Grete's mother, Rudolf Otto, Martin Buber, Nazis and the Shoah:

On the uniqueness of the Holocaust

Gordon Fisher


    “In a dispute between two chemists there is a judge: experience.  In a dispute between a Moslem and a Christian, who is the judge?  Nobody.”
        --- Vilfredo Pareto, The Mind and Society [Trattato di Sociologia generale, 1923], translated by Andrew Bongiorno and Arthur Livingston with help of James Harvey Rogers, 1935, vol 1, “Non-Logical Conduct”


    To begin with, I quote from the book In Hitler’s Germany:  Everyday Life in the Third Reich by Bernt Engelmann, 1986, abridged and translated from a 2 volume German work of 1982 by Krishna Winston.  Engelmann was born in Berlin in 1921, finished school in 1938 and was a radio operator in the Luftwaffe during WW2, until 1942.  He then became active in anti-Nazi resistance work, and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 and imprisoned in Dachau until the liberation by Allied forces in 1945.  He became a journalist after the war, and has written a number of books.  The following is part of a conversation which took place in 1981 between him and Kulle, who had been a schoolmate, Kulle’s wife, and a friend of hers, Grete.

[p 38-39]:

    “There’s not much to come to terms with,” Kulle said.  “As I see it there were only three types of real Nazis: first there were the members of the World War generation who couldn’t accept the German defeat or the dissolution of the monarchy or the Weimer Republic—people who never found their way back into civilian life.  Then there were those who felt they had got the short end of the stick: they were mostly from the lower middle class, and under the Nazis they became block wardens or Kreisleiter.  That way they could throw their weight around and take out their frustrations on ordinary citizens, whom they terrorized.  the third group consisted of the lumpenproletariat, who were too lazy to work, as well as rowdies and hoodlums.  all the other members of the Nazi Party were either intimidated petty bourgeois or opportunists, and that last category included quite a few intellectuals and technocrats – they were especially dangerous . . .”

   “You’ve left out one category,” put in Grete, who had said nothing up to this point.  “There were also those who believed in the Führer as a savior and were hypnotized by him.  My mother, for example.  She never got any benefit from being one of the earliest members of the Nazi Party and of the Nazi Women’s League, or at least no material benefit.  They let her sit in the front row at Nazi events, and once she handed a bouquet to the Führer – that was the high point of her life.  But they certainly put her to work, taking in membership dues, collecting contributions, running around to all the offices and agencies to find housing for large families, or for people who had been bombed out.  She ran herself ragged!  Every single moment she could spare from her household chores was devoted to some ‘project.’  She was convinced everything the Nazis did was right and essential, and she dismissed all the whispered rumors of atrocities as stupid, malicious gossip.  But she never knowingly harmed anyone – she always wanted the best for people.  In May of ’45 her whole world collapsed.  At the time – I was just sixteen – we had been evacuated to Fürstenfeldbruck.  Mother was among those the Americans forced to tour nearby Dachau, and I had to go along.  I’ll never forget those heaps of emaciated corpses . . . Mother suffered a nervous breakdown.  It took her a long time to recover.”

   “And then?” Kulle asked.  “Did she continue to believe in the Führer or was she cured?  She must have known the camps existed and that horrible crimes were committed there in the name of her Führer?”

   Grete shook her head.  “No, nothing could shake her faith in Hitler.  “I’m sure the Führer wouldn’t have wanted that,’ she said later.  Another of her articles of faith was:  ‘True National Socialism was pure and decent.’  She clung to that till she died, only three years ago.”

   “And how did she reconcile the concentration camps with that belief?” Kulle wanted to know.

   “She accepted the explanation they gave at the Party meetings,” Grete replied.  “It went something like this:  The riff-raff have to be cleared off the streets!  Repeat offenders, sex criminals, and the parasites on the Volk, like usurers or profiteers, will be reeducated in the camps to do honest work.  They will [be] taught discipline and cleanliness – and of course, not a hair on anyone’s head will be harmed.”

