For a generation after the Second World War it was difficult to discuss one’s German-Jewish origins or the Holocaust without embarrassment. Even children whose families had been murdered in the camps found it hard to speak about their loss. In Germany, the 1964 trial of Robert Mulka – former adjutant to Commandant Rudolf Höss – and 21 others for crimes committed at Auschwitz enabled a new generation to confront the past, but in Britain and the United States it was only some years later that it became possible to broach the subject. Today, by contrast, a scarred identity earns almost universal respect.
Peter Singer’s Pushing Time Away reflects this shift. He used to be, he says, far too busy writing his philosophy to bother with his grandfather. It was only when he noticed an affinity between his work on ‘practical ethics’ and his maternal grandfather’s wish to be a ‘genuine philosopher’ – to be, that is, a thinker who lived according to his values – that Singer began to consider his ancestry. His belated interest led to the discovery of one set of family letters and papers in his aunt’s home in Melbourne and another which had miraculously survived in Vienna.
Obsessed with the similarities between himself and his grandfather, Singer began to wonder whether his own life was ‘echoing that of a grandparent I had never known’. He wonders too about his grandfather’s failure
to take sufficiently seriously the threat that overwhelmed Vienna’s Jewish community and ultimately led to the loss of his own life. Did my grandfather perhaps have too much confidence in human reason and the humanist values to which he had dedicated his life? Did this render him unable to conceive that they could be so completely trodden underfoot as to allow barbarism once again to hold sway across Europe? These questions led to a disquieting thought. Since my own life, no less than that of my grandfather, is premised on the possibility of reason and universal ethical values playing a significant role in the world, could I be sharing my grandfather’s delusion?
Singer seems not to realise that he is rehearsing an anxiety which has been a major strand in European philosophy since Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), and that there are strong arguments for answering his question in the affirmative. From the outset, his charm as a narrator places a heavy burden on the quality of his response as a thinker.
Singer set out on his quest because to find out about his grandfather
is to undo, in some infinitely small but still quite palpable way, a wrong done by the Holocaust. We all know that six million Jews died, but that is a mind-numbing statistic. I have a chance to portray one of them as an individual . . . My grandfather’s thoughts and work will be brought back to life as fully as possible by me, now, or not at all.
The ‘statistic’ he invokes here remains susceptible to historical analysis, to reason. What exceeds reason’s grasp is the planned murder of approximately six million helpless human beings (pace Singer, we do not know how many: that is part of the problem), which was not ‘a mind-numbing statistic’, but a monstrous crime. Singer’s approach does, however, make clear the fragility of cultural memory, and the heavy price of cultural forgetting. He looks at Vienna, the city of his forebears, as a visitor, clutching his guidebook and larding his narrative with factual nuggets presented as his own perceptions. This produces a curiously segmented book, part original family history, part cliché. Near the start of his account Singer writes about the Ringstrasse that girds the city centre, telling us about ‘the town hall in an extravagant Flemish Gothic style’, before pausing at the Heldenplatz, where crowds turned out to cheer Hitler’s triumphant arrival in March 1938. But Singer doesn’t mention the burning of the Palace of Justice on the Ringstrasse in 1927, when the police opened fire on the workers: writers on the left, such as Canetti, as well as those on the right, such as Doderer, thought this clash pivotal in the history of interwar Vienna. But Singer understands historical Vienna so little that he confuses his experience of modern coffee houses with prewar coffee-house culture, more than once invoking its ‘coffee and cake’. The bourgeois consumption that Joseph Roth mocks in Zipper and His Father has nothing to do with the rough and tumble of coffee-house debate. But in Vienna ‘life was good,’ Singer assures us. ‘It was not difficult to earn an income sufficient for a comfortable apartment with a live-in maid.’ If it was so easy to be a master, where did the maids come from? Did Singer not come across the Viennese poor on his researches (or in Roth’s feuilletons), or read about the social problems that aided the rise of the Austrian right? His bibliography on Vienna, anti-semitism and the Holocaust is homespun, and he appears unequipped to make the mental leap necessary to grasp the world of his ancestors. Exile, dislocation, or simply the passage of time, too quickly turn the native into a tourist, with no more understanding of his town than the next man.
