Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War
Author: Richard Koenigsberg
Review of Nations Have the Right to Kill
By Lee Hall, JD
Using Hitler as a focal point, Nations Have the Right to Kill offers a riveting examination of the ideology of political violence, and demonstrates the danger of dividing genocide (usually viewed as an aberration) from war (often deemed a normal part of the course of civilization).
Dr. Koenigsberg observes that the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in the 20th-century has been so continuous that it is taken as an immutable—even natural—characteristic of history. To interrupt our historical attachment to war, we might begin by examining the mentality and ideology of those who perpetrate political violence.
Certainly we stand to learn much from an examination of the thoughts of those who initiate violence. No example looms larger in our history than Hitler. What did Hitler’s cognitive map look like? We normally avoid the question. It comforts us to say he was evil; a monster. But to do so squanders a vital lesson. To divide Hitler from the rest of humanity is a mechanism that allows us the perilous prerogative of separating violence from civilization.
Nations Have the Right to Kill articulates the profound connection between the First World War and the Holocaust. Hitler fought for over four years, witnessing and experiencing the horror of that war. Germany sent two million soldiers to die and four million to lose their arms or sustain other injuries, their lives shattered. One might think Hitler would have gained an understanding of war’s senselessness; that he would have been radicalized by it. Yet he was never able to denounce war.
“When in the long war years Death snatched so many a dear comrade and friend from our ranks,” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “it would have seemed to me almost a sin to complain—after all, were they not dying for Germany?” Koenigsberg shows how the idea of the nation justified sacrifice, suffering and death. The nation required its citizenry to accept death and mayhem on a grand scale. Many of the world’s nations were willing to send their young to terrible deaths, and the youths went without protest, “like sheep to the slaughter.”
Hitler saw the martyrs who died beside him as the best his nation had to offer humanity—those who would sacrifice their very lives for the community. “The Aryan willingly subordinates his own ego the life of the community and, if the hour demands, even sacrifices it.” He turned his resentment not to the leaders who ordered these deaths, but to those people who did not die. He imagined (in spite of statistics to the contrary) that a disproportionate number of the war’s evaders had been Jews.
Through careful analysis of Hitler’s writings and speeches, Koenigsberg makes us aware of the ideology that was the source of both warfare and genocide. Hitler deemed self-expression destructive, and decided that morality meant renouncing self-interest. He embraced Germany with religious passion, becoming a radical conformist. In his declaration of war on September 1, 1939, Hitler demanded—of himself, and of all Germans—not simply obedience, but absolute commitment. He required acts of sacrifice as a demonstration of loyalty. “In giving one’s life for the existence of the community” Hitler declared, “lies the crown of all sacrifice.”
Everyone would have to be willing to sacrifice. No one would be exempt. Anyone who attempted to evade responsibility would be destroyed. Be ready to die for your country, or your country will kill you. Hitler understood Jews as a people who were unwilling to sacrifice; whose ultimate loyalty did not inhere in the nation. Thus did his perception of the Jews lead to genocide.
The passionate obedience that became Hitler’s demand was and is the pathology that leads to war and genocide—both. Hitler erased his private self and dedicated himself to the public sphere, what we symbolically form as “the nation.” Both civilization and pathology grow from one source.
Dr. Koenigsberg tells the tale of Hitler being asked by a Dutch woman to explain the horrors he was perpetrating. Hitler explained that many soldiers were dying in the war to redeem Germany. Why was it, asked Hitler that, the best always die? The Jews would have to become victims too. No one would escape. After all, if the Jews were spared and thrived while so many Germans die, what would the nation look like in 100 years’ time?
We convince ourselves, as Hitler did, that killing soldiers is justified and right. It is patriotic. We classify killing and dying for nations “obedience to authority,” but ironically it is radical conduct. Why do we think of it as something ordinary simply because it is done for a large community—the nation?
Dr. Koenigsberg’s is a message that anyone with an interest in changing the course of human history should internalize and reflect upon. Can human beings transcend war? If so, Nations Have the Right to Kill will be one of our most important guides. Its striking lucidity will be a catalyst for our collective evolution.