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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

Review of Richard Koenigsberg’s Lecture: “The Logic of Mass Murder” (title of the seventh and final chapter of Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War)

By Beth A. Griech-Polelle, Professor of History, Bowling Green State University, author of Bishop von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism and co-editor of Trajectories of Memory: Intergenerational Representations of the Holocaust in History and the Arts


On Monday, October 16, 2006 students at Bowling Green State University attended a free lecture presented by Dr. Richard Koenigsberg. The lecture—”The Logic of Mass-Murder: Hitler, the Holocaust and War”—challenged those present to make new connections between the traumatic events of the First World War, their impact on Adolf Hitler, and the “Final Solution”—the Holocaust.

In the 1920’s a book appeared urging more radical measures in the treatment of Germany’s mentally ill and physically handicapped. The authors, Dr. Alfred Hoche and Dr. Binding, stated:

If one thinks of a battlefield covered with thousands of young corpses and compares them with our institutions for idiots—with the care devoted to their inmates—one is deeply shocked by the discrepancy between the sacrifice of man’s most precious resources and the tremendous care devoted to creatures that are completely worthless.

Hoche and Binding encouraged the “mercy-killing” of people that they deemed “Life unworthy of Living” or “useless eaters.”

Why would two physicians—both of whom presumably took the Hippocratic Oath to preserve human life within all reasonable limits— propose the “mercy killing”of defenseless human beings? Koenigsberg’s lecture answers this question by connecting the physicians’ desires to rid human society of “inferiors” with the fear that the First World War had consumed the “best and the brightest” of German life.

Scholars such as Robert Jay Lifton and Robert Proctor have articulated a mindset that emerged among many German psychiatrists in the 1920s: the belief that the mentally ill and physically handicapped represented a drain on healthier members of society. What Koenigsberg has attempted to do, however, is to show that men such as Hoche and Hitler actually were posing a question revolving around the sacrifice of healthy citizens in the defense of the German nation.

Koenigsberg argues that Hitler—as a frontline dispatch runner in the First World War—experienced firsthand the gruesome toll and awful reality of trench warfare. Instead of reacting to the horror he had witnessed and becoming a pacifist (a la Eric Remarque), Hitler took a different turn. According to Koenigsberg, Hitler made this decisive turn when he posed the question (in Mein Kampf): “Why during the First World War had some men died—sacrificed their lives—while others had not?” And then: “Why did the best die in warfare while the worst survived?”

Hitler believed that the willingness of a soldier to sacrifice himself in warfare—to be obedient unto death—was the supreme human virtue. Hitler reflected that if he as leader of the German nation had the right to send “the best” into bloody battles, then he also had the right to sacrifice the lives of “inferiors” and”shirkers” as well. The handicapped and the Jews would be compelled to forfeit their lives—to offset or balance out the losses of the brave soldiers.

Hitler revealed his thinking about the extermination of Jews in a statement the Führer made in mid-1942 when speaking about the murderous work of the Einsatzgruppenin the Soviet Union: “If I don’t mind sending the pick of the German people into the hell of war without the slightest regret over the spilling of precious German blood, then I naturally also have the right to eliminate millions of an inferior race that multiplies like vermin.” If Hitler did not regret spilling precious German blood, why should he not also have the right to eliminate Jews—an inferior race?

In another instance Hitler explained to Henny von Schirach that since so many German men were dying in the war, it only made sense to balance out this loss by killing off “inferiors.” Hoche, Binding, and Hitler thus justified mass-murder, Koenigsberg suggests, according to the logic: If the nation-state can sacrifice its most valuable citizens—soldiers—it also should have the right to kill citizens that make no useful contribution to society—for example, incurable mental patients and Jews.

Military historians assert that commanders frequently are fighting the last war when they go into current battles. Indeed, many have asserted that Hitler’s policy of constant motion and “no retreat” derived from his obsession to avoid a repeat of the catastrophic loss of 1914-1918.

Political historians and biographers have shown that Hitler was devastated by Germany’s loss of the First World War and that he accepted the popular “stab in the back” legend. This myth—loudly proclaimed by the WWI “hero” Eric Ludendorff—perpetuated a lie that the German army had never been truly defeated and that Germany’s loss was the fault of weak-willed civilians on the homefront.

Much of this story derives from Hitler’s desire to continue to glorify and idealize warfare despite his first hand experience with the horrors of battle. Koenigsberg argues that Hitler could not bring himself to blame the heroic figures of Paul von Hindenberg or Eric Ludendorff; nor could he hold his nation responsible for the deaths of so many fine young men. Instead, Hitler shifted his focus—proclaiming that Aryans were the superior race precisely because they were willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the community.

Hitler believed that sending the best of men into battle was part of Aryan tradition. By contrast, Hitler believed that Jews were shirkers—out only for self-preservation. Hitler conceived of Jews as the antithesis of all that the Aryan’s sacrificial bravery stood for. Koenigsberg suggests that Hitler’s mindset revolved around the idea of a “balance sheet:” If brave men of the superior race had to die, then Hitler would make certain that shirkers and members of an inferior race died as well.

Koenigsberg tells us that the words that dominated Nazi ideology—honor, loyalty, faithfulness, courage, bravery, and obedience—were not mere words. German soldiers, members of the Hitler Youth, and men of the SS all swore oaths incorporating these fine sounding words. These high-minded, idealistic virtues required that soldiers, HJ, and SS become “obedient unto death;” but also that they become ruthless, methodical killers of defenseless men, women and children.

If the Führer could require that German soldiers give up their freedom and die, why could he not also require that Jews do the same? Koenigsberg’s lecture challenged all of those present to reflect upon Hitler’s thought processes as the source of mass-murder.

The “solution” to the riddle of the Holocaust, according to Koenigsberg, requires deconstructing the ideology of warfare. Hitler understood that war represents the occasion when a political leader is permitted to send his own soldiers to die. If a nation’s commander-in-chief can send his “superior” citizens to their deaths, why can he not also send its “inferior” citizens to their deaths?

By examining Hitler’s conception of sacrifice versus selfishness, soldiers versus shirkers, and “superior” versus “inferior,” Koenigsberg pushed the audience to think about how Hitler made the decision to kill millions of innocent people. Koenigsberg’s work adds to our understanding of the relationship between the First World War and the Holocaust; and provides an intriguing insight into the origins of the tragic Second World War.