The Duty to Remember--But What?: Afterword to the 2000 Edition
- The precept of staying alive as the sole thing that counts, as the supreme value that dwarfs all other values, is among the most tempting, and the most common, interpretations of the lesson of the Holocaust.
- Soon after the end of the war psychiatrists coined the concept of survivor's guilt--a complex psychical ailment which they ascribed to the survivors' asking themselves why they had stayed alive when so many of their near and dear had perished. According to that interpretation, the joy of escaping death was permanently and incurably poisoned among the survivors by uncertainty about the propriety of sailing safe out of the sea of perdition--with disastrous consequences for the survivors will to live and to succeed in life after their rescue.
- In the course of time the "guilt" aspect, so prominent in the original diagnoses, has been progressively exorcised from the model of the "survival complex", leaving behind the pure and unalloyed, unambiguous and no longer contested approval of self-preservation for self-preservation's sake. It is just the haunting pain left by the sufferings that staying alive required that is now blamed for the persistence of the "syndrome".
- Such a shift brings us dangerously close to the spine-chilling image of the survivor as painted by Elias Canetti--as the person for whom "the most elementary and obvious form of success is to remain alive". At the far end of the obsession, Canetti's survivor wants to kill so that he can survive others; he wants to stay alive so as not to have others surviving him...
- The lessons of the Holocaust are reduced for popular consumption to a simple formula, "who strikes first, survives"; or to an even simpler one, "the stronger lives". The awesome, two-pronged legacy of the Holocaust is, on the one hand, the tendency to treat survival as the sole, or at any rate the topmost value and purpose of life, and, on the other, to the positing of issue of survival as that of competition for a scarce resource, and so of survival itself as a site of conflict between incompatible interests--a kind of conflict in which the success of some depends on the defeat of others in the race to survive.
- The ethics of hereditary victimhood reverses the logic of the law: the accused remain criminals until proved innocent.
- The pernicious legacy of the Holocaust is that today's persecutors may inflict new pains and create new generations of victims eagerly awaiting their chance to do the same, while acting under the conviction that they are avenging yesterday's pain and warding off the pains of tomorrow; while being convinced, in other words, that ethics is on their side.
The most important lesson of Holocaust is that in our modern society people who are neither morally corrupt nor prejudiced may also still partake with vigour and dedication in the destruction of targeted categories of human beings; and that their participation, far from calling for mobilization of their moral or any other convictions, demands on the contrary their suspension, obliteration and irrelevance.