Suffering Historiography

Suffering Historiography April 25, 2016

Theological investigations of Naziism are often dogged by “a subtle methodological difficulty,” writes Paul Hinlicky in Before Auschwitz (2): “the ‘retrospective fallacy,’ sometimes also called ‘presentism.’” As Hinlicky explains, “Unlike the historical actors in church and society during the 1920s and 1930s in Germany, our inquiry benefits from certain knowledge of the outcome of events.” This certain knowledge of the outcome, growing from “the soil of a philosophically modern, progressively Christian culture” brings on the moral imperative: “Never again!” Hinlicky doesn’t reject moral judgment in history-writing, nor the interest that is embedded in contemporary investigation of the past. He warns though, that “Just this interest . . . complicates inquiry. Above and beyond the dry, dusty work of establishing a baseline of factual knowledge, in the narratives we construct when we ‘connect the dogs’ between established facts to tell a story of the passage from Hitler’s political beginnings in Bavaria after World War I all the way to Auschwitz, we are actively answering our own burning questions about fellow human agents: What were they thinking? How could they have thought these things? How could they have acted on these thoughts?” (2-3).

We cannot answer these sorts of questions, though, unless we “bracket the very moral judgment and especially the repugnance that provoked our inquiry in the first place.” Thus writing about these events “entails a kind of suffering, a patience, a listening to others whom we would just as soon shoot as they so mercilessly shot and then gassed the innocent and defenseless. By an act of suffering imagination . . . we have to enter into the world in which these actors lived” and “assume our common humanity with these agents of the past whom we study – with Nazi murderers.” That means that “our inquiry into them becomes simultaneously an inquiry into ourselves. Could I have thought their thoughts? Could I have acted on them?” When we give in to “our well-justified repugnance and adopt an air of self-evident superiority to these human possibilities for evil, we cut short the very learning that would profit us the most, namely, when we the questioner becomes the questioned.” If “the first victim of war is truth,” it is also the case for “polemical historiography” (3).

Hinlicky doesn’t pretend this is easy or risk-free. On the contrary, we might yield to a “cynicism that concludes that we are all Nazis in a way,” a cynicism born of relativism. He admits that “this is a temptation that necessarily accompanies serious inquiry into serious human moral calamity in rigorous historical consciousness,” but he insists that this is not a necessary outcome of sympathetic historical investigation. Citing Hannah Arendt, he argues that we “think after the agents of evil, not in order to excuse them, but rather to judge precisely and deeply.” We “resist the temptation to ‘demonize’ fellow human beings, criminals though they are, in order to hold them along with ourselves morally accountable as human beings.” We mustn’t forget that the Nazis were guilty of “demonizing” their victims: “Just such emotionally understandable but intellectually irresponsible distancing by way of demonization is what we must avoid if we are to learn anything for ourselves in telling the story of the moral abyss of Nazi Germany” (3-4).

The agents/patients who lived in Nazi Germany rode “the wave of history that first forms us and then propels us along” – just as we do. Neither they nor we can know the future, and yet we have to act “without knowing just how that wave will come to shore and so how our own dreams, hopes, fantasies and plans will or will not be realized.” Hinlicky points out that this applies as much to the “Never again!” of contemporary liberalism as to Naziism: “In making historical judgment – as we historians too are in the thrall of that wave o history we ride – we do not by righteous indignation rise above to some superior vantage point from which to judge sub specie aeternitatis but rather only make a little history in our own little way – for good or for ill or more usually for some confused and confusing combination of good and ill. We make history in this way too when subtly we allow our passion for justice to override judgment and moral purpose to pass into after the fact moralizing that ironically perpetuates a vicious cycle of ressentiment. . . . Discipline fails, then, when we do not by the act of historical imagination allow to voices of the past their own ignorance of the outcome of their actions and thus their own risks and ventures.” More, “we cheat ourselves by such anachronism. We learn nothing from the past when already we know what ‘they’ should have done.” History becomes a set of proof texts from which we “denounce contemporary opponents” and reinforce “our own sense of moral superiority – which is in fact a dangerous moral complacency” (4).


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