Humanism in Response to the Holocaust—Destruction or Innovation?

Jörn Rüsen. Postcolonial Studies. Volume 11, Issue 2. 2008.

It is the intention of this article to confront a plea for a new world-wide humanism with the historical experience of the Holocaust. It is rather easy to postulate humanistic values as a guideline for intercultural encounter and communication, but it is difficult to make this humanistic set of values plausible, to bring it down to earth, and to give it a place in real life, and make it effective in the course of history.

There are a lot of arguments in favour of creating a new humanism to solve the problem of intercultural communication in the globalizing process of today. In this process, different cultural traditions have to come to terms with their difference. At the same time they have to come to terms with the necessity of a trans- or cross-cultural set of values, which are capable of solving conflicts in a peaceful and sustainable way. I don’t believe, of course, that conflicts are mainly a matter of values or cultural orientations, but culture plays an important role in them: it articulates conflicts, gives them sense and meaning by interpretation, and it is necessary to solve them according to dominant patterns of significance and interpretation. These patterns allow or prevent the search for peaceful solutions; they decide whether human interaction is fundamentally or even exclusively driven by a blind will to power, or whether the human will to power has’an eye’ of thinking and reflecting, which gives human agency a sense-directed intention, referring to acts of understanding and a search for alternatives.

Such an anthropology where culture—the human ability of making sense of the world—is not simply a tool for pursuing interests but also a mode of conceptualizing them, is a basis for a new humanism. This humanism is a framework of cultural orientation which confronts the conflicts and clashes between different cultural traditions with a comprehensive idea of humankind. It includes a general and fundamental normative quality of human life. Humankind is both: the widest horizon of the validity of social norms and the widest horizon of experiencing human life. It has a normative and an empirical dimension, which can only be artificially distinguished from each other.

Humanism is an explication of this synthesis. It can be expressed in the Kantian formulation: that every human being is not only a means for the purposes of others, but a purpose in itself. The normative meaning of this statement is clear: human intersubjectivity should be guided by the rule that everyone has to recognize everybody else as a subject of his or her own, with his or her own will and ability to guide it by sense—and meaningful intentions. The empirical meaning of this statement articulates an approach to the vast field of culture where these intentions have become manifest in different life-forms changing in space and time.

There is an established category of this synthesis of regulating and experiencing human life in the vast variety of its cultural orientations: it is history. According to my definition history presents humankind as a realm of experience and as a realm of normativity, called ethics. And here lies the problem of humanism: it inevitably refers to history, and it is this reference which confronts it with a sharp difference between a general ethical rule of human conduct and the reality of human life. The awareness of difference is not new, but its austerity is.

This difference has two sides: first the variety and even heterogeneity of value systems in human life contradicts the idea of a universal valid humanistic value system. Since this variety includes different humanisms with claims for universal validity, any approach to this validity creates conflicts and clashes. In order to avoid them, the only plausible and realistic humanism seems to be relativistic.

The second objection of history to humanism is the overall and obvious fact of human inhumanity. The Holocaust is a paradigm for this inhumanity. It represents it in an utmost radicality. Its logic is the ethnocentric asymmetrical evaluation in distinguishing between self and otherness, between belonging together and being different from others. And its factuality is a murder of six million people. They were robbed of their quality of being human by an imposed definition of their identity, which condemned them to death. Its utmost radicality is the ethnocentric negation of the victims’ status as human beings. Thus their ascribed identity meant their death.

As to the problem of difference and relativism, it can’t be treated in the context of my consideration of the importance of the Holocaust experience for the new world-wide humanism. I can only indicate a possible solution: one has to establish a meta-level of normativity referring to the level of cultural diversity. On this meta-level diversity can be affirmed and, at the same time, overcome in a universal rule. It is a meta-rule of mutual recognition of cultural difference in intercultural communication.

But what about the Holocaust experience? It is the Holocaust as a world-wide accepted paradigm of inhumanity which seems to negate any attempt at a humanistic world view. Has the tradition of Western humanism not been murdered in Auschwitz? Does its effect as ‘Zivilisationsbruch’ (rupture of civilization) not forbid any idea of humanism as one of the traditional essentials of Western culture?

As a historical fact, the Holocaust indeed negates universal humanism in a twofold way of dehumanizing: it dehumanizes victims and the perpetrators as well. The victims are robbed of their humanity and physically killed, and the perpetrators mentally kill their own humanity by dehumanizing and killing the others. The relationship among them is asymmetrical, of course; it is characterized by the difference between suffering and acting.

