This is the second in a series of posts.
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When a community has committed crimes against some of its own members, there can be no genuine reconciliation of the community as a whole (both those who were made to suffer and those who made them suffer, both victims and perpetrators) at the level of “historical practice” itself, as Jean Améry calls it (rather than at the level of what an American expression disdainfully refers to as “pie in the sky bye and bye”) unless the victims are allowed to cherish their resentments, and the perpetrators in turn are made to maintain a deep and lasting self-mistrust. Thus, as I already wrote in one of my earlier blog-posts on "The Unforgivable," applying that condition to the case of the Holocaust:
the settlement of the case of such an unforgivable wrong as the Holocaust would be neither a forgiving nor a forgetting of what had been done. [. . .] Rather, it would be an honoring of the living memory of what had been done—a memorializing of it—in and as the honoring of the very resentment the survivors continued to feel, on the one hand, and the self-mistrust, the continuing self-suspicion, that full acceptance of such resentment would awaken and keep awake in those responsible, on the other. Only then would peace prevail and reconciliation occur—beyond all questions of guilt and atonement, forgiving and forgetting. [Note: the translation of the German title Améry gave the book from which the passages cited above are taken would be precisely “Beyond Guilt and Atonement,” not “At the Mind’s Limits,” which is the title Améry gave one of the essays in the book and then used for the eventual English translation of the entire book.]
Only then, in short, would the Holocaust itself be truly remembered, the call never to forget the Holocaust really met. Here is Améry again, writing in a passage I also cited in the same blog-post (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 78):
On the field of history there would [then] occur what I hypothetically described earlier for the limited, individual circle: two groups of people, the overpowered and those who overpowered them, would be joined in the desire that time be turned back and, with it, that history become moral. If this demand were raised by the German people, who as a matter of fact have been victorious and already rehabilitated by time, it would have tremendous weight, enough so that by this alone it would already be fulfilled. The German revolution would be made good, Hitler disowned. And in the end Germans would really achieve what the people once did not have the might or the will to do, and what later, in the political power game [of the “Cold War”], no longer appeared to be a vital necessity: the eradication of the ignominy.
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Améry wrote the remarks just cited back in the 1960s, and many changes have occurred since then, of course. Those changes include, among other things, various German efforts to indemnify victims of the Nazi genocides or their heirs, and various German trials of Nazi war criminals. Nevertheless, the issues that Améry raises in the passage just cited still remain, and still call out to be acknowledged and addressed.
That very situation was brought to public attention yet again just last year, soon after Pope Francis’s visit to Auschwitz, not far from where the conference to which I had been invited . During that visit, Pope Francis met with some of the still living survivors of Auschwitz. Two of those survivors were, in turn, among a group of survivors who joined together also last year to ask Germany’s highest court to make haste in deciding the appeal of the 2015 conviction of a former SS guard at Auschwitz. As Roman Kent, one of the two, observed (quoted by Alison Smale, “Survivors of Auschwitz Seek Action in Nazi Case,” NY Times for August 18, 2016): “Auschwitz survivors do not have as much time as German justice.”
The German justice in question has already taken so long to enact itself, in fact, that many perpetrators have in the meantime escaped justice altogether. Some such Holocaust perpetrators escaped into death. That was how John Demjanjuk did it, for example.
Demjanjuk managed to live into old age in the United States, in Ohio, before he was even identified as a Holocaust perpetrator. Then he continued to live through two extraditions and two guilty verdicts, the first in Israel and the second in Germany, before he finally managed to die, while his case was still under appeal in German courts. Because he died before final decision had been made on his appeal, his record was then wiped clean in accordance with German law. Thus, John Demjanjuk was permitted to enter eternity with a clean slate.
Demjanjuk was only one of many Holocaust perpetrators who escaped justice by living untouched well into old age, then dying without ever being brought before the bar. There are also a number of perpetrators—many also dead by now, but some still alive—who have escaped justice by been judged legally incompetent to stand trial. Having grown old since the days of their crimes, they continue to this day to be beneficiaries of a legal nicety that contrasts sharply with the brutality they displayed themselves toward their victims during the Holocaust.