Nazism as Bodily Fantasy
by Richard A. Koenigsberg
Hitler's Ideology: A Study in Psychoanalytic Sociology
by Richard Koenigsberg
“When political figures refer to national crises as "cancers," Richard Koenigsberg feels it's no accident. Such expressions echo a nation's hidden belief systems. If you can understand the fantasies that provide politicians with such rhetoric, then you can understand the country. This book presents an ingenious technique for identifying the psychological origins of political and social events.”
—The Village Voice
“The best critical analysis in English of Hitler s thought.”
“Koenigsberg's genius has unlocked the secrets of a timeless drama.”
—Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology
From Hitler’s Ideology
“How may we account for the shape and form of specific cultural ideas and ideologies? Why are certain ideas ‘passed along,’ and not others? How may we account for the intensity of affect that is attached to certain ideas?
“We have not dealt adequately with the problem of the causes of the popularity of an ideology within a given culture. Once an ideology has attained a degree of power, conventional explanations may come into play as a means of explaining the continuing power of this ideology.
“These modes of explanation, however, cannot tell us why a given ideology has gained currency within a culture. They cannot explain why some ideas, among all the ideas present within a culture, have been “selected out” and, consequently, ‘passed along’.”
- War Against the Jews
- The Final Solution as Shared Fantasy
- Nazi Faith
- Fusing into an Enthusiastic Mass
- The Melting Pot
- The Euthanasia Movement
- Jews as Split Off Hostility
- The Gas Chambers
I. War Against the Jews
In 1933 there were 550,000 Jews in Germany out of a total population of 66 million, less than one percent of the population. Yet this small group of people assumed a tremendous role in the minds of Hitler and the Nazis. Jews were conceived to embody forces that threatened to destroy Germany.
In Hitler’s Ideology (1975/2007), I examine metaphors and images used by Hitler to describe the Jew, viewed as the source of disease, bacteria, virus or cancer; as a “parasite within the body of the people;” and as a force working toward the “disintegration” or “decomposition” of the nation. For Hitler, the Jew was an element within the body politic whose continued presence would lead to Germany’s demise.
From the beginning, the Jew was central in Nazi ideology. Hitler’s Official Programme (first published in 1927) stated that anti-Semitism was the “emotional foundation” of the Nazi movement. The anti-Semite was one who recognized the “carrier of the national plague-germ and demands the expulsion of the Jew from our state.”
Hitler’s believed that his task as political leader was to alert the German people to the Jewish danger, and to remove this source of their suffering. In Mein Kampf (1923), Hitler observed that “every distress has some root or other.” It matters not, therefore, he said, “how many emergency regulations the Government issues—that I doctor around on the circumference of the distress and try from time to time to lance the cancerous ulcer.” Rather, Hitler declared, in order to be effective as a leader, it was necessary to “penetrate to the seat of the inflammation–to the cause.” Unless the irritating cause is discovered or removed, he said, “no cure is possible.”
Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996) draws attention to the profound link between the behavior of the Nazis and their ideology, a connection that had been noted by Lucy Dawidowicz in The War against the Jews (1976/2010):
The mass murder of the Jews was the consummation of Hitler’s fundamental beliefs and ideological conviction. The nexus between ideas and act has seldom been as evident in human history with such manifest consistency. Hitler’s ideas about the Jews were at the center of his mental world. They shaped his worldview and his political ambitions, forming the matrix of his ideology and the core of National Socialist doctrine. Few ideas in world history achieved such a fatal potency.
The Final Solution was undertaken as fulfillment of Hitler’s desire to destroy the Jewish race. Raoul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (1961-2003) remains one of the best sources providing a sense of what the process of extermination meant to those who carried it out. Hilberg describes the killing of the Jews as an “undertaking for its own sake;” an event “lived and lived through by its participants.”
As the destructive process unfolded, its requirements became more complex and its fulfillment involved an ever-larger number of agencies, party offices, business enterprises, and military commands. The destruction of the Jews was a total process, comparable in its diversity to a modern war, a mobilization, or a national reconstruction.
