On Historic Curtains

Curtains can be flimsy things. Or as in old theatres, heavy items to prevent fires. The other day, rereading a book by John Grenville, I came across the phrase, “The curtain of the Holocaust”.  My thoughts immediately turned to the more familiar expression from the Cold War, the ”Iron Curtain”. And Grenville who, in the mid-1970s, taught us Contemporary History at Birmingham University, may have had this metaphor in mind when he wrote these concluding sentences of his (posthumous) book:

”The curtain of the Holocaust lies between the past and the present, impeding easy relationships. What has gone, the death of a civilisation cannot be replaced. A new civilisation has to be rebuilt on the foundations of understanding the past.*

Understanding the past and explaining it is what historians do, in turn enabling others to understand history. Thus, historian Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s biographer, explained in a speech in 1981 the background to Churchill’s speech in Fulton, USA which contained the metaphor of the Iron Curtain symbolizing the divided world of the Cold War. 

Grenville certainly knew what he was speaking about when using this metaphor, as the curtain of the Shoah separated him, the successful professor of modern and international history, from his 11-year-old self, the boy Hans Jurgen Guhrauer from Berlin, who experienced the destruction of his family and all that he held dear.

He witnessed the humiliation of his father, Adolf Abraham Guhrauer, a Landgerichtsdirektor (presiding judge of a state, regional or district court) who lost his job as a result of the anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazi state, and who was incarcerated in a concentration camp after Kristalnacht, coming home a  few weeks later a broken man, obtaining a visa and leaving the land of his birth to become a factory worker in a munitions factory in England for the duration of WWII, but who was unable to save the life of his wife.

Grenville’s  mother, Charlotte Guhrauer, née Sandberg last figures in a deportation list on a freight train from Berlin-Moabit station to Riga, Sonderzug Da 401 (18. Osttransport) on the 15th August 1942.  And the boy himself, was sent away with his 2 older brothers in the spring of 1939 on a Kindertransport to England, there to be separated on arrival.**

The contemporary history course taught us by Grenville and Jonathan Haslam took place in the backdrop of the Helsinki Accords, and Charter 77, when the Cold War was beginning to thaw and informal contacts were being made across the divide.

Among the many who thus made contact was Paul Ricoeur who was in touch with Czech intellectuals involved in Charter 77, like Jan Patocka and Vaclav Havel. That the thaw was only a beginning can be seen in the obituaries Ricoeur wrote  on the untimely death of Jan Patoka, who was mistreated by the Czech police and died shortly after in March 1977.***

It took 12 years more for the Iron Curtain to fall in November 1989. But fall it did.

*The Jews and Germans of Hamburg (Routledge, 2012), 270.

** John Grenville’s interview with Bea Lewkowicz, Refugee Voices, AJR Audio-Visual Testimony Archive, interview no. 150, 19th March 2007, London; John Grenville, From Gardner to Historian, in Peter Alter (ed.) Out of the Third Reich. Refugee historians in post-war Britain. London,1998, 57-72.

*** Paul Ricoeur, Jan Patocka: A Philosopher of Resistance, The Crane Bag, Vol. 7, No. 1, Socialism & Culture (1983), 116-118; Ricouer, Patocka, philosopher and resister, Telos, 31, Spring 1977, 152-155.

On history and the fabric of life

Paul Ricoeur ends his magisterial work on history philosophy, La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli with a reference to Søren Kierkegaard’s discourse on the biblical birds in the air and lilies in the field (2000, p. 656). Why does he do so?

The works of his compatriot, Albert Camus, may hold a clue. Camus, too, similarly to Ricoeur endeavoured to make sense of the history of the 20th century which they were born into. While their beliefs were unalike, Camus contrasts the fates of his characters against the sun, the light, and the sea.

What does this have to do with history philosophy, one may wonder. Many years ago, I followed a university course on history philosophy with a brilliant teacher, where we read the classical 19th and 20th century works of history philosophers. While I failed the actual exam, my readings and reflections left me with a vague glimpse into how human beings considered their relationships to the divine and to nature. Over the course of history up until today, it is our changing views of this threefold relationship that constitutes our thoughts on history. At times, we treated the forces of nature with awe, as being divine. At other times, we have believed that the divine had given us lordship over nature or that we had raised ourselves above nature. That humankind was progressing to a higher form of development.

