Was Nazi Evil Unique?

Hitler as Antichrist 1942


‘The God of Israel said, to the Rock of Israel [David]; I rule man; who rules Me? It is the righteous: for I make a decree and he may annul it’.

Babylonian Talmud 16b

A few weeks back I was sitting in a laundromat watching my clothes spin round and reading a book on the Holocaust. Not quite sure why such a situation would lend itself to commentary from strangers, but I was approached by a 50ish or so middle class looking guy who felt it his duty to point out to me that Stalin and Mao had killed a lot more people than Hitler. I responded that “I knew” and I sighed in the recognition that the moral meaning of history is ultimately undone precisely by such “facts”.

Recently there have been whispers that we might be nearing a tipping point towards the historical normalization of the Nazi regime. This is not so much an issue of pop culture where any attempt to adopt Nazi iconography becomes instantly ridiculous, and where the use of National Socialism as focus for our political fears continues despite the fact  that the Second World War is rapidly sliding from living memory as the greatest generation passes out of history.

Arguments for historical normalization are instead coming from the academic sphere where there have been attempts to grapple with the least disturbing aspects of some of that system’s innovations in areas such as public health where the Nazi’s, though for reasons most of us now find repulsive, proved to be ahead of their time, as in their attitude towards smoking and cancer.

At least some of this stance towards normalization isn’t just a matter of those still trapped in what remains the very dangerous atavism of racism, or even those merely in pursuit of historical clarity, but by figures seeking a way out of the ideological cul de sac of left vs right in which the West has been stuck since the French Revolution. Here we have thinkers such as Steve Fuller who argues not merely that eugenics should be rehabilitated, but that positions on the question of enhancement should become the new defining political axis. For Fuller this would entail no longer seeing the Nazis as the sort of personification of evil they have become in popular imagination, but as a kind of political forerunner to a 21st century transhumanist politics. As he wrote in Humanity 2.0:

Put bluntly, we must envisage the prospect of a transformation in the normative image of Nazi Germany comparable to what Barrington Moore described for the French Revolution. This is not easy… there have been only the barest hints of Nazi rehabilitation. But hints there are, helped along by the deaths of those with first-hand experience of Nazism. (244)

Such merely academic pleas for a reassessment of the Nazi legacy are not, however, what should worry us most, nor should we be worried that Nazism will be resurrected in anything resembling its 20th century form- swastikas and all. Rather, what is troubling is that many of the political narratives National Socialists created remain very much in play and may be given added rather than diminished vigour in the 21st century. This is already the case for the kinds of anti-semitic conspiracy theories that pass for political analysis in the Middle East, and can be found in the underlying racial and cultural anxieties sweeping both Europe and the United States as a world dominated by white Christians gives way to a much more diverse order at the same time social decay results in a revival of dystopian nightmares about “devolution”. By concentrating too much upon blatantly Nazi or racist iconography while some academics sow the seeds of historical normalization, we may be missing the areas where “Nazi like” thinking creeps into political judgments- including our very own.

On that account, I was struck that the book I was reading that night as I waited for the drier to do its job not only managed to secure my understanding of the peculiar and extreme immoralism of National Socialism, but also made a compelling case that the kinds of nihilism found in Nazi ideology wasn’t just a matter of racial and Western insecurity regarding the future, but might characterize the most dangerous forms of 21st century politics globally, and for much different reasons than in the 20th century.

The name of the book was Black Earth: The Holocaust As History And Warning by Timothy Snyder. One of the book’s great strength is that it takes Hitler’s Mein Kampf seriously not only as a sort of political plan (which it certainly turned out to be), but also as a work of political philosophy. Hitler may have been an extremely vulgar and simplistic political theorist, but he also certainly had a clearly definable worldview that had (and continues to have) resonance with the darker corners of the human psyche.

What this taking of Hitler’s philosophy seriously allows one to do is to see that Nazism is indeed distinct from perhaps every other totalitarian ideology before or since. Whether one looks at the idea of a utopian end of history that inspired communists, or the kinds of millenarian aspirations driving radical religious groups such as ISIS or Al Qaeda, what one finds is the promise of an ultimate end to human savagery and the initiation of an era of universal human community after some “necessary” period of horrendous human suffering.

