Novel Evil

The Holocaust is popularly narrativized through tropes that erase resistance efforts in favor of redemption arcs, redefining “never again” to the advantage of fascists.

Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Gilad Erdan, at the U.N. headquarters in New York City, Oct 30, 2023

Less than a century after it began, the popular lexicon of the Holocaust has become threadbare. It is so reduced to a few suggestive and uncontroversial narrative linchpins, trite and depoliticized, that it sounds almost unsophisticated to evoke it. And yet the Holocaust is constantly invoked, particularly as moral justification for the existence and actions of the state of Israel. Rather than a lesson about how the violent ideology of fascism makes humans capable of perpetuating terrifying atrocities against their neighbors, Europe’s genocide becomes a kind of bland origin story: for the triumph of Zionism, for the existing world order, for the human rights framework, for a form of exceptionalist collective memory that virtually forecloses the possibility of recognizing future genocide. The legal justifications used by accused war criminals at Nuremberg, that they were just following orders or that their victims were a collateral casualty of war, permeate contemporary Holocaust narratives, perpetuating tropes of German order and efficiency and a world neatly divided into good and evil. As tempting as it may be, faced with the enormous moral weight of the Holocaust, to believe in this division, it mostly serves to erase complexity: the complexity of propaganda, the experience of living in a society so thoroughly saturated at every level with fascism and extreme violence, the utter chaos and depravity of mass murder, the nihilism of genocidal logic. This narrative superimposes a neat moral onto history where “never again” is uniquely an injunction about a narrow category of victims (i.e. not only Jewish but also stridently Zionist and anti-Muslim). 

This has led to a surreal category of moral analysis where the Holocaust exists outside of time and can be tacked onto virtually any political project, including explicitly fascist ones. In 2018, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (I.H.R.A.), a UN-style organization made up of member countries, proposed a universal definition of antisemitism which includes describing the state of Israel as racist and comparing its military policy to that of the Nazis. The definition has been adopted by the US Senate, the European Parliament, and multiple national governments. Although antisemitic rhetoric and violence in the US is overwhelmingly the domain of professed far-right neo-Nazi groups, a team of researchers at UMass Lowell put out a recent study in The Conversation, headlined: “Antisemitism has moved from the right to the left in the US.” Their data draws on the I.H.R.A. definition of antisemitism and includes criticism of Israel or confrontation between protestors as instances of antisemitic violence, thereby skewing their results. Although the study acknowledges the existence of right-wing antisemitism, it is almost entirely subsumed to the supposed looming threat of the left. 

Far-right politicians with an explicit history of antisemitism, such as Marine Le Pen, have been praised in recent months for their support of Israel and virulently anti-Muslim sentiment. On November 15th, Elon Musk tweeted out his support for the “great replacement theory”—the idea that Jewish people are engineering white genocide—leading to condemnations from the White House, and from X advertisers such as Apple and Disney. On November 17th, Musk announced an X ban on pro-Palestinian phrases like “from the river to the sea,” which he characterized as antisemitic hate speech. Minutes after the announcement, Jonathan Greenblatt, Director of the ADL, logged on to express his gratitude to Musk, writing: “I appreciate this leadership in fighting hate.”  In a recent article for the far-right Washington Free Beacon, provocatively titled “What Makes Hamas Worse Than the Nazis,”  bestselling British historian Andrew Roberts mounts a rousing defense of Nazism, ostensibly in the name of condemning antisemitism. Although the Nazi government began systematically murdering disabled and queer people even before the start of the war, Roberts insists that their operations were incidentally rather than deliberately sadistic, and that the majority of German people during the war opposed mass murder. If his aim is clearly to demonize the cause of Palestinian liberation as a whole, his exoneration of European fascism as “just following orders” is no less central of a claim. By conflating “antisemitism,” “genocide,” and even “Nazism” with Palestine, Hamas, and Islam as a whole, this kind of historical revisionism works to redeem the European far-right as inherently civilized even in its most barbaric actions. 

