“I AM NOT A DONKEY, I don’t have a field.” So the late Ernest Gellner — who studied everything from Islam to ethnology, and ethics to nationalism — would jauntily reply to anyone who dared question his wide-ranging interests. He cribbed the line from Max Weber, though it could apply to any number of German thinkers, from von Humboldt to Schlegel to Marx to Kant. As I read Ian Buruma’s latest collection of essays, Theater of Cruelty, the line kept stubbornly returning to mind.

Buruma is not German and not a philosopher; he isn’t even an academic. When reading him, one senses a thinker seeking to challenge, rather than follow, the boundaries of intellectual thought. He has written books on Chinese rebels, the legacy of World War II in Japan and Germany, Occidentalism, and religious tolerance and liberalism in Europe, among other topics (including a number of novels). In Theater of Cruelty he discusses nationalism’s role in the satire of George Grosz, the ideological storm over adapting Anne Frank’s diaries to the stage, the social milieu of kamikaze pilots, the varieties of life in Nazi-occupied Paris, the many lives of David Bowie, the morality of Allied strategic bombing in World War II, and the conflicts of postwar Japanese avant-garde, along with much else. No donkey indeed! 

Buruma’s essays are not polemical or revisionist. Instead, he constantly retouches, rethinks, contrasts, usually and mordantly laying cant and dogma to rest. It may seem from such a varied list of topics — Buruma’s view of the mid-20th century is made almost panoramic by his intimate knowledge of a number of languages and societies (in addition to English, Buruma speaks Japanese, German, Dutch, Mandarin, and French) — that Theater of Cruelty could be nothing other than a random assemblage, milling about vaguely at the intersection of 20th-century politics and culture. It is not. There are, specifically, two points where many of the essays firmly ground themselves. The first is World War II and the Holocaust; black holes that pulls nearly all prewar matter in and leaves almost no postwar realities untouched. Buruma often rethinks in this context the terms “East” and “West”; some of the strongest World War II essays in the book focus entirely on Asia. The second is liberalism’s resilience. For Buruma, liberalism is both a means of understanding monstrous and violent human tendencies, and an antidote for them. When considered together, his careful attention to history and his particular brand of liberalism appear, at points, to be in tension and, ultimately, at risk of being at cross-purposes.

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Central to Buruma’s opening essay, “The Joys and Perils of Victimhood,” is Primo Levi’s nightmare. In recounting the acute fear of telling a story — his story — so extraordinary, so terrible and terrific, Levi tells us about a dream: 

This is my sister here, with some unidentifiable friend and many other people. They are listening to me and it is this very story that I am telling […] It is an intense pleasure, physical, inexpressible, to be at home, among friendly people and to have so many things to recount: but I cannot help noticing that my listeners do not follow me. In fact, they are completely indifferent: they speak confusedly of other things among themselves, as if I was not there. My sister looks at me, gets up and goes away without a word. A desolating grief is now born in me, like certain barely remembered pains of one’s early infancy. It is pain in its pure state, not tempered by a sense of reality. 

Levi’s close friends and family are not listening precisely because the story he tells is so unbelievable, not least to himself. This was but one effect of the Nazi war against memory, cauterized, for Levi, when an SS guard jeered: “However this war may end, we have won the war against you; none of you will be left to bear witness, but even if someone were to survive, the world will not believe him.”

Buruma contrasts Levi’s nightmare of historical oblivion with another type of Holocaust memory: the Holocaust as a civil religion. Trips to the camps have become a kind of grim secularized pilgrimage. The camps are shrines; the dead are, perversely, somewhat sacrificial. The historian Saul Friedländer, striking a more caustic note, referred to such an atmosphere as a union of “kitsch and death.” Buruma does not deny the tug of feeling when visiting the camps — though he wonders how far away the proliferation of blockbuster movies, soap operas, museums, and memorials are from Levi’s ethically stringent demands. Can memory substitute for history? On its own, memory tends to flatten out distinctions. It makes the variegated and nuanced soothingly uniform. All oppression may begin to look same, or at least interconnected on a deep level. Or as Buruma phrases it, such connections are “ahistorical, because the actual experiences of historical victims get blended in a kind of soup of pain […] Chinese, Jews, gays, and others have suffered, [but] it is not so that they all suffered in the same way.” Assuming such uniformity simultaneously trivializes and distorts politics and history.

“The Joys and Perils of Victimhood,” also engages with the memoirs of Vera Schwarcz, an East Asian Studies professor at Wesleyan. Both of her parents were Holocaust survivors; her books attempt to conjoin the attack on the Tiananmen Square protestors in 1989 and the Nanking Massacres with her parents’ own experience under the Third Reich. Buruma contends that this view of victimhood — imbricated, universal, the same story told in a different way — is not really concerned with history, but with authenticity. It’s the speaker’s inviolable right to narrative; “intellectual enlightenment” is a secondary matter.

To make victimhood the sine qua non of political life is not just a question of bad history. If everything is reduced to memory, then emotions and identities are regnant, and the arena of political struggle is nothing more than an ever-escalating claim to victimhood. In the end, Buruma makes a modest, though probably contentious demand that we accept the distinction between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood. To fail to do this, he concludes, “is the worst betrayal of Primo Levi and all those who suffered in the past. For Levi’s fear was not that future generations would fail to share his pain but that they would fail to recognize the truth.”

