The liberal imagination has seldom clubbed Auschwitz and Hiroshima together. Auschwitz was both a labor and extermination camp, and more Jews, Roma, and others deemed “undesirables” were killed at Auschwitz than in any other camp in the Third Reich’s vast machinery of death. One of Auschwitz’s more remarkable survivors was the Italian Jewish chemist Primo Levi, whose 1947 memoir of his year in hell, If This is a Man, is a gut wrenching description of the arts of living in a place fashioned for death. Auschwitz’s gate bore those words which are seared into everyone’s memory, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“work gives freedom”).
But the sense of the macabre scarcely stopped there. In one of the many priceless gems which adorn his inimitable book, Levi informs us that at one of the delousing stations appeared this distich: “After the latrine, before eating, wash your hands, do not forget.” It must be a certain kind of German fastidiousness which insists that one must go to one’s death after one has rendered oneself ‘clean’.
Auschwitz has become synonymous with unimaginable evil, and the German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his equally if differently remarkable book Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951), sought to convey the unspeakable horrors of Nazi annihilationism with the aphorism that ‘there can be no poetry after Auschwitz’. Not so curiously, Adorno had nothing to say of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which took place a little more than six months after the Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz. The Western imagination, even at its best, has balked at the notion that Auschwitz and Hiroshima are inextricably linked. Auschwitz has no defenders—barring some Holocaust-deniers—and it provokes no “debate”, leave aside the questions that animate the amateurs who devour the smallest tidbits on Auschwitz. Though most commentators in the United States and elsewhere in the West like to pretend otherwise, there isn’t much of a “debate” on Hiroshima either. Those who live in the global South at least should not be fooled into thinking that a great many people in the West have been agonizing over the moral choices that faced the United States when it was galvanized into orchestrating the utter destruction of Hiroshima and later Nagasaki. Like much else that has characterized the conduct of colonial powers and liberal democracies, Hiroshima has been digested as what Margaret Thatcher used to call TINA, ‘There is No Alternative’.
The inability to view Hiroshima and Auschwitz as bearing a close family resemblance tells us a great deal about the contours of the modern West and its genocidal instincts. The Guardian newspaper has characterized Auschwitz as “the largest mass murder in a single location in human history”, and similarly Hiroshima can accurately be described as the largest mass murder in something like an instant over the course of human history. Nearly a million people were butchered at Auschwitz, which was established as a labor camp in May 1940; once the Nazi leadership had issued the call for the ‘Final Solution’, Auschwitz II was rolling in business as an extermination site. “Little Boy”, the bomb carried by the “Enola Gray”, named by the pilot Colonel Paul Tibbets after his mother, no doubt in glorious celebration of the universal injunction to ‘honor thy mother’, killed around 50,000 people on contact or very shortly thereafter.
Zyklon B, the agent of death at Auschwitz, was first tried out on insects; the poisonous gas was then used on the Roma before it was deployed to kill Jews en masse. The German literature of the period is rife with the invocation to kill Jews, the Roma, and the mentally unsound as those who were encroaching upon the living space of the superior race. Yet the idea that vermin had to be stamped out was far from being distinctly German; indeed, eugenics, or the notion that the human race could be improved by weeding out undesirables, had its greatest advocates in the United States. The Japanese were but “a nameless mass of vermin” and the “yellow dogs” were a drag on the human race.
The historian John Dower was, if anything, understating the gravity of the problem when, in his study War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986), he suggested of American officials and strategists that their “stereotyped and often blatantly racist thinking contributed to poor military intelligence and planning, atrocious behavior, and the adoption of exterminationist policies.”
Harry Truman, whose life is a testament to mediocrity triumphant, was charged with the onerous responsibility for framing the public discourse on the military use of the atom. While aboard the cruiser Augusta, he was brought news of Hiroshima. The obscene happiness with which he received news of the Enola Gray’s successful mission is signified by his words, “This is the greatest thing in history.” The White House press release in Truman’s name on August 6th, the first official announcement of the bombing of Hiroshima, again celebrated the work of the scientists, headed by the Sanskrit aficionado Robert Oppenheimer, as “the greatest achievement of organized science in history.” It was accompanied by a warning to Japanese leaders that if they did not accept “our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” On land and air, Hitler had similarly declaimed, Germany would unleash the full force of its mighty military machine on its foes. At least one senior American military official, Major-General Raymond Hufft, recognized that had Germany or Japan won the war, it would have been the Americans and the British who would have been put on trial for war crimes. We may need many more such insights before we learn to speak, in a political and moral vein, of Hiroshima.