September 10, 2000
A historian examines the origins and consequences of the Holocaust.
MIRRORS OF DESTRUCTION
War, Genocide, and Modern Identity.
By Omer Bartov.
Illustrated. 302 pp. New York:
Oxford University Press. $35.
What does it mean to ''come to terms with the Holocaust?'' One way of doing so would be to seek a satisfactory historical assessment of the event, situating it properly in the context of its time. Another would be a settling of moral accounts with the victims. And still another would be a comprehension of the event's significance from a philosophical, cultural or juridical point of view. In Omer Bartov's new book, ''Mirrors of Destruction,'' we see an accomplished author grappling with all three approaches, moving urgently and restlessly -- and sometimes incoherently -- from one to the others.
Bartov, an Israeli historian who teaches at Brown, brings a prodigious amount of reading, intelligence and critical energy to the table. Yet it is not entirely clear what his book is actually about. Much of his material comes from Germany, understandably enough, and from France, for reasons that are less clear, and some also comes from Israeli sources. Preoccupied with the encounter of writers and intellectuals with the Holocaust, Bartov bombards the reader with ideas and issues as well as with commentary on literature and film in four long essays packed with endnotes and bibliographical references. And whenever there are loose ends -- and there are plenty -- they are concealed by powerful, sweeping generalizations.
Rather than a narrative of the Holocaust, ''Mirrors of Destruction'' provides an account of ''the manner in which a variety of perspectives on violence have molded European views and redefined individual and collective identities in a process of emulation, mutual reflection and distortion.'' As if to clarify, Bartov likens his book to ''a hall of mirrors wherein repeated images, seen from different angles, provide a prism through which we can distill a clearer understanding of the origins, nature and impact of the atrocity that occurred in the heart of our civilization.'' What does this mean? Bartov's answer is that there are critical links between our search for individual and collective identities and the great waves of destruction that culminated in the murder of European Jews. In coming to terms with the Holocaust, we are, in fact, studying ourselves.
Once under way, Bartov plunges into these important but not easily associated themes. He begins with the First World War -- unprecedented in its destructive force, catastrophic in its creation of mythologies that portrayed war as a heroic endeavor with transformative powers for society. ''World War I swiftly transformed Europe's mental landscape into a site of mourning and anxiety, loss and trauma,'' he writes, with characteristically gloomy authority. ''First the scar of trenches stretching across the continent and then the vast, symmetrical cemeteries, which rendered a semblance of aestheticized order to the slaughter, have become embedded in Europe's collective consciousness.'' Reflecting on the ennobling rituals of remembrance in France and Germany after that conflict, Bartov shows how popular memory in both countries sanitized and even glorified warfare.
How, the reader might ask, does all this connect with the wartime murder of European Jews? In Bartov's view, the ''sustained industrial killing of nameless soldiers'' in World War I was a prelude to the ''systematic industrial killing of civilians'' in World War II. The ferocity of total war undermined, perhaps fatally, the capacity of European societies to live together on the basis of a shared humanity. Those who saw themselves as victims of the disaster sought to liberate themselves from ''the perceived stranglehold of uncontrollable, invincible forces.'' Ruminating on the carnage of the war, Bartov writes, the traumatized citizens of both France and Germany invented ''elusive enemies'' whose nefarious activities were understood as a sinister existential threat. The Germans, but not the French, reached a consensus that the elusive enemy was the Jew. And while scapegoating and ''exterminatory fantasies'' form a depressingly familiar pattern in modern war, the murder of European Jews showed just how far societies could go down this road. ''Auschwitz,'' he concludes, ''is a mirror in which the history of our century is reflected.'' What are we to make of such dark reflections?
To his credit, Bartov rejects the mystifications that one often finds in writing on the Holocaust -- for instance, the notion that it is fundamentally inexplicable, or that only survivors can grasp its deeper significance. At the same time, he seems humbled by the enormity of the crime, confessing that ''the event as a whole defies the imaginative capacities of the human mind.'' A searcher rather than a finder, Bartov seems perpetually dissatisfied with the banalized representations of the Holocaust in the academy and in popular culture. He levels withering criticism at those who seek to establish a moral equivalence between Soviet and Nazi crimes. He finds something ''almost obscene'' in the ''constant rehashing'' of arguments in Germany about how to commemorate the Holocaust. In his reckoning, nobody, except a few anguished survivors like the Israeli writer Ka-Tzetnik, gets it quite right.
In his conclusion, Bartov tellingly refuses to recapitulate his arguments -- that would be repetitious, and too simple, he says. (Here is an author for whom simplicity is anathema.) Instead, he explores new material, taking on new polemics and problems and offering a brilliant analysis of the strange case of Binjamin Wilkomirski, a Swiss writer who falsely claimed to be a Holocaust survivor in his memoir, ''Fragments.'' Whatever one thinks of Wilkomirski's fabrications, Bartov says, they represent an effort to peer into the void, to define one's identity alongside the ''annihilatory force of modern violence: massive, all-encompassing, unrelenting and faceless.'' Near the end, he asks, ''Should we face up to the truth? Can we know it? Can we bear it?''
One senses that Bartov is struggling with the problem of how to conclude. What he does is to enlist another writer who was finally defeated by his terrible subject, Primo Levi. Brooding on his days in Auschwitz, Levi wrote that ''man, the human species -- we, in short -- had the potential to construct an infinite enormity of pain and that pain is the only force created from nothing, without cost and without effort. It is enough not to see, not to listen, not to act.'' It is a troublesome ending to a troubled book.
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