[End of quotation]

    This story may be compared with the following excerpt from The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto,
1923 (2nd edn, 1950), translated from Das Heilige, 1917, by John W. Harvey, p 103-104: 

            “Here should be borne in mind what was remarked earlier respecting the interweaving of the non-rational with the rational and the consequently deepened import of rational expressions.  As the awe-inspiring character of the transcendent is comprised in the God of sternness and punishment and justice, so is its bliss-giving character included in the God who ‘overbrims with pure goodness’.  Indeed it is involved in the ‘over-abounding’ (‘exuberant’) and mystical tone of Luther’s actual creed.  Here, as elsewhere, there is no mistaking his connexion with mysticism.  Though for Luther faith begins more and more to take the place of ‘knowledge’ and ‘love of God’ (Gottes-Minne) – which means a marked qualitative alteration of the whole religious temper, as compared with that of mysticism – yet, despite the change, it remains obvious that there are definite features in ‘faith’, as the term is used by Luther, which justify us in classing it with the mystical ways of response to which it is in apparent contrast, and clearly distinguish it from the fides taught by the Lutheran school with its determinate, well-ordered, unmystical temper.  ‘Faith’ for Luther plays the same essential part, mutates mutandis, as ‘knowledge’ and ‘love’ for the earlier mystics:  it is the unique power of the soul, the adhaesio Dei, which unites man with God:  and ‘unity’ is the very signature of the mystical.  So that when Luther says that faith makes man ‘one cake’ (ein Kuche) with God or Christ, or holds him ‘as a ring holds a jewel’ (sicut annulus gemmam), he is not speaking any more figuratively than when Tauler says the same of love.  ‘Faith’ for Luther, as ‘love’ for Tauler and the mystics generally, is a something that cannot be exhaustively comprised in rational concepts, and to designate which ‘figures’ and ‘images’ are a necessity.  To him ‘faith’ is the center of the soul – the fundus animae or ‘basis of the soul’ of the mystics – in which the union of man with God fulfils itself.  It is at the same time an independent faculty of knowledge, a mystical a priori element in the spirit of man, by which he receives and recognizes supra-sensible truth, and in this respect identical with the ‘Holy Spirit in the heart’ (Spiritus Sanctus in corde).  ‘Faith’ is further the ‘mighty creative thing’ in us and the strongest of affects, most closely akin to the Greek ‘enthusiasn’ (enthousiazesthai)/  It even takes over all the functions which all ‘enthusiasts’ from Paul onwards have ascribed to ‘the Spirit’; for it is ‘faith’ that ‘transforms us inwardly and brings us forth anew’.  In this regard, different as it is in its inner attitude, ‘faith’ is very similar to the amor mysticus.  And in the bliss of the ‘assurance of salvation’ (certitudo salutis) that it arouses, and the inensity of Luther’s ‘childlike faith’, we have in a subdued form a recurrence of the ‘childhood’ feelings of Paul, which go beyond mere comfort of the soul, appeasement of conscience, or feeling of protectedness.  All subsequent mystics from Johann Arndt to Spener and Arnold have always felt these aspects of Luther’s inner life to be congenial and akin to their own, and have carefully collected the relevant passages from his writings as a defense against the attackes of the rationalized doctrine of the Lutheran school.”

[End of quotation]

    And there is also this paragraph from the work by Otto, p 94, from the same chapter as the quotation above, entitled “The Numinous in Luther”.  The term “numinous,” an adjective form of the noun “numen,” is taken by Otto to refer to a non-rational “something” which is, as he says, Wholly Other, the mysterium tremendum, an awe-inspiring Being of ineffable power and goodness which is apprehended as objective by those who have true religious experience.

   “In Catholicism the feeling of the numinous is to be found as a living factor of singular power.  It is seen in Catholic forms of worship and sacramental symbolism, in the less authentic forms assumed by legend and miracle, in the paradoxes and mysteries of Catholic dogma, in the Platonic and neo-Platonic strans woven into the fabric of its religious conceptions, in the solemnity of churches and ceremonies, and especially in the intimate rapport of Catholic piety with mysticism.  For reasons already suggested, the mysterious is much less in evidence in the official systems of doctrine, whether Catholic or Protestant.”  Particularly since the time when the great medieval scholastics (the theology moderni, so called) replaced Plato by Aristotle, and welded the latter and his method on to the doctrines of the Church, Catholic orthodoxy has been subjected to a strong rationalizing influence, to which, however, actual living religious practice and feeling never conformed or corresponded.  The battle here joined between so-called Platonism’ and ‘Aristotelianism’, and in general the long persistent protest against the scholastics, is itself in large part nothing but the struggle between the rational and the non-rational elements in the Christian religion.  And the same antithesis is clearly operative as a factor in Luther’s protest against Aristotle and the theology moderni.”

