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Not Everything is Relative: Raoul Wallenberg in the Post-Modern Age

By Susanne Berger
April 30, 2009

July 6, 2009 marks the 65th anniversary of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg's humanitarian mission to Budapest and January 17, 2010 the 65th anniversary of his disappearance in the Soviet Union. After protecting the lives of thousands of Jews in Nazi occupied Hungary, Wallenberg was arrested by Soviet forces in early 1945. He was never heard from again and the full circumstances of his fate have never been determined.

Historians and journalists view events through a variety of prisms, so it is important to understand the philosophical underpinnings of such evaluations. The Raoul Wallenberg case is no exception. Over the last few years there have been several attempts at a deeper interpretation of both his mission and his person. For example, historians have asked to what degree exactly Raoul Wallenberg (an honorary citizen of the U.S., Canada and Israel) - should be considered a hero of the Holocaust - how many lives did he really save? Is he recognized purely for his deeds or because he disappeared? - , from which followed questions about the relevance of his still unsolved fate.

What many people may not realize is that such considerations directly reflect the ascendancy of the so-called 'post-modern' influence in current political thought. Very broadly put, postmodern philosophy questions our ability to be truly objective, no matter how hard we try. Post-Modernism, in its various guises like logical positivism and deconstruction, is everywhere. It is an idea system that grew out of World War I, as an attempt to explain the horrors humanity wrought upon itself, in an attempt to make sense of a world that had ceased to make sense long ago. It has led to a revolution in art, music, philosophy and the social sciences. As any influential movement does, it has inspired fervent criticism and counter movements, while also spurring intriguing cross pollination with more traditional strains of philosophy.

Somewhat ironically - as will become apparent in a second - Post-Modernism owes a great debt to science, in particular to physics and Werner Heisenberg's 'Uncertainty Principle.' Heisenberg postulated that both actions and perceptions influence reality as we know it. Perception, then, is relative, as is everything else we like to call 'fact'. From that follows the question whether there is or ever can be any certainty or "objective truth" - a very important issue, especially for historians.

Philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein and later Jacques Derrida focused on the ambiguity of language in the evaluation of historic events, in particular the use and meaning of specific terms like "victims" and "heroes", which led to new ways of thinking and posing questions about "morality" and "moral choices". As a result, scholars began to examine the past more cautiously, asked more poignant questions, considering issues from different angles and perspectives.

Take the case of Auschwitz, the most notorious group of Nazi concentration camps in Poland from 1940-45. Altogether, about three million people died there at the hands of ruthless Nazi criminals. Guilt and innocence can be easily apportioned in this situation, with clear distinctions between perpetrators and victims. But in the years since World War II, more subtle questions have emerged on the issue of "guilt": Are those who refused to bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz as responsible as those who operated the gas chambers? Do all Germans carry collective guilt for Hitler's crimes? The victims, too, did not escape this critical examination. Why was there so little spirited resistance? Did some Jewish leaders focus more on creating a new homeland than on rescuing their own from certain death? Why has comparatively little attention been given to other victims of Hitler's mania, such as the millions of civilians who died at the Eastern Front?

Such detailed analysis is often welcome and helpful. However, some critics of postmodernism, like the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, saw important problems with "relativism" being taken to its logical conclusion. Since Post-modernists argue that everything we examine is a priori tainted by subjectivity, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to discuss people or events objectively, never mind to judge them appropriately. Excessive nuance can, therefore, lead to inaction and paralysis. Taken to extremes, it will lead to the failure of drawing any distinction between good and evil. Proponents of Sweden's neutrality policy faced this dilemma in very practical terms, during and after World War II.

Finally, if there are no universal truths, logically there cannot be any universal values, shared by all humanity. Just ask the U.N. Human Rights Council how difficult it is to gain consensus on that subject.

Popper's main objection to post-modern thought was precisely this issue, namely that it often failed to provide workable application to problems in the real world. Specifically, Popper felt that human suffering could not be addressed through semantics or elaborate thought constructs alone, but that it required concrete actions. His recommended antidote for totalitarianism was openness - the free flow of ideas. His book "The Open Society" became the most influential philosophical textbook of the Cold War era, and heavily influenced leading politicians of the day. Former Czech President Vaclav Havel and other Eastern European leaders have paid tribute to Popper's philosophy as a catalyst in their fight against communism and the basis for restructuring emerging societies in Eastern Europe. The international financier George Soros, Popper's one-time student, has heavily funded Eastern European research and aid projects. His "Open Society Archives" in Hungary not only reflect his deep admiration for his teacher, but his conviction that Popper's concepts retain their applicability in the post-communist era.

How does all of this relate to Raoul Wallenberg? If in modern analysis victims can become "relative", so do presumptive heroes. That is often a good thing -- the world knows the dangers of blind adulation and simplistic, often aggressive moral certainty only too well. But such analysis can be taken to absurdity, as Swedish historian Attila Lajos did a few years ago. He claimed that in 1944, Hungarian Jews had not been the helpless victims historians have made them out to be. Since - in Lajos' view - they had not been helpless, (there were, after all, dozens of active resistance groups in Hungary) they did not require a heroic rescue. Ergo, Raoul Wallenberg cannot be considered a heroic figure. His fate, too, becomes far less significant in such an approach.

Aside from the fact that Lajos' reasoning is deeply flawed -- one look at Hungary's deportation statistics for 1944 would put any debate to rest - the problem is that in the final analysis, certain things are not relative. They simply are. Just like you cannot be a little pregnant, you cannot be relatively dead. The victims of Auschwitz provide chilling confirmation.

In that sense, human rights can and should never be treated simply as an abstract concept. It will always be rooted in the very real - not theoretical - suffering of individual human beings. To borrow a phrase from American religion scholar Cornel West, human rights are always "tactile," not merely cerebral.

Raoul Wallenberg understood this and his mission was true humanistic philosophy in action. When facing the difficult decision to enter into a dangerous situation or not, he did not hesitate, but dove straight in. Raw courage, both physical and moral, is Raoul Wallenberg's true legacy and on this point, he leaves any postmodern parsing firmly in the dust. We should show the same determination in the face of overwhelming odds and continue to demand the full facts about his disappearance and that of others like him, past and present, missing in Stalin's Russia, Pol Pot's Cambodia or today's Burma and Darfur. For a rescuer who became a tragic victim, it would be a most appropriate tribute.

(For further reading about the post-modern debate, see for example "Wittgenstein's Poker", by David Edmonds and John Eidinow (2001, Harper Collins)

Susanne Berger
April 30, 2009

(Independent consultant to the Swedish-Russian Working Group on the fate of Raoul Wallenberg, 1991-2001)

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