Undercover: The Thriller Memorandum, Part IV (11/18/76)

isserIsser Harel was head of the Israeli secret service at the time of Adolf Eichmann’s capture in Argentina in 1960, an operation he directed; in The House on Garibaldi Street EET (Bantam), he writes of the thoughts he had when he was first informed that Eichmann, who had disappeared at the end of World War II, had been located. “I knew,” Harel says, “that his principal function was the extermination of the Jews… This somber chapter in the history of the Jewish people haunted me like a nightmare that had no place in the world of reality—something going so far beyond the known limits of dastardly crime, wanton cruelty and mortal hatred that no human being could plumb the depths of its significance.” There was a time when language of this sort was used, with effect, in political discourse and in writing history; today, it is the language of pulp, of the thriller. (“As compelling as The Odessa File,” says the publisher’s blurb of Harel’s non- fiction book.) Specifically, this is the language of the Nazi-hunting thriller—though no good thriller writer would employ a word so full of comic, melodramatic associations as “dastardly”—and one recognizes it as thriller language because it is portentous, overblown and overdramatic.

That is how it appears, at any rate. Harel’s words seem like thriller writing (and thus they discourage analysis of what they say) not necessarily because they are overblown—in other words, inappropriate—but because those who write history, and who define the boundaries of respectable political discussion, have abandoned this kind of language. One has learned that those who are to be taken seriously on the subject of Nazism do not speak in this manner, and it is only because historians and political analysts have, in reference to Nazism, abandoned this language, that the thriller writers have been able to claim it. One can go farther: it is only because historians and political analysts have abandoned this language that it has become necessary for the thriller writers to claim it.

It has become necessary, I think, because Harel articulates some fundamental, final truths about Nazism—his thoughts are a succinct statement of the dilemma I tried to set forth in this column last issue. Harel is saying that there is something in Nazism, in Nazi crime, that defies understanding; that cannot, for those who did not experience those crimes firsthand (and perhaps not even for them), be made completely real; that cannot be adequately explained by facts or enclosed by theory—and he is saying that for him, it is in this that part of the true horror, the true evil, of Nazism lies. It “had no place in the world of reality”; it “went… far beyond the known limits.” Nazi crime cannot be simply fitted into the fabric of human history, no matter how bloody and criminal that history has been, Harel is saying in language we have been schooled to dismiss (“No human being could plumb the depths of its significance”)—but neither can Nazi crime be shunted off as an anomaly, because it was not an accident, nor an incident.

With this in mind, consider two recent books on the Nazi period: Lucy S. Dawidowicz‘s The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 (Bantam) and John Lukacs’ The Last European War, 1939-1941 (Anchor)—and then the late Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (Viking/Compass), a report on Eichmann’s trial but also an inquiry into the extermination of the Jews and other “subhuman” races, which was published in 1963.” In neither of the first two books is there a single passage that in any way resembles Harel’s statement, either in style or in meaning. Dawidowicz avoids Harel’s territory because, in contrast to him, she plainly feels she must, and can, explicate what matters about Nazi genocide with documentation and analysis. I don’t mean to imply that her book is in any way unfelt; but the result of her wholly “rational” approach is that while the book seems to be laying a road on solid ground, it is in fact building a bridge over Harel’s abyss. Dawidowicz’s method may be the only way she, and most others, could bear to tell the story, but that does not mean the whole story gets told. George Steiner notes in a review that other historians have found Dawidowicz’s material “almost too irrational, too incredible to handle,” as she seems not to, but in the end it is Dawidowicz’s bypassing of this quality that reduces the event, and to a certain degree conventionalizes it—conventionalizes what to Harel could not be contained by “reality,” what could not, by definition, be fully understood.

