The saddest paper I have ever written is “De la Primera Guerra Mundial al Holocausto: El uso de la tecnología en la destrucción en masa del cuerpo humano” (see http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Primera%20Guerra%20Mundial%20Holocausto%20Sara%20Mart%C3%ADn.pdf). I’m thinking again of that paper after re-reading Zygmunt Bauman’s impressive Modernity and the Holocaust (1989). Also, because I see all over 21st century Europe a menacing rebirth of the basic tenets of Nazism. Above all, of the 19th century patriarchal völkisch ideology, focused on the nation’s salvation by a providential messianic leader who embodies its spirit–as he believes and fawning fanatics confirm.
If we are blinded to the equivalence of current populist movements with Nazism this is because most people wrongly believe that Hitler’s main aim from the very beginning of his rise to power was the Endlösung (or Final Solution). This is incorrect: anti-Semitism was present in Hitler’s ideology from the 1920s onwards but not genocide–he was obsessed, above all, by the ideal of a racially homogeneous German Reich and the Endlösung only occurred to him eventually (I follow in this English historian Ian Kershaw). Today, very similar ideologies aim at rebuilding the so-called national territory as a self-sufficient, uniform community purged of external elements. They are not, however, seen as spin-offs of Nazism because anti-Semitism is not part of their outlook. The far-right represented by UKIP is not an anti-Semitic genocidal party: the Nazi völkisch ideology, however, is part of its core beliefs. Call it Nazism, Fascism, neo-Anarchism, or post-Romantic nationalism, it’s all the same basic principle: ‘we’ exist in opposition to ‘them’ and ‘we’ are unique because ‘we’ are culturally and linguistically homogenous–even, God save us, a distinct ethnic group with the ‘right’ values.
This is why it is so important to read Bauman: because he warns us that the problem of how the Holocaust happened has not been solved for good. I’ll proceed, then, to highlight the main lessons he teaches (using his own italics throughout the post).
The first lesson is that although the Holocaust was indeed a “Jewish tragedy” (x) it was not just “a Jewish problem, and not an event in Jewish history alone” (x). The Holocaust, Bauman adds, was a product of “our modern rational society” (x). He warns us very strongly that believing in the exceptionality of the Shoah–an event now about to lose its last survivors to the passage of time–“results not only in the moral comfort of self-exculpation, but also in the dire threat of moral and political disarmament” (xii, my italics). I worry in particular about what the youngest generations know about this genocide, now that Schindler’s List (1993) is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Also, because most 21st century novels about the Holocaust are trashy, blithely sentimental tales (see https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/6066.Best_Holocaust_Novels). Spielberg was accused of committing the same crime but he was never that guilty.
The Holocaust was not at all a pre-meditated plan devised by an evil villain and his henchmen but, Bauman argues, the “outcome of a unique encounter between factors by themselves quite ordinary and common” (xii). These factors were closely connected with Modernity in two ways: the rationalization of industry on scientific principles (inspired by Henry Ford’s assembly lines in his car factory) and the establishment of modern-style, machine-aided bureaucracy (IBM, International Business Machines Corporation, was founded in 1911). These had already been applied in WWI to create a colossal machinery of mass destruction. The collapse of German economy and of the Weimar Republic in 1929 helped, of course, Hitler to access power and to undermine from the inside the fragile German democracy. Once the structures of control over his autocratic rule were destroyed following the brutal repression of his political enemies (1930-33), Hitler faced no obstacle, as he had the complicity of the upper classes and the Prussian-style loyalty of the Army. Remember, please, that the Nazis were voted democratically into power and that Hitler was appointed Chancellor legally. By 1938 he already had the law and the executive power united in his dictatorial person.
Bauman insists that although “Modern civilization was not the Holocaust’s sufficient condition; it was, however, most certainly its necessary condition” (13). The Jewish genocide was not at all an irrational event: “the rational world of modern civilization (…) made the Holocaust thinkable” (13); the Final Solution came from “bureaucratic culture” (15), coolly applying “routine bureaucratic procedures” (15) to human extermination. Bauman stresses that although the mass of Nazi underlings involved in the Endlösung knew very well what they were doing, most pen-pushers had little contact if any with the process itself, mostly carried out far from German offices. Bureaucracy, Bauman accuses, “is intrinsically capable of genocidal action” (106), which does not mean that all bureaucracies and each single bureaucrat act in genocidal ways. Rather, it means that if the most powerful person in Government marks a certain direction, bureaucracy will blindly follow it, and this his what happened in Nazi Germany.
Bauman is adamant that whatever allowed the Holocaust to happen between 1941 and 1945 (after the defeat in Russia that made wholesale Jewish deportation impossible and before the extermination camps were liberated by the Allies), “we cannot be sure that it has been eliminated since then” (86). In his view, we still live “in a type of society that made the Holocaust possible, and that contained nothing which could stop the Holocaust from happening” (86). The Holocaust will not happen exactly in the same way again, and no copycat Hitler with the same powers will arise. Bauman’s argument is that just as the Nazis could overcome the moral restraints active in the 1940s, someone else might overcome just as easily our own moral restraints. It is happening right now in the current war in Syria and to the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.