But only looking at the dehumanization of victims and perpetrators presents the Holocaust in too narrow a perspective. In its social context one has to take into account those who profited from it and those who were the bystanders. Both groups shared the process of dehumanization in general to different degrees. Profiting from the dehumanization of others dehumanizes the profiteers, and witnessing dehumanization and keeping distance and neutrality breaks the humanity of the bystanders, which they share with the victims.

How can humanism, which claims a universal normative quality for every human being simply because he or she is a human being, come to terms with this experience of radical and universal dehumanization?

On a meta-historical level, Dan Diner’s thesis that the Holocaust represents a ‘rupture of civilization’ should be taken seriously. How is it possible to formulate this thesis? As long as such a thesis can be understood in the context of Western humanism, namely a claim or even a lamentation of its negation, the possibility of a ‘new’ humanism is at least not unthinkable.

This can easily be proven by the first and most convincing answer to the question of what the Holocaust means for humanism, namely the normative statement that this should never happen again. Such a statement refers to the basic humanistic principle that men cannot be treated in the way that they were treated in the Holocaust. Adorno called this appeal a new categorical imperative, and described it as the essence of our relationship to the Holocaust. But does this appeal represent the new humanism we need for our cultural orientation? I don’t think so. The reason is that it destroys the synthesis between the empirical and the normative dimensions and elements of humanism. It stands for its contrary, since it simply states a dichotomy between fact and norm, experience and value, between that which is the case and that which ought to be. It weakens the normative elements of humanism to a sheer postulate which is spared from reality and puts the burden of inhumanity on the realm of historical experience. We may call Adorno’s idea a desperate humanism, which attributes it only a negative meaning, that there should not be inhumanism, without saying a word of what humanism could or should be.

A plausible humanism should overcome this form of abstract and negative appeal. There is no way leading around or against history as long as humanism synthesizes normativity and experience into the idea of historical dynamics, which includes the present and gives a stimulating future perspective. But when we refer to history do we not apply historical sense criteria to the Holocaust in order to make it compatible with humanism? Indeed, if we simply continued the traditional procedure of historical sense generation we would miss the challenge of the Holocaust as a historical event. It would deprive it of its traumatic character, by which it destroys any historical sense criteria that would provide the temporal chain between past, present and future with a continuous meaning expressed in the form of a coherent narrative.

Modern historical thinking has mainly conceptualized this meaning of history as essentially humanistic. And it is this inherent inner-worldly secular humanism which has lost its credibility by the events of inhumanity in the history of the twentieth century, culminating in the Holocaust.

So the only way of keeping up the reference of humanism to history is to reconceptualize historical thinking. It has to change its sense criteria and open them to catastrophic experiences of inhumanity strictly running against the traditional humanism as it has been embedded in the foundation of modern historical thinking to a large extent.

In order to answer the challenge of the Holocaust as a historical event, and to prepare the ground for a new humanism in historical thinking, a new strategy of historical sense-generation and a new category of historical thinking have to be introduced. Categories open up dimensions of experience and possibilities of interpreting them. And sense-generation is the way such an interpretation is brought about. The strategy which has to be introduced into historical thinking is mourning as an intellectual activity, and the new category should be suffering.

As to mourning, our understanding is too narrow. It is only seen as a procedure of emotions directed to personal losses. But mourning can be pursued by thinking as well and it can address losses of a far-reaching past. By mourning the loss of humanity the Holocaust has brought about, accepting and working this into our historical understanding of what it means to be human, a lost humanism is kept present and given a future perspective in its absence.

The category of suffering has not played a role in the established traditions of the humanities and social sciences. A general overview of Western culture (at least in its intellectual form—less in literature) can lead to the diagnosis of a deeply rooted and long-lasting tradition of forgetfulness of suffering. (To forget if not to suppress it is a way of coming to terms with it.) This is true for historical thinking as well. History has never neglected the fact that human beings suffer. Hegel, for instance, characterized world history as a slaughter bench, and Ranke described his feelings while looking at the surface of human history in the following way:

The multitude of facts can’t be overlooked; their impression is wretched. We always see how the more powerful one overcomes the weaker till a more powerful one takes him and destroys him, until the process of our times has come, which in turn will endure the same. … Nothing remains but the feeling of vanity of all things and a disgust for many a heinous crime, by which men have stained themselves. We don’t see, for what all these things occurred …

Herder wrote a long paragraph on the senselessness of history in his Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind but all three thinkers—and they are representative of modern historical thinking (with a few exceptions like Freud, Foucault and Girard)—conceptualized historical meaning beyond this senselessness rooted in human suffering. They even did not use the word’suffering’ in a prominent way in spite of its daily evidence. Historical thinking has to tear this veil of forgetfulness of suffering into pieces and to open up the threatening view of suffering as an anthropological universal in its manifold realizations in the varieties of human life. By suffering I don’t only think of pain and unpleasant feelings but of a category of the sense-generating interpretation of the human world.

