“Everyone’s a victim”: Relativizing Auschwitz with Adorno

Aus­chwitz was lib­er­ated 72 years ago today. In hon­or of In­ter­na­tion­al Holo­caust Re­mem­brance Day, I am re­post­ing a re­cent art­icle by Ingo Elbe on a new book by Marc Nich­olas Som­mer. Elbe is au­thor of the ex­traordin­ar­ily thor­ough over­view Marx im West­en: Die neue Marx-Lek­tü­re in der Bun­des­rep­ub­lik seit 1965. The first chapter of this book has been trans­lated and pub­lished over at View­point, which every­one ought to read. He con­tac­ted me about this short re­view, and en­cour­aged me to re­pub­lish it.

Some brief com­ments of my own, be­fore pro­ceed­ing to Elbe’s art­icle. First of all re­gard­ing the act­ors. Read­ers of this blog will doubt­less be fa­mil­i­ar with Theodor Wiesen­grund Ad­orno, a mu­si­co­lo­gist and lead­ing crit­ic­al the­or­ist of the In­sti­tut für So­zi­al­for­schung. Günther An­ders, ali­as Stern, like­wise con­trib­uted to the In­sti­tut’s journ­al from time to time, though he was nev­er a mem­ber. An­ders was also the first hus­band of the fam­ous Ger­man-Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al philo­soph­er Han­nah Aren­dt. Like her (as well as Her­bert Mar­cuse, an­oth­er mem­ber of the Frank­furt School), he was a one­time stu­dent of the in­flu­en­tial Nazi pro­fess­or Mar­tin Heide­g­ger. In 1948, An­ders up­braided his former mas­ter in a scath­ing po­lem­ic “On the Pseudo-Con­crete­ness of Heide­g­ger’s Philo­sophy.”

Jean Améry, pseud­onym of Hanns Chaim May­er, was an Aus­tri­an es­say­ist based in Brus­sels, Bel­gi­um. Un­like either An­ders or Ad­orno, he sur­vived the Aus­chwitz death camp. Between 1962 and 1966, he wrote a series of re­flec­tions on his ex­per­i­ences there, com­piled un­der the title At the Mind’s Lim­its. It is a haunt­ing, angry col­lec­tion, not­able for its ab­so­lute un­will­ing­ness to for­give any­one com­pli­cit in per­pet­rat­ing the Judeo­cide. Philo­soph­ic­ally Améry in­clined to­ward Sartrean ex­ist­en­tial­ism rather than crit­ic­al the­ory. He was gen­er­ally un­im­pressed by Ad­orno, whose 1964 study of The Jar­gon of Au­then­ti­city he lam­pooned in his own 1967 tract, Jar­gon der Dia­lek­tik. Con­tem­por­ary the­or­ists who draw in­spir­a­tion from both Améry and Ad­orno — such as Gerhard Scheit, of the hard anti-Ger­man ISF and sans phrase — have at­temp­ted to re­con­cile the rift in rather tor­tur­ous fash­ion, seek­ing to es­tab­lish com­mon ground.

Elbe sides, some­what sur­pris­ingly, with Améry in this par­tic­u­lar dis­pute. That is to say, he be­lieves Améry is bet­ter able to grasp the spe­cificity of Aus­chwitz. Ad­orno is con­victed by Elbe of the very “iden­tity-think­ing” [Iden­ti­täts­den­ken] de­cried at length in Neg­at­ive Dia­lectics, set­ting up a false equi­val­ence between the de­lib­er­ate murder of European Je­w­ry by the Nazis at Aus­chwitz and the in­dis­crim­in­ate mas­sacre of Ja­pan­ese ci­vil­ians by the Amer­ic­ans at Hiroshi­ma. One aimed at an­ni­hil­a­tion, the oth­er at ca­pit­u­la­tion. Here I cer­tainly ac­know­ledge the valid­ity of the dis­tinc­tion Elbe is try­ing to make, but am less bothered by Ad­orno’s in­clu­sion of Hiroshi­ma along­side Aus­chwitz (one could men­tion any num­ber of oth­er at­ro­cit­ies) as an ex­ample of the un­par­alleled bar­bar­ism of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, fol­low­ing the fail­ure to tran­scend cap­it­al in its open­ing dec­ades. Stal­in’s GU­Lag ar­chipelago dis­turbs me just as much, if not more, des­pite the fact they were nev­er meant to ex­term­in­ate the in­mates. For they rep­res­en­ted the be­tray­al of com­mun­ism, which was at least sup­posed to prom­ise a bet­ter world, as Primo Levi poin­ted out, where­as with fas­cism the con­cen­tra­tion camps fol­lowed from first prin­ciples.

