by Richard A. Koenigberg
Richard Koenigsberg received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research. He is Director of the Library of Social Science.
Why did Hitler believe that it was necessary to destroy the Jewish race? What was the purpose and meaning of this extraordinary project that the Nazis called "The Final Solution?" In this pathbreaking book, Richard Koenigsberg shows how genocide grew out of the logic of warfare. Hitler reasoned that if he had the right to sacrifice his soldiers, he also had the right to send Jews to their deaths.
“Koenigsberg’s ideas cut trenchantly through conventional, rationalized notions about culture, the nation, and war, and enable us to see through the psychic machinations of human institutions in utterly new ways.”
—Ruth Stein, New York University, author of For Love of the Father
“If a case can be made that nationalism is a religion, few books rival Koenigsberg’s Nations Have the Right to Kill. The author confronts the taken-for-granted world of nationalism and political realism, and makes them suddenly seem utterly peculiar and bizarre.”
—Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion
- Political Violence as Terrorism
- Nazism as Religion
- Punishing Those Who Doubt the Sacred Object
- Violence as Squelching Doubt
- Ambivalence: “You are nothing, the sacred object is everything”
- Compelling Submission
I. Political Violence as Terrorism
In her papers "Evil as Love and Liberation" and "Fundamentalism, Father and Son and Vertical Desire" Ruth Stein suggested that the violent actions of Mohammed Atta and the suicide bombers on September 11, 2001, were undertaken in a spirit of devotion—based on profound attachment to Allah. Acts of terroristic violence, Stein hypothesized, were performed in the name of love.
The term "martyr" derives from the Arabic word "shahid," meaning “witness." The martyr bears witness to his love for Allah by killing infidels. As he submits to the will of God by sacrificing his own life, so does the terrorist compel others to submit to the will of God—and to sacrifice their lives.
When the airplane plunged into the ground in Pennsylvania on September 11, the suicide bombers’ last words were, "God is great." The terrorists gave witness to their belief that God is great—by virtue of their willingness to die and kill for him. The suicide bombers sacrificed their lives for Allah, and took Americans along with them.
"Allah" is a name given to an object or entity that some human beings worship. Other groups of people worship other objects or entities. People may worship a god, an ideology or their own nation. In each instance, people "look up" to the object, conceive of it as all-powerful, and are willing to perform "sacrifices" in the name of this idealized object.
Why do individuals and groups bind their identities to objects conceived as omnipotent? What is the relationship between attachment to an omnipotently conceived object—a god, ideology or nation—and the proclivity toward violence? Why do people commit radical and massive acts of violence in the name of objects that they idealize and worship?
During a meeting of a study group on religious fundamentalism (founded by psychologist Dan Hill) in December 2004, psychoanalyst Donald Moss introduced the term "fungible" to refer to the interchangeability of various objects in the psychic lives of groups and individuals. When people attach to an omnipotently conceived object and perform violent acts in its name, a common psychological mechanism may be operative—regardless of the nature of the object that is worshipped.
People may worship Allah, or America. The Nazis worshipped Hitler and Germany. The Japanese during the Second World War worshipped their Emperor. For many nations in the twentieth century, the ideology of communism became an object of worship. In each case, collective acts of violence were performed by groups in the name of defending or propagating a sacred ideal.
The phrase "Death to the non-believers" conveys the central meaning of collective forms of violence. Members of one group seek to dominate or kill members of another group that do not bow down to the sacred object worshipped by one’s own group. Terroristic violence is intended to compel belief: to force members of another group to submit to the same sacred object to which members of one’s own group have submitted.
II. Nazism as Religion
My research focuses on Hitler, Nazi ideology and the Holocaust. I began studying religious fundamentalism after reading Ruth Stein’s papers. I was surprised to discover that Stein’s findings on Mohammed Atta and the 9/11 suicide bombers were nearly identical to conclusions I had reached on the dynamics of Nazi violence: collective acts of violence grew out of attachment to a beloved or sacred object.
Nazism was a form of religion. Hitler declared, "We do not want to have any other God, only Germany." Hitler was like a preacher, inspiring his flock to worship the German nation. Deutschland ueber Alles ("Germany Above All"), Hitler explained, was a “profession of faith that fills millions with a strength that is mightier than any earthly might." Our love for our people, Hitler said, will never falter, and our "faith in this Germany of ours is imperishable."
The other side of the coin of Hitler’s love for and faith in Germany was anger toward those who—he imagined—did not share his love and faith. Hitler declared:
We are fanatic in our love for our people. We can go as loyally as a dog with those who share our sincerity, but will pursue with fanatical hatred the man who believes that he can play tricks with this love of ours.
