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On Compromise With Evil
Musings on Yakov Gens, and Creon, for Elul
I’ve been thinking lately about Yakov Gens.
I know what planted the seed: this past spring I watched the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene virtual reading of Chava Rosenfarb’s play, The Bird of the Ghetto, which is about Itsik Vitenberg, commander of the United Partisan Organization (FPO), but which is stolen outright by the character of Gens, the Jewish head of the Vilna Ghetto and the antagonist of the piece. The play is structurally a bit like Antigone, with Vitenberg playing the part of Antigone, the one who stands on principle even if the city should fall, and Gens playing the part of Creon, the pragmatist who will readily sacrifice Antigone’s life and her family’s honor for the greater good—except that as Rosenfarb depicted them, neither Vitenberg nor Gens have the marble statue quality of Sophocles’s characters; they are more modern (or, I suppose, Roman) in their style of representation, emphatically warts and all.
The first generation of historians of the Holocaust emphatically condemned Gens and other Jewish leaders who, in their view, had abetted the Nazi death machine. Had they refused to perform their functions, and had the Jewish people been absolutely committed to resistance, the Nazis would not have been able to carry out their plan of extermination as effectively as they in fact did. Later generations have softened this harsh judgment, recognizing that “collaborator” isn’t the right framework for understanding someone like Gens, who believed, sincerely, that with the balance of power tipped so overwhelmingly against the Jews, resistance was doomed to failure. The overwhelming priority was to save as many lives as possible, and the way to do that was to make themselves useful to the Nazis and then use the power they were granted by them to keep as many people alive for as long as possible.
The whole debate is marred by its retrospective character. In fact, both sides were right and both sides were wrong. Neither Gens nor the partisans he sometimes betrayed to death at the hands of the Gestapo truly understood what it meant that the Nazis saw the extermination of the Jews as a primary war aim. But it was; that’s why, when they started losing the war, the Nazis stepped up their extermination efforts, even at the cost of vital resources that could have been used at the front. They might not defeat the Soviet Union, but they would at least bequeath the next generation of Europeans a Judenrein continent. Which means that both Gens’s and Vitenberg’s strategies were pragmatically almost useless—they were not going to defeat the Nazis, but they were also not going to survive by mollifying them; they would only make it out alive by having the lucky timing to still be around when the Red Army swept through. (Neither Gens nor Vitenberg were lucky.)
The seed, as I say, was planted by The Bird of the Ghetto, but I’ve been thinking about Gens in a more contemporary context, and the question of whether it is immoral to compromise with evil.
I phrase the question that way because I suspect that there are very few people who will come out categorically against compromise as such. Compromise, people will say, is essential to keeping a loving relationship going. There are things your partner wants that don’t matter to you—that you’d happily give up—and resources are limited; but instead of pressing to get everything for yourself, you give up some things you want so that your partner can get what they want, and if you both do this you both begin to trust that you’re looking out for one another. I have a hard time imagining anyone opposing that idea of compromise.
But we are not truly a compromising time. On a personal level, you aren’t supposed to compromise on what you need. That would mean a betrayal of yourself, and a relationship that demanded that isn’t worth saving. On a political level, you aren’t supposed to compromise with someone who is wrong. People who are wrong are supposed to lose to people who are right. How much less could you possibly compromise with someone whose views are evil. If climate change is an existential threat to human civilization, for example—or, to pick an example from the other side, if the woke administrative state is an existential threat to Christianity—then, some will say, there must not only be no compromise with those on the opposing side; there must be no compromise with those who do not see the threat, or who merely do not care about it sufficiently. Indeed, people who talk about half-loaves and the art of the possible and the slow boring of hard boards are in some sense worse than your most vociferous opponents, because they undermine the fierce urgency that, you believe, is the only hope of preventing total catastrophe.
I feel Gens’s and Vitenberg’s specters hovering in the background of such a perspective. Why did the first generation to write about the Holocaust despise Gens so? The answer may seem obvious—he was a coward! a collaborator!—but Gens is hard to portray accurately with such terms. He was a staunch Revisionist Zionist and a military veteran, for one thing, and the head of the Jewish hospital before he was the head of the Jewish police. He truly believed that the actions he was taking, including selecting innocent people for extermination, were the best way to save the most lives possible.
I think Gens’s odiators, like Hannah Arendt, despised him so because they thought that if ever there was a time that called for an Antigone, it was the Vilna Ghetto in 1942. But was it that time that called for an Antigone? Or was it their time that retrospectively did so? I think the latter. They were alive, and they were alive by an accident of fate, not by any virtue of their own. They needed to look back and find something more redemptive than victimhood, find Jews who had died nobly refusing to be part of the machinery of death. With such an unimaginable toll of destruction, they didn’t really need survivors. They needed existential heroes.
But existential heroes are, in a sense, the opposite of political actors. Whatever they do, they do because that defines who they are, on their own terms. Antigone’s defiance in burying her brother isn’t about founding a community on a bedrock of principle; it’s a declaration that her sense of right and wrong is more important than the survival of the community. A community that makes, or accedes to that choice forfeits the memory even of that defining principled action, because it forfeits itself. We remember Creon as the villain because we remember him at all, and we can do that because while his family was ruined by his verdict against Antigone, Thebes itself survived, which it might not had Antigone reignited the passions of Polynices’s lost cause. And actually, Gens (or Creon) can also be an existential hero. As Gens saw it, he had voluntarily taken on the moral responsibility of the most terrible decisions; to do otherwise was moral cowardice. We don’t know what he thought when the Gestapo killed him, but it is at least plausible that he thought: I remain proud that I did what I thought was right. If we imagine otherwise, isn’t it because we want to?
I think our modern would-be heroes of resistance are taking a similarly retrospective view. They are imagining a future that looks back in search of people who took the right stand when a stand was needed, and they are determined not to be remembered as Yakov Gens. They are probably right that, if there is a future in historical continuity with our present, the people there will do precisely what they imagine. But the question is what their actual relation will be with that future—what part they will have played in bringing it about. In real-world politics, after all, the question of whether to compromise or to press on for victory is a pragmatic one, not a principled one, because in politics you are always compromising with people who you believe are just plain wrong, and quite often compromising with people who could plausibly be characterized as evil. If Arendt taught us anything, she taught us the phrase “banality of evil,” and with it the suggestion that we ourselves may be surrounded by myriad Eichmanns operating in plain sight, calmly and civilizedly toiling away to destroy the world. We can argue that this is not so, and try to put evil in a corner, but that is an argument that the would-be modern Antigone’s are eager to have, ground where they are confident they can win. What then? To reject compromise with those suggested murderous myriads in principle may well be to reject politics, which is to reject the idea of community as such.
Advocates of resistance rather than compromise can be pragmatically right, of course but if we’re fighting there we’re fighting on Creon’s ground already. I think it’s likely that Gens would himself have been in the resistance if he believed they could win. As I noted above, though, the pragmatic situation that Gens actually found himself in was hopeless: hopeless following his strategy and hopeless following Vitenberg’s. Gens didn’t understand that, and therefore acted on the belief that there was hope, but he was wrong. And if there is no hope, then his compromised morality—compromised to a far greater degree than any of us can probably imagine, which is precisely what, to him, made it heroic—collapses. There is no reason to think of the community or even of victory; the gesture is all.
I wonder, therefore, whether the fierceness of our demands for purity and fidelity aren’t actually expressions not of urgency and determination, but of hopelessness and despair. If Thebes is doomed to perish, then we can all play Antigone.