Thursday 11 December 2014

On writing (and reading) Nazi biographies

In 2008, Peter Longerich published his biography of Heinrich Himmler. The book was well received and even praised by some critics for its comprehensiveness and detail. As I was reading it recently, I became increasingly frustrated by it. The more direct quotes and facts Longerich throws at the reader, the more exhausted one gets. In the end, after more than 750 pages of minutiae, one is left with the impression to know even less about the subject of the biography than before. the person, Himmler, remains a mystery, notwithstanding a plethora of gut wrenching and harrowing details. If Longerich managed to enlighten the reader so little with so much, what went wrong? 

Biography is historical writing at the intersection of two interpretative paradigms. The first understands the subject and actions as a result of external forces. The second favours a strong version of personal agency, the subject acting and reacting to his or her surroundings. Both perspectives are on a sliding scale and neither are mutually exclusive. Yet, championing one over the other determines the way in which personal responsibility is construed. All historical writing is mainly narrative, aligning events along a chronology that structures the past in before and after. Apart from this most basic of morphological parameters however, historical writing possesses a freedom that few other human ‘sciences’ have. 

Within this historiographical universe of relative freedom, the history of Nazism represents a particular challenge. The brutality of the regime calls on historians to establish direct lines of responsibility and largely shun contextualisations of guilt. Moreover, writing biography magnifies this dilemma. Biographers of Nazi functionaries feel the pressure to establish personal guilt for the regime’s actions, yet would also like to explain how an individual came to embrace this murderous ideology. The result is often a dance on a wire, oscillating between re-affirming the possibilities of individual agency whilst at the same time embedding their subjects in the context of the time. 

This balancing act can take various narrative forms. Longerich goes for exhaustive and comprehensive quotations and drowning the reader in facts. At times, it is less a biography but a chronicle of deeds, peppered with evidence chosen from the wealth of written sources that Himmler left behind. What disappears behind this wall of facts is the man himself. 

The main problem is one of misunderstanding on Longerich’s part of what constitutes agency itself. Hardly anyone believes that simply telling a story about somebody reveals why somebody acted the way he or she did. Explaining human agency takes more than just narrating the facts. Yet, Longerich is wary of doing more than lining up the facts themselves, and he has good reasons to be careful. It is well known that Himmler was fully conscious of the enormity of his actions. There are photographs of him visiting concentration camps and plenty of his speeches have survived in which he confessed pathological anti-semitic hatred. 

It is the belief that no human being can be capable of this amount of hatred that poses the biggest dilemma to historians. If Himmler was not mentally ill (and there are no indications that he was), then his actions were within the normal range of human capacity to act. This is an uncomfortable conclusion for any biographer or reader indeed. Few thinkers have confronted this challenge of human depravity within the realm of reason head on. Hannah Arendt has tried to point to the bureaucratisation of mass murder (and the psychological distance it affords) as a contributory factor in enabling the holocaust. Yet, few biographers have dared to take up the baton. 

Writing meaningful biography that leaves human agency intact yet recognises the force of external circumstances is easier done in other historical contexts. Golo Mann has done it for Wallenstein. Mann’s style of writing is sustained by epistemological skepticism about the subject matter whilst maintaining the narrative aspiration to get ever closer to the individual in question. The result is a curious circling of the person, homing in on the object until, suddenly, withdrawing from claiming any potential knowledge in another bout of historiographical pessimism. In other words, Mann’s writing is a true art form, where other historians only recount. 

Instinctively however we shrink from contemplating something similar about any prominent Nazi. It strikes us as tasteless to try to introspect what we can only assume to be an abyss of human depravity. So, we are left with simple narrating of facts and details, which makes for lifeless and unmotivated reading (and writing). Few things can better illustrate the level of courage it takes to write a ‘Wallenstein’ about Himmler. 

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