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A hallmark of Buruma’s writing is a careful consideration of two outmoded terms: east and west. His first attempt at such an examination, published about two decades ago in the form of the judicious and still excellent Wages of Guilt, is a comparative study of how the Germans and the Japanese came to terms with their wartime records. The similarities were clear. Western occupiers thought that a postwar plan needed to combine pacification with economic prosperity and reintegration into the world order (a bulwark against communism in the USSR and later China, while always important, would become an increasingly prominent demand). However, the ancien régime proved harder to sweep away: if decapitation was possible, even necessary, the body, as the Americans quickly figured out, needed to remain more or less intact. Crimes could be forgotten, if not totally forgiven, in order to ensure the smooth functioning of the state.

While carefully drawing similarities between postwar Japan and German, he does not allow them to subsume the differences. Centrally, he takes up Ruth Benedict’s distinction between “guilt” and “shame” culture: Japan reacted to the end of World War II with shame; they built an edifice of concealment, looking for the causes of their problems in external forces. Germany, on the other hand, attempted to redeem itself in a collective fit of confession. The assumption was that if a nation expects expiation, everyone must share the burden of guilt. But even guilt, as Buruma constantly reminds the reader, can work in perverse or unexpected ways.

For one, it may very well push victims back into the shadows. This phenomenon was particularly acute for victims of the Holocaust. On the one hand, some could not relate their immediate story for the crimes committed against them were in a certain way, literally, unspeakable (at least during the immediate aftermath of the war). However, there is a second, counterintuitive reason: they did not want to, again, be singled out for scrutiny. They did not want to be different, whether it was in Israel or the Netherlands. For difference, during moments of spontaneous and enforced unity, could be dangerous. The myth that Europe had resisted Hitler to the best of its abilities could not yet be punctured, least of all by the primary victims.

Guilt also may alter historiography. One may begin to treat events such as the Holocaust as outside the bounds of historical inquiry. The most extreme version of this position is that the Holocaust itself cannot be explained, and any attempts to expose it to the methods of historical inquiry will fundamentally profane its sacrosanct and ultimately ahistorical quality (minimizing the victims in the process). Buruma has endorsed a version of this position in previous years. In Wages of Guilt, he contends the only thing the Holocaust should do is leave you stunned by the enormity of its evil. The historian’s instinct to investigate and explain should be replaced with what Buruma calls Betroffenheit, or stunned silence.

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If Wages of Guilt still treats “West” and “East,” Germany and Japan, in comparison, Asia and its politics — presumably less well-known to Buruma’s readers — also operate as a unique focus. One of the strongest essays in the book is a tour of Japanese writers’ reactions to everything from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the ubiquity of American soldiers on the streets of Tokyo’s red light districts. Pearl Harbor, by and large, was seen as the opening of a righteous struggle, for the simultaneous mastery and liberation of Asia and a restoration of Japanese dignity (there was little of either in the brutal campaigns conducted against China). Some of the diarists did not succumb to Japan’s hyper-nationalist rhetoric, choosing instead to heap scorn on their own leaders’ chauvinism and militarism. In this respect, Nagai Kafu — a famed critic, author, and bibulous Francophile — is exemplary. In 1944, Kafu concluded that the war was “entirely the doing of the [Japanese] military. Their crimes must be recorded for all time to come.” However, as Buruma avers, this iconoclasm may have emanated from the man himself. Kafu would rather spend time in the “company of strippers, prostitutes, and geisha” than elite literary or political circles. 

By making such a blanket condemnation of Japan’s conduct, Kafu was in a distinct, though reputable, minority. That an increasingly militarized, authoritarian society was not rife with dissent is unsurprising. One is more shocked by the highly racist nature of many of the author’s daily reflections. Natsume Soseki, who after Mishima, is probably the most widely praised Japanese writer of the 20th century wrote: 

The Yamato race is the most superior on the globe […] We are the so-called “yellow race.” We are fighting to determine the superiority of a race that has been discriminated against. Our war is not the same as Germany’s […] our war is a struggle for a predestined confidence.

Such language was not uncommon. The high assurances of racial superiority bumped up against subdued feelings of racial dispossession. Part of the explanation is biographical. In the 1920s and early 1930s, many of these writers were cosmopolitan — they traveled and lived in Europe, spoke many languages, read widely, and wrote with great skill. The intellectual xenophobia and violence of those same writers during World War II was an attempt to root their lives in “authentic” Japanese culture, to purify foreign elements. 

This pattern was by no means particular to Japan. For example, there is Count Harry Kessler, whose list of friends and acquaintances reads like the Almanach de Gotha and the Salon d’Automne rolled into one. Although he died in defiance of Nazism (he was known later as the red count) and was friends with everyone from Degas to Nijinsky to Churchill, even the urbane Kessler was not immune to the siren call of blood and nation. He became a bellicose nationalist during World War I, playing out a kind of sub- Jüngerian drama of steel and blood. Even Kessler, a man committed to fostering a cosmopolitan culture, nonetheless “endorsed ideas that contained the seeds of its near destruction.”