In distinction, Hitler saw any such promise of universalism or a utopian/millennial end to history and the elimination of suffering as itself the enemy. The idea that human beings were any better than animals and could ever escape, even with the help of God, the war of all against all that was the fate of animals, Hitler thought, was a lie brought into the world by the Jews who had used it to achieve dominance over more naturally powerful peoples. As Snyder put it:

For Hitler the bringer of the knowledge of good and evil on the earth, the destroyer of Eden, was the Jew. It was the Jew who told humans they were above other animals and had the capacity to decide their future for themselves. It was the Jew who introduced the false distinction between paradise and nature, between humanity and struggle. (p. 4)

What Hitler sought was the undoing of what he considered to be the distortions found in every humanistic, progressive or millenialist way of thinking. For him, the only true freedom was the freedom to submit to the eternal dictates of nature, dictates which had been discovered by science, especially in the form of Darwinism, but which neither technology, nor human made law would ever permit us to escape. Hitler thus subsumed politics under his limited understanding of nature as an eternal, and necessarily pitiless evolutionary struggle.

Hitler’s philosophy was the penultimate form of Malthusianism and the opposite of techno-progressivism in the sense that he believed scarcity to be unsolvable by technical means and resource security- especially in terms of food- something that could only be obtained through conquest.

Reading Snyder’s take on Mein Kampf gave me nightmares of Hitler as nothing but a gaping mouth and bottomless stomach. Hitler seems to have been terrified of starvation, a fear that, perhaps, grew out of his experiences of the British blockade during the First World War. Yet rather than this give rise to any humanitarian instinct it left Hitler seeing famine as a legitimate weapon of conquest and war, so that, long before the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe, the Nazi’s were planning to starve to death millions of the non-Germans who lived there. In this Hitler was following what he believed to be the way US had killed the “Red Indians” in its own interior and there created the world’s “breadbasket”.

Before the so-called Green Revolution, in the decades after World War II, fears of widespread starvation were indeed legitimate, and mass starvation to Germany’s east was already a reality due to the catastrophe of Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture. Yet Hitler was not merely arguing that the humanitarian needs of Germans would be secured by whatever means necessary, but with his re-conceptualization of Lebensraum as both living space and “lifestyle” essentially claimed a right to starve rival peoples if that was the only way German consumers could enjoy the same standard of living as their American counterparts.

Hitler’s political logic formed a circular cage meant to explain every event. In this view it was the Jews who with their universalism tried to weaken the only truly natural ties, which were those between members of a race. Liberated from these moral fetters the Germans would be free to carve out their own empire in Europe along the lines of the continental state built by the Americans or the overseas empire then held by the British.

What is apparent is that this Nazi demonology which saw the Jews as the source of cultural degeneration was no mere rhetorical ploy but the very soul of the movement, and, in a very real sense superseded the rational goals, of traditional state policy during the period in which the Nazis ran Germany. As Snyder shows, German allies, many of whom had adopted anti-semitic policies in order to curry favor with the Nazis, abandoned those policies once they knew the war was lost, whereas Germany, despite its cost in resources accelerated their murder of Jews in the face of defeat.

Hitler was not a German nationalist, sure of German victory, aiming for an enlarged German state: He was a zoological anarchist who believed that there was a true state of nature to be restored. (231)

It is this kind of metaphysical racism which made Hitler’s policy against the Jews distinct from other forms of state sponsored killing whatever the relative number of deaths.

The Holocaust was different from other episodes of mass killing or ethnic cleansing because German policy aimed for the murder of every Jewish child, woman and man. This was only thinkable because the Jews were understood as the makers and enforcers of a corrupt planetary order. (327)

There was a religious element to Hitler’s thinking as well though the creator he imagines is morally unrecognizable:

…. this ancient earth of races and extermination was the creation of God. [Hitler wrote] “Therefore I believe myself to be acting according to the wishes of the creator. Insofar as I restrain the Jew, I am defending the work of the lord.” (4)

Were I ever to teach a course on the Holocaust I would assign Snyder’s book in conjunction with The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, for Snyder manages to clarify, and bolster, many of Arendt’s more philosophical observations regarding Nazism and the state, and what Arendt called “stateless peoples” and both thinkers see statelessness as a condition that makes genocide politically possible.

