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14 May 2009

The Radical Strangeness of Nazi Barbarism Has Paralyzed a Generation

of Intellectuals
Poking through our forthcoming translation of Maurice Olender's Race and Erudition
(translated by Jane Marie Todd and published originally in French under the somewhat
longer title La Chasse aux evidences: sur quelques formes de racisme entre mythe et
histoire, 1978-2005, and recently released in an updated version from Seuil under the
title Race sans histoire), I came across a fascinating interview Olender conducted with
H. R. Jauss, the influential German literary scholar who pioneered reception theory and
went on to form an integral part of the Constance School during the 1960s and beyond.
Before embarking upon a career in academia, Jauss, who died soon after the interview
was published in Le Monde in 1996, served in the Waffen-SS on the eastern front,
commanding a company of 100 men and winning the Gold Cross for his actions during
the Estonian retreat. Tried by an Allied tribunal at Nuremberg, Jauss was judged "not [to
have] participated in criminal actions," was released, and eventually took up a position
at the University of Heidelberg.
The interview touches on Jauss's orientation to this personal history and to history
defined more broadly as an object upon which we consider and reflect, as well as the
process by which Nazi barbarism "erupts into culture," and, significantly, the reasons
behind the "silence of a generation" of German academics with regard not only to their
participation in the German war effort, but to the wider failure of universities to oppose
Nazi ideology as it wormed its way through the culture at large. Students entering the
university system in, say, 1960, complained, as Karlheinz Stierle did, about the decision
of their professors to maintain "a complete silence about their role in a world of
What was this disaster within the twelve-year catastrophe of the Third Reich? It
was that the university, a place of enlightenment, of humanities of culture and
science, in short had not opposed the barbarism that was becoming stronger
every day. That disaster was no longer open for discussion. As if the chasm had
closed up in devouring the monster, there was nothing to remind us of what might
have been only a bad dream.
The theme of catastrophe looms large in the minds of the scholars who populate the
final chapters of Olender's book; when Jauss is asked to describe a world view that has
marked his thinking, he cites Walter Benjamin's dictum "Das es so weiter geht, das ist
die Katastrophe" ("That it goes on, that is the catastrophe"), meaning that a catastrophe
like the one that occurred in Germany under the Nazi regime is not like a natural
disaster, some cataclysmic event that befalls us out of the sky. Nor is it inevitable. It
takes action, or the lack of it, and catastrophe on that large a scale is the result of
decisions made or not made by multitudes of people. Guilt and responsibility, and the
failure of a generation to address its own contribution to the catastrophe, lie at the crux
of this interview. It got me thinking about the value of translation as well. The relative
dearth of translated material in the American publishing scene has been a topic of some

discussion lately, and I suppose this is an example of non English-language material that
can really inform our perspective, whatever your opinion of this particular text (and it
will likely provoke a range of opinions). Interview follows.
From Race and Erudition, forthcoming from Harvard University Press:
"The Radical Strangeness of Nazi Barbarism Has Paralyzed a Generation of
Intellectuals": Dialogue with H. R. Jauss (1996)
Maurice Olender. What prompted you in October 1939 to volunteer for the Waffen-SS?
Hans Robert Jauss. Before I turn to the history of a young German who was seventeen
years old when the war started, I would like to remind people that there are at least three
ways of understanding history: the history that unfolds in the present, in which one finds
oneself engaged as an actor; the history into which one finds oneself passively
propelled, as a witness so to speak; and finally, the history that has taken place and
become an object of reflection. When one attempts to examine ones own past, those
three levels may overlap, but recomposition through memory prevails. What persuaded
me to enter the Waffen-SS was not really an adherence to Nazi ideology. As the son of a
teacher, member of the petty bourgeoisie, I was a young man who wanted to conform
with the atmosphere of the time. That said, I had read Spenglers Decline of the West,
written by an author banned by the Nazis, and it had made me skeptical of the Hitlerian
empire. But along with other future historians Im thinking of my friends Reinhart
Koselleck and Arno Borst what we had in common was the desire not to stand apart
from current events. One had to be present in the field, where history was being made,
by participating in the war. In our view, to do otherwise would have been to flee, to
confine ourselves within an aesthetic attitude, while our comrades of the same age were
risking their lives.
Joining the Waffen-SS at seventeen, becoming head of a company at eighteen, being
responsible for more than a hundred men: that was my daily life during the war. My
experience at the time was compartmentalized and my horizons limited. I often learned
only after the fact what battle I had participated in. I did not discover what had really
happened until the end of the war and with horror. The goal was to survive with my
men where I happened to be, on the eastern front. No room there for ideology. Or for
heroism, in fact. What sustained me was an understanding of survival.
On this subject, I recall the anecdote that was told at the time. Under our Nazi
dictatorship, there are three possibilities: if you are intelligent and in the Party, youre
not sincere; if you are sincere and intelligent, youre not in the Party; if you are sincere
and in the Party, youre not intelligent. That was our state of mind, which gives a good
sense of the cynicism reigning at the time.
M. Olender. What happened to you when Germany was liberated from Nazism?
H. R. Jauss. What counted most for me as a prisoner of war was the international
military tribunal in Nuremberg. Because it was thanks to it that we were able to inform
ourselves precisely of the facts and hence to take the measure of the absolute horror
committed by Nazi Germany. For us, there was also the hope that from then on the
atrocities committed during wars, and against human rights, would always be judged by

