As I can attest from a wonderful friendship of more than forty years, the Holocaust has cast its shadow across Raimond Gaita’s thinking and his writing, persistently and deeply. Gaita’s readers also know this. In order to alert us to his central theme and to demonstrate what he means when he talks about the idea of the ‘unconditional respect’ owed all human beings, Gaita opens Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception with a terrible story of a Nazi who forced a rabbi to spit on the Torah until his mouth was dry (Gaita 1991: Ch. 1). When he begins to explain that he is talking about good and evil in a way that separates his work from most of his philosophical contemporaries, Gaita asks us to think about what a French woman, who had witnessed a young Nazi involved in the daily work of dispatching Jewish adults and even children to their deaths, might have meant when she said that she had wondered throughout her life ‘how it was possible for him to do it’ (Gaita 1991: 5-6). And when he asks us to reﬂect upon the nature of remorse, Gaita writes about a Dutch woman involved in the Resistance who felt obliged to ask a Jewish family she was harbouring to leave her home but who, after the family perished in the Holocaust, was haunted for the rest of her life by the thought that the Nazis had turned her into a murderer (Gaita 1991: Ch. 3). Gaita has reﬂected on the relationship between politics and morality throughout his life. In that reﬂection the nature of patriotism has a central place. He has argued that under the conditions of Nazi Germany genuine love of country was expressed by action that the law regarded as treason. There are many reasons for this but none is more important than the fact that in Nazi Germany the project of removing the Jews from the face of the Earth had become what Gaita calls a ‘civic ideal’ (Gaita 1991: 265-67n.). Despite the persistence of the Holocaust in his thinking Gaita has only twice,
so far as I am aware, written directly about the nature of the Holocaust – in a chapter in A Common Humanity: Thinking About Love and Truth and Justice and in his contribution to Genocide and Human Rights: A Philosophical Guide (Gaita 1999; Gaita 2005). In these chapters Gaita is concerned with two contiguous, much discussed, and sometimes angrily contested, problems: the supposed ‘uniqueness’ of the Holocaust and the conceptual relationship between the Holocaust and other examples of genocide – Armenia, Rwanda
and, more generally, in the colonies (Rosenbaum 1996; Rosenfeld 1999; Moses 2004). The position Gaita stakes out in these chapters goes, roughly speaking, like
this. In the history of humankind no state has set upon a genocidal project – the attempt not to eliminate a culture but to exterminate a people – with a more terrifying ferocity, with deeper contempt for their chosen target, or with a greater ‘purity’ of intent than did Nazi Germany in regard to the Jews. For Gaita, the author who has brought us closest to an understanding of the meaning of the Holocaust as genocide is Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt understood that one of the core constituent elements of the idea of humanity was ‘diversity’. In its attempt to wipe the Jews from the face of the Earth, the Nazi state had committed what the judges at Nuremberg, as they fumbled towards legal clarity, had rightly come to call ‘a crime against humanity’, and which one of the French lawyers at Nuremberg, even more precisely, had called a crime against ‘the human status’. The genocidal crime of the Nazis, the Holocaust, was, then, for Arendt a crime against humanity committed on what she called ‘the body of the Jewish people’. It was for this reason that she argued that Eichmann should have been tried not before an Israeli court but before an international criminal court, if one had existed at that time. Arendt believed that Eichmann ought to be executed. She put her argument in words she would have liked the Israeli judges to have spoken:
And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations – as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and should not inhabit the world – we ﬁnd that no one, that is no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you.