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Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War

Nations Have the Right to Kill
Author: Richard Koenigsberg

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Review of Nations Have the Right to Kill

By David Brownfield, University of Toronto

This is an excellent book that I recommend highly. Dr. Richard Koenigsberg develops a parsimonious yet very convincing explanation for collective violence in the forms of warfare and genocide, focusing on the rise of Nazism, the advent of the Second World War, and the Holocaust. Koenigsberg argues that wars and the presumed “right” of nations to kill is based on ideologies that proclaim that self-sacrifice to one’s country is the greatest virtue.

Hitler is described by Dr. Koenigsberg as a political leader obsessed with demanding self-sacrifice from Germans, based in large part on Hitler’s own experience as a soldier in the First World War. Hitler was himself subjected to extreme danger and he undoubtedly witnessed the death and dismemberment of his regiment’s soldiers during the First World War. Having experienced the horrors of war personally, Hitler came to resent those who shirked their duty to the nation and refused to submit to self-sacrifice for Germany. The Jews became primary objects of this resentment, for Hitler believed (mistakenly) that Jews had avoided military service during the war and had thereby failed to sacrifice themselves for Germany. Koenigsberg points out – correctly – that German Jews had in fact served and died in the First World War in numbers proportionate to their percentage of the German population.

Nazi ideology provided the justification or rationale for genocide by the following syllogism: If the best of Germany’s youth were expected to be willing to die in war for Germany, then those who did not (Jews, the mentally ill, and others) could also be killed by the nation. Koenigsberg points out that tens of thousands of the mentally ill were victims of genocide, as were millions of Jews. Hitler had explicit discussions of his rationale for this genocide, describing it as a euthanasia program to avoid what he regarded as a deteriorating gene pool for the nation that would be dominated more and more by inferior individuals, such as the Jews and the mentally ill.

Traditional explanations for wars based on economic factors or desires for political conquest are rejected by Dr. Koenigsberg. However, the social and historical context for the Second World War (and the genocide perpetrated during this time) surely contributed to the rise of Nazism.

Germany was especially hard hit by the Great Depression of the late 1920s and the 1930s. Inflation and unemployment rates were very high in Germany during this economic depression, and many Germans died from starvation. It was in this historical and economic context that the German people became very dissatisfied and angry with its government and its leaders. Seymour Martin Lipset described the popular support for Hitler as a search for new types of leaders who rejected conventional political parties and their ideologies.

Those who voted for Hitler tended to come from the most dispossessed and politically disconnected segments of society. Lipset and others have noted that it was not the corporate or banking elite who provided enthusiastic support for Hitler, but rather it was the petit bourgeoisie class or small businessmen who strongly backed the Nazis. (Interestingly, Catholics were also much less likely than Protestants to vote for Hitler; perhaps this was due to the greater sense of community fostered by the Catholic Church, which in turn made individual Catholics feel less threatened or vulnerable in dire economic times.)

The very harsh terms imposed upon Germany by the Treaty of Versailles also played a role in leading to the political rise of Hitler and the Nazis. After the First World War and the surrender of Germany, the British and the French demanded large reparations from Germany; these payments could not come at a worse time than during the Great Depression. Germans resented these reparations (as well as the restrictions on the size of Germany’s military forces and the amount of equipment provided to the military).

Hitler and the Nazis capitalized on this resentment (notably by building up the size of the army and by building warships much larger than the limits imposed by the Treaty of Versailles). To argue that the Second World War is principally due to a nationalist ideology of self-sacrifice is an intriguing idea, but surely the historical context or the economic context of the Great Depression and the Treaty of Versailles were also crucial factors that led to Nazism, war, and even genocide.

Perhaps a useful comparison to the Treaty of Versailles and the harsh peace terms imposed on Germany is President Lincoln’s approach to the defeated American South after the United States Civil War. Lincoln sought reconciliation with and restoration of the South, not retribution. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln famously wrote” With malice toward none and charity for all … let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Similarly, the Americans led the way toward reconciliation and restoration with the Marshall Plan to rebuild the defeated nations at the end of the Second World War. Both Germany and Japan became very prosperous in a relatively short time period following their surrender. The compassionate approach to peace demonstrated by Lincoln and by Marshall Plan efforts after the Second World War led to substantial improvements in the lives of millions of people.

Let us hope that political leaders of the future can exercise such judgment when dealing with former adversaries. Perhaps Americans will become best friends with the people of Viet Nam, and nations in the Middle East may reconcile even after centuries of conflict, if practices of forgiveness and compassion serve as guides.

My comments in this review should in no way be interpreted as criticism of Dr. Koenigsberg’s excellent book. As noted before, I recommend Nations Have the Right to Kill highly. I learned many things in reading Dr. Koenigsberg’s scholarly, thoughtful, and provocative book. As just one example, he provides a description of Aztec warfare as a sacred endeavor whose purpose was to provide enemy soldier captives as a sacrifice to the gods. Such ideology and rhetoric does matter as a cause of war. As Koenigsberg points out so succinctly and perceptively, what Hitler said had a direct bearing on what Hitler did.

On a somewhat personal note, related to the need for reconciliation and forgiveness rather than retribution, one of the very few sermons I have listened to over the years which I found to provide a useful lesson was delivered by Ron Hunt, my former minister. Reverend Hunt re-told the Old Testament story of Joseph, whose brothers had sold him into slavery and yet who had risen to become the wise ruler of Egypt. Rather than exacting revenge, upon meeting his brothers after many years with no contacts, Joseph embraced and loved his brothers, and he gave his brothers generous provisions. Reverend Hunt concluded his sermon by leaning over the pulpit and he facetiously said, “No matter what you do, always hold on to a grudge.”