Is the past always the best guide? For scholars dedicating their lives’ work to understand the Holocaust and being attentive to current discriminatory, exclusionary, and genocidal forms of violence, the answer seems pretty straightforward: Yes, the past ought to inform our moral sensibilities and ethical accountability. We would, hence, suspect that the group of 30 international Holocaust and genocide scholars that has met biennially since 1996 in Wroxton, England, would answer the question unequivocally. But is it a foregone conclusion?
In his recent book Lessons of the Holocaust (2016), preeminent Holocaust historian Michael Marrus argues that the often invoked “lessons” are constantly debated, in flux, and reinterpreted. For most scholars in the field of Holocaust and genocide studies, Marrus’ argument is a truism. Yet, his conclusions—though perhaps intuited by many—may not translate as smoothly into the praxis of Holocaust education, especially when it is pursued or mandated in non-academic settings. There, the “lessons of the Holocaust” are regularly cited as a sui generis value that motivates and legitimates the teaching of the Holocaust.
Even among scholars, including our international group, there is not necessarily consensus. For some, the lessons of the Holocaust seem fairly straightforward: to combat antisemitism in past and present, to encourage dialogue between Christian and Jews, to foster conversations across our disciplines, or, to name another example, to be vigilant about social discrimination. For others, the lessons are far from determined and remain a source of continual reevaluation. What we know for sure is that despite our efforts since 1945, the world has not become a better place. Sadly, the opposite seems closer to the observable truth. Is it because we did not learn the lessons of the past or because we are not prepared for the future?
Perhaps, the past is not always our best guide but actually imprisons us in mental patterns that predetermine the outcome for problems we are seeking to resolve. For example, we might call on images of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps to understand the Serbian-Bosnia war; we might compare the atrocities of ISIS or the widespread rape by marauding militias in the Congo with the Einsatzgruppen; we might reference the besieged Jewish ghettos in the East when looking at the fortified enclaves of Jewish settlers in Hebron; we might parallel the Evian conference with Europe’s current indecisiveness to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis; or we allude to Hitler’s demagoguery when commenting on the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign. Not that these analogies do not hold some value. They do. We find traces and echoes of the past in whatever happens today. These analogies, however, are useful in only limited ways. They do not set free our imagination for new solutions but arrest our thinking in linearity: the past remains the reference point for concerns today. In other words, while we believe that our work seeks solutions for a better future, we actually may still try to resolve problems of the past.
Whereas linear thinking follows known cycles of thought that determine our next steps, nonlinear thinking assumes multiple directions of thought and multiple starting points for finding a solution to problems. As such, nonlinear thinking is not caught in the fears of the past as the point of departure for our moral reasoning. Rather, it opens doors to fresh, unorthodox, and occasionally ludic ideas which, though perhaps startling at first, may hold the key to freshly conceived proposals.
Nonlinear thinking can, for example, break out of old conceptions of who the enemy is. The Palestinian “Holy Land Trust” organization in Bethlehem, for instance, just started to seek dialogue with Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, something unheard of until recently. Nonlinear thinking can also break patterns of national identity that determine who belongs and who doesn’t, thus helping us, for example, to reconceptualize the status of “refugees.” Nonlinear thinking might refrain from interpreting the performance of certain U.S. presidential candidates as Hitlerian demagoguery, and, instead, see it as the result of an entirely new conjugal phenomenon of media frenzy and demagogic narcissism.
Let us balance better the lessons of the past with models that follow the unsettling creativity of nonlinear thinking.
Director, Martin-Springer Institute
Northern Arizona University