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.
…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.)