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Facts, Feelings and Fascism: The problem with the Respectable Left
Jacobin chooses respectability over presenting history in a truthful manner.
Editor’s note: In an earlier article, Benjamin Norton wisely reminded us to beware of the “respectable left” and this article serves as a perfect illustration of how far the “respectable left.”
Main point: The Author of the article mischaracterizes the Book “Learning from the Germans” in order to stay within the bounds of respectability within our society. He does this by altering the meaning of the word: Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. He also fails to acknowledge the number of Nazis within the West German Government.
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This passing Saturday, an article was published by Mario Keßler at Jacobin, a review for Susan Neiman's Learning From The Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, a relatively mild philosophical-historical effort on the subject of denazification in Germany and how it relates to existing fascism (never referred to as such in the book, of course) in the US. The book itself has issues one could reasonably expect to find with an analysis of post-war Germany conducted by anyone admittedly under the influence of Immanuel Kant.
Now, the core issue splits at points
the “review” itself, and
the actual contents of the book.
Mario Keßler, our reviewer, a writer born in the DDR, one of the extremely few scholars/academics/intellectuals educated and trained on the antifascist side of the wall that were allowed to transition to academia following its breach. A distinction which at a glance may seem impressive until you realize that this could only be done through sufficient abandonment of any correct ideas one may have had, lest the public learn of socialism from peoples degenerated by the burden of experience. It's here where Keßler compliments his disinterest in writing interesting things with his ability to omit interesting things.
Neiman's book itself is worthy of a full critique but here we will be focusing on it primarily in relation to Keßler's “review,” its omissions of fascism and its anticommunism. Now, of course the Kantian philosophical bend of the work is prone to putting actually existing reality in the backseat–or trunk–in a major way. It begins discussing the 'denazification' efforts in West Germany, at length, long before any mention is given to the thorough infestation of “former” Nazis throughout the government in the west of postwar Germany. This reality eventually comes into some acknowledgment, in the paragraph:
The issue is criminally understated in the book, but was written of thoroughly here
While Neiman’s book handles the issue of “former” Nazis in West German Government and West German society with the lightest touch, Keßler's “review,” does not even have a passing mention, despite it being genuinely necessary information. And all the more important because magazines like Jacobin serve to condense and explain these points to a demographic that won’t read the full text.
Neiman’s primary focus, in relation to the West, centers mainly around the application of a cultural concept called “vergangenheitsaufarbeitung,” which according to Neiman means “working off the past,” in the same sense that one “works off” a debt. Neiman notes Germans use the same word for both “debt” and “guilt.”
This concept of “working off” the past like one works off a debt, and debt in this cultural context being synonymous with guilt, perfectly illustrates the performative and empty nature of the the West's 'denazification.' Neiman simultaneously decries it as producing little results at a painfully slow pace yet unquestioningly accepts the legitimacy of the West’s denazification at face value – if Kant was not previously mentioned would you not feel him in the room with you right now?
This, of course, brings with it a host of problems relative to the analysis presented in the book itself, that will be saved for another time wherein they may be addressed in full. For our purposes we'll shift back to Keßler and his “review,” so that we may finally grasp how truly necessary these quotation marks are: Keßler gives an entirely different translation of vergangenheitsaufarbeitung from book. He translates it as “coming to terms with the past.” This is a completely different meaning. Completely. In every regard. No mention is to be found of the change or why it was made. Keßler is a native German speaker – perhaps his translation is more accurate? It is the translation you get when you run “vergangenheitsaufarbeitung,” monstrosity of a word it is, through Google Translate, after all. Who is to say? What's more important is that it is not the translation given and used in the book.
Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung not some tiny detail included because Neiman has a random affinity for overlong words. The concept is the nucleus of her entire analysis of West Germany's cultural relationship to the German national shame and how it is dealt with. The translation and definition is highly specific and deliberate. Keßler's alteration, made without note nor reason, contains no relationship to the work he is allegedly “reviewing,” and completely undercuts any tone of struggle from his writing on this subject. But not just in general, it undercuts it in a very specific way. Altering this translation, along with removing any mention of West Germany's issues with a long time rejection of guilt and responsibility for the second World War and the Holocaust, is to present, falsely, this society as amicably taking up the cause to in some way rectify history's greatest wrong. Those of us engaged in the realm of political analysis will recognize this by its arcane, highly technical term: the whitewashing of fascism.
The problem becomes more glaring as the review comes to the portion of Neiman's book that deals with the antifascist side of the wall. Some note must be given to the book as, while far from perfect, it may actually contain the maximum amount of honesty regarding the DDR that is possible to publish in a text for a western audience designed to leave delicate liberal sensibilities intact. As Keßler puts it:
Learning from the Germans” addresses a liberal readership and wisely avoids terminology that might be “off-putting” to them. But anyone who reads the book with a political mindset will notice that it is not only borne by solidarity with the losers of history, but also by a socialist spirit and an almost defiant optimism.”
