We know of no story that so movingly and intimately evokes the inner intellectual and spiritual struggle of the East European generation that lived through the Hitler ordeal as this by Chaim Grade, one of the leading Yiddish poets of today. He was born in Vilna, Poland, in 1910, and studied at various yeshivas until 1922, among them that of the Mussarists, the ascetic sect described in his story. He was a member of the Young Vilna writers’ group before the war; since 1948 he has been living in the United States.
In 1937 I returned to Bialystok, several years after I had been a student in the Novaredok Yeshiva of the Mussarists, a movement which gives special importance to the ethical and ascetic elements in Judaism. When I came back I found many of my old schoolmates still there. A few even came to my lecture one evening. Others visited me secretly, to keep the head of the Yeshiva from finding out. I could see that their poverty had brought them suffering and that the fire of their youthful zeal had slowly burned itself out. They continued to observe all the laws and usages meticulously, but the weariness of spiritual wrest-lings lay upon them. For years they had tried to tear out of their hearts the desire for the pleasures of life, and at last they realized they had lost the war with themselves. They had not overcome the evil urge.
There was one I kept looking for all the time and could not find, my former schoolmate Hersh Rasseyner. He was a dark young man with bright, downcast eyes. I did not meet him, but heard that he kept to his garret in solitude and did not even come to the Yeshiva.
Once we met unexpectedly in the street. He was walking with his eyes lowered, as is the custom with the Novaredok Mussarists; they do not wish to be “eye to eye” with the world. But he saw me anyway. He put his arms behind him, thrusting his hands into his sleeves, so that he would not have to shake hands with me. The closer he came, the higher rose his head. When we finally stood face to face, he looked at me intently. He was so moved his nostrils seemed to quiver—but he kept silent.
Among the Mussarists when you ask, How are you? the question means, What is the state of your religious life? Have you risen in spirituality? But I had forgotten and asked quite simply, “Hersh Rasseyner, how are you?”
Hersh moved back a little, looked me over from head to toe, saw that I was modishly dressed, and shrugged. “And how are you, Chaim Vilner? My question, you see, is more important.”
My lips trembled and I answered hotly, “Your question, Hersh Rasseyner, is no question at all. I do what I have to.”
Right there, in the middle of the street, he cried out, “Do you think, Chaim Vilner, that by running away from the Yeshiva you have saved yourself? You know the saying among us: Whoever has learned Mussar can have no enjoyment in his life. You will always be deformed, Chaim Vilner. You will remain a cripple the rest of your life. You write godless verses and they reward you by patting you on the cheek. Now they’re stuffing you with applause as they would stuff a goose with grain. They make a fuss about you, you’re treated like a child born in his parents’ old age. But later you’ll see, when you’ve begun to go to their school, oh won’t the worldly ones beat you! Which of you isn’t hurt by criticism? Is there one of you really so self-confident that he doesn’t go around begging for some authority’s approval? Is there one of you who’s prepared to publish his book anonymously? The big thing with you people is that your name should be seen and known. You have given up our tranquillity of spirit for what? For passions you will never be able to satisfy and for doubts you will never be able to answer, no matter how much you suffer.”
When he had spoken his fill, Hersh Rasseyner began to walk away with a quick, energetic stride. But I had once been a Mussarist too, so I ran after him.
“Hersh, listen to me now. No one knows better than I how torn you are. You’re proud of yourself because you don’t care if the whole street laughs at you for wearing your tzitzit down to your ankles. You’ve talked yourself into believing that the cloth with the woolen fringes is a partition between you and the world. You despise yourself because you’re afraid you may find favor in the eyes of the world, that Potiphar’s wife. You fear you won’t have the strength to tear yourself away like the righteous Joseph. So you flee from temptation and think the world will run after you. But when you see that the world doesn’t run after you, you become angry and cry out: Nobody enjoys life. You want to console yourself with that idea. When you live in solitude in your garret, that’s because you would rather have nothing at all than take the crumb that life throws you. Your modesty is pride, not self-denial.
“And who told you that I seek pleasure? I seek a truth you don’t have. For that matter, I didn’t run away, I simply returned to my own street—to Yatkev Street in Vilna. I love the porters with their backs broken from carrying their burdens; the artisans pouring sweat at their workbenches; the market women who would cut off a finger to give a poor man a crust of bread. But you scold the hungry for being sinners, and all you can tell them is to repent. You laugh at people who work because you say they don’t trust in God. But you live on what others have made. Women exhausted with work bring you something to eat, and in return you promise them the world to come. Hersh Rasseyner, you have long since sold your share of the world to come to those poor women.”
Hersh Rasseyner gave a start and disappeared. I returned to Vilna with a burden removed from my conscience. In the disputation with the Mussarist I myself began to understand why I had left them. If at the time, I said to myself, I didn’t know why and where I was going, someone else thought it for me, someone stronger than I. That someone else stronger than I was—my generation and my environment.
Two years passed. War broke out between Germany and Poland. The western Ukraine and western White Russia were taken over by the Red Army. After they had been in Vilna a few weeks, the Russians announced that they were giving the city back to the Lithuanians. To Vilna there began to come refugees who did not want to remain under Soviet rule. The Novaredok Yeshiva came also. Meanwhile, the Soviets remained. Hunger raged in the city. Every face was clouded with fear because of the arrests carried out at night by NKVD agents. My heart was heavy. Once I was standing in line for a ration of bread. Suddenly I saw Hersh Rasseyner.
I had heard that in the meanwhile he had married. His face was framed with a little black beard, his gait more restrained, his clothing more presentable. I was so glad to see him that I left my place in the line, pushed through the crowd, and came up to him.
He spoke little and was very cautious. I understood why. He did not trust me and was afraid of trouble. I could see that he was trying to make up his mind whether to speak to me. But when he saw how despondent I was, he hid his mouth with his hand, as though to conceal his twisted smile, and a gleam of derision came into his eye. With his head he motioned toward the bridge, on which were parked a few tanks with Red Army soldiers.
“Well, Chaim,” Hersh said to me quietly, “are you satisfied now? Is this what you wanted?”
I tried to smile and answered just as quietly, “Hersh, I bear no more responsibility for all that than you do for me.”
He shook himself and pronounced a few sharp, cutting words, seeming to forget his fear: “You’re wrong, Chaim, I do bear responsibility for you.” He retreated a few steps and motioned with his eyes to the Red Army soldiers, as though to say: And you bear responsibility for them.
Nine more years passed, years of war and destruction, during which I wandered across Russia, Poland, and Western Europe. In 1948, on a summer afternoon, I was riding in the Paris Metro. Couples stood close together. Short Frenchwomen, as though fainting, hung by the side of their blackhaired lovers.
I saw a familiar face. Until then it had been concealed by someone’s shoulder, and only when the couples had had to move a little did that corner of the car open up. My heart began to pound. Could he really be alive? Hadn’t he been in Vilna under the German occupation? When I returned to the ruins of my home in 1945 I did not see him or hear of him. Still, those were the same eyes, the same obstinately upturned nose; only the broad black beard had begun to turn gray. It was astonishing to me that he could look at the couples so calmly, and that a good-natured smile lit up his melancholy glance. That was not like him. But after a moment I noticed that there was a faraway look in his eyes. He really did not see the people on the train. He was dressed neatly, in a long cloak and a clean white shirt buttoned at the throat, without a necktie. I thought to myself: He never wore ties. This more than anything else convinced me that it was he.
I pushed my way to him through the passengers and blurted out, “Excuse me, aren’t you Reb Hersh Rasseyner?”
He looked at me, wrinkled his forehead and smiled. “Ah, Chaim, Chaim, is that you? Sholom aleichem! How are you?”
I could tell that this time when Hersh Rasseyner asked, “How are you?” he did not mean what he had meant eleven years before. Then his question was angry and derisive. Now he asked the question quietly, simply. It came from his heart and it showed concern, as for an old friend.
We got into a corner and he told me briefly that he had been in a camp in Latvia. Now he was in Germany, at the head of a Yeshiva in Salzheim.
“The head of a Yeshiva in a camp in Germany? And who are your students, Reb Hersh?”
He smiled. “Do you think that the Holy One is so to speak an orphan? We still have lads, praise be to the Almighty, who study Torah.”
He told me that he had been in the camp with about ten pupils. He had drawn them close to him and taught them Jewishness. Because they were still only children and very weak he helped them in their work. At night they used to gather about his cot and all would recite Psalms together. There was a doctor in the camp who used to say that he would give half his life to be able to recite Psalms too. But he couldn’t. He lacked faith, poor man.
I Was happy to meet him and I preferred to avoid a debate, so I merely asked, “And what brings you here so often? Are you in business?”
“Of course we’re in business.” He stroked his beard with satisfaction. “Big business. We bring Yeshiva people here and send them off to Israel and America. We take books back from here. With the help of the Almighty, I have even flown twice to Morocco.”
“Morocco? What did you do there, Reb Hersh?”
“Brought back students from the Moroccan Jews, spoke in their synagogue.”
“And how did you talk to them? You don’t know Arabic or French.”
“The Almighty helps. What difference does it make how you speak? The main thing is what you speak.”
Unexpectedly he began to talk about me. “How will it be with you, Chaim? It’s time for you to start thinking about repentance. We’re nearer rather than farther.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he said, drawing out his words in a chant, “that we have both lived out more than half our lives. What will become of Reb Chaim?” He strongly accented the word Reb. “Where are you voyaging? Together with them, perhaps?” His eyes laughed at the young couples. “Will you get off where they do? Or do you still believe in this merciless world?”
“And you, Reb Hersh,” I asked in sudden irritation, “do you still believe in particular providence? You say that the Holy One is not as it were an orphan. But we are orphans. A miracle happened to you, Reb Hersh, and you were saved. But how about the rest? Can you still believe?”
“Of course I believe,” said Hersh Rasseyner, separating his hands in innocent wonder. “You can touch particular providence, it’s so palpable. But perhaps you’re thinking of the kind of man who has faith that the Almighty is to be found only in the pleasant places of this world but is not to be found, God forbid, in the desert and wastelands? You know the rule: just as a man must make a blessing over the good so must he make a blessing over evil. We must fall before the greatness—”
“What do you want, Reb Hersh?” I interrupted. “Shall I see the greatness of God in the thought that only He could cause such destruction, not flesh and blood? You’re outdoing the Psalms you used to recite on your bed in (he concentration camp. The Psalmist sees the greatness of God in the fact that the sun rises every day, but you see miracles even in catastrophes.”
“Without any doubt,” Hersh Rasseyner answered calmly, “I see everywhere, in everything, at every moment, particular providence. I couldn’t remain on earth for one minute without the thought of God. How could I stand it without Him in this murderous world?”
“But I won’t say that His judgment is right. I can’t!”
“You can,” said Hersh Rasseyner, putting a friendly hand on my shoulder, “you cangradually. First the penitent understands that the world can’t be without a Guide. Then he understands that the Guide is the God of Israel and that there is no other power besides Him to help Him lead the world. At last he recognizes that the world is in Him, as we read: ‘There is no place void of Him.’ And if you understood that, Chaim, you would also understand how the Almighty reveals Himself in misfortune as well as in salvation.”
Hersh Rasseyner spoke in a warm voice. He did not once take his hand off my shoulder. I felt a great love for him and saw that he had become more pious than ever.
We left the Métro near the Jewish quarter, at the rue de Rivoli, and we passed the old city hall, the Hôtel de Ville. In the niches of the walls of the Hôtel de Ville, between the windows, in three rows, stand stone figures, some with a sword, some with a book, some with brush and palette, and some with geometers’ instruments.
The Rasseyner saw me looking at the monuments.
He glanced at them out of the corner of his eye and asked, “Who are those idols?”
I explained to him that they were famous Frenchmen: statesmen, heroes, scholars, and artists.
“Reb Hersh,” I pleaded with him, “look at those statues. Come closer and see the light streaming from their marble eyes. See how much goodness lies hidden in their stone faces. You call it idolatry, but I tell you that quite literally, I could weep when I walk about Paris and see those sculptures. It’s a miracle, after all. How could a human being breathe the breath of life into stone? When you see a living man, you see only one man. But when you see a man poured out in bronze, you see mankind itself. Do you understand me? That one there, for instance, is a poet famous all over the world. The great writer broadens our understanding and stirs our pity for our fellow men. He shows us the nature of the man who can’t overcome his desires. He doesn’t punish even the wicked man, but sees him according to his afflictions in the war he wages with himself and the rest of the world. You don’t say he’s right, but you understand that he can’t help it. Why are you pulling at your beard with such anger, Reb Hersh?”
He stared at me with burning eyes and cried out, “For shame! How can you say such foolish things? So you could weep when you look at those painted lumps of matter? Why don’t you weep about the charred walls which alone remain of the Gaon of Vilna’s synagogue? Those artistes of yours, those monument-choppers; those poets who sang about their emperors; those tumblers who danced and played before the rulers—did those masters of yours even bother to think that their patron would massacre a whole city and steal all it had, only to buy them, your masters, with gold? Did the prophets flatter kings? Did they take gifts of harlots’ wages? And how merciful you are! The writer shows how the wicked man is the victim of his own evil inclinations. I think that’s what you said. It’s really a pity about the arrogant rebel! He destroys others, and of course he’s destroyed too. What a pity! Do you think it’s easier to be a good man than an adulterer? But you particularly like to describe the lustful man. You know him better, there’s something of him in you artists. If you make excuses for the man who exults in his wickedness, then as far as I’m concerned all your scribbling is unclean and unfit. Condemn the wicked man! Condemn the glutton and drunkard! Do you say he can’t help it? He has to help it! You’ve sung a fine song of praise to the putrid idols, Chaim Vilner.”
Hersh Rasseyner looked into my eyes with the sharp, threatening expression I had seen eleven years earlier, when we met in that Bialystok street. His voice had become hard and resounding. Passers-by stopped and stared at the bearded Jew who shook his finger at the sculptures of the Hôtel de Ville. Hersh did not so much as notice the passersby. I felt embarrassed in the face of these Frenchmen, smiling and looking at us curiously.
“Don’t shout so,” I told him irritably. “You really think you have a monopoly on mercy and truth. You’re starting where we left off eleven years ago. In Novaredok you always kept the windows closed, but it was still too light for you in the House of Study, so you ran off to your garret. From the garret you went down into a cellar. And from the cellar you burrowed down into a hole under the earth. That’s where you could keep your commandment of solitude and that’s where you persuaded yourself that a man’s thoughts and feelings are like his hair; if he wants to, he can trim his hair and leave nothing but a beard and earlocks—holy thought and pious conduct. You think the world is what you imagine it, and you won’t have anything to do with it. You think men are what you imagine them, but you tell them to be the opposite. But even the concentration camps couldn’t make men different from what they are. Those who were evil became worse in the camps. Otherwise they might have lived out their lives and not known themselves for what they were, but in the crisis men saw themselves and others undisguised. And when we were all freed, even the better ones among us weren’t freed of the poison we’d had to drink behind the barbed wire. Now, if the concentration camp couldn’t change men from top to bottom, how can you expect to change them?”
