Befriending Hitler


I’m currently enjoying one of Zizek’s new books, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce – an allusion to Marx’s introduction to his Eighteenth Brumaire in which he wrote:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

This, then, is Zizek’s dissection of the global financial crisis, undertaken with his usual array of linguistic and philosophical scalpels.

Reaction to the banking crisis, as Zizek outlines, was often typified by the Pope’s injunction to fight against the culture of excessive greed and consumption. Zizek sees a big problem in this: by ‘fighting against the culture of excessive greed’ we are inscribing greed and over-consumption as personal sin and private psychological propensity:

“The self-propelling circulation of Capital thus remains more than ever the ultimate Real of our lives, a beast that by definition cannot be controlled, since it controls our activity.”

Extending this view, Zizek then critiques the idea that ‘the proper way to fight the demonization of the Other is to subjectivize him, to listen to his story.’ In other words, the adage that ‘an enemy is someone whose story you have not yet heard’ is wrong. Supporting this, he asks us:

“Is one then also ready to affirm that Hitler was an enemy only because his story had not been heard? Do the details of his personal life redeem the horrors that resulted from his reign?”

I think there is an problem with his argument here – a failure to understand that the empathetic relationship within the idea of friendship has to work both ways. Of course, one could not consider Hitler a ‘friend’ if he continued to act in the ways that he did. But in true friendship we changed, and perhaps if we had befriended him as a younger man, we might have been able to draw him away from the path that he eventually took. To assume otherwise is to isolate him, to fetishize him, to deny him any ability to change. Now, it may be that he was truly psychopathic and therefore totally unable to do so, in which case no friendship would even be possible.

Zizek then brings in another example, of an Israeli soldier who, on finding out that the Palestinian family whose house he was overseeing demolition of had a child with the same name as him, took his wallet out and showed them photos – but still went ahead with his duties. Again, Zizek is critical of the ‘befriending an enemy’ position, but again the point is that the power-relationship between soldier and oppressed family meant that no friendship was possible, and thus no symbiotic empathetic flow either.

So is my enemy simply someone whose story I have not yet heard? Perhaps, but only if that enemy, that ‘other’ is someone with whom friendship is actually possible – someone who has the psychological capacity for reciprocal relationship, and someone with whom there is some level of power equality.

What this might mean theologically is something that I might look at in another post…


20 responses to “Befriending Hitler”

  1. This is very interesting but I’m a bit dubious about your assertion that the Israeli soldier was unable to develop a friendship with the Palestinian family whose home he destroyed. If the soldier had been able to recognise that his job was just one role in his life and thus perceive of himself as something other than a soldier oppressing Palestinians, would this not have provided an opportunity for relationship?

  2. I think Zizek’s point is that it is unacceptable for the Israeli soldier to try to forge that friendship, while carrying on uncritically with his duties – which are completely incompatible with the spirit of friendship.

    What sort of relationship can they have if he is kind to them by sharing a photo, but then throws them out and helps demolish their house – even if he smiles kindly whilst doing it?

    My point is that the empathetic flow must be able to flow both ways. And with my experience of power-relationships between soldiers and those under occupation, I think that this is impossible.

  3. Sure; but would you not agree that by sharing the photo the Israeli soldier had abandoned his role as an aggressor and that had he remained so the possibility of relationship might materialise despite animosities?

  4. No, I don’t think he had. He may be under the illusion that he has, but from the Palestinian’s side, this is still a man with a gun who is able to initiate a moment like that. It’s asymmetric because the family cannot initiate in the same way.

    I remember going to Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial, and being shocked at the Israeli soldiers going round it in full battle gear. It seems to be part of their training that even in moments where there should be universal empathy, they retain a military mindset.

  5. Okay, I basically take your point about the asymmetry. But suppose the Israeli soldier dumped his weapon and uniform and renounced his part in oppressing Palestinians. Would there be any chance of a relationship then perhaps or do you think the asymmetry would still exist? In other words; how far would the soldier have to go before a relationship might be established?

    I’m stunned by your holocaust memorial anecdote. Obviously the Israeli military mindset is pretty deeply ingrained. *Fears negative response to her first question after this admission!*

  6. If the soldier could do that (and I’m thinking about this in the next post) then of course there could be a chance of relationship. The problem is the institutional aspect – the system is so carefully constructed in Israel so that this could not happen, or, if it did happen, would be hugely costly. There is an entirely different tax system for those who have not served in the military – it is massively punitive.

