Monday 1 March 2010

George Steiner and Auschwitz

In a TVO "Flying Solo" clip, the University of Toronto literary theorist Nick Mount was asked to talk on what art can and cannot do (click here). He says that although art might inspire, the Holocaust contradicts the idea that literary art can make us better, and he cites George Steiner's assertion: “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.” The quote is from the preface of Steiner's (1967) essays (p. 15). The editors of OnFiction are concerned with the possibility that literature might enable self-improvement, so this assertion seems devastating.

In an e-mail correspondence, Willie van Peer pointed out to me that although the idea circulates that people who worked in Auschwitz were educated and read literature, Steiner's assertion was made without evidence. Van Peer thinks it highly unlikely that camp workers at Auschwitz read Goethe and Rilke.

Following this correspondence, and to think more deeply on this issue, I re-read Christopher Browning's (1992) Ordinary men, on Battalion 101 of the German Order Police, who formed killing squads in Poland, and of whom more is known than of Auschwitz workers. Most of Browning’s research was based on judicial interrogations of 125 of the 486 men in the battalion. At least some of the battalion’s 11 officers achieved high school education. The rank and file were recruited mostly from the working-class in Hamburg. Their average age was 39, and almost none of them had—apart from vocational training—any education beyond age 15. In 1942, two and a half years after recruitment, it became their job to massacre Jews in Polish towns and villages. Browning compares these men with those of Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (now described in a 2007 book), in which men were recruited from an advertisement in a local newspaper and randomly assigned to be either guards or prisoners in a simulated prison. There were 70 male volunteers. Men with psychiatric disorders and histories of crime or drugs were excluded, and 24—all college students—were selected as the most stable and psychologically healthy, to be included. Zimbardo was unable to predict from personality testing which of these would behave in particular ways.

Among both the Order Police and the guards in the prison simulation, some 80% acted as their roles required, and a substantial proportion became brutal and enjoyed their newfound power. (In the prison simulation about a third of the guards constantly invented new forms of cruel harassment.) In the Order Police, some 10% to 20% refused to take part in shootings and, comparably, in the prison experiment two of the eleven guards behaved with consideration to the prisoners.

Epidemiological evidence indicates that some 5.8% of men have the psychiatric disorder of anti-social personality, victims generally of genetic vulnerability and abusive parenting, disposed towards life-long interpersonal violence (see e.g. Oatley, Keltner & Jenkins, 2006). But among ordinary men, it remains unclear why some become brutal when put in positions of power. And, although George Steiner said "we know," we are actually entirely lacking in empirical evidence on whether experience of literature affects people who enter societal roles such as the police that require coercion by force.

There are now well-informed historical accounts of how Germany adopted Nazism (e.g. Evans, 2004). Before 1939, the journalist Sebastian Haffner (1940) had perceived that core Nazis were not so much proponents of a political program, but more men of a certain personality type (which today we would call anti-social personality disorder). In one of the world's first well-orchestrated campaigns to use the new media of radio and film, Nazi propaganda persuaded many to see Hitler not as a criminal but as a good person who would lead their country to greatness. Apart from propensity to violence, nationalism, and anti-Semitism, Nazism was marked by hostility to humanitarian values in education. From 1933 onwards, the Nazis replaced the idea of self-betterment through education and reading by practices designed to induce as many as possible into willing conformity, and to coerce the unwilling remainder by justified fear.

Christopher Browning (1992). Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins.

Richard Evans (2004). The coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin.

Sebastian Haffner (1940). Germany Jekyll and Hyde: A contemporary account of Nazi Germany. London: Secker & Warburg (reissued, 2008, Abacus).

Keith Oatley, Dacher Keltner & Jennifer Jenkins (2006). Understanding emotions, second edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

George Steiner (1967). Language and silence: Essays 1958-1966. London: Faber.

Philip Zimbardo (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House.

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Elisabeth said...

I think of Hannah Arendt's famous quote on 'the banality of evil'.

This is chilling stuff. It takes more than an intellectual education to help people to overcome their sadistic impulses and even with a good grounding in early emotional development through good enough attachment to good enough parents our impulses at base can be truly brutal, particularly if we fear there's not enough to go around.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much, Elisabeth, for your comment. I agree it is chilling stuff. And the banality of evil is that it can get into any of us. I think you are right that more is needed than good-enough attachment, to overcome sadistic impulses. The way we humans have of being able to slip so easily into thinking of us as the good, and them as the despised and worthless seems to me the most terrible handicap of our species: something we need to understand more deeply, and dig our way out of.

I think George Steiner was right in saying that the Holocaust was not just something that happened in Germany, but was a crisis of humanity. I don't think he was right in trying to add to the already overwhelming list of Nazi destructions, the destruction of the value of literature. One of the qualities of civilization (and respect for others) I think, is to argue from evidence.

ABi said...

How could one disagree with the idea that it is “highly unlikely that camp workers at Auschwitz read Goethe and Rilke.” Where would the majority of the workers find Goethe and Rilke in the concentration camps? Could they have been in a mental and physical state to focus on enjoy and find inspiration from such reading? Maybe there were a few, but how could exceptions support the argument here?