[End of quotation]

    The quotation from Otto may be compared with the following from a book about the young Martin Buber, From Mysticism to Dialogue:  Martin Buber’s Transformation of German Social Thought, Paul Mendes-Flohr, 1989, translation and revision of his Vom der Mystik zum Dialog: Martin Bubers geistige Entwicklung bis hin zu “Ich und Du”, 1978.  Medes-Flohr is here speaking of Buber’s views in his “pre-dialogic” period, before Buber’s work Ich und Du (I and Thou), 1923, English translations 1958 and 1970.  This period extended perhaps until sometime during the First World War (see below).  Buber lived 1878-1965, so he would have been in his later 20s and in his 30s during this period.

  (p 16-17):

    “Specifically, Buber ascribes [in his pre-dialogic period, up to his 30s] the crisis of Kultur to modern man’s faulty “picture of the world” (Weltbild).  Beguiled by the promise of science and by positivistic epistemology – which, again, were associated with the spiritually vacuous ways of bourgeois Zivilisation – one mistakenly accepts the information provided by sense data as the only valid knowledge of the world.  Conversely, information gathered by feeling and intuition, as subjective and nonrational modes of perception, is rejected as worthless.  Buber’s generation instinctively protested this conclusion and affirmed the world-in-itself, the presumed reality beyond the phenomenal world refracted through sense data, as the “true reality,” declaring this reality as knowable precisely by virtue of the nonrational categories of intuition and feeling.  This “idealistic reaction against science” was represented most prominently in the academy by Buber’s teacher Dilthey, who sought to effect a radical revision of nineteenth century epistemology, particularly with respect to the Geisteswissenschaften.  Dilthey argued that Erlebnis, lived or inner experience (as opposed to Erfahrung, or cognitive experience grounded in sense data), is the primary faculty of knowing the nonlogical, dynamic events of the human spirit.  Because it is “an elementary and immediate reality,” Erlebnis is considered to enjoy an epistemological status (i.e., it possesses an appreciative quality) not obtainable by Erfahrung, which mediates the data of sense perception throuogh a priori structures of cognition.  Although Dilthey did not suggest that Erlebnis provided a noumenal “higher” form of knowledge, many of his more enthusiastic votaries would make this extrapolation and, indeed, celebrate Erlebnis as a uniquely graced epistemological faculty – akin to what Rudolf Otto would later call a sensus numinous – quickening one’s apprehension of a sacred reality.  Defiantly transgressing Dilthey’s philosophical scruples, they would obtain this mystical conception of Erlebnis, by a highly idiosyncratic conflation of two distinct Kantian categories – the noumenal (the thing-in-itself), which they identified with a “deeper,” sacred order, and the phenomenal world, which they intended to interpret in a pantheistic fashion.”

    In connection with World War I, Mendes-Flohr reports, p. 18-19:

“The a-social character of Buber’s Kulturphilosophie became particularly manifest when he tried to extend its purview to the events of war.  The heroic mood engendered by the First World War seemed to Buber to have initiated an epoch of unconditioned action in which one realizes one’s Erlebnisse in their fullness and thereby gains “a connectedness with the Absolute.”  “Precisely,” because now so many are driven to unconditioned action,” is this period – an age which seems to have been abandoned by God – one of the Unconditioned’s revelation.” [sic: there is something wrong with the quotation marks in the text.]  He also exulted Gemeinschaft, the organic, genuinely human community eclipsed by the Gesellschaft, the “society” created by bourgeois civilization.  Through their mutual relation to the Unconditioned, “the men of heroic or unconditioned action are – regardless of their views or locality, indeed they may be adversaries on the battlefield – transcendentally united in Gemeinschaft.  Thus, the injustice and tragedy of war are of marginal import compared to the war’s metaphysical significance.  The war is preeminently a “Sinnbild,” a symbol of profound inner events.  Yes, the war is, despite its manifest horror, “a fearful grace, the grace of a new birth.

            “A letter dated 12 May 1916 from his dearest friend, Gustav Landauer (1870-1919), a consistent opponent to the war, would seem to have affected in Buber a volte-face, not only as regards his attitude toward the war, but also with respect to the asocial orientation of his thought.  In his long, detailed critique of the “Kriegsbuber,” of the “war-Buber,” Landauer held that his friend’s “perverse” politics were derived from his peculiar metaphysics . . . . . Buber’s response is unknown.  We have evidence, however, suggesting that Landauer’s rebuke shocked Buber and provoked contrition.  In any event, from his first published statements subsequent to receipt of Landauer’s letter, we notice a dramatic peripeteia.  Buber is now unambiguously opposed to the war.  Furthermore, he now argues, in a fashion similar to Landauer’s socialilst teaching, that change in the quality of spiritual life must be preceded by a transformation of the relations between men. . . . . .  [Here] we gain a new perspective on Butler’s I and Thou.  As much as being the theological treatise it is often understood to be, I and Thou is also – and perhaps principally – a grammar for the ethical regeneration of Gemeinschaft.”

