The Second World War was almost certainly the last total war humanity will be able to tolerate. The necessity for restraining maximal violence henceforth links the world in a global community; all wars posterior to WWII are so to speak civil wars. The most urgent problem of the new millennium is how to deal with those who deny their membership in this community to the point of being willing to wreak “mass destruction” on it if given the means.

Prior to 9/11/2001, the consequences of WWII were, and residually still are, worked through ethically, politically, and esthetically in what we call postmodernism. The hobbling of the postmodern(ist) subject, which occurs in a number of superficially distinct modes, is the interpersonal equivalent of the hobbling of the national “subjects” on the global stage. The deconstruction of central authority, however liberating it may be to those who define themselves as its victims, is an act of ideology, or in other words, of resentment, complicit yet denying its complicity with this authority. The confused nature of this gesture reflects postmodernism’s failure to articulate the double lesson of the war epitomized in the title of this Chronicle: Auschwitz, the ultimate act of asymmetric violence, and Hiroshima, the ultimate act of reciprocal violence. In one case, a group of non-combatants was singled out for annihilation; in the other, great violence was inflicted upon the adversary’s population in order to force surrender. Although their simultaneity is not altogether coincidental, the two phenomena have very different moral valences. Yet in their mutual implication the role of each has not been easy to sort out. On 9/11, history performed the task for us.

For a number of years I considered “Auschwitz” to be the sole point of origin of postmodern ethics, esthetics, and politics. This is not unreasonable as a first approximation, but the characteristic postmodern attitude of white guilt can be understood only by introducing“Hiroshima” as a second independent variable.

I therefore propose the following model:

  • Auschwitz makes illegitimate all de jure forms of asymmetry: colonialism, segregation, apartheid; we may call this political egalitarianism.

  • Hiroshima has two consequences. First, since it makes total war henceforth impossible, it gives rise to strategies of proxy wars, containment, MAD, and the removal of the chief focus of competition from the military to the commercial sphere; we may call this political realism. This strategic phase comes to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-91. Second, it provokes a sense of guilt toward its victims, despite the fact that Japan was the original aggressor in the war. This is the beginning of the characteristically postmodern phenomenon of white guilt, which becomes the basis of a political movement only when the opposition to the war in Vietnam conflates Auschwitz with Hiroshima, “excess” power with asymmetry.

That Hiroshima rather than Auschwitz is white guilt’s point of departure may not be obvious. Until the end of the Cold War, the “realist” heritage of Hiroshima remained dominant; only after Vietnam did its “guilty” legacy began the inexorable conquest of its present strongholds: academia, the “helping organizations,” the entertainment world, the media. By the time white guilt truly came into its own in the post-USSR world, its link to the end of WWII had been obscured by time.

This model makes clearer the split between the two modes of political atonement that emerged from the war. Both egalitarianism and white guilt challenge the legitimacy of asymmetrical relations: the former, the de jure relations encountered in colonialism and racial segregation, the latter, the de facto differences that inspired the more recent trends of affirmative action and political correctness. The differences between the finite, objectivist attitude of political egalitarianism and the open-ended subjectivism of white guilt are traceable to their different historical sources.

That the Holocaust would inspire a postwar sense of guilt in Germans and their willing and unwilling WWII allies is understandable enough; the connection of white guilt to Hiroshima requires further explanation. The most prescient and insightful demonstration of this connection is no doubt the 1959 Duras-Resnais film Hiroshima mon amour, one of the indubitable masterpieces of the New Wave. Conceived a little over a decade after the end of WWII, this film poses the esthetic and ethical necessity of transforming the war’s aggressors into victims.

The film depicts a French actress’ brief affair with a Japanese businessman in Hiroshima, where she is making a pacifist film. It begins (after its famous opening of the lovers’ bodies in the shower) with a lengthy documentary sequence in both Hiroshima’s hospital and its museum, where we witness, presumably through the actress’ eyes, both surviving victims and evidence of the bombing, including a filmed Japanese reenactment. As she recounts her visit in voice over, she insists that she has “seen everything” in Hiroshima; her lover repeats that she has “seen nothing,” implying that only the victims themselves could “see” the bombing and its effects. Neither in this sequence nor elsewhere in the film is there any indication that the bombing ended a war between the US and Japan, let alone that this war began with a sneak attack by the Japanese.

