- Post-Holocaust Interpretation, Misinterpretation, and the Claims of History by Berel Lang
Berel Lang’s book is a well-balanced, well-researched account of Post-Holocaust literature as it confronts key moral, theological, historiographical, and philosophical implications of the Holocaust. A good deal of the drama of ideas that defines the book centers around whether the Holocaust with its unimaginable sadism and evil that the very term evokes, can sustain a “Post-Holocaust,” with survivors and scholars of the period recasting in new and sometimes conflicting ways how to configure the events and what their larger import might be. On one level, it seems like an occasion of blasphemy for the Holocaust to have entered the stream of history with people engaging it from multiple perspectives and starting-points, instead of it looming undecoded and undecipherable as a cautionary benchmark of man’s inhumanity to man. Lang wrestles with this tension and dilemma throughout the book, which confers an aura of moral authority upon his scholarly reflections.
In his first chapter, “The Nazi as Criminal Inside and Outside the Holocaust,” Lang confronts the question of the extent to which Nazi atrocities against the Jews need to be placed in a comparative framework of Nazi atrocities committed against other populations during World War II. He cites the devastation of the town of Lidice and the extermination of Czech nationals, the T-4 Program mandating the Nazis to perform “mercy killings” on disabled members of their society, the massacre in Greece of Italians refusing to place themselves under German authority, the Commando Order which required that Allied commandoes be immediately executed, and the extraordinary violence committed against Russian prisoners of war as examples of a systemic derangement of the Nazi moral outlook that harbors the potential of making the Holocaust look “normal,” rather than exceptional. Lang astutely acknowledges the insurmountably circular relationship that subsists between the acts that occurred and the explanations invoked to make sense of them (14). There is no vantage point situated outside the reciprocal relationship between these events and the explanations designed to account for them to help us more primordially determine where the Holocaust begins and ends and where other atrocities of lesser or greater or equal magnitude commence.
With regard to a large number of Holocaust-related themes and issues that Lang deals with throughout his book, he often plots for himself a middle position between the extreme views being advocated by proponents on both sides. For example, in relation to the question of forgiving the Germans for the atrocities of the Holocaust, Lang emphasizes both that “the percentage of Germans over that age [seventy-five] who could possibly have had an active role in the ‘Final Solution’ thus amount to less than 10% of the German populace” (28) and that “for a large number of the individual acts committed during the Holocaust, there simply is not, now or ever, the possibility of forgiveness” (29). This attempt to conciliate extremes and then to try in one way or another to [End Page 699] split the difference between them is a consistent motif throughout the book. With regard to the question of how to reconcile God’s goodness with the suffering embodied in the Holocaust, Lang engages in an acute survey of the range of metaphysical and theological responses to the Holocaust that covers the gamut from those who emphasize “the historicity of evildoing” (34) and those who see in the Holocaust a necessary condition for the establishment of the state of Israel to those who insist on the need to view the Holocaust as both morally and theologically sui generis to those who take it as irrefutable evidence for the “death of God.” The very counterposing of these competing visions of the Holocaust suggests the extent to which presuppositional bias unavoidably (re)casts our notion of the Holocaust as a series of events from which the world recoils in horror and incomprehensibility to one that inscribes the worldview and moral and theological categorical priorities of particular interpreters.
With regard to the proliferation of...