Per­haps this is in­dic­at­ive of a broad­er dis­agree­ment between Elbe and my­self, and by ex­ten­sion Améry. While I am awake to the dangers of left an­ti­semit­ism, I do not be­lieve that any and all op­pos­i­tion to Is­rael is an­ti­semit­ic. Améry’s charge that anti-Zion­ism had be­come “the re­spect­able an­ti­semit­ism” by the 1970s may ring true in some in­stances, and he provides sev­er­al com­pel­ling ex­amples where this is the case. (Just a couple weeks ago, a Ger­man court ruled that torch­ing a syn­agogue near Düsseldorf is a le­git­im­ate form of anti-Zion­ist protest). Yet I be­lieve that it is pos­sible to op­pose the Zion­ism with­in an anti-na­tion­al­ist frame­work which does not view it as ex­cep­tion­al, the his­tor­ic­al pe­cu­li­ar­it­ies not­with­stand­ing. However, I do share Elbe’s dis­may at the cheer­lead­ing that fre­quently goes on among West­ern left­ists for Is­lam­ist groups that spout some brand of anti-im­per­i­al­ist rhet­or­ic. So there is prob­ably a great deal we’d agree on. En­joy his art­icle.

adorno-sitting-copy jean-amery-foto

“The world as a concentration camp”

Ingo Elbe

…re­du­cing tor­ment­or and tor­men­ted to the com­mon de­nom­in­at­or “vic­tims,” by means of a dia­lect­ic­al pi­rou­ette.

— Jean Améry1

In his book The Concept of Neg­at­ive Dia­lectics,2 Marc Nich­olas Som­mer claims to re­con­struct Theodor Ad­orno’s neg­at­ive philo­sophy of his­tory as a “philo­sophy of his­tory from the view­point of the vic­tims” (294). Som­mer sug­gests, fol­low­ing Ad­orno,3 that “since World War II every sub­ject” has be­come “a po­ten­tial vic­tim of his­tory” (295). “Every single one” could now “po­ten­tially” ex­per­i­ence him­self as a vic­tim of “the ut­most ex­treme” [„des Äu­ßers­ten“] (295). Con­cur­ring with Ad­orno, Som­mer defines “the ut­most ex­treme” as “‘de­lu­sion­al pre­ju­dice, op­pres­sion, gen­o­cide, and tor­ture.””4 Also in ac­cord­ance with Ad­orno, Som­mer some­times uses the phras­ing the “ever-present cata­strophe”5 (325) in­stead of the ut­most ex­treme. In­deed, Som­mer read­ily con­cedes “that not every single one ac­tu­ally ex­per­i­ences him­self as a po­ten­tial vic­tim” (325) and in­so­far per­haps people liv­ing in more or less func­tion­ing con­sti­tu­tion­al states have bet­ter pro­tec­tion against “the ut­most ex­treme” than those liv­ing in au­thor­it­ari­an states and un­der dic­tat­or­ships, but — and this is his main ar­gu­ment — “with the nuc­le­ar bomb a new power has ap­peared,” mak­ing the “ut­most ex­treme” pos­sible for every per­son. In agree­ment with Günther An­ders he refers to his dia­gnos­is that “‘the threat of nuc­le­ar war […] trans­forms the world in­to a hope­less con­cen­tra­tion camp‘“6(325). Som­mer uses the term “con­cen­tra­tion camps” for be­ing at the mercy of the “ar­bit­rar­i­ness of the guards,” for the ir­rel­ev­ance of one’s own be­ha­vi­or re­gard­ing the ques­tion of wheth­er one be­comes a vic­tim or not, and for a not fur­ther spe­cified ex­term­in­a­tion. Fur­ther de­tails are not giv­en. Else­where, he uses the term “Aus­chwitz” in­stead of “con­cen­tra­tion camp” (or simply “camp”). Som­mer defines the term Aus­chwitz — once again in ref­er­ence to Ad­orno — as “‘ad­min­is­trat­ive murder of mil­lions.””7 With the nuc­le­ar bomb the “ex­per­i­ence of camp in­mates” has been gen­er­al­ized, “that the dis­aster of the ar­bit­rar­i­ness of the guards can be­fall them at any giv­en time, re­gard­less of their be­ha­vi­or.” The nuc­le­ar bomb trans­forms the world in­to a con­cen­tra­tion camp be­cause it con­stantly threatens us with the pos­sib­il­ity of total ex­term­in­a­tion — re­gard­less of how we be­have.” (295f.)