The killing of the Jews was an undertaking for its own sake; an event lived and lived through by its participants. The German bureaucracy could sense the enormity of the operation and displayed a fundamental comprehension of the task even when there were no explicit communications. The destruction process was described as “cleansing of Jews actions.”
The destruction of the Jews was not a gainful operation. It imposed a strain upon the administrative machine and its facilities. In a wider sense, it became a burden that rested upon Germany as a whole. In the totality of the administrative process, the destruction of the Jews presented itself as an additional task to a bureaucratic machine that was already straining to fulfill the requirements of the battlefronts.
One need think only of the railroads, which served as the principal means for transporting troops, munitions, supplies and raw materials. Every day, available rolling stock had to be allocated, and congested routes assigned for trains urgently requested by military and industrial users. Notwithstanding these priorities, no Jew was left alive for lack of transport to a killing center.
The killing centers or death camps were a massive institution created, organized and managed by human beings. Their fundamental purpose was to kill people. Steven Katz (1993) asks:
Has there ever been a comparable example of so much disciplined planning and modern technological know-how, so much specialization and concern with efficiency, being harnessed and used solely to murder a noncombatant civilian population, where a technology came into being and had its sole raison d’être the murder of a segment of one’s own and then one’s subject population?
An entire, sophisticated industry, and much of the energy of the German nation and its allies, were devoted solely to the production of corpses. Everything, from the making of trains to carry the victims, to the making of gas chambers to gas the victims, to ovens to burn the victims, to the communications that controlled the entire process, was the end product of a technologically advanced civilization which decided to turn its economy, as well as its inmost soul, over to manufacturing death.
Viewed through the lens of rationality, the Final Solution makes no sense. Jews represented no threat to Germany. Yet the Nazis spent vast amounts of resources in their effort to kill Jews. What a tremendous burden this project was for the people who carried it out—and how purposeless it seems to the outsider.
Hannah Arendt (1944/1994) observed that
Only people who are no longer ruled by the common motives of self-interest and common sense could indulge in convictions that for all immediate practical purposes (winning the war or exploitation of labor) were quite obviously self-defeating. Social scientists will have great difficulty understanding that behavior patterns and motives usually identified with human psychology are abolished or play a secondary role, that objective necessities conceived as the ingredients of reality itself could be neglected.
Observed from the outside, victim and persecutor look as though they were both insane and the interior life of the camps reminds the onlooker of nothing so much as an insane asylum. Our common sense, trained in utilitarian thinking, is offended by nothing so much as by the complete senselessness of a world where punishment persecutes the innocent more than the criminal, where labor does not result and is not intended to result in products, where crimes do not benefit and are not even calculated to benefit their authors.
Similarly, Ronald Aronson (1984):
The functionalist bias of most systematic thought assumes that there is a reason for every societal act, a more or less rational intention behind political action. It offends the intellect to suggest that there is no reason behind a major policy–or that indeed its reason is profoundly and systematically irrational.
How is one to understand this social institution—created by the Nazis—that seemed to have no rational purpose?
II: The Final Solution as Shared Fantasy
I study the psychological sources of collective irrationality, focusing upon shared fantasy as the fundamental determinant of social movements. Hitler’s Ideology demonstrated a relationship between fantasy and ideology for Hitler. Robert Lifton’s Nazi Doctors (1986) demonstrated that the relationship between fantasy and ideology which I discovered for Hitler was present in the minds of many other Nazis as well. I hypothesize that a shared fantasy—projected into the political arena—gave rise to the Final Solution.
I view ideology as a manifestation of transference, allowing the externalization of unconscious material into social reality. Nazism was a social movement created by human beings. What motives gave rise to this movement and made it meaningful for participants?
Early research focused on the personality (and psychopathology) of Hitler. This approach is insufficient. We need to understand how a civilized nation could have been persuaded to embrace and enact the ideas Hitler put forth. Joachim Fest (1973):
Were it not for the congruence between the personal and the social-pathological situation, Hitler could never have wielded such hypnotic power over his fellow-citizens. He could not have bewitched the masses if he had shared their secret emotions and incorporated all their psychoses into his own psyche. When he spoke, the masses met, hailed and idolized themselves. An exchange of pathologies took place.
