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Can We, and Should, We Try to Explain the Holocaust?

This question is one of the major divides among Holocaust scholars, and is almost as controversial as the root question: Is The Holocaust Explicable? Opinions vary widely, with good arguments present on all sides of the issue. It is, ultimately, perhaps the most difficult question of all, and I do not presume to have a definitive answer. I can offer only a limited overview, and a conclusion that works for me.

The human impulse to explain even that--or perhaps, especially that--which defies explanation is in our genes. We are problem solvers by our very nature. Thus perhaps the majority of scholarship on the Holocaust concerns, at its root, the question of "Why." Why did the Holocaust happen? The answers to this vary, and many answers--especially those that attempt to solve the question with a single all-encompassing reason--are less than satisfactory. But this does not necessarily mean that no viable explanation, as intricate and complex as it may well be, is an impossibility.

A combination of a few dozen disparate reasons and explanations, in the aggregate, suffices to provide an explanatory framework upon which a workable theory (by strict scientific definition) can be formulated. Is it this impulse towards problem solving that nurtures a sense of cautious satisfaction about acquiring a critical mass of information upon which to build this theory? Or is it merely intellectual arrogance? Some would opine that it is the latter, and intrinsically dangerous as well.

Film-maker Claude Lanzmann, of Shoah fame, insists that attempts to answer this question should not even be made. Lanzmann maintains that "the Holocaust is not a fairy-tale, it is not digestible." In fact, Lanzmann has formulated a commandment in this regard: Thou Shalt Not Ask Why.

Jay Michaelson opines that Lanzmann's conception is in itself superior explanation:

Successful explanations of the holocaust do not explain anything. Unsuccessful ones explain everything. Claude Lanzmann's masterpiece, "Shoah," does not offer answers for the "big questions," because these are questions whose answers defeat themselves. Why did the Nazis do it? It is a myth that reasonable responses to this question are not to be found. I have hinted at some of them: consolidation of power in the hands of a few leaders, historic German anti-semitism, the particularities of the German condition before World War II. All of these are plausible, and likely, from a historical point of view, and I believe that to deny that we have coherent responses to the question of the Nazis' reasons is self-deception. Rather, the dilemma is that these responses do nothing to reconcile the yawning 'Why' of the holocaust with our own concerns, be they intellectual, emotional, or spiritual, ethical, historical, or theological. None of the responses, in short, answer the 'larger question' of Why.

Lanzmann, without even asking it, addresses the question in his silence. Without the gruesome images that normally accompany holocaust documentaries, Lanzmann describes the indescribable. What we expect from an explanation of a radically traumatic event like the holocaust is an incorporation of the event into coherence. The way to do this is not to try to make it coherent, because this cannot be done with the holocaust; attempts to describe it in philosophical categories at once succeed and miss the point. Instead, Lanzmann and others present the incoherence of the holocaust's evil, not as a source for ethical norms or a new philosophical system, but as a story.

I don't know whether or not Lanzmann would much appreciate Michaelson's take. Lanzmann considers any attempt to explain the Holocaust "obscene," assuming that any attempt at explanation leads, through understanding, to legitimizing the process and thus inexorably to exoneration. Does this include inadvertent explanation?

In an interview of Lanzmann entitled "The Obscenity of Understanding," he opines:

There are some pictures of Hitler as a baby too, aren't there? I think that there is even a book [For Your Own Good by Alice Miller] written by a psychoanalyst about Hitler's childhood, an attempt at explanation which for me is obscenity as such.

Lanzmann does not, however, deny that explanation is impossible: "I don't say that the Holocaust is an enigma. I don't say this. I do not think so. It is an historical event which took place. It is not an event which took place out of history. In a way, it is a product of the whole story of the Western world since the very beginning."

What Lanzmann formulates is the idea that, while it is possible to explain Hitler and the Holocaust, any attempt to do so will tend to make it comprehensible and thus legitimize the process itself.

Lanzmann, in an interview:

You can take all the reasons, all the fields of explanation, whether it is psychoanalytic explanation, an opposition between the German spirit, the German geist and the Jewish one, Hitler's childhood, and so on. You can take the unemployment in Germany, the economic crisis, whatever you want. You can take all these fields of explanation. And every field can be true, and all the fields together can be true. But these are conditions. Even if they are necessary, they are not sufficient. A beautiful morning you have to start to kill, to start to kill massively. And I said that there is a gap between all the fields of explanation and the actual killing. You cannot give birth--in French we say engedre--you cannot generate such an evil. And if you start to explain and to answer the question of Why you are led, whether you want it or not, to justification. The question as such shows its own obscenity: Why are the Jews being killed? Because there is no answer to the question of why.