What solidarity is shown to “the losers of history” of history in painstaking efforts to leave intact the illusions of the ideology that made it possible for them to “achieve” such a grand title, is never explained, nor is what “socialist spirit” is to be found dancing on eggshells around an issue to spare the feelings of liberals. Since Keßler cannot be hoisted by the ankles and shaken until answers fall out at this time, we digress...
As the DDR begins to be referenced in his article, Keßler begins with an excerpt from Neiman:
a clear and simple thesis: East Germany did a better job of working off the Nazi past than West Germany. Like any attempt to make normative judgments about history, this one can, and will, be complicated. Still, the judgment will be a surprise to most Anglo-American readers. For most Germans, the claim is the philosophical equivalent of throwing down a glove in an old-fashioned duel.
Itself a straightforward and fully accurate statement. Then Keßler immediately makes it weird:
“The author never takes state-sponsored anti-fascism entirely at face value, showing how it slowly became ritualized and instrumentalized.”
This is... Accurate, but... Huh? True, Neiman never takes the state policy of antifascism “at face value,” to her credit (far more credit than can be given to 98% of liberal western historiographers), she examines it, and explains what was effective about it and why, based on data from its implementation, and interviews with people who lived under the policy. She notes that certain West German civilians since the integration referred to the DDR's policy (positively) as “antifascism by decree,” and note antifascism in the country was as effective as it was because of its full and total integration into every day life, as law. What Keßler tries to discredit or at least diminish as “ritualized” and “instrumentalized” was the routine material application of antifascism as a practice. Neiman devotes more prose (any at all) demonstrating and deriding the malicious dishonesty of the western press when discussing the DDR than she does any attempt to discredit antifascist policy on the pretext of some perceived banality:
Keßler then acknowledges interviews within the book, conducted with several residents of the former DDR representing a rather broad spectrum, an author, a Yiddish folk singer, a molecular biologist, a pastor, and so on – all of whom he acknowledges underscored how the antifascism of the DDR was not hollow rhetoric, it permeated the culture, arts and education. And of course then this must be undercut – scarcely two paragraphs later, Keßler writes:
In 1945, most East Germans were as disinclined as West Germans to take the step toward anti-fascism — which is precisely why this had to be decided for them. But in the Cold War, the West needed the expertise of those who had worked against the Soviet Union under Hitler.
The Cold War, which was a hot, murderous war in most parts of the world, did not just come into existence, the same way an earthquake, or a tornado would come into existence. Instead, it was a deliberate, calculated decision made by the US government and those who pulls its levers to preserve capitalism and the necessary imperial plunder at any cost. The US's transplanted the Gehlen Organization into West Germany to form its intelligence apparatus, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or: Federal Intelligence Service (still in use in Germany today!) among many other“former“ Nazi elements; they simply needed it. Why isn't explained.
Thus, anti-communism, only provisionally cleansed of its anti-Jewish elements, was tested for reuse and found suitable, as Neiman clearly demonstrates.
Only provisionally cleansed of its anti-Jewish elements“ is stretching the truth to the point of it being an absurd lie. The chief of the operations was Reinhard Gehlen! He was the general in charge of the Eastern campaign, whose brutality is so horrific that it becomes undescribable. Other members of the government were Konrad Adenauer, Adolf Heusinger, Walter Hallstein. They reconstituted the company known as IG Farben into four subsidiaries and put back in charge people like Fritz der Meer. A „provisional cleansing“ would have been 100% more cleansing than the amount of cleansing that actually took place. There wasn't even a performative cleansing – there was only putting Reinhard Gehlen, Huesinger, Adenaur, Hallstein etc etc on federal payroll, giving in charge of the state apparatus.
Financial payments to Israel, which were called compensations rather than reparations, a word that reminded too many of the detested Versailles Treaty,” are therefore seen as an alibi for the Federal Republic’s integration into the anti-communist Western community.
Then the second part where it's brought to attention that someone has to explain to both Keßler and Neiman that these payments to Israel were called „compensations“ instead of „reparations“ because the intention was not to repair anything; Israel did not even exist to be pillaged under Nazi rule. The compensation agreement was reached to provide a massive infusion of cash and labor to the Israeli economy to offset the human and financial costs of the Palestine War at the end of the 1940s. In exchange, Israel seemed to turn the blind eye about the thousands of Nazi War Criminals littered all over the world. Following the signing of the agreement, the imperial project's GDP tripled: with a mere 8% of the funds accrued from the agreement, Israel was able to „purchase equipment for more than 1,300 industrial plants engaged in optics, rubber, textiles, medical equipment, canning. It provided everything from printing presses to machines for making sausages. Two-thirds of this sum went for buying equipment for just thirty-six factories, most owned by the Histadrut.“1The labor infusion, the capital acquisitions and the material benefits paid for i no small part by these reparations; Israel paid for ~68% of its imports with foreign capital, and by 1961 the compensatory funds would constitute 40% of Israeli foreign capital. The search for Nazi war criminals became very unimportant.
