Sacralising the profane, profaning the sacred

Colin Tatz

Table of Contents

Sacralising what isn’t sacred
Blaspheming the sacred and the profane
Denialism in the democracies
Australian conundrums
‘Forgiving and forgetting’

Genocide produces anomalies. One example is the coincidence and coexistence of two diametrically opposed views of the same catastrophe. Some victims make sacred, or sacralise, their profoundly profane experience; some perpetrators, or their supporters, deliberately profane that now sacralised event.

Sacrilege and blasphemy have a common element: desecration and violation of the sacred rather than mere irreverence towards that which some people hold in high regard. Victims of genocide—Armenians and Jews, among others—venerate their dead, their ‘cleansed’, their relocated or removed people. Definable groups perish in the killing fields, or somehow disappear forever from populations and places. The survivors revere their kin and need to commemorate those events in order to maintain their ethnic coherence and their sanity and to preserve a modicum of truth in history. At times, however, reverence loses its restraints and the profane events themselves become sacralised.

The most malignant form of desecrating the victims is the subsequent denial of their catastrophe: the dead did not die in the fields and should not appear as ‘cleansed’ in the history books. Their sculpted memorials are defiled because they deny the integrity and dignity of the ‘alleged’ perpetrators. The worst of the world’s perpetrators, Heinrich Himmler, once insisted that the essence of Nazi behaviour was their very ‘decency’.[1] And today, in several Baltic states, convicted war criminals have public monuments attesting to their ‘heroism’.

Sacralising the profane is not in the same league of indecency as profaning the sacred. However, it warrants attention because it tends unwittingly to confuse soothing the souls of the victims or of their families with warding off repetition of the catastrophe.

Sacralising what isn’t sacred

In the 90-odd years since the onset of the Armenian genocide in Turkey, the catastrophe of 1.5 million dead has become enshrined in many ways. Monuments have been built in many Western countries. Western governments, at the national and regional levels, and city authorities, have publicly recognised that event as genocide. The twenty-fourth day of April each year is commemorated with an increasingly religious flavour and fervour. The day has become a rallying point for diaspora Armenians, at a time and a place where many congregate in large numbers for perhaps only that one day in the year. As time passes, so the Armenian genocide is increasingly researched, examined, presented, discussed, and brought to a level of significance formerly reserved for the Holocaust. Hitler’s oft-repeated rhetorical question posed in 1939—‘who after all remembers the Armenians?’—has been more than counter-balanced by a near-universal recognition of this second[2] cosmic genocide of the twentieth century.

A sacral patina covers this event, as it does the Holocaust. It has become not just a focal point but the fulcrum of Armenian identity. Armenianness, as with Jewishness, coheres around the catastrophe, often relegating earlier and other more significant historical, cultural and religious endeavours and achievements into the byways of memory and overshadowing more recent experiences and achievements in which pride can be taken. Children are taught to locate their identity through these genocides. Formerly homeless, friendless and defenceless minorities, both peoples are now independent (armed) nations, seemingly born out of these genocidal events, united in a determination to prevent repetition of their earlier fates.

In this context, the Holocaust poses a more extreme case. For many, that tremendum has become a sacred event, metahistorical, beyond words, analysis and deconstruction. It was no accident that Elie Wiesel, the renowned Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Laureate, declared his preference for the word ‘Holocaust’ to identify the Judeocide. The small-h Greek word was first used by Marion Harland and J. Castell Hopkins in their late–1890s books, referring to ‘this gigantic holocaust with all its attendant horrors of flame, rapine and violation’.[3] They were describing the 1894–96 Armenian genocidal massacres ordered by Turkey’s Sultan Hamid II.

Wiesel’s preferred capital-H word resonated with this Greek term, holokauston, meaning the destruction of everything by burning. He very much wanted to incorporate a notion of sacrifice—in this case, what we call the Abraham-and-Isaac model of religious explanation of the Holocaust. But even here there is an unintended and curious blasphemy. As a test of Abraham’s faith, a beneficent God ordered him to bind his son Isaac for sacrifice. Abraham did not hesitate. Seeing such purity of faith, God sent an angel of mercy and substituted a ram for the slaughter. But in Auschwitz, Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek, Chelmno, Kulmhof, and Treblinka there were only malevolent ‘angels of death’ and no four-legged last-minute substitutes.[4]

