Friday, February 13, 2009

Response to a Critique of "The Reader"

I’m glad your friend’s grandmother survived the camps. Nobody in my German Jewish family did. Some, including my grandparents, were lucky to get out early. The rest didn’t. I grew up on stories of my great-grandmother, uncles, aunts, cousins disappearing into ghettos and camps. Some of these I confirmed myself at Holocaust museums and at Dachau. I’ve known survivors socially and from working for years at a Jewish Community Center, but none of my own family…

And I’ve wondered how an illiterate got into that SS job – well, it was late in the war, maybe they were desperate, who knows? One can quibble over what may be simply artistic license. And can the shame of illiteracy be worse than the shame of killing so many other people? All too easily. I know people with reading disabilities and the stigma is tremendous. In contrast, in Michael Moore’s “Sicko” we see insurance executives and bureaucrats who think nothing of letting people die for the sake of profit. From gay bashings and reports on racial lynchings we see how easy it is for people to dehumanize others, to trivialize murder, even turn it into a sport, or entertainment.

While “The Reader” can provoke all kinds of questions about historical accuracy and credibility of motivation (neither of which necessarily invalidates a work of fiction) the real difficulty of the movie is that it asks us to see this SS guard who casually, thoughtlessly participated in mass murder as a human being. And this is the challenge, to see Nazis as human.

We see other genocides all too often, from Armenia to Cambodia to Rwanda, the annihilation of Native Americans, and of Bosniaks. Yes, the Nazis were monstrous in the extreme, but inhuman?

I make no defense or justification of Nazism. Anyone trying that would infuriate me. I am profoundly disturbed by any ideology of hate and this one in particular fills me with revulsion that goes to my earliest childhood, the stories from those who survived, and those who didn’t. The sight of a swastika makes me sick. And yet, the most horrifying thing about them is that indeed they came from the same DNA as any of us, they and we are made of the same stuff, and as much as they debased humanity they are still a part of it. What really separates us but upbringing, character, and circumstance?

The human capacity for what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” the casual disregard that allows us to justify and shrug away murders is not limited to one horrific aberration of the mid-twentieth century. Was that even an aberration in anything but its mechanical devotion and efficiency? History suggests not.

And this is the hardest part of it. If we fail to see the humanity of the Nazis we fail to guard against the human capacity for evil, and can fall into replicating that evil all too easily.

The historic suffering and persecutions of the Jewish people are deep in our experience and the trauma of the Shoah is all too powerful. But what to do with that power? There are two general paths that trauma victims tend to take. (And they’re not entirely mutually exclusive.) One is the path of the healer, seeking to identify one’s suffering with others. A lot of Jews got into the anti-racist struggle and worked with Black leaders for civil rights. Jewish participation with blacks in the post-war era was big! And there has been lots of Jewish participation and support of other civil rights struggles.

The other path is to identify the trauma as unique. “Nobody’s suffered as I/we have,” and that can become license to act out. It doesn’t always. Some people carry their “special and unique” wound through life, causing no harm to anyone else. We also see it with abused children who become abusers, spouse-beaters, and criminals. They identify so deeply as a victim, that no matter how they harm others, how strong and aggressive they may become, it is they who are being victimized. We see it with Israelis who shoot Palestinian children and drop white phosphorus into crowded neighborhoods.

Yes, Nazis have rejected their own humanity so profoundly that the notion that they can be dehumanized seems redundant. But it’s not about them; it is, at this point, about us. We have to recognize the evil of dehumanization as part of the omnipresent peril of being human. We have to recognize what is human in Hannah Schmidt if we are ever to protect our own humanity from falling into the same pit that swallowed hers.

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