But what interests Buruma most is not the failure to resist the lures of violent ideology. Rather, it is the various attempts these figures make in order to try and come to terms with their previous convictions, to exorcise or amend their ideas, to adapt to a new, less fulsome reality. Japanese writers, sometimes energetically, sometimes resentfully tried to assimilate to the new United States–led order. Kessler called anti-Jewish laws a great and shameful stupidity and wrote a biography of his friend Walther Rathenau, the murdered German Jewish foreign minister. If there is a lesson it is this: education and erudition are no guarantee that intellectuals will not end up “following fashions and promoting their rulers’ vain and destructive campaigns for national or military glory.” A lesson from “which intellectuals in other countries, often operating under far less difficult circumstances, can derive equal profit.”

Few of Buruma’s ideas or criticisms are particularly new. Indeed, Julien Benda made the same point about the interwar years when he said, “Our age is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds.” The historical rupture of the 1930s and its aftermath are well-covered areas. Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent explored its European aspect in fine detail, and Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes painted a transcontinental, though no less compelling account of the same period. Buruma, in any of his writings, does neither of these things — but it matters little. Like Hugh Trevor-Roper, or the late Christopher Hitchens (whose memoir, Hitch-22, Buruma leaves in a state of quiet but certain devastation), Buruma is most comfortable in the architecture of the essay, where he is able to strike a fruitful balance between sharp insight and generous historical range.

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The second gravity point in Theater of Cruelty, after World War II, is liberalism. In his short introduction Buruma confesses: “I am fascinated by what makes the human species behave atrociously […] like most people, I fear violence.” Buruma seems more concerned with the second part of that admission, i.e., the politics, rather than the anthropology of violence. The implicit question is: How do people and societies deal with, or more precisely, mitigate, their violent tendencies? 

The political philosopher Judith Shklar’s concept, “the liberalism of fear,” lends a clue. According to Shklar, liberals should seek to avoid the “summum malum” (worst evil) rather than try and create the “summum bonum” (highest good). The best regimes, she contends, ward off suffering, even at the expense of a positive political goal. Since the nation-state holds the most power, and thus inflicts the most harm, the reach of the state should be restricted. Thus, the political instinct to be prized above all others is restraint — for it is restraint that ultimately saves humanity from the concentration camp and the mass grave. Or, to put it another way, fear is the veil that separates civility from suffering. As Friedrich Hölderlin’s said, “What has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven.”

Buruma’s liberalism is subtle, careful, and a modest variation on this philosophy. He never aligned himself with Western liberals hoping to export democracy to Iraq by force, nor does he support drubbing immigrants with “western civilization” (his other writings on European affairs admit that a large degree of difference between immigrant and native populations does not pose a threat to Europe). He does not think the “free market” is a panacea for all of humanity’s woe. In many ways, his liberalism is of a piece with the late Tony Judt: democratic, skeptical, historically informed, and representative of a moderate anticommunist left.

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How easily one can fashion this version of Shklar’s liberalism from the weight of World War II[1] is another matter. Looking at much postwar political theory, one might conclude that a “liberalism of fear” is exactly the proper response to the terrors of World War II and the horror of the Shoah. As Corey Robin pointed out in his recent essay on Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann trial,[2] a collective reaction to World War II in general and the Holocaust in particular was to make such events the basis for a strong negative ethics (one might interpret the injunction, “never again” in this way). Such atrocity was said to form an Archimedean moral point, outside of history. 

Is the Holocaust more than a historical event? Can political morality be fashioned from the remains of catastrophe? Buruma’s liberalism, with its basis in the fear of harm as the primary political principle, answers this question affirmatively. But there are reasons to be doubtful. As Robin argues later in his essay on Arendt and Eichmann, one of the most demanding and controversial aspects of Arendt’s political thought was to deny the validity of such an external point of reference. The Holocaust and World War II are part of history, not separate from it. They are terrible events; there is nothing emancipatory or ameliorative about them. Mass murder (and mass murders) offers no moral instruction.[3] As I finished Theater of Cruelty, I couldn’t help but feel that two aspects of his writing that were so attractive — his liberalism and his careful attention to history — were, in the end, working at cross purposes.

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[1] Shklar and her family were refugees from Nazi Germany.

[2] Cory Robin, “The Trials of Hannah Arendt,” The Nation, May 12, 2015.

[3] Moreover, as much recent scholarship has made clear, while the extermination of the Jews was after a certain point, the primary goal of the Nazi regime, it was not its only goal. By 1941–’42, Jews were seen as the primary threat, with which the Nazi regime must immediately deal. However, the General for the East (in reality three plans which were finalized in 1942, though they were never truly implemented) envisioned a massive reorganization the “racial” map of Europe. The plan called for somewhere between 30–45 million dead or exiled. However grotesque it may sound, the Holocaust was truly the opening round of Nazi’s plan for Europe.

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Julian Cosma lives in New York and is researching some aspects of France’s transition from occupation to decolonization in the 20th century.