In 1946, a twelve-year-old Jewish girl named Krystyna arrived in New York City from Poland. Her survival had been improbable. In the Warsaw Ghetto her mother had dressed her up in high heels and a kerchief so that they would be taken for forced labor together. Krystyna had known that deportation meant death. She imagined her friends as having fallen into a black hole.
In the ghetto there was only black and white. Seventy years later, Krystyna remembered looking down from the bridge and seeing brightly-colored flowers at a market on the Aryan Side. She remembered, too, the day that she and her mother escaped from the ghetto, and her stepfather’s aunt on the Aryan Side who turned them away. She remembered the cruelty at the orphanage where she stayed for a time, and the bombing of an apartment building as she hid in its basement during the Warsaw Uprising.
In New York, in response to a classmate’s question, Krystyna began to speak about the war. A girl interrupted, and accused Krystyna of lying: nothing so horrific could have actually happened in real life. Krystyna did not defend herself. It made her feel better to know that her new classmates did not, could not believe her – after all, if what she had lived in Polish was untranslatable into this new language, if something so terrible could not be imagined in America, perhaps she had finally come to a safe place.
In early autumn 2016, Krystyna, now eighty-two years old, wrote to me: her breast cancer had returned; she had decided to refuse treatment. She preferred death to seeing Donald Trump become president.
Krystyna died on 8 October 2016. A month later, in New Haven, Connecticut, I walked with my six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter to a neighborhood high school to vote in the presidential elections.
At the school we stood in chaotic, snaking lines for two hours. Students circulated through the crowd, taking orders for coffee and muffins. These teenagers running the bake sale were incomparably better organized than the adults running the polling station. A Ukrainian political scientist friend came to join us, as a kind of anthropological field trip. An Americophile, he was excited to be in the United States for the election of the first woman president. The disorder, and above all the long wait, stunned him.
‘I never thought I’d say this,’ he told me, ‘but we do a better job in Kyiv.’
Some fifteen hours later, I was shaken from my paralysis by a 1:30 a.m. Facebook post from a Slavicist friend: Everyone, stop drinking. You have to get up in a few hours and explain to your children what has just happened.
Later that morning, as I was lying on the floor of my office at Yale, the first person to call was Slava Vakarchuk, the Ukrainian rock star. He telephoned from Kyiv, offering his moral support. He understood how I must feel, he said: this was how he had felt in 2010, when he realized that Ukrainians had actually voted for Viktor Yanukovych, that they had done this to themselves.
No one I knew was happy. Some were more hysterical than others, though. Many began to say: ‘This is very bad, but we’ll get through it. Our democratic institutions are the strongest in the world; we have checks and balances. Thank God for checks and balances.’ Now ‘checks and balances’ became a yoga mantra: Inhale. Checks and Balances. Exhale. Checks and balances…
Then there were the neurotic catastrophists, including many Slavicists like myself. I knew that there was no such thing as inborn liberalism, as if Americans were a priori inheritors of some divinely-bestowed immunity against an infectious disease. It felt absurd: we were like the people on the Titanic insisting, ‘But our ship can’t sink!’ What I knew as a historian of eastern Europe was not what would happen. What I knew was what could happen. What I knew was that there was no such thing as a ship that could not sink.
In Greenwich Village I met Slavenka Drakulić, a Croatian novelist friend who had written about the bloody end of Yugoslavia. Slavenka tried to reassure me: Don’t worry: it took Miloševič a few years to convince us that we wanted to kill one another. For now you can relax, we’ll have a glass of wine. You still have some time to get your kids out of the country. In Slavenka’s Yugoslav experience, the ground for mass atrocity could not be made ready instantaneously. People did not yet know that they wanted to kill one another. If you were a fascist dictator, you had to first prepare them.
In the meantime, our house in New Haven became a Soviet kitchen: vodka, tears, and the eternal Russian questions: Chto delat’? Kto vinovat? ‘What is to be done?’ ‘Who is to blame?’
