January 11

1867, 1860



The world, I know, has never heard of him, but today was the birthday, in 1808, of Abraham Mapu, the man accredited with writing the first modern Hebrew novel - fifty years before the birth of Eliezer Perelman, eighty before Perelman became Ben Yehuda and led the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language in Israel (see January 7). Mapu was born in Kovno, in what was sometimes Russia and sometimes Poland but is now Lithuania, and described that period of his life in his second novel "Ayit Zavu'a". The first novel, "Ahavat Tsi'on - The Love of Zion" was the ground-breaker, set in the time of Isaiah; the third, "Ashmat Shomron - the Guilt of Samaria", was set in the same epoch. A proponent of Haskalah, the movement for Jewish Enlightenment, he lived most of his life in Kovno, and died there in 1867. 

And Kovno is why he is dear to me - after all, someone was bound to write the first modern Hebrew novel eventually, and it really doesn't matter who that happened by random chance to be; but history, as David Kalischer declared in "A Journey In Time", history is only interesting when it is also personal, and Kovno is deeply personal, to me anyway, because Kovno was the principal base of the only European Jews who did not collaborate in their own victimhood, who did not yield to evil because they considered it to be merely "banal" or "unhuman" and therefore "unvanquishable": I am speaking of that band of abject heroes, most of them teenage boys with broken bottles and kitchen knives, and those other most sophisticated weapons of war, grim determination and blind hope, the Jewish Resistance Movement, Dam Yisrael Nokem, to whom I added one fictional member, Bernhard "Argaman" Aaronsohn, in my first finished novel, not in Hebrew though probably it should have been, "The Flaming Sword". 

So Mapu matters, deeply, even though, I will confess the matter, I have never actually read him. The book published in 1853 was called "Ahavat Tsion - Love of Zion", though for some reason its 1887 English translation came out as "Amnon, Prince and Peasant"; his other novels, "Ayit Zavu'a" (1858) and "Ashmat Shomron" (1865), managed more straightforwardly accurate translations into English, as "Hypocrite Eagle" and "Guilt of Samaria". Kovno is now in Lithuania, and has therefore also had its name translated; it is known today as Kaunas.


But the date at the top of this entry is 1860, not 1808, and 1860 is not a date obviously associated with either Kovno or the Holocaust. And yet...




The great German writer W.G. Sebald, in his book "The Rings of Saturn" - an account of a walking journey from Lowestoft to Bungay by a route so circuitous that it circumnavigates most of the known universe - recounts an anecdote of British imperial involvement in China which would make a fitting appendix to either "The Garden" or "The Wall of the Barbarians", both of which may be found in my collection "The Captive Bride". 

I cite it here in full:

   "In early October [1860] the allied troops, themselves uncertain how to proceed, happened apparently by chance on the magic garden of Yuan Ming Yuan near Peking, with its countless palaces, pavilions, covered walks, fantastic arbours, temples and towers. On the slopes of man-made mountains, between banks and spinneys, deer with fabulous antlers grazed, and the whole incomprehensible glory of Nature and of the wonders placed in it by the hand of man was reflected in dark, unruffled waters. The destruction that was wrought in these legendary landscaped gardens over the next few days, which made a mockery of military discipline or indeed of all reason, can only be understood as resulting from anger at the continued delay in achieving a resolution [to the continuing Opium War, negotiations for whose conclusion were stalled in baulk]. Yet the true reason why Yuan Ming Yuan was laid waste may well have been that this earthly paradise - which immediately annihilated any notion of the Chinese as an inferior and uncivilised race - was an irresistible provocation in the eyes of soldiers who, a world away from their homeland, knew nothing but the rule of force, privation, and the abnegation of their own desires. Although the accounts of what happened in those October days are not reliable, the sheer fact that booty was later auctioned off in the British camp suggests that much of the removable ornaments and the jewellery left behind it by the fleeing court, everything made of jade or gold, silver or silk, fell into the hands of the looters. When the summerhouses, hunting lodges and sacred places in the extensive gardens and neighbouring palace precincts, more than two hundred in number, were then burnt to the ground, it was on the orders of the commanding officers, ostensibly in reprisal for the mistreatment of the British emissaries Loch and Parkes, but in reality so that the devastation already wrought should no longer be apparent. The temples, palaces and hermitages, mostly built of cedarwood, went up in flames one after another with unbelievable speed, according to Charles George Gordon, a thirty-year-old captain in the Royal Engineers, the fire spreading through the green shrubs and woods, cracking and leaping. Apart from a few stone bridges and marble pagodas, all was destroyed. For a long time, swathes of smoke drifted over the entire area and a great cloud of ash that obscured the sun was borne to Peking by the west wind, where after a time it settled on the heads and homes of those who, it was surmised, had been visited by the power of divine retribution. At the end of the month, with the example of Yuan Ming Yuan before them, the Emperor's officers felt obliged to sign without further ado the oft-deferred Treaty of Tientsin. The principal clauses, apart from fresh reparation demands that could scarcely be met, related to the rights of free movement and unhindered missionary activity in the interior of China, and to negotiation of a customs tariff with a view to legalising the opium trade. In return, the Western powers declared themselves willing to uphold the dynasty, which meant putting down the Taipeng rebellion and crushing the secessionary movements of the Moslem population of the Shensi, Yunnan and Kansu valley regions, in the course of which between six and ten million people were made homeless or killed."

