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Failed culture: An orchestra of members of the SS and SA performing in Berlin in 1938 (NEUE PINAkOTEK, MUNICH)

We can never forget that the Holocaust was committed by people from one of the great Western civilisations, one like ours, people who cultivated their fine artistic tastes in music and other forms. The house at Wannsee was a lovely, serene setting for a conference devoted to planning the world’s greatest crime, but it was typical for the Nazis to surround themselves with beautiful scenery, classic buildings, classical music and books. Some of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps were built in beautiful locations and had such incongruous features as flower gardens, bird houses, orchestras, a library, a zoo, and a swimming pool. Reinhard Heydrich, who chose this spot for the conference, was an aristocratic and cultured man — an athlete and a talented musician. Most of the participants were educated men and several had law degrees. Many cultured men and women today talk in elevated terms of the spirituality of the arts, and even of the arts filling the vacuum vacated by religion in the modern world. There are lessons from recent history which should make us wary and cautious of this.

Theodor Adorno argued that after Auschwitz it is barbaric to attempt to write poetry — that art can never be a guarantee of empathy or morality or even civilisation. The Nazis taught us that, with their fine appreciation of classical music. Adorno argued that Auschwitz has demonstrated irrefutably that culture has failed: “That it could happen in the midst of the philosophical traditions, the arts and the enlightening sciences says more than just that these failed to take hold of and change the people. All culture after Auschwitz, including its urgent critique, is rubbish.”

This stark analysis asks what “culture” could possibly mean after the absolute failure of culture. The academic Elaine Martin writes:

The Shoah, a systematic, mechanical annihilation of a specific group “selected” on the basis of alleged biological traits and perversely organised with bureaucratic efficiency, was a mockery of the very idea of culture which had survived into the twentieth century. What credibility could cultural and artistic discourse possibly have, having themselves emanated from the very same “culture” from which Auschwitz had sprung?

And George Steiner wrote:

We now know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. The mass murder of millions was carried out within the framework of a society at the peak of cultural and artistic achievement. No wonder many have judged that such a society has lost its legitimacy of artistic discourse, after this “culture” had gone so catastrophically awry.
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