    I actually approached the soldiers at Yad Vashem – young new recruits – and asked them about it. Many were rather embarrassed, but said that they were ordered to attend in full gear. I found it utterly disgusting. Especially given that it looks out over demolished Palestinian villages.

  7. Crikey…entirely different tax system for non-military service!

    A couple of years ago when I was volunteering on an organic farm, two young Israeli men were there also volunteering. Our host told me that she had tried to converse with them about their country’s politics and that they would not be drawn at all on this topic.

    I appreciate your concern for and thinking on empathy. I don’t give it (and all your work actually) as much attention as it is due – sorry. But I hope you can still accept the compliment. I think you have some great insights.

    Oh, and I loved your talk at GB09!

    Buttering up is now over! 🙂

  8. Actually….got any advice on how I might empathise with motorists?! I can’t feckin’ stand most of them! (I’m a cyclist).

  9. What is even more extraordinary is that the ultra-orthodox are allowed to access the more favourable tax system, even though they are ‘objectors.’ This privilege is not available to Arab-Israelis.

    Thanks for the comments anyway – and just stare into the eyes of motorists! It’s all you can do!

  10. Sorry – can I just pick up on one of the Zizek quotes?

    “by ‘fighting against the culture of excessive greed’ we are inscribing greed and over-consumption as personal sin and private psychological propensity:”

    “The self-propelling circulation of Capital thus remains more than ever the ultimate Real of our lives, a beast that by definition cannot be controlled, since it controls our activity.”

    I’m not sure that this is demonstrably or logically true. This is the problem I have with Zizek (apart from the extraordinary sexism – but that’s for another conversation). He can come up with blinding insight, but at other times he does tend to slip in some quite woolly propositions such as that one, and then go on to base a whole load of arguments on those (for me) quite flawed propositions.

    I know it’s not central to the point you’re making here, but it rather undermines his credibility at times in a way that really irritates me. I can’t really “bow down at his altar” in the way that a lot of people seem to want to at the moment for that reason.

    Is anyone else feeling this way about Zizek or is it just me?

  11. I’d agree that he can be irritating. But he’s also extremely interesting… The quote is taken from a context, so I’d advise you read the whole argument to see how it actually fits in, which I think it does pretty well.

  12. Karsten R

    “But in true friendship we changed, and perhaps if we had befriended him as a younger man, we might have been able to draw him away from the path that he eventually took.”

    No man can really “draw away” another one from a deadly path (and if it were possible would only constitute domination of one man’s mind over another one’s mind). Sooner or later the other person must willingly repent from his/her path. Such things cannot (in a persistent manner) be brought upon a person from the outside. But the catch is (in biblical terms) that no man can out of his/her own personality repent, it is where Gods grace is required, and it will not work without it.
    All purely human efforts towards it will fail sooner or later. I personally (in my sentiments) would like it sometimes otherwise, but have not seen it working that way, so it’s seemingly out of reach…

  13. If it were possible would only constitute domination of one man’s mind over another one’s mind…

    I’m afraid I think that’s nonsense. No man is an island. We exist in a web of relationships and our path – the cumulation of our decisions big and small – is affected by our environment, culturally, physically and sociologicially. In fact, the denial of that is precisely what I’m getting at. If we think that drawing someone away from something is domination then we are setting ourselves up as unreachable. In fact, such arrogance and isolation is part of the psychopathic make-up.

    True, we shouldn’t be swayed by everything our friends say. But neither should we be closed to it in fear of losing our independence.

  14. Sorry – not trying to be antagonistic here, but I think Karsten does raise an important point. I have a real problem with people describing community and individuality as binary opposites. I think the reality is much more nuanced. At the end of the day, the individual makes a choice to be part of a community and can choose to walk away for whatever reason.

    Equally, the community is made up of people who bring very different things that contribute to it’s make up, who are all at liberty to agree or disagree with each other. And I think we have to be careful about how we administer our beliefs in a communal setting, in terms of influencing others to what WE THINK may be the right or wrong path – which is something that is relevant to the discussion about influencing Hitler, or indeed anyone.

    Secondly, I don’t want to labour the point about Zizek’s credibility, but I guess I couldn’t see how that original point about greed and consumption is connected to the (very good) discussion about befriending Hitler. I mean, I could make a link probably, but I’m sure a good mathematician like yourself would appreciate that if one’s logic is flawed at one point, then everything after that is worthless. 😀

    I will go and read the Zizek book though – I’ve already read one of his (“The Fragile Absolute”) and found it wanting, but I’m prepared to give him another go. 🙂

  15. I’m really not setting them up as binary opposites! Quite the opposite! To say that we are all island, or not individuals at all is wrong on both counts.

