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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

Commentary on Koenigsberg’s Plenary Talk “The Sacrificial Meaning of the Holocaust” (Chapter II of Nations Have the Right to Kill) presented at a meeting of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion

By Eric Gans, Professor of French & Francophone Studies, UCLA, in his Newsletter, “Chronicles of Love and Resentment”

At the Atlanta COV&R meeting I attended a talk on “The Sacrificial Meaning of the Holocaust” by Richard Koenigsberg, who has devoted many years to the subject. Koenigsberg’s central point was that Hitler’s notion of national belonging was shaped by his “sacrificial” experience of World War I. His idea of annihilating the Jews was, therefore, in a perverse way—the speaker did not seem to realize just how perverse—ultimately indistinguishable from his conception of the sacrificial destiny of German youth.

In linking these two destinies that clearly had opposite valences for Hitler and his followers, Koenigsberg recalled Hannah Arendt’s not altogether dissimilar view of “totalitarian” societies as functioning through a universal terrorism ultimately indifferent to national differences. Arendt comes close to making Jews and Germans just two subgroups of terrorized humanity. Although Koenigsberg’s notion of sacrifice suggests the paradox in this union of contraries more openly, I think his categorization can be further sharpened.

The Nazis saw the destruction of the Jews as analogous not to human sacrifice but to the elimination of disease-causing bacteria. Yet Koenigsberg’s talk revealed that this decisive step toward dehumanization had already been taken within the vocabulary of sacrifice applied to the soldier-victims of WW I. Here is one of his citations, from P. H. Pearse, founder of the Irish Revolutionary movement, writing in 1916:

The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth. It is good for the world to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefield. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.

Koenigsberg equates war with human sacrifice, on the model of “[t]he Aztecs [who] believed that the sun arose each morning because it was fed with the heart and blood of sacrificial victims.” But just as the Holocaust was a unique historical experience, so too was WW I. European civilization in 1914, whatever its flaws, was hardly comparable to the society of the Aztecs. Prewar Europe lacked neither protein nor horsepower. The horror of WW I was the irrational consequence of the European economic rationalization that had generated mechanized weaponry, universal conscription, and colonialism.

Bloody phrases like that quoted above, in other words, are not expressions of an untroubled and uninterrupted tradition of bloody sacrifice; they are more or less hysterical attempts to justify a posteriori the unexpected bloodletting over trifling objectives as an expression of the individual’s duty to subordinate his own survival to that of his community.

This is not to say that all wars previous to WW I had deserved such justification. But after the excesses of the Napoleonic era, war in the nineteenth century had steadily become less expensive of European manpower; the ratio of political accomplishment to casualties seemed to rise steadily. It is the brutal termination of this trend in the unproductive sacrifices of WW I that inspired in Hitler the apparently final paroxysm of the sacrificial vision of war.

This time, sacrifice would be meaningful: there would be no symmetry of friend and foe, no fraternization across the barbed wire. The similarity in the fates of Germans at the front and Jews in the camps—we should not overlook the horrible differences—was an irony Hitler would not have appreciated. And yet, the sacrifice of millions of regrettably anonymous “heroes” is not all that far from the extermination of millions of deliberately anonymous “vermin.”