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.