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Organic Metaphors and Genocidal Violence

by Richard A. Koenigsberg

About the Author

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.


Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War

"Koenigsberg’s ideas cut through conventional notions about culture, the nation, and war, enabling us to see through the psychic machinations of human institutions in utterly new ways.”
—Ruth Stein, author of For Love of the Father


Hitler and other Nazi leaders conceived of Jews as a “disease” within the body politic whose continued presence would lead to the death of the nation. Jews, in the mind of Hitler and other Nazi ideologues, constituted alien or “not-self” cells within the German body politic.

Genocide was undertaken based on an immunological fantasy: To eliminate or destroy disease generating microorganisms in order to “save the nation” This fantasy constituted the template—structure of thought—that generated the Final Solution. Does a similar fantasy or structure of thought lie at the root of other genocidal movements?

After the publication of Hitler’s Ideology (1975), I turned to a study of Lenin. Using the technique of metaphor analysis that I’d developed, I hoped to uncover the roots of another Twentieth Century ideology that led to mass-death and immense suffering. I read through the Collected Works of Lenin at Columbia University (45 volumes).

Did Lenin’s ideology (the foundation of Soviet Communism)—like Hitler’s—possess a relatively simple and coherent “deep structure”? I planned to write a companion to Hitler’s Ideology entitled Lenin’s Ideology. Finally, however, I reported my findings in The Psychoanalysis of Racism, Revolution and Nationalism.

I’ve continued to pose the question: do various political movements that generate mass-violence grow out of a common template or structures of thought? Given that each historical event is unique, is it possible still to identify fundamental narratives that give rise to collective forms of violence?

Disparate political ideologies, I’ve found, often contain a common narrative structure. These ideologies identify a particular class of human beings as the source of the suffering of the nation and its people. Further, these ideologies assert that alleviating the suffering of one’s nation requires the elimination or destruction of this particular class of human beings.

Ideologies differ in terms of the nature of the class of human beings conceived as responsible for suffering. Common among those classes of human beings that have been identified as the source of suffering: Jews, the ruling class, capitalists, communists, infidels, landlords, terrorists, etc. Violent political movements seek to crush or eliminate these classes of human beings—in order to save the nation, or people.

In A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation (2003), Eric Weitz observes that historians tend to be averse to “large-scale generalizations.”  Historians favor, rather, the detailed study of a particular place and time, seeking to “render the nuance that comes with knowledge of language and culture.” This stance is consistent with postmodernism that favors “mini-narratives”—stories that explain small practices and local events, rather than large-scale universal or global concepts.

Weitz seeks to move beyond individual cases and national frames. Promising to be “faithful to the historian’s propensity for detail, nuance, and contingency,” Weitz presents a comparative theory of genocide, developing a global model to account for this phenomenon.

Weitz finds that political leaders who initiate genocidal movements often are animated by “powerful visions of the future,” seeking to create “utopias in the here and now.” Political violence is directed toward races and classes of people who—for whatever reason—are conceived as contradicting or acting to negate the utopian vision put forth by the revolutionary leader. Races and classes of people are targeted—and murdered—because they are perceived as impediments toward actualizing the ideal of a pure or perfect society.

Weitz’s model is consistent with my hypothesis that political violence grows out of the struggle to maintain the health of one’s nation in the face of threats to the nation’s health. In order to preserve the strength and purity of one’s nation—an evil race or class of human beings must be eliminated or destroyed.

Weitz cites Abbe Sieyes, one of the French Revolution’s chief theorists and author of the 1789 pamphlet, What is the Third Estate?, a manifesto that helped transform the Estates-General into the National Assembly. Sieyes inverted the ideology that defended aristocratic privilege, endowing commoners (“the people”) with all the noble traits, and the aristocracy with all the nefarious traits. The nobility was depicted as a “horrible parasite eating the flesh of an unfortunate man,” and nobles as “vegetable parasites which can only live on the sap of the plants that they impoverish and blight.”

Were nobles to be included in national life, the social body of the nation would be completely sapped of its vitality. Asking what the appropriate place for a privileged class was in society, Sieyes wrote, would be like “deciding on the appropriate place in the body of a sick man for a malignant tumor that torments him and drains his strength.” One must “neutralize” the privileged class so that the “health and order of the organs” can be restored.

In The Body Soviet: Propaganda, Hygiene, and the Revolutionary State (2008), Tricia Starks conveys the biological metaphors that defined the Soviet revolution. Revolutionary rhetoric, Starks observes, took the form of the binaries of pure/polluted and healthy/diseased. Seeking utopian purity, communism framed its ideology in terms of hygienic metaphors and the “language of purification.” In his attacks against the bourgeois, kulaks (rich peasants) and the priesthood, Lenin compared these classes to “diseases, parasites, or vermin.”

