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

Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 48 Issue 4 (December 2009).

By Matthew Eddy, University of Oregon - Eugene, Oregon

If a case can be made that nationalism is a religion or a quasi-religion, few books rival Koenigsberg’s slim volume, Nations Have the Right to Kill.  Employing anthropological philosophy and historical analysis, the author skillfully confronts the taken-for-granted worlds of nationalism and political realism (structurally embodied in militarism and warfare), and makes them suddenly seem utterly peculiar and bizarre, even as they are shown to have logical resonance with earlier regimes of “human sacrifice” like that found in the priesthood and warfare of the Aztecs. Throwing back the curtain on reifications of the nation-state, Koenigsberg interrogates motivations and rationalizations behind the human tragedies of the two World Wars, and how the two wars might be related in ways not previously considered. 

One of Koenigsberg’s central theses is that it was Hitler’s belief that German Jews had been “shirkers” of their military responsibilities in World War I which motivated his pursuit of the “Final Solution.”  Many readers are likely familiar with history textbook accounts of how Hitler blamed Germany’s loss in WWI on the Jews, but Koenigsberg advances a more nuanced version. Through rhetorical and biographical analysis Koenigsberg aims to reveal Hitler’s own thought processes as he came to embrace, as an article of faith, the idea that “Nations have the right to kill” – the right to kill their own soldiers as well as populations within the nation that deny this faith (e.g., pacifists and Jewish “shirkers”), that refuse to worship the nation and who maintain subnational or cosmopolitan loyalties, or that serve to “drain” the nation’s resources.  It was Hitler’s justifications for the mass slaughter he witnessed in WWI, which became logically extended to the Nazi euthanasia and genocidal programs. 

Here, we can seize a theory-building opportunity that Koenigsberg neglects to, as it seems Hitler developed a kind of secular theodicy (i.e., an explanation for evil or legitimation of suffering and death) when confronted with the tragedy of WWI.  Koenigsberg asserts that Hitler’s patriotism made him constitutionally unable to criticize Germany’s leaders even as he personally witnessed the futility of WWI.  But where did this uncritical patriotism come from?  Koenigsberg’s answer risks circularity, as he claims the patriotic fervor came from the very deaths of German soldiers that Hitler witnessed in WWI.  That is, the “sacrifice” of soldiers reifies the nation-state on a deep social-psychological level, making it effectively sacred. 

Koenigsberg advances several arguments about modern warfare at a high level of generality, though we should remember that not all wars fit the template of the World Wars.  He proposes it is more accurate to speak of nation-states killing and “sacrificing” their own soldiers in wartime, as opposed to speech conventions that would have us believe enemy armies have killed their fallen soldiers.  In a supporting argument, Koenigsberg debunks modern warfare as an expression of traditionally “masculine” heroism, when in reality it often demands absolute submission and “abject passivity” such that one offers “no resistance” when “put forward as a sacrificial victim” (p.55).  His anthropological lens comes through as he writes, “We encourage the soldier’s delusion of masculine virility and call him a hero – in order to lure him into becoming a sacrificial victim” (p.76).           

Scholars of religion may bristle at the running metaphor of nationalism as a religion, viewing such definitions as a sacred canopy that has become, conceptually, far too big a tent.  Yet, the force of Koenigsberg’s contention leaves little doubt that in analyzing nationalism and warfare, we are treading on a kind of sacred ground in which rituals and duties engage issues of basic trust and faith, and the meaning of life and death, even as ultimate and redemptive meanings are promised.  The assertion that nations demand “human sacrifice” in war as a ritual process which justifies and “makes the nation come alive” (p.33), builds momentum through accounts of the two World Wars, and a suggestive chapter comparing Aztec and Western Warfare.  The Aztec practices of war were conceived as a “sacred duty” to the sun god, and the rhetoric of Hitler and many other wartime European leaders are shown to parallel those ancient ideologies of human sacrifice.

The strength of this book, which rests in fleshing out original lines of argument and grounding them in historical evidence, also presents noticeable weaknesses.  First, despite some intriguing theorizing about the roles of ritual process and “human sacrifice,” Koenigsberg risks reducing history to biography – at times to the psycho-biography of Hitler and at other times merely to the texts of his speeches and writings.  There is a clear need for more sociological lenses.  Although not every monograph need cover the waterfront of possible interpretations of complex events, the most glaring weakness is the failure to address major explanations for the anti-Semitism of Hitler and the Nazis, whether supportive or competing, in the existing literature.  To that end, obviously Koenigsberg should reduce his claims and clarify that his thesis only names one of the dynamics shaping how Hitler and the Nazis perceived Jews.

Second, whether or not German Jews were “shirkers,” the author has a responsibility to document the truth, rather than simply assert Hitler’s belief was false.  The notion that Hitler sincerely but erroneously overgeneralized from a few Jewish acquaintances, leaves us with the dubious proposition that if Hitler had access to more accurate nationwide data on “shirkers,” he would have never demonized the Jews.  On the other hand, Koenigsberg fails to mention the presence of Jehovah’s Witnesses among the Holocaust victims, and the roles their “shirking” of military service and sub-national loyalty played in condemning them to that fate – clear points of support for his thesis. 

Third, as mentioned above, for all the detail on Hitler’s personal experience as a soldier in World War I, an opportunity was missed to theorize more fully why Hitler subverted his anger and doubt about WWI’s purpose and meaning, into unshakeable faith in Germany as his “ultimate concern” (in Tillich’s phrase).  The literature on scapegoating mechanisms could have shed light here, but perhaps another underlying issue is how secular theodicies (often in the service of nationalism) and religious theodicies synthesize or displace each other in the political realm.  On this front, Peter Berger’s seminal theory of theodicies would be a resource.  There are important theoretical claims to be made here regarding the intersection of history, tragedy, nationalism, personal experience, and the spiritual dimension.  Such claims are often only suggestively developed in the text, but Koenigsberg raises issues worthy of continued exploration.