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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

Excerpt from From War to Peace: A Guide to the Next Hundred Years by Kent D. Shifferd. He has taught for 35 years at Northland College, the University of Wisconsin, Ripon College, and the United Theological Seminary. He is the founder of the 21-school consortium, the Wisconsin Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.

It is disturbing to consider the ways in which the minds of young men are manipulated using psychological techniques in order to get them to kill and the ways that killing disturbs their minds. But there is an even more disturbing hypothesis about psychology and the very existence of war itself. Scholar Richard Koenigsberg and others argue that war is the result of an unconscious desire on the part of a society as a whole to kill its own young men in order to prove the very existence of a meaningful society that can confirm our existence. War, they say, is a mass psychopathology the subconscious origins and motivations of which we refuse to recognize.

Koenigsberg has recast the perception of war from its traditional explanations as normative, glorious and honorable.34 He argues that we are delusional if we think the colossal slaughter and maiming of young men and civilians of all ages can be characterized in that way. The emperor has no clothes. War is about the mass production of corpses and mutilated bodies. War is a sickness, a psychopathology that grips whole nations and yet one to which they remain blind. War arises out of the irrational subconscious mind of the collective. While men say they go to war for honor, or territory, or self defense, or empire, or whatever political or economic cause, in fact they go to war to prove that the nation is real and the only way to do that is to show its power by its ability to sacrifice human beings to itself. And, he asserts, not only those of the “enemy,” but even more so, its own young men. In fact, we go to war in order to get our own boys killed. Then we can feel a meaningful emotional relationship to the nation. That, he argues, is what patriotism is all about.

He extrapolates from the sociologist Emile Durkheim, the psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, and the anthropologist Rene Girard. In brief, Durkheim argued that the nation, like other institutions, is a mental construct, an invention of convenience to counter the centrifugal forces that would, if unchecked, tear society apart. In reality, living within these continually shifting boundaries are different classes and ethnic groups and religious sects and individuals with different interests, all divided from one another in varying degrees of competition and even hostility. Advanced industrial societies especially require a “common faith, a common conscience collective, if they were not to disintegrate into heaps of mutually antagonistic and self-seeking individuals.“35 So what holds them together? The myth, or totem, of the nation. Durkheim believed that God is society writ large, and hence our identification with society is emotionally extremely powerful, especially since this nation-state god requires ritual sacrifice.

The social psychologists who make this argument also rely on Freud, who believed that our conscious life is in fact determined by infantile unconscious desires and fears. During the nineteenth century, the dominant trend in Western thought was positivism, which subscribed to the belief that people could ascertain real knowledge concerning themselves and their environment and judiciously exercise control over both. Freud, however, suggested that such declarations of free will are in fact delusions; we are not entirely aware of what we think and often act for reasons that have little to do with our conscious thoughts.

Girard argues that this disparate conglomerate of people and groups we call society, or our nation, can only continue to exist in some semblance of unity if it identifies a scapegoat, a sacrificial victim, and so deflects violence outward, as the Germans did with the Jews, just to take the most famous case. We know who we are and we validate who we are by destroying the enemy. “We” are not “them” and define ourselves in contrast to them. Koenigsberg argues that war is also just such a case of sacrificial victimization, but, and here is where he is original and nor derivative, he argues char the necessary sacrifice includes a society’s own young men as well as the “enemy.” War exists because it satisfies a powerful psychological need, the need co believe that there is something greater than the individual self, something worth making sacrifices for, as it were. In short, the enemy only provides a convenient excuse co kill our own young men, and they provide the mask or taboo that prevents us from recognizing what we are doing.

Like all three of the theorists on whose arguments he builds his own, Koenigsberg and others who make this argument are irrationalists- that is, they believe the forces that cause and perpetuate war are the dark, unrecognized forces of the violent and irrational subconscious, demons that do nor wane to be exorcised. Perhaps this might account for the extreme anger that some people feel when others protest against a particular war or weapons system, or even against the flag that is the symbol or totem of the nation. They feel threatened at the very core of their beings, thinking perhaps as follows:

“Because, if my child did not die or suffer mutilation for something great and honorable, then this mutilation of a life is a meaningless waste and I helped kill my own beloved. And what does chat make me?” It would require too much emotional and psychic pain to risk thinking along these lines, and so the real generator of war is beyond rational control. The implication of this hypothesis is that trying to control or eliminate war by showing how irrational or dysfunctional it is in economic or political terms, or by trying to create institutions such as the United Nations or the International Criminal Court for genocide, is a waste of time. This hypothesis also explains why peace advocates often become the enemy, and sometimes the sacrificial victims. They must be discredited if we are to go on with our comforting beliefs and not wake up to the fact that we are butchering our children for no good cause.

