It Isn't Even Past

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The recent theft and recovery of the sign Arbeit Macht Frei from the gate of Auschwitz, and the emotional responses elicited by the incident, drive home just how deeply embedded the Holocaust and its imagery remain in contemporary consciousness.

No doubt, this world-historical event will long continue to occupy a central place in human memory—along with, unfortunately, whatever permutations, distortions, and outright falsifications time will add to those that have already accumulated in the overheated political rhetoric of our own age. That is why, here and now, as we enter perhaps the final decade of the event's living memory, the issue of historical interpretation becomes especially acute.

The Auschwitz site itself draws more and more visitors, while the subject of Auschwitz gathers about it more and more arcane conspiracy theories. In Ukraine, the country's emerging national pantheon celebrates independence fighters whose wartime anti-Soviet activities went hand in hand with the murder of native Jews and Poles. Aged Nazis are among us still, awaiting justice. Even dead perpetrators can provoke—witness startling new revelations about a distinguished German musicologist who died a decade ago.

This last episode highlights yet another historical dimension of the Holocaust: the fatal attraction exercised by Nazism and Nazi anti-Semitism on esteemed scholars and intellectuals, including such figures as Mircea Eliade, Paul DeMan, and, most notoriously, the philosopher Martin Heidegger. As lurid biographical revelations pile up, how and to what degree should our growing familiarity with compromised or atrocious behavior adjust our view of the work of these figures of "tainted greatness," as a valuable collection of essays terms them?

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