Lanzmann contradicts himself, and makes an unwarranted assumption of intent as well. First, he admits that the Holocaust is not "an enigma," that it is "an historical event which took place." His false assumption is that "if you start to explain and to answer the question of Why you are led, whether you want it or not, to justification."

Lanzmann's conception strikes some as a fearful rejection of mans innate intellectual capacity due to inordinate concern for the possible cognitive formulations of the less discerning among us. As one of Lanzmann's critics, psychoanalyst Sean Wilder observed:

I think the question of "why" is a fundamental human function. For Christ's sake, what do you think people are going to do? You put food in someone's mouth, and if he chews and swallows it, he is going to digest it. The question "why" is the mental or intellectual equivalent to the process of digesting. You get information, and unless you are a bloody idiot you work on it, and one of the fundamental processes is this question Why. I think it is one of the nobler acquisitions of the human mind and should be considered as such.

Another view, from Rabbi Naftali Silberberg:

We are told (Isaiah 12:1): "And you shall say on that day [of the Messianic redemption], 'I thank You, O L-rd, for You were wrathful with me!'" The day will soon come when we will be able to appreciate how all which has transpired was pure kindness.

But until that day, G-d doesn't want us to understand His mysterious ways. Pain is manageable when one understands that there is good reason for the suffering. Pain is unmanageable when it seems to be random and unjustified. If we were to understand why we suffer, or even if we could logically surmise that there is a reason which is beyond our comprehension, then it wouldn't hurt so much. And G-d wants us to cry to Him from the very depths of our hearts: "For Your salvation, A-lmighty we yearn!" He doesn't want us to rationalize suffering; He wants us to demand the Redemption.

Brothers and sisters, enough is enough. Let us turn to G-d and insist that He bring an end to all suffering. That's what we want, and that's what G-d wants.

I find Rabbi Silberberg's take interesting and profound, but cannot accept it for myself as it is not really meant for me. My perspective is very different indeed, and perhaps it is meant to be so. I admit to much uncertainty in this regard, and accept that my opinions in this matter are personal and fallible. I submit, however, that is quite possible, and perhaps even desirable, that some questions have more than one reasonable answer, and that differing conclusions can be equally viable.

King Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 2:13, wrote:

I have seen that wisdom has an advantage when coming from folly, as the advantage of light which emanates from darkness."

Is it possible that it is the wisdom one can gain from the Holocaust, the "light which eminates from darkness," is the actual purpose behind the tragedy?

I personally hesitate to attempt any sort of all-inclusive answer to this most obvious and odious question, and in fact will not attempt to do so. I completely agree that we should study it and its causes. The reason I refuse to attempt to formulate a Unified Field Theory of the Holocaust is simply because no human being is capable of doing so and it would be presumptuous and arrogant to attempt it. I am completely against each and every single 'definitive' answer to the question, such as Goldhagen's pretentious nonsense, the Jewish Prostitute Proposition, the Missing Testicle Mess, the Gay-Perverted Dictator Scenario, etc.. In each and every case, the 'answer' presented is, in the end, merely an excuse, never a reason, never complete, and never in any way convincing.

A big problem with all of these single-cause attempts at explanation is their narrow focus. It is similar to attempting to explain a tsunami with barometric pressure tables, and without a clear understanding of climate. And the Holocaust is a much more complex occurrence than any natural disaster, with many more variables and unknowns. Further, it is muddied with reams of unreliable, misinterpreted, and downright counterfeit data.

The fact is that there are problems of such complexity that the limited capacity of the human brain is unable to hold all the information necessary to formulate a conclusion which takes into account all variables. Attempting to solve such questions as, say, why the universe exists, what was there before the universe was born, who created the creator, etc., are exercises in futility because we simply do not possess the hardware or the software to properly formulate the question.

It is similar to trying to get your calculator to determine why your spouse was not satisfied with your anniversary gift. Certainly there IS an answer to the question, but even your spouse may not know the answer. The thing is that while your calculator was designed to solve problems, just as is the human mind, its capacity is just not up to solving such a complex problem.

Conclusion: The very idea that all things are, in the end explicable, is human intellectual arrogance at its most extreme. Now, I am not saying that there is no actual answer to the many questions that beg for answers. It is obvious that there are. What I am saying is that many questions are on such a scale that they are, in effect, unsolvable in the face of human limitations. I submit that if this were not so, there would be no religion because there would be no unknowns. And perhaps this is the very reason why it is not possible to definitively answer every question we are compelled to ask.

Source Note: Many of the quotes utilized in this essay are from the fine book "Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil", by journalist Ron Rosenbaum; it is Recommended Reading.
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