What is most remarkable about (Nazism) is that it became enough of a mass outlook for a movement, and then a society as a whole to be organized around it. In power, the Nazis were able to reshape reality until it conformed to the distorted fantasy. In achieving his position, wasn’t Hitler giving voice to the malignancy, the irrationality of the social forces that brought him to power? It distorts the course of events to describe the locus of the Final Solution as being Hitler. Among Nazis, there was general agreement about the “Jewish Problem:” how could it be solved?
The ideas expressed by Hitler resonated with many Germans. Hitler was tuned in to certain fantasies and able to convey these in such a way that others were moved by the fantasies that moved him. Hitler’s ideas excited the German people. Many Germans were turned on by the words he spoke—the phrases and images he used to express his ideas. Hitler and many other Germans were dreaming the same dream. Hitler was director of an enormous drama—a passion play enacted upon the stage of reality.
III: Nazi Faith
The core of Nazism was nationalism, patriotism—devotion to Germany. The Nazis embraced the ideology of nationalism more deeply than it had ever before been embraced, and enacted its basic premises.
Nazism represented radical identification between self and nation: insistence that a sense of self can be achieved only in a symbiotic tie with one’s nation. Hitler spoke to the German people:
Our Nation is not just an idea in which you have no part; you yourself support the nation; to it you belong; you cannot separate yourself from it. Your life is bound up with the life of your whole people. The nation is not merely the root of your strength, it is the root of your very life.
Nazi totalitarianism insisted that the German nation encompassed everything. Consequently, there could be no such thing as life lived separately from the community. Hitler said that if each one thinks only of himself and his own interests, then “no community of the people can come into being.” Volksgemeinschaft meant overcoming bourgeois privatism, “unconditionally equating the individual fate and the fate of the nation.”
According to Hitler, no one was exempt. There could not be a “single person who excludes himself from this joint obligation.” He asked Germans to demonstrate that the Volk was “a single unit, indivisibly clamped and bound together.”
In Constitutional Law of the Third Reich (see Murphy, 1943) political theorist Ernst Rudolf Huber stated that according to National Socialism there are “no personal liberties of the individual which fall outside the realm of the state.” The “member of the people organically connected with the whole community, had replaced the isolated individual.”
The Nazi’s totalitarianism fantasy, then, was that of the nation as a single entity to which each and every individual was bound—and from which it was impossible to separate.
Nazism grew out of profound idealism revolving around loyalty and devotion to Germany. The evil of Nazism arose out of this quest for absolute goodness. Goebbels (in Rhodes, 1980) stated that to be a socialist meant to “subordinate the I to the Thou, sacrifice the personality for the whole.” National Socialism, he said, is “service, renunciation for individuals, fanatic love, courage to sacrifice, resignation for the Volk.”
Hitler spoke endlessly of his faith in the Reich and German people:
Our future is Germany. Our today is Germany. And our past is Germany. Let us take a vow this morning, at every hour, in each day, to think of Germany, of the nation, of our German people. You cannot be unfaithful to something that has given sense and meaning to your whole existence.
Nazism was an orgy of nationalistic self-exaltation rooted in profound devotion toward Germany. “The community of the people,” “the community of the people”—this was Hitler’s battle cry. His mission was to overcome “divisions,” and to unite his people into a single, unified body.
Hitler demanded that everyone embrace the Nazi faith. No one was excluded from the obligation to serve Germany. Hitler’s insistence—that no one was exempt—turned idealism into a rage of destruction. “We are fanatic in our love for our people,” Hitler declared. “We can go as loyally as a dog with those who share our sincerity, but we will pursue with fanatic hatred the man who believes that he can play tricks with this love of ours.”
Fred Alford (1988) defines “narcissistic rage” as “aggression in response to threats to the grandiose self and omnipotent object.” Narcissistic rage “denies separation and otherness,” rather it is activated when separateness and otherness impinge on narcissistic grandiosity.
Hitler’s rage was against anything that called into question the fantasy of a grandiose self—embodied in the omnipotent ideal, the German nation. The devoted Nazi defined existence as a symbiotic tie between self and nation, equating his own ego with the idea of Germany. To call into question the idea of Germany—doubting its goodness and omnipotence—was to negate the Nazi self.