In my opin­ion, Som­mer can jus­ti­fi­ably refer to some state­ments with­in the writ­ings of Ad­orno, and in­so­far he should be thanked for put­ting these tend­en­cies in the open which many Ad­orno-dis­ciples like to ig­nore. My fo­cus here is not on Ad­orno him­self — a crit­ic­al ana­lys­is of his work re­gard­ing these tend­en­cies has not yet been achieved. I be­lieve it it is of more im­port­ance that Som­mer‘s (and partly Ad­orno’s too and en­tirely An­ders’) state­ments are down­right text­book ex­amples for “iden­tity think­ing” in the worst pos­sible sense, un­der­stood here as iden­ti­fic­a­tion of ac­tu­ally very dif­fer­ent facts by in­dis­crim­in­ately sub­sum­ing spe­cif­ic phe­nom­ena un­der one gen­er­al term (for ex­ample “the ut­most ex­treme,” “the cata­strophe,” “the neg­at­ive,” “bar­bar­ity,” “ex­term­in­a­tion,” et cet­era). In the fol­low­ing, I will briefly il­lus­trate that Som­mer’s neg­at­ive philo­sophy of his­tory — in a sug­gest­ive and fac­tu­ally un­jus­ti­fi­able man­ner — iden­ti­fies the neg­at­ive con­tinu­ity of the his­tory of dom­in­a­tion for thou­sands of years (suf­fer­ing, op­pres­sion, ali­en­a­tion), mod­ern tech­nic­al overkill po­ten­tials (nuc­le­ar bomb) and the Shoah (“Aus­chwitz”) and thereby brings about a ver­it­able re­la­tiv­iz­a­tion of Aus­chwitz that al­lows a “crit­ic­al” ex­culp­a­tion of the per­pet­rat­ors re­spons­ible for the Shoah (and their rep­res­ent­at­ives today). It is not my in­ten­tion at all to “un­dia­lect­ic­ally” di­vide “his­tory in­to civil­iz­a­tion and bar­bar­ity”8, but — with all ex­ist­ing con­tinu­it­ies — to sharpen the per­spect­ive re­gard­ing “the ut­most ex­treme.”

I. It would be help­ful if Som­mer clearly defined the dif­fer­ence between ex­term­in­a­tion camps9 and oth­er Na­tion­al So­cial­ist con­cen­tra­tion camps. For the un­der­stand­ing of the spe­cif­ics of the Shoah — that is “Aus­chwitz” (360), which Som­mer also uses — it is ne­ces­sary to re­flect upon this cru­cial dif­fer­ence. In place of this re­flec­tion, Som­mer uses the terms men­tioned be­fore (ar­bit­rar­i­ness, in­no­cence) and a dif­fuse term of ex­term­in­a­tion which re­mains un­told who should be ex­term­in­ated by whom and why. We will see that these un­cer­tain­ties with­in the term ex­term­in­a­tion are con­stitutive for Som­mer’s fur­ther reas­on­ing.

II. Ar­bit­rar­i­ness and tor­ture as well as the de­ten­tion of in­no­cent people in camps are not spe­cif­ics of Na­tion­al So­cial­ism, but to a great ex­tent fea­tures of oth­er “to­tal­it­ari­an” re­gimes. Fur­ther­more, mass murder of in­no­cent people, the an­onym­ous death, cruel tor­ture and ex­e­cu­tion prac­tices were an in­teg­ral part of many his­tor­ic wars and crimes. Why pre­cisely “Aus­chwitz” and not the cru­sades or the so called “Mon­gol in­va­sion of Europe” are con­sidered the “turn­ing point […]” (360) in his­tory, the “break of civil­iz­a­tion,” re­mains in­com­pre­hens­ible. If Som­mer ar­gued that this state­ment that the in­di­vidu­al be­ha­vi­or of people has ab­so­lutely no in­flu­ence in re­gards to the pos­sible vic­tim status, means that they have been des­ig­nated by a to­tal­it­ari­an ideo­logy as en­emies who have to be com­bated and ex­term­in­ated without al­tern­at­ive simply be­cause they ex­ist or cer­tain at­trib­utes are pro­jec­ted onto them, this would be a pos­sible dif­fer­ence from for ex­ample the “Mon­gol in­va­sion of Europe.” Som­mer omits such dif­fer­en­ti­ations as his reas­on­ing is on a totally dif­fer­ent level which ig­nores the ideo­lo­gic­al mo­tiv­a­tion com­pletely. I will come back to this point (see IV).

