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The Holocaust and the illusions of hindsight

Soren Kierkegaard is often remembered for saying that life can be understood only backwards, even though it must be lived forwards. For a historian like myself this might seem the ultimate vindication of my profession. It’s the knowledge of consequences and outcomes, after all, that enables us to see past events in a clearer light. But Kierkegaard offers a subtler and more sobering lesson. His 1843 journal entry reads: “it is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.” In short, Kierkegaard reminds us that the defining condition of our lives is the precisely the absence of later knowledge. Historians’ 20-20 hindsight makes them in a way blind, trapped on the far side of history’s moving wall from the actors they wish to study. Nowhere is this truer than when writing the history of periods of great uncertainty and struggle. The only chance of understanding those caught up in the maelstrom of such moments, is to plunge, as far as that is possible, into the uncertain waters of their present.

I’ve thought about this a lot recently while researching a group of left-wing Germans who opposed the Nazi regime and helped many Jews, saving several lives. For them, and even more for those they helped, the future was more than uncertain. They never knew when there might be a visit by the Gestapo. For a long time, it was unclear whether the Nazi regime would ever be defeated.  By looking at what the group published after the war and by talking to surviving members decades later, I gained some sense of what coping with the stress and anxiety of everyday had been like. Ellen, who gave refuge to a Jewish woman during the war, remembered the moment a late-night knock came to her door. Thankfully, it turned out to be the air-warden telling her to straighten the blackout curtain – she “wanted to give him a hug.”

The only chance of understanding those caught up in the maelstrom of such moments, is to plunge, as far as that is possible, into the uncertain waters of their present.

But while I was reading the group’s early postwar accounts of its actions I had a small revelation: they too were stuck on the other side of history’s wall, separated from their wartime selves. This was not about forgetting, since this was just a couple of years after liberation. Yet the difference between acting yesterday amid ignorance and uncertainty and reflecting the next day, in safety and knowledge, was everything, and involved much more than no longer fearing that late-night knock on the door. Back in 1938, when their group had first stepped up its assistance for Jews, mass murder had not yet begun. Extermination camps and gas chambers were not yet imaginable. After the war, when radio broadcasts revealed to them the nature of Auschwitz, the encouraging words they had given Jewish neighbors whom they had bravely accompanied to deportation centers, or the parcels they had taken to the post office to send to deportees in the East, suddenly took on a different meaning. Unlike their actions then, everything they wrote after the war was in the full knowledge of the monstrous policy of extermination.

Analysts of the Holocaust, and particularly accounts of rescue, have been slow to recognize this difference. Most work on rescue has depended on interviews conducted decades after the event; interviewer and respondent interact in conditions a million miles removed from those in which the helpers had to make their choices. Most tellingly, the notion of rescue itself is often retrospective. At the time, certainly in Nazi Germany, few of those (few) Jews who survived were “rescued” at one specific moment. Instead, they were helped by one person – with a bed, an I.D., some food, a name, an address – and then by another, and by another, and they had to show a great deal of initiative, courage, and ingenuity themselves. If they were lucky, at the end of this chain of initiatives, they survived. In retrospect, they had indeed been rescued – but the verb conveys little of their experience or those of their helpers at the time.

In retrospect, they had indeed been rescued – but the verb conveys little of their experience or those of their helpers at the time.

Perhaps because so many certainties of our own age have recently been called into question, historians in the last few years, and certainly historians of the Holocaust, have become more aware of the need to “live history forwards” and to seek contemporary accounts laid down at the time. In the case of the left-wing group I was working on, for example, in 1939, its leader, Artur Jacobs, wrote to his son about all they were doing for Jews suffering from the legislative onslaught that had befallen them since Kristallnacht. His group was seeking to help the victims rise above their material concerns and recognize what really mattered. The implication was that adversity could be a good thing, offering spiritual liberation to a materially minded people. One might read an antisemitic trope in here, or just a rejection of the values of capitalist society. Either way, it was an observation, and an inspiration for the group’s involvement that by 1945 and probably already by 1942 was completely unsayable. When Auschwitz had become knowledge – no virtue could be found in adversity.

Today we wonder whether we are seeing the end of democracy, the beginning of the end, or just a tragi-comic bubble that will soon burst. Perhaps we dramatize what confronts us, perhaps we underreact to today’s events, we do not know. Constantine Cavafy wrote that Gods have knowledge of the future, “alone and fully enlightened,” and as a historian there is a temptation to offer divine judgment on the past. We must hope that the future chronicler of our times will resist that temptation and seek to understand our actions against the background of our own uncertainty – just as Holocaust historians are learning to do, looking back on the darkest of dark times, when the unbelievable was just around the corner, and who knew what would follow.

Featured image: author’s own, used with permission.

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