Sebald does not state this, but the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must surely have been in his mind as he described the obliteration of Yuan Ming Yuan, and undoubtedly, because his later writings confirm this, the similar devastations of Meissen, Cologne, Hamburg and other German cities by the Allies, as a "necessity" to end the Second World War.


I was drawn back to this piece by an article in New Republic (click here), neither a review nor exactly a piece of literary criticism, though its focus was Martin Amis' new novel "The Zone Of Interest", which recounts the tale of a love affair between a Nazi officer and the wife of the camp commandant of Auschwitz - a work of pure fiction, as far as I am aware. Appended to the novel is an afterword, an exploration in philosophical rather than novelistic terms, of one of the book's key themes, which is summed up by a quote from Primo Levi:

   "Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify. Let me explain: 'understanding' a proposal or human behavior means to 'contain' it, contain its author, put oneself in his place, identify with him. Now, no normal person will ever be able to identify with Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Eichmann, and endless others. This dismays us, and at the same time gives us a sense of relief, because perhaps it is desirable that their words (and also, unfortunately, their deeds) cannot be comprehensible to us. They are non-human words and deeds, really counter-human. ... There is no rationality in the Nazi hatred; it is a hate that is not in us; it is outside man."

I have long held great respect for Primo Levi, but this paragraph may well be the beginning of my disenchantment. To describe what the Nazis perpetrated as "non-human" is to deny a hideous truth about humanity, and tacitly both to excuse it and to allow its repetition - the same is true of Hannah Arendt's disclaimer about "the banality of evil", to which I shall return in a moment. The Nazis did what they did because they wanted to, because they believed in it, ideologically and philosophically, and because those they needed as their assistants were entirely willing to assist: and these are both, the active and the passive, these are both aspects of being human. They did it in the way they did it by applying thought, by fastidious planning, by systematic use of their intellectual capacities to deceive those who would become their victims, to coerce those who would serve as their accomplices. They did it with premeditation, and with clear purpose. They applied a most inhumane morality, but inhumane is not the same as non-human or un-human; it simply differs from the morality that others have defined. What the Nazis did was actually no different from what the British soldiers did at Yuan Ming Yuan, or the Americans at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nor what has happened since in Cambodia and Rwanada, in Tienanmen Square or in the army school in Pakistan in 2014, where the Taliban murdered a hundred children, or what Assad has been doing to his people in Syria with chemical weapons for the last several years. On each occasion fully conscient human beings did what they did because they wanted to, because they were in a position of power that enabled them to, and because, with their human faculties, they had convinced themselves that it was right and even necessary.

Friedrich Nietzsche carries much of the ideological blame for what the Nazis did, though perhaps erroneously. "Also Sprach Zarathustra", which gave the world the Ubermensch and the Nazis the ikon for their idolatry, was published in 1883; seven years earlier the same writer published another book, whose title provides the perfect riposte to Primo Levi. He called it "Human, All Too Human."

It was at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 that Arendt coined the soundbite "the banality of evil", a soundbite so splendidly and obliquely fine-sounding that the world immediately grabbed hold of it, and has been repeating it as often as there have been repetitions of the holocaust somewhere in the world, which is about twice every year. But think about the phrase, set it alongside the stupidity of the Primo Levi - Arendt is not only wrong, but wrong on two counts.