This was of supreme import to Israel's material conditions in its beginning and for long after; it is unlikely the two occupations Sinai would have been possible without it. Had the West German government not been so eager to engage in this massive transfer of its remaining Jewish population and the exportation of capital to this rampart of Europe against Asia (Herzl, Theodor: The Jewish State), the world could have perhaps been spared from bearing witness to 75 years of violent primitive accumulation, pogroms, ethnic cleansing and colonization that seem increasingly familiar when rattled off in quick succession.By contrast, East Germany paid its agreed its victims between 1948 and 1953, totalling 276.8 billion (inflation adjusted) US dollars2 and was able to go its entire existence never directly financing any of the aforementioned atrocities or anything remotely comparable. Suggesting that the exportation of capital and labor to the budding imperial satellite of Israel had anything to do with WWII/Holocaust reparations when the involved parties themselves couldn't even be bothered to label it as such defies simple observation.
As per ritualistic necessity, any scholar to maintain their respectability must denounce Stalinism and the alleged repression, whatever that maybe, with no specifics. Similar to anyone performing a ritual, they have empty words but, examples are not provided. Nowhere by Keßler in his piece nor Neiman in her book when she does the exact same thing, provide a single detail about these “crimes of repressions.” Not only are examples not provided, they do not even attempt to elucidate the nature of the criminality charged – Was it the crime of creating a world where it was actually possible to create an explicitly antifascist society? Again, it isn't mentioned.
The antisemitism? Same story. And rather an offensive charge, this „antisemitism of Stalinism.“ Antisemitism was an executable offense in the USSR under Stalin – he personally referred to antisemitism as a „vestige of cannibalism,“ specifically the most dangerous of those vestiges. It wasn't rhetoric, it was a crime and was treated as such – there are arrest records, court proceedings.
The earliest charges of antisemitism under Stalin trace to Leon Trotsky's nonsensical Thermidor And Antisemitism, published 1937 – the same year Lion Feuchtwanger, a Jewish writer of German origin fleeing the terror of 1930s Germany writes: “Like all national languages, Yiddish is lovingly cared for in the Union. There’s schools and newspapers in that language, there’s literature, and congresses are held for the supervision of Yiddish, and the performances in this language enjoy the highest consideration.“3
Nothing here constitutes classified state secrets, the policies of the Stalinist era–charged by Keßler and Neiman as so self-evidently antisemitic no explanation need be offered, all of humanity simply knows of it intrinsically, the way a newborn holds its breath underwater–took painstaking efforts to preserve the Yiddish language, the Jewish nation within Russia. Even connecting their accusations to their progenitor in Trotsky is arguably too generous, and does more leg work than they themselves demonstrate – what is presented without evidence should be dismissed without evidence. This applies to Trotsky (at that point in his eighth year of exile from even stepping foot in the USSR), to Neiman, to Keßler. „A person's chief political rivals have said words“ will and should never be credible. Less so when charges of antisemitism are leveled baselessly against the marshal of the army that liberated Auschwitz and myriad other camps, ending the Holocaust. The same army which had countless number of Jewish people in all ranks including General.
Neiman plays this game as well. Not even leveling accusations but simply stating the criminality and antisemitism of „Stalinism“ as facts, apropos of nothing, really. For all the book's Kantian metaphysicianing in its early pages, attempting to establish Nazism and the Holocaust as phenomena unique and discrete, beyond any comparison to anything that has ever happened, the false equivalency drawn–not just without any evidence but without even any examples–to the man who was historically the greatest enemy of both, is galling.
There is a convention, an orthodoxy, an ethos, what have you, that permeates discourse among those designated as "leftists" by the hegemon that measures validity by how it corresponds to what is "respectable" to that same hegemon — a compulsion to default to a heuristic of "the chief opponents of Nazism, fascism in general, were unapologetic and ruthless in that capacity, therefore are "as bad, if not worse" than those fascists they opposed —
which in a certain way makes sense from the point of view of the bourgeoisie controlled by the state. To them, a holocaust is preferable to paying for their own crimes and having to answer to the people.
As Sasha Pechersky said of what brought to him the singular determination, grit and resolve to organize the mass escape that broke the walls of the Sobibor concentration camp—an event never duplicated—leading every single inmate to freedom on a road paved with bodies of their Nazi captors: "[I] had a little bit of Stalin in my heart," – as we all well should do whatever it takes to remember that we do not, in fact, have to „both sides“ fascism, the Holocaust, the 'silent' Nazism of the West German government. The truth is the truth, but those who compromise on telling the truth for respectability will often end up with neither.
Segev, Tom: The Seventh Million, pp. 241
Berghoff & Balbier: The East German Economy, 1945-2010, pp.19)
FEUCHTWANGER Lion (1946), Moskau 1937. Ein Reisebericht für meine Freund)