Any attempt to adopt a more humanist perspective, to take a longer or wider lens on the annihilation of Europe’s Jewish communities, or to relate their struggles and suffering to the struggles and suffering of others would appear to betray the ethos of post-Holocaust Jewishness. Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon both famously argued that the extreme state violence of fascism and the Holocaust was an imperialist backlash, the excesses of colonial violence returning home, only shocking in that it took place on European soil. In his introduction to Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman describes the insistence on the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a form of historical decontextualization. Or, more plainly, as a refusal to engage in collective self-reflection. “One way is to present the Holocaust as something that happened to the Jews; as an event in Jewish history. This makes the Holocaust unique, comfortably uncharacteristic and sociologically inconsequential.” Bauman asserts that the underlying rationale for this circular logic, by which abstracted antisemitism is both sole cause and sole effect of the Holocaust, is collective exoneration. It works as a shield for modern European civilization, capable of outliving such atrocities.

In this distorted narrative, fascism is rootless and inexplicable and bereft of any ideology, motivated by the slippery logic of “hatred.” Early in November 2023, a young woman posted a viral TikTok video from a luxurious, marble-plated bathroom in Los Angeles. In the video, her hair is slicked back into a tight bun, her nails are painted blood red, she has the unobtrusive, airbrushed makeup typical of TikTok stars. Next to her floats a greenscreen sticker reading “Would you hide me?” She explains that this is a social media campaign designed to raise awareness about how Jewish people around the world are imminently in danger of a second Holocaust before she launches into a brief history lesson. “During the Holocaust, Jews were torn out of their homes and had no safe place to go unless one of their neighbors, who wasn’t Jewish, would take them in and hide them.” She goes on to compare the Nazi regime to the Hamas government before looking straight into the camera and appealing to her 10.7 million followers, “I am asking you, would you hide me?”

 The creator of the video, Ellie Zeiler, whose TikTok channel mostly consists of luxury product reviews and makeup tutorials, is not an obvious choice for such a propaganda campaign. She was widely condemned on social media for her cynical scaremongering and perverse equation of Hamas with the Nazi party. She was also mocked for comparing herself to a Holocaust victim. The strange version of history she describes, though, and its fixation on charity as a means of preventing genocide to the exclusion of other forms of resistance, feels like the logical endpoint of decades of narrative shrinkage. 

In place of complexity, contemporary Holocaust fiction overwhelmingly offers what Parul Sehgal calls the trauma plot, “a totalizing identity.” If trauma must by necessity be a central fixture of Holocaust narrative, its diagnostic problems nonetheless endlessly resurface. Describing the adoption of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), originally created to diagnose American Vietnam War veterans, as a diagnosis for Holocaust survivors, Dagmar Herzog writes in Cold War Freud that the criteria of the illness inevitably relativized the differences between victims and perpetrators. “Not just between survivors of concentration and death camps, on the one hand, and US soldiers returning from Vietnam, on the other, but also between a soldier who had been tortured as a prisoner of war and a soldier who had been a war criminal.” Trauma, in other words, became something amoral. Guilt could also be traumatic.

Hiding a Jewish neighbor is in many ways the paradigmatic backbone of contemporary Holocaust literature, and particularly of children’s literature, which is often used to teach history. This paradigm certainly owes some of its popularity to the legacy and diaries of Anne Frank, but its iterations rarely feature Jewish protagonists. Instead, they tend to be written from an outsider lens, looking in on terror and oppression. 

One of the staples of this genre, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, is one of the bestselling and most acclaimed children’s books of all time. In it, the entire political workings of the Danish Resistance, historically heavily supported by the local government’s agreements with the Nazi occupation, are reduced to interpersonal charity. For a reader otherwise ignorant of the historical period, as many children are, Number the Stars reads like a Christian morality tale, exemplifying the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself. But if Number the Stars is simplistically kitsch, its narrative idea is reduced to its barest form in John Boyne’s infamous 2006 novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which Ann Manov called an exemplification of “the terrifying commercial drive to expunge the Holocaust of its horror, and its Jewishness” in an essay for The New Statesman. The Holocaust is a parable here, deprived of any significance. While the protagonist of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a child, who is utterly ignorant of the activities of his concentration camp guard father, the more recent sequel is aimed at an adult readership. All the Broken Places, published in 2022, essentially mirrors the moral arc of the first book but with a more lurid premise of romance, murder, and betrayal. In both novels, the suffering of a German family takes center stage. The child in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is mistakenly sent to the gas chambers. In the sequel, his older sister, desperate to conceal her family’s past, is repeatedly found out. Their losses, in the story, awaken their moral understanding. The Auschwitz commandant father, mourning his son, is, in some strange way, redeemed. 

