Angela Merkel recently told a crowd gathered before Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate: “It’s our national and civic duty to fight anti-Semitism.”
Striking as it is that she found it necessary to do this, anti-Semitism is on the rise again. Jewish sites have been the targets of attack across Europe. Calls for the murder of Jews are out in the open in France, Germany, and elsewhere. In May, four people were shot dead at a Jewish museum in Brussels. Someone with a keen sense of history threw Molotov cocktails at a synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany, that had been destroyed once before, on Kristallnacht in 1938. Also with a mind for the past, more than 1% of French Jews have emigrated in the last year—echoing the steps taken by far too few German Jews as the Nazis strengthened their hold in the 1930s. A number of commentators have observed that anti-Semitic remarks have lost their stigma even among “cultured” European society. It is once again safe to make negative comments about Jews in high places. Seventy years after the end of World War II, the narrative that anti-Semitism will never again be allowed to rise in Europe (as in the meme, “Never Again”), has given way to a much older narrative about Jews. Public, widely-approved anti-Semitism is back.
The anti-Semitic narrative in Europe has traced a broad arc since US and Soviet troops discovered the concentration camps in 1944 / 45. Any narrative may go into remission for a while, and the popular disparagement of Jews did so after the Holocaust fully expressed and exhausted it. In remission, a narrative may be eclipsed by other narratives that become dominant for a time. So, the “Never again” narrative replaced anti-Semitism. It expressed the pan-European conviction that grand crimes against humanity would be snuffed out by collective action. For more than half a century, the “Never again” consensus suppressed the anti-Semitic narrative in Europe. But narratives don’t go away any more than viruses do. People don’t really change, so a compelling narrative will eventually reassert itself.
As anti-Semitism resurfaces in Europe, a movie and a book have drawn attention back to Hannah Arendt, the German-American Jewish political theorist who rocked the post-holocaust Jewish world with her reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s.
Eichmann was the Nazi officer who organized the transfer of Eastern European Jews to the death camps. He is reported to have declared his assembly and deportation of 400,000 Hungarian Jews as the greatest logistics triumph in history. After the war he was among the considerable number Nazis who evaded capture and scattered across the world. He reached Argentina and established a new identity. There is convincing evidence that the West German government knew his whereabouts throughout the post-war period, but left him alone out of fear of what he might reveal about former Nazis working in the new Bonn government. In 1960, Israeli agents captured Eichmann and transferred him to Israel to be tried for war crimes.
His defense mimicked those of the Nuremburg defendants who, facing Allied judges just after the war, claimed the atrocities they’d committed amounted to nothing more than the execution of orders that had been legal at the time they were issued. That post-war court rejected this defense, establishing the “Nuremburg Principles,” which stated that individuals who commit crimes against humanity are responsible for their actions regardless of whether or not a superior officer ordered them. Eichmann testified that he had been nothing but a bureaucrat performing a job. Still the court convicted him, and the Israeli state executed him.
In her book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Arendt famously characterized massive crimes against humanity as a “banality of evil.” By this she meant that crimes committed by modern states took place on so grand a scale, and required such elaborate bureaucracies and logistics networks, that it had become difficult to assign responsibility for such crimes to any person. Political and administrative systems that appeared to function normally could, without much disruption, be re-directed to bring about the murders of millions. “Banality of evil” emerged as a powerful narrative to describe the nature of modern state-directed atrocities. It was an idea that seemed fresh and original. And it contained the most potent asset any narrative can have: It was simple.
Arendt recognized Eichmann’s guilt and agreed with the decision to execute him. But she also accepted his argument that he was nothing but a bureaucrat intensely focused on his task. She wrote that Eichmann was not an anti-Semite but simply a highly effective apparatchik so immersed in his job that he had lost his ability to think. In the modern hyper-industrialized, and therefore dehumanized world, evil could be done with responsibility for it so diffuse that it left mid-level cogs in the machine like Eichmann unaccountable. The phrase “banality of evil” took hold as one of the dominant references for writers, commentators, and academics dealing with state-sponsored atrocities for the next 50 years.
Margarethe von Trotta’s 2013 film, “Hannah Arendt,” dramatizes the explosive reaction the “banality of evil” theme drew from Jews—particularly death camps survivors. Many accused Arendt of abandoning her people and trivializing the most inhuman deed ever committed.
They believed Arendt was dissipating the narrative of crimes against the 6 million into a diffuse doctrine of institutional evil. She seemed to position both the Nazis and the Jews as balancing components of a single argument. The ostracism Arendt suffered from colleagues, friends, and much of the world Jewish community lasted until the end of her life. But the idea endured as a fundamental piece of the post-war colloquy.
A 2011 a book by Bettina Stagneth, “Eichmann before Jerusalem,” whose English version appeared in 2014, responds to Arendt, even referring directly to her book (“Eichmann in Jerusalem”) in its title. With access to great stores of documents that became available after Arendt’s death in 1975, Stagneth has shown that there could no longer be any question of Eichmann’s fanatical, personal anti-Semitism—quite apart from his bureaucratic role in the state apparatus. The views of that time continue to coalesce through such commentaries as Joshua Jonah Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners—Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust,” which documents the collaboration of ordinary citizens, well outside the Nazi Party, in efforts to exterminate the Jews.
Today, as the pendulum swings back toward what seem to be bedrock attitudes toward Jews, Hungary leads all European countries in the intensity of its anti-Semitism. A 2014 Anti-Defamation League survey shows 41% of Hungarians harbor anti-Semitic views. Yet, the post-war European redemption narrative persists in official Hungary. The famous memorial of bronzed shoes marks the spot on the Danube riverbank where government-sanctioned Nazi Arrow Cross militiamen executed Jews toward the end of the war. Judaism stands among Hungary’s four state-recognized religions, and public funds support Budapest’s glorious Dohany Street Synagogue, which was spared wartime bombing—by the Allies because they tried to avoid synagogues, and by the Germans because, in its women’s balcony, Eichmann made his office. He considered it the ideal spot from which to muster Jews from the surrounding ghetto for rail transfer to Auschwitz and similar places.
While the current Hungarian government invests in these gestures, it has demonstrated little willingness to temper the emergent far-right, virulently anti-Semitic Jobbik Party. As is often the case, any narrative that rejects anti-Semitism finds its counterweight in anti-Semitism’s eternal political usefulness. The government of Prime Minster Viktor Orbán seems to contain both narratives within itself—apparently without great difficulty.
The sustainability of any narrative varies with its value to the individuals and groups who harbor it. If it is in the interest of Jews “never again” to face extermination, then it remains crucial to keep the narrative of the Holocaust alive. The worldwide agitation of Holocaust deniers provides a robust and visible counter narrative. For them, the way to suppress empathy for Jews it is to say the Holocaust didn’t happen.
Much of the energy and justification for the State of Israel derived from the “never again” narrative. Since Israel’s founding six-and-a-half decades ago, Jewishness and the right of Israel to exist have been deeply intertwined. But those two narrative strands are becoming less tightly wound as many Diaspora Jews recoil from the security policies of the current Israeli government. A parallel disenchantment has occurred broadly in the outlook on Israel held by many governments that have been supportive since its founding in 1948.
If the military measures Israel has taken in Gaza—albeit in response to clear and horrendous provocations—are in excess of what is needed, then it is worth considering what they contribute to the ultimate well-being of the country in light of the fraying they are causing to he primal Israeli narrative that has supported the state since its beginning.