III. The fact that they were ad­min­is­trat­ively or­gan­ized “may have been the least of their prob­lems for the ghetto-, con­cen­tra­tion camp-, and ex­term­in­a­tion camp-in­mates.”10 The topos Som­mer quotes, and which Ad­orno as well as Aren­dt and An­ders equally refer to, the “in­dus­tri­al” or “ad­min­is­trat­ive mass murder” or — as Som­mer also la­bels it — “or­gan­ized mass murder […],” is equally use­less for the un­der­stand­ing of the spe­cif­ics of the Shoah. And there­fore for the un­der­stand­ing of the “break of civil­iz­a­tion.” It does not take in­to con­sid­er­a­tion the fact that ap­prox­im­ately 40% of the six mil­lion murdered Jews, not to men­tion the oth­er vic­tims of the Nazis, wer­en’t gassed in “death factor­ies” but rather con­ven­tion­ally shot and slain be­hind the front­lines.11 It also dis­reg­ards the ideo­lo­gic­al mo­tiv­a­tion of many per­pet­rat­ors and their at times vast free­dom of ac­tion.12 Ul­ti­mately this res­ults in the false be­lief that the al­legedly “in­dus­tri­al” and “ad­min­is­trat­ive” meth­od of murder is spe­cif­ic to the Shoah, in­stead of the unique in­tent to murder and its con­sequent ex­e­cu­tion.

IV. Som­mer could now re­spond that he is not con­cerned with the spe­cif­ics of the Shoah. And he in­deed ul­ti­mately con­siders “Aus­chwitz” and “Hiroshi­ma” equally as his­tor­ic­al “turn­ing points.” Here be­gins an­oth­er prob­lem­at­ic if not to say: a cata­stroph­ic blur­ring of all im­port­ant his­tor­ic­al and polit­ic­al dif­fer­ences. Why does the nuc­le­ar bomb ac­cord­ing to An­ders and Som­mer trans­form the world in­to a “con­cen­tra­tion camp”? This reas­on­ing con­sists of the al­leged sim­il­ar­it­ies of “con­cen­tra­tion camp” and nuc­le­ar threat, where­as “con­cen­tra­tion camp” is now more dis­tinctly con­noted with a not fur­ther spe­cified “ex­term­in­a­tion”: Firstly, the threat of nuc­le­ar death is one that is in “no re­la­tion any­more” (295) to the ac­tions of the threatened. Secondly, the nuc­le­ar bomb threatens hu­man­ity with “total ex­term­in­a­tion” (296). In this case, Som­mer cat­egor­izes his­tor­ic­ally rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent as­pects in­to poor ab­strac­tions: “in­no­cence” of the vic­tims and their “ex­term­in­a­tion.”

The spe­cif­ics of the Nazi ex­term­in­a­tion camps however do not con­sist of the prac­tice or the threat of in­dis­crim­in­ate ex­term­in­a­tion of all people. Primar­ily, the goal was to murder Jews — namely to murder each and every Jew — be­cause they were de­clared by the Na­tion­al So­cial­ist ideo­logy to be the “evil, sub­vers­ive, ab­stract ele­ment” of mod­ern­ity per se, the “en­emy of na­tions.” This de­clar­a­tion of enmity had noth­ing to do with the be­ha­vi­or of real Jews. Som­mer’s reas­on­ing ab­stracts from these spe­cif­ics of the total-gen­o­cid­al antisemit­ic mo­tiv­a­tion,13 where­as only their im­ple­ment­a­tion con­sti­tutes the break in civil­iz­a­tion, the rad­ic­al dif­fer­ence to the Mon­gol in­va­sion and to simple “op­pres­sion,” to un­spe­cified “gen­o­cide” and to “tor­ture.” Even though one could (and should) ac­cuse Ad­orno of such poor ab­strac­tions, at least it is also Ad­orno, with his Erich Fromm trained thoughts re­gard­ing the au­thor­it­ari­an char­ac­ter and his, by all means am­bi­val­ent, stud­ies on antisemit­ism, who sig­ni­fic­antly con­trib­uted to the un­der­stand­ing of the spe­cif­ics of the Shoah. Som­mer bur­ies these as­pects of Ad­orno’s think­ing be­neath his own ver­sion of a neg­at­ive philo­sophy of his­tory.

