Victims, Perpetrators, Bystanders: Remarks on the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

Victims/Perpetrators/Bystanders was the mapping of the world produced by Auschwitz, as represented by the historian Raul Hilberg. This mapping has become canonical, even for those unfamiliar with it, and it is enormously powerful and, I believe, the basic structure of White Guilt and victimary thinking. The extremity of victimization produced by Auschwitz (as synecdoche of the Shoah as a whole), drew all social institutions into its orbit and implicated everyone. Why is everyone implicated? Because the Nazis aimed not just at killing all the Jews, but at ensuring that the world would never know; that we know is due to those few courageous witnesses, during and after the event; if we don’t become witnesses ourselves in response to their testimony we collude in the Nazi project by burying the event—an event that, even while now well attested to, is always in danger of being smothered by indifference and losing its monitory power, and in that sense being “buried.” Thus, the acquisitions of Western civilization, making it possible for any individual to be an impartial observer—whether of esthetic products or events calling for moral judgment or judicial impartiality, or through scientific detachment—were shattered. The term “bystander” is deeply sardonic here—the bystander is, indeed, by definition, “innocent,” but in this event such innocence involves guilt, even for those as far away as American citizens, who, for example, voted for representatives who refused Jews the right to seek refuge in the US as they were being massacred. No doubt the Nazis aimed at such a universal implication—“if you love the Jews so much, why don’t you take them?” (And if you don’t take them, doesn’t that mean you don’t want them, in which case are we not just doing the dirty work on your behalf?) In that case, the category of “bystander” can connote innocence no more (indeed, there is always a little bit of doubt about the bystander—if you were there, surely you could have done something, if your indifference or cowardice or even some secret pleasure in the act had not held you back). The victim/perpetrator/bystander triad overwhelms figure of the citizen who stands equal with all other citizens within a binary opposition to some actual or potential tyranny that would oppress them all. The bystander places the taint of guilt on the citizen, and that guilt leads the citizen qua bystander to seek out a victim to bear witness to—hence the compulsory character of White Guilt. (It is, first of all, witnessing, i.e., spreading the implication, which enables one to bear the burden of bystander guilt.) The moral and political question is whether this should (and could) be resisted. I think the answer is “no” in both cases: the transcendence or abolition of White Guilt will not be brought about through a return to the impartial observer in morality, politics, science and art—too many events still conspire to re-position one as bystander (too many events are not different enough from the Shoah for us to be certain in advance that we will not be implicated). Moreover, the universal implication of the bystander entails no particular political stance, and certainly not the vicious victimary politics that has emerged in recent decades. What it does entail is an acknowledgement of our role in constituting social reality as witnesses, or an ostensive modification of the civilizational acquisitions of objectivity and impartiality. Where we stand when we point at something for others to see is part of the pointing (in which case there is always a self-reflexive pointing back at ourselves), and that “where” need not be some identitarian political stance (race/gender/orientation/etc.); rather, it can be a position within some genre of discourse or some cultural or civilizational category. What we would ultimately be bearing witness to in that case is the tentative and fragile conditions of such acquisitions, as part of our promise to preserve them.

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