This runs strictly against any optimism and triumphalism which very often have accompanied the idea of humanism. If humanism were nothing but a concept of human perfectibility, self-empowerment, and the ability to dominate nature and the human world (which inevitably leads to the idea of progress in a normative meaning), this humanism has definitely been killed in Auschwitz.

But humanism has always been more and different from simple human self-empowerment. In its origins in stoic philosophy it emphasized fragility (fragilitas) and weakness as characteristics of human nature. Its idea of the normative quality of being a human being has always been connected with this insufficiency of human nature. The greatest representatives of humanism have declared this insufficiency not only as constitutive for human culture but as an insurmountable limit to its development. In Kant’s ‘Idea of a universal History with cosmopolitan purpose’ from 1786, this modesty of humanism is expressed in the context of a philosophy of history which presents progress as a leading criterion of historical sense. And it is exactly in this context of what we are used to call enlightenment’s optimism that Kant says: ‘One cannot fashion something absolutely straight from wood that is as crooked as that of which man is made.’ In the twentieth century, Emmanuel Levinas put the same idea of human nature into the words: ‘The I is, from head to toe, to the core of his bones, vulnerability.’ Instead of self-empowerment humanism stressed the vulnerability of every human being as a key source of social solidarity. It needs cultural power to overcome this fragility and to bring about a liveable life. This overcoming means education, and education means cultivation. The culture of this cultivation is based on the principles of equality and the ability of organizing one’s life according to plausible sense criteria principally shared by the others in one’s own social context.This is a rather abstract and ideal typological characterization of humanism, ignoring its historical variety. I only want to stress the fragility and vulnerability of human life as a starting point for the concepts of humane values in human nature. They lead to the need for education, self cultivation and social solidarity.

In respect to the Holocaust we don’t only have to stress this anthropological starting point. We have to radicalize it to mean a fundamental fallibility of men. This meets one of the most threatening items of our knowledge of the perpetrators and victims. Yehuda Bauer articulated this insight into the fundamental potentials of the human mind by the remarkable words: ‘I have learned for myself, that we all have small parts of Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler within us, but we have also small parts of helpers within us.’ And in respect to the victims, we know from shocking examples how easily they can become perpetrators themselves. So we have to realize that the perpetrators are normal people—people like ourselves—and that the victims rather easily can become perpetrators. It depends upon the circumstances whether’normal’ human beings—even human beings who feel committed to humanistic values—become inhumane and commit crimes against humanity.

Fragility as an anthropological universal includes moral ambivalence. Therefore humanism can no longer present the normative quality of being a human being as a natural gift to humankind. Instead it depends upon circumstances and is not a reliable disposition of the human mind but a matter of decision of the human subject. Suffering can be relieved at the cost of others or by intersubjective cooperation. What prevails is a matter of contingency. In his statement Yehuda Bauer went on to point to this contingency as a manifestation of human freedom: ‘It depends upon us, what decision we make and whether a new genocide will occur. Eichmann is a horrible warning.’

This categorical revision of the anthropological foundations of humanism does not give up the traditional categories of freedom and reason. It only attributes to them a more contingent and ambivalent quality. Freedom is still a valid element since the humane values are seen as a matter of the free will. But this will is now put into conditioning contexts with overwhelming determining power. And reason remains as a fundamental dependency of the free will upon the world view and its inbuilt rules of conduct in the minds of people. Even the most horrible crimes were committed within a framework of values the perpetrators claimed for themselves.

Remaining in the realm of this (idealistic) tradition makes humanism one-sided and in its universalism simply Euro-centric. In order to enlarge its scope for the purpose of intercultural communication today, the traditional categories of freedom and reason have to be made anthropologically universal. In the case of freedom this is rather simple: every human being tends to oppose dependence on foreigners and strangers. Humans only accept a life-form which they think of as their own. Reason can be understood as the ability of men to argue in order to make their claims for plausibility acceptable. This ability is a universal element of human culture.