The threat of total ex­term­in­a­tion of all hu­man life, which em­an­ates from the po­ten­tial use of the nuc­le­ar bomb,14 is to be­gin with an ideo­lo­gic­ally-polit­ic­ally com­pletely un­defined threat. In­deed, it is not a mat­ter of tech­nic­al pos­sib­il­it­ies of ex­term­in­a­tion, but rather a mat­ter of who wants to ex­term­in­ate who and with what in­tent. Even if in the course of the bloc con­front­a­tion hu­man­ity had been elim­in­ated by a nuc­le­ar war we would be deal­ing with something en­tirely dif­fer­ent from Aus­chwitz, be­cause de­claredly neither of the two sides had the in­ten­tion to ex­term­in­ate hu­man­ity per se and neither side had ex­pressed a de­clar­a­tion of enmity ana­logue to the Na­tion­al So­cial­ist one. Neither the USA nor the USSR for ex­ample — even with all the enmity between them — viewed the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of the op­pos­i­tion as “the epi­tome of evil” and “para­sites to be erad­ic­ated.”15 But if for ex­ample lead­ing rep­res­ent­at­ives of the Is­lam­ist re­gime in Ir­an con­sider erad­ic­at­ing Is­rael with a nuc­le­ar bomb,16 then there are in fact sim­il­ar­it­ies between the ex­term­in­a­tion com­mit­ted by Na­tion­al So­cial­ism and the ex­term­in­a­tion which the nuc­le­ar bomb is sup­posed to cause. It is es­sen­tial that we have to an­swer this ques­tion on an ideo­lo­gic­al-polit­ic­al level and that it is fu­tile to com­pare tech­nic­al threats to ideo­lo­gic­ally mo­tiv­ated polit­ics of ex­term­in­a­tion. In this case not only are not­ari­al charges be­ing com­pared to red beets, they are be­ing iden­ti­fied.17 In this re­spect, Ad­orno’s state­ment that “nuc­le­ar bomb and gas cham­ber have fatal struc­tur­al sim­il­ar­it­ies”18 is also either trivi­al or point­less or wrong. Trivi­al if mean­ing that both tech­nic­al means en­able the murder of many people from a cer­tain dis­tance (whereby this is doubt­ful re­gard­ing the gas cham­ber, as a dir­ect con­tact between vic­tim and per­pet­rat­or had taken place be­fore and after the killing, even if this con­tact could par­tially be del­eg­ated to the Son­der­kom­mandos). Point­less if by tech­nic­al means one tries to make a state­ment about the ideo­lo­gic­al in­tent of mur­der­ing, which is im­possible. Wrong if “Aus­chwitz” and “Hiroshi­ma” are equated — even if only “struc­tur­ally.” To put it bluntly: In this case Aus­chwitz is a mere pre­text and the Shoah turns in­to a mere “ac­cus­at­ori­al-em­blem.”19

The “Post-Aus­chwitz-Situ­ation” which, ac­cord­ing to Ad­orno, we are liv­ing in is not char­ac­ter­ized by the ex­ist­ence of tech­nic­al means of mass murder but by the fact that the ut­most ex­treme has already happened, un­der Na­tion­al So­cial­ism the threat of murder of mil­lions of (Jew­ish) people without a however me­di­ated eco­nom­ic, geo­pol­it­ic­al or demo­graph­ic pur­pose be­came real­ity.20

V. “When the pos­sib­il­ity of total ex­term­in­a­tion be­comes the scale” (325) for a neg­at­ive ter­min­o­logy of his­tory, then “we all” can fi­nally per­ceive ourselves as in­dis­crim­in­ate vic­tims “of his­tory.” When this “ex­term­in­a­tion” is in such a way ideo­lo­gic­ally-polit­ic­ally un­spe­cified as it is in Som­mer’s case, then the “po­ten­tial” threat of a nuc­le­ar war and the real threat of “erad­ic­a­tion” for Jews be­come one and the same (as well as the killing of thou­sands of ci­vil­ians in Hiroshi­ma and the real killing of mil­lions of Jews would be of one and the same qual­ity). This ex­culp­at­ory tend­ency began dir­ectly after the Shoah and can be found in vari­ous forms with­in the works of Han­nah Aren­dt, Bruno Bettel­heim, Günther An­ders, or Mar­tin Heide­g­ger. In the year 2016, an au­thor who claims his in­ten­tion is a crit­ic­al the­ory which does not sac­ri­fice “the par­tic­u­lar” to “the gen­er­al” — after all one of the ba­sic themes of the Neg­at­ive Dia­lectic, the top­ic of Som­mer’s book — con­tin­ues in this ex­culp­at­ory tra­di­tion.

