An undated archive photograph shows Auschwitz II-Birkenau main guard house which prisoners called "the gate of death".  An undated archive photograph shows Auschwitz II-Birkenau's main guard house which prisoners called "the gate of death" and the railway with the remains of abandoned crockery. The railway, which was built in 1944, was the last stop for the trains bringing Jews to the death camp. REUTERS/HO-AUSCHWITZ MUSEUM

“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.)

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