Singer’s story comes alive when he talks about his own family. His maternal grandparents, David Ernst Oppenheim and Amalie née Pollak, were remarkable. David (1881-1943) came from a distinguished line of rabbis that included David Oppenheim (1664-1736), the Chief Rabbi of Prague. His great-grandfather, Heinrich Joachim Oppenheim (1848-1918), assimilated and broke with Orthodoxy, but remained active in the Jewish community. Singer’s grandfather further distanced himself from the faith, and became a classicist, a philosopher and an early acolyte of Freud and Adler. His grandmother retained her Orthodoxy through a complicated pre-nuptial agreement. If anything, she was more gifted than her husband. One of the earliest women students at the University of Vienna, she would have graduated with the highest possible honours in Austria-Hungary, ‘under the auspices of the Emperor’, had Franz Josef deigned to award them to a woman. As Singer points out, Amalie sacrificed her future in science for the sake of her marriage, while David renounced the uncertainties of an academic career and became a schoolmaster.
Singer has a rather prurient interest in his grandparents’ courtship and the same-sex relationships that preceded their marriage. The combination of frankness and gentility in their letters – they are full of allusions to Plato’s Phaedrus – evokes the cultural sensibility of Fin-de-Siècle Jewry, the loss of which we feel the more keenly when we are later treated to Singer’s own views on sex and marriage. He has a problem situating the courtship (reaching to modern Afghanistan for a parallel), but it seems to have reflected both an early Modernist sensibility (evident in Wedekind and Musil) and a more or less conscious attempt to assimilate to the classical German tradition. In calling his beloved ‘Diotima’ after the prophet in Plato’s Symposium, David Oppenheim perhaps echoes Hölderlin (Musil uses the name – ironically – in The Man without Qualities). David also refused to countenance the circumcision of any son they might have: there could be no more radical absorption of alien values.
David Oppenheim obtained a prestigious post at the Academic Gymnasium in Vienna, whose pupils had included Hofmannsthal and Schnitzler, as well as the first president of Czechoslovakia, T.G. Masaryk. But his real interest was ‘the secret of the human soul’.
To bring it to light, as far as my limited powers allow, is the work of my life. Ceaseless observation of my own soul, and untiring research into those of others, whether they lived thousands of years ago, or are my closest contemporaries, are the means that I use for this. My business is a holy one, and holy things, so an old sage teaches, may be shown only to holy people. But I regard as holy a weak human being who strives for a lofty goal.
His research into Menschenkenntnis, or the ‘understanding of human nature’, built directly on Herder’s search for the nature of humanity, on Humboldt’s classicism, and on Dilthey’s methodological reflections on the humanities as the sciences of ‘understanding’ rather than ‘explanation’. Psychoanalysis gave it a new edge.
He met Freud in 1906 and joined his circle, the Wednesday Group, in 1910. Freud told Jung that his recruit worked ‘on mythology with similar ideas, but fully equipped’, quoting his view that Oedipus ‘may originally have been a phallic demon’. Freud suggested a line of research to Oppenheim that was to inform much of his later work and has since developed into a branch of literary inquiry: could ‘the nucleus of mythology’ be located in ‘the nuclear complex of the neuroses’? This research led to a paper written jointly by the two, ‘Dreams in Folklore’, but before it appeared, the collaboration ended with the schism between Freud and Adler: Oppenheim sided with Adler. Singer shows that his grandfather’s sense of inadequacy (evident in his credo) would have disposed him to prefer Adler’s inferiority complex to Freud’s Oedipus complex as an explanation for human behaviour. Oppenheim became a member of the Society for Free Psychoanalytic Research.