The Last European War also disregards Harel’s abyss—but unlike Dawidowicz, it is Lukacs’ intention to conventionalize Nazism. He wants to convince his readers that Nazism differed from ordinary European politics only by degree, and, as it were, by accident (fashionably, Lukacs reminds one again and again that Stalinism was far worse than Nazism—a contention that is, to put it mildly, questionable, and, as I hope becomes clear in my discussion of Arendt, beside the point). The Last European War is not to be taken seriously (Lukacs goes so far as to claim that the systematic extermination of the Jews, or of anybody else, was not an essential element of Nazism, but merely represented a response to America’s entry into the war, which Hitler is said to have blamed on pressure exerted by American Jews—a version of history that, simply in terms of chronology, is patently false), but his blithe refusal of Harel’s confrontation with unthinkable evil is to be taken seriously. Lukacs’ book represents that side of the contemporary sensibility that has been able to deny any present-day significance to Nazi crime; that yearns, in an age of individual crimes and economic uncertainty, for an anti-communist society of order and discipline; that finds Nazism not only fascinating but in certain ways attractive.arendtThirteen years make a difference. When Hannah Arendt wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, memories were stronger; there were more witnesses to say no. (And there was Arendt herself, who would not have let Lukcas’ book pass without comment.) Like The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann in Jerusalem is a passionate book; Arendt’s style has nothing in common with Harel’s, but she does recognize his abyss. She does not explain it, because that is not what one does with an abyss; instead, cutting through the restraint one has come to expect from serious writers on Nazism (the basic purpose of the Nazi regime, she writes, was ultimately the committing of unheard-of crimes), she locates that abyss, denying Nazism a simple connection to ordinary political or criminal history, or to the history of anti-Semitism up to the time of the Nazi era. The burden of Harel’s thoughts—“no place in the world of reality… something going so far beyond the known limits”—thoughts which led to Eichmann’s capture, were, to Arendt, the burden of Nazi history.

It was when the Nazi regime declared that the German people not only were unwilling to have any Jews in Germany but wished to make the entire Jewish people disappear from the face of the earth that the new crime, the crime against humanity—in the sense of a crime “against the human status,” or against the very nature of humankind—appeared… [It was] an attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the “human status” without which the very words “mankind” or “humanity” would be devoid of meaning.

What the Nazis did, Arendt said, was something new: they altered the limits of human action. In doing so, the Nazis provided humanity with more than a burden—the need to comprehend their actions—they also provided a legacy: “It is in the very nature of things human that every act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of mankind stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past… Once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been.”

It is this sort of uncompromised language, and this sort of thinking, that has mostly disappeared from respectable work in English on the subject; and it is this sort of vision, which incorporates Harel’s vision, or anti-vision, that the thriller writers have taken up and used as the basis for the contemporary genre of Nazi-hunting booKs. The genre is rooted in an acceptance of Arendt’s belief that something exceptional took place in Nazi Germany, something new, and it is rooted in the conviction that, in the words of Yosal Rogat, author of a book on the Eichmann trial, “evil violates a natural harmony which only retribution can restore;… a wronged collectivity owes a duty to the moral order to punish the criminal”; in Arendt’s words, that “just as you [in Arendt, Eichmann; in Nazi-hunting books, Nazis] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations… we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you.”

This is a powerful basis for any genre of fiction. No matter how luridly the theme may be carried out, it raises a crucial moral question that, given the Nazi criminals living and holding economic and political power in South America, the United States, the Arab countries or present-day Germany, has not been resolved—and in serious fiction has hardly been addressed, because regardless of the moral questions at stake, the Nazi-hunting theme seems too sensational for “legitimate” fiction and because the almost inherent requirement for action in any Nazi-hunting book seems likely to defeat the development of character or the delineation of ambiguity. So the Nazis belong to the thriller writers. They have seized on the Nazis, these best-selling authors of The Boys from Berlin, The Odessa File, Marathon Man, The Wind-Chill Factor, Commemorations, for many reasons—most of them no doubt less than noble—but the most convincing of these authors have also chosen to write about Nazi-hunting because there is a reality, or an irreducible unreality, in the theme, that no one else is dealing with; because there are authentic fears surfacing in these thrillers that these days can find a voice nowhere else.

Nazi-hunting books are set in the present or the immediate past; they posit Nazis—survivors from the war and their contemporary followers—as a concrete threat to Israel, democracy, America, or, as the dust jackets like to say, to “the fate of the world.” Some plots are grounded in fact; others are radical fantasies that grow out of Harel’s recognition of incomprehensibility, of events the significance of which “no human being could plumb,” of policies that meant to contradict the very idea of limits on human action. The question that needs to be asked about these books is a simple one: can they make this real?


Rolling Stone, November 18, 1976


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