Books came into being in our kitchen. My husband, Tim Snyder, wrote On Tyranny, a resistance manual: Defend institutions. Be wary of paramilitaries. Take responsibility. Investigate. Believe in Truth. Our philosopher friend Jason Stanley wrote How Fascism Works, a guide to discerning signs: Mythologization of the past. The naturalization of hierarchies. Cults of victimhood. Insecurities about masculinity. A fictitious world. Social Darwinism. The rhetoric of Us v. Them.
Some among our colleagues protested the alarmism suggested by ‘the f-word’: because the press remained uncensored; because political prisoners were not being taken; because we had checks and balances. The historian Helmut Smith pointed out that Gleichschaltung in Nazi Germany had taken place in a much more all-encompassing way: journalists and military generals alike were rapidly brought into line; ‘civil society was quickly gutted, and spaces for resistance soon evaporated.’
How many boxes, then, did we need to check in order to justify using the word ‘fascism’? Six out of twelve? Eight? Ten? Every single one?
Law professor Samuel Moyn argued that comparison with European fascism of the 1930s both obscured what was novel in the present and deflected our domestic responsibility. ‘Abnormalizing Trump disguises that he is quintessentially American, the expression of enduring and indigenous syndromes,’ Sam wrote. The comparison to the 1930s, it seemed to Sam, obscured the ways in which American democracy had long co-existed with a dark underside of war-making and support for terror abroad, and mass incarceration and extreme inequality at home.
The historian Peter Gordon, Sam’s friend, took a different position. ‘Some of my colleagues on the left remain skeptical about the fascism analogy,’ Peter wrote, ‘because they feel it serves an apologetic purpose: by fixing our attention on the crimes of the current moment, we are blinded to longer-term patterns of violence and injustice in American history.’ Peter rejected the argument as specious – not because the longer-term patterns were not real, they were real, but rather because ‘the fact that things have always been bad does not mean they cannot get worse.’
Jason argued that ‘fascist tendencies’ existed along a continuum. The Polish adjective faszyzujący, formed from the present active participle, captures the sense of ‘moving in the direction of’ or ‘inclining towards fascism.’ It is distinct from the adjective faszytowski, which translates as ‘fascist’. English (unlike German) does not have a word equivalent to faszyzujący; the limitations of English grammar obstruct the subtle-but-nontrivial distinction. ‘Fascist’ is often invoked, on both sides of the argument, as if it had a talismanic power to resolve ambiguity.
Arguments about who has the right to use ‘fascism’ and ‘concentration camps’ (and ‘genocide’, a legal term) are about recognition. At stake is Anerkennung in G.W.F. Hegel’s sense, what the master in the master-slave dialectic desired from the slave: affirmation through recognition from the Other. Today, recognition of suffering is often mediated through reference to the Holocaust. It serves as the necessary third term. Do we need this word, this comparison to the Nazi camps – art curator Vera Grant asked in our zoom discussion – in order to recognize the inhumanity at the American border today?
‘I’ll point to a step Trump has taken – he’s using ICE to round up children, he’s surrounding himself with loyalists and generals, he’s using the apparatus of government to dig up dirt on a political rival – and the response is always “Sure, that’s bad, but it’s not a big enough step to justify the F-word,”’ Jason Stanley told New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz. ‘I’m starting to feel like the it’s-not-a-big-enough-step people won’t be happy until they’re in concentration camps.’
In spring 2018, ICE – our Immigration and Customs Enforcement – started tearing refugee children from their parents and throwing them in cages. I wrote to Stephen Naron, director of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. I wondered – I asked him – whether this might be the moment to compile testimonies about children being taken away from their parents during the Holocaust?
On 17 June 2019, Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke about the detention camps along the southern United States border as ‘concentration camps’. The backlash was immediate. One week later the Holocaust Museum issued a statement: ‘The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary.’
It was a radical statement: Forbidding thinking of one phenomenon in relation to another one amounted to forbidding thinking tout court. The Holocaust Museum’s ban on analogies was effectively a ban on thinking as such.