    And I think the faulty logic is probably mine rather than his. Read the book – it’s good. The reason I began with that quote was because I wanted to frame the post within the topic of the book – the economic crisis, and that seemed like one way of doing that. Even so, we’re not being mathematical here, so the ‘hard’ symbolic logic is not so applicable. If someone doesn’t make their logical point in English, I’m not sure that totally invalidates what follows (which would be true in symbolic logic). It simply means they need to go back and make their point better. Ha ha – note to self.

  16. LOL. No, but I mean that Zizek is in the business of Philosophical inquiry, and so does need a greater rigour than he displays. And there is a significant correlation between philosophical logic and mathematical logic. Even the symbology is the same.

    Just looking on Amazon, though, the reviews for the book you’re talking about do look quite promising, and perhaps I should have started with that one. *adds to wishlist*

    And yes, looking back over the discussion here, I think the binary opposite thing maybe my particular hobby horse, and not your omission. Apologies for hammering that point, but it is worth flagging up in the discussion nonetheless, in my judgement.

    Looking forward to further posts in this series. 🙂

  17. Karsten R

    “If we think that drawing someone away from something is domination then we are setting ourselves up as unreachable. In fact, such arrogance and isolation is part of the psychopathic make-up.”

    I fear you don’t understand the point I’m trying to make. I do not think about reachable or unreachable, I think about the necessity that the approached individual makes a choice and about the responsibility that comes with it. Otherwise you could always blame the environment the society or whatever for your evil deeds. And indeed, whatever the other influences were, Hitler did make choices.

    I think that there are tendencies in post-modernism that individualize the way one chooses to pursuit his/her happiness and socialize responsibility of (especially the negative) results of the choices and the cleanup. So be a hedonist (as long as you get not into the other people’s way…) and look for the community to get you through if your plan doesn’t work.

  18. Karsten R

    One other question:
    Is the categorical ruling out of the possibility of any real affection or friendship in a situation of asymmetric relation (power-relation, wealth-relation, class-relation, etc.) not a way of defining a condition that inevitably leads to isolation. If so, then most of the people in the world would be isolated, because the world is just full of such asymmetric relations.
    And what if the soldier in your example throws away his weapon in order to break the barrier and the palestinian seizes his chance and stabs him?

  19. I think you’re right Karsten, obviously there has to be balance. We cannot look solely to our environment to steer our actions, but nor can we say that we have total autonomy. In the book that’s forthcoming in July or so I talk about the paradox of being both ‘separate and bound’, and to collapse that paradox either way is very dangerous. I wonder if you have seen ‘A Serious Man’? What I liked about the film was the discussion around communal passivity and individual action. All through the protagonist complains ‘I didn’t do anything!’ when in fact his personal inaction is part of the problem. So you’re right, we do have to make choices.

    As for the other question – and I’m really no expert here, but just enjoying the ideas – I think we can similarly think about a sense of balance here. We are never going to find the totally ideal friendship where there is full symmetry. But that impossibility shouldn’t mean we rule out the possibility of any genuine friendship or empathy flow. And yet there are limits, and we are constantly trying to renegotiate what those are. So the soldier might well conclude that the family would attack him if he laid his weapons down… in a sense he can never fully know, and so must take the risk if he feels the relationship is worth it. On a lower level we do this every day: put our trust in people in the hope that they will not betray it. There has to be some level of symmetry for this to occur, but it will never be perfect.

  20. Karsten’s remark regarding befriending Hitler as a young man made me think about two things which both concern imposition.

    Firstly; I remember learning that Hitler had a very brutal father who abused him frequently. Whilst this treatment may have had a strong impact on the young Hitler, I think the earlier any intervention may have been made the more likely that intervention could have counteracted Hitler’s harsh treatment. As it was, his personality hardened and the imposition he’d felt was passed on to others with horrific consequences.

    Secondly; I seem to recall reading on this blog Kester’s rebuttal of an ad campaign by humanists (I think it was) who were objecting to children being instructed in any form of religious belief. The humanists appeared to regard religious belief as an imposition and forgot about the possibility of discussion and negotiation – ‘even’ with young children. Doesn’t empathy come into this too? We can’t help but impress upon others to some extent if we are going to be in relationship, but this need not be carried out in a spirit of imposition. What matters is respectful engagement with others from the very beginning.