The sustained, extended atrocities of the twentieth century -- the genocide of the Holocaust, the Holodomor, totalitarian repression, the Gulag, the Armenian genocide, the rape of Nanjing -- require new questions and new approaches to the problems of philosophy. What are some of those new questions and insights that philosophers should take up? How can philosophy change its focus in order to better recognize and address the evils of the twentieth century?
First, philosophy must be engaged in the realities of human life and history. There is an urgent need for greater concreteness and historical specificity in philosophical discussions in ethics, social and political philosophy, and the philosophy of history. Philosophy can become more genuinely insightful by becoming more concrete and historical. One way to achieve this specificity is to include study and reflection about the first-person documents deriving from participants’ experience. Philosophers are inclined to couch their ideas at a high level of generality. But understanding the evils of the Holocaust requires us to find ways of making even better use of these first-hand experiential sources, without the suspicion of “bias” that often hampered previous historical uses of them. Survivors’ testimonies and interviews, travelers’ reports, and other first-person statements of what happened to individual people must be treated with seriousness, compassion, and a critical eye. Piecing together a single incident on the basis of a few hundred survivors’ reports turns out to be extremely difficult (Christopher Browning). And yet without the reports of participants, survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators, it is virtually impossible to come to a deep human understanding of the realities of the experience of roundups of Jews in Berdichev or daily life and death in Treblinka. A crucial part of the learning we need to do from the Holocaust or the Holodomor is to gain the painful understanding of the individual human suffering experienced by each individual, in the tens of millions. This suggests the relevance of "phenomenological" and descriptive approaches to human life circumstances, informed by real historical understanding of the concrete and lived experience of participants.
Second, it is plain that the scope of events like the Holocaust requires new thinking about historical knowledge. The topic is enormous, encompassing world war, a totalitarian state, organized murder in dozens of countries, a pervasive and varied ideology of hate, and associated violence and murder by affiliates and collaborators throughout a vast region. Specialized historical research is needed into a vast range of topics and locations -- for example, Ukrainian nationalist collaborators, the command structure of Einsatzgruppen, the role of Krupp and Farben in the genocide of Europe’s Jews. All of these specialized investigations are crucial to a broad collective understanding of this continent-wide catastrophe. And yet they contribute to a patchwork of areas of understanding of the Holocaust, distributed over hundreds of journals, monographs, and institutes. A historian who specializes in the genocide against Ukraine’s Jews may know little or nothing about the circumstances of the extinction of Hungary’s Jews in 1944. There is thus a critical role for historical synthesis at a higher level of scope – like the work of Timothy Snyder and Alexander Prusin – that helps to knit together factors that would otherwise seem separate.
Third, there are the familiar questions of explanation that must be confronted by historians and philosophers concerning the Holocaust, on a vast scale. What were the political, social, and ideological causes of Germany’s genocidal intentions? What were the features of organization and control through which these intentions were brought to implementation in such ferocity and persistence across Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states in just a few months in 1941? It is crucial to maintain an understanding of the “ conjunctural and multi-causal” nature of large episodes like the Holocaust, and historians should be cautious about simple, single-factor explanations.
Similarly, there are questions of understanding of human actions during these evil times. What were the political and ideological circumstances that led ordinary central European men and women to engage in murder and torture against their Jewish neighbors? How can we understand this mentality and these choices? What were the states of mind of senior military officers in the Wehrmacht who carried out genocidal orders? What about the ordinary soldiers who were sometimes called upon to commit murder against the innocent? How can we understand these actions?
Fifth, philosophy is forced to reconsider common assumptions about human nature, morality, benevolence, and rationality that have often guided philosophical thinking. The simple assumptions of the social contract tradition – whether minimalist in the hands of Hobbes or more nuanced in the hands of Rousseau – do not suffice as a basis for understanding real human history. It is true that sociality, a love of freedom, and a degree of benevolence can be discerned in human affairs; but so can cruelty, hatred, betrayal, and irrationality. It is inescapable that human beings are neither wild animals nor benevolent and rational citizens. Instead, it is important to follow out Herder’s ideas about the contingency of culture and values, and reconstruct more nuanced understandings of human nature in specific historical and social settings (link).
Philosophy for a democratic people