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Invited Remarks to Swiss Task Force on World War II Delivered in Bern, Switzerland, June 23, 1998 (Conclusion)


Ten years ago, Professor Beres – following publication of his memoir in The New York Times − was invited by Swiss Ambassador Thomas Borer to present personal testimony before the specially constituted Swiss Commission on World War II. Here, now, is that testimony – still a poignant reminder of yet other critical aspects of the Holocaust continued from last week

In the United States – my own country and a country, which first prevented my parents’ entry back in 1938 – effective neutrality did not end until December 7, 1941, and even fewer Jews were ultimately admitted than were allowed entry in Switzerland.After the war, the U.S. Government encouraged entry of certain Nazi war criminals and Nazi scientists (Operations Ratline and Paper Clip) while consciously excluding Jewish concentration camp survivors. I say this now as a loyal and patriotic citizen of the United States, not with any malice or mean-spiritedness, but simply as an objective recitation of historical events. America was not innocent.

Let me now shift from the historical to the philosophical. In the final analysis, no nation is either good or bad. Nations are always comprised of individuals, and it is only the individuals who are either good or bad.

Nations are abstractions; it is an elementary error of logic to ascribe human qualities (goodness or badness) to an abstraction.

Recently I bought a book on the art of Paul Klee, who − I learned − began and ended his career right here, in Bern. I gather, from much of his great work, that Klee understood the overriding importance of The Individual, and that the very serious and terrible harms that human beings so often inflict upon other human beings is related to the disappearance of The Individual in the “Crowd” (a term likely used first in this way by Kierkegaard; later by Nietzsche as the “Herd”).

“Ultimately,” said another Swiss − Carl Gustav Jung − “everything depends on the quality of the individual,” what the German scholar Martin Heidegger examined in his discussion of (but surely did not actually live up to) Das Man.

Says Jung in The Undiscovered Self: “The individual becomes morally and spiritually inferior in the mass, and for this reason they do not burden themselves overmuch with their real task of helping the individual to achieve a…rebirth of the spirit…It is, unfortunately, only too clear that if the individual is not truly regenerated in spirit, society cannot be either, for society is the sum total of individuals in need of redemption.”

“The sum total of individuals in need of redemption.” This is an absolutely wonderful and insightful definition of society, of every society. The indispensable task for every country, then, is to emphasize the individual and to demystify the mass.

As World War II and the Holocaust revealed emphatically, the most dangerous mass is always The State (again, understood early on by Nietzsche) − not in the sense that every state is inevitably sinister (which is clearly a foolish notion) but in the sense that any state can create the conditions that bring forth a uniquely great evil.

The strength of Switzerland as a state lies always in the strength of its people as individuals. To the extent that Switzerland nurtures and sustains a sense of individualism amongst its citizens it can make the very greatest contribution to a decent and just world order.

The Swiss Task Force on World War II exists because of the crimes committed by the quintessential mass state − history’s most glaringly “de-individualized” (to use Jung’s own terminology) state − on its northern borders from 1939 − 1945. The weighty issues with which the Task Force must now concern itself are the direct consequence of a corrupted German society that came to loathe the individual, any individual, and to celebrate only the mega-herd of non-persons (a herd foreshadowed and celebrated in German philosophy by Hegel).

The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, once remarked: “There is no longer a virtuous nation, and the best of us live by candle light.” But there has never been a virtuous nation, only more or less virtuous individuals who comprise the nation. The ultimate point, for Switzerland and for every other country concerned with justice after World War II, is to encourage a national spirit that is patriotic, but that is also human-centered. The point here is to acknowledge that national collectivities (such as Switzerland) do have responsibilities, both legal and moral, but that only individuals− those who have resisted the enormous temptations of becoming mass − can nurture and sustain a decent country.

Permit me to end with apt references to another important Swiss thinker, the marvelous (and controversial) playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt. As a sensitive Swiss citizen, Durrenmatt − and perhaps also Max Frisch − acknowledged guilt for having “been saved.” Max Frisch described the situation of the postwar Swiss generation in this way: “We lived at the brink of a torture chamber, we heard the shrieks, yet we were not among those who screamed; we remained without the depth of suffering endured, yet we were too close to suffering to be able to laugh.”

Switzerland, as understood by both Durrenmatt and Frisch, was not only the place of refuge for Lenin and Joyce, for Thomas Mann and Bertoldt Brecht, for the Dadaists and the anti-Fascists, but also a country of objectionable smugness and self-satisfied prosperity. Durrenmatt’s characterization of a small Swiss community in his masterpiece, THE VISIT (Der Besuch der alten Dame) is, for him, likely a microcosm of the Swiss state as a whole. Yet, Durrenmatt’s Switzerland is also the very model of direct democracy, and the very best case of a country that exists by general tolerance and civility. And on this idea of democracy, Durrenmatt sides with the classical liberal vision that the State exists for its citizens; the citizens are not there for the benefit of the State.

This is a good anti-Hegelian vision; but it doesn’t really go far enough. For the future, Switzerland – and every other State on this planet – should strive for a society in which every citizen is preeminently an individual, and in which each citizen’s individuality is ultimately more important even than his or her citizenship. In the final analysis, it is the universal human desperation to belong that creates all crowds, all herds, including States − even the very best States − and it is the demands associated with such desperation (as we saw from Jung) that can give rise to war and genocide.

A country that nurtures the sacredness of each individual person − a sacredness that goes well beyond that of any form of membership − will inevitably emerge as the very highest form of State.

I believe that Switzerland can be such a country. If it follows this path, Switzerland will truly and reasonably stand above criticism on future matters concerning justice and human rights. If it follows this path, Switzerland – that is, its individual citizens − will have learned the vital lessons of World War II.

Copyright © The Jewish Press, July 18, 2008. All rights reserved

Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press. His formal testimony to the Swiss Commission on World War II, offered ten years ago this month in Bern, offers both a personal and a philosophical view of Switzerland’s controversial position during the Holocaust. Professor Beres was born in Zurich on August 31, 1945.

About the Author: Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.

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