Part of the problem here is lexical. The only way to defeat hatred, as Ellie Zeiler’s description of the “would you hide me” campaign suggests, is through depoliticized interpersonal action, which may just as easily be oriented towards the comfort of the oppressor as towards the salvation of the oppressed. Voided of political context, “Nazism” can be easily attached to left-wing organizations, many of which, like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, have been widely accused of antisemitism by right-wing parties in Europe and the US in recent decades, mainly due to their support for anti-Zionism and Palestinian liberation. Rather than seeing personal responses of compassion or horror as a gesture of refusal, this brand of Holocaust revisionism deploys them as a defense of fascism itself. Ironically, it rests on categories of dehumanization, this time targeting Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian people. Zionism is presented in its purest ideological form here, fully detached from any Jewish meaning, and clearly conscripted to the aims of right-wing western imperialism. To remember the Holocaust, as this argument goes, is to forget history. 

Although it has become starkly visible now during Israel’s prolonged bombing, siege, and assault on Gaza and the West Bank which has resulted so far in the murder of at least 20,000 people, this strain of revisionism is hardly new. In 1999, Gabriel Schoenfeld, a political analyst who would go on to work as a senior advisor for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, lambasted the concept of “Holocaust Studies'' in an opinion piece for The New York Times, calling it “the ultimate of victimization” in a field of “victim studies” such as disability studies, women’s studies, and so on. In 1985, novelist Fernanda Eberstadt published a long essay in Commentary devoted to excoriating Primo Levi for trying to find universal meaning in the Holocaust and thereby erasing its Jewish character, writing that: “Paradoxically, then, the message of If This Is a Man seems to be not how easy it was to kill six million Jews but that it is, after all, as difficult to destroy a man as to create one.”  What offends Eberstadt is the idea that there can be any notion of universal humanity after Auschwitz.

But Levi declared in 1982 that “Today, the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis,” suggesting that the meaning of Auschwitz is also historically contingent, that as a metaphor for evil, it has startling contemporary relevance. He diagnoses the camp as a byproduct of modernity in If This Is a Man, much as Bauman, Césaire, and Fanon do. To Levi, Auschwitz is a kind of simulacrum of the world, the logical outcome of debasement and dehumanization. It is life reduced to its lowest forms. There is no sense to life in Auschwitz, it deprives the world of meaning. What is so striking about his writing in the face of this is above all his refusal to extricate a moral arc from history. To him, the past is instead made up of everyday choices and ideas and relationships, of small atrocities. Each murder and dispossession is the entire life of an individual human, implicating an entire society and its structure. This is certainly a less comforting way of understanding history, but it is ultimately critical. Individual choices are inextricable from power structures, easily swayed by them. Writing about the Black Lives Matter movement, Blair McClendon argues that dehumanization arises not from being unable to perceive the humanity of others but from being convinced that it does not matter. “It is not that people have treated each other this way simply because they do not recognize another person’s humanity, but that humanity is no shield against untethered power.” History is made up of small things. It makes us all complicit.

Many popular Holocaust novels and films shy away from the camps, perhaps because writing them involves this engagement with moral complexity. Even the books that are set in the camps, such as The Tattooist of Auschwitz, tend to avoid this kind of reckoning with evil. Although The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on the real-life story of a Jewish Holocaust survivor conscripted to work in the camp, its fabrications and inaccuracies were extensive enough that the Auschwitz Memorial issued a statement condemning the book. Among these inaccuracies arise thorny questions about the real life behavior of the historical figures who inspired the story, and particularly that of the protagonist’s love interest (also a functionary in the camp) who was described by other survivors as exploitative and unremorsefully cruel. Given the conditions at Auschwitz and the impossible choices presented it is difficult of course to judge or condemn the behavior of the kapos or conscripted Jewish functionaries. But the characters in the book are flattened as a result. Unlike in historical accounts, such as Levi’s, they seem spiritually unaffected by the brutality around them. 