Stephen and I returned to the collage documentary film idea, now with the hope of provoking a conversation that could be an Aufhebung of the ‘is Trumpism fascism?’ debate. It seemed to me that public discussion had tended to relate to historical comparison in a reductionist way: Either X is just like the Holocaust, in which case we are facing the ultimate evil; or X is not like the Holocaust because either (a) the Holocaust will forever remain the unique embodiment of absolute evil, or (b) the present situation is not bad enough (yet). In the cases of both (a) and (b), we should calm down.
But the Kierkegaardian Either/Or is a trap. The question about historical comparison should not be a yes or no question, but a how question. Nothing is ever exactly the same as anything else. It was the ideas of ceteris paribus (‘all other things being equal’) and rational actors that brought about my early disillusionment with political science. Both struck me as fallacies: people behave irrationally all the time. And all other things are never equal. This is one reason why it is impossible to do a control study on real life.
This September my ten-year-old son’s class took a field trip to a nature preserve. My son was especially taken by the wild pigs. He came home and presented a passionate discourse on the reasons why it was preferable to be a wild pig as opposed to a human.
Friedrich Nietzsche would have agreed. His 1874 essay, ‘The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,’ began with cows luxuriating in their presentism. We could only envy them their happiness, whose source – Nietzsche wrote – was a lack of self-consciousness about temporality. Man, on the other hand, is constantly aware of the past, and this awareness serves ‘to remind him what his existence fundamentally is – an imperfect tense that can never become a perfect one.’ Consciousness of the past plagues, emasculates, at times overwhelms us. Only the strong can handle a lot of history. Take Schiller and Goethe, Nietzsche told us. ‘In relation to such dead men,’ he wrote, ‘how few of the living have a right to live at all!’
Intimidation by greatness has its parallel in intimidation by vileness: the sentiment that in relation to the Holocaust, no one has a right to speak at all. Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch, Theodor Adorno wrote after the war. ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism.’ Are assertions of both beauty and horror, then, equally impermissible?
What is at stake in singularity? For Hans Ulrich (‘Sepp’) Gumbrecht, the epistemological commitment to singularity is bound up with a moral commitment to responsibility. The anxiety is that comparison relativizes, and thereby mitigates; singularity is existentially necessary for full consciousness of guilt. In Sepp’s case, the guilt is a guilt-by-contiguity: born in 1948, he himself is among those described by German chancellor Helmut Kohl as having been ‘graced by a late birth’ – Die Gnade der späten Geburt. Perhaps what motivates Sam Moyn’s polemic is a similar anxiety: historical comparison – even, paradoxically, to fascism – threatens a singularity presumed to ground responsibility.
Yet must comparison lighten responsibility? And if so, why? What, then, do we conclude about metaphor? Translation? Is our understanding of others not dependent precisely upon analogy, metaphor, translation?
In her dissertation on Einfühlung, a ‘feeling-into-the-Other’, which the philosopher-turned-Carmelite nun Edith Stein wrote under Edmund Husserl, empathy is predicated on analogy: ‘Because this [foreign psychic life] is bound to the perceived physical body, it stands before us as an object from the beginning. Inasmuch as I now interpret it as ‘like mine,’ Stein wrote, ‘I come to consider myself as an object like it. I do this in “reflexive sympathy” when I empathetically comprehend the acts in which my individual is constituted for him.’
Heuristic devices – departures from univocality – are tools of understanding. What then, is the relationship between the epistemological (what can we know and understand?) and the ontological-turned-ethical (how can we reach empathy?). For Stein the prerequisites for empathy were above all epistemic. Sepp suggests something more radical – a kind of empathy that is less a cognitive Einfühlung and more an affective Mit-Leid, a ‘suffering-with’. This Mit-Leid allows for a distancing from the Enlightenment teleology of progress that envisioned humankind acquiring knowledge and moving towards the future, leaving the past behind. There is much in the idea of a broad present, inundated with the past, unable to leave that past behind, that feels oppressive in a way not unlike what Nietzsche described. Yet, Sepp suggests, there is another side: perhaps in breaking from the historicist chronotope we might be breaking as well from a ‘brainy but bodiless’ cogito, and so gaining the possibility of an empathy dependent neither upon comparison in particular nor upon knowledge in general. Perhaps in this newly thickened present, something akin to Walter Benjamin’s Stillstellung, we might experience an embodied lingering that provides space for being-together-with-the-past-and-with-one-another.