international tribunals . . . which, alas, has not been the case. It was hoped, as Kant
believed, that a crime against humanity perpetrated anywhere on the planet would be
justiciable in any other place in the world. Although crimes against humanity have
existed since 1945, and as such are liable to international judgments, I still dont think
we should imagine that different massacres are historically equivalent: each keeps the
specificity of its horror and in this case comparison obscures history more than it can
clarify it. That said, the crimes of the Nazi regime surpassed absolutely anything
imaginable in a civilized nation.
M. Olender. After being tried and released, you arrived at the University of Heidelberg.
H. R. Jauss. That was in 1948. Along with others, we had a desire for radical change, as
attested by the review Die Wandlung, where we could read, notably, texts by Karl
Jaspers and Hannah Arendt. And though Heidegger was the one being taught, we were
much more excited about Sartre. We wanted to create a society in a new Eu ro pe an
Germany whose culture would prevent the nationalist ideas that had led Germany to that
abjection which was also an extreme form of degradation of self and other from
ever resurfacing again.
M. Olender. There is an enormous bibliography on World War II, in Germany and
elsewhere, many, many studies by historians, sociologists, and psychologists, on the
crimes committed by the Nazis. But how are we to explain the fact that the major
German academics who were compromised by Nazism have said nothing about their
past, have been able to say nothing, or very little, to the succeeding generations of
students of the last half a century?
H. R. Jauss. Its difficult for me to talk about the silence of my teachers, of Heidegger or
Gadamer. The exceptions were indeed quite rare. Apart from Jaspers and the articles in
Die Wandlung, you have to turn to authors such as the great Marxist philologist Werner
Krauss to hear a few isolated voices. Karl Lwith does talk about Heideggers silence.
In his statements, Lwith indicates how far Heideggers seminars in the early 1930s had
pushed the destruction of metaphysics, to the point of being within arms length of what
Nazi ideology was about to become. Although our teachers were silent, our generation
did draw a lesson from them, which was also our motto: Never again Auschwitz, never
again Hiroshima.
M. Olender. Can you say more about that silence of a generation?
H. R. Jauss. The silence in this case is undoubtedly linked to a refusal to understand
what is inhuman. Leo Spitzer shed light on that phenomenon for us in an article called
The Familiar and the Strange, also published in Die Wandlung. Spitzer wondered why
German academics, who played such a major role in legitimating Nazism, had so much
trouble after the war talking about what had happened, as if the incomprehensible
inhumanity of the crimes committed by that regime confined everyone who had
participated in it in what ever capacity, as actors or as witnesses to total mutism.
The radical strangeness of Nazi barbarism has paralyzed a generation of intellectuals,
confining them to passivity, a mental inertia, literally to stupidity if stupor indeed
renders one mute.