The Rasseyner looked at me with astonishment. The anger that had flared in his eyes died down, though a last flicker of it seemed to remain.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Chaim,” he said quietly and reluctantly. “
Whoever told you that afflictions as such make people better? It’s quite clear that external causes can’t drag people back to a Jewish life. A man’s heart and mind have to be ready.
“If a man didn’t come there with a thirst for a higher life, he certainly didn’t elevate himself in the concentration camp. But the spiritual man knows that always and everywhere he must keep mounting higher or else he will fall lower. And as for the claim that a man can’t change—that is a complete lie. ‘In my flesh shall I see God!’ The case of Hersh Rasseyner proves that a man can change. I won’t tell you a long story about how many lusts I suffered from; how often the very veins in my head almost burst from the boiling of the blood; how many obstinacies I had to tear out of myself. But I knew that whoever denies himself affirms the Master of the World. I knew that the worst sentence that can be passed on a man is that he shall not be able to renounce his old nature. And because I truly wanted to conquer myself, the Almighty helped me.”
“You are severe in your judgments,” I answered. “You always were, Reb Hersh, if you’ll pardon my saying so. You call these wise men putrid idols, but you refuse to see that they lifted mankind out of its bestial state. They weren’t butchers of the soul and they didn’t talk themselves into believing that human beings can tear their lower urges out of themselves and lop them off. They were very well aware of the hidden root of the human race. They wanted to illuminate men’s minds with wisdom, so that men would be able to grow away from their untamed desires. You can’t banish shadows with a broom, only with a lighted lamp. These great men—”
Hersh began to laugh so loud that I had to interrupt myself. He immediately stopped laughing and sighed. “I am very tired,” he said. “I have been traveling the whole night. But somehow I don’t want to leave you. After all, you were once a student at Novaredok; perhaps there is still a spark of the spirit left in you somewhere.”
We walked to a bench in silence. On first meeting him I had thought that he had become milder. Now I realized regretfully that his demands upon me and his negation of the whole world had grown greater. I hoped, though, that the pause would ease the tension that had arisen between us and I was in no hurry to be the first to talk again. Hersh, however, wrinkled his forehead as though he were collecting his thoughts, and when we were seated he returned to my last words.
“Did you say were great men? The Germans insist they produced all the great men. I don’t know whether they produced the very greatest, but I don’t suppose that you worldly people would deny that they did produce learned men. Well, did those philosophers influence their own nation to become better? And the real question is, were the philosophers themselves good men? I don’t want you to think that I underestimate their knowledge. During my years in the concentration camp I heard a good deal. There were exceptionally learned men among us, because the German mixed us all together, and in our moments of leisure we used to talk. Later, when with the help of the Almighty I was saved, I myself looked into the books of you worldly people, because I was no longer afraid that they would hurt me. And I was really very much impressed by their ideas. Occasionally I found in their writings as much talent and depth as in our own holy books, if the two may be mentioned in one breath. But they are satisfied with talk! And I want you to believe me when I say that I concede that their poets and scientists wanted to be good. Only—only they weren’t able to. And if some did have good qualities, they were exceptions. The masses and even their wise men didn’t go any farther than fine talk. As far as talking is concerned, they talk more beautifully than we do.
“Do you know why they weren’t able to become better? Because they are consumed with a passion to enjoy life. And since pleasure is not something that can be had by itself, murder arose among them—the pleasure of murder. And that’s why they talk such fine talk, because they want to use it for fooling themselves into doing fine deeds. Only it doesn’t help. They’re satisfied with rhetoric, and the reason is that they care most of all for systems. The nations of the world inherited from the Greeks the desire for order and for pretty systems.
“First of all, they do what they do in public. They have no pleasure from their lusts if they can’t sin openly, publicly, so that the whole world will know. They say of us that we’re only hypocrites, whereas they do what they want to do publicly. But they like to wage war, not only with others, but with themselves as well, argue with themselves (of course, not too vigorously), even suffer and repent. And when they come to do repentance, the whole world knows about that too. Theirs is the kind of repentance that gives them an intense pleasure; their self-love is so extreme it borders on sickness. They even like their victims, because their victims afford them the pleasure of sinning and the sweet afflictions of regret.”
The Rasseyner had moved away from me to the other end of the bench and had begun to look at me as though it had occurred to him that by mistake he might be talking to a stranger. Then he lowered his head and muttered as though to himself: “Do you remember, that time in Bialystok?” He was silent for a moment and pulled a hair out of his beard as though he were pulling his memories out with it. “Do you remember, Chaim, how you told me on that Bialystok street that we were running away from the world because we were afraid we wouldn’t be able to resist temptation? A Mussarist can labor for a lifetime on improving his qualities, yet a single word of criticism will stick in him like a knife. Yes, it’s true! All the days of my youth I kept my eyes on the earth, without looking at the world. Then came the German. He took me by my Jewish beard, yanked my head up, and told me to look him straight in the eye. So I had to look into his evil eyes, and into the eyes of the whole world as well. And I saw, Chaim, I saw—you know what I saw. Now I can look at all the idols, and read all the forbidden impurities and contemplate all the pleasures of life, and it won’t tempt me any more because now I know the true face of the world. Oh, Reb Chaim, turn and repent! It’s not too late. Remember what the prophet Jeremiah said: ‘For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.’”
Hersh had spoken like a broken man. Tears were dropping on his beard. He rubbed his eyes to hold the tears back, but they continued to flow down his cheeks. I took his hand and said to him with emotion:
Reb Hersh, you say that I have forsaken a fountain of living waters for a broken cistern. I must tell you that you’re wrong. I draw water from the same fountain as you, only with a different vessel. But calm yourself, Reb Hersh.
You yourself said that you believe that the nations of the world had men of wisdom and men of action who wanted to be good, but couldn’t. I think I’m quoting you accurately. What I don’t understand is this. It’s a basic principle of Judaism that man has free will. The Novaredok people actually maintain that it’s possible to attain such a state of perfection that we can do good deeds without the intervention of our physical bodies. Well then, if a man can actually peel the evil husks from himself, as he would peel an onion, how do you answer this question: Since the wise men among the Gentiles wanted to be good, why couldn’t they?
I wasn’t able to keep a mocking note of triumph out of my question. It stirred the Rasseyner out of his mournful abstraction. With deliberation he straightened himself and answered gently.
“Chaim you seem to have forgotten what you learned at Novaredok, so I’ll remind you. In his great love for mankind, the Almighty has endowed us with reason. If our sages, of blessed memory, tell us that we can learn from the animals, surely we can learn from reason as well. And we know that the elders of Athens erected systems of morality according to pure reason. They had many disciples, each with his own school.
“But the question hasn’t changed. Did they really live as they taught, or did their systems remain only systems? You must understand once and for all that when his reason is calm and pure, a man doesn’t know what he’s likely to do when his dark desire overtakes him. A man admires his own wisdom and is proud of his knowledge, but as soon as a little desire begins to stir in him he forgets everything else. Reason is like a dog on a leash who follows sedately in his master’s footsteps— until he sees a bitch. With us it’s a basic principle that false ideas come from bad qualities. Any man can rationalize whatever he wants to do. Is it true that only a little while ago he was saying the opposite of what he is now saying? He’ll tell you he was wrong then. And if he lets you prove to him that he wasn’t wrong then, he’ll shrug and say: When I want to do something, I can’t be an Aristotle. As soon as his desire is sated, his reason revives and he’s sorry for what he did. As soon as he feels desire beginning to stir once more, he forgets his reason again. It’s as though he were in a swamp; when he pulls one foot out, the other sinks in. There is delicacy in his character, he has a feeling for beauty, he expresses his exalted thoughts in measured words, and there is no flaw in him; then he sees a female ankle and his reason is swallowed up. If a man has no God, why should he listen to the philosopher who tells him to be good? The philosopher himself is cold and gloomy and empty. He is like a man who wants to celebrate a marriage with himself.
“The one way out is this. A man should choose between good and evil only as the Law chooses for him. The Law wants him to be happy. The Law is the only reality in life. Everything else is a dream. Just as the Master of the World showed Moses in the wilderness a fiery tabernacle and said to him: Such a tabernacle shalt thou make for Me, so should a man do in every particular what is done by the fiery Complete Man, who is constructed of the letters in which the Law is written. Even when a man understands rationally what he should do, he must never forget that before all else he should do it because the Law tells him to do it. That is how he can guard against the time when his reason will have no power to command him.
“Wait a moment, I’m not through yet. A man may tell himself: I don’t live according to reason but according to the Law. And he may feel certain that when temptation comes, he’ll look into the appropriate book to see what he should do, and he’ll do it. He tells himself that he is free. Actually, the freedom of his choice goes no farther than his wish. Even a man who has a Law won’t be able to withstand his temptation if he doesn’t watch over himself day and night. He Who knows all secrets knew that our father Abraham would stand ready to sacrifice Isaac; but only after the Binding did the angel say to Abraham: Now I know. Hence we learn that until a man has accomplished what he should, the Law does not trust him. A child has the capacity to grow, but we don’t know how tall he’ll grow. His father and mother may be as high as the trees, but he may favor a dwarf grandfather. Only by good deeds can we drive out bad deeds. Therefore the Jews cried out at Sinai: ‘We will do’—only do, always do; ‘and we will obey’—and now we want to know what the Law tells us to do. Without deeds all inquiry is vain.
“That is the outlook and the moral way of ‘the old one,’ Reb Joseph Yoyzl, may his merit be a shield for us, and thousands of students at Novaredok steeped themselves in it day and night. We labored to make ourselves better, each of us polished and filed his own soul, with examiners gathering evidences of improvement like pearls. But you laughed at us. Then came the German, may his name be blotted out, and murdered our sainted students. And now we’re both face to face with the destruction of the Community of Israel. But you are faced with another destruction as well— the destruction of your faith in the world. That’s what hurts you and torments you, so you ask me: Why weren’t the wise men of the Gentiles able to be good, if they wanted to be good? And you find contradictions in what I said. But the real contradiction you find is not in what I said but in yourself. You thought the world was striving to become better, and you discovered it was striving for our blood.
“Even if they wanted to, the wise men of the Gentiles couldn’t become good to the very roots of their being because they don’t have a Law and because they didn’t labor to perfect their qualities all their life long. Their ethics were worked out by human minds. They trusted their reasoned assumptions as men trust the ice of a frozen river in winter. Then came Hitler and put his weight on the wisdom of the wise men of the nations. The ice of their slippery reasoning burst, and all their goodness was drowned.
“And together with their goodness to others their own self-respect was drowned. Think of it! For a word they didn’t like they used to fight with swords or shoot each other. To keep public opinion from sneering or a fool from calling them coward, though they trembled at the thought of dying, they went to their death. For generation after generation their arrogance grew like a cancer, until it ended by eating their flesh and sucking their marrow. For centuries they speculated, they talked, and they wrote. Does duty to nation and family come first, or does the freedom of the individual come before his obligations to parents, wife, and children—or even to one’s self? They considered the matter solemnly and concluded that there are no bonds that a nation is not free to break; that truth and reason are like the sun, which must rise; can the sun be covered by throwing clods of earth at it? So there came in the West a booted ruler with a little mustache and in the East a booted ruler with a big mustache, and both of them together struck the wise man to the ground, so that he sank into the mud. I suppose you’ll say that the wise men wanted to save their lives. I can understand that. But hadn’t they insisted that freedom, truth, and reason are more precious to the philosopher than his life? Take that wise man whose statue is standing there, with his instruments for measuring the stars and planets. When everyone else argued: ‘The sun revolves about the earth,’ he said: ‘Not so; do what you will to me, break me, draw and quarter me, the earth revolves around the sun!’ What would he have said to his grandchildren today? If the spirit of life could return to him, he would crawl down from his niche in the wall, strike his stone head against the stone bridge and recite Lamentations.”
The Rasseyner had begun by speaking slowly, like the head of a Yeshiva trying to explain a difficult passage to his pupil for the hundredth time, pausing briefly every now and then so that I could follow what he was saying. Gradually his animation grew; I was reminded of the discussions we used to have at Novaredok during the evenings after the Sabbath in the weeks before the Days of Awe. He began to speak more quickly, there was more excitement in his voice, and he ended his sentences like a man hammering nails into a wall. He shouted at me as though I were a dark cellar and he was calling to someone hiding in me.
The square and the neighboring streets had grown quieter and the flow of people had thinned out. On the benches in the little park passers-by sat mutely, exhausted by the intense heat of the day and trying to get some relief from the cool evening breeze that had begun to blow in the blue twilight of Paris.
“Hear me out, Chaim,” Hersh resumed, “I’ll tell you a secret. I have to talk to you. I talked to you during all those years when I was in the ghetto and later in the camps. Don’t wonder at it, because you were always dear to me, from the time you were a student in Bialystok. Even then I had the feeling that you stood with one foot outside our camp. I prayed for you. I prayed that you would remain Jewish. But my prayers didn’t help. You yourself didn’t want to be pious. You left us, but I never forgot you. They used to talk about you in the Yeshiva; your reputation reached us even there. And I suppose you remember the time we met in Bialystok. Later our Yeshiva was in Vilna, under the Bolsheviks, and we met again, only then you were very downhearted. In the ghetto they said you had been killed while trying to escape. Afterward we heard from partisans in the forest that you were living in Russia. I used to imagine that if we were both saved, a miracle might happen. We would meet and I could talk to you. That’s why you mustn’t be surprised if I talk to you as fluently as though I were reciting the daily prayers. Believe me, I have had so many imaginary debates with you that I know my arguments as well as the first prayer of the morning.”
“Reb Hersh,” I said, “it’s getting late. The time for afternoon prayers will be over soon.”
“Don’t worry about my afternoon prayers, Chaim,” he laughed, “I said them just after twelve o’clock. In the camp it became a habit with me not to delay carrying out any commandment. I reasoned that if any hour was to be my last, I didn’t want to come to heaven naked.
“Do you have time and strength to go on listening to me? You do? Good. So far I’ve talked to you about the Gentile wise men. But first we ought to be clear in our own minds about our relation to them and to the whole world. And one thing more: if anything I say strikes you as being too harsh, don’t take it amiss. Even though I’m talking to you, I don’t mean you personally; I really mean secular Jews in general. So don’t be angry.
“Your Enlighteners used to sing this tune: ‘Be a Jew at home and a man in public.’ So you took off our traditional coat and shaved your beard and earlocks. Still, when you went out into the street, the Jew pursued you in your language, in your gestures, in every part of you. So you tried to get rid of the incubus. And the result was that the Jew left you, like an old father whose children don’t treat him with respect; first he goes to the synagogue and then, because he has no choice, to the home for the aged. Now that you’ve seen— woe, what has happened to us!—you’ve turned your slogan around. Now it’s be a man at home and a Jew in public. You can’t be pious at home because you’re lacking in faith. Out of anger against the Gentile and nostalgia for the father you abandoned, you want to parade your Jewishness in public. Only the man you try to be at home, as you call it, follows you out of your house. The parable of the Prince and the Nazirite applies to you. A dog was invited to two weddings, one near and one far. He thought: I won’t be too late for the nearer one. So he ran first to the farther wedding—and missed it. Out of breath he ran to the one nearer home, and came after the feast. When he tried to push through the door, all he got was the stick. The upshot was that he missed both. The moral may be coarse, but you remember from your Novaredok days that it was applied to those who wanted to have both the pleasures of this world and the Law.
