The Holocaust and God
The Holocaust broke a false god.
I often read interviews with people who claim to have lost faith in God because they learned about the Holocaust.
I believe these people are lying.
They are not lying in a particularly malicious way, or for any definite material advantage. I believe that they are, in the first instance, lying to themselves. Incidentally, they then happen to lie to interviewers, friends, and family.
I believe that they tell this lie because it is fashionable, and because it reflects well upon them in a semi-narcissistic way. They are, in their minds, the type of person who would abandon their faith in God because of the Holocaust.
People who survived the Holocaust have good reason to struggle with faith. Surviving that level of intense suffering is going to test your faith in God.
But people who have learned about it long after the event have not suffered in the same way.
They are the type of person who really cares about the Rohingya, the Syrian refugees, and – of course – the Jews and other groups who perished in the Holocaust.
The Holocaust is in their ur-humanitarian crisis.
It is the type of catastrophe that the United Nations, the Non-Governmental Organisations, and other organs of international sentimentality were created to forestall should similar circumstances arise again.
It serves where original sin has vanished.
We fell low – not just the Nazi German leadership but all humans – when the Holocaust occurred.
Those who acknowledge this fact can be elevated. They are, in their minds, terribly virtuous people. They are, in my mind, just terrible.
Why does their putative reason for abandoning their faith ring untrue?
I think it rings untrue because anyone who sincerely engages with the Abrahamic religious traditions will quickly become aware that these traditions are quite clear that man is a rather wicked creature.
Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are united on this point.
And, really, the ultimate point of each of these faiths is to provide the necessary ceremonies and grounding for fallen humans to be redeemed in relation to God.
These religions are a means to come to terms with the evil present in humans, and the – often necessary – acts of evil that are required to survive in a fallen world.
Why, therefore, would a religious person be shocked by the Holocaust?
They will, obviously, be shocked that an industrialised genocide was carried out. They will be shocked that it was carried out ruthlessly. They will be shocked at the cruelty.
They may, if they are Christians, be shocked that it was carried out by a nation forged by the Christian religion – although, of course, the Nazis were in the process of ditching Christianity.
But will they really be shocked that man is capable of radical evil?
“Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud,” says the strongman Willie Stark in Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946).
Stark knew. Penn Warren knew. The religious know.
The religious are, if anything, the people most engaged in setting right what the Holocaust took away, and they do so in the most practical way possible.
It is the Haredim, the Ultra Orthodox, in Israel who are the most fecund. They have been long looked down upon by their secular brethren for being insufficiently modernised and economically productive.
But it is they, whose religion cleaves closet to tradition, who are building large families. It is they who are most actively replacing what was lost in the Holocaust.
And it is they, in their adherence to tradition, who preserve the most fundamental elements of Judaism that were rejected by secular Zionism.
The Holocaust has not, apparently, destroyed their faith.
It has galvanised their will to survive as a Jewish people.
The god that was destroyed by the Holocaust was a false god: the god of progress.
This is, as you will have noticed, god with a small ‘g’.
“[N]ach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch…”
“Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
Theodor Adorno, Cultural Criticism and Society (1951)
This quote is frequently adapted into the form: “No poetry after Auschwitz.”
What? No poetry? But I’ve seen poems written after 1945.
I swear I have, Mr Adorno.
And a few were quite pretty and civilised – not in the slightest bit barbaric.
What’s going on?
A frequent misunderstanding of what Adorno is getting at with his quote is the idea that he is suggesting that because an unprecedentedly wicked event has happened we need to go into a sort of protracted mourning period.
Writing poetry after Auschwitz is, in this reading, the equivalent to inviting strippers to your grandmother’s funeral and dancing in the aisles to Boney M’s Ra-Ra Rasputin as the coffin slides into the incinerator.
It’s rather bad taste, no?
But do people actually believe this? Does Western civilisation appear to be in protracted mourning after Auschwitz?
I would say that, if anything, we have become remarkably frivolous. We are obsessed with sexual exploration, consumerism, triviality, celebrity, consumer drugs – it’s anything but a somber period of reflection.
Perhaps it is a forgetting.
Anyway, the people who believe that Adorno wanted us to go into collective mourning are wrong. But they are also precisely the kind of person who claims to have abandoned God because the Holocaust happened.
They are those people who wish to make a public show about how terrible they believe genocide to be while simultaneously indulging in triviality.