An historical fact of which I was unaware before I had read Snyder’s earlier book Bloodlands, was that it was actually safer to be a Jew in German than to be one in any of the states destroyed by the Nazis. Contrary to Ben Carson, who thinks that Germans were able to kill Jews because of the latter’s lack of guns, or a common libertarian misconception, which I myself once shared, that genocide was brought about because of an overly powerful, machine-like state, Snyder shows how Jews were saved by bureaucracy. Where state rules and institutions remained intact, even in Germany itself, deliberate genocide proved difficult and lumbering, whereas in states destroyed by German (and Soviet) occupation, such as Poland the Nazis took advantage of this institutional vacuum to pursue deliberate genocide.

Ultimately, what Snyder wants us to reflect upon is whether or not such a conflation of nature and politics such as that imagined by Hitler is possible in our century, and whether or not we are vulnerable to the types of conspiracy theories, scapegoating and inhumanity, especially towards the stateless, that characterized the Nazi treatment of Jews, among others. Sadly, Snyder’s answer is yes:

The Planet is changing in ways that might make Hitlerian descriptions of life, space and time more plausible…

As Hitler demonstrated during the Great Depression, humans are able to portray a looming crisis in such a way as to justify drastic measures in the present. Under enough stress, or with enough skill, politicians can effect the conflations Hitler pioneered between nature and politics, household, between ecosystem and household, between need and desire. A global problem that seems insoluble can be blamed on a specific group of human beings. (326)

Jews can again be seen as a universal threat, as indeed they already are by increasingly important political formations in Europe, Russia and the Middle East. So might Muslims, gays, or other groups that can be associated with changes on a worldwide scale. (327)

Such a vision certainly sounds dystopian, but then again 2015 was the year when a Middle Eastern war, at least partially brought about by an ecological crisis, led to state failure and the rise of a vicious millenarian cult and a flood of now stateless refugees into Europe larger than any since the Second War War. In an atmosphere of terrorist attacks and a culture of fear we saw the rise of populist demagogues on both sides of the Atlantic who distorted the nature of the crisis into a clash of civilizations and religions in which all Muslims were suspect. It is not hard to imagine scenarios that would push us much further along this dark path.

I began this post with a quote from the Babylonian Talmud. It is a rabbinical interpretation of what I think is one of the most important stories in the Hebrew scriptures when Abraham tries to bargain with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Though his pleas didn’t ultimately work, what I find intriguing is that Abraham tries to gently show God that the city should not be destroyed if it contains even a small number of innocent people. It’s a moment where human beings, through the figure of Abraham, discover moral maturity in a way almost the exact opposite of when Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac at the command of God in a story that was so beloved by Søren Kirkegaard.  In the 21st century West we don’t understand fear and trembling unless it comes in the form of a video game. Though perhaps a video game where one plays the role of the vulnerable child is the best way to see how deeply disturbing the binding of Isaac is as a foundation legend- which means we’ve begun to finally reading the story correctly.

In any case, Abraham’s other story, the story of his bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, gives us a much better founding myth. One in which human distinction lies in following our moral conscience even when our moral perception went against the dictates of nature, society, or even God himself. It was a conceptual leap made perhaps first by the Jewish people and from it would come almost everything that promotes human flourishing in our world. It is a thin ledge of hope, which Hitler tried to push us off of. Upon it we place our aspirations for a future better and more compassionate than the past or present. We need to forever remind ourselves just how close we were to falling off of it and into the abyss.

Religion and Violence

One moring at the gates of the Louvre

Sometimes, I get the uneasy feeling that the New Atheists might be right after all. Perhaps there is something latently violent in the religious imagination, some feature, or tendency, encouraged by religion that the world would better be without.

I kind of got that feeling after Paris and Mali, I felt it a little bit more after the attack on the Planned Parenthood office attack in Colorado, but it really hits me when I reflect on the recent brutal killings in San Bernardino where both the intimate cruelty of the act- the persons killed were one of the killer’s co-workers whom he was supposedly friends with and knew well- and the fact that the other murderer was this man’s wife, and the mother of their young child. Nothing I know about human nature allows me to make sense of how far this couple was able to step outside our evolutionarily forged instincts against harming those whom we are intimate with, and where maternal bounds prove stronger than ties of any other kind. Maybe the physicist Steven Weinberg was right when he said:

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.

