Ever since then candidate Trump began calling for mass deportations and religious bans, comparisons to the Third Reich have consistently been made. While many of these comparisons fall short, it is not too difficult to see why and how they have been drawn. For decades, both of the political parties in America have laid the groundwork for a hard turn right, and now that a repugnant egotistical bigot is in office, many of our worst nightmares are coming true (see Trump’s latest tweet that ICE will soon begin said mass deportations). American fascism will look different than European fascism, but there are already enough similarities that many of the post-World War II sentiments have become common to invoke. In particular, the phrase “never again” has been heard consistently, with the added emphasis that “never again is now.” I believe that it is important to briefly account for the origins of “never again” to understand why it is more important than simply being a declarative catch phrase.
It is Theodor Adorno who is commonly associated with coining “never again” and there are two places where he articulates precisely what he means. In his essay “Education after Auschwitz” Adorno states quite strongly that, “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again…Every debate about the ideals of education is trivial and inconsequential compared to this single ideal: never again Auschwitz.” After stating this claim, Adorno goes on to make two additional points in the essay: 1) the fundamental conditions of society that culminated in Auschwitz have mostly remained unchanged. This is particularly troublesome for Adorno because 2) the fact that Auschwitz occurred reveals a strong social tendency towards genocide. In other words, genocide is not an exception, but a norm of modernity. One is hard pressed to find much hope in Adorno’s work, but in the face of this tendency he insists that, “nevertheless the attempt must be made” to resist the pull towards barbarism. Committing to “never again” potentially creates the possibility of negating creeping fascism, for Adorno.
Beyond simply a declaration, though, there is also an ethical dimension to “never again” that Adorno articulates in Negative Dialectics when he famously writes that “A new categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler upon unfree mankind: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.” Without getting into the Kantian elements of this sentence, it is simple enough to make the obvious point that a categorical imperative is, in fact, an imperative. This imperative requires, as Adorno says, that both thoughts and actions undergo a transformation, or else Auschwitz will happen again. “Never again” is both the demand upon all education, and a categorical imperative that we all must heed.
The average American deeply suppresses the fact that America is one of the most barbaric empires the world has ever known, and therefore lives with a general sense that we are a mostly good people. This means that calls for “never again” tend to ring hollow, and almost sound offensive, because we have convinced ourselves that “that” could never happen here. Adorno was aware of this, and he was not naive about the historical amnesia of the west. For Adorno, there is a strong indication that Auschwitz will certainly happen again, and the only way to possibly prevent that is when political instruction “devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities” to “never again.”
At the end of “Education After Auschwitz” Adorno recounts the time that Walter Benjamin asked him if there were really enough torturers in Germany to carry out the orders of the Nazis. There were enough. And were President Trump to order that his own concentration camps become death camps, there would be enough Americans to carry out the order. We should not be naive about this reality. The catastrophe of American fascism is well underway, and there is no clear sign that it will slow down. In light of this, “never again” as a statement will not accomplish much in preventing the disaster. As an imperative, though, I think Adorno is correct that “never again” “can still manage a little something.”
Theodor Adorno, “Education After Auschwitz” in Critical Models, 191.
Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 365.
Adorno, “Education After Auschwitz”, 191.