It took a Freud to remind ourselves that we too are a part of nature. The muddy trenches of WWI shattered forever our dreams and visions of mastery. In the Shoah or Holocaust of WWII, we tasted its bitter dregs. In the Cold War threats of nuclear annihilation, very much current in Camus’ lifetime (he died on the 4th January 1960), we foresaw what destruction humanity was capable of. Ricoeur who lived into the 21st century and had time to reflect on both the Truth and Reconciliation commission at the end of Apartheid and the wars in ex-Yugoslavia before his death on the 20th May 2005, endeavored to find a way for human beings to live together with truth, justice and reconciliation.

What our present generation of human beings can leave to the future generation is thus, according to Ricoeur, in Kierkegaard’s words, for the human in distress to contemplate the birds and lilies, and see how glorious it is to be a human being, thereby releasing their worldly cares. Ricoeur proposes: “…in opposition to this ruinous competition … the possibility of a work of forgetting, interweaving among all the fibres that connect us to time: memory of the past, expectations of the future, and attention to the present.” (Memory, History, Forgetting, 2004, p. 504; á l’inverse de cette ruineuse compétition…le possible travail de l’oubli, tissé entre toutes les fibres qui nous rattachent au temps: mémoires du passé, attente du futur et attention au présnt-original French version, 2000, p. 654-655).

On a present absence

(see also blog post: On an impact of WWI)

Hayden White, in his 2007 review of Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History Forgetting observed: “I am not sure whether it is significant for his philosophical development that he was orphaned as a child was technically considered a ward of the French state, and was raised by grandparents …” (Reprinted in H. White, The Fiction of Narrative, 318-39, 2010, p. 338).

Ricoeur, in the set of interviews he gave over the course of 1994-95 to Francois Azouvi and Marc de Launay begins his reply to the question about his childhood, by stating: “Le fait décisif de mon enfance est d’avoir été un pupille de la nation” (The decisive factor of my childhood, was having been a ward of state La Critique et la conviction, 1995, p. 11).

Here he describes a photo of his father, taken in early 1915 when he had come home on leave from the Front, when the young Paul would have been barely 2 years old, sitting on his father’s knees with his 16 months older sister Alice (1911-1934). He explains how the photo hasn’t moved, but how he himself had got older to a point where he was forced to accept the paradox that he now had a father who was younger than himself.

Ricoeur alludes to a similar experience described in Camus’ unfinished posthumous semi-autobiographical novel, Le Premier Homme, which had just been published in April 1994.  Here, the protagonist stands in front of the grave of his father whom he does not remember, when he suddenly spies the dates on the gravestone, and realizes that he at forty is now older than his father who died in his twenties, and reflects with pity and sorrow on the unjust fate of his younger father, le père cadet (p. 31).

Although Camus, too, was a ward of state like Ricoeur, he unlike the orphaned Ricoeur had a mother, a partially deaf and largely silent woman whom the young Camus adored and whose silent suffering he observed over the years.

Silence was what Ricoeur experienced about the mother he never knew. He once explained he had never met anyone who had known his mother or who could describe her to him.*   In La critique et la conviction, he admits to his two interlocutors that the absence of his mother, and her family, and a mother figure in his life, as being highly traumatic (p. 13). He confesses that his only experience of the maternal is what he has learned from seeing his children with his wife. “Le mot <<maman>> a été un mot prononcé pas mes enfants, mais jamais par moi” (p. 13 -The word mother is one used by my children, but never by me).

Given some of Ricouer’s philosophical enquiries into memory, forgetting, and the passing of generations, as well as his emphasis on recounting stories, narrativity, and his search for who we are, our identity, a tentative answer to Hayden White may be that traces of Ricoeur’s traumatic beginnings lie at the very heart of his life’s work.

**Jean-Francois Duval’s interview with Ricoeur in 1997, Paul Ricoeur <<Ce que je suis est foncièrement douteux>> republished in Philosophie magazine 67 mars 2013.