IV: Fusing into an Enthusiastic Mass
The ideal of an omnipotent nation enhancing the power of the self—also denies the self. Hitler explained to his people, “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” Fritz Reinhardt, Nazi political theorist, observed that
Hitler has set his stamp on the word folk-community (Volksgemeinschaft). This word is to make completely clear to the members of our people that the individual is nothing when not a member of a community.
Nazism was an orgy of nationalistic self-exaltation, but also an orgy of masochistic self-abnegation. According to Nazi ideology, human beings could not exist for themselves—could attain existence only through and in the nation.
Nazism was the quest for omnipotence through identification—leading to the adoption of a subservient, masochistic posture toward the state. The Nazi simultaneously is enhanced and diminished by his dream of symbiotic unity with an omnipotent nation.
Hitler himself was enthralled, mesmerized by the idea of Germany. The aspiration of national unity, of course, is at the heart of many nationalist movements, expressed in phrases like “bringing the people together” and “overcoming differences that keep people apart.” Hitler, however, was not content with the abstract form of this dream.
A unique aspect of Hitler’s Nazism was its quest to actualize the dream of national union—symbiosis— as bodily experience. Speaking to his youth, Hitler declared: “You are flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood. You are all one, belonging to me.” Hitler’s fantasy was that all Germans would become “one:” a single “substance of flesh and blood.”
The mass-meeting and rallies expressed Hitler’s desire to create the physical experience of oneness—as thousands, tens-of-thousands of human beings massed together, concentrated in a single space. Hitler describes this experience:
The individual who at first feels lonely and easily succumbs to the fear of being alone— for the first time gets the picture of a larger community, which has a strengthening, encouraging effect. But the community of the great demonstration not only strengthens the individual, it also unites and helps to create an esprit de corps.
Man needs that strengthening which lies at the conviction of being a member and fighter in a great comprehensive body. And he obtains an impression of this body for the first time in the mass demonstrations. People came to my speeches as my enemies, but gradually it transpired that after my speech lasting three hours, adherents and adversaries fused into a single enthusiastic mass.
By virtue of these rallies, individuals abandoned autonomy, uniting with the group. But Hitler’s fantasy went deeper. The climax of his speeches occurred, Hitler says, when listeners “fused into a single enthusiastic mass.” It was at that moment that individuals united to constitute a “great comprehensive body.”
The Nazis architectural structures were designed in order to enhance this experience of people as a unified body. Scobie writes in Hitler’s State Architecture (1990) that Hitler’s vast stadia & assembly halls were part of his plan to establish domination over masses of people by molding them into a single unified body enclosed within a single, all-embracing building.
V: The Melting Pot
The following passage (from a Hitler speech) contains the central idea that defined Nazism:
My Movement encompasses every aspect of the entire Volk. It conceives of Germany as a corporate body, as a single organism. There is no such thing as non-responsibility in this organic being, not a single cell which is not responsible, by its very existence, for the welfare and well-being of the whole. Thus in my view there is not the least amount of room for apolitical people.
Nazi political theorist Gottfried Nesse (1935) wrote, similarly, that in contrast to the state, the people form “a true organism—a being that leads its own life and follows its own laws.” The living unity of the people, he said, has “cells in its individual members.” And just as in every body there are cells to perform certain tasks, “this is likewise the case in the body of the people.” The individual is bound to “the people”—physically, mentally and spiritually.
The Nazi dream of “unity” was rooted in a fantasy conceiving of the nation as a gigantic “body politic” consisting of the German people as the flesh and blood or cells of this body. Margaret Mahler defined symbiosis (1969) as the fantasy of “somatopsychic omnipotent fusion:” delusion that two separate organisms are “contained within a common boundary.”
Nazi ideology recreated the delusion of symbiosis in the individual’s tie to his nation. Nazism imagined that German bodies were bound to a “national organism,” and that separation from this organism was inconceivable. The fantasy of fusion was enacted in mass rallies where tens-of-thousands of bodies massed together to create the illusion of a single body acting in unison.