The First World War shattered Oppenheim’s comfortable life. He served as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, and fought first against the Russians in Galicia and then against the Italians on the notorious Isonzo Front. He was lucky to survive. Twice wounded and twice decorated with military honours, he retired from active service on health grounds, ending the war as a military censor. The experience left him prone to depression and inexplicable rages. Politically, he now aligned himself with the Social Democrats. The dual perspective Singer employs as he measures his grandfather’s values against his own meets its first real test at this point. In December 1915, Oppenheim published an essay grandly called ‘The Ancients and War: Horace in the Trenches’. This troubled at least one of his friends, who commented scathingly: ‘Apparently we here lack the organ of empathy.’ This ‘empathy’, which I take to be the ‘sympathy’ that Gotthold Ephraim Lessing saw as the defining feature of a good man, is also strangely muted in Singer’s account. Neither Oppenheim nor his grandson seems able to imagine what it is to suffer. The subtle interaction of intellect and feeling advocated by Lessing and Goethe in opposition to the excessive rationalism of the earlier Enlightenment seems to have disappeared in Oppenheim’s account of being human, swept aside by psychoanalytic speculation. It does not reappear in his grandson’s analytics.
Oppenheim’s magnum opus, Fiction and Knowledge of Humanity: Psychological Rambles through Old and New Literature, appeared in 1926. In it he analysed Achilles in the Iliad, Dido in the Aeneid, Othello, Aschenbach, and the husband in Schönherr’s She-Devil. The erudition Singer remarks on in his grandfather’s references was not unusual among the Jews of Vienna and Prague, and was the result of a centuries-old devotion to the Book. In later years, the personality cult around Adler tested their relationship. Oppenheim’s 60th-birthday address for his mentor in 1930, ‘The Goal and the Path of Knowledge of Humankind’, and his paper for Adler’s Festschrift, mark the turning-point. He quoted Seneca’s axiom that ‘the discoverer of souls holds the key to hearts, and is the teacher of humanity,’ reiterated his faith in a ‘culture of humanity’, and concluded with Seneca’s belief that ‘the human being must be guided, until he begins to guide himself.’ His listeners would also have noted the echoes of Kant’s essay ‘What Is Enlightenment?’ and Schiller’s Don Carlos in Oppenheim’s new stress on ‘freedom of thought and critique’. All this confirms Singer’s view that his grandfather was at long last making his intellectual declaration of independence. Yet the intellectual fruits after his rift with Adler were meagre. Singer believes he now concentrated on practical action, citing the fascinating case of Albert Massiczek, a member of the SS, whom Oppenheim converted to humanistic values.
Singer knows how to shape his story, and makes helpful references to Stefan Zweig. He might also have used Musil’s work to evoke the illusory world of the old empire, and Joseph Roth’s depiction of Postwar Man, shaped by his experience at the front. But neither Musil nor Roth lived long enough to define the type represented by David Oppenheim: a Jewish veteran, decorated in the Great War, who so believed in his own sacrifice for the old empire that he trusted the Nazis to do him no harm. Although his children recognised the danger and emigrated after the Anschluss, David Oppenheim stayed put. A former pupil who implored him to leave reported his teacher’s response: ‘What are you thinking of? Nothing at all can happen to me. I have risked my life for this country. I have the Gold Medal for Bravery. I have the Medal for the Wounded. I have given everything for this country. They can’t do anything to me.’ As he came to see the Nazi threat more clearly, the obstacles to his escape became more forbidding. Anyone who still wonders why more Jews did not flee should read Singer’s heart-rending account of his grandparents’ entrapment.
They were deported to Theresienstadt on 20 August 1942. The camp was originally intended to be a collection-point for Czech Jews and a staging-post on German Jews’ journey east. Eichmann inspected the site, and at the Wannsee Conference it was agreed that it should be used as a showcase ghetto: well-known figures would be sent there and it would help mislead both the Jews and the world at large about the nature of the Final Solution. This deception determined the kind of mental torture practised at Theresienstadt, and, combined with the appalling physical conditions, meant that the suffering there was comparable to that in other, ostensibly crueller camps. The standard German monograph, which is mentioned in Singer’s notes though there is scant evidence of his having read it, calls the period when the Oppenheims arrived ‘the darkest and most confused in the ghetto’s history’. What Singer describes as the likely ‘shock’ of imprisonment is a well-documented trauma, the so-called Einlieferungsschock. It involved severe disorientation, especially among the aged, accompanied by listlessness, amnesia and rejection of food. David Oppenheim was in poor shape when he arrived, and his death after six months from the combined effects of diabetes, diarrhoea and starvation suggests that he never overcame this initial shock. In telling the story, Singer remains detached, and admits to sorrow only when describing the children’s paintings exhibited today at the museum in Theresienstadt. The lack of feeling is again unsettling, as is the moral superiority evident in his speculations about the reasons for his grandmother’s survival.
