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Through the Window Again: Modernity and the Holocaust, 30 Years Later


Written by Dr. Jack Palmer

In this post, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow Jack Palmer discusses two events, held during the week of 9th-13th September 2019, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust (1989). First, a two-day symposium in Leeds organised by the Bauman Institute; and then a special panel at the 17th Polish Sociological Congress in Wrocław organised with our friends at PAN.

These were the latest in a series of ‘legacy’ activities inaugurated by the University of Leeds after Zygmunt Bauman’s death in 2017, which so far has included a Sadler seminar series and symposium on ‘Thinking in Dark Times[i]; as well as the development of the Janina and Zygmunt Bauman archive, which was launched formally on the second day of the Leeds symposium. 

The twinning of events in Britain and Poland was intended to reflect Bauman’s admission that ‘the ideas that went into the book and its message gestated as much in my home university of Warsaw as they did in the company of my colleagues in Britain, the country that – in the years of exile – offered me my second home’[ii].

Janina and Zygmunt Bauman: An Inspiring Collaboration

Of course, he shared this exilic experience with Janina Bauman, whose Winter in the Morning (1986) exercised a profound influence on her husband. The event was thus also an occasion to honor her work in its own right as we approach the ten year anniversary of her passing.

Reflecting on her teenage experiences in the Warsaw ghetto, Janina wrote that ‘during the war I learned the truth we usually choose to leave unsaid: that the cruelest thing about cruelty is that it dehumanizes its victims before it destroys them. And that the hardest of struggles is to remain human in inhuman conditions’[iii].

For Zygmunt, the book shattered his prior understanding of the Holocaust as akin to ‘a picture on the wall: neatly framed, to set the painting apart from the wallpaper and emphasise how different it was from the rest of the furnishings’[iv]. After reading it, he said that the Holocaust instead became a ‘window’ through which one could glimpse the genocidal possibilities latent in modern societies, actualised in a unique concatenation of normal features of modernity: bureaucratic organisation, technical and moral distance, scientific racism and a future-oriented, state-powered ‘will to order’[v].

Janina’s lessons reverberated at the twin events in Leeds and Wroclaw, not least in those presentations that were explicitly concerned with her writings. Lydia Bauman offered a moving reflection on the family’s recent acquisition of scans of her mother’s wartime diaries, which somehow survived the ghetto but were appropriated by the communist Polish authorities upon the family’s exile in 1968 (along with the manuscript of Zygmunt’s recently discovered, translated and published Sketches in the Theory of Culture).

Izabela Wagner-Saffray spoke of the ‘inspiring collaboration’ of Janina and Zygmunt, of how Janina’s Geertzian “thick description” as presented in her testimony inspired Zygmunt’s engagement with ‘that world that was not his’. This collaboration was rooted in the everyday lives of these two writers: in shared travel (they would often speak at the same conferences), and as Griselda Pollock noted in her keynote, in their watching of Holocaust films, such as the Holocaust mini-series (1978) and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985).

Situating both Janina and Zygmunt’s Holocaust writings in the framework of her signal work on ‘trauma to cultural memory’, Pollock argued, however, that the lessons that Zygmunt drew from the Holocaust were not those drawn by Janina. Zygmunt did not acknowledge the gendered nature of moral choices – that women make different moral choices, or rather decisions, in inhuman circumstances – and neither did he fully engage with Janina’s documentation of the trauma of having been made cruel by Nazi inhumanity.

Legacy, 30 Years On

Modernity and the Holocaust, as Pollock argued, is of course itself an artefact of this process of the Holocaust from trauma to cultural memory. The eminent German sociologist Hans Joas, writing about the significance of Bauman’s intervention in the specific context of Germany in the late 1980s – amidst the Historikerstreit and approaching the end of the Cold War – called it ‘one of the decisive texts of a sociology after Auschwitz[vi].

As the interdisciplinary nature of the event showed, however, the appeal and challenge of the book extends well beyond sociology. The opportunity to look again through the window offered by Modernity and the Holocaust thus raised several important questions pertaining to legacy.