The Nazi identified his body with the body politic, or more precisely substituted the idea of the nation for his own ego. In substituting the nation for himself, the Nazi negated himself. James Grotstein suggests (1977) that one of the functions of projective identification is to permit the individual to disappear. The Nazi strove to disappear: abandon his own ego by fusing with a collective body.
According to Hitler, what united the German people was good, and what separated Germans from one another was bad. The whole German nation, Hitler declared, must once more be brought to a “unity of spirit and of will.” The pre-condition for relieving the distress in Germany was the “restoration of the consciousness of belonging together.”
In order to bring men gradually nearer to each other, Hitler explained, they had to be thrown into the “great melting pot, the nation”— that they might be “purified and welded one to another.” Organizations promoting disunion or disintegration had to be uprooted and “all those must be ruthlessly eliminated who disturb this community.”
The struggle to achieve unity in the face of forces working toward disunity is a theme appearing repeatedly in Hitler’s speeches. What brought the National Socialist Movement into being, Hitler said, was the yearning for a “true community of the German Volk.” Fate had given National Socialism the great task of eliminating the “disunity of the German Volk, the roots of its misfortune.” Yet the Movement could fulfill its one great mission only if it “uncompromisingly exterminates the things which tear our Volk apart.”
It would appear that the quest for absolute good and creation of absolute evil went hand in hand. The ideal of creating a unified community could be achieved only if Germany “exterminated the things that tear our Volk apart.”
The objective of the mass rallies was to bring into being an omnipotent, indestructible community. Discussing the ideal of Volksgemeinschaft, Scobie notes that this concept in turn generated the “concept of the enemy of the Volk,” that is, any person (or group) conceived to be hostile to the commonly pursued goals of the nation, for example, the Jews, who were branded enemies of the state.
Such people were excluded from participation in national rituals and festivities that took place within the confines of the community buildings in Nuremberg since, as outcasts, “their presence would have hindered the creation of the feeling of oneness between leader and led,” which it was Hitler’s aim to create.
The Jew, Hitler declared, is the “ferment of decomposition in peoples,” which meant that the Jew “destroys and must destroy”—because he “completely lacked the conception of an activity which builds up the life of the community.” Jews, by their very nature, acted to tear down the national community.
The Nazi’s symbiotic fantasy of oneness was projected as a bodily fantasy. Hitler conceived of Germany as an organism with which his own body—and the bodies of all other Germans—were fused. The good Nazi would so completely identify with Germany that he would experience the nation as a part of himself, thus would not hesitate to submit to and do the bidding of this object.
According to Wegner (1990), the SS saw the individual as an “integral element of a social organism.” The individual’s personal value and justification for his very existence depended solely on the advantages he furnished the national community. The individual was, in the eyes of the SS, only a “fragment of the body politic to which he owed allegiance.” Himmler informed his SS that everyone should be fully aware that “our lives do not belong to us, but to the Fuhrer and the Reich.”
As a fragment of the body politic, the SS-man could not rebel against the body of which he was a part. His life belonged to “the Fuhrer and the Reich.” The SS-man was compelled to abandon the subjective willing function and to internalized the “will of the Reich,” the state’s destructive power, as his own will. When the SS-man dominated Jews in the death camps, he externalized the state’s destructive power, turning the Jew into someone precisely like him: A slave compelled to obey the will of the state.
VI: The Euthanasia Movement and the Final Solution
The Final Solution grew out of the “euthanasia program” instituted by the Nazis. The killing of defective children began in 1938 and of adult mental patients in 1939. These programs were rooted in medical ideas that had been gathering momentum for a century. They were managed by doctors, anthropologists and behavioral scientists who provided the scientific rationale, developed the procedures and personally carried out or supervised the killings.
Doctors studied the records of patients who were being considered for “treatment,” and usually gave physical examinations. Forms were filled out, with the decision to kill in the doctors’ hands. A “plus” mark meant the doctor concluded the patient was “incurable” and therefore should be given “special treatment;” a “minus” mark meant that euthanasia was not recommended; a third space was provided for an uncertain diagnosis. Generally, two doctors had to agree on a diagnosis of “incurable” for the patient to be selected for the “euthanasia action.”