“Of course, no poetry after Auschwitz. What’s on TV next?”
How convenient. If there can be no beauty, we feel under no obligation to constrain ourselves in order to allow its creation. The Holocaust is used here as a convenient excuse for laziness in the same way as it is used as a convenient excuse to escape the strictures of religion while pretending to be a virtuous person.
Adorno was suggesting, I believe, that poetry was barbaric after Auschwitz because the Holocaust was tied up with Western civilisation – particularly Enlightenment thought.
Yes, the Nazis were attempting to negate the Enlightenment, but they did so in the the name and form of defending civilization – German kultur particularly – from Bolshevism.
There were orchestras at the concentration camps. The SS would unwind listening to ultra-civilized gramophone recordings.
The very possibility of extermination camps using gas relied upon scientific and rational investigation.
Adorno was saying that even Nazism, a reactionary movement, retained and was sustained by civilization and Enlightenment.
In this respect, the writing of poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, not because it’s wrong to create beauty after a terrible event, but because the very tradition of beauty is itself implicated in that wicked event.
We must interrupt the tradition because, if we sustain the tradition, we are laying foundations for another Auschwitz. At the same time, our entire world is being trivialised by a mass entertainment industry.
The god that died at Auschwitz was the god of progress. This was substituted in the Victorian world for the God of the heavens.
Sure, the Victorians kept up appearances; it has taken to our time for the institutions of Christianity and Judaism to collapse openly. There is little social shame in abandoning God now.
The god of progress took a heavy blow during the Great War, but he was helped somewhat through a new cult to his memory that sprung up in Russia.
The Holocaust killed him.
The Holocaust exists counterposed in history against the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.
This disaster – natural not man made – was used by Voltaire to exemplify the non-existence of God. How could God exist if the Lisbon earthquake was allowed to happen?
This was a high point for the enlightened anti-theism that was to triumph in the 19th century, and become the Victorian faith in progress. You will immediately notice that the claim that the Holocaust destroys belief in God is merely a recapitulation of the Lisbon earthquake argument for our times.
A man made event has replaced a natural event.
That is all.
In this sense, the statement that the Holocaust destroys belief in God is no advance on Voltaire’s position. What is surprising is that people find this reason for ceasing to believe in God surprising.
Those who make the argument are aware that this is true at a certain level. But the god who who has died with the Holocaust is not the same as the metaphysical God who died with Lisbon.
It is the second god, which is belief in human progress – sometimes dressed up as the metaphysical God as in the Church of England – that has died.
Still, for those who claim the Holocaust destroyed their belief it is the metaphysical ‘reactionary’ God who is always dying.
The god of progress has now moved on to human rights, the United Nations, and the NGOs – even if his death was announced in the concentration lager and the gulag.
I recall when I stopped believing in God.
I was about eleven or so.
I can assure you that there was no great metaphysical decision in the move.
A few years before, I constructed a folk anthropology to explain why we no longer believe in God.
I assumed that at first people believed God literally resided in the sky.
Then we flew aeroplanes to the sky, and we saw that there was no God.
I then assumed people revised God upwards into space. Then we flew into space, and we saw there was no God.
Consequently, God did not exist.
Practically, what killed my belief was speaking to classmates and cousins with the result that the consensus seemed to be that “of course” God did not exist.
The media reinforces this perception through comedy, which usually targets religion – well, Christianity anyway – without mercy.
Christians can take it.
Muslims less so.
But over and above folk anthropology, public consensus, and mangled scientific ideas about evolution it was convenience that killed my belief in God.
“We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” David Hume (1740) A Treatise of Human Nature Part 3, Section 3.
Going to church was boring, and all that religion got in the way of fun activities that interested me.
Laziness, cupidity, and a lust.
Reasons were quickly found for why God did not exist. Reason serving the passions, as Hume wisely noted.
That is also, of course, what lies behind those who claim they cannot believe in God because of Auschwitz.
Belief in God is a drag because then you just might have to adhere to very particular standards – and, worse, you have to give up Sunday, Friday, or Saturday to pray.
But we don’t want to say that we don’t believe in God because it interferes with fucking, drinking, and taking advantage of our fellow humans.
It’s much more noble to say that the Holocaust shattered our belief.
When we say this we cheat ourselves, and we also dishonour those who perished in the Holocaust.
Personally, I couldn’t think of a better reason to believe in God than the Holocaust.
On your knees, ladies and gentlemen.