Working Notes on Nazi Ideology and Holocaust

I have spent this holiday season working on my essay on Nazi Ideology and Holocaust. Earlier this year, I spent the first two weeks of the New Year doing another essay, a mistake that I don't want to repeat this year: I would rather start the New Year completely focused on making a new start on the various work projects. So, in essence, I am working through the holidays, which may not sound like fun, but I feel very good about it. 

However, the claim that I am working on the essay is a little overblown, because I have not typed a single word yet. What I am doing now is reading and thinking, and writing the essay in my mind. This is usually my style - I take more time thinking and less time writing - though this is by no means optimal and many a times in the past, I pledged to myself to start writing sooner. And, yet, here I am - doing this again! However, this time, I hope, I am not just procrastinating, but rather developing concrete ideas.

So, what I am trying to do is to write an essay on whether and how Nazi ideology led to Holocaust. The popular imagination after the Second World War took this for granted : Hitler in particular and Nazis as a group were the bad guys who took Germany into war and the horrors of mass murder. The Germans were unaware of the extent of the atrocities, and most of them neither participated nor approved of it. This was obviously unsustainable on closer scrutiny: Nazi regime was popular, the war had popular support and hundreds of thousands of Germans participated in mass murder, often with unimaginable brutality, and often against unarmed women and Children. They participated enthusiastically by queueing up for auctioning of Jewish properties and, with a few notable exceptions, mostly Social Democratic or Communist Party members, did not show any sympathy when a Jewish straggler turned up at their door seeking refuge. In summary, Schindler was more an exception than a rule.

To explain this, since the 1960s, the idea of 'banality of evil', Arendt's formulation to explain the behaviour of Adolf Eichmann, became the common paradigm. The Germans participated, but this was more due to 'obedience' than enthusiastic participation. Indeed, a whole subdiscipline of social psychology was created to study obedience and group behaviour, with iconic experiments, that demonstrated over and over our incapacity of being conscious about the consequences of our actions. Arendt thought Eichmann's central problem was a total lack of empathy, an inability to think what his actions may mean, which turned him to the greatest desk murderer of History. This gave us a neat view of the world, with three evil men at the top of Nazi hierarchy (Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich), leading millions of obedient bureaucrats - little cogs - to run the machinery of mass murder.

The central flaw of this view is of course that much of the murder was anything but faceless. We may imagine the whole of the Holocaust to be a neat little factory operation performed in Gas Chambers of Auschwitz (which, by the way, was not as faceless as we would wish to think: Watch the open sequences of the excellent Son of Saul and see whether the banging on the closed doors of the gas chamber has an effect), but most executions were done through shooting, hanging and in some cases, after brutal torture. This opened the space for the 'Ordinary German' debate, most prominently among Chris Browning and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen: Browning, who studied Order Police 101 Battalion and the massacres they participated in through the lens of Group Behaviour and conformance ("Doing it for Germany") whereas Goldhagen argued that the same behaviour had roots in the German antisemitism. 

Browning's study, rich in historical details and substantiated by theories of Social Psychology, shows that the members of the battalion were shooting women and children in cold blood because they were members of a group - they at once wanted to outdo their comrades as well as not let them down - and, incidentally, they were mostly inebriated. Goldhagen, on the other hand, rejects that explanation - can one really behave so brutally without a deep hatred for the victims - and seeks an explanation in the German Antisemitism, a stance unsupported, and unsupportable, by historical evidence, but more comforting to our meaning-seeking selves (otherwise, we all could kill, in right circumstances). 

Indeed, our understanding has further developed over time. We now know that Browning's ordinary Germans were not so ordinary after all, they were of a certain generation (one that was too young to go to the First War, and had its ideas indelibly shaped by the violences and uncertainties of the Weimar years) and were self-selected for a certain kind of career: Even before that fateful morning where Browning started the narrative, they were favourably disposed to a certain ideology. We also know that Goldhagen's point, that the Germans saw Jews as the world enemy, has more, if nuanced, truth in it than initially appears, as the diaries, letters and photographs of 'Ordinary Germans', documenting and legitimising the massacres, enter public domain. 

For that matter, our understanding of the Holocaust has advanced significantly in the recent years, not just because of the discovery of new documents and evidence, particularly from the Soviet archives, but also because of a richer, multi-dimensional perspective that new research has afforded us. We know more about Eichmann now, as a more complex, ideologically motivated man beyond the carefully crafted public persona of the apparatchik of the Jerusalem trials. We know more about the key players, Heydrich, Himmler, Best and Goebbles have all had carefully researched biographies rich with details and evidence, and key institutions, like the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), have got excellent collective biographies. The good guy-bad guy divide between Wehrmacht and SS has also broken down, and the Military's enthusiastic and barbaric participation in the Holocaust has now been established. Even the portrait of Jewish victimhood, 'like lambs to the slaughter', let down by their own leadership and rounded up by their own police, has now been somewhat qualified, and various acts of resistance and subversion have now appeared. What we have now is a much more detailed, complex and involved picture.