Selections took place in hospitals. Killing was the responsibility of the physician and was accomplished through the administration of drugs or fatal injections, by starvation or gassing. Scholars agree that while Hitler gave the “OK,” the program was developed and executed by physicians, voluntarily and enthusiastically.
Frederic Wertham (1966) tells us that the procedure became quite ordinary:
The individual psychiatric hospitals were not squeamish about the number of patients put to death while the program lasted. For example, in 1941 the psychiatric institution Hadamar celebrated the cremation of the ten thousandth mental patient in a special ceremony. Psychiatrists, nurses, attendants, and secretaries all participated. Everybody received a bottle of beer for the occasion.
Scholars estimate that 100,000 or more Germans were killed in this program.
At a certain moment, the euthanasia program transitioned into the Final Solution. The template developed for the mentally ill was transferred to the concentration camps. At first, procedures for selecting prisoners at the camps were similar to procedures for selecting mental patients.
Dr. Fritz Mennecke was one of the doctors who regularly visited camps to select prisoners. Correspondence with his wife reveals how the euthanasia campaign took effect. On November 20, 1941, he wrote from Ravensbruck concentration camp:
Work is going smoothly since the names have been already typed in and only the diagnosis has to be filled in. Dr. Sonntag sits beside me chatting about the situation in the camp while an officer brings the patients up. It goes like clockwork. We still have 2,000 forms to complete, and in fact that’s just a formality, as it’s open to question if there really are so many who are eligible for euthanasia.
That the selection criteria were observed less than scrupulously is evidenced in Mennecke’s first letter from Buchenwald, dated November 25, 1941:
The first day’s work is done. We were up and about from half past eight because we first had to complete forty questionnaires from yesterday on which two colleagues had already worked. There immediately followed the examination of 1200 Jewish patients. The grounds for arrest, frequently rather general and comprehensive, were copied verbatim. Therefore, the patients were, in fact, not even examined; so my work is often only theoretical.
What this letter says is that Jews selected were not actually examined to determine if there were medical grounds for extermination. Rather, diagnosis was based on the reason for arrest. On the back of a series of pictures of sixty-three Jews selected at Buchenwald, Dr. Mennecke had written his reasons.
Here are a few examples:
- “Isador Israel, stateless citizen, reasons for euthanasia: hostile towards Germany.”
- “Hans R. Jew, has already had other convictions, reason for euthanasia: hostile toward Germany.”
- “Ottile Sar, official within the Marxist party, reasons for euthanasia: bitter hatred toward Germany, relations with the British embassy.”
- One Jew was noted as having a “derogatory attitude toward the Reich” and was accused of “continuous race defilement by keeping her Jewish descent a secret and rendering the Hitler salute.”
- Another had made “incredibly impudent and spiteful remarks toward Germans; on the train made the acquaintance of soldiers coming from the front, introducing herself as Jewish, then insulted the soldiers in the meanest possible way.”
The Jewish “disease,” it would appear, was hatred toward Germany; hostility toward the German nation; a derogatory attitude toward the Reich. Jews were conceived as ill insofar as they _did not worship Germany–_as a healthy human being would.The Jewish disease was lack of belief in Hitler and the German Reich.
Dr. von Verschuer, writing in a 1934 journal founded to discuss grounds for sterilization, stated that the medical revolution of 1933 recognized the “poverty of individualism as a basis for medical practice.” Patients no longer were to be treated as individuals, but only as one part of a “larger whole or unity: his race, his Volk.”
Robert Lifton (1986) interviewed Nazi Doctor Rudolph Ramm, who told him that “obligation to the Volk” was always central. The physician was to be concerned with the health of the Volk even more than with individual disease and was to teach Germans to overcome the old individualistic principle of the “right to one’s own body.”
The euthanasia movement articulated the fundamental concept of Nazi ideology: “The community is everything, the individual is nothing.” The most common term for those selected for killing was “useless eaters.” German mathematics texts included problems asking students to compute the amount of money lost to the state in a lifetime of providing care for “worthless ballast.” Extermination of the mentally ill, in short, was viewed as a benefit to the state—eliminating people who consumed national resources, but were unable to create resources.