“You cried in the public square: ‘The nations of the world dislike us because we’re different; let us be like them!’ And you were like them. Not only that, but you stood at the head of their civilization. Where there was a famous scientist, thinker, writer—there you found a Jew. And it was precisely for that reason that they hated us all the more. They won’t tolerate the idea of our being like them.
During the Middle Ages the priests wanted to baptize us. They used to delight in the torments of a Jew who tried to separate himself from the Community of Israel—with his family mourning him as though he were dead and the entire congregation lamenting as though it were the fast of the Ninth of Ab. In our day, though, when they saw how easy it became for a Jew to leap over into their camp, they stationed themselves at the outposts with axes in their hands, as though to fend off wild beasts. But you were hungry and blind, so you leaped—onto their axes.
“When you ran away from being Jewish, you disguised your flight with high-sounding names. An enlightened man would talk in the most elevated rhetoric about Enlightenment; but what he really had in mind was to become a druggist. He yearned for the fleshpots of Egypt. His ambition was to dig his hands into the pot with no one to look him in the eye, like the miser who doesn’t like anyone to be near him when he’s eating. With the nations of the earth the great thing is the individual— his sovereignty, his pleasure, and his repose. But they understand that if they acted on the principle that might is right, one man would devour the other; so they have a government of individuals, and the rule is: Let me alone and I’ll let you alone. With us Jews the individual doesn’t exist, it’s the community that counts. What’s good for all must be good for each. Till your rebellion Jews lived at one— in prayer and in study, in joy and in sorrow. But you incited the tribes: ‘Every man to your tents, O Israel!’ Let each of us follow his own law, like the nations of the world. What’s more, not only did you want to live as individuals, you wanted to die as individuals too. To avoid being confused with the other dead on the day of your death, you spent your lives erecting monuments for yourselves—one by great deeds; another by imposing his dominion; a third by a great business enterprise; and you by writing books. You didn’t violate the commandment against idolatry. Of course not! You were your own gods. You prophesied: ‘Man will be a god.’ So naturally he becomes a devil.
“Why are you uneasy, Reb Chaim? Didn’t we agree you wouldn’t be angry? I don’t mean you personally; I’m only speaking figuratively. But if you really feel I mean you, then I do! The wicked are as the unquiet sea. Every wave thinks it will leap over the shore, though it sees millions of others shattered before its eyes. Every man who lives for this world alone thinks that he will succeed in doing what no one else has ever been able to do. Well, you know now how far you got! But instead of looking for solace in the Master of the World and in the Community of Israel, you’re still looking for the glass splinters of your shattered dreams. And little as you’ll have the world to come, you have this world even less.
“Still, not all of you secularists wanted to overthrow the yoke of the Law altogether. Some grumbled that Judaism kept on getting heavier all the time: Mishna on Bible; Gemara on Mishna; commentaries on Gemara; codes; commentaries on the codes; commentaries on the commentaries, and commentaries on them. Lighten the weight a little, they said, so what is left can be borne more easily. But the more they lightened the burden, the heavier the remainder seemed to them. I fast twice a week without difficulty, and they can hardly do it once a year. Furthermore, what the father rejected in part, the son rejected in its entirety. And the son was right! Rather nothing than so little. A half-truth is no truth at all. Every man, and particularly every young man, needs a faith that will command all of his intellect and ardor. The devout cover a boy’s head with a cap when he’s a year old, to accustom him to commandments; but when a worldly father suddenly asks his grown son to cover his head with a paper cap and say the blessing over the wine on a Friday evening, the young man rightly thinks the whole thing is absurd. If he doesn’t believe in creation, and if the exodus from Egypt is not much of a miracle as far as he’s concerned, and if the Song of Songs is to him only the song of a shepherd and a shepherdess—God forbid!—and not the song of love between the Assembly of Israel and the Holy One, blessed be He, or between the supernal soul and the Almighty, why should he bless the Sabbath wine? Anyone who thinks he can hold on to basic principles and give up what he considers secondary is like a man who chops down the trunk of a tree and expects the roots not to rot.
“I’ve already told you, Chaim, that we of the Mussar school are very mindful of criticism. Do you remember telling me, on a street in Bialystok, that we try to escape by withdrawal because we would rather have nothing in this world than only a little? That’s true. We want a more onerous code, more commandments, more laws, more prohibitions. We know that all the pleasures of life are like salt water: the more a man drinks of it, the thirstier he becomes. That’s why we want a Torah that will leave no room in us for anything else.
“Suppose the Master of the World were to come to me and say: ‘Hersh, you’re only flesh and blood. Six hundred and thirteen commandments are too many for you, I will lighten your burden. You don’t need to observe all of them. Don’t be afraid, you won’t be deprived of the resurrection of the dead!’ Do you understand, Chaim, what it means to be at the resurrection of the dead and see life given again to all the Jews who fell before my eyes? If the Father of Mercy should ask less self-sacrifice of me, it would be very bitter for me. I would pray: ‘Father of Mercy, I don’t want my burden to be lightened, I want it to be made heavier.’ As things are now, my burden is still too light. What point is there to the life of a fugitive, of a Jew saved from the crematorium, if he isn’t always ready to sacrifice his bit of a rescued life for the Torah? But you, Chaim, are you as daring in your demands upon the world as I am in my demands upon the Master of the World? When you were studying with us, you were so strong and proud that you could be satisfied only by getting to the very bottom of the truth. And now do you think it right to crawl under the table of life, hoping for a bone from the feast of unclean pleasures, or a dry crumb of the joys of this world? Is that what’s left to you of your pride and confidence in the warfare of life? I look at you and think: I’m still very far from what I ought to be. If I had reached a higher stage, my heart would be torn for you.
“The rebellious seducer rejected everything, while the one who halts between two opinions left something; but both of them, when they wanted to show their unfaltering good sense, first denounced the Community of Israel for allowing itself to be bound in the cobwebs of a profitless dialectic, living in a cemetery and listening to ghost stories, concerning itself with unrealities and thinking that the world ends at the ruined mill on the hilltop. The clever writer described it with great artistry and the vulgar laughed. And the secularist reformers with their enlightened little beards justified themselves with a verse: ‘Whom the Lord loveth He correcteth.’ In other words, only because they really loved us Jews did they attack us. But they groveled before everything they saw elsewhere. They called us sycophants —but with their own souls, as with rags, they wiped the gentry’s boots. The overt rebel and the man who prayed secretly and sinned secretly—why antagonize either side?—were at one in this, that the thing they mocked us for most enthusiastically was our belief in being chosen. What’s so special about us? they laughed. And I say, you may not feel very special—but you have to be! You may not want it, but the Almighty does! Thousands of years ago the God of Israel said through Ezekiel His prophet: ‘And that which cometh into your mind shall not be at all; in that ye say: We will be as the nations, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone. As I live, saith the Lord God’—Do you hear, Chaim? The Almighty swears by His own life!—‘As I live, saith the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out, will I be king over you.’ You’re a writer; write it on your forehead. You don’t seem very impressed. You don’t consider a verse to be proof. But the German is a proof, isn’t he? Today, because so many Jews have been cut down, you don’t want to remember how you used to laugh at them. But tomorrow, when the destruction will be forgotten, you’ll laugh again at the notion that God has chosen us. That’s why I want to tell you something.
“You know I was in a camp. I lay on the earth and was trampled by the German in his hobnailed boots. Well, suppose that an angel of God had come to me then, that he bent down and whispered into my ear: ‘Hersh, in the twinkling of an eye I will turn you into the German. I will put his coat on you and give you his murderous face; and he will be you. Say the word and the miracle will come to pass.’ If the angel had asked—do you hear, Chaim?—I would not have agreed at all. Not for one minute would I have consented to be the other, the German, my torturer. I want the justice of law! I want vengeance, not robbery! But I want it as a Jew. With the Almighty’s help I could stand the German’s boots on my throat, but if I had had to put on his mask, his murderous face, I would have been smothered as though I had been gassed. And when the German shouted at me: ‘You are a slave of slaves,’ I answered through my wounded lips: ‘Thou hast chosen me.’
“I want to ask you only one question, no more. What happened is known to all Jews. ‘Let the whole House of Israel bewail the burning which the Lord hath kindled.’ All Jews mourn the third of our people that died a martyr’s death. But anyone with true feeling knows that it was not a third of the House of Israel that was destroyed, but a third of himself, of his body, his soul. And so we must make a reckoning—you as well as I. Anyone who doesn’t make the reckoning must be as bestial as the beasts of the wood. Let’s make the reckoning together. In justice and in mercy, may we forgive the murderers? No, we may not! To the end of all generations we may not forgive them.
“Neither you nor I have the right to close our eyes at night. We have no right to flee the laments, the eyes, and the outstretched arms of the murdered; though we break under the anguish and afflictions, we have no right to flee their outcry. What then? I know that the reckoning is not yet over; far from it. And I have never thought for one moment that anyone in the world besides the jealous and vengeful God would avenge the helpless little ones that the Gestapo stuffed into the trains for Treblinka, treading on their delicate little bodies to get as many children as possible into the cars. That is why I don’t have the slightest shadow of a doubt that the great and terrible day, behold it comes! When I hear people quibbling about politics, and calculating the position of the powers, I know that there is another set of books, kept in fire and blood. There’s no use asking me whether I want it that way or not, that’s the way it has to be!
“But you, Chaim, how can you eat and sleep and laugh and dress so elegantly? Don’t you have to make your reckoning too? How can you thrust yourself into the world when you know it consorts with the murderers of the members of your own house? And you thought the world was becoming better! Your world has fallen! I have greater faith than ever. If I had only as much faith as in the past, that would be an offense against the martyred saints. My answer is, more and more self-sacrifice for the Master of the World; to cry out until the spirit is exhausted: ‘For Thy sake are we killed all the day’; to go about, until the soul departs, with a shattered heart and hands raised to heaven: ‘Father, Father, only You are left to us!’ But what has changed with you, Chaim? What is your answer?”
The Rasseyner’s speech was like a dry flame, progressively taking fire from itself. I realized he was unburdening himself of much accumulated anger. Finally he grew quiet. His lips were pinched with the effort he had to make to obey himself and speak no more.
The blue of the evening sky was growing darker. The stone figures around the Hôtel de Ville had shrunk, as though frightened by what the Rasseyner had said, and quietly burrowed deeper into the walls. The old building was now half in darkness. The street lamps brought out the flat green color of our surroundings. Black shining autos slid quietly over the asphalt. A thin little rain began to come down. Windows were lighting up. The people walking along on the other side of the street seemed to be moving with a silent, secret pace behind a thick silken curtain, woven of the summer rain.
From our little empty corner in the shade I looked across the street. In the light of the electric lamps the raindrops looked like millions of fireflies hastening down from the sky in hurried joy. I had an impulse to merge myself with the human stream flowing down the surrounding lighted streets. I stirred, and I felt the little pricks of pain in my stiffened limbs. The light rain came to an end. Hersh sat near me, motionless and as though deaf, his shoulders sharp and angular and his head bowed and sunk in darkness. He was waiting for me to answer.
“Reb Hersh,” I finally said, “as I sat here listening to you, I sometimes thought I was listening to myself. And since it’s harder to lie to yourself than to someone else, I will answer you as though you were my own conscience, with no thought either of merely being polite or of trying to win a debate. I am under no greater obligation than you to know everything. I don’t consider it a special virtue not to have doubts. I must tell you that just as the greatness of the faithful consists in their innocence and wholeness, so the heroism of thinkers consists in their being able to tolerate doubt and make their peace with it. You didn’t discover your truth; you received it ready-made. If anyone should ask you about something in your practice of which you yourself don’t know the meaning, you answer: ‘The work of my fathers is in my hands.‘squo; As a rule, a man is a rebel in his youth; in age he seeks tranquillity. You had tranquillity in your youth, while I don’t have it even now; you once predicted it would be so with me. But is your tranquillity of soul a proof that the truth is with you? For all your readiness to suffer and make sacrifices, there is an element of self-satisfaction in you. You say of yourself that you were born in a coat of many colors—with the truth.
“They used to call ‘the old one,’ the founder of Novaredok, the master of the holes. It was said that Reb Joseph Yoyzl lived apart for many years in the woods in a hut that had two holes in the wall; through one they would hand him milk foods and through the other meat foods. When he put his withdrawal behind him and came back into the world, his philosophy was either milk or meat, one extreme or the other, but nothing in between. His disciples, including you, took this teaching from him. His disciples want what they call wholeness too, and they have no use for compromises. What you said about our wanting a small Torah so that it would be easier for us was simply idle words. On the contrary, we make it harder for ourselves, because we acknowledge a double responsibility—toward Jewish tradition and toward secular culture.
“You said that among Jews the important thing was always the community and not the individual, until we came along and spoiled it; we wanted to be like the Gentiles, for whom the I is more important than anything else. And in order to hurt me, you tried to persuade me that what I want to do is to climb up the Hôtel de Ville and put myself there as a living monument to myself. You allow yourself to mock, because after all, what you do is for the sake of Heaven, isn’t that so? I won’t start now to tell you historical facts about leaders and rulers who made the community their footstool. As for what you say, that the principle among Jews was always the community until we came, I agree. We secularists want to free the individual. You say a man should tear his individual desires out of himself. But for hundreds of years men have gone to torture and death so that the commonwealth shall consist of free and happy individuals. I could read you an all but endless list of our own boys and girls whose youth was spent in black dungeons because they would not be deterred from trying to make the world better. You yourself know about Jewish workers in our own day and in former days who fought against all oppressors and tyrants. The only thing is that you won’t concede that freethinkers can sacrifice themselves too, so you complain that they left Jewish tradition only to enjoy forbidden pleasures. That is untrue. In my own quarter I knew as many ‘seekers’ as in Novaredok—and more. Because you denied the world, Reb Hersh, you withdrew into an attic. But these young people dearly loved the world, and they sacrificed themselves—to better it.
“What right then do you have to complain to us about the world? You yourself said that we dreamed about another, a better world— which nullifies your accusation. We carried into the world our own vision of what the world should be, as the Jews in the wilderness carried the Ark with the tablets of the Covenant, so that they could enter the land of Canaan with their own Law. You laugh; you say that we deceived ourselves. I’ll ask you: Do you renounce Judaism because the Samaritans and the Karaites distorted the Law of Moses?