This seems to be the main point the New Atheists want to get across, as Steven Pinker did recently in a public discussion with Robert Wright on that topic, among others. Much more suffering, Pinker argued, has been caused by people acting in the name of religion than by those acting in the pursuit of self-interest in the form of raw power or wealth. For those who would counter with a list of the horrors committed by the secular totalitarian regimes in the 20th century Pinker would argue that such movements amounted to little more than religion in drag with God replaced by “History” or “Race”.

In light of recent events such an argument has the heavy feel of Truth in one’s hands, but upon reflection what seems solid begins to fall apart at the joints. To state the obvious, it simply cannot be the case that any religion is the primary cause of violence  because any society in which violence ran as deep as religious sentiment would very quickly destroy itself. Whatever Donald Trump might think, there are anywhere from 5- 12 million Muslims in the United States- were any significant portion of them driven to violence by their faith the country would truly be on fire. It’s a fact that is just as true when it comes to Christians opposed to abortion on moral grounds.

Religion has certainly been the source of many human conflicts and the origin of much suffering inflicted in the name of dogmatism, but has it really, as Pinker claims, inflicted more suffering throughout the whole of human history than all the other non-religiously based wars? Has the suffering inflicted by religious fanaticism been greater than that of oppression based on naked self-interest? Has religion not played an important role in both the charity to offset, or the direct challenge (as in the abolition of slavery) to such oppression? In any case, how in the world is one supposed to disaggregate those who were motivated to commit atrocities by their religious beliefs from those who used religion as a cover for self-interest or the blatant desire to destroy as no doubt a number of princes did during the Reformation.

It seems a gross over simplification to single out religion as a unique source of human violence. Nevertheless, I think we miss something important if we fail to see religious thinking and aspirations as indeed a deep aspect of the way the human capacity for violence has manifested itself in recent decades. This religious connection in large part grows out of the claims of the world’s major religions to be the unique possessor of spiritual truth and sole path to human salvation.

The potential for violence latent in such monopolistic truth claims is made even more dangerous by the world’s very democratization and the communications revolution of the past few decades. For in such an atmosphere religious institutions and elites are no longer able to control the beliefs and actions of their believers. It is a situation that bears an eerie resemblance to the European Reformation and Wars of Religion, but is now global in scope- our luck so far is that so very few of us have fallen under the spell of such a conflict and instead are under the enchantment of the consumerist paradise in which we live where life and its needs drown out everything else.

It’s not so much any particular religion’s claim that it is the possessor of the truth which is the origin of any tendencies towards violence as it is the belief of its adherents that they have the right to enforce conformity with their beliefs through violence if necessary. Still, with the exception of where, as is the case with ISIL, such a demand for conformity comes to rule or where deep sectarian divisions intersect with political conflicts within a society, much of this new violence appears to be waged almost as a form of communication, an attempt to break through the cacophony and materialism of pluralistic societies and be heard.

On this score, violence is just as likely to be racially (as it was in the case with Timothy McVeigh, Anders Breivik, and Dylann Roof,  or even environmentally motivated e.g. Ted Kaczynski aka the “Unabomber”) as it is to emerge from religiously based commitments. One need not take the worldview behind such violence seriously, but one should certainly take it as a barometer of deeper social fissures and political failures that go unaddressed at our peril. The same types of systemic failures that have led many on the left, with more legitimate claims to justice, into the age of protests.

The more insular and unresponsive our political and economic elites appear and the more ideological conflicts in our societies become, the more likely it is that those who believe themselves to be permanently disenfranchised will turn to political conspiracies to explain events, and the more likely a small but very dangerous minority of these disaffected will turn to violence as a form of political action. Should that become the case, elites are likely to retreat even further into their gated communities and rely on technology as a means of social control absent democratic legitimacy, commitment to the common good, and the quest for international solidarity. Such a world would represent a dark, mechanized analog to the promise of universalism and concern for the other at the heart of all the world’s great religions: a noosphere absent a world soul.