We’ve observed typical “diagnoses” for Jews: “Hostile to the Reich;” having a “derogatory attitude toward the Reich,” etc. Lifton notes additional examples. One Jew’s “symptom” was that was that he was a “well-known functionary of the communist party;” another’s symptom was that he was an “inveterate communist, ineligible for military service.”
The following passage reveals Hitler’s thinking:
Our aim is the dictatorship of the whole people, the community. I began to win men to the idea of an eternal national and social ideal—to subordinate one’s own interests to the interests of the whole society—an idea which constrains everyone to take his stand on behalf of this community. There are, nevertheless a few incurables who had never understood the happiness of belonging to this great, inspiring community.
People who were “incurable,” according to Hitler, were those who had never understood the “happiness of belonging to the great, inspiring community.” We begin to realize that the terms “sick” or “diseased” were applied by Hitler to people could not or would not embrace the German national community he sought to create.
The very idea of not participating in the community was understood as symptomatic of defect or mental illness. Lifton notes that SS personnel could construe political beliefs or rude comments about the Fuhrer as “mental deficiency” or “psychological aberration”—therefore grounds for euthanasia. The Final Solution represented an extension of the euthanasia program: Jews were added to the category of people judged to be “incurable” or “life unworthy life.”
What united the killing of defective children, mental patients and Jews was belief that the state had the right to exterminate anyone who could not or would not make a contribution to the community. Defective children and mental patients were unable to contribute; they only consumed state resources. Jews were conceived as people who did not want to contribute. As the “reasons for euthanasia” indicate, Jews were believed to be lacking respect for Hitler; insufficiently devoted to Germany. Exterminating Jews was like religious war against infidels: “Death to the non-believers.”
VII: Jews as Split Off Hostility
Howard Stein observes (1986) that “one sees in the enemy the personification of one’s impulses. In exterminating that enemy, one deals with a split off part of oneself personified by another. Yet, this other is inseparable from one’s own self.” In posing the question, “Why did the Nazis kill the Jews,” we pose the question: “What impulse or tendency within the Nazi was split off and projected into the Jew?” And: “What Nazi impulse or tendency, projectively identified with the Jew, did Nazis attempt to kill off when they killed Jews?”
We may assume that everyone possesses both a wish for separateness and individuality, on the one hand, and a desire for closeness or symbiosis, on the other. What occurred in the case of Nazism was that the wish for symbiosis—in the form of a tie to the community—was embraced absolutely, while the wish for individuality and separateness was denied or repressed.
What is being annihilated when the Jew is annihilated, we may hypothesize, is the Nazi’s own split off wish for separateness: his repressed wish to be free of the society that has required so much of him and dominated his existence. Jews symbolized the wish to escape the omnipotent symbiosis and to lead one’s own life, apart from the community. The Jew symbolized someone who, unlike the Nazi, was not bound in a symbiotic tie to the body of the Reich. Jews symbolized the wish to be released from the all-embracing community.
Nazi scholarship declared (see Aronsfeld, 1985) that
the peculiar characteristic of Judaism is its hostility to human society, which is why there can be no solution to the Jewish question at all. Therefore, the true understand of Jews and Judaism must insist on their total annihilation.
The “good Nazi” accepted Nazi socialization so entirely that he saw no distinction between his own desires and the needs of the community; between his own body and the body politic. The Jew was projectively identified as the antithesis of the good Nazi, someone who made no commitment to society and pursued only selfish motives, such as making money.
The Nazi cannot bear to consider that his sacrifice has been in vain; that devotion to the state is empty. He is unable to question the righteousness of the nation with which he has identified his existence. The Jew, consequently, symbol of disconnection from the nation, lack of idealism, filled the Nazi with anxious rage.
What was annihilated when the Nazi annihilated Jews was the wish to defy the community: to separate from and escape the omnipotent state. To keep his faith intact, the Nazi split off his ambivalence, and projected his hostility to the state onto the Jew. In killing Jews, the Nazi killed his split off disbelief and doubt—and simultaneously affirmed the power of the entity to which he had devoted his life. Killing Jews affirmed the omnipotence of the state, demonstrating that it was not possible to escape the state.