Indeed, this greater understanding makes, at the same time, Nazi ideology less and more important as the cause of the Holocaust. The greater knowledge of diversity of perpetrators (including many who were not even Germans) and consequently, divergent motives, breaks down the singular narrative that connected the whole. Suddenly, we have a range of individuals, motives and actions, whose only commonality is perhaps what Hans Frank commanded, "act(ing) in a way that the F├╝hrer might approve", though even that becomes unsustainable, when greed (of taking whatever little the victims possessed, as in Lithuanian description of "every Jew means a pair of shoes", etc.) and the little private pogroms villagers in Poland or Romania carried out, are taken into account.
So, one way of thinking about this is that the Nazi leadership created a space - a 'Prerogative State' run by decrees from Berlin - where psychopaths can run amok. This is a plausible view, but this will essentially count every German operating in these areas as a psychopath. Besides, this wouldn't adequately account for an 'Ordinary German', even those living in Germany. This is the slippery slope of Goldhagen argument - that every German (except a few active resisters such as Sophie Scholl) was a closet anti-semite - or at the least, everyone could set their moral considerations aside and enjoyed the benefits of the Nazi regime (as Gotz Aly argued, with some justification).

But I am looking to argue somewhat differently, following, among others, Tim Snyder. My arguments are still half-formed, but it is this: That Nazi ideology was more than Antisemitism and that 'Ordinary Germans' signed up to it. Therefore, what was happening in the Eastern Front was 'ordinary', acts of war, and what was being done was 'for Germany'.

As I see it, Hitler's Antisemitism is a part of his world-view, a world-view which arose from a mishmash of Greater German ideology, and which created the basis of the Holocaust. This is not to deny persecution of the Jews had a central place in Holocaust: Hitler was undeniably judophobic and extermination of European Jews, alongside that of the Poles, the Russians, the Gypsies and the 'Asocials', is what we are concerned with. But, outside the core membership of the Nazi party, the so-called 'Ordinary Germans' did not sign up for persecution of Jews per se: Rather, they signed up for a more nebulous project of 'People's Community' and 'Living Space', and this led to their participation, approval and indirect complicity in the Holocaust project. Ian Kershaw's point - with Hitler, there would be no Holocaust - is entirely valid: However, Hitler's role in Holocaust, I would want to argue, is not mapping out a clear plan and looking after its execution (that will be Himmler, Heydrich and RSHA and the Military), but rather enabling this general consensus, without which, also, there will be no Holocaust.

What I am attempting to do, therefore, is to expand the scope of Nazi Ideology from narrow confines of Antisemitism (and particularly from Goldhagen's idea of one derived from medieval Christianity) into four connected ideas:

(a) 'People's Community' of German People, without any divisions - class, political parties or national allegiances (to Austria, for example) - something that was perfectly embodied in the days just before the Great War, in the crowd that Hitler joined into (and later, his photographer would discover him in the crowd and turn it into an iconic photo). For Hitler, this community is an 'Anti-political' idea, because it allows no division or dissent, but is perfectly united as this is made to be racially and culturally united, around pure Germanic blood and German culture.

(b) 'Antisemitism', the idea that Jews are the 'world enemy' of such a 'People's community', since they represent the weaknesses of modernity, a decidedly unheroic age. For Hitler, Jews are not just the 'Christ Killer', and 'deniers of revealation', but the fountainhead of racial weaknesses, who plant the ideas such as 'the meek will inherit the earth', and the misleading ideas of science, that the natural limitations can be overcome. The National Socialist ethic, therefore, is to root out the Jewish ethics (which sounds suspiciously like the Central Tenets of Christianity, but Hitler thought Paul corrupted the teachings of Jesus) and to establish a new ethic of Race and Struggle in its place. The 'Final Solution' comes from this 'Jewish Question' of exclusion of Jews from the People's Community.

(c) 'Living Room', which is a German geopolitical concept which predates Hitler, but Hitler made the idea his by changing what it meant. In Wilhelmine Germany, the idea represented Germany's share of Colonial Empire, a prerequisite for attaining a lifestyle comparable to the British and the French. Hitler adapted the idea but looked East, drawing inspiration from 'American West' rather than previous generations' ideas of competing with the British Empire (in collaboration with Russia). He saw in Russia 'Germany's India', imagining empty spaces for German Colonial settlement after extermination of racially inferior people.

(d) 'Struggle' and 'Culture' are two interconnected elements that make 'People's Community' possible: Struggle for resources and existence in nature, projected outside; and culture to find the common language of the community inside. For Hitler, people's community is therefore a secular entity (not bonded by religion) and it is defined by a biological, racial competition (though the conception is religious, like Islam's 'House of Islam' and 'House of War').

My idea - and it is very much work in progress - is to show how these four ideas became 'common sense' basis, over the years of Nazi rule, of a German National aspiration focused on the East, aimed at superseding the ideas of French revolution ('Jewish' ideas of universalism) and one of fulfilling Germany's historic destiny (of defending European civilisation against Asiatic barbarism). The Germans signed up to it: They were fighting in Russia so that their children don't have to; they were liquidating Jewish Children in Polish villages to avenge British bombing of German cities; they were horrified at the sight of Senegalese troops fighting for the French and wishing them to be liquidated as they should have had no place in Europe.

I am hoping to bring this together in the next few days, alongside evidences and explanations. When I started studying Holocaust, I was confronted with the sheer wantonness of the destruction and violence; I was often depressed as I immersed myself into the details. What confronted me is the sheer exceptionalism of the whole affair, something that is so difficult to understand and explain, completely antithetical to my purpose of reading history to understand the present: I was lost in the annals of victimhood, often remarking to myself that this is so exceptional that we are unlikely to ever experience it again. However, as I get into these key ideas, the world of pure communities with historical destinies, the rage against Liberalism, Modernity and Ethics, the quest for Living Standards, and of perennial struggle and culture, I started to see Holocaust as nearer to our experience, our universe of ideas and events that we are living through. Indeed, history does not repeat, unless we forget about it. I now feel happy that I made the effort.



  

 

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