“But I don’t have to apologize to you. You lump me together with the murderers and demand an accounting of me for the world. I can be as harsh an accuser as you. I can cry out against you and demand an accounting of you. If we have abandoned Jewish tradition, it’s your fault! You barricaded yourself, shut the gates, and let no one out into the open. If anyone put his head out, you tried to pull him back by his feet; and if you couldn’t, you threw him out bodily and shut the doors behind him with a curse. Because he had no place to go back to he had to go farther away than he himself would have wished. From generation to generation you become more fanatical. Your hearts are cold and your ears deaf to all the sciences of the world. You laugh at them and say they are futile things. If you could, you would put people in the pillory again, as the Gaon of Vilna did to a follower of the Enlightenment who dared say that the old exegetes did not know Hebrew grammar too well. Even today, for the smallest transgression you would impose the gravest punishment, if you could. But because you can’t, you shorten your memories. You pretend not to remember how you used to persecute anyone who was bold enough to say anything different from you without basing himself on the authority of the ancient sages, of blessed memory, or even with their authority. All your life you studied The Path of the Upright. Do you know how much its author was suspected and persecuted, how much anguish they caused him, how they hunted for heresy in his writings? Do you know that, at least? And you yourself, didn’t you examine the contents of your students‘ trunks, looking for forbidden books? Even now doesn’t your voice have in it something of the voice of the trumpet of excommunication? Doesn’t your eye burn like the black candle of excommunication? And do you really think that with all your protestations, you love Jews more than the writers for whom it was so painful to write critically of the Jewish community? Didn’t you bury them outside the wall, when you could, with no stone to mark their grave? Incidentally, Reb Hersh, I want you to know that this neighborhood we’re in is old Paris. Here by the Hôtel de Ville, where we’re sitting, is the Place de Grève—that is, Execution Square, where they used to torture and execute those who were condemned to death. It was right here, more than seven hundred years ago, that Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed was burned, on a denunciation by eminent and zealous rabbis. Rabbi Jonah Gerondi had a hand in it. Later, when the priests began to burn the Talmud too, Rabbi Jonah felt that it was a punishment from Heaven for his warfare against Maimonides, and he repented. That was when he wrote his Gates of Repentance. In Novaredok they used to read the Gates of Repentance with such outcries that their lungs were almost torn to shreds; but they never thought to learn its moral, which is not to be fanatical.
“How estranged you feel from all secular Jews can be seen in your constant repetition of ‘we’ and ‘you.’ You laugh at us poor secularists. You say that our suffering is pointless; we don’t want to be Jews, but we can’t help it. It would follow that the German made a mistake in taking us for Jews. But it’s you who make that mistake. The enemies of Israel know very well that we’re the same; they say it openly. And we’re the same not only for the enemies of Israel, but for the Master of the World as well! In the other world your soul won’t be wearing a cap or a beard or sidecurls. Your soul will come there as naked as mine. You would have it that the real Community of Israel is a handful of Hersh Rasseyners. The others are quarter-Jews, tenth-Jews—or not even that. You say that being Jewish is indivisible, all or nothing. So you make us Jews a thousand times fewer than we already are.
“You were right when you said that it was not a third of our people that was murdered, but rather that a third was cut out of the flesh and soul of every Jew who survived. As far as you’re concerned, though, Reb Hersh, was it really a third of our people that perished? The gist of what you say—again the same thing—is that anyone who isn’t your kind of Jew is not a Jew at all. Doesn’t that mean that there were more bodies burned than Jews who were murdered? You see to what cruelty your religious fanaticism must lead.
“I Want you to consider this and settle it with yourself. Those Jews who didn’t worry night and day about the high destiny of man, who weren’t among the thirty-six hidden righteous men who sustain the world, but who lived a life of poverty for themselves, their wives, and their children; those Jews who got up in the morning without saying the proper morning prayers and ate their black bread without saying the blessing over bread; those Jews who labored on the Sabbath and didn’t observe the last detail of the Law on Holy Days; those Jews who waited submissively and patiently at the table of this world for a crumb to fall their way (that’s what you, Reb Hersh, the hermit of Novaredok, the man who lives apart, taunted them with), those Jews who lived together in neighborliness, in small quarrels and small reconciliations, and perished together in the same way—do you admit them to your paradise or not? And where will they sit? At the east wall, together with the Mussarists, or at the door, with their feet outside? You will tell me that the simple man is saintly and pure, because he perished as a Jew. But if he survived, is he wicked and evil, because he doesn’t follow in your way? Is that your mercy and love for the Community of Israel? And you dare to speak in their name and say you’re the spokesman of the sainted dead! Why are you getting up? Do you want to run away? But you assured me you used to dream of meeting me and talking it out with me. Can you only talk and not listen? Novaredok Mussarist, sit down and hear me out!
“If secular Jews are so alien to you, why should I be surprised at the blackness of your hatred against the whole non-Jewish world? But let’s not quarrel any more, Reb Hersh; let’s reckon our accounts quietly. May we hate the whole non-Jewish world? You know as well as I do that there were some who saved the lives of Jews. I won’t enter into a discussion with you about the exact number of such people. It’s enough for me that you know there were some.
“In 1946, in Poland, I once attended a small gathering in honor of a Pole, a Christian who had hidden ten Jews. At that little party we all sat around a table. We didn’t praise the doctor, we didn’t talk about noble and exalted things, about humanity and heroism, or even about Jews and Poles. We simply asked him how it was that he wasn’t afraid to hide ten Jews behind the wall of his office. The doctor was a small, gray-haired man. He kept on smiling, almost childishly, and he thanked us in embarrassment for the honor—a great honor!—that we were doing him. He answered our question in a low voice, almost tongue-tied: when he hid the Jews he felt sure that since it was a good deed, nothing bad would happen to him.
“Here in Paris there’s an old lady, a Lithuanian. I know her well. Everybody knows that in the Vilna ghetto she saved the lives of Jews, and also hid books. The Germans sentenced her to death, but she was spared by a miracle. They sent her to a camp in France. Since she was liberated she has been associating with Jewish refugees. She’s an old revolutionist, an atheist; that is to say, she doesn’t believe in God.
“Imagine that both of them, the old lady and the old man, the Lithuanian and the Pole, the revolutionist and the Christian, were sitting here listening to us! They don’t say anything, they only listen. They are frightened by your accusations, but not angry, because they understand that your hatred grows out of sorrow. Neither do they regret having saved the lives of Jews; they only feel an ache in their hearts, a great pain. Why do you think they saved the lives of Jews? The devout Christian didn’t try to convert anyone. The old revolutionist didn’t try to make anyone an atheist; on the contrary, she hid our sacred books. They saved the lives of Jews not from pity alone, but for their own sakes as well. They wanted to prove to themselves—no one else could possibly have known—that the whole world does not consist only of criminals and those who are indifferent to the misfortune of others. They wanted to save their own faith in human beings, together with the lives of Jews. Now you come along and repudiate everything in the world that isn’t piously Jewish. I ask you: is there room in your world for these two old people? Don’t you see that you would drive them out into the night? Will you take them, the righteous of the nations of the world, out of the category of Gentile and put them in a special category? They didn’t risk their lives so that Reb Hersh Rasseyner, who hates everyone, everyone, could make an exception of them.
“But you ask me what has changed for me since the destruction. And what has changed for you, Reb Hersh? You answer that your faith has been strengthened. I tell you openly that your answer is a paltry, whining answer. I don’t accept it at all. You must ask God the old question about the righteous man who fares ill and the evil man who fares well —only multiplied for a million murdered children. The fact that you know in advance that there will be no explanation from Heaven doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility of asking, Reb Hersh! If your faith is as strong as Job’s, then you must have his courage to cry out to Heaven: ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him; but I will argue my ways before Him!’ If a man hasn’t sinned, he isn’t allowed to declare himself guilty. As for us, even if we were devils, we couldn’t have sinned enough for our just punishment to be a million murdered children. That’s why your answer that your faith has been strengthened is no answer at all, as long as you don’t demand an accounting of Heaven.
“Reb Hersh, we’re both tired and burned out from a whole day of arguing. You ask what has changed for me. The change is that I want to make peace with you, because I love you deeply. I never hated you and I never searched for flaws in your character, but what I did see I didn’t leave unsaid. When you became angry with me before I left, I became angry with you, but now I’m filled with love for you. I say to you as the Almighty said to the Jews assembled in Jerusalem on the feast days: I want to be with you one day more, it is hard for me to part from you. That’s what has changed for me and for all Jewish writers. Our love for Jews has become deeper and more sensitive. I don’t renounce the world, but in all honesty I must tell you we want to in-corporate into ourselves the hidden inheritance of our people’s strengths, so that we can continue to live. I plead with you, do not deny us a share in the inheritance. However loudly we call out to Heaven and demand. an accounting, our outcry conceals a quiet prayer for the Divine Presence, or for the countenance of those destroyed in the flames, to rest on the alienated Jews. The Jewish countenance of the burned still hangs in clouds of gas in the void. And our cry of impotent anger against Heaven has a deeper meaning as well: because we absolutely refuse our assent to the infamous and enormous evil that has been visited on us, because we categorically deny its justice, no slavish or perverse acquiescence can take root in our hearts, no despairing belief that the world has no sense or meaning.
“Reb Hersh, we have been friends since the old days in the Yeshiva. I remember that I once lost the little velvet bag in which I kept my phylacteries. You didn’t eat breakfast and you spent half a day looking for it, but you couldn’t find it. I got another bag to hold my phylacteries, but you’re still looking for the old one.
“Remember, Reb Hersh, that the texts inscribed in my phylacteries are about the Community of Israel. Don’t think that it’s easy for us Jewish writers. It’s hard, very hard. The same misfortune befell us all, but you have a ready answer, while we have not silenced all our doubts, and perhaps we never will be able to silence them. The only joy that’s left to us is the joy of creation, and in all the travail of creation we try to draw near to our people.
“Reb Hersh, it’s late, let us take leave of each other. Our paths are different, spiritually and practically. We are the remnant of those who were driven out. The wind that uprooted us is dispersing us to all the corners of the earth. Who knows whether we shall ever meet again? May we both have the merit of meeting again in the future and seeing how it is with us. And may I then be as Jewish as I am now. Reb Hersh, let us embrace each other. . . .”
My War with Hersh Rasseyner A Story
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A foreign-policy approach based in security and pragmatism is now characterized by retrenchment and radicalism
And yet realism is currently in crisis.
Realism was once a sophisticated intellectual tradition that represented the best in American statecraft. Eminent Cold War realists were broadly supportive of America’s postwar internationalism and its stabilizing role in global affairs, even as they stressed the need for prudence and restraint in employing U.S. power. Above all, Cold War–era realism was based on a hard-earned understanding that Americans must deal with the geopolitical realities as they are, rather than retreat to the false comfort provided by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
More recently, however, those who call themselves realists have lost touch with this tradition. Within academia, realism has become synonymous with a preference for radical retrenchment and the deliberate destruction of arrangements that have fostered international stability and prosperity for decades. Within government, the Trump administration appears to be embracing an equally misguided version of realism—an approach that masquerades as shrewd realpolitik but is likely to prove profoundly damaging to American power and influence. Neither of these approaches is truly “realist,” as neither promotes core American interests or deals with the world as it really is. The United States surely needs the insights that an authentically realist approach to global affairs can provide. But first, American realism will have to undergo a reformation.
The Realist Tradition
Realism has taken many forms over the years, but it has always been focused on the imperatives of power, order, and survival in an anarchic global arena. The classical realists—Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes—considered how states and leaders should behave in a dangerous world in which there was no overarching morality or governing authority strong enough to regulate state behavior. The great modern realists—thinkers and statesmen such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Henry Kissinger—grappled with the same issues during and after the catastrophic upheaval that characterized the first half of the 20th century.
They argued that it was impossible to transcend the tragic nature of international politics through good intentions or moralistic maxims, and that seeking to do so would merely empower the most ruthless members of the international system. They contended, on the basis of bitter experience, that aggression and violence were always a possibility in international affairs, and that states that desired peace would thus have to prepare for war and show themselves ready to wield coercive power. Most important, realist thinkers tended to place a high value on policies and arrangements that restrained potential aggressors and created a basis for stability within an inherently competitive global environment.
For this very reason, leading Cold War–era realists advocated a robust American internationalism as the best way of restraining malevolent actors and preventing another disastrous global crack-up—one that would inevitably reach out and touch the United States, just as the world wars had. Realist thinkers understood that America was uniquely capable of stabilizing the international order and containing Soviet power after World War II, even as they disagreed—sometimes sharply—over the precise nature and extent of American commitments. Moreover, although Cold War realists recognized the paramount role of power in international affairs, most also recognized that U.S. power would be most effective if harnessed to a compelling concept of American moral purpose and exercised primarily through enduring partnerships with nations that shared core American values. “An idealistic policy undisciplined by political realism is bound to be unstable and ineffective,” the political scientist Robert Osgood wrote. “Political realism unguided by moral purpose will be self-defeating and futile.” Most realists were thus sympathetic to the major initiatives of postwar foreign policy, such as the creation of U.S.-led military alliances and the cultivation of a thriving Western community composed primarily of liberal democracies.
At the same time, Cold War realists spoke of the need for American restraint. They worried that America’s liberal idealism, absent a sense of limits, would carry the country into quixotic crusades. They thought that excessive commitments at the periphery of the global system could weaken the international order against its radical challengers. They believed that a policy of outright confrontation toward the Kremlin could be quite dangerous. “Absolute security for one power means absolute insecurity for all others,” Kissinger wrote. Realists therefore advocated policies meant to temper American ambition and the most perilous aspects of superpower competition. They supported—and, in Kissinger’s case, led—arms-control agreements and political negotiations with Moscow. They often objected to America’s costliest interventions in the Third World. Kennan and Morgenthau were among the first mainstream figures to go public with opposition to American involvement in Vietnam (Morgenthau did so in the pages of Commentary in May 1962).
During the Cold War, then, realism was a supple, nuanced doctrine. It emphasized the need for balance in American statecraft—for energetic action blended with moderation, for hard-headed power politics linked to a regard for partnerships and values. It recognized that the United States could best mitigate the tragic nature of international relations by engaging with, rather than withdrawing from, an imperfect world.
This nuance has now been lost. Academics have applied the label of realism to dangerous and unrealistic policy proposals. More disturbing and consequential still, the distortion of realism seems to be finding a sympathetic hearing in the Trump White House.
Realism as Retrenchment
Consider the state of academic realism. Today’s most prominent self-identified realists—Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, and Christopher Layne—advocate a thoroughgoing U.S. retrenchment from global affairs. Whereas Cold War realists were willing to see the world as it was—a world that required unequal burden-sharing and an unprecedented, sustained American commitment to preserve international stability—academic realists now engage in precisely the wishful thinking that earlier realists deplored. They assume that the international order can essentially regulate itself and that America will not be threatened by—and can even profit from—a more unsettled world. They thus favor discarding the policies that have proven so successful over the decades in providing a congenial international climate.
Why has academic realism gone astray? If the Cold War brokered the marriage between realists and American global engagement, the end of the Cold War precipitated a divorce. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. policymakers continued to pursue an ambitious global agenda based on preserving and deepening both America’s geopolitical advantage and the liberal international order. For many realists, however, the end of the Cold War removed the extraordinary threat—an expansionist USSR—that had led them to support such an agenda in the first place. Academic realists argued that the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s (primarily in the former Yugoslavia) reflected capriciousness rather than a prudent effort to deal with sources of instability. Similarly, they saw key policy initiatives—especially NATO enlargement and the Iraq war of 2003—as evidence that Washington was no longer behaving with moderation and was itself becoming a destabilizing force in global affairs.
These critiques were overstated, but not wholly without merit. The invasion and occupation of Iraq did prove far costlier than expected, as the academic realists had indeed warned. NATO expansion—even as it successfully promoted stability and liberal reform in Eastern Europe—did take a toll on U.S.–Russia relations. Having lost policy arguments that they thought they should have won, academic realists decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater, calling for a radical reformulation of America’s broader grand strategy.