The Judeocide—which many now prefer to call the Shoah [5] (the Hebrew word for destruction)—was the world’s most profane act in modern history. Six million Jews and close to 40 million non-Jews died in Hitler’s war against world Jewry. After the Nazis had emulated many of the Turkish modes of murdering the Armenians, they became truly ‘inventive’, conceiving and putting into practice the idea of creating death as an end in itself. The chosen method was the industrialisation of the killing process on a gigantic scale. Thus the killing factories—for which sole purpose Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka existed—could ‘process’ between 12 000 and 15 000 stukke (pieces) every 24 hours. They did this to 2.7 million Jews between February 1942 and November 1944.

Metahistorical? Sacred? In the first blush of discovery and dissemination there was only dumbfoundedness. Wiesel’s first reaction was typical: ‘the time has come for all of us to learn and to be silent’. Even as late as 1985, Wiesel would write:

We do not know how to handle it. We did not know what to do before it occurred: we were totally disoriented while it occurred; and now after it we have acquired a unique knowledge from it that may crush us. We simply did not know what to do with such knowledge. It goes deep into the nature of man and has extraordinary implications about the relationship between man and man, man and language, man and himself, and, ultimately, man and God. We don’t know: at the beginning that is the answer to it, and I am afraid at the end as well.[6]

Nonetheless, as Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer has never tired of saying, this was a human event perpetrated by one group of human beings on another group of humans, in the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century; it must therefore be explicable. To be silent is a counsel of despair. And so Bauer, and many others, researched, examined, delved, excavated (literally and metaphorically), analysed and thereby established a forensic history that meticulously re- or de-constructed what happened: where, to whom, by whom, when, and even why. Such precise and corroborated detail has had to withstand not only cross-examination in war crimes trials but also the bizarre claims of the denialists.

Yet there is a dreadful irony in all of this. At one level, there is an enormous growth in Holocaust research and writing, an increase in memoirs, memorialisation ceremonies, in marches of the living to Auschwitz, in archaeological excavations of mass graves, in trials of old men, in documentary and commercial films on genocide in general. At another level, there is the stubborn effort of many survivors to resist, even to reject, historical analyses. They see an ‘answer’ of sorts, some kind of prophylaxis or prevention of repetition in more memorials, bigger museums, more candle-lighting memorial ceremonies. The glass cases housing documents and memorabilia have become shrines and amulets, akin to mezuzot—the verses from Deuteronomy affixed in capsules on the doorposts of most Jewish homes—to both affirm faith in God and to ward off demons. But it can never be an ‘answer’, an antidote, a preventive measure that ensures 'Never Again!’ Preserving historical truth and simultaneously preventing a recurrence of those events needs methods very different from this approach.

Had I survived a camp, no doubt I would want that hell frozen in time, preserved for the world to witness. I would not want my experience buried amidst the generalisations, or even amongst the detailed specifications, of broad historical abstractions. I would want candles, prayers, and imprecations of ‘Never Again!’. And I would be sacralising both the banality and the profanity of unalloyed evil as I did so.

All genocides are human events, with human perpetrators, victims, bystanders, beneficiaries and denialists. As a genocide studies historian, not a survivor, I search for reasons for their behaviours, not psychologically, but historically, politically and legally. I try to find the microscopic black pinheads of malignancy which form the origins of genocide, the sources and resources of the ideologues, the justifications given for their decisions, their adoption of ‘biological’ solutions to social and political problems, the responsibility and accountability of those who give and those who carry out orders. For me, nothing in deliberate starvation, forced death marches, poisoning, drowning, shooting and gassing can ever be sacralised. There is no room, in my view, for a new secular religion which enshrines these events.

Several authors have dealt with the so-called ‘Shoah business’, notably Tim Cole, Peter Novick and Norman Finkelstein.[7] In varying degrees they abhor the packaging, selling and misuse of the Holocaust as an industry, a guilt-producer, an antidote to anti-Semitism, ‘a way of shaking down Swiss banks’ [!], a protection against criticism of Israel’s Palestinian policies. They inveigh against the unnamed ‘guardians’ of the Holocaust, those who turn that event into all manner of myth and kitsch. But I often have trouble distinguishing whether these critics are attacking this ‘shrinological’ guardianship—or the very subject matter being guarded.