We also learn in the course of the day that during the war as an adolescent living with her family in the central French city of Nevers (the resemblance to “never” is surely not coincidental), the actress had had a love affair with a German soldier, with whom she hoped to return to Germany after the war. But the soldier is killed by French partisans, and the girl finds him dying on arriving at a rendezvous; after the Liberation, her hair is shorn and she is confined in a cellar for several months by her parents as punishment for consorting with the enemy. On her release from the cellar, she leaves Nevers for Paris; since then, she has never returned to Nevers nor told her love story to anyone but the Japanese man, who expresses pride in being the only person to have heard it.

The film not only portrays the Japanese as victims of the bomb; the sole representative of Germany too is a victim. Early in the film we are given, in a quick flashback, a glimpse of the soldier’s hand lying on the earth, a memory inspired by (and matched to) her Japanese lover’s hand in the same position on the bed as he sleeps. Although the actress is now married, we hear nothing of her husband. The German is the one man she has truly loved; the Japanese is so to speak his reincarnation.

Hiroshima mon amour portrays the conversion of the losers of the war into its victims through the eyes of a citizen of a defeated nation that ended up on the winning side. On a number of occasions, lifeless Nevers is contrasted with lively postwar Hiroshima. In the couple’s long nocturnal walk that is the climactic sequence of the film, shots of the actress walking through Hiroshima’s streets are intercut with shots of Nevers that display the city as a ghost town populated only by dark, empty, sinister buildings. If victorious France has lost its soul, through the sacrifice of Hiroshima, defeated Japan has been reborn. In the film’s final sequence, the two lovers meet for the last time in the actress’ hotel room the night before her departure from Japan. In the exchange that concludes the film, she tells him “You are Hiroshima” and he answers, “And you are Nevers, in France.” The characters have no other names in the film. But whereas he takes the name of an injured but reborn city, she continues to bear the name of her native town abandoned long ago, a name chosen for its temporal emptiness.

After making his reputation in 1955 with Nuit et brouillard, the first commercial documentary of the concentration camps–in which the word “Jew” is never mentioned, although yellow stars are visible in one or two shots–Alain Resnais became a consecrated artist with a film in which the only representatives of the Axis powers are powerless, innocent victims. Yet Hiroshima mon amour‘s esthetic power attests to its ethical power as well; this is the beginning of a postwar sense of guilt whose object is not any specific national violence, German or Japanese, but that of the human species–our own. The implicit moral message of Hiroshima is that identification with the defeated adversary-as-victim is the only true road to peace; now that humanity has demonstrated its potential for self-destruction, the self’s own violence is the chief danger that must be controlled.

Omitting the enemy’s violence from Hiroshima mon amour is not tantamount to claiming that it did not exist, but simply that it is absent from the life of the (victorious) subject. If we permit ourselves to think beyond the film’s historical amnesia to the war itself, the impression we are left with is that, regardless of who began the fighting or of what would have happened had the starters been the winners, the final, victorious act of violence was the only one that has not been part of a reciprocal exchange and must consequently be the unique focus for our guilt. The violence we must avoid above all is the unanswered “excess” that defines (real or symbolic) victory, whether in the A-bombed Japanese cities or in firebombed Dresden, scene of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969). The bearer of white guilt must even identify with the adversary–a phenomenon clearly in evidence in Hiroshima–as a means of denying complicity with the violence exercised by his own society on his behalf.

White guilt in Hiroshima mon amour is still in its lyric phase, more focused on pitying the adversary-victim than on condemning one’s own side–such condemnation is not, however, altogether lacking, notably in the sequence devoted to the heroine’s confinement. This guilt remains confined to a personal ethic and cannot inspire a political program other than a generalized pacifism. The first genuine political movement of white guilt was occasioned by the Vietnam war. The educated class, spurred by the military draft, which threatened it with active participation and possible death, condemned the American war effort not merely because we were employing “excessive” means of violence as at Hiroshima, but above all because we were now playing the role of the Nazis at Auschwitz. (Remember “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many children did you kill today?”) The free-floating humanitarian sentiment of Hiroshima mon amour, where the violence of the bomb could be denounced only by forgetting recent history, had mutated into a circumstantial denunciation of our role in this new, “asymmetric” war.

Although white guilt as a motivation to political action derives from both Auschwitz and Hiroshima, Hiroshima mon amour suggests the primacy of the latter over the former. No word of allusion to the fate of the Jews could be permitted, lest the German soldier-lover and by extension his Japanese counterpart be implicated in it. Hiroshima mon amour gave narrative form to the legacy of Hiroshima: the divorce of the condemnation of violence from the question of ends, and consequently from history. Once this step had been taken, it was only a matter of time until, in a war less clearly justified than WWII, the opprobrium of Hiroshima would make common cause with that of Auschwitz.

(To be continued.)