The question of the Holocaust’s exceptionalism is one that I find fascinating, and wrote about in a book called Explaining Hitler: Is Hitler on the continuum of other evildoers in history, on the far end of a spectrum, or does he represent something off the grid, beyond the continuum, an “exceptionalist” phenomenon, in a rarefied realm of radical evil all his own?
“It’s certainly exceptional in my case,” Amis continued, “in that it didn’t matter how much I read about it, I felt I was getting no nearer to understanding it,” the nature of Hitler’s evil.
“That was not the case with the Russian holocaust,” he says, despite body count figures for Stalin’s mass murders that exceed Hitler’s.
He tells me that until recently the problem of understanding Hitler had bedeviled him. And then, “I was reading a passage at the end of the companion volume to If This Is a Man by Primo Levi,” one of the most widely admired writers and thinkers among Holocaust survivors. “It’s where he answers the questions that he’s most often quoted on. And one of the questions is, ‘Do you feel you understand that level of racial hatred?’ and Levi replied, ‘No I don’t understand it and nor should you understand it, but it’s a sacred duty not to understand,’ and that to understand something is to subsume it within yourself and we can’t do that.
“That, that, was an epiphany for me,” Amis says, “reading those lines. And I thought ‘Ah.’ Then as soon as the pressure to understand left me, I felt I could [write]. I could understand two or three things that perhaps hadn’t been very emphasized.”
He mentioned two things: the mercenary aspect, “how incredibly avaricious the whole operation was. The way they made the Jews pay for their tickets in the railway cars to the death camps. Yeah, and the rates for a third-class ticket, one way. And half price for children.”
That last detail is so consonant with the Amis vision of human nature—malice entwined with absurdity.
“Half price for...”
“Those under 12.”
We’re both silent for a moment.