October 28, 2018

The almost inescapable we

‘To protect ourselves we use the most potent marker of distance we know, the line of demarcation that passes between “we” and “they.” The Nazis have become our great “they.” In their demonic and monstrous evil, “they” exterminated the Jews and set the world aflame. Hitler, Goebbels, Göring and Himmler, Mengele, Stangl, and Eichmann. The German people who followed “them” are in our minds also a “they,” a faceless and frenzied mass, almost as monstrous as their leaders. The remoteness of “they” is vast and dashes down these proximate historical events, which took place in the present of our grandparents, into a near-medieval abyss. At the same time we know, every one of us knows, even though we might not acknowledge it, that we ourselves, had we been a part of that time and place and not of this, would in all probability have marched beneath the banners of Nazism. In Germany in 1938 Nazism was the consensus, it was what was right, and who would dare to speak against what is right? The great majority of us believe the same as everyone else, do the same as everyone else, and this is to because the “we” and the “all” are what decide the norms, rules, and morals of a society. Now that Nazism has become “they,” it is easy to distance ourselves from it, but this was not the case when Nazism was “we.” If we are to understand what happened and how it was possible, we must understand this first. And we must understand too that Nazism in its various elements wasn’t monstrous in itself, by which I mean that it did not arise as something obviously monstrous and evil, separate from all else in the current of society, but was on the contrary, part of that current. The gas chambers were not a German invention, but were conceived by Americans who realized that people could be put to death by placing them in a chamber infused with poisonous gas, a procedure they carried out for the first time in 1919. Paranoid anti-Semitism was not a German phenomenon either, the world’s most celebrated and passionate anti-Semite in 1925 being not Adolf Hitler but Henry Ford. And racial biology was not an abject, shameful discipline pursued at the bottom of society or its shabby periphery, it was the scientific state of the art, much as genetics is today, haloed by the light of the future and all its hope. Decent humans distanced themselves from all of this, but they were few, and this fact demands our consideration, for who are we going to be when our decency is put to the test? Will we have the courage to speak against what everyone else believes, our friends, neighbors, and colleagues, to insist that we are decent and they are not? Great is the power of the we, almost inescapable its bonds, and the only thing we can really do is to hope our we is a good we. Because if evil comes it will not come as “they,” in the guise of the unfamiliar that we might turn away without effort, it will come as “we.” It will come as what is right.’

My Struggle (Min Kamp), Book 6, by Karl Ove Knausgård, translated by Martin Aitken