Leon Wieseltier on the Holocaust and evil

In 1996, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum hosted “an evening of dialogue to examine the issues raised by Daniel Goldhagen’s deliberately provocative book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, in which the author seeks to challenge the canons of Holocaust scholarship and to directly confront its acknowledged masters.” This introduction and some of the lectures can be found here.

I found Leon Wieseltier’s reflections to be arresting. Below are the first two paragraphs and the final paragraph of Wieseltier’s talk:

I am not a professional historian of the Holocaust. From my distance, I am not sure that it is humanly possible any longer to master the subject; or humanely possible. Certainly, I cannot master it, and I am not referring only to its details. I admire those who study it with equanimity, whose historical attitude has not been broken by this historical turpitude; detachment in the face of such a subject is a genuine accomplishment of human inwardness. But for me the Holocaust is fire and ice. The more I live with the events of 1939-1945, the less I understand them. I need an explanation, and all I find are explanations. I have concluded that the search for an explanation is futile. There are only explanations, and alone or together they do not retire the mystery.

I do not use the word “mystery” lightly; it is, generally, a cheap word, a spiritualization of lazy minds. In one sense, of course, what happened between 1939 and 1945 is clear: a people called the Jews was almost destroyed by a people called the Germans, with the assistance of other peoples whose names are known to you all. And so, as we like to say, we have clarity. But when we have clarity, what is it, really, that we have? I would suggest that the clarity that we possess about the Holocaust only exposes the limits of clarity, its contentlessness. It is possible to have perfect clarity on a perfect mystery….

Goldhagen has written a dark book; but I wonder whether reality is not even darker than he thinks. From the Holocaust I take away a terrifying lesson about the resourcefulness of evil. Evil advances thoughtfully and thoughtlessly; meaningfully and meaninglessly; alone and in company; by design and by circumstance; sober and drunk; with compunction and without. It kindles to national boundaries, but it will not be confined by national characters. It is found and it is taught. It is monocausal and multicausal. It will not be pinned down long, in theory or in practice. It will not be exhausted by any of its expressions. It is itself evidence of that aspect of human life from which it has most to fear, which is the aspect of universalism.

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2 comments

    • I think that he meant universal moral standards. His last sentence certainly could have used some unpacking.

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