Well before Islamic terrorism became prominent, I used the phrase "death to the non-believers" to crystallize my understanding of why Hitler felt compelled to exterminate the Jewish race. Hitler conceived of Jews as people who did not worship Germany sufficiently: were unwilling to embrace and surrender to the national community.
Hitler became enraged when contemplating the idea that some people sought to avoid sacrificing for Germany. The essence of the Jew, according to Hitler, was precisely his inability or unwillingness to sacrifice. He was incapable of become attached and devoted to a national community.
Bin Laden—like Hitler—felt that everyone had to embrace and worship the object that he embraced and worshipped. There could be no exceptions. Bin Laden stated that—according to the Muslim religion—Allah has "created us for the purpose of worshipping him." As a corollary to this proposition, Muslims are required by God to punish people who do not worship him.
Citing a passage from the Qur’an, Bin Laden urged believers to fight for the cause of Allah, and to kill pagans "wherever they are found." When a believer meets an unbeliever, Bin Laden says, he is encouraged to "smite the neck" of the unbeliever: to fight those who "believe not in Allah." The purpose of Jihad is to rouse the believers in order to "restrain the fury of the non-believers."
According to Hitler, every single German was required to embrace and to serve the German nation. No one was exempt. There "cannot be a single person," Hitler proclaimed, who "excludes himself from this obligation." The aim of National Socialism was dictatorship of the "whole people, the community."
In spite the enormous popularity that National Socialism had achieved, Hitler believed that there still were a few "incurables" who had “never understood the happiness of belonging to this great, inspiring community." Nazism revolved around eliminating these incurables, "party poopers" who—Hitler imagined—refused to embrace and devote themselves to the Germany.
Like Bin Laden, Hitler encouraged his followers to "smite the neck" of those who did not bow down to Germany: to kill people who did not believe in Nazism (wherever these people might be found). The Final Solution was a massive act of terroristic violence, the purpose of which was to punish—eliminate—infidels.
III. Punishing Those Who Doubt the Sacred Object
Citing the Qur’an, Bin Laden claims that Allah ordered Muslims to make holy wars and to fight to see to it that "His word is the highest and the uppermost and that of the unbelievers the lowermost." When God ordered Muslims to carry out jihad and to kill and to fight, he said, "Fight them, and God will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame, help you (to victory) over them, and heal the hearts of the believers." According to Bin Laden, Allah has "ordered us to make holy wars." Therefore, no Muslim may say that he does not want to do jihad in the cause of God because, after all, "Is there another way to repel the infidels?"
From Bin Laden’s perspective, acts of violence are good or virtuous because they represent the means to punish non-believers and to—"heal the hearts" of believers. The infidel is someone who refuses to worship and submit to Allah. Acts of violence are undertaken in the name of God—to punish infidels and compel submission.
Bin Laden advocates acts of terror in the name of Allah. Hitler authorized acts of terror in the name of Germany. Terroristic violence is initiated in order to punish people who—the believer imagines—do not worship the sacred object that the believer worships. Violent collective actions are designed both to punish the non-believer for refusing to believe; and to compel the non-believer to believe.
Terroristic violence seeks to demonstrate the power of the sacred object worshipped by one’s own group—by crushing or squelching members of non-believing groups. Acts of violence are designed to give witness to the greatness of one’s god, nation or ideology. The believer initiates acts of violence in order to terrify—to induce feelings of shock and awe in the minds and hearts of believers and non-believers alike.
Just as Hitler created the Final Solution in an effort to prove that Germany was omnipotent, so Bin Laden created September 11 in order to give witness to the power and greatness of Allah. In each instance, the objective was to persuade people that the sacred object worshipped by one’s own group was inescapable—could not be evaded. No one was exempt from the obligation to submit. Those who did not voluntarily submit would be compelled to.
Victims of the September 11 suicide bombings were, as Ruth Stein put it, required to submit or bow down to the terrorist in a way analogous to "how the terrorists themselves worship God." As terrorists sacrificed their own lives for Allah, so people in the World Trade Center were compelled to die for Allah. The terrorists required that others submit to the God to which they themselves had submitted.
IV. Violence as Squelching Doubt
Part and parcel of fanatic belief is the idea that everyone should worship the same god or nation or ideology that one’s own group worships. True believers like Hitler and Bin Laden become deeply disturbed when they realize that there are people in the world that do not share their beliefs.
What’s more, people like Hitler and Bin Laden often imagine that non-believers are working actively to destroy their god, nation or ideology. Bin Laden states, for example, that it is necessary to "restrain the fury" of non-believers. Hitler claimed that Jews represented a “force of disintegration” working to break Germany into pieces.