Not only does Som­mer re­la­tiv­ize the sig­ni­fic­ance of Aus­chwitz by equat­ing totally dif­fer­ent kinds of threats and ex­term­in­a­tions, he also con­founds neg­at­ive con­tinu­it­ies of a his­tory of dom­in­a­tion (tor­ture, suf­fer­ing, op­pres­sion, power­less­ness, ali­en­a­tion et cet­era) with the spe­cif­ics of the “Post-Aus­chwitz”-Situ­ation. He mingles “mod­ern­ity” per se with “to­tal­it­ari­an­ism” but also suf­fer­ing un­der op­press­ive con­di­tions in pre­mod­ern times and the ac­tu­al “om­ni­pres­ence of the cata­strophe” in­to one.21 The real and the po­ten­tial per­pet­rat­ors whose in­ten­tions ac­tu­ally are the “ut­most ex­treme” can be pleased. En­nobled by a crit­ic­al the­or­ist they are fi­nally al­lowed to say: “We all are vic­tims.”

To avoid mis­un­der­stand­ings: In the state­ment I have quoted as an in­tro­duct­ory state­ment, Jean Améry crit­ic­ally refers to the ques­tion if, for ex­ample, one might also con­sider the Na­tion­al So­cial­ist per­pet­rat­ors to be vic­tims — “products of men­tal mu­til­a­tion”22 — as they be­came per­pet­rat­ors un­der spe­cif­ic so­cial con­di­tions.23 However, this ques­tion is not ad­dressed by Som­mer in his iden­ti­fic­a­tion of all people as vic­tims. Here it is much sim­pler: The vic­tim status of every­one, the tor­ment­or as well as the tor­men­ted, is ex­plained by the nuc­le­ar threat. Be­sides, even if one la­bels the Nazi-per­pet­rat­ors as “vic­tims” in the sense that ac­cord­ing to the the­ory of the au­thor­it­ari­an per­son­al­ity their ac­tions emerged as the res­ult of liv­ing un­der ali­en­ated so­cial con­di­tions and there­fore they had no ab­so­lute free choice in their lean­ings (I per­son­ally would not speak of “vic­tims” here), this “vic­tim” status would have to be con­sidered as totally dif­fer­ent, by every per­son who has not lost his sense of judge­ment, from the vic­tim status of those tor­tured and murdered by these per­pet­rat­ors.24 With his con­cen­tra­tion camp = nuc­le­ar threat = the ut­most ex­treme = vic­tims chain of equi­val­ence, Som­mer levels pre­cisely these cru­cial dif­fer­ences.