The realists’ preferred strategy has various names—“offshore balancing,” “restraint,” etc.—but the key components and expectations are consistent. Most academic realists argue that the United States should pare back or eliminate its military alliances and overseas troop deployments, going back “onshore” only if a hostile power is poised to dominate a key overseas region. They call on Washington to forgo costly nation-building and counterinsurgency missions overseas and to downgrade if not abandon the promotion of democracy and human rights.
Academic realists argue that this approach will force local actors in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia to assume greater responsibility for their own security, and that the United States can manipulate—through diplomacy, arms sales, and covert action—the resulting rivalries and conflicts to prevent any single power from dominating a key region and thereby threatening the United States. Should these calculations prove faulty and a hostile power be poised to dominate, Washington can easily swoop in to set things aright, as it did during the world wars. Finally, if even this calculation were to prove faulty, realists argue that America can ride out the danger posed by a regional hegemon because the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and America’s nuclear deterrent provide geopolitical immunity against existential threats.
Today’s academic realists portray this approach as hard-headed, economical strategy. But in reality, it represents a stark departure from classical American realism. During the Cold War, leading realists placed importance on preserving international stability and heeded the fundamental lesson of World Wars I and II—that the United States, by dint of its power and geography, was the only actor that could anchor international arrangements. Today’s academic realists essentially argue that the United States should dismantle the global architecture that has undergirded the international order—and that Washington can survive and even thrive amid the ensuing disorder. Cold War realists helped erect the pillars of a peaceful and prosperous world. Contemporary academic realists advocate tearing down those pillars and seeing what happens.
The answer is “nothing good.” Contemporary academic realists sit atop a pyramid of faulty assumptions. They assume that one can remove the buttresses of the international system without that system collapsing, and that geopolitical burdens laid down by America will be picked up effectively by others. They assume that the United States does not need the enduring relationships that its alliances have fostered, and that it can obtain any cooperation it needs via purely transactional interactions. They assume that a world in which the United States ceases to promote liberal values will not be a world less congenial to America’s geopolitical interests. They assume that revisionist states will be mollified rather than emboldened by an American withdrawal, and that the transition from U.S. leadership to another global system will not unleash widespread conflict. Finally, they assume that if such upheaval does erupt, the United States can deftly manage and even profit from it, and that America can quickly move to restore stability at a reasonable cost should it become necessary to do so.
The founding generation of American realists had learned not to indulge in wishfully thinking that the international order would create or sustain itself, or that the costs of responding to rampant international disorder would be trivial. Today’s academic realists, by contrast, would stake everything on a leap into the unknown.
For many years, neither Democratic nor Republican policymakers were willing to make such a leap. Now, however, the Trump administration appears inclined to embrace its own version of foreign-policy realism, one that bears many similarities to—and contains many of the same liabilities as—the academic variant. One of the least academic presidents in American history may, ironically, be buying into some of the most misguided doctrines of the ivory tower.
Any assessment of the Trump administration must remain somewhat provisional, given that Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy is still a work in progress. Yet Trump and his administration have so far taken multiple steps to outline a three-legged-stool vision of foreign policy that they explicitly describe as “realist” in orientation. Like modern-day academic realism, however, this vision diverges drastically from the earlier tradition of American realism and leads to deeply problematic policy.
The first leg is President Trump’s oft-stated view of the international environment as an inherently zero-sum arena in which the gains of other countries are America’s losses. The post–World War II realists, by contrast, believed that the United States could enjoy positive-sum relations with like-minded nations. Indeed, they believed that America could not enjoy economic prosperity and national security unless its major trading partners in Europe and Asia were themselves prosperous and stable. The celebrated Marshall Plan was high-mindedly generous in the sense of addressing urgent humanitarian needs in Europe, yet policymakers very much conceived of it as serving America’s parochial economic and security interests at the same time. President Trump, however, sees a winner and loser in every transaction, and believes—with respect to allies and adversaries alike—that it is the United States who generally gets snookered. The “reality” at the core of Trump’s realism is his stated belief that America is exploited “by every nation in the world virtually.”
This belief aligns closely with the second leg of the Trump worldview: the idea that all foreign policy is explicitly competitive in nature. Whereas the Cold War realists saw a Western community of states, President Trump apparently sees a dog-eat-dog world where America should view every transaction—even with allies—on a one-off basis. “The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage,” wrote National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn in an op-ed. “Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.”
To be sure, Cold War realists were deeply skeptical about “one worldism” and appeals to a global community. But still they saw the United States and its allies as representing the “free world,” a community of common purpose forged in the battle against totalitarian enemies. The Trump administration seems to view U.S. partnerships primarily on an ad hoc basis, and it has articulated something akin to a “what have you done for me lately” approach to allies. The Cold War realists—who understood how hard it was to assemble effective alliances in the first place—would have found this approach odd in the extreme.
Finally, there is the third leg of Trump’s “realism”: an embrace of amorality. President Trump has repeatedly argued that issues such as the promotion of human rights and democracy are merely distractions from “winning” in the international arena and a recipe for squandering scarce resources. On the president’s first overseas trip to the Middle East in May, for instance, he promised not to “lecture” authoritarian countries on their internal behavior, and he made clear his intent to embrace leaders who back short-term U.S. foreign-policy goals no matter how egregious their violations of basic human rights and political freedoms. Weeks later, on a visit to Poland, the president did speak explicitly about the role that shared values played in the West’s struggle against Communism during the Cold War, and he invoked “the hope of every soul to live in freedom.” Yet his speech contained only the most cursory reference to Russia—the authoritarian power now undermining democratic governance and security throughout Europe and beyond. Just as significant, Trump failed to mention that Poland itself—until a few years ago, a stirring exemplar of successful transition from totalitarianism to democracy—is today sliding backwards toward illiberalism (as are other countries within Europe and the broader free world).
At first glance, this approach might seem like a modern-day echo of Cold War debates about whether to back authoritarian dictators in the struggle against global Communism. But, as Jeane Kirkpatrick explained in her famous 1979 Commentary essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” and as Kissinger himself frequently argued, Cold War realists saw such tactical alliances of convenience as being in the service of a deeper values-based goal: the preservation of an international environment favoring liberty and democracy against the predations of totalitarianism. Moreover, they understood that Americans would sustain the burdens of global leadership over a prolonged period only if motivated by appeals to their cherished ideals as well as their concrete interests. Trump, for his part, has given only faint and sporadic indications of any appreciation of the traditional role of values in American foreign policy.
Put together, these three elements have profound, sometimes radical, implications for America’s approach to a broad range of global issues. Guided by this form of realism, the Trump administration has persistently chastised and alienated long-standing democratic allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific and moved closer to authoritarians in Saudi Arabia, China, and the Philippines. The president’s body language alone has been striking: Trump’s summits have repeatedly showcased conviviality with dictators and quasi-authoritarians and painfully awkward interactions with democratic leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel. Similarly, Trump has disdained international agreements and institutions that do not deliver immediate, concrete benefits for the United States, even if they are critical to forging international cooperation on key issues or advancing longer-term goods. As Trump has put it, he means to promote the interests of Pittsburgh, not Paris, and he believes that those interests are inherently at odds with each other.
To be fair, President Trump and his proxies do view the war on terror as a matter of defending both American security interests and Western civilization’s values against the jihadist onslaught. This was a key theme of Trump’s major address in Warsaw. Yet the administration has not explained how this civilizational mindset would inform any other aspect of its foreign policy—with the possible exception of immigration policy—and resorts far more often to the parochial lens of nationalism.
The Trump administration seems to be articulating a vision in which America has no lasting friends, little enduring concern with values, and even less interest in cultivating a community of like-minded nations that exists for more than purely deal-making purposes. The administration has often portrayed this as clear-eyed realism, even invoking the founding father of realism, Thucydides, as its intellectual lodestar. This approach does bear some resemblance to classical realism: an unsentimental approach to the world with an emphasis on the competitive aspects of the international environment. And insofar as Trump dresses down American allies, rejects the importance of values, and focuses on transactional partnerships, his version of realism has quite a lot in common with the contemporary academic version.
Daniel Drezner of Tufts University has noted the overlap, declaring in a Washington Post column, “This is [academic] realism’s moment in the foreign policy sun.” Randall Schweller of Ohio State University, an avowed academic realist and Trump supporter, has been even more explicit, noting approvingly that “Trump’s foreign-policy approach essentially falls under the rubric of ‘off-shore balancing’” as promoted by ivory-tower realists in recent decades.
Yet one suspects that the American realists who helped create the post–World War II order would not feel comfortable with either the academic or Trumpian versions of realism as they exist today. For although both of these approaches purport to be about power and concrete results, both neglect the very things that have allowed the United States to use its power so effectively in the past.
Both the academic and Trump versions of realism ignore the fact that U.S. power is most potent when it is wielded in concert with a deeply institutionalized community of like-minded nations. Alliances are less about addition and subtraction—the math of the burden-sharing emphasized by Trump and the academic realists—and more about multiplication, leveraging U.S. power to influence world events at a fraction of the cost of unilateral approaches. The United States would be vastly less powerful and influential in Europe and Central Asia without NATO; it would encounter far greater difficulties in rounding up partners to wage the ongoing war in Afghanistan or defeat the Islamic State; it would find itself fighting alone—rather than with some of the world’s most powerful partners—far more often. Likewise, without its longstanding treaty allies in Asia, the United States would be at an almost insurmountable disadvantage vis-à-vis revisionist powers in that region, namely China.
Both versions of realism also ignore the fact that America has been able to exercise its enormous power with remarkably little global resistance precisely because American leaders, by and large, have paid sufficient regard to the opinions of potential partners. Of course, every administration has sought to “put America first,” but the pursuit of American self-interest has proved most successful when it enjoys the acquiescence of other states. Likewise, the academic and Trump versions of realism too frequently forget that America draws power by supporting values with universal appeal. This is why every American president from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama has recognized that a more democratic world is likely to be one that is both ideologically and geopolitically more congenial to the United States.
Most important, both the academic and Trump versions of realism ignore the fact that the classical post–World War II realists deliberately sought to overcome the dog-eat-dog world that modern variants take as a given. They did so by facilitating cooperation within the free world, suppressing the security competitions that had previously led to cataclysmic wars, creating the basis for a thriving international economy, and thereby making life a little less nasty, brutish, and short for Americans as well as for vast swaths of the world’s population.
If realism is about maximizing power, effectiveness, and security in a competitive global arena, then neither the academic nor the Trump versions of realism merits the name. And if realism is meant to reflect the world as it is, both of these versions are deeply deficient.
This is a tragedy. For if ever there were a moment for an informed realism, it would be now, as the strategic horizon darkens and a more competitive international environment reemerges. There is still time for Trump and his team to adapt, and realism can still make a constructive contribution to American policy. But first it must rediscover its roots—and absorb the lessons of the past 70 years.
The Seven Pillars of Realism
A reformed realism should be built upon seven bedrock insights, which President Trump would do well to embrace.
First, American leadership remains essential to restraining global disorder. Today’s realists channel the longstanding American hope that there would come a time when the United States could slough off the responsibilities it assumed after World War II and again become a country that relies on its advantageous geography to keep the world at arm’s length. Yet realism compels an awareness that America is exceptionally suited to the part it has played for nearly four generations. The combination of its power, geographic location, and values has rendered America uniquely capable of providing a degree of global order in a way that is more reassuring than threatening to most of the key actors in the international system. Moreover, given that today the most ambitious and energetic international actors besides the United States are not liberal democracies but aggressive authoritarian powers, an American withdrawal is unlikely to produce multipolar peace. Instead, it is likely to precipitate the upheaval that U.S. engagement and activism have long been meant to avert. As a corollary, realists must also recognize that the United States is unlikely to thrive amid such upheaval; it will probably find that the disorder spreads and ultimately implicates vital American interests, as was twice the case in the first half of the 20th century.
Second, true realism recognizes the interdependence of hard and soft power. In a competitive world, there is no substitute for American hard power, and particularly for military muscle. Without guns, there will not—over the long term—be butter. But military power, by itself, is an insufficient foundation for American strategy. A crude reliance on coercion will damage American prestige and credibility in the end; hard power works best when deployed in the service of ideas and goals that command widespread international approval. Similarly, military might is most effective when combined with the “softer” tools of development assistance, foreign aid, and knowledge of foreign societies and cultures. The Trump administration has sought to eviscerate these nonmilitary capabilities and bragged about its “hard-power budget”; it would do better to understand that a balance between hard and soft power is essential.
Third, values are an essential part of American realism. Of course, the United States must not undertake indiscriminate interventions in the name of democracy and human rights. But, fortunately, no serious policymaker—not Woodrow Wilson, not Jimmy Carter, not George W. Bush—has ever embraced such a doctrine. What most American leaders have traditionally recognized is that, on balance, U.S. interests will be served and U.S. power will be magnified in a world in which democracy and human rights are respected. Ronald Reagan, now revered for his achievements in improving America’s global position, understood this point and made the selective promotion of democracy—primarily through nonmilitary means—a key part of his foreign policy. While paying due heed to the requirements of prudence and the limits of American power, then, American realists should work to foster a climate in which those values can flourish.
Fourth, a reformed realism requires aligning relations with the major powers appropriately—especially today, as great-power tensions rise. That means appreciating the value of institutions that have bound the United States to some of the most powerful actors in the international system for decades and thereby given Washington leadership of the world’s dominant geopolitical coalition. It means not taking trustworthy allies for granted or picking fights with them gratuitously. It also means not treating actual adversaries, such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as if they were trustworthy partners (as Trump has often talked of doing) or as if their aggressive behavior were simply a defensive response to American provocations (as many academic realists have done). A realistic approach to American foreign policy begins by seeing great-power relations through clear eyes.
Fifth, limits are essential. Academic realists are wrong to suggest that values should be excised from U.S. policy; they are wrong to argue that the United States should pull back dramatically from the world. Yet they are right that good statecraft requires an understanding of limits—particularly for a country as powerful as the United States, and particularly at a time when the international environment is becoming more contested. The United States cannot right every wrong, fix every problem, or defend every global interest. America can and should, however, shoulder more of the burden than modern academic and Trumpian realists believe. The United States will be effective only if it chooses its battles carefully; it will need to preserve its power for dealing with the most pressing threat to its national interests and the international order—the resurgence of authoritarian challenges—even if that means taking an economy-of-force approach to other issues.
Sixth, realists must recognize that the United States has not created and sustained a global network of alliances, international institutions, and other embedded relationships out of a sense of charity. It has done so because those relationships provide forums through which the United States can exercise power at a bargain-basement price. Embedded relationships have allowed the United States to rally other nations to support American causes from the Korean War to the counter-ISIS campaign, and have reduced the transaction costs of collective action to meet common threats from international terrorism to p.iracy. They have provided institutional megaphones through which the United States can amplify its diplomatic voice and project its influence into key issues and regions around the globe. If these arrangements did not exist, the United States would find itself having to create them, or acting unilaterally at far greater cost. If realism is really about maximizing American power, true realists ought to be enthusiastic about relationships and institutions that serve that purpose. Realists should adopt the approach that every post–Cold War president has embraced: that the United States will act unilaterally in defense of its interests when it must, but multilaterally with partners whenever it can.