Singer has elsewhere singled out ‘clarity’ and ‘consistency’ as the seminal virtues of ethical writing, but his conclusions here achieve neither. Having demonstrated how his grandfather fell prey to a cultural delusion, Singer suddenly asks whether he lived a ‘good life’, citing Oppenheim’s redaction of Solon as a yardstick. Like his grandfather, Singer would erase generations of rabbinic thought and cling to a worldview that obtained in the prewar period – pre-1914, that is. To David Oppenheim’s ten criteria distilled from Solon, Singer adds two more, but it would be easy to cut his list with Occam’s razor: his 12 points come down to the proposition that if a human being lives in righteousness, he or she will not have lived in vain. Everything else follows. It’s a way of thinking that proves a dead-end when it comes to confronting the Holocaust. His failure to reflect adequately on his Jewish heritage, except when repeating his grandfather’s platitudes or when making an artful dig at Zionism, raises awkward questions about his enterprise.
Singer implies the existence of a strong link between his best-known work and his heritage. It has long been clear that his book on Animal Liberation (1975), and the ungainly concept of ‘speciesism’ he popularised by analogy with ‘racism’, continue the Enlightenment project. By aligning himself with his grandfather’s humanism, he lays claim to a tradition that can be traced back to the 18th-century German Enlightenment, the co-terminal Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment, and the late 18th-century Josephine Enlightenment that both legally and practically enabled Jewish emancipation in Austria-Hungary. Indeed, Singer’s grandfather’s cosmopolitan ideals restate in the much simplified terms of his day the enlightened humanism developed by Lessing, Herder, Kant, Goethe and Schiller. Their programme provided an ideal interface with Judaism, and contributed to the social climate in which the other two movements could thrive, enabling the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe to move from the ghetto into the mainstream of 19th-century life. Many have puzzled over where that glittering story of liberation went wrong, and how to prevent another catastrophe like the one in which it ended. What has Singer got to offer?
David foresaw however that the turn of the wheel that put an end to his own existence would not be the last one. So it has proved. Liberal democracies are more firmly established in Europe today than they have ever been, and more widespread than before in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Racism, which first made David an inferior being and then sent him to his death, was emphatically rejected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is no longer openly embraced by any regime . . .
I respond to Singer’s optimism, but despair at his naivety. Theresienstadt was inspected by the Red Cross, which found nothing amiss. Genocidal crimes were perpetrated at Srebrenica under the gaze of the United Nations. There is no way to reconcile the fate of Singer’s family and his own conclusions cannot easily be righted. Moreover, there is something incongruous about Singer’s associating himself with his Jewish heritage, given how heavily his own thinking relies on a utilitarianism which contradicts both Judaism and his grandfather’s humanism. No general reader of this book could guess that Singer is known for his strong, even extreme views on measures such as infanticide and euthanasia, and that his views have been compared to Nazism in the press and in academic articles. The Nazi regime is in many ways a test case for his philosophy, and Singer ought to confront the issue in his memoir: how can a liberal society such as he advocates sanction euthanasia and infanticide, yet guard against atrocities like those perpetrated by the Nazis? This is the dilemma that readers familiar with Singer’s arguments in Rethinking Life and Death (1994) might expect to find elaborated in a ‘consistent’ memoir about the Shoah. Yet he neither addresses it, nor explicitly answers his own central question as to whether he shares his grandfather’s delusions. His views must stand for themselves. That makes his book more disturbing than he intended.