Trans­la­tion: Paul Mentz25


1 Jean Améry, Jar­gon der Dia­lek­tik, in: Wer­ke, Bd. 6. Auf­sät­ze zur Phi­lo­soph­ie, Stut­tgart 2004, p. 265.
2 Marc Nich­olas Som­mer, Das Kon­zept ein­er neg­at­iven Dia­lek­tik. Ad­or­no und He­gel, Tü­bin­gen 2016.
3 Som­mer refers to Theodor W. Ad­orno, His­tory and Free­dom: Lec­tures, 1964-1965, Cam­bridge/Malden, p. 23.
4 Som­mer refers to Theodor W. Ad­orno, “Ta­boos on the Teach­ing Vo­ca­tion,” in: Crit­ic­al Mod­els: In­ter­ven­tions and Catch­words, New York/Chichester, West Sus­sex 2005, p. 190.
5 Som­mer refers to Theodor W. Ad­orno, “‘Stat­ic’ and ‘Dy­nam­ic’ as So­ci­olo­gic­al Cat­egor­ies” [1956/1961]. Dio­genes, No. 33 (Spring 1961), p. 46.
6 Som­mer refers to Günther An­ders, Die ato­ma­re Bed­ro­hung, Mün­chen 1993, p. 94.
7 Som­mer refers to Theodor W. Ad­orno, Neg­at­ive Dia­lectics. New York/Lon­don 2007, p. 362.
8 Jean Améry, Jar­gon der Dia­lek­tik, in: Wer­ke, Bd. 6. Auf­sät­ze zur Phi­lo­soph­ie, Stut­tgart 2004, p. 266.
9 I am aware that the term “ex­term­in­a­tion” it­self is ul­ti­mately Nazi ter­min­o­logy. But firstly Som­mer uses this ter­min­o­logy to prove his main thes­is and secondly it is in any case nearly im­possible to speak about the Shoah in a lan­guage which does not use the lan­guage of the per­pet­rat­ors. If I spoke of murder camps it is pos­sible that the thought of murder as a com­mon crim­in­al of­fence could rise, which would also be in­ad­equate for an un­der­stand­ing of the spe­cif­ics of these ac­tions and in­sti­tu­tions. Nev­er­the­less it is also im­possible to en­tirely rid one­self of the tra­di­tion­al vocab­u­lary of crim­in­al law.
10 Fa­bi­an Kettner, Ist die Post­mo­d­er­ne ein Re­flex auf den Ho­lo­caust? p. 4.
11 See Ul­rich Her­bert, „Ver­nich­tung­spo­li­tik. Neue An­t­wor­ten und Fra­gen zur Ge­schich­te des ,Ho­lo­caust’.“ In: Ders. (Hg.), Na­ti­on­al­so­zi­al­is­ti­sche Ver­nich­tung­spo­li­tik. Neue For­schun­gen und Kon­tro­ver­sen, Frank­furt/M, p. 57.
12 The cri­tique of this ad­min­is­tra­tion topos has mean­while been de­veloped in depth by au­thors like Daniel Gold­ha­gen, Alf Lüdtke, Yaa­cov Lo­zowick, Ul­rich Her­bert, Nic­olas Berg, Mi­chael Wildt, Fe­lix Römer and many oth­ers.
13 See, re­gard­ing the spe­cif­ic gen­o­cid­al in­ten­tion­al­ity of the Nazis in the Shoah: Steven T. Katz, “The ‘Unique’ In­ten­tion­al­ity of the Holo­caust,” in: Mod­ern Juda­ism, Vol 1/1981 and Ye­huda Bauer, Re­think­ing the Holo­caust, New Haven/Lon­don 2001.
14 Be­sides, a lim­ited use is also con­ceiv­able. In this case too, not “all people” are al­ways and in prin­ciple vic­tims of a nuc­le­ar at­tack.
15 When for ex­ample Ron­ald Re­agan called “com­mun­ism” the realm of evil he meant that the Rus­si­ans had to be freed from “evil com­mun­ism” as an ideo­logy and sys­tem of op­pres­sion, not that they as people had to be ex­term­in­ated en­tirely. In this re­spect it is also in­cor­rect when Som­mer claims that the nuc­le­ar threat per se ex­is­ted totally un­re­lated to the be­ha­vi­or of people. To some ex­tent this might ap­ply to the nor­mal cit­izen, but not to the gov­ern­ment. Had the USSR trans­formed it­self in­to a pro-Amer­ic­an cap­it­al­ist state, the threat of a nuc­le­ar con­front­a­tion would have failed to ma­ter­i­al­ize. A sim­il­ar op­tion of “con­ver­sion” was not avail­able to the Jews and also the Ju­den­rä­te un­der Na­tion­al So­cial­ism.
16 See here.
17 It is in­dic­at­ive for the hy­po­stas­ized way of speak­ing, in­to which a “neg­at­ive philo­sophy of his­tory” pro­ceed­ing in this man­ner lapses, that tech­nic­al means are sud­denly por­trayed as sub­jects or that polit­ic­al sub­jects are an­onym­ized by a tech­noid­al vocab­u­lary. The mas­ter of such hy­po­stat­iz­a­tion is without a doubt Günther An­ders. For Som­mer too it is “the nuc­le­ar bomb” which “threatens […] us” (p. 295, my em­phas­is).
18 Theodor W. Ad­orno, His­tory and Free­dom: Lec­tures, 1964-1965, Cam­bridge/Malden, p. 8.
19 See Alv­in Rosen­feld, The End of the Holo­caust, Bloom­ing­ton 2011.
20 Re­gard­less of the ex­e­cu­tion of this threat in­to mur­der­ous prac­tice, for the rest of the Je­w­ry the threat per­sists and in threat­en­ing the ex­ist­ence of Is­rael a second Holo­caust an­nounces it­self. This is a cru­cial as­pect of the Post-Aus­chwitz-Situ­ation which even crit­ic­al the­or­ists like Moshe Zuck­er­mann and oth­ers sadly ig­nore. For Zuck­er­mann the les­son of Aus­chwitz even res­ults in the vague de­mand “to op­pose the sys­tem­at­ic caus­ing of ever more new vic­tims.” (Moshe Zuck­er­mann, Krit­ische The­or­ie in Is­ra­el, in: Ders. (Hg.), Theodor W. Ad­orno. Phi­lo­soph des be­schä­dig­ten Le­bens, Göt­tin­gen 2004, p. 20.) One might ask why there is even the need for a re­course to Aus­chwitz, and one might ima­gine what this means for a Jew­ish state when its cit­izens de­fend them­selves by mil­it­ary means against their ex­term­in­a­tion.
21 “In the face of Aus­chwitz,” the Ad­orno-ex­egete Dirk Braun­stein also lapses in­to such a form of iden­tity-think­ing in the worst pos­sible way: “In the face of ex­term­in­a­tion war and con­cen­tra­tion camps hu­man his­tory presents it­self as a his­tory of hu­man ex­term­in­a­tion.” (Ad­or­nos Kri­tik der po­lit­ischen Öko­no­mie, Bie­le­feld 2011, p. 189) Once again “con­cen­tra­tion camps” be­come a pre­text for a neg­at­ive philo­sophy of his­tory and at the same time the lat­ter be­comes a means to let the spe­cif­ics of the Shoah dis­ap­pear in­to an in­dis­crim­in­ate “hu­man ex­term­in­a­tion.”
22 Theodor W. Ad­orno, Neg­at­ive Dia­lectics. New York/Lon­don 2007, p. 264.
23 But this would not ab­solve any­one from the in­di­vidu­al re­spons­ib­il­ity for their mur­der­ous ac­tions, as Ad­orno, too, points out. (See Theodor W. Ad­orno, Neg­at­ive Dia­lectics. New York/Lon­don 2007, p. 264).
24 See Jean Améry, Jar­gon der Dia­lek­tik, Stut­tgart 2004, p. 267: “When in ad­di­tion the tor­ment­ors may be called vic­tims too, then one has to pre­cisely spe­cify: whose vic­tims.”
25 Thanks to Sina Men­ke for help­ful com­ments and cor­rec­tions.