On the other hand, I believe that esthetic education, great art and literature can shape our sense of beauty, refine our feelings, refine empathetic capabilities, make us better human beings who can distinguish between good and evil and make better choices. This reminds me of “The Lives of Others”. What a great example this is to show, among other things, the influence and power of art and beauty in changing souls and igniting catharsis. The significance of Sonata For A Good Man and its effect on the Stasi captain, Gerd Wiesler, is unforgettable. In addition, the film director wisely accompanied this detail with a book from Brecht (a well-chosen writer in this case), which Wiesler stole from Georg and read sectretly while listening to Sonata For A Good Man. In fact, communism (compared to Nazism), ruled so ruthlessly in some south-eastern European countries, also, because among many other factors the general population was not well-educated, art was strictly censored, and experiences such as the ones Gerd had were barely existent. In Albania, for example, which used to be completely isolated from the world (a Beatles cassette was almost impossible to find, and if found in someone’s pocket this would have been a good cause for imprisonment), to a certain extent Ismail Kadare’s work served as means to educate tastes and wake up public consciousness.

However, how many examples can we find of people with exceptional artistic sensitivity and knowledge, who read fine literature, enjoyed elegant music, and marveled on exquisite works of art, only to commit some of the cruelest crimes on earth?

Elisabeth said...

I agree with ABi's excellent comment. Oh that ABi had a blog we could check out. I'd like to engage on further discussion with this person. I think the point of art and education has always been one aimed at civilising us. It begins when we're tiny. And it helps.

But I also agree with ABi some of our most refined and educated people are still capable pf extraordinary brutality and I suppose we need to recognize the potential in ourselves as well, if we are to work against giving in to it.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much, ABi, for your comment. I appreciate it. I agree with you, that one of the purposes of literature is offer us some means with which we might become "better human beings who can distinguish between good and evil and make better choices." A major difficulty under which people laboured in Germany, in the early 1930s, was to be persuaded by propaganda that Germany turning itself into a great nation would make them better.

And I agree also that, continuing this line of thought, The film "Lives of others" is extraordinary, and moving. (There is a review of it in OnFiction at ttp://

It seems to me that one of the purposes of literary and filmic art is to depict people in their individuality and in the predicaments of life in a way that leaves open to the reader or viewer how to feel and think. This is very different from political discourses that tell us what to feel and think.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you Elisabeth for this second comment. I think that what you say is the centre of the issue here, that we need to be able to recognize the potentiality for cruelty in ourselves. It's one of the things literature enables, I think. In the projection of all evil onto others, we are already taking part in the process of expressing our cruelty. It's the expression, the action, that is damaging.

ABi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ABi said...

Elisabeth: Thank you for your input and I appreciate your kind words. I don’t have a blog, but when I do I will keep you in mind. I agree with you and Dr. Oatley that literature and art helps us recognize the potentiality of evil in ourselves. Literature, for example, has been one of the very few ways in which many people were able to survive totalitarian and oppressive regimes, to preserve their sanity and even to grow both spiritually and ethically, to the point that they felt free (after all freedom can only be understood and experienced in full when in confinement).

Dr. Oatley: Thanks for your response and feedback. Following your observation on Germany in the early 1930s, I think it’s so sad and paradoxical that at a time when Europe’s intellectual and artistic life was at its peak, the Nazism was about to eat it alive… I’d add that today good literature and art is also a protection against propaganda, fascism, brainwashing and populism (just to name a few). What would happen if there weren’t any of that? People are already feeding themselves with political discourses, corporate ideology, advertisement, consumerism, reality TV shows, bachelorettes, Hollywood merchandise, and so on.

I listened to Nick Mount’s audio snippet and I don’t think there is necessarily a huge contradiction between your view and what he is saying. However, although I think I can see his perspective, I thought Mount is a bit too harsh and goes too far when he states: “…Salvation [from art] is a bit strong. It doesn’t have that compulsive force that only the law can exercise. Only the law can stop people from doing actions.” Yes, of course, “only the law can stop… “, but if that was the only force that keep humans from wrongdoing and crimes, there would be no civilization. People refrain from doing evil because they primarily adhere to systems of culture, values, beliefs, religion, or sublimation – and art is rooted in such soil. Whereas, the law is the extreme and final resort.

I read and enjoyed your review of “The Lives of The Others”. Thank you! Georg Dreyman is a dear character and the movie is a masterpiece, but I have to agree with Žižek, it is impossible to find a writer in a communist regime who could exhibit at the same time 3 essential characteristics: well-liked by the regime, talented, and ethical. Coming from that part of the world (but this is a conclusion which anyone not necessarily from Eastern Europe can reach) I know it is impossible – one couldn’t be both well-liked, supported by the regime and morally in good standing. Basically a good writer had 2 options: either Solzhenitsyn, or Kadare. The first was a dissident, suffered the Gulag, defied the system uncompromisingly, served humanity and changed the world with his art and courage. The second was not a dissident, flattered the regime, played with risks, took advantage of the establishment, was sporadically at danger suffering from persecution or fear of persecution, but was mostly privileged, adored and protected by the dictator and still wrote exquisite and valuable works of arts (forever being a Nobel prize candidate). Was he ethical? I am not sure, and research work would be necessary for such analysis. But had he been ethical, we may have lost a great talent and his art – he was no Solzhenitsyn.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much ABi for your second comment, and the very interesting points you make.

As to what you say about Nick Mount, I had some e-mail correspondence with him on his TVO piece and on my post about it, and we probably would not end up too far apart. But I think you are right, that the law is a last resort. There is a question about why we should have laws in society. For the origins of law, I would start to look to our understandings of the ways in which we see others as like ourselves. Fiction is a means by which we can come to see a wider range of others in this way.

As to your point about whether, or how, one could properly be an artist in an efficient totalitarian regime like Nazi Germany, or Communist East Germany, the question you raise is a very important one. Your three criteria—liked by the regime, talented, and ethical—are very clarifying. So Solzhenitsyn was a great artist for two reasons: because of his talent and accomplishments, and because he did not allow his art to be crushed or diverted.

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