Even, though, if we were to abandon the diachronic comparison-across-time shaped by a historicist temporality, a lingering in the present might still demand translation across a synchronic plane. Spike Lee’s 2018 film BlackKkKlansman tells the story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado policeman who infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan in the 1970s. In the film, Stallworth tells his colleagues that he can portray himself as white on the phone. The police chief is sceptical. ‘Some speak the Queen’s English, some speak jive,’ says Stallworth, ‘I speak both.’ His bilingualism is met with incomprehension – because he is surrounded by people who do not understand code-switching. Americans are poor at grasping the meaning of translation. Our exceptionalism is bound up with our monolingualism, which is not only a linguistic deficit but also an imaginative one: our inability to imagine that life that takes place in other languages can also be real.
Translation demands an ability to inhabit the voice of another. Among the books to come into being (although not primarily in my kitchen) since the 2016 elections is Amelia Glaser’s Songs in Dark Times: Yiddish Poetry of Struggle from Scottsboro to Palestine. In response to the sufferings of Ukrainians, Palestinians, African Americans and others, Yiddish poets re-inscribed Jewish texts, ‘translating trauma into empathy’, and rendering other victims of oppression ‘metaphorically Jewish’. This history of Yiddish poetry reminds us that thinking through analogies – translating untranslatable suffering – is inextricably bound up with empathy.
It reminds us, too, that Jewish history itself invites universalist as well as particularist readings. The range of these readings is on display in the Passover seder options in New York City alone. The story of the Exodus – the liberation from slavery, the forty years of wandering in the desert, the waiting for the generation formed by slavery to die out and a new generation to come of age – long ago transcended Judaic specificity to become one of the great boundary-less metaphors.
In 1980, as Solidarity took form in communist Poland, its chaplain, Józef Tischner, wrote ‘Thinking from within a Metaphor’. Tischner began with the epistemological problem: how could we reach truth? How could we know that the world was real, and not merely a projection of our consciousness? How could we know our very existence was not merely a semblance of reality? The epistemological question was so haunting, Tischner explained, because our deepest pain, shared by all, was ‘the pain of radical uncertainty’. The history of epistemology was laden with metaphors: Saint Augustine conceived cognition as giving birth, ‘something of its own kind … neither reflection nor creating out of nothing.’ Written in 1980. Plato asked us to imagine a cave, where the shackled prisoners mistook the shadows on the walls for reality. René Descartes hypothesized an evil demon, who had put false thoughts into his mind with the malicious intent to deceive.
‘Radical metaphorization of the visible world,’ Tischner wrote, ‘means degrading it from the position of an absolutely existing world.’ Conversely, thinking in the complete absence of metaphors meant adhering to the ‘principle of univocality of language – as if it were a prohibition to go outdoors which binds the virus-infected.’ For Tischner, this metaphor-less thinking, this claim to total affirmation of the world in its singularity, was a thinking in which ‘realism becomes not only a philosophy but already a disease.’
Tischner wrote as a philosopher. And philosophers tend to move along the planes of the singular and the universal. Historians, in contrast, tend to move along the plane of the intermediary third term – neither singular nor universal: class, religion, nation, race, generation. The philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Hegel were very different. They agreed, though, on an essential point: nothing is unmediated. For Hegel there was always a third term. For Kant the Ding-an-sich was unreachable. Reality would always be mediated by the structures of the Ich denke, the ‘I think.’
