asked why he supported the National Socialists, he said it was because they had promised to solve the unemployment problem “but I never imagined what it would lead to. Nobody did”. But what was it that Nazism led to? “‘War,’ he said. ‘Nobody ever imagined it would lead to war.’” But even after 1939, all then said that their lives

“were lightened and brightened by National Socialism … And they look back on it now — nine of them, certainly — as the best time of their lives; for what are men’s lives? There were jobs and job security, summer camps for the children … What does a mother want to know? She wants to know where her children are … There were horrors, too, but these were advertised nowhere, reached ‘nobody.’ … None of the horrors impinged upon the day-to-day lives of my ten friends or was ever called to their attention [emphasis added]. … The real lives that real people live in a real community have nothing to do with Hitler and Roosevelt or with what Hitler and Roosevelt are doing.”

In a widely-circulated but apparently apocryphal quotation, we are reminded that the Holocaust did not begin with the gas chambers. In the supposed origin of that quotation, R. v. Keegstra, which upheld the Canadian prohibition of hate propaganda, Chief Justice Dickson noted that it is true that Germany enacted and enforced similar anti-hate speech laws just prior to the rise of Hitler and that “no one is contending that hate propaganda laws can in themselves prevent the tragedy of a Holocaust … The experience of Germany represents an awful nadir in the history of racism, and demonstrates the extent to which flawed and brutal ideas can capture the acceptance of a significant number of people”.

We should also not forget, as James Whitman has recently documented in Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, that key components of the Nuremberg Laws were inspired by American** race laws (particularly anti-miscegenation laws). It is not the conscious, cartoonish evil of the supervillain about which we must be vigilant but, rather, the common sense of Joe the Plumber and Mom and Pop down the street who either accept the existence of the camp or who simply don’t care all that much about it because they have work in the morning and children to put to bed.

**We should also not forget that the War Relocation Authority responsible for the internment of Japanese-Americans existed for a full year after the surrender of Germany and the liberation of Auschwitz.

Arendt (and others) infamously said of Adolf Eichmann that, in all appearances, he was perfectly ordinary. The Holocaust occurs not because of the trials of Hitler but because of the banality of all the “little Eichmanns” among us.

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The seductions of form and the resistance of spirit

1. Almost twenty years before he wrote The Wealth of Nations, Smith founded a moral theory on our capacity to sympathize. And yet, at a crucial juncture of the work, he notes that “it is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty”. Ultimately, Smith continues, this disposition leads to the division of society into ranks and the corruption of our moral sentiments: “this disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition [,which is the basis of social rank, is] … the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages”. It is only by confusing later utilitarian and game-theoretic psychologies into The Wealth of Nations that we have been perplexed at the avowed continuity of these two works (which, like Aristotle, Smith conceived as systematic).

The perfidiousness of (neo-)liberalism is its empty formalism of will that, like Williams’ critique of utilitarian psychology, reduces experience to calculation (the “sovereign masters” of nature being pleasure and pain, for example) and homo sapiens to homo economicus. The irony of our supposed materialism is that when the role of necessity overtakes virtue, we also surrender the (material) reality of our situations and circumstances to the ideologies of contract and discourse. The abolition of spirit only raises its spectre in the phantom of justice that stands over the courthouse or the harbor, while having abandoned our streets and our homes.

The material chases the form, Aristotle says, as its lover, for it cannot exist without this union. So too the essence of representative government is the agon between the sovereign functions in a sort of inversion of trinitarianism: instead of the union of love between the persons of the trinity (three-in-one), it is the jealousy between the sovereign powers that is supposed to prevent despotism (one-in-three).

While Montesquieu has been recently re-discovered in this context, his analysis of divided government is not his primary message against the threat of despotism. Despotism is neither merely the result of the tyrannic psychology of the despot (as it was, for example, for Plato) nor a degenerate form of government: like the Hobbesian state of war, which exists not only in times of conflict but when there is a perpetual will toward conflict, despotism exists to the extent to which there is a certain spirit, not of fear but of anxiety (as he says explicitly, “a free people is not the one that has this or that form of government, it is one that enjoys the form of government established by Law”). In his Thoughts, Montesquieu observes that “when prosperity is merely external, the evidence of well-being is quite equivocal”.* The fear that is famously the principle of despotic government in The Spirit of the Laws  is not, primarily, fear of the despot but, rather, what we might call a more general anxiety: “as fear is the principle of despotic government, its end is tranquility: but this tranquility cannot be called a peace; no, it is only the silence of those towns which the enemy is ready to invade”.

*He continues in this passage also to say that “for often a prince who has great qualities, but does not have them all, can do great things abroad for a State that he governs very badly”.

Just as Montesquieu warns against mistaking external prosperity for reality, so too he warns against filling a will empty of virtue with admiration of the power that keeps us safe, lest our souls be invaded by that very power.

In contrast to the principle of despotism, Montesquieu observes that in addition to power and law, a “popular state” also requires virtue: “when virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community. The objects of their desires are changed; what they were fond of before is become indifferent … The people fall into [misfortune] when those in whom they confide [viz., in the trust of their power], desirous of concealing their own corruption, endeavor to corrupt them [as well]”.

We are corrupted not only in our will but also in our imagination, i.e., not only in our complacency but also in our appeals to our institutions and constitutions, in our procedures and processes, to deliver us from evil.

Elsewhere in the Thoughts, Montesquieu warns us of our present emergency: “it is only by dint of philosophy that a sensible man can support [despotic governments], and by dint of prejudice that a people can bear them. These sorts of governments are self-destructive. Each day brings them into decline, and with them, there is virtually no middle ground between childhood and old age.” For all our quarrels over identity politics (and the public intellectuals who have capitalized on these failures), it is not Nero who now fiddles but those who condemn him as if he were not the logical conclusion of the present “experiment” but an aberration.

2. In his twin critiques of idealism and logocentrism, Klages argues that

the idealist’s own principles render him incapable of distinguishing the world of perceptions from the world of representations. As a result, the idealist must perforce disavow the world of actuality; as a result, that world will always be found to play a miniscule role in the idealist’s system. In fact, the idealist treats the world of perception as if it were a product of spiritual activity [emphasis added], whereas this activity could not raise itself up as the antithetical counterpart to the word of perception unless it had based itself upon a pre-existent substratum of vital events. … As soon as one is convinced that the substance of experienced life is outside the reach of spirit, one is compelled to endorse the conviction that conceptualizing spirit … is a force that, in-itself and for-itself, does not belong to the cosmos. [This is the spirit that he then notes has been unmasked in the modern age as the utilitarian “will to annihilate nature”.]

But it is also the realist that shares this solipsism, only doing unconsciously what the idealist does in self-consciousness. Following Nietzsche, Klages denies that experiences contain actuality, even as they arise from actuality: “whoever regards the objects of thought as actuality, confuses the boundaries that divide the objects with that which has established those boundaries”. Both the idealist and the realist retain for themselves the capacity to judge without being able to admit that their judgments of truth qua judgments falsify the experiences to which they give expression. What is needed, then, is not more understanding but a transformation of the spirit that seeks not the truth of experience but to experience more truly. This is perhaps the postmodern condition: not only that we can no longer “cognitively map” our place in our world (Jameson) but that we do not even know how to experience it.