Don't mention the war? A reader's objection to Stuart Holland's piece, with a rejoinder

A German reader objected most strongly to Stuart Holland’s reply to Mr Schuable’s Guardian piece and, in particular, to Stuart’s discussion of Gestalt Psychology plus his reference to the awful ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ slogan. Here I present the reader’s objection in full. With a reply that I scripted.

Rudolf v. Waldenfels: Sorry, Yanis, this (nb. Stuart Holland’s piece) is not only ridiculous, it is impertinent and borders on the racist. And it besmirches the suffering of the victims of the Holocaust. Though I have always disliked your anti-German bias – I am German – I have also always felt it was understandable given the terrible hardship that Greece is going through. Morevover I found myself agreeing with many parts of your analyses.

But this article is simply going too far. “Gestalt psychology”, a quote by Nietzsche whom you can quote on almost anything and the opposite of it will not do. Intellectually I expect more from this blog. “Finite solution” which is not quite but almost a “final solution”, “Arbeit macht frei”… How dare you Mr. Holland! How dare you! Millions and millions were murdered under these rubrics. For a good reason Jewish organizations protest when the Holocaust is used – or rather abused – in every-day political discourse.

Regrettably I will have to turn elsewhere from now on to get a Greek view on this crisis.

YV’s response: Dear Rudolf, Hold your horses. First, I reject the accusation of being anti-German. I have spent four years now arguing that there is no such thing as The Germans or The Greeks or The Brits. Indeed I have irked many Greeks by arguing that there is more variety among Greeks and among Germans than there are differences between Greeks and Germans. That I criticise German economic policy is another matter (you should see how ruthlessly I criticise Greek politicians etc.). More generally, I do not think it is fine for anyone to generalise. Whether it is Greeks talking about the Germans as if they are a single person, or indeed the German press, including well meaning, progressive newspapers etc., that explicitly refer to ‘Greek attitudes’, to the ‘Greeks’ work ethos’, to ‘Italian sloth’.

Having said all this, the German notion of Gerstalt is a helpful, non-racist tool for understanding ‘conventional wisdom’ in different countries. ‘Conventional wisdom’ is a social artifact that evolves (just like all conventions and norms are the product of some social evolutionary product) within a nation’s civil society forging common meanings and shared terms. Stuart Holland made a good point about that, quoting Nietzsche out of admiration for the great German philosopher – not in a cheap bid to denigrade anyone.

As for the reference to Arbeit Macht Frei, it is, I concede, controversial. But it is also apt, unfortunately (or at least so I think). When Mr Schauble visited Athens the other day he talked ‘down’ to his Greek audience telling us (a) that  we need to work harder and (b) that it is wrong to ask for debt write offs. This was a sad performance. To understand why, do not forget that the greatest beneficiary of debt forgiveness in the history of Europe was Germany – in 1953 when even Greece ‘forgave’ a huge loan that was extracted by the Nazis from Athens during the Occupation. Personally (as I say in this post) I think it was right that Germany received that debt relief in 1953. But it is quite rich to have the German finance minister lecture us today about the sanctity of debts. In Athens! At a time when Greeks simply cannot find work in order to earn the money necessary to repay debts. To be told, in this context that only ‘hard work’ will redeem us, and in a German accent too, is to add insult to injury and, yes, to revive memories of Arbeit Macht Frei.

As for your invocation of the Holocaust, let me tell you (since you seem unaware of it) that Greek workers were also forcefully transported to labour camps (to become ‘liberated’ by forced work) and that Auschwitz was also the ‘home’ of Greek resistant fighters who died and suffered there in droves for having opposed the Nazis – the same Nazis that extracted a huge ‘loan’ from our starving people – the same loan that was written off in 1953, with Athens’ consent. In this sense, it is no disrespect to the Jewish people if Arbeit Macht Frei is mentioned in a non-Jewish context.

Having said all that, I agree that the last thing we need is to be drag up the hideous past. Europe has enough challenges today as things stand. However, it takes two to tango. German politicians and German newspapers should know that if they point moralising fingers at Greeks, Italians, Spaniards etc., while remaining in denial about the true causes of the Euro Crisis, moralising fingers will be pointed back toward Germany. This is how the European Union will cease to exist, at everyone’s expense. Let’s put an end to it.