For more than half a century now, the Jews of the West have benefited immeasurably from the defeat of Nazism. Hitler, as Georges Bernanos famously put it, gave anti-Semitism a bad name.
This bad name was thought to have been the last word. But time has proven otherwise: What we once took for granted we now see was a passing phase. And it is in France, home to the largest number of European Jews, where the parenthesis closes with a bang. It is here that synagogues have been burned, rabbis assaulted, and cemeteries profaned. By day we clean the walls of community centers and colleges that are covered with obscenities at night. Only the very brave dare to wear a kipa in the harsh neighborhoods known as cites sensibles,or on the Paris subway. Every day, another intellectual denounces Zionism as a crime, and teaching the Holocaust has become impossible at the very moment when it has become imperative. Schoolchildren are taught to make a mockery of the ancient Israelites, and the epithet “dirty Jew” has again become a staple of school yard slang. The hearts of the Jews are heavy. For the first time since the war, they are afraid.
This fear is a strange mixture of two contradictory sentiments: Humiliation and deja vu. It is terrifying, but not disorienting; every incident has its precedent, every assault reopens an ancient wound. There is nothing in the hatred of Jews that does not seem familiar. Overwhelmed by the onslaught, the Jews say to themselves, “Now that we thought it was over, it has started again. The past has not passed. Hidden in the folds of public virtue, it was only playing dead, waiting for better days. Now those days are here. Taboos are broken, censure lifted,barriers defied: After fifty years, hell has risen from purgatory, evil breathes deep and stretches its arms open wide.”
Old Demons, New Debates: This was the title that the yivo Institute gave to last year’s international conference on anti-Semitism in the West. The conference’s brochure drove the point home more clearly: “To a number of observers, what had been repressed has suddenly and forcefully returned. Political, social, and cultural Europe once again appears marred by its most ancient and base prejudice.” These observers do, of course, have a point: Anti-Semitism is not a new idea in Europe. Yet they err when they confuse what is happening in Europe today with what happened back then—a confusion that is derived from past experience. Yet to see only the past in present events is to dream with one’s eyes open and to call it wisdom. And to invoke the subconscious, or the periodic eruption of immutable drives, is surely to take the easy way out. For to speak of a return is to clothe new demons in old arguments.
Young demons, old arguments: If we are ever to face reality, we must escape from our retrospective prison. Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, quoted Rebecca West to the effect that the Jews, who have seen the greatest of evils, have “an unsurprisable soul.” This, however, is precisely the problem: To understand our new world requires a surprisable soul. Being disabused of illusion is not the same as attaining truth. Pessimism has no right to laziness, for even bad news can be news. Even demons can glow with the innocence of youth.
What are the foundations of today’s Europe? Does it rest on culture? On a shared admiration for particular immortals like Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Pascal, Cervantes, Giotto, Rembrandt, Picasso, Kant, Kierkegaard, Mozart, Bartok, Chopin, Ravel, Fellini, and Bergman? Does it share in the continuity of a glorious past? Does it seek to honor its common ancestors? No, it has broken with its bloody past, intent on remembering only its radical evil. Traumatized by Hitler, Europe cannot be satisfied with a simple repudiation of anti-Semitism; it must unburden itself by switching from an admiring humanism to a reviling one. It is a humanism perfectly captured in the cry, “Never again!” Never again a politics of power. Never again empire. Never again warmongering. Never again nationalism. Never again Auschwitz.
Time has not eroded the memory of Auschwitz. On the contrary, that memory has struck deep roots. The Holocaust, writes Francois Furet correctly, “has gained even more depth as the negative companion to the democratic conscience, and the incarnation of the Evil to which this negation leads.” But why, precisely, the Holocaust? Why has Auschwitz, and no other doctrinaire carnage, no other horror of hate, come to play this unique role in democratic society? Because democratic man, the man of human rights, is man as such—abstracted from his origins, his social rank, his nation and race, his merits, his service record, and his talent. In proclaiming the right of a race of overlords to purge the land of people judged injurious, the criminal creed of the Nazis, and it alone, took aim at universal humanity. As Habermas wrote, “Something happened in the death camps that, up until now, no one could have thought possible. A profound solidarity among all that bears a human face was reached there.” This is why the United States felt authorized to erect a Holocaust museum in the heart of its capital, and to make it a focus of national attention. Not just because America went to war against the Nazis, but because the Nazis’ unprecedented assault against the idea of democratic man presents the Americans, more than any other political collective, with an opposite image of themselves. For the democracy of the New World is unique in that it is not only constitutional, it is also consubstantial with the nation. In a homeland without an ancien regime, no distinction may be drawn between polity and homeland. The form is the content of national sentiment, as embodied in the Statue of Liberty.
To be sure, America has not always lived up to its own ideals: There is plenty of room in Washington for a Museum of Slavery as well. But to accuse America of trying to divert attention from its own moral failings by evoking a faraway genocide would be to pick the wrong fight with the United States. A sincere awe, a genuine sense of horror inspired this memorial. As the museum’s advisory board reminds us, “As an event of universal significance, the Holocaust has a special importance for Americans. By their deeds and by their words, the Nazis denied the very founding values of the American nation.”
Democratic America and democratic Europe find their common principles in the commemoration of the Holocaust. But there is a crucial difference: America is victorious; Europe plays the roles of vanquisher, victim, and criminal all at once. The Final Solution took place on its land; the decision was a product of its civilization; and the enterprise found no shortage of accomplices, mercenaries,executors, sympathizers, and even apologists well outside Germany’s borders.Democratic Europe may have won the war against Nazism, but Nazism was nonetheless European. The Holocaust reminds America of its calling, Europe of its fragility. It affirms the creed of the New World and deprives the old one of its validity. To the latter it is an abyss, to the former a confirmation. It nourishes both American patriotism and the European aversion to Eurocentrism. What unites Europe today is the repudiation of war, of hegemony, of anti-Semitism, and of all the catastrophes that it has brought about—every form of intolerance and inequality to which it has given life. Inasmuch as the American call of “never again” plays itself out in its response to external threats, the post-criminal Europe is what Camus called a “penitent-judge”: One who takes pride in his penitence and is always on guard against himself. “Never again me!” promises Europe, and she kills herself to fulfill that oath. Democratic America fights her adversaries; Europe crosses swords with her ghosts. The call to vigilance is expressed in America through the active defense (sometimes with little regard for means) of the free world; in Europe it is embodied in the undying slogan, “Fascism shall not pass.”
Alain Finkielkraut is a lecturer in the social sciences at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. A version of this essay originally appeared in book form in French (Editions Gallimard, 2003).