An order of November 1, 1944, to the Air Force (when the German military already knew that the war had been lost) stated that anyone who expressed doubt about the Fuehrer—criticized him or his measures or defamed him—was a person without honor who "deserved to die." Lecturing his SS-men, Himmler stated that if anyone should ever be disloyal to the Fuehrer or the Reich "even if only in thought"—it was up to them to see to it that this man "departs from the brotherhood." Nazism required absolute faith in Hitler and Germany. National Socialism revolved around seeing to it that people who were insufficiently devoted to Hitler and Germany—"departed their lives."
I hypothesize that where there is fanatic belief—when one imagines that an object is omnipotent—then doubt also must be present. Doubt cannot be separated from fanatic belief—because in reality there is no such thing as omnipotence. If no-thing is absolutely true and no-thing absolutely powerful, then if someone believes that some-thing is absolutely true and absolutely powerful, doubt must be present.
Terroristic violence is undertaken in order to squelch doubt. As the believer begins to realize that the object he or she worships is not omnipotent—that there is no such thing as omnipotence in the world—the sense of doubt may be projected into another group or class of people. This other group or class of people comes to symbolize disbelief in the goodness and power of the object with which one’s own group is identified.
In order to maintain faith—remain attached and devoted to the sacred object—the believer must rid himself of feelings of skepticism and doubt. One may seek to rescue the sacred object—to remove feelings of doubt and disbelief—by performing acts of violence against a group or class of people that has come to symbolize doubt and disbelief. Those who doubt or do not believe in the sacred object that one’s group worships are called infidels or enemies. These doubters or disbelievers—infidels or enemies—must be squelched, or eliminated.
What’s more, another group may possess its own sacred object or ideal that seems antithetical to one’s own sacred object or ideal. Another nation, god or ideology—by virtue of its very existence—threatens the nation, god or ideology that constitutes one’s own group. If the other nation, god or ideology is omnipotent, how can one maintain belief that one’s own nation, god or ideology is omnipotent?
Throughout Western history, groups have sought to affirm their belief systems by eliminating or destroying other groups of people whose beliefs contradict the beliefs of one’s own group. Phrases like "kill the infidel" or "kill the heretic" or "kill the Jew" or "kill the enemy" articulate the feeling that one must destroy another group or class of people in order to preserve the sacred ideal that constitutes one’s own group.
One of the central themes of the twentieth century was the clash between the ideologies of communism and capitalism. One side declared “Kill the capitalists," while the other side responded, "Kill the communists." The human race nearly was destroyed because a group that embraced one ideology felt that it was impossible to exist in a world that contained a group embracing the opposing ideology.
The struggle between competing ideologies—each possessing a claim to absolute truth—is a fundamental source of collective forms of violence. The very existence of another ideology—that claims to be absolutely true or omnipotent—is felt as working to undermine or destroy one’s own ideology. Acts of violence are initiated to determine—once and for all—"the truth."
V. Ambivalence: “You are nothing, the sacred object is everything”
Inherent within an individual’s attachment or connection to an object conceived to be omnipotent is ambivalence toward this object. Identification contains both a positive and negative valence. On the one hand, the individual imagines that his or her ego has become more expansive—bigger and more powerful—by virtue of attachment to the object. On the other hand, the individual may feel diminished or crippled as a result of binding his ego to an object seemingly so much greater than the self.
The essence of this ambivalent relationship to an omnipotently conceived object is expressed in a phrase that recurs in Hitler’s speeches. Hitler explained to his people, "You are nothing, your nation is everything." The word "everything" contains the positive dimension of identification. At the mass rallies at Nuremberg, tens of thousands of Germans gathered in a single location—as if bound together to constitute a single, omnipotent body. Germans participating in these rallies may have experienced a sense of being fused with "everything."
The word "nothing" contains the negative valence of imagining that one is connected to or fused with an omnipotent object. By virtue of binding one’s self to this object—conceived to be gigantic and powerful—the individual’s ego shrinks by comparison. One becomes submerged within the object, losing one’s sense of individuality and agency.
When one identifies with an object conceived to be omnipotent, ambivalence is inescapable. The same mechanism that enhances the sense of self (identification with a great or powerful object) simultaneously acts to cripple or paralyze the self. The mechanism that allows the individual to feel that he or she is everything also generates the feeling that one has become nothing.
The believer begins to rebel against the object—to escape the feeling that one has become nothing—by separating from it. However, the believer already may be too far gone. Too much of the self has become invested in the object. Even as one feels diminished and oppressed by virtue of one’s attachment to the object, one may not possess the will to separate from it.