In my last book, I tried to talk about the act of understanding associated with free will
(Freiwilligkeit). In fact, we cannot arrive at an understanding by either compulsion or
regulation, or even by logical argument: to understand something or someone involves
consent. I must therefore refuse to understand what I cannot morally approve. For me,
the free will implied by any understanding is humanisms last resort. Indeed, if one
can understand everything, one can forgive everything, which is unacceptable. One
cannot understand the genocide committed by the Nazis because understanding it would
be a way of approving of it. Therefore, though one must continue to record and study
the facts to show where the mechanisms of the Nazi Reich led, one must refuse to
understand them.
In that context, I find it dangerous to accept historical analyses whose sophistication lies
in explaining everything, in order, ultimately, to understand everything and even to find
sufficient causes for the advent of the Nazi dictatorship. It seems very nave to me to
imagine that ethics need not play a role in the study of the past, and you really have to
be a positivist to believe in the omnipotence of historical or sociological analyses.
M. Olender. To return to the silence of academics compromised by Nazism, do you
believe there is a connection between an endless debt toward the victims the guiltconsciousness Jaspers considered indelible and impediments to thinking?
H. R. Jauss. Yes, undoubtedly, a connection to guilt but also to shame. Thats why I
dont understand why there was never any guilt or shame in Heidegger and other
teachers of his generation. That refusal to examine ones past is also at issue in Jnger.
For people of my age, he was not a role model when he glorified an aesthetics of war.
Even in recent interviews, Jnger takes no critical distance from his war years. I find no
better way to explain to myself the recent fashion for the jurist Carl Schmitt: a militant
Catholic and a Nazi high dignitary, he was also an unrepentant anti- Semite, yet his
writings have found excellent publishers in France. Nonetheless, in 1935 Karl Lwith
did a lucid analysis of that unscrupulous mans theoretical thinking.
M. Olender. You were talking about a generation between shame and guilt?
H. R. Jauss. If we want to say more about guilt and shame, it is worthwhile to remember
that in German, as in many other languages, Scham, shame, also means modesty. And in
silence there can also be modesty. But I must point out that assuming guilt completely in
no way erases the shame and silence that may result from it. One cannot compensate or
make up for the irreparable.
Two attitudes may result from such a feeling of unavoidable national shame, which
among those who have committed no criminal act: either you no longer do anything but
mope and sometimes even delight in virtuous indignation or gratuitous self- accusation
because it makes no sense to set yourself up as a judge, even a judge of yourself; or you
strive to transform the guilt and shame by a collective action that allows you to leave a
deadly past behind you. As for myself, I have endeavored to reform the outdated
structure of the German university. In creating the Poetik und Hermeneutik group in
1963, with Hans Blumenberg and a few other friends, I embarked on an intellectual
project that opposed any tendency to return to the idea of nationality or race as
meaningful vectors in the human sciences.

M. Olender. Is there an idea, a view of the world that has particularly marked you?
H. R. Jauss. Perhaps Walter Benjamins line: Das es so weiter geht, das ist die
Katastrophe (That it goes on, that is the catastrophe). In other words, the catastrophe is
not an apocalyptic event, a break. It results from what everyone participates in, if only
tacitly. Inertia, the fact that everyone cooperates passively in the same motion without
opposing it, thats what leads to catastrophe: thats when Nazi barbarism bursts forth in
culture itself. Hitlers assumption of power was not a necessity inherent in history, any
more than anti- Semitism is consubstantial with Germany. I do not accept the idea of a
providence or a natural destiny that would be historical.
M. Olender. What if a publisher invited you to write your memoirs, to speak of the
shame and silence of a generation of intellectuals compromised by Nazi Germany?
H. R. Jauss. That might make sense, since I have the feeling today that I understand
after the fact things that, though not entirely buried in silence, have not always appeared
so clearly to me. And yet I know, we all know, that memories fade. Even as a prisoner of
war, I realized that my memory could play tricks on me. One would therefore have to
write ones memoirs against ones memories. Theres also something else. The letters
from my youth, sent from the front I couldnt reread them for a long time. When I
finally did reread them, I was caught off guard by a young man who had become a
stranger, whom I could not recognize as myself. To tell my past in the present, then, Id
have to find a broken writing style. Of all the biographies Ive read recently, theres only
one I find convincing. Thats Nathalie Sarrautes Enfance (Childhood). That beautiful
book establishes a dialogue between the self telling episodes from her past and another
voice that is constantly challenging her, so that any idealization of memory is avoided.
Lived experience appears there in its inexhaustible contingency, between question and
Race and Erudition is Copyright 2009 by the President and Fellows of Harvard