Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War
Author: Richard Koenigsberg
Review of Nations Have the Right to Kill
Commentary on “The Logic of Mass Murder” (the seventh and final chapter of Nations Have the Right to Kill)
By John Glad, Professor of Russian studies, former Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, chief translator of The Black Book on the German Slaughter of Jews
Much of Hitler’s attitudes towards the nation-state, war, community and obligation came from his participation in the First World War, where 6,000 men died every day. Contrast that with the 3,000 that died in one day in the U.S. on 9/11, but not day after day for four years. Miraculously Hitler fought heroically, survived, and did it without complaining; the same that we have always expected of our own soldiers.
Hitler developed a profound distaste for shirkers and deserters—with deserters seen as deserving the death penalty. He came to loath those who would not fight for their country. When he left the hospital after losing his eyesight from poisonous gas for a period of time, he claimed that “nearly every clerk was a Jew and nearly every Jew was a clerk.” In Hitler’s mind, the Jews were traitors to the nation. This idea festered in his mind for the next twenty-five years leading up to World War Two—an insatiable hatred for shirkers. Jews were easily stereotyped as shirkers and as such deserving of punishment—the supreme punishment.
Koenigsberg shows clearly that the Jews were slaughtered because in Hitler’s mind if Germans were to be slaughtered, then the Jews would likewise have to die. Not because they were inferior, but because they must suffer the same as the German soldier—war and genocide were two sides of the same coin. Hitler was the archetypical patriot leading an ascetic life, devoted to his people, willing to sacrifice all for Germany’s survival, and willing to die as any other soldier.
The Nazi state stressed communitarianism over bourgeois individualism, just like Communism. Hitler wrongly saw in the Jews a materialistic individualism. He was prepared to kill anyone that was not part of his vision. Jews, Gypsies, and others had to die because the best Germans were dying by the thousands. Koenigsberg states, “According to Hitler’s theory propounded in Mein Kampf, what was unique about the Aryan was his willingness to abandon self-interest and transcend egoism in the name of surrendering to the community.” What was “most strongly developed in the Aryan,” Hitler said, was the “self-sacrificing will to give one’s personal labor and if necessary one’s own life for others.” The Aryan was “not greatest in his mental abilities as such,” but rather in the extent of his willingness to “put all his abilities in the service of the community.” The Aryan, according to Hitler, willingly “subordinates his own ego to the life of the community” and “if the hour demands it even sacrifices himself.”
“The Jew by contrast,” Hitler said, represented the “mightiest counterpart to the Aryan.” Whereas the Aryan willingly sacrificed himself for the community, in the Jewish people the will to self-sacrifice “does not go beyond the individual’s naked instinct of self-preservation.” The Jew lacked completely, Hitler believed, the “most essential requirement for a cultured people, the idealistic attitude.” The Jew’s “absolute absence of all sense of sacrifice” expressed itself as “cowardice.”
We know now of course that devotion and self-sacrifice can come and go in any race, nation, or religion, etc. depending on the group’s level of tribalism and/or indoctrination at the time. Nations have swung back and forth between communitarianism and individualism, between peace and barbarity, depending on who is holding the puppet strings.
Though eugenics was introduced late into Germany, eugenics and attitudes of genetic superiority had nothing to do with Hitler’s slaughter of “vermin” where he found them: Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, etc. Koenigsberg sums up how other humans could be sacrificed on the altar of one’s God:
Thus a conundrum arose that would preoccupy Hitler throughout his life: Why in war do the best human beings die while the worst survive? Our ordinary expectation is that if we perform in accordance with morality or virtue, we will be rewarded; whereas if we act immorally, we will be punished. Yet Hitler discovered that what occurs in war acts in opposition to what we feel should occur. In war, those who adhere to societal norms by enthusiastically performing their duty are killed. While those who behave immorally by evading their responsibility to society survive. Hitler was alarmed and agitated by the profound unfairness or injustice of this state of affairs.
A feeling of injustice led Hitler to kill shirkers and deserters, not any perceived differences in genetic quality as was understood at the time. The Final Solution was payback time, how Hitler expressed his hatred towards the “cowardly” that he had nurtured since World War One. Hitler’s love of Germany, and hatred of all those who could not sacrifice for the common good, overtook his very being. Had he had a better understanding of “the other,” he would have understood that the Jews and the Slavs (if not the Gypsies) could be allies under the right conditions. Nevertheless, like the Communists, he embraced uncompromising Total War. The death of individuals was irrelevant.