Three days or so ago (I've lost count from Jetlag, apologies) was the seventy-second anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. As our only insurance against a repeat of history is strong memory, it seems worth putting down some notes on the subject.
When I think of the Holocaust, I am pained. When think of it and I am not pained, I am scared. I am rightfully sure that I should be pained. In such moments, I am worried that I am becoming callous. I am concerned that the memory of the crime is losing its sting. It is that latter fear, the-fear-of-not-fearing, that I am concerned about at the moment. The absence of that fear-of-not-fearing is exactly what makes me afraid that the great mnemonic chorus of "never again" might not work.
The plain arguments indicting the crimes of Hitler and his cronies are obvious to the minds of any human whose sense of reason has not been perverted. Such influencing memeplexes of megalomania, crowd-madness, or easy conspiratorial narrative serve as an aggrandizing drug of the ego, rendering others as malevolent automata incapable of depths of experience, or alternately little better than animals and deserving only a mercy-kill. For the individual's own psyche, this is a welcome removal of the burden of thought, especially empathy, which is an especially costly piece of psychological function. The convenience of dehumanization is what makes it so attractive, and thus so dangerous. It is equal parts narcissism and solipsism. It suggests that one thinks and feels, and knows one thinks and feels, yet cannot believe anything non-resemblant to surface characteristics could ever exhibit such behavior. There's something oddly incestuous about all of it.
I am an American, outside of America for only the third time in my life. 1 As an American it seems worthy to think of America's most popular of World War Two novels, The Catcher in the Rye, which I think shows a good picture of how we've failed to conceptualize the war as a people, at the core of our national identity at this moment of crisis.
Salinger's biographers, Shields and Salerno, noticed this in their biography—the eponymous Salinger—that the author "took the trauma of war and embedded it within what looked to the naked eye like a coming-of-age-novel." It's worth noting that Salinger served in the Second World War as a counter-intelligence officer, interrogating Vichy and German POWs in their native tongues. In April of '45 he was one of the first Americans to visit a liberated death camp, and later told his daughter that "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live."
He depicted the war a bit in his fiction; For Esmé—with Love and Squalor, is an attempt, which admittedly also is told post-facto and indirectly. Only one of his stories, The Magic Foxhole, depicts active combat. Neither are the canonical Salinger that became typical classroom fare, and neither concern the darkest aspects of his years in the European theater.
In Catcher, Salinger depicted the life of a young boy, on the verge of being a man, aware almost telepathically of the brutality of the adult world, yet totally unable to communicate it without sounding like a sanctimonious jackass. Over the course of the novel he completely fails to connect with anyone in his life, and narrates the whole affair from an asylum in California after having a nervous breakdown, euphemistically described as "getting sick."
There are a number of things to take from this. The first is that a man who saw the cannibalistic end of civilization was able to only express it by dodging around the subject in entirely non-obvious metaphor. Another is that the elements people take away from the book are more often a totally misapplied affiliation for Holden, assuming that he is some sort of hero willing to take down the phonies as the sort of pseudo-iconoclast common in the young male protagonist, or taking the other tact which is pointing out that he fails at social interactions and behaves like an entitled dick, frankly wondering why we're even paying attention to the kid at all. These explanations, while lacking nuance, are true, but are limited to a system of first and second person relations, rather than trying to appreciate the character of the situation from a slightly more detached perspective.
From that slightly more detached perspective, it seems worth noting that a man who should have brought back the truth of the Nazi horror from an entirely outside perspective was only able to properly express it in an novel that concealed it, and that we've been unable to communicate the meta-data about the novel as its been taught in school. This led to a situation where a depiction of the intractability and inconceivability of genocide is witnessed and criticized instead as a story about a dumb kid complaining about nothing. And so a few generations down the line, when the smell is gone and the generations that were there are gone as well, we who weren't attacked forgot. It's worth noting that the last lines of Catcher are "Don't tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody," and one must wonder, with Salinger's isolation, how much of his behavior and disconnection eventually mirrored Holden's with a time delay. Salinger's novel is not a story concerning the human mind's ability to grapple with the horror of an end of civilization and its death-throes of calculated mass murder, rather a novel about the human mind's inability to even speak about attempting to confront such horror. He didn't even do what Lovecraft tried, and failed, to do in depicting the cosmic horror via negativa. 2
The generation that lived through the war wasn't able to communicate the horror, and so it stands to reason that we weren't able to communicate that you should fear of not fearing without using the rather double-edged weapon of shame. I remember going to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles in sixth grade with my class, and realizing a few years in retrospect that many of the same overwhelming media techniques that were described by the museum's exhibits were being used in the Museum itself on similarly young kids. This tactic, though well-intentioned, was massively dangerous and debatably justified. It is entirely sensible to try and hammer home the message of the museum, but I'm afraid that we've created a situation akin to antibiotic resistant bacteria, where some percentage of attendees are able to resist the programming, and thus end up becoming a perverse manner of contrarian, feeling a sense of validation for speaking out against the justified orthodoxy of the evil of the Holocaust. In a world saturated by violent images, the raw-force of pictorial depictions of the camps is likely not enough for many of the desensitized schoolchildren who attend the museum. If I had been further desensitized at the time, perhaps like the proverbial /pol/ types that are currently so riled up, there's a possibility that I would have seen Holocaust Denial as a kind of pleasing rebellion. This contrarian impulse is one of the most dangerous elements of the modern psyche, as it is detached from empirical systems of thought, and instead defines itself in opposition to a partially accurate consensus rather than making its own assessments, leading to a confident and sophomoric dissociation. In that mindset, there is a joyous confidence in the strength of the ego that confuses the ego for the prowess of the intellect. There is no fear of self-deception, instead an assumption that all deception is correspondent to intentional two-facedness, and that it is better to be honest and disastrously wrong than to even aspire to truthfulness. It takes joy in lies. It cannot be persuaded by truth. It cannot understand that there were smells it did not smell, and that the world that it lives in is not the only world at the moment, or even the only world that had ever existed on the earth it walks upon. That ego forgets, and lives in the present: an object in space, thinking itself the origin of all, ready to tear down anything that does not fit in. So, Never Again must not only be a slogan, it must be a demand by the voice of memory itself. That demand must be carried out by the free-will of individuals, those able to know the nature of violent horror by the authority of their mind alone. I pray we will be strong and numerous enough.
1. I must honestly count my experience in Northern Mexico as part of the same socio-geographic order as my sojourns in the Southwestern United States, cut off by a border instantiated by competing states rather than any sort of justifiably meaningful division.
2. It's worth noting that Lovecraft's conceptual intuitions of cosmic horror contain grains of philosophical truth, but his personal politics are deluded enough to render a rather intense misidentification of humanoid horror, even if he got the terror of an indifferent natural landscape right.
Also, it's worth noting that the connections between Salinger and the War have been written about elsewhere, including this Vanity Fair article which contains much of the details.