Husserl could not accept this. He wanted immediacy, pure seeing, absolute certainty. And when the Nazis took power and he was cast out of his own university as a non-Aryan, he deeply believed that if his project of epistemological clarity could be achieved, it would save the world from barbarism. Husserl, a German philosopher born a Habsburg Jew in Moravia, died in April 1938, six weeks after the Anschluss. His erstwhile assistant Edith Stein was taken from her Carmelite convent by the Gestapo and gassed in Auschwitz as a Jew. Husserl’s phenomenological method involved both Anschauung, an intuition of an empirical object, and Wesensschau, an intuition of an eidos, a universal essence. We could intuitively perceive, for instance, the particular, empirical instantiation of a given apple, while at once intuitively extracting from this specific perception an essence of ‘appleness’ identical among all apples, whatever their empirical differences.
A seemingly abstruse philosophical method could prove inspiring for historians: how can the effort of exhaustive description of something that is irreducibly particular give us insight into universal essences? Any historical situation contains elements of both the singular and the universal. Can we, then, extract the universal from the particular, and better understand the relationship between them? No moment is ever exactly the same as any other, just like no human being is exactly the same as any other. Nevertheless, there are essences we can distill, things we learn from the past.
We learn that life in a given time and place can appear utterly normal – but can turn on a dime. We are able to normalize the abnormal with astounding rapidity. What is utterly unimaginable one day can become the new status quo a few months later.
Die Grenzen verschieben sich, commented my friend Ema, as we drank coffee by the Danube this August. The borders recede. I was describing to her the America I had just left. Ema understood: she and her husband, Serbs whose second mother tongue is Hungarian, had come to Vienna from Vojvodina in former Yugoslavia. Ema had come in the 1990s, during the wars of ethnic cleansing; while a university student in Vienna she had volunteered as an interpreter for Bosnian refugees.
The borders recede. And we can carry on.
Indi Samarajiva graduated from college in Montreal. A little later he moved back to Sri Lanka, just as the ceasefire in the civil war fell apart in 2008. ‘I used to judge those herds of gazelle when the lion eats one of them alive and everyone keeps going,’ he writes, ‘– but no, humans are just the same.’ As the current American president campaigned for reelection, Indi Samarajiva looked through old photographs: ‘There’s a burnt body in front of my office. Then I’m playing Scrabble with friends. There’s bomb smoke rising in front of the mall. Then I’m at a concert. There’s a long line for gas. Then I’m at a nightclub … we used to go out, worry about money, fall in love – life went on.’
In spring 1943, during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz watched as the ghetto burned. On his side, the Aryan Side, children played on a carousel close to the ghetto wall. And Miłosz thought of the Campo dei Fiori, where during the Inquisition the cosmologist Giordano Bruno had been burned at the stake. ‘Before the flames had died/ the taverns were full again,/ baskets of olives and lemons/ again on the vendors’ shoulders,’ he wrote. He thought of Giordano Bruno as the carousel went round and round to a carnival tune.
At times wind from the burning
would drift dark kites along
and riders on the carousel
caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
blew open the skirts of the girls
and the crowds were laughing
on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.
We learn that those people who maintain an uncanny moral clarity regardless of all conditions and those who take some sadistic pleasure in harming others are both outliers. Most people, most of the time, behave in a way shaped by the social situation in which they find themselves.
There is always a scapegoat, the anthropological philosopher René Girard tells us. It is one of many instances where philosophical problems reveal themselves to be of immediate concern in social life. The particular persons in this role vary, but the role itself remains remarkably constant. Are there other such roles? In the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox, nineteen-year-old Esty runs away from her ultra-orthodox enclave in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. The rabbi dispatches the Chassidic thug Moishe to bring her back. In Berlin, terrorized by Moishe, Etsy turns to her estranged mother, who long ago fled their community in Williamsburg. It is only then that Etsy learns that her mother did not abandon her by choice, that Etsy was taken from her. How was it possible?
‘There’s always a Moishe,’ Etsy’s mother tells her.
