I remember vividly the heated argument that German historians and philosophers were having in the late 1980s, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Bonn, over the question whether the Holocaust committed by the Nazis was a “unique” event or rather comparable to other mass murders committed by other regimes throughout the 20th century. The so-called Historikerstreit was started off by the conservative historian Ernst Nolte, who tried to explain the Holocaust as a defensive reaction to the forced labour camps of Soviet Russia. In response, the liberal philosopher Jürgen Habermas accused Nolte of downplaying the enormity of the event and trying to shift blame away from the Germans and onto the Russians - as if the Germans had been driven to it, and in fact had no choice or at least excellent reasons for acting the way they did. Habermas insisted, as did many others, that the Holocaust was “unique”, could not be compared with any other crime, and could, and should, never be “understood”. I, for my part, didn’t think that Nolte intended to justify what the Nazis did, and I couldn’t quite see why any attempt to understand what happened should be in itself morally wrong and blameworthy. Clearly an explanation is not necessarily a justification. It seemed to me that to insist on the Holocaust’s radical uniqueness and the impossibility to understand it was not only silly, but in fact highly dangerous: if something is “unique”, we don’t have to fear that it might happen again. The unique only happens once. If something cannot be understood, then we don’t have to bother trying to prevent it from happening again, because even if it could happen again its very inexplicability would make it impossible for us to do anything about it. If we cannot determine its causes, then we cannot fight them. Therefore, I thought, we had a moral duty to understand what had happened and why it had happened.
Now, I’m not so sure anymore, and the reason is that I have just read Primo Levi’s account of his time in Auschwitz (If this Is a Man, 1947), and of his long journey home to his native Turin after the war had ended (The Truce, 1963). In an afterword to the Everyman edition of these two books, Levi gives answers to his readers’ questions. Asked about how the Nazis’ fanatical hatred of the Jews could be explained, he emphasises the importance of not explaining and not trying to understand that hatred:
“Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify. Let me explain: ‘understanding’ a proposal or human behaviour means to ‘contain’ it, contain its author, put oneself in his place, identify with him. Now, no normal human being will ever be able to identify with Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Eichmann, and endless others. This dismays us, and at the same time gives us a sense of relief, because perhaps it is desirable that their words (and also, unfortunately, their deeds) cannot be comprehensible to us. They are non-human words and deeds, really counter-human, without historic precedents, with difficulty comparable to the cruellest events of the biological struggle for existence. The war can be related to this struggle, but Auschwitz has nothing to do with war; it is neither an episode in it nor an extreme form of it. War is always a terrible fact, to be deprecated, but it is in us, it has its rationality we ‘understand’ it. But there is no rationality in the Nazi hatred: it is a hate that is not in us; it is outside man, it is a poison fruit sprung from the deadly trunk of Fascism, but it is outside and beyond Fascism itself. We cannot understand it, but we can and must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard. If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again. Conscience can be seduced and obscured again – even our consciences. For this reason, it is everyone’s duty to reflect on what happened.”
Levi contrasts understanding with knowing. The latter is a duty, which includes knowing the causes of what happened to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. But understanding is more intimate, it bridges the reflective distance between the subject and the object of understanding. By “understanding” the Holocaust we would acknowledge it as a real human possibility, as something that is understandable for humans to do. But it is important to reject this possibility, to preserve an image of the human that positively excludes it. Humans ought never to be able to do such things. Whoever shows himself capable of it (and this may very well include us) has given up their humanity, and they have given it up precisely because they have ceased to see and treat the other as human. We become (or stay) human by treating other humans as humans.
How did he survive Auschwitz, Levi is asked, and he replies: lots of luck, a desire to bear witness to the events, and finally “the determination, which I stubbornly preserved, to recognize always, even in the darkest days, in my companions and in myself, men, not things, and thus to avoid that total humiliation and demoralization which led so many to spiritual shipwreck.”