7 thoughts on ““Everyone’s a victim”: Relativizing Auschwitz with Adorno

  1. You only need to invoke Giorgo Agamben to prove Adorno was right. You can also think of Donald Trump, if you wish.

  2. Ross, here is the problem.

    We must now live in hope, faint hope I fear. One of the brightest (and tallest) Keynesians of his generation, among other prescient insights into the nature of capitalism and capitalists, said this over forty years ago:

    People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.

    – John Kenneth Galbraith

    That said, let us turn to issues of criticism of the Israeli state. If you go back and read Deutscher’s “The Non-Jewish Jew”, you will find his prescient view that by its very nature, the State of Israel has planted the seeds of its own demise. He could not foresee the viciousness of the Israeli settler movement and its reactionary political allies, nor (although I’m not sure about this) Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons.

    Now, am I being anti-Semitic if I propose that the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza is the closest contemporary example of the horrors perpetrated in the Warsaw Ghetto? By the way, Deutscher was a Polish Jew. Here is the first paragraph on his life from Wikkipedia:

    “Deutscher was born in Chrzanów, a town in the Galicia region of Poland, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into a family of religiously observant Jews. He studied with a Hasidic rebbe and was acclaimed as a prodigy in the study of the Torah and the Talmud. By the time of his bar mitzvah, however, he had lost his faith. He “tested God” by eating non-kosher food at the grave of a tzadik (holy person) on Yom Kippur. When nothing happened, he became an atheist.”

    • I forgot to add that my own epiphany on the road to atheism, came when I was hit by a car while riding my bike on the way to Sunday School.

  3. just to clarify one thing: german court didn’t rule that synagogue burning is legitimate form of protest but that it is not anti-semitic (especially given the specific weight that ideological formation has in the german society). arsonists have been tried and found guilty but there act was judged not to be aimed at jews at large but at the certain politics.

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