Traditionally, suffering as a feature of humanity has vanished in the concept of a humane culture. Today we should emphasize this feature. It has to be applied all the more to the traditionally pre-given concepts of humanism. Suffering can be relieved but never overcome. This anthropological insight makes humanism modest. It prevents the human mind from the typical modern self-esteem of being able (in the words of Max Weber) to dominate everything by calculation. Humanism has traditionally included this attitude of domination (mainly in respect to nature, but only in a somewhat limited way). According to nature it was the idea of a cosmological order which stands for harmony, and in respect to the human world it was the idea of human dignity which limited domination through a set of basic human and civil rights. Both limitations have to be re-conceptualized in respect to the new insights into the fallibility of the human mind as a starting point for a new humanism. They have to be strengthened, radicalized, and historized according to the conditioning power of historical contexts.

The Holocaust as historical experience does not only stand for the anthropological universal of suffering. In its traumatic character it also stands for senselessness as an integral part of historical sense generation. This senselessness breaks the coherence of a thoroughly meaningful narrative in historical interpretation and representation. It evokes ruptures and incoherence in the narrative formation of history. It definitively gives it an open form concerning its meaning within the cultural framework of human life, open for failure as well as for success. What does this mean for a plausible concept of humanism? Humanism has to enclose a fundamental ambivalence into its concept of the normative dimension of being a human being. This corroborates the potential of inhumanity in the vulnerability and fallibility of humankind.

This does not mean scepticism concerning the cultural power of humanism. It only gives a sharp point to subjective responsibility. It shapes it into the feature of practical reason transgressing the hitherto developed forms of cultural life. It criticizes any established tradition of humanism as fixed element of cultural orientation. It makes it restless and gives it a utopian transcendence.

Does this utopian element not move humanism away from history? Does it not pull away the ground of historical experience from under its feet? This would only be the case if history were traditionally understood as the contrary of utopia. But this juxtaposition is not valid. Elements of exuberance belong to social reality and they have to be realized as such when humanism refers to history.

The increase of contingency and discontinuity in historical thinking brought about by the traumatic experience of the Holocaust demands a new awareness of contra-factual concepts of sense and meaning in human life and their impact on the process of historical developments. This is not the same as a plea for a revitalization of traditional modern utopian thinking. On the contrary: the confounding mixture of negating pre-given conditions and circumstances of human life and, at the same time, of presenting a utopian vision in the form of a programme for political and social practice, has led to the crimes against humanity in modern societies.

In respect to these historical experiences the end of utopia has been proclaimed after 1989, at latest. But exuberance is an anthropological universal which can’t be wiped out from the human culture of an unlimited pragmatism. Pragmatism without visions of humanity is empty. At the same time, visions of humanity without pragmatism are inhumane since they neglect the fundamental vulnerability and fallibility of the cultural nature of humankind.

This brings a new relationship between humanism and religion into consideration. Humanism has always had a critical relationship to religion. As far as religious transcendence limited or even negated the value of human life in itself, humanism defends this value against all religious attempts to outbid it. With this claim in the long run it was rather successful as an essential part of the Enlightenment. On the brink of modernity humanism belonged to those cultural forces which established the secular life-form of a modern civil society. But religion did not vanish in this life-form and neither did it dissolve into a universal morality. This dissolution was expected by the Enlightenment, and later predicted by prominent sociologists, who foresaw an irreversible trend of rationalization and disenchantment inherent in the modernization process. Religion remained as a specific relationship to the divine world with the power of redemption, or it turned into a secular form and became a political and social ideology of inner-worldly redemption, covering human suffering by a forced happiness.

On the other hand traditional humanism underestimated the internal ambivalence of humanity and the potential of inhumanism lurking in the depths of the human mind and the cries for redemption. The implausibility of secular religions (they remain a contradiction in themselves) and the inability of secular humanism to overcome the potential of inhumanity in the human mind have led to a new constellation in the relationship between humanism and religion. In unbroken continuity humanism still has to civilize all religious ideas of the divine world, limiting or relativizing the internal value of being a human being. But in a new way humanism can open up to religious forces which strengthen these values by the power of religious belief. Religion, on the other hand, has to reshape its forms of belief in the context of a secular life-form with humanistic cultural orientation. It has to be stripped of its temptation to use political power to universalize its peculiar form of belief at the cost of other forms of belief, including secularism.

So, at the end, the Holocaust experience endows humanism with an increased realism concerning the inbuilt inhumanity in the human mind. And at the same time and as the other side of the same coin, it gives humanism an increase in the exuberant forces of the human mind which will always be challenged by its potentials between good and evil. So it never will be satisfied with pre-given forms of human life and their unavoidable insufficiencies. It will permanently inspire them with the desire to imprint humanity into the mind of every human being.