In Rahul Pandita’s text Moishe is the local ruffian from whom a young boy one day borrowed a small amount of money to buy some food. Islamist extremists had driven the boy from his home in the Kashmir Valley; in exile his family was destitute and had nothing to give him. The boy was unable to repay the debt; the local ruffian stabbed him to death with a screwdriver.
During the Second World War the Austrian-born Diana Budisavljević saved thousands of children from fascist Ustashe camps in Croatia. Perhaps we learn, too, that there is always a Diana Budisavljević? An Irena Senderlowa? A Harriet Tubman? A Chiune Sugihara? The person like Brett Warnke’s Mexican immigrant student Jonathan, who wanted to become an American border guard in order to save people like his mother, who had died alone in the desert abandoned by the ‘coyote’?
We learn that inhumanity, like humanity, approaches in small steps. Slavenka attended the trials of Yugoslav war criminals in the Hague. These could have been people she knew, perhaps former classmates of her daughter. ‘As in Germany, in Croatia you first stopped greeting a person of the other nationality perhaps only because you were afraid that others would see you acknowledging him,’ she wrote. She tried to describe how it had all happened: ‘it is essential that we understand that it is we ordinary people and not some madmen who made it possible. We were the ones who one day stopped greeting those neighbors of a different nationality – an act that the next day made possible the opening of concentration camps. We did it to each other.’
‘An avalanche of killings never started as a huge thing,’ Krzysztof Czyżewski, the theatre director who co-founded the Borderland Foundation in Poland, said. ‘Auschwitz was something connected to daily life and small events. That’s how it starts. You never know how it will end up.’
We learn that there are moments when there are no innocent choices, and that the consequences of actions are boundless – and unforeseen. Radu Vancu invokes Paul Celan’s Wolfsbohne: Mutter, wessen Hand hab ich gedrückt, da ich mit deinen Worten ging nach Deutschland? ‘Poor Paul/ desperately wanted to know if he may have shaken the hand/ of his mother’s killer. You may have done it, Paul. You can never be sure,’ Radu writes.
And it is true: You can never be sure.
‘Everything is translation,’ the Ukrainian translator and psychoanalyst Jurko Prochasko once said. Everything is translation, which is never transparent. There is no seamless comparison, no seamless metaphor, no seamless translation. Husserl’s transcendental ego that could achieve unmediated knowledge was a fantasy of pure transparency.
Unmediated, perfect understanding of the Other is a utopian – and perhaps, too, a totalitarian – delusion. But that perfect understanding is not possible does not mean that no understanding is possible. Husserl’s counterpart and antipode, Sigmund Freud, tells us that there is no possibility of perfect understanding of even our own selves, let alone someone else’s. Freud was unequivocal: there is no such thing as absolute clarity; the self is always hidden from the self. Yet the existence of art and literature is a leap of faith that some kind of understanding of the Other is possible. Otherwise Paul Celan’s poetry would not exist. Nor would the novel. Their existence is an act of faith that we can read ourselves into the life of another person.
Perfect opacity might be as much a fantasy as perfect transparency. Maybe, in the end, some kind of translation is all too possible. Krystyna’s desire to find herself in a place where horror was incomprehensible – where she herself, with her experiences, was incomprehensible – was an attempt to flee from the human condition. When she understood that there was no such place, she made a final escape. The rest of us remain to grapple.
This is the introduction to the larger forum engaging artists and authors, from very different places and writing in very different genres, in a conversation on ‘the uses and disadvantages of historical comparisons for life’. The idea initially arose in response to the American presidential administration’s family separation policy on the southern border. A short documentary film, The Last Time I Saw Them serves as a point of departure. The intention is to provoke a discussion that could be an Aufhebung of the ‘is Trumpism fascism?’ debate: what can and what can we not understand by thinking in comparisons with the past?
Find the Table of Contents listing all contributions here.
The project is a collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the Democracy Seminar, and the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at the New School for Social Research.