Yet the feeling of being crushed or crippled or diminished—by virtue of being attached to the object—remains. How can the individual cope with this feeling or experience without abandoning the object? What frequently occurs is that the individual projects the feeling of being oppressed—hostility toward the object—into another group or class of people. This group or class of people—identified as an infidel or the enemy—is imagined to be rebelling against the object, thus acting to destroy the sacred object with which one has become identified.
One’s desire to separate from the object transmogrifies into a belief that the enemy wishes to destroy the object. The enemy symbolizes one’s own desire to abandon the object. The purpose of acts of violence is to squelch the desire to abandon the object— by crushing, defeating or killing a group or class of people that symbolizes rebellion against the object. What must be crushed—if one is to maintain one’s connection to the sacred object—is the desire to be liberated from the omnipotent object (experienced as oppressing the self).
VI. Compelling Submission
Terroristic violence seeks to squelch doubt or disbelief—by affirming the omnipotence of the sacred object with which members of one’s group are identified. Death to the non-believers means: "How dare you doubt that the object we worship is omnipotent? How dare you disbelieve in the power of the nation or god or ideology that our group worships?"
Acts of collective violence declare: "We will teach you a lesson. This will show you what happens to people who doubt the power of our nation, god, or ideology." Acts of violence function to affirm or reaffirm the power of the object with which members of one’s group are identified: to reconstitute the fantasy of the object’s omnipotence. The act of violence functions both to punish the non-believer, and to persuade him just how powerful the object is.
At the heart of Nazi ideology was the idea of national self-sacrifice. Hitler asserted that any man who loves his people proves it solely by the "sacrifices which he is prepared to make for it." Jews were conceived as "selfish individualists"—the exact opposite of people willing to sacrifice for a nation. The primary (racially given) characteristic of the Jew, according to Hitler, was the "absolute absence of all sense of sacrifice."
The Final Solution sought to convey the following message to Jews: "Do not imagine that you are exempt from the obligation to sacrifice your lives." Acts of violence performed by one group are designed to terrorize members of another group: to compel them to bow down; submit to one’s own god, nation or ideology. Acts of violence seek to convert infidels or enemies into "believers." That which kills must be real.
The Final Solution was a massive terroristic performance designed to evoke shock and awe in the hearts and minds of Jews (the quintessential non-believer). It was as if Hitler was saying, "Do you Jews see now that we are capable and willing to perform this radical, extreme form of action in the name of our country? Do you still doubt that Germany is omnipotent?" The Holocaust was a form of terroristic violence that functioned to prove or "give witness" to the depth of Nazi devotion to Hitler and Germany.
The World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings, similarly, were performed by Bin Laden and the suicide bombers as if to convey to America (and the world): "Do you disbelieve in the greatness of Allah? Do you doubt the depth of our belief—sincerity of our devotion to God?" The suicide bombers became martyrs by virtue of their willingness to die and kill: giving witness to their love for Allah.
Political violence conveys the message: Death to non-believers: death to those who refuse to acknowledge the omnipotence of our nation, ideology or god. The purpose of acts of collective or group violence is to compel others to submit to the sacred ideal to which members of one’s own group have submitted. Acts of terroristic violence are performed in order to "give witness" to the depth of one’s devotion.
Acts of group violence represent demonstrations: "Now you see how powerful our nation, god or ideology is." Collective acts of violence seek to persuade other groups that one’s own nation or god is powerful, and its ideology true. Violence functions in the name of verification: This is what happens to people who do not acknowledge the power of our god or nation. This is what happens to people who do not embrace our ideology.
Speaking in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1879), the Grand Inquisitor explained that so long as man remained free, he strove for nothing so incessantly and painfully as to “find someone to worship." The chief misery of every man individually—and of all humanity according to the Grand Inquisitor—is not only to find what one can worship, but to participate in a "community of worship." People seek to worship, not according to their individual tastes, but according to what is established beyond dispute so that "all men agree at once" to worship the same thing.
For the sake of common worship, the Grand Inquisitor says, human beings have slain each other with the sword. They set up gods and challenge one another: "Put away your gods and come and worship ours or we will kill you and your gods!" A person in one group—who devoutly believes in the omnipotence of his god—seems unable to tolerate the idea that another group of people also possesses a god claiming to be omnipotent. It is as if two gods with claims to omnipotence cannot co-exist.
Each group demands that the other abandon its sacred object and bow down to one’s own sacred object. Group violence conveys the message—as Dostoevsky puts it—"Put away your god (or ideology or nation) and come and worship our god (or ideology or nation). If you do not worship the object that we worship, then we will come and kill you (and destroy your god, ideology or nation).” Terroristic violence seeks to compel members of the other group to bow down to the sacred object that is worshipped by one’s own group.