Finally, realism requires not throwing away what has worked in the past. One of the most astounding aspects of both contemporary academic realism and the Trumpian variant of that tradition is the cavalier attitude they display toward arrangements and partnerships that have helped produce a veritable golden age of international peace, stability, and liberalism since World War II, and that have made the United States the most influential and effective actor in the globe in the process. Of course, there have been serious and costly conflicts over the past decades, and U.S. policy has always been thoroughly imperfect. But the last 70 years have been remarkably good ones for U.S. interests and the global order—whether one compares them with the 70 years before the United States adopted its global leadership role, or compares them with the violent disorder that would have emerged if America followed the nostrums peddled today under the realist label. A doctrine that stresses that importance of prudence and discretion, and that was originally conservative in its preoccupation with stability and order, ought not to pursue radical changes in American statecraft or embrace a “come what may” approach to the world. Rather, such a doctrine ought to recognize that true achievements are enormously difficult to come by—and that the most realistic approach to American strategy would thus be to focus on keeping a good thing going.
The story of Britain’s unknown neoconservatives
During the decade that followed, the prospects of “the sick man of Europe” were seemingly transformed. With the free market unleashed and the authority of the democratic government restored, inflation fell, growth resumed, and the unions were tamed. Britain became the laboratory for an experiment—privatization—that would transform not just its economy, but that of many countries throughout the world that came to look to it for inspiration.
More than any other Briton, one person was responsible for this about-turn: Margaret Thatcher. The foundations for what came to be known as the Thatcher revolution were laid in the four years she spent as leader of the Opposition before the Conservative Party she led was returned to power at the 1979 general election. During this period, much of the groundwork was done by a curious and unlikely triumvirate. Thatcher, the daughter of a shopkeeper and Methodist lay preacher from the provincial Middle England town of Grantham, was both the leader and the follower of the other two. They were Sir Keith Joseph, the scion of a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family, and Alfred Sherman, a former Communist working-class Jew from London’s East End whose parents had fled Czarist Russia.
Traditionally, the relationship between Jews and the Conservative Party had been one of mutual distrust. It was the Tories, for instance, who had attempted to shut the door to Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, while it was the Labour Party in which many of their sons and daughters would find a sympathetic home. An all-too-common mix of snobbery and anti-Semitism dominated the upper echelons of the Conservative Party, seemingly undisturbed by the fact that, by the 1930s, upward mobility began to enable some Jews to leave behind the socialist citadels of the inner cities and find a home in Tory-voting suburbia.
After the war, the association between the Tory Party and prewar appeasement, indifference verging on hostility to the birth of the state of Israel, and occasional manifestations of anti-Semitism among its grassroots membership meant that many Jews continued to shun it. There were only two Jews on the Tory benches in the House of Commons in the 25 years between 1945 and 1970—as against, at its peak, 38 Jewish Labour MPs in 1966. During the 1970s, this began to shift: Further demographic changes within the Jewish community, Labour’s drift toward anti-Zionism, and the more meritocratic bent of the Conservative Party, begun under Prime Minister Ted Heath (1970–74) and accelerated by Thatcher, dramatically increased the number of Jews voting Tory and sitting on the party’s benches in parliament.
If the Tory Party had historically been unwelcoming toward Jews, it had also had little time for intellectuals. While the notion of the Conservatives as the “stupid party,” as Britain’s only Jewish prime minster called it, was overblown, it was also true that many Tories regarded ideas and those who traded in them as suspect and a distraction from the party’s mission to govern the nation unencumbered by the kind of intellectual baggage that might hinder its ruthlessly successful pursuit of power.
Thatcher, Joseph, and Sherman would change all that.
When Thatcher unseated Heath as the Conservative Party’s leader in February 1975, the party was suffering an acute crisis of confidence. Heath had lost three of the four elections he had fought against Labour’s wily leader, Harold Wilson. The previous October, the Tories had received their lowest share of the vote since 1945.
These political problems were accompanied by—indeed, caused by, Thatcher was certain—a lack of self-belief. For three decades, the Tories had embraced the postwar consensus of Keynesian economics and a welfare state. In 1970, the party’s “Selsdon Manifesto” had promised to break with that ignoble history by freeing up the economy, reining in government, and clipping the wings of the nation’s powerful trade unions. But, barely two years in office, Heath’s government had buckled at the first sign of resistance and executed a less than gracious U-turn: caving into miners in the face of a strike and rolling back some newly introduced restrictions on the unions; ditching fiscal caution in an ill-fated “dash for growth”; and introducing wage and price controls. Its Industry Act, crowed the leader of Labour’s left, Tony Benn, was “spadework for socialism.” As members of the Heath government, Thatcher and Joseph—respectively responsible for the high-spending education and health departments—were implicated in this intellectual and political betrayal. But, unlike many of their colleagues, the two most economically conservative members of Heath’s Cabinet were determined it would be the last.
The son of a former lord mayor of London, Joseph was an improbable revolutionary by both background and temperament. Sherman would later note his ally’s “tendency to wilt under pressure” and aversion to conflict.
And yet Joseph was to be the man who lit the touch paper that, as Sherman put it, “sparked off the Thatcher revolution.”
Thatcher and Joseph shared a common attribute: the sense that they were both outsiders. Hers stemmed from her grocer’s-daughter upbringing, the snobbery and disdain she encountered at Oxford from both the upper-class grandees of the Conservative Association and the liberal intelligentsia that dominated its academic body, and later, her gender, as she sought a safe Tory seat.
His originated from his Judaism. In later life, Joseph suggested that the advantage of being Jewish was that to be successful, “you have to spark on all four cylinders.” To put it less positively, Jews faced greater barriers to achievement than others and so had to be twice as able. Despite his rapid rise through the Tory ranks once he had entered parliament 1956, Joseph remained, in the words of one observer, “almost alien.” Nonetheless, Joseph was very much in the mainstream of postwar moderate Conservatism. He combined a liberal social outlook and concern for the poor with a belief in the importance of entrepreneurship.
Occasionally, as when the Conservatives lost power in 1964, Joseph would signal dissent with the leftward direction in which his party was drifting. In a series of speeches and articles, he bemoaned the Tories’ failure to free Britain from the collectivist constraints Labour had imposed upon it after the war, talking of the need to cut taxes further, give business greater freedom, and, perhaps most significantly for the future, raise the then virtually unheard-of prospect of privatization.
But for the most part he toed the party line, as did Thatcher. Neither indicated any personal misgivings or public signs of disagreement when Heath abandoned the free-market program on which the Conservative government had been elected in 1970.
Joseph’s weakness at this critical moment escaped neither the wrath nor the attention of Alfred Sherman. Sherman’s upbringing in the East End of London was one, he later suggested, in which “you were born a socialist, you didn’t have to become one.”
Struggling to assimilate against a backdrop of barely disguised official anti-Semitism, Sherman became a Communist. “When we deserted the God of our fathers,” he wrote, “we were bound to go whoring after strange gods, of which socialism in its various forms was a prominent choice.” At 17, he went to war in Spain. His turn from Marxism came after World War II, when he studied at the London School of Economics and came upon F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. It “set him thinking”—and in 1948 he was expelled from the Communist Party for “deviationism.” In the unpromising terrain of 1950s socialist Israel, where he went to work as an economic advisor, he developed his fervent support for the free market. It was a cause he would vociferously promote on his return to Britain.
The two future collaborators in the Thatcher project first met when Sherman—at this point a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, the house journal of the Conservative Party—came to interview Joseph shortly after he had become a Cabinet minister in 1962. Sherman soon began to help write Joseph’s speeches, including those in which, before the Tories’ return to government in 1970, Joseph first began to tentatively break with the postwar consensus. Sherman was thus dismayed not only by the Heath government’s abandonment of its pre-election free-market pledges, but Joseph’s supposed connivance in this betrayal. He later labeled his friend “a lion in opposition and a lamb in government.”
But the shattering blow of the Tories’ ejection from office in 1974 at the hands of the unions brought the two men back together. “Keith,” Sherman bluntly told Joseph over lunch one day, “the trouble is that you agree with me but you haven’t got the backbone to say so.” While Sherman was a Conservative, his disdain for the establishment did not recognize party labels. The Tories, he believed, appeared to judge virtue by the measure of whether it won them elections. The free-market revolution that he wanted Joseph to lead was designed not simply to sweep away socialism, but to cleanse the Conservative Party of its postwar ideological sins. And so it was that, with Sherman acting as his confessor, Joseph underwent his very public recantation and conversion to Conservatism.
What Sherman would later dub “the London Spring” commenced on June 24, 1974, when Joseph delivered the first of a series of speeches eviscerating the Tories’ record and his own part in it. The introductory lines of this first speech, drafted by Sherman, represented the opening volley in what was to become a five-year assault on the postwar settlement:
This is no time to be mealy-mouthed. Since the end of the Second World War we have had altogether too much Socialism.…For half of that 30 years Conservative Governments, for understandable reasons, did not consider it practicable to reverse the vast bulk of the accumulating detritus of Socialism which on each occasion they found when they returned to office.
Just over two months later, on the eve of 1974’s second election, called by Labour’s Harold Wilson to boost his weak parliamentary position, Joseph returned to the fray once again. He assailed the last Tory government for abandoning “sound money policies,” suggested that it had been debilitated by an unwarranted fear of unemployment, and warned that inflation was “threatening to destroy our society.” His solution—neither “easy nor enjoyable”— was to cut the deficit, gradually bear down on the money supply, and accept that there was a resultant risk of a temporary increase in unemployment.
This was the moment at which the Tories began to break with the principal tenet of Keynesianism—that government’s overriding goal should be to secure full employment. As Thatcher argued in her memoirs, it was “one of the very few speeches which have fundamentally affected a political generation’s way of thinking.” A decade later, when she had been prime minister for five years, the import of Joseph’s words in Preston was clearer still. By that point, Britain was being led by a woman whose government had broken decisively with the policies of its predecessors, placed the defeat of inflation above that of unemployment, and turned monetarism into its economic lodestar. Thatcher had determined that she would not, as Joseph had cautioned against, “be stampeded again” into a Heath-like surrender to Keynes.
But at the time, Thatcher’s response to the Tory defeat in February 1974 was publicly muted. Her pronouncements—“I think we shall finish up being the more radical party”—verged on the anodyne. But she did become a vice-chair of the new Centre for Policy Studies, the think tank that Joseph and Sherman had newly established to “question the unquestioned, think the unthinkable, [and] blaze a trail,” in Sherman’s world. Not for nothing would Geoffrey Howe describe Sherman as “a zealot of the right.” During this period, as she later acknowledged, Thatcher “learned a great deal” from Sherman and Joseph. Thatcher began to attend lunches and seminars at the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs think tank and, as co-founder of the IEA, Lord Harris of High Crosssaid, said, “ponder our writing and our authors’ publications.”
That Joseph would lead while Thatcher followed was not, then, surprising. She had always regarded him as “the senior partner” in their close political friendship. Thatcher urged Joseph to challenge Heath for the Tory Party leadership and discouraged speculation that she herself might seek it. Then Joseph delivered an ill-advised speech on social policy in which he suggested that “the balance of our population, our human stock is threatened” by the birth rates of the poor. It led to a media furor and the abandonment of his still-embryonic campaign. Frustrated, Thatcher stepped into the breach. Two months later, she was elected leader.
In her campaign to take command of the Conservative Party, Thatcher sounded many of the same notes as Joseph: that voters believed too many Conservatives “had become Socialists already” and that Britain was moving inexorably in the direction of socialism, taking “two steps forward” under Labour, but only “half a step back” under the Tories. Nonetheless, she was under no illusions that her victory in the leadership election represented a “wholesale conversion” by the party to her and Joseph’s way of thinking. Over the next four years, the support and counsel of Joseph would prove invaluable.
Thatcher had, in the words of one of her Downing Street policy advisors, “no interest in ideas for their own sake,” but she did regard politics as a clash of opposing philosophies. “We must have an ideology,” she declared to the Conservative Philosophy Group, which was formed in the year she became party leader. “The other side have got an ideology they can test their policies against.” She thus looked to Joseph and Sherman to articulate her “beliefs, feelings, instincts, and intuitions into ideas, strategies, and policies,” in Sherman’s telling. They were the builders of the intellectual edifice for the instincts—that “profligacy was a vice” and government, like a prudent household, should live within its means—that, Thatcher proudly declared, she had learned from “the world in which I grew up.”
Many Tories regarded the very notion of a “battle of ideas” as dangerous nonsense. For others, it was the ideas themselves that were suspect. When Joseph presented a paper in April 1975 urging a break with the “path of consensus” and a much greater defense of “what some intellectuals disparagingly call ‘middle-class suburban values,’ a desire to enjoy economic independence, to be well thought of, patriotism”—it met with a furious response from the Tory Shadow Cabinet. Joseph’s call for the Conservatives to push an agenda of higher defense spending, an assault on union power, deep cuts in public expenditure, and measures to curb immigration and bolster the family was greeted with horror by his colleagues. But as Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore, has noted, “this startling paper furnished the main elements of what came to be called Thatcherism, both in specific policy and in general psychological terms.”
Meanwhile, memos, letters, and speeches poured forth from Sherman, invariably urging Thatcher and Joseph to go further and faster. With Sherman as his navigator and companion, Joseph himself assumed the role of outrider— “the licensed thinker scouting ahead in Indian country,” as future MP and Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin put it—helping to open up new territory for the Tory leader to occupy when she deemed it politically safe to do so. Her political antennae, much sharper and more finely attuned than those of Joseph or Sherman, proved critical to this creative mix. They drew fire from the Tory old guard, allowing Thatcher to rise above the fray and then later make public pronouncements that frequently followed the Joseph-Sherman line.
Joseph marked the territory between the two camps clearly. He urged the Tories to reach for the “common ground.” He did not mean the centrist midpoint between the two main parties’ positions, which had been the Conservative approach since the end of the war. He meant the territory where a majority of the public found itself, on the opposite side of the political establishment. As Sherman wrote to Thatcher, in trying to compete with Labour in the ephemeral center ground, the Tories had abandoned the defense of those values—“patriotism, the puritan ethic, Christianity, conventional family-based morality”— that most voters supported. More prosaically, he urged her to speak out on issues such as “national identity, law and order, and scrounging.” He thus provided her with an electoral and moral justification for pursuing a populist political strategy that dovetailed with her own instinctive convictions.
This son of Jewish immigrants would later speak of his disapproval of the term “Judeo-Christian values” and would insist that Thatcher should root her message in her own Methodist upbringing and the Tories’ close relationship with Britain’s Established Church. Thatcher proved more ecumenical. As her close friendship with Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits illustrated, she saw, and often remarked upon, the close harmony between Judaism and the nonconformist insistence on individual responsibility, community self-help, and the moral necessity of self-improvement and wealth creation imparted by her father. Not for nothing would the Sunday Telegraph later admiringly suggest during her premiership that Judaism had become “the new creed of Thatcherite Britain.”