A note of warning: despite the lessons learned from the Jewish Holocaust by the Nazis, we cannot say that the far worse threat of nuclear Holocaust is over. Far from it. As Bauman writes, “In the years leading to the Final Solution the most trusted of the safeguards had been put to a test. They all failed–one by one, and all together” (108). As they are failing now: just last week President Trump broke the nuclear deal signed with Iran in 2015; the whole world has complained but nothing can seemingly stop Trump. Bauman wrote back in 1989 that during the 1940s “Civilization proved incapable of guaranteeing moral use of the awesome powers it brought into being” (111) but this might apply again to the 2010s, the 2020s or whenever someone finally starts a nuclear war. Nobody will ever again gas 6,000,000 Jews in extermination camps but we need to bear in mind that 600,000,000 persons could be wiped out in a nuclear conflict. Survival could be even worse than death.
Bauman complains that the popular narratives based on the Shoah tend to portray the victims with a dignity which was simply impossible to sustain in real life. He names the 1978 TV mini-series Holocaust (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077025/) as an example of this unrealistic representation of victimhood. Naturally, if the Holocaust were represented in all its crudity, and some films come close (Son of Saul, The Grey Zone) it would be unwatchable–arguably, a sub-genre of torture porn. Perhaps that should be the whole point, though I must say in favour of Holocaust (and of Schindler’s List) that they approached the horrors of the Nazi camps to plain viewers in a way that Claude Lanzmann’s revered, stark 10-hour arthouse documentary of 1985, Shoah, never could manage.
I’m sure that whenever we read about the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis we always wonder how we would have reacted. We imagine ourselves (correct me if I am wrong) as either a victim, or an ‘innocent non-Nazi bystander’ and fantasize that, if we knew that our neighbours were about to be deported and gassed, we would heroically save them. Leaving the Danish population aside, and the other well-meaning persons all over Europe who managed to defy the Nazis, this is not what happened at all. After discussing the famous experiments by Milgram and Zimbardo, which proved the propensity of all individuals to abuse fellow human beings if authorised by a superior, Bauman reaches a ghastly but realistic conclusion: “The most frightening news brought about the Holocaust and by what we learned of its perpetrators was not the likelihood that ‘this’ could be done to us, but the idea that we could do it” (152). The persons who actively participated in the Holocaust were, as a flabbergasted Hannah Arendt discovered during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, normal–perhaps 10% were sadists to begin with but 90% were just carrying out orders (and keeping a low profile if they disagreed with their bosses). This is easy to imagine: think of the engineers designing the bombs that kill children in Syria returning every evening to the comfort of their middle-class homes.
One of the most chilling passages in Mein Kampf (1925), among the many in this crazy book, appears in Chapter II. “There were very few Jews in Linz”, his home town, Hitler recalls. The Linz Jews, he explains, “had become Europeanized in external appearance and were so much like other human beings that I even looked upon them as Germans” (my italics). Hitler did not “perceive the absurdity of such an illusion” because the Jews were like any other ordinary Linz fellow-citizen, except for “the practice of their strange religion”. Pay attention now (my italics): “As I thought that they were persecuted on account of their Faith my aversion to hearing remarks against them grew almost into a feeling of abhorrence. I did not in the least suspect that there could be such a thing as a systematic anti-Semitism”. This, he claims, was something he discovered in cosmopolitan Vienna.
There was a time, then, when young Hitler was not a Jew hater. That he could become eventually the arch-Jewish hater shows that he was persuaded by an already widespread, prejudiced ideology which ignited fanatic flames ready to burst in his brain but also in many other brains. A concatenation of appalling circumstances put absolute power in his hands and then Hitler proceeded to commit one of the worst atrocities the world has seen using, as Bauman stresses, the tools that Modernity had already developed for his grisly project. Bowing before his power, others helped Hitler to use these tools, because they shared his fanaticism and rotten beliefs. They were all, however, normal people–not evil monsters from Hell. As normal as you and me, though convinced that by torturing and killing fellow human beings according to the atrocious ideology embodied by their messianic leader they were working for the good of their nation. They felt morally authorized. Put it the other way round, if you will: tell ordinary people that they must protect the nation and they will do anything–from fighting in wars to committing genocide. This is normal human behaviour, enhanced in our times by Modernity.
Reading Bauman’s volume is fundamental to understand that, as he so convincingly argues, the Holocaust was not an sporadic descent into barbarism but the very essence of 20th century Modernity. Hitler took advantage of the German humiliation after WWI to present himself as the völkisch leader that would return to the nation its lost dignity. He then destroyed not only the Jews but also most of his own nation: the Machine–as J.R.R. Tolkien, another WWI veteran, called Modernity–was at his service both in the camps and in the Wehrmacht. Since there is a relatively short distance between 1918 and 1945 but a much longer time lapse between that date and 2018 we tend to believe that the risk of a new Hitler and a new Holocaust is over. However, as Bauman stressed and Tolkien defended, only the rejection of Modernity itself can save us.
This doesn’t mean a return to pre-history–for God knows what Homo Sapiens did to the poor Neanderthals then–but questioning the benefits of Modernity. Many argue that progress and the barbaric go together in Modernity but this seems to be a spurious argument aimed at defending barbarism. It should also be time to move beyond the ideologies of the 19th century with their ethnic and racial obsessions and work for the good of the whole human species. For planet Earth will go on until the Sun goes supernova, whether we’re on it or not.
I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/