Rather than a process then, evil in Holocaust novels is primarily a mysterious force that can only be rooted out by an experience of redemption. Like in The Boy With the Striped Pyjamas, the non-Jewish protagonists in novels like The Book Thief, All the Light We Cannot See, and Caging Skies (better known for its cinematic adaptation into the 2019 film Jojo Rabbit) undergo encounters with death which function like biblical miracles, opening up a path to righteousness. Since these characters are all children—even when the stories are aimed at adults—their redemptive arcs are not only personal bildungsroman journeys but also a blueprint for the future of ethnonationalism in Europe, reckoning with the idea of collective guilt and how to exonerate itself.

The Book Thief, a young adult novel by Markus Zusak, also features a Jewish fugitive living hidden in a non-Jewish home and is told from the perspective of a German child, Liesel.In a mawkish twist, the story is narrated by Death itself, which creates a neat narrative reversal, erasing the dead around Liesel and positioning her as a hidden child on par with the hidden Jewish man,who she befriends. This strange moral equivalency primarily functions because she is a child. Her distaste for the crude violence of fascism is instinctive and unsophisticated. Although her father is ostensibly killed for being a communist, Liesel does not know what the word means, and it has no significance in the story. Instead, the function of this political orientation appears to be solely to orient Liesel as a “good” German untainted by associations with Nazism. 

The flattening of trauma that The Book Thief achieves is even more stark in All the Light We Cannot See and Jojo Rabbit which both prominently feature redemptive arcs for Nazi characters. Jojo Rabbit, directed by Taika Watiti and released in 2019, is a strange and quirky look at the extreme indoctrination of Hitler Youth. The protagonist, Jojo, is a lonely 10-year-old boy who fixates on Nazi ideology and whose imaginary best friend is none other than Adolf Hitler. This wartime Germany has the same kind of nostalgic summer camp charm as Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. When violence intrudes upon it, it feels largely extraneous to the story. Jojo doesn’t understand the relationship between fascism and violence, and no one ever clarifies it for him, not even his anti-fascist mother. His Hitler Youth program leader is a former SS officer who redeems himself by covering for the Jewish girl hidden in Jojo’s attic and then saving Jojo’s life while simultaneously sacrificing himself. The Jewish girl, who spends her days trying to reverse Jojo’s indoctrination, assumes responsibility for him at the end of the film after his mother is murdered for her resistance activity. The assumed decimation of her community and psychic violence that has been wrought upon her disappears in the face of her newly forged bond with Jojo. Ultimately, the psychodrama underpinning the story is Jojo learning to identify and understand the humanity of others. 

In his seminal book on human rights, After Evil, Robert Meister argues that the entire human rights framework is predicated on an implicit compromise between addressing past injustice and foreclosing any kind of radical destabilization to existing social structures. “To put the point crudely, the cost of achieving a moral consensus that the past was evil is to reach a political consensus that the evil is past.” Evil is transcended here by recognition, the acknowledgement of the humanity of others, and more critically, the acknowledgement of their suffering. Fanon makes a similar argument in Black Skin, White Masks, writing against Hegelian Master-Slave dialectics. The colonial framework, according to him, can only recognize the colonized subject as “human” by negating their essence. Rather than expanding the definition of humanity, in other words, the slave must become like the master.

Meister sees this incompatibility, in the case of the Holocaust, as an absorption of its Jewish victims and survivors into Christianity. Just as Christians entered a post-messianic era by witnessing the sacrifice of Christ, Judaism has become post-messianic by witnessing Auschwitz. Although Meister does not touch upon it, this idea is also frequently instrumentalized to pin the outcome of the Holocaust to the creation of the state of Israel and the moral imperatives of Zionism. 

It is particularly strangely instrumentalized in this form by Christian Zionists who understand the state of Israel as a kind of western cleansing force that will wipe out Palestine and usher in a Christian messianic era. To recognize that unlike the death of Christ, the murder of the Jews of Europe was pointless and non-redemptive and cannot justify the horrifying dispossession and murder of Palestinians requires a rejection of the entire normative western framework of guilt and absolution. It poses thorny psychoanalytic questions about our real reactions to human suffering. In the contemporary Holocaust narratives I have described above, the non-Jewish protagonists are enlightened by their experience of witnessing violence and suffering. But historically, that was often not the case. Meister sums up this disjunction neatly: “By accepting the imperative ‘Never again be a bystander,’ they are expected to treat the spectacle of human suffering, which did not pain them the first time, as traumatic when they see it again.” 