The great paradox here, encountered first by Freud, is that using reason one discovers how irrational we are. Freud thought, of course, that by elevating the irrational to consciousness, it could be dealt with- hence psychoanalysis on the individual level. One supposes that the same is true at the level of the collective. However, the cure rate of psychoanalysis has not been encouraging. We do not want to know what we are doing. Koenigsberg points out that we are only able to believe in honor and noble sacrifice if we do not look at the bodies of the soldiers who have been so horribly mangled. For instance, in World War II American journalists were prohibited from photographing our own dead, and in the wars against Iraq, the U.S. government prohibited the photographing even of flag-draped coffins coming home. But wouldn’t his thesis actually require that? T he bodies are the proof of the great value of the nation and of our belonging to it.

And what about the fact that so many millions went willingly over the top and walked into certain death being spewed by the machine guns? Had they taken on the role of sacrificial lamb, internalized it as ones set apart? Koenigsberg believes the answer is yes. Somehow it is assumed that soldiers will “do their duty,” even to the extent of forfeiting their lives. Yet what a radical form of behavior this was-walking into machine-gun fire. The behavior of soldiers in the First World War contradicts what biologists and psychologists tell us about the instinct for survival.36 It must be something very powerful. Jean Elshtain believes that these sacrifices are part of”modern state worship.“37 The state has taken the place of God. “In war, actual human bodies are sacrificed in the name of perpetuating a magical entity, the body politic. Sacrificial acts function to affirm the reality or existence of this sacred object, the nation. Entering into battle may be characterized as a devotional act, with death in war constituting the supreme act of devotion.“38 It is, after all, what Lincoln said at Gettysburg-“the last full mea~ure of devotion”and we commonly call it the “supreme sacrifice.” How close are we to admitting the truth of this terrible hypothesis?

Certainly Koenigsberg and others are right to unmask war, to show it to be a profoundly stupid enterprise. And he is right to raise the question of, why men willingly sacrifice themselves, as the millions did in World Wars I and II. Why do our children buy into this self-destructive myth? Surely there is something profoundly irrational about modern war, about tolerating inevitable deaths and mutilations in the millions.

The hypothesis might also go far in explaining how followers of Christianity, whose God preaches nonviolence and compassion, can deny the obvious rational application of their central teaching and instead endorse the slaughter of countless others of God’s children. And Robert Bellah’s thesis about the existence of a civil religion that is a conjoining of religious and political myths (“In God We Trust,” laying a hand on the Bible to be sworn in to high office, military chaplains, etc.) is empirically demonstrable.39 Just as certainly the state seems to trump the church.

Nevertheless, there are some serious problems with Koenigsberg’s thesis, and there are some alternate explanations for the seemingly inexplicable behavior of generals who send boys off to slaughter, the boys who go, and the civilians who endorse it.

To begin with, it is a nondisconfirmable hypothesis. He points to a phenomenon that cannot be seen. One cannot disprove the non-existence of the unseen and unseeable, the collective unconscious. A person could say that modern war is caused by invisible demons, and while patently false, there is no way to prove it is not so. Second, there are anthropological considerations that weigh against it. If it is necessary to have mass slaughter of a nation’s young men in order to keep the nation from flying apart, what about those societies that do not indulge in modern warfare: the Swedes, the Norwegians, the Costa Ricans {who do not even have an army), and many ochers? The Koenigsberg thesis is a universalizing hypothesis but it does not cover all the cases.

There are other problems. In his favorite example, World War I, the French army did finally mutiny and refused to leave the trenches. The German navy mutinied at Kiel. And the Russians actually left the trenches and walked home in 1917. Also, the vast number of psychological casualties, the so-called shell shocked, were another case of refusing to participate in the insanity, albeit by becoming passively insane. And even this was very difficult, not because of some mass psychosis, but simply because for soldiers to refuse to attack requires a great deal of coordination and planning, which are not only unlikely on a battlefield but also prevented by the officers, who, under nearly all circumstances, would shoot anyone on sight who proposed it. That is why soldiers who are about to mutiny shoot their officers.

It is far more reasonable to propose chat people put up with the insanity of modern war because their cultures provide them with no alternative, with no peace system, no other means to settle differences, no knowledge of the reality of peace. Their governments lie to them about the reality of war, both its nature and its necessity. Living in a society that is dominated by a war system - its institutions, norms, beliefs, all supported by the media and educational system-gives them no other way to think. This is a more positive approach to the problem of war and offers a surer way out. But Koenigsberg makes us think, makes us realize that the task of turning humanity around to a society characterized by a peace system will not be easy. Nevertheless, there is plenty of explanatory power in that which is visible and empirically verifiable without needing to resort to an unseen, and very sick, collective subconscious.

So how do we break out of this iron cage of warfare so that we do not have to do this any longer? What does a peace system look like, and how do we move from the no-longer-functional war system to a culture of peace in which there will be no more mass violence, death, and PTSD? First, we have to understand how the war system self-perpetuates.