Sherman’s early political convictions had both positive and negative ramifications. Thatcher said he brought a “convert’s zeal to the task of plotting out a new kind of free-market Conservatism.” What Sherman referred to as his “Communist decade,” he wrote, had taught him “to think big, to believe that, aligned with the forces of history, a handful of people with sufficient faith could move mountains.” His understanding of the left also allowed him to recognize, in a way neither Joseph nor Thatcher intuitively did, the need to cast Thatcherism as an anti-establishment, radical force. Combined with his assiduous wooing of disenchanted former Labour supporters, this helped Thatcher win some high-profile converts, such as the novelist Kingsley Amis, the writer Paul Johnson, and the academic John Vaizey.
The intellectual development of Thatcherism in the 1970s was, of course, the work of many hands. While not by any means exclusively so, many were Jewish and some came from outside the Tory fold. The political scientist Shirley Robin Letwin and her husband, the economist Bill Letwin, both American-born, began to offer advice and assistance with Thatcher’s speeches. While recoiling from her devotion to “Victorian values,” the economist Samuel Brittan was nonetheless an influential exponent of monetarism. His economic commentary in the Financial Times was the only newspaper column Thatcher never missed reading. Arthur Seldon, a founder of the IEA, was a supporter of the Liberal Party who hankered in vain for it return to its Gladstonian belief in limited government. He ensured the flame of free-market economics was not completely extinguished in the 1950s, helped introduce the ideas of Milton Friedman to Britain, and willingly assisted in Thatcher’s effort to smash the postwar settlement.
However, it was Joseph and Sherman who were the preeminent warriors in the battle of ideas. Joseph’s 1976 Stockton Lecture, “Monetarism Is Not Enough,” called for a squeeze on the money supply to bring down inflation, substantial cuts in taxes and spending, and “bold incentives and encouragements” to wealth-creators. It encapsulated the governing agenda and underlying philosophy of the Thatcher governments. Thatcher biographer Hugo Young believed that Joseph’s speeches during this time contained “everything that is distinctive about the economic and political philosophy” of Thatcherism. Joseph took “the moral case for capitalism” into the lion’s den of the campuses, delivering 150 speeches in three years on the virtues of the free market. Despite the frequent attempts of hard-left students to disrupt his appearances, Thatcher later concluded that Joseph’s work had been critical in restoring the right’s “intellectual self-confidence.” She said that “all that work with the intellectuals” helped underlay her government’s later successes.
In the settling of scores that followed her dramatic defenestration in November 1990, Thatcher’s sense of betrayal was evident. Among the few who escaped her harsh words were Joseph and Sherman. In the first volume of her memoirs, which she dedicated to Joseph’s memory, Thatcher wrote simply: “I could not have become Leader of the Opposition, or achieved what I did as Prime Minister, without Keith. But nor, it is fair to say, could Keith have achieved what he did without …Alfred Sherman.”
Joseph and Sherman’s presence underlines the leading role played by Jews in the intellectual regeneration of British conservatism, a prominence akin to—and perhaps even greater than—that played by Jewish neoconservatives in the Reagan revolution.
Review of 'The Strange Death of Europe' By Douglas Murray
Since Christianity had shaped the “humanism of which Europe feels legitimately proud,” the ailing pontiff argued, the constitution should make some reference to Europe’s Christian patrimony. His appeal was met with accusations of bigotry. The pope had inflamed the post-9/11 atmosphere of “Islamophobia,” one “anti-racism” outfit said. Another group asked: What about the contributions made by the “tolerant Islam of al-Andalus”? Former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing spoke for the political class: “Europeans live in a purely secular political system, where religion does not play an important role.”
Douglas Murray recounts this episode early on in his fiery, lucid, and essential polemic. It epitomized the folly of European elites who would sooner discard the Continent’s civilizational heritage than show partiality for their own culture over others’. To Murray, this tendency is quite literally suicidal—hence the “death” in his title.
The book deals mainly with Western Europe’s disastrous experiment in admitting huge numbers of Muslim immigrants without bothering to assimilate them. These immigrants now inhabit parallel communities on the outskirts of most major cities. They reject mainstream values and not infrequently go boom. Murray’s account ranges from the postwar guest-worker programs to the 2015 crisis that brought more than a million people from the Middle East and Africa.
This is dark-night-of-the-soul stuff. The author, a director at London’s Henry Jackson Society (where I was briefly a nonresident fellow), has for more than a decade been among Europe’s more pessimistic voices on immigration. My classically liberal instincts primed me to oppose him at every turn. Time and again, I found myself conceding that, indeed, he has a point. This is in large part because I have been living in and reporting on Europe for nearly four years. Events of the period have vindicated Murray’s bleak vision and confounded his critics.
Murray is right: Time isn’t mellowing out Europe’s Muslims. “The presumption of those who believed in integration is that in time everybody who arrives will become like Europeans,” Murray writes. Yet it is the young who are usually the most fanatical. Second- and third-generation immigrants make up the bulk of the estimated 5,000 Muslims who have gone off to fight with the Islamic State.
The first large wave of Muslim immigrants to Britain arrived soon after World War II. Seven decades later, an opinion survey conducted (in 2016) by the polling firm ICM found that half of Muslim Britons would proscribe homosexuality, a third would legalize polygamy, and a fifth would replace civil law with Shariah. A different survey, also conducted in 2016, found that 83 percent of young French Muslims describe their faith as “important or very important” to them, compared with 22 percent of young Catholics. I could go on with such polling data; Murray does for many pages.
He is also correct that all the various “integration” models have failed. Whether it is consensus-based social democracy in the Nordic countries, multiculturalism in Britain, or republican secularism in France, the same patterns of disintegration and social incohesion persist nearly everywhere. Different European governments have treated this or that security measure, economic policy, or urban-planning scheme as the integration panacea, to no avail.
Murray argues that the successive failures owe to a basic lack of political will. To prove the point he cites, among other things, female genital mutilation in the UK. Laws against the practice have been on the books for three decades. Even so, an estimated 130,000 British women have had their genitals cut, and not a single case has been successfully prosecuted.
Pusillanimity and retreat have been the norm among governments and cultural elites on everything from FGM to free speech to counterterrorism. The result has been that the “people who are most criticized both from within Muslim communities in Europe and among the wider population are in fact the people who fell hardest for the integration promises of liberal Europe.” It was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the fierce Somali-born proponent of Enlightenment values and women’s equality, who had to escape Holland under a death threat, not her persecutors.
And Murray is right when he says that Europeans hadn’t staged a real debate on immigration until very recently. The author might be too quick to dismiss the salutary fiscal and social effects of economic growth and immigration’s role in promoting it. At various points he even suggests that Europeans forgo economic as well as population growth if it means having to put up with fewer migrants. He praises hermetically sealed Japan, but he elides the Japanese model’s serious economic, demographic, and even psychological disadvantages.
All this is secondary to Murray’s unanswerable argument that European elites had for years cordoned off immigration from normal political debate. As he writes, “whereas the benefits of mass immigration undoubtedly exist and everybody is made very aware of them, the disadvantages of importing huge numbers of people from another culture take a great deal of time to admit to.” In some cases, most notably the child-sex grooming conspiracy in Rotherham, England, the institutions have tried to actively suppress the truth. Writes Murray: “Instead of carrying out their jobs without fear or favor, police, prosecutors, and journalists behaved as though their job was to mediate between the public and the facts.”I s it possible to imagine an alternative history, one in which Europe would absorb this many migrants from Islamic lands but suffer fewer and less calamitous harms? Murray’s surprising answer is yes. Had Europe retained its existential confidence over the course of the previous two centuries, things might have turned out differently. As it was, however, mass migration saw a “strong religious culture”—Islam—“placed into a weak and relativistic culture.”
In the book’s best chapters, Murray departs from the policy debate to attend to the sources of Europe’s existential insecurity. Germans bear much of the blame, beginning with 19th-century Bible scholarship that applied the methods of history, philology, and literary criticism to sacred scripture. That pulled the rug of theological certainty from under Europe’s feet, in Murray’s account, and then Darwin’s discoveries heightened the disorientation. Europeans next tried to substitute totalistic ideology for religion, with catastrophic results.
Finally, after World War II, they settled on human rights as the central meaning of Europe. But since Europeans could no longer believe, these rights were cut off from one of their main wellsprings: the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Catholic Church—having circumscribed the power of earthly kings across centuries and thereby “injected an anti-totalitarian vaccine into the European bloodstream,” as George Weigel has written in these pages–was scorned or ignored. Europeans forgot how they came to be free.
Somehow Europe must recover its vitality. But how? Murray is torn. On one hand, he sees how a rights-based civilization needs a theological frame, lest it succumb before a virile and energetic civilization like Islam. On the other, he thinks the leap of faith is impossible today. Murray can’t blame François, the professor-protagonist of Michel Houellebecq’s 2016 novel Submission. Faced with an Islamic takeover of France, François heads to a monastery desperate to shake his spiritual torpor. But kneeling before the Virgin doesn’t do anything for him. Islam, with its simplicity and practicality (not least the offer of up to four nubile wives), is much harder to resist.
Murray wonders whether the answer lies in art. Maybe in beauty Europeans can recover the fulfillment and sense of mystery that their ancestors once found in liturgy–only without the cosmic truth claims. He laments that contemporary European art has “given up that desire to connect us to something like the spirit of religion,” though it is possible that the current period of crisis will engender a revival. In the meanwhile, Murray has suggested, even nonbelievers should go to church as a way to mark and show gratitude for Christianity’s foundational role in Europe.
He is onto something. Figure out the identity bit in the book’s subtitle—“Immigration, Identity, Islam”—and the other two will prove much easier to sort out.
A maestro’s morality
How is it possible that a man who made his conducting debut when Grover Cleveland was president should still be sufficiently well known and revered that most of his recordings remain in print to this day? Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, Harvey Sachs’s new biography, goes a long way toward defining what made Toscanini unique.1 A conductor himself, Sachs is also the author of, among other excellent books, a previous biography of Toscanini that was published in 1978. Since then, several large caches of important primary-source material, most notably some 1,500 of the conductor’s letters, have become available to researchers. Sachs’s new biography draws on this new material and other fresh research. It is vastly longer and more detailed than its predecessor and supersedes it in every way.
Despite its length and thoroughness, Toscanini: Musician of Conscience is not a pedant’s vade mecum. Clearly and attractively written, it ranks alongside Richard Osborne’s 1998 biography of Herbert von Karajan as one of the most readable biographies of a conductor ever published. For Toscanini, as Sachs shows us, had a volatile, immensely strong-willed character, one that in time caused him to clash not only with his colleagues but with the dangerous likes of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The same fierce integrity that energized his conducting also led him to put his life at risk at a time when many of his fellow musicians were disinclined to go even slightly out of their way to push back against the Fascist tyrants of the ’30s.T oscanini: Musician of Conscience does not devote much space to close analysis of Toscanini’s interpretative choices and technical methods. For the most part, Sachs shows us Toscanini’s art through the eyes of others, and the near-unanimity of the admiration of his contemporaries, whose praise is quoted in extenso, is striking, even startling. Richard Strauss, as distinguished a conductor as he was a composer, spoke for virtually everyone in the world of music when he said, “When you see that man conduct, you feel that there is only one thing for you to do: take your baton, break it in pieces, and never conduct again.”
Fortunately for posterity, Toscanini’s unflashy yet wondrously supple baton technique can be seen up close in the 10 concerts he gave with the NBC Symphony between 1948 and 1952 that were telecast live (most of which can now be viewed in part or whole on YouTube). But while his manual gestures, whose effect was heightened by the irresistible force of his piercing gaze, were by all accounts unfailingly communicative, Toscanini’s ability to draw unforgettable performances out of the orchestras that he led had at least as much to do with his natural musical gifts. These included an infallible memory—he always conducted without a score—and an eerily exact ear for wrong notes. Such attributes would have impressed orchestra players, a hard-nosed lot, even if they had not been deployed in the service of a personality so galvanizing that most musicians found it all but impossible not to do Toscanini’s musical bidding.
What he wanted was for the most part wholly straightforward. Toscanini believed that it was his job—his duty, if you will—to perform the classics with note-perfect precision, singing tone, unflagging intensity, and an overall feeling of architectural unity that became his trademark. When an orchestra failed to give of its best, he flew into screaming rages whose verbal violence would likely not be believed were it not for the fact that there were secret tapes made. In one of his most spectacular tantrums, which has been posted on YouTube, he can be heard telling the bass players of the NBC Symphony that “you have no ears, no eyes, nothing at all…you have ears in—in your feet!”
Toscanini was able to get away with such behavior because his own gifts were so extraordinary that the vast majority of his players worshipped him. In the words of the English bassoonist Archie Camden, who played under Toscanini in the BBC Symphony from 1935 to 1939, he was “the High Priest of Music,” a man “almost of another world” whose artistic integrity was beyond question. And while his personal integrity was not nearly so unblemished—he was, as Sachs reports with unsalacious candor, a compulsive philanderer whose love letters to his mistresses are explicit to the point of pornography—there is nonetheless a parallel between the passionate conscientiousness of his music-making and his refusal to compromise with Hitler and Mussolini, both of whom were sufficiently knowledgeable about music to understand what a coup it would have been to co-opt the world’s greatest conductor.
Among the most valuable parts of Toscanini: Musician of Conscience are the sections in which Sachs describes Toscanini’s fractious relations with the German and Italian governments. Like many of his fellow countrymen, he had been initially impressed by Mussolini, so much so that he ran for the Italian parliament as a Fascist candidate in 1919. But he soon saw through Mussolini’s modernizing rodomontade to the tyrant within, and by the late ’20s he was known throughout Italy and the world as an unswerving opponent of the Fascist regime. In 1931 he was beaten by a mob of blackshirted thugs, after which he stopped conducting in Italy, explaining that he would not perform there so long as the Fascists were in power. Mussolini thereupon started tapping his telephone line, and seven years later the conductor’s passport was confiscated when he described the Italian government’s treatment of Jews as “medieval stuff” in a phone call. Had public and private pressure not been brought to bear, he might well have been jailed or murdered. Instead he was allowed to emigrate to the U.S. He did not return to Italy until after World War II.
If anything, Toscanini’s hatred for the Nazis was even more potent, above all because he was disgusted by their anti-Semitism. A philo-Semite who referred to the Jews as “this marvelous people persecuted by the modern Nero,” he wrote a letter to one of his mistresses in the immediate wake of the Anschluss that makes for arresting reading eight decades later:
My heart is torn in bits and pieces. When you think about this tragic destruction of the Jewish population of Austria, it makes your blood turn cold. Think of what a prominent part they’d played in Vienna’s life for two centuries! . . . Today, with all the great progress of our civilization, none of the so-called liberal nations is making a move. England, France, and the United States are silent!