This moral understanding underpins Anthony Doerr’s wildly successful 2014 novel, All the Light We Cannot See. The book follows two children living parallel lives over the course of the war, a little, blind French girl named Marie-Laure fighting in the Resistance, and a teenage German boy named Werner, whose engineering abilities land him a job triangulating partisan radio signals. He joins a Wehrmacht squad but ends up incorrectly tracing a signal and his team mistakenly kills a young girl. This clean-cut ideal of innocence—the girl is not guilty of partisan activity and is therefore unambiguously a victim —awakens the boy’s conscience. Later, he will have an encounter with Marie-Laure, who appears like an angelic vision to him, and inspires him to resist his orders.

History becomes a smokescreen here, subsumed to the demands of fiction. What is left is a fairy tale, a morality arc about how to expiate the original sin of antisemitism through redemptive acts such as hiding your neighbor. Holocaust victims and survivors in this kind of story are acted upon, rather than being actors. They possess no real agency or ability to interpret the world around them. They are passive, noble sufferers. Ironically, by robbing them of complexity, these stories once again dehumanize them.

Primo Levi notably rejects this framework. If This is a Man is modeled structurally after Dante’s Inferno and is forensically interested in evil. Levi sees evil less as the degradation of good, and more as an aberration, an active practice. This implies that it requires active participation but what Levi is interested in showing is how quickly a regime of evil can desensitize and break down its victims, how easily it can utterly dehumanize them in the eyes of their oppressors. Witnessing oppression or taking charitable action for its victims does not therefore fundamentally unsettle its structural power.

It is not incidental then that, in line with right-wing ideological programs, the mainstream current of Holocaust narratives primarily encourage identification with the perpetrators rather than with the victims. They are propelled by the cause of personal enlightenment, encouraging the reader to look within for evil and to root it out rather than ever looking outward at the world surrounding them. Evil, this version of history would have you believe, is a personal problem and not a systemic one. It can crystallize through a mysterious process into mass evil, a spiritual rot. This gives it a kind of mystical aspect. It is easier from this perspective to believe in the innate evil of some, in the innate goodness of others. This moral binary is frequently mobilized in defense of violence and injustice. In a deleted tweet, Netanyahu called Israel’s ongoing genocidal attack on Gaza “a war between the children of light and the children of darkness.” In a December 2023 speech, Joe Biden reaffirmed his condemnation of Hamas, which he implicitly collapsed into a condemnation of Palestinians as a whole, calling them “a brutal, ugly, inhumane people, and they have to be eliminated.” Both were invoking this moral binary, the deformed vocabulary of white supremacy and colonialism. For if the world is made up of people who are “good” and “bad,” “civilized” and “barbaric,” rather than of societies shaped by ideologies, then it is possible to characterize an entire group of people as evil, to dehumanize them, to declare them guilty all the way down to their newborn babies, to justify their mass murder.

In broader terms, this is a totalizing story about history; one in which the European perpetrators of wars of aggression, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, can redeem themselves by retelling their crimes but this time as witnesses to horror rather than as active participants. They can atone and wash away the sin of what they have done by giving it a narrative structure with an ending and a moral lesson, one in which the Holocaust finds its silver lining in the creation of the state of Israel, one in which Europe becomes civilized again, one in which blame is shifted from Germany to Palestine, and from fascists to anti-fascists. 

The actual victims past and present, on the other hand, are silent, excluded from the progressive march of history. They will forever be victims, forever be dead. What moral arc could they possibly need? To achieve recognition and to be allowed to describe the past, they must, like the readers, and like immigrants integrating into German society, also be transformed into perpetrators. Ideologically, this functions as a fascist intervention to foreclose the possibility of radical social realignment or any real reckoning with the past. Once again, we are bystanders to genocide either tacitly or enthusiastically supported by western governments and institutions. “Never again” is a historical abstract, a problem of past evil, structurally impossible by its very framing to apply to the murder of Palestinians. There are no lessons to history—or at least, none that we are encouraged  to learn.