The first refers to the book’s pertinence and plausibility in informing contemporary work in the social sciences and humanities. Contributions from organisational and management studies, Holocaust studies, intellectual history, disability studies and postcolonial theory all emphasised to varying degrees the ongoing utility and provocativeness of Bauman’s thinking. At the same time, much of the focus pointed to its limits. Larry Ray, who took up the question of Bauman’s challenge to sociology to which the arguments of the book were most forcefully directed, left barely a stone unturned.

A second question related to legacy refers to how Bauman’s arguments may or may not extend to events, processes, and disciplinary fields outside of its original purview. Arne Johan Vetlesen has been foremost among those who have attempted to engage the book after the genocidal events in Bosnia and Rwanda which took place after its publication. These events challenge Bauman’s central arguments in several ways, as he argued in his keynote.

Finally, there is the legacy of Bauman’s insistence that we be vigilant regarding the possibilities for barbarism in our midst, and this was taken up by Max Silverman in his symposium-closing keynote which situated Bauman’s book in relation to ‘the concentrationary imaginary’, a concept developed in a major project conducted with Griselda Pollock.

Reading Modernity and the Holocaust Today

Keith Tester, a dear friend of the Bauman Institute who passed away in January 2019, was Zygmunt Bauman’s foremost interlocutor. He called Bauman a ‘sociologist of possibility’ and noted how, especially in his writings of the 1970s, he articulated a sociology that sought to legitimise ‘the status of ‘the possible’ in valid knowledge’[vii]. Sociology, Bauman insisted, ought to remind us that things could be otherwise, that what exists is but one possibility among many. But this entails no normative evaluation.

Modernity and the Holocaust, with its constant allusions to the ongoing possibility of the Holocaust – as distinct from its inevitability, probability, plausibility, and so on – might be seen as an exemplary exercise in the ‘active dystopia’.

Fiercely critical of the notion that the Holocaust was an inevitable telos of modernity, and hostile to the trivialisation of the Holocaust resultant from its appropriation and extension to more quotidian forms of discrimination, Bauman nevertheless maintained that we continue to ‘live in a type of society that made the Holocaust possible, and that contained nothing which could stop the Holocaust happening’[viii]

And thus it is apt to approach the text today as a window onto the social, political, economic and ecological crises of our present. As the Amazon burns and Jair Bolsonaro openly adopts a strategy of dehumanisation of indigenous peoples; as Matteo Salvini speaks of expelling Roma from Italy; as the UK, USA and Australia pursue policies of family separation and indefinite detention against people seeking asylum; as anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and vandalism rise across Europe; as democratic institutions designed to protect human plurality are put under severe strain; as the planet warms; and indeed as the memory of the Holocaust recedes; this is perhaps the most significant way in which Modernity and the Holocaust speaks to us today.

To direct us to consider the possibilities for barbarism latent in present expressions of cruelty and dehumanisation, and to remind us, as Zygmunt Bauman wrote, that ‘the unimaginable ought to be imagined[ix].

*nb I am very grateful to Dr Helen Finch for heroically livetweeting the entirety of the Leeds event. For a much more detailed account of the symposium in Leeds, please see her wonderful thread here.


Bauman, J. 1986. Winter in the Morning: A Young Girl’s Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond. London: Virago Press.

Bauman, Z. 1976. Socialism: The Active Utopia. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Bauman, Z. 2000 [1989]. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity.

Davis, M. 2008. Freedom and Consumerism: A Critique of Zygmunt Bauman’s Sociology. Oxon: Routledge.

Joas, H. 1998. Bauman in Germany: Modern Violence and the Problems of German Self-Understanding. Theory, culture & society, 15(1), 47-55.

[i] This series and symposium is to be the basis for a forthcoming special issue of Thesis Eleven (forthcoming 2020)

[ii] Z. Bauman, 2000 [1989]:208

[iii] J. Bauman, 1986:viii

[iv] Z. Bauman, 2000 [1989]:vi

[v] Davis, 2008:21

[vi] Joas, 1998:48

[vii] Z. Bauman, 1976:33, emphasis added

[viii] Z. Bauman, 2000 [1989]:88

[ix] Z. Bauman, 2000 [1989]:85