VIII: The Gas Chambers
Nearly six million Germans died in the Second World War, a number approximating the number of Jews who died. The Nazi principle of sacrifice for the community included the obligation to make the ultimate sacrifice. Hitler (in Mein Kampf):
When in the long war years Death snatched so many a dear comrade and friend from our ranks, it would have seemed to me almost a sin to complain—after all, were they not dying for Germany?
Giving one’s life for the existence of the community, Hitler averred, represented the “crown of all sacrifice”.
A paradox arose in the minds of some Nazis: Why should the best, most honorable and loyal Germans be fighting and dying for the nation, while other people—inferior, asocial or disloyal—had no obligation to risk their lives or to sacrifice for the nation.
Dr. Pfannmüller, a major figure in the euthanasia movement, stated that the idea was unbearable to him that “the best, the flower of our youth must lose its life at the front in order that feeble-minded and irresponsible asocial elements can have a secure existence in the asylum.” Hitler explained his rationale for killing Jews (in Meltzer, 1976) as follows:
If I don’t mind sending the pick of the German people into the hell of war without regret for the shedding of valuable German blood, then I have naturally the right to destroy millions of men of inferior races who increase like vermin.
The fundamental idea of Nazi totalitarianism was that the state had the right to control the bodies of individuals. Sending German soldiers to fight and die was one way the state demonstrated this right. The Jew, on the other hand, was imagined to be acting to avoid state control. By killing Jews, the Nazis demonstrated that the state was inescapable: no one was exempt from the obligation to sacrifice—to die—for Germany.
The sadistic brutality of the SS-man represented identification with a state that affirmed the right of the community to use bodies of individuals as it saw fit. The SS-man already was committed to subservience, vowing “obedience unto death.”
In killing Jews, the SS-man identified with the sadism of the state—putting Jews in place of his own masochistic ego. The Jew was forced to submit even more radically than the SS-man; to be even more obedient. the Jew enacted the Nazi’s own posture toward the state, carried to its extreme.
Goebbels, as the war progressed, was satisfied to observe that “The German soldiers go into battle with devotion, like congregations going into service.” General von Rundstedt admonished the soldiers of World War II to emulate the example of their brothers in the First World War (see Baird, 1975):
The heroic death of a German soldier is not something to be forgotten. Instead, it should inspire everyone who remembers it to die in the same way, to be as strong, unswerving, and obedient, to go happily and as a matter of course to his death.
If the German soldier was obligated to die—go “happily and obediently to his death”—should Jews be exempt from such an obligation?
A death camp survivor stated, “Only expiation can assuage and soothe the Master Race. The concentration camps are an amazing and complex mechanism of expiation.” The death camps represented “that total dissolution of the individual which is the ultimate expression of expiation.” For the Nazis, it was precisely the individual—individuality—that had to be destroyed.
Killing Jews, the Nazis sought to kill off the autonomous will: destroying the idea that there is such a thing as a will that can exist independently of the will of the state. The Final Solution affirmed the inescapable power of the state’s will—and the helplessness of the individual in the face of this will.
In killing Jews, the Nazis externalized, replicated their own masochistic willingness to give their bodies over to the state. Hitler, we have observed, glorified German unity, aspiring to throw men into “the great melting pot, the nation.” At the mass rallies, Hitler’s excitement peaked when it seemed audience member had “fused into a single enthusiastic mass.”
The Jew, on the other hand, symbolized someone not fused with the state: not “welded” to other Germans. In his rage against that which is separate, Hitler compelled the Jew to enact the fantasy of fusion, but now in an absolutely destructive form.
A witness to a gassing described the scene as follows:
People stood on top of one another, the bodies were all mangled, so tangled, someone had a finger in someone’s mouth. They put them in so tightly, one on top of the other, a needle couldn’t get it.
Death in the gas chambers conveyed the negative experience of fusion. The Final Solution was the consummation of the Nazi’s symbiotic fantasy—“sacrifice for Germany”—depicted in its most regressive, destructive form. Death in the gas chambers was a demonstration of total submission to the state. In the gas chambers, Hitler’s “beautiful dream” of unity—welding all Germans one to another—was transmogrified into a horrible, terrifying nightmare.