He called for attacks on the “parasites that suck the blood of the working people.” In a tirade delivered in 1917, Lenin referred to the rich and the idlers as “hopelessly decayed and atrophied limbs”—this “contagion, this plague, this ulcer that socialism has inherited from capitalism.”

Lenin insisted that the people take collective action to “clean the land of Russia of all vermin, of fleas, of bugs—the rich.” In his speeches, Starks says, he described the bourgeoisie variously as “filth”, “rot”, “infection”, and even “crippled limbs”, connecting capitalism to disease and degeneracy.

Extending the metaphor of parasites and disease to his political opponents in his article “The Itch” (1918), Lenin portrayed unacceptable political thought as “scabies” (a contagious skin infection caused by the human itch mite), presenting cleansing as the solution: “Put yourself in a steam bath and get rid of the itch.” Starks concludes that Lenin portrayed capitalism as a “disease plaguing the entire world,” and that dread of this infection saturated Soviet propaganda in the 1920s.

Ideological deviation was medicalized as a perversity that endangered both the individual and the entire social body. Sick party members—if they could not be rehabilitated or reeducated—would have to be “excised” before they endangered the party body. The primary method used to accomplish this was the purge, or ochistka (literally “cleansing”). Purging the party of those subject to “illnesses” allowed the party to remain pure and inviolate.

Weitz observes that Stalin’s penchant for biological metaphors was greater even than Lenin’s, evoking some of the “worst horrors of the Twentieth Century.” Stalin (like Lenin) depicted kulaks as “bloodsuckers, spiders and vampires.” As Hitler described Germany as an organism, so Stalin described the Communist party as “a living organism.” Cadres who did not take up the struggle against the opposition “drive sores into the inside of the party organism,” and the party “falls ill.” As in every organism “metabolism takes place: old, obsolete stuff falls off; new, growing things flourish and develop.”

Georgi Dimitrov, Stalin’s close confidant and trusted ally, described the purge of the mid-1930s in terms of the necessity of “cutting into good flesh in order to get rid of the bad,” a justification of violence not unlike what appeared in the writings of the Paris Commune during the French Revolution: “Thus, the clever and helpful surgeon with his cruel and benevolent knife cuts of the gangrened limb in order to save the body of the sick man.” Hitler, similarly, declared that the future of Germany required that the “racial tuberculosis” of Jewish Marxism be “annihilated,” i.e., “cut out of the Volk body.”

The images and metaphors presented in these passages convey a coherent fantasy that may lie at the heart of revolutionary or genocidal movements that give rise to mass-murder. According to this fantasy, the nation or people (or party) is conceived as a living organism suffering from a disease that could prove fatal. The source of this disease is a particular class of human beings embedded within the national or people’s body.

Embedded within a healthy body, according to these revolutionary thinkers, is a second organism, e.g., a parasite—acting to ruin the health of the nation or people. In order to restore the strength and health of the nation or people, this second, alien organism—attached to the body politic—must be “removed:” excised, extirpated or destroyed. Political leaders who perpetuate mass-murder think of themselves not as murderers, but as men who have undertaken the “necessary” task of removing the source of the nation’s disease.

Why do organic metaphors so frequently appear in revolutionary texts? Why are certain classes of human beings so often conceived as parasites or bacteria—disease generating organisms within the body politic? One might say that labeling outgroups in this way “dehumanizes” them, making it easier to justify and undertake violent actions.

Organic metaphors within political rhetoric function to “solidify the in-group/out-group distinction between persecutors and their victims,” allowing the “overcoming of individual conscience and collective norms” that previously would have limited actions against targeted classes of people. Metaphors of disease function to “remove negative sanctions,” allowing for more extreme forms of violence.

This perspective suggests a more or less conscious use of metaphors by political leaders who advocating violence. According to this view, leaders who wish to initiate acts of violence “employ” these metaphors in order to facilitate the performance of violent actions. This conceptualization, however, does not provide an explanation of why—in the first place—political leaders have identified certain classes of human beings as constituting a mortal threat.

I hypothesize that metaphors used by revolutionary political leaders contain the reasons for the violent actions that they seek to undertake. These leaders experience certain classes of human beings as the source of pain, suffering and disease. They experience certain entities as if present within their own bodies. In seeking to cure a disease within the body politic, the revolutionary or genocidal leader is struggling to come to terms with a disease contained within himself.