Toscanini felt so strongly about the rising tide of anti-Semitism that he agreed in 1936 to conduct the inaugural concerts of the Palestine Symphony (later the Israel Philharmonic) as a gesture of solidarity with the Jews. In an even more consequential gesture, he had already terminated his relationship with the Bayreuth Festival, where he had conducted in 1930 and 1931, the first non-German conductor to do so. While the founder of the festival, Richard Wagner, ranked alongside Beethoven, Brahms, and Verdi at the top of Toscanini’s pantheon of musical gods, he was well aware many of the members of the Wagner family who ran Bayreuth were close friends of Adolf Hitler, and he decided to stop conducting in Germany—Bayreuth included—when the Nazis came to power. Hitler implored him to return to the festival in a personal letter that praised him as “the great representative of art and of a people friendly to Germany.” Once again, though, there was to be no compromise: Toscanini never performed in Germany again, nor would he forgive those musicians, Wilhelm Furtwängler among them, who continued to do so.I mplicit throughout Sachs’s book is the idea that Toscanini the man and Toscanini the musician were, as his subtitle suggests, inseparable—that, in other words, his conscience drove him to oppose totalitarianism in much the same way that it drove him to pour his heart and soul into his work. He was in every sense of the word a driven man, one capable of writing in an especially revealing letter that “when I’m working I don’t have time to feel joy; on the contrary, I suffer without interruption, and I feel that I’m going through all the pain and suffering of a woman giving birth.”
Toscanini was not striking a theatrical pose when he wrote these melodramatic-sounding words. The rare moments of ecstasy that he experienced on the podium were more than offset by his obsessive struggle to make the mere mortals who sang and played for him realize, as closely as possible, his vision of artistic perfection. That was why he berated them, why he ended his rehearsals drenched with sweat, why he flogged himself as unsparingly as he flogged his musicians. It was, he believed, what he had been born to do, and he was willing to move heaven and earth in order to do it.
To read of such terrifying dedication is awe-inspiring—yet it is also strangely demoralizing. To be sure, there are still artists who drive themselves as relentlessly as did Toscanini, and who pull great art out of themselves with the same iron determination. But his quasi-religious consecration to music inevitably feels alien to the light-minded spirit of our own age, dominated as it is by pop culture. It is hard to believe that NBC, the network of Jimmy Fallon and Superstore, maintained for 17 years a full-time symphony orchestra that had been organized in 1937 for the specific purpose of allowing Toscanini to give concerts under conditions that he found satisfactory. A poll taken by Fortune that year found that 40 percent of Americans could identify Toscanini as a conductor. By 1954, the year in which he gave up conducting the NBC Symphony (which was then disbanded), the number was surely much higher.
Will there ever again be a time when high art in general and classical music in particular mean as much to the American people as they did in Toscanini’s heyday? Very likely not. But at least there will be Harvey Sachs’s fine biography—and, far more important, Toscanini’s matchlessly vivid recordings—to remind us of what we once were, what we have lost, and what Arturo Toscanini himself aspired to be and to do.
1 Liveright, 923 pages. Many of Toscanini’s best commercial American recordings, made with the NBC Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, were reissued earlier this year in a budget-priced box set called Arturo Toscanini: The Essential Recordings (RCA Red Seal, 20 CD’s) whose contents were chosen by Sachs and Christopher Dyment, another noted Toscanini scholar. Most of the recordings that he made in the ’30s with the BBC Symphony are on Arturo Toscanini: The HMV Recordings (Warner Classics, six CD’s).
A blockbuster movie gets the spirit right and the details wrong
But enough about Brexit; what about Christopher Nolan’s new movie about Dunkirk?
Dunkirk is undoubtedly a blockbuster with a huge cast—Nolan has splendidly used thousands of extras rather than computer cartooning to depict the vast numbers of Allied troops trapped on the beaches—and a superb score by Hans Zimmer. Kenneth Branagh is a stiff upper-lipped rear-admiral, whose rather clunking script is all too obviously designed to tell the audience what’s going on; One Direction pop star Harry Styles is a British Tommy, and Tom Hardy is a Spitfire pilot who somehow shoots down two Heinkels while gliding, having run out of fuel about halfway through the movie. Mark Rylance, meanwhile, plays the brave skipper of a small boat taking troops off the beaches in the manner of Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver.
Yet for all the clichéd characterization, almost total lack of dialogue, complete lack of historical context (not even a cameo role for Winston Churchill), a ludicrous subplot in which a company of British soldiers stuck on a sinking boat do not use their Bren guns to defend themselves, problems with continuity (sunny days turn immediately into misty ones as the movie jumps confusingly through time), and Germans breaking into central Dunkirk whereas in fact they were kept outside the perimeter throughout the evacuation, Dunkirk somehow works well.
It works for the same reason that the 1958 film of the same name directed by Leslie Norman and starring Richard Attenborough and John Mills did. The story of the nine-day evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940 is a tale of such extraordinary heroism, luck, and intimate proximity to utter disaster that it would carry any film, even a bad one, and Nolan’s is emphatically not a bad one. Although the dogfights take place at ridiculously low altitudes, they are thrilling, and the fact that one doesn’t see a single German soldier until the closing scene, and then only two of them in silhouette, somehow works, too. See the film on the biggest screen you can, which will emphasize the enormity of the challenge faced by the Allies in getting over 336,000 troops off the beaches for the loss of only 40,000 killed, wounded and captured.
There is a scene when the armada of small boats arrives at the beaches that will bring a lump to the throat of any patriotic Briton; similarly, three swooping Spitfires are given a wonderfully evocative moment. The microcosm of the evacuation that Nolan concentrates on works well, despite another silly subplot in which a British officer with PTSD (played by Cillian Murphy) kills a young boy on Rylance’s small boat. That all the British infantry privates, not just Harry Styles, look like they sing in boy-bands doesn’t affect the power of seeing them crouch en masse under German attack in their greatcoats and helmets on the foam-flecked beaches.
On the tenth of May in 1940, Adolf Hitler invaded France, Belgium, and Holland, unleashing Blitzkrieg on the British and French armies—a new all-arms tactic of warfare that left his enemies reeling. He also sent tanks through the forests of the Ardennes mountains, which were considered impassable, and by May 16, some panzer units had already reached the English Channel. With the British and French in full retreat, on May 24 the Fuhrer halted his tanks’ headlong advance for various sound military reasons—he wanted to give his men some rest, did not want to over-extend the German army, needed to protect against counter-attack, and wanted his infantry to catch up. From May 26 to June 3, the Allies used this pause to throw up a perimeter around the French port of Dunkirk, from whose pleasure beaches more than a quarter of a million British and more than 80,000 French troops embarked to cross the Channel to safety in Britain.
Protected by the Royal Air Force, which lost 144 pilots in the skies over Dunkirk, and by the French air force (which plays no part in this movie) and transported by the Royal Navy (which doesn’t seem to be able to use its guns against the Luftwaffe in this film, but which luckily did in real life), British and French troops made it to Dover, albeit without any heavy equipment which they had to destroy on the beach. An allusion is made to that when Tom Hardy destroys the Spitfire he has (I must say quite unbelievably) landed on a beach in order to prevent its falling into German hands.
In response to a call from the British government, more than 700 private vessels were requisitioned, including yachts, paddle steamers, ferries, fishing trawlers, packet steamers and lifeboats. Even today when boating down the Thames it is possible to see small pleasure vessels sometimes only fifteen feet long with the plaque “Dunkirk 1940” proudly displayed on the cabins. That 226 were sunk by the Luftwaffe, along with six destroyers of the 220 warships that took part, shows what it meant to rise to what was afterwards called “the Dunkirk Spirit.” It was a spirit of defiance of tyranny that one glimpses regularly in this film, even if Nolan does have to pay obeisance to the modern demands for stories of cowardice alongside heroism, and the supposedly redemptive cowardice-into-heroism stories that Hollywood did not find necessary when it made Mrs. Miniver in 1942.
Nolan’s Dunkirk implies that it was the small boats that brought back the majority of the troops, whereas in fact the 39 destroyers and one cruiser involved in Operation Dynamo brought back the huge majority while the little ships did the crucial job of ferrying troops from the beaches to the destroyers. Six of which were sunk, though none by U-boats (which the film wrongly suggests were present).
Where Nolan’s film commits a libel on the British armed services is in its tin ear for the Anglo-French relations of the time. In the movie, a British beach-master prevents French infantrymen from boarding a naval vessel, saying “This is a British ship. You get your own ships.” The movie later alleges that no Frenchmen were allowed to be evacuated until all the Britons were safely back home. This was not what happened. The French were brought across the Channel in Royal Navy vessels and small boats when their units arrived on the beaches.
There was no discrimination whatsoever, and to suggest there was injects false nationalist tension into what was in truth a model of good inter-Allied cooperation. Only much later, when the Nazi-installed Vichy government in France needed to create an Anglophobic myth of betrayal at Dunkirk, did such lies emerge. It is a shame that Nolan is now propagating them—especially since this might be the only contact that millions of people will ever have with the Dunkirk story for years, perhaps even a generation. At a time when schools simply do not teach the histories of anything so patriotism-inducing as Dunkirk, it was incumbent on Nolan to get this right.
In a touching scene at the end, one of the Tommies is depicted reading from a newspaper Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of June 4, 1940, with its admonition: “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” Churchill made no attempt to minimize the scale of what he called a “colossal military disaster,” but he also spoke, rightly, of the fact that it had been a “miracle of deliverance.” That is all that matters in this story.
So despite my annoyance at how many little details are off here—for example, Tom Hardy firing 75 seconds’ worth of ammunition when he would really have only had 14.7, or choppy weather when the Channel was really like a mill pond—I must confess that such problems are only for military history pedants like me. What Nolan has gotten right is the superb spirit of the British people in overcoming hatred, resentment, and fury with calmness, courage, and good humor.
Which brings us back to Brexit.
The Swoon has several symptoms: extreme praise, a disinclination to absorb contrary facts, a weakness for adulation, and a willingness to project one’s own beliefs and dispositions onto an ill-suited target, regardless of evidence. The first thing to know about the Swoon, though, is that it is well rooted in reality. John McCain is perhaps the most interesting non-presidential figure in Washington politics since Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Any piece of journalism that aims to assess him objectively should be required to include, as a stipulation, a passage like this one from Robert Timberg’s masterful book about Vietnam, The Nightingale’s Song.
“Do you want to go home?”
“Now, McCain, it will be very bad for you.”
The [chief jailer] gleefully led the charge as the guards, at [another guard’s] command, drove fists and knees and boots into McCain. Amid laughter and muttered oaths, he was slammed from one guard to another, bounced from wall to wall, knocked down, kicked, dragged to his feet, knocked back down, punched again and again in the face. When the beating was over, he lay on the floor, bloody, arms and legs throbbing, ribs cracked, several teeth broken off at the gum line.
“Are you ready to confess your crimes?” asked [the guard].
The ropes came next . . .
This scene is, of course, from McCain’s five years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. It helps to know that before this gruesome episode began—there were many more to come—McCain’s arms had been broken and gone untreated. It helps, too, to know that the point of the torture was to force McCain to leave the prison and return home to his father, the highest ranking naval officer in the Pacific. In other words, they hung him by his broken arms because he refused to let them let him go.
Every reporter who’s done his homework knows this about McCain, and most civilians who meet him know it, too. This is the predicate for the Swoon. It began to afflict liberal journalists of the Boomer generation during the warm-up to his first run for president, against Governor George W. Bush, in the late 1990s. The reporter would be brought onto McCain’s campaign bus and receive a mock-gruff welcome from the candidate. No nervous handlers would be in evidence, like those who ever attend other candidates during interviews.
And then it happens: In casual, preliminary conversation, McCain makes an indiscreet comment about a Senate colleague. “Is that off the record?” the reporter asks, and McCain waves his hand: “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” In a minute or two, the candidate, a former fighter pilot, drops the F bomb. Then, on another subject, he makes an offhanded reference to being “in prison.” The reporter, who went through four deferments in the late 1960s smoking weed with half-naked co-eds at an Ivy League school, feels the hot, familiar surge of guilt. As the interview winds down, the reporter sees an unexpected and semi-obscure literary work—the collected short stories of William Maxwell, let’s say—that McCain keeps handy for casual reading.
By the time he’s shown off the bus—after McCain has complimented a forgotten column the reporter wrote two years ago—the man is a goner. If I saw it once in my years writing about McCain, I saw it a dozen times. (I saw it happen to me!) Soon the magazine feature appears, with a headline like “The Warrior,” or “A Question of Honor,” or even “John McCain Walks on Water.” Those are all real headlines from his first presidential campaign. This really got printed, too: “It is a perilous thing, this act of faith in a faithless time—perilous for McCain and perilous for the people who have come to him, who must realize the constant risk that, sometimes, God turns out to be just a thunderstorm, and the gold just stones agleam in the sun.”
Judging from inquiries I’ve made over the years, the only person who knows what that sentence means is the writer of it, an employee of Esquire magazine named Charles Pierce. No liberal journalist got the Swoon worse than Pierce, and no one was left with a bitterer hangover when it emerged that McCain was, in nearly every respect, a conventionally conservative, generally loyal Republican—with complications, of course. The early Swooners had mistaken those complications (support for campaign-finance reform, for example, and his willingness to strike back at evangelical bullies like Jerry Falwell Sr.) as the essence of McCain. When events proved this not to be so, culminating in his dreary turn as the 2008 Republican presidential nominee—when he committed the ultimate crime in liberal eyes, midwifing the national career of Sarah Palin—it was only Republicans who were left to swoon.
So matters rested until this July, when McCain released the news that he suffers from a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. Many appropriate encomiums rolled in, some from the original Swooners. But another complication arose. Desperate to pass a “motion to proceed” so that a vote could be taken on a lame and toothless “repeal” of Obamacare, Senate Republicans could muster only a tie vote. McCain announced he would rise from his hospital bed and fly to Washington to break the tie and vote for the motion to proceed.
Even conservatives who had long remained resistant to the Swoon succumbed. Even Donald Trump tweet-hailed McCain as a returning hero. His old fans from the left, those with long memories, wrote, or tweeted, more in sorrow than in anger. Over at Esquire, poor Charles Peirce reaffirmed that God had turned out to be just a thunderstorm again. “The ugliest thing to witness on a very ugly day in the United States Senate,” he wrote, “was what John McCain did to what was left of his legacy as a national figure.” A longtime Swooner in the Atlantic: “Senator McCain gave us a clearer idea of who he is and what he stands for.” Answers: a hypocrite, and nothing!
The old fans weren’t mollified by a speech McCain made after his vote, in which he sounded notes they had once thrilled to—he praised bipartisanship and cooperation across the aisle. Several critics in the press dismissed the speech with the same accusation that his conservative enemies had always leveled at McCain when he committed something moderate. He was pandering…to them! “McCain so dearly wants the press to think better of him for [this] speech,” wrote the ex-fan in the Atlantic. But the former Swooners were having none of it. Swoon me once, shame on me. Swoon me twice . . .
Then the next day in the wee hours, McCain voted against the actual bill to repeal Obamacare. Democrats were elated, and Republicans were forced to halt in mid-Swoon. His reasons for voting as he did were sound enough, but reasons seldom enter in when people are in thrall to their image of McCain. The people who had once loved him so, and who had suffered so cruelly in disappointment, were once more in love. Let’s let Pierce have the last word: “The John McCain the country had been waiting for finally showed up early Friday morning.” He had done what they wanted him to do; why he had done it was immaterial.
The condescension is breathtaking. Sometimes I think McCain is the most misunderstood man in Washington. True enough, he’s hard to pin down. He’s a screen onto which the city’s ideologues and party hacks project their own hopes and forebodings. Now, as he wages another battle in a long and eventful life, what he deserves from us is something simpler—not a swoon but a salute, offered humbly, with much reverence, affection, and gratitude.