First, as above, it is not the evil that is banal, but the people who perpetrate it. Evil is simply evil - the word is an adjective, not a noun; a description of an event and a behaviour that has taken place. The word requires an understanding of the motive of the perpetrator, and it may very well be good that was intended. For it to be evil the conscious motive must be evil, as in the case of that man in Norway who murdered people on an island. He knew what he was doing, and chose to do it. But the banal people rarely have a conscious motive towards evil; their sin is passivity, sloth, indigence, the preference for an easy life. They are "only obeying orders", "only doing their jobs". The mind of the bureaucrat is banal in exactly this way, and all of us encounter this banality every day. It is a mind-set which allows evil to take place, whether by doing something that facilitates it, perhaps by doing nothing to prevent it, but always by choosing the easy path of passivity - which thus becomes tantamount to complicity. 


Arendt claims (I am quoting from Margarethe von Trotta's splendid movie account of Arendt in Jerusalem for the Eichmann trial) that Eichmann was "incapable of thinking"; this is clearly untrue; in the newsreels of the trials we witness him thinking all the time, but his thought-process is bureaucratic. He thinks: I am going to protect myself by passing the onus of blame and responsibility upwards, to those who issued the orders. He thinks: I am going to please my superiors by doing what I have been told to do. He thinks: I am going to avoid forming moral judgments about the rights and wrongs of what these orders require, or infer, or where they lead (correction: not "avoid forming" but "voluntarily forego the right to"). He thinks: I am going to focus my thinking on the efficient execution of the tasks I have been given. He thinks: there is nothing to be achieved by my refusing, because I will simply be replaced by someone who will not refuse. All these are thought-through choosings to evade moral responsibility. None of them are evil. They are good choices for the maker. They are entirely rational. They are strategies for survival that history has proven to be successful. They are - banal. But they are not intrinsically evil. In fact, they are mostly very good. Their only fault lies in their giving of permission to, perhaps their compliance with, even their facilitation of evil. There has to be a victim for there to be a victor.

Second, she is wrong when she says that the leadership of the Jewish community in the Judenraten were unable to resist but did not need to collaborate; that there should have been found a middle path. Most thought their collaboration was that middle path, and definitely their best chance of survival; so their motive was excusable, for the same reason as Eichmann's, even if, in their case, it was thoroughly misguided. But resistance was certainly possible, as was proven in the Warsaw Ghetto, in the rebellion at Sobibor which forced that camp's closure, in the actions in places like Kovno that I have recounted in "The Flaming Sword", including the abject failure of the attempt to blow up the crematoria at Auschwitz and incipit an insurrection there. Those who formed the Judenraten cannot be excused for rejecting this option; and even more, they cannot be excused for actively opposing those who did resist, for condemning them, for refusing to help them, even refusing to succour them. "The Flaming Sword" ends with a quotation from Ezekiel 33:1-6: 

   "The word of the Lord came to me: 'Son of man, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from among them, and make him their watchman, 3and if he sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people, then if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But if he had taken warning, he would have saved his life. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman's hand."


There almost was a watchman too, in Christian Europe, potentially throughout Christendom, many centuries ago, in the very earliest days of Christianity; but Christianity declared him a heretic, and banished him, and hunted down his followers and condemned them too, because the authorities didn't like what he saw from his sentry-post on the high tower of human thought, based on witnessed experience: the existence of choice in the world, which those "Christ-murderers" the Jews called the Yetser ha Tov and the Yetser ha Ra: the inherent capability of making those choices either way, towards good or towards evil, and needing to take responsibility for them no matter what the outcome. Why did they call him a heretic? Because it led him to deny that fundamental ideology of Good and Evil which allows everything that happens in the human realm to be the fault of the Devil or the glory of God, and thereby reduces human beings to mere automatons, programmed by whichever agent of destiny made them its subject first. And worse, he didn’t just deny it, he trumpeted it in published form.


The name of this watchman was Pelagius, and he may well have been British by birth, though he died in Palestine. There was, he insisted, no Original Sin. "Everything good and everything evil... is done by us, not born with us... we are begotten without virtue as without vice, and before the activity of our own personal Will, there is nothing in man but what God has stored in him." (Pro Libero Arbitrio, ap Augustine).

Nothing banal about that statement, is there Fraulein Arendt, Senor Levi?

My link on his name is to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the nearest I can find to a neutral account of his beliefs. You can read the Catholic version of Pelagius' life and heresies here. Best of all to read his writings, which are in Latin and hard to find in translation; the best route I can find to start hunting them down appears to be here. The portrait above right is not him, but a 17th century Calvinist "idealisation" of what he might have looked like - which turns out to be remarkably like a 17th century Calvinist!





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