[End of quotation]

    From these statements, I draw the following proposition, which isn't novel, although the juxtaposition of these authorities in the way I have done may be.  Note that there are allusions to Protestantism (via Luther), Catholicism (via Otto, who however was not a Catholic), and Judaism (via the young Buber).  The attraction of the Nazi Party to some people in Germany during the Nazi time, people like Grete's mother, was derivative from and to some extent dependent on mystical religious beliefs.  Such person's reactions to Nazism constituted for them experiences which are analogous to religious experiences, or indeed perhaps were religious experiences -- non-rational experiences, and also not emotional experiences in the sense of individual feelings based on sensations or perceptions.  They were rather an alleged contact, sui generis, with the Absolute (Hegel, etc.), the Wholly Other and numinous (Otto, etc.), the Unconditioned (young Buber, etc.), an omnipotent deity.  Especially were some Christians susceptible to such experiences, since they were accustomed to thinking in terms of a messiah who was a real person.

    The claim that such religious experience, a unique kind of Erfahrung quite distinct from any kind of Erlebnis, is irreducibly nonrational, beyond reason, involves a kind of placement of them beyond criticism.  They are what they are -- I am that I am -- and that's an end to reasoning about them.  Of course, an objection may be made that experiences of this sort in people like Grete's mother were the result of choosing the wrong deity to worship, idol worship.  This is as may be.  However, I note that it would not be sufficient, it appears, to speak of the goodness of the deity, or of a covenant with chosen people, or, as in Christianity, a concern of the deity in the form of a person who loves his people.  Grete's mother thought that the Führer was thoroughly good, that he loved his people, that what she took to be the principles of National Socialism were thoroughly good, that Hitler and his Party had made a covenant with their chosen people (presumably the so-called Aryans), and that the Führer and many other Nazi leaders were persons of extreme power who were concerned with the people of their covenant, i.e. their promises to the people whom Hitler and his Party undertook to govern.  No doubt many who thought this way in the middle 1930s changed their minds before Grete's mother did.  Some, no doubt, who initially had the faith, begin to lose it before the war, for various reasons, and no doubt many more lost faith during the war, even before the battle for Stalingrad.  But nevertheless, there was widespread faith of this kind to begin with.

    On another tack, the well-known influence of Romanticism (in various of the meanings of this term) and its offspring, in the 19th and 20th centuries, on such developments as Nazism, is highlighted here.  This recalls to me a man I met at lunch once at the University of Michigan in the early 1960s, a man with a KZ number tattooed on his arm.  I suppose he was Jewish.  Someone asked him how, in his view, Nazism, and in particular the Holocaust, came about.  He said quite assuredly that it was an inevitable outcome of Romanticism, and rejection of Enlightenment ideals.  He was a student for an advanced degree at the time.  I don't know how he made out, nor what his name was.  Perhaps he became a Holocaust scholar.

    As we know, Romanticism was, to some large degree, initiated by a reaction against the so-called period of Enlightenment in Europe, which developed, along with industrialization, urbanization, sharp population growth, etc., into the Zivilisation of western Europe, the bourgeois societies, during the course of the 19th century.  Much influenced by what happened during and immediately after the First World War, rationalism, so-called, became for many the grande bête noire, a scapegoat for all that had happened, against their grains, in the course of the 19th century to religious, political and social traditions and doctrines.

    There arose a fascination for the nonrational, which often becomes associated with the irrational, as exhibited by the rise of Nazism, and such things as the hatred of Bolshevists, committed to rationalistic programs, who were often associated with Jews.  Hitler, for example, seems to have pretty well equated Bolshevists and Jews (and also perhaps Bolshevism and Judaism?), at least in Mein Kampf and some of his speeches, as crude as this may sound.

    What lesson can we draw from this?  For me, it is the lesson of being highly suspicious of nonrationality, and its cousin, irrationality, and of too easy or extreme a rejection of some of the ideals put forth in the era of the European Enlightenment.  For example, in dealing with matters of the Holocaust, the Shoah, in Europe during the Nazi time, it seems to me dangerous to conceive of what happened as inexplicable, not something which can be studied with the use of reason, a mysterium tremendum, unique to the point of being Wholly Other.

July 2001