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GENOCIDE AS IMMUNOLOGY: The Psychosomatic Source of Culture

By Richard Koenigsberg



In my monograph, Hitler’s Ideology (1975) and several recent on-line publications, "Nationalism, Nazism, Genocide" and "Ideology, Perception and Genocide", I present an analysis of recurring images and metaphors that appear in Hitler’s writings and speeches. Based on this analysis, I conclude that Hitler’s ideology possessed a coherent structure revolving around the idea of Germany as an organism and Jews as pathogenic micro-organisms whose continued presence within the body politic could lead to its demise. Genocide grew out of the logic contained within this ideological fantasy.

A paper by Francis Beer presented at a meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology in 1993—building upon the work of linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson—proposed embodiment theory as an alternative to "international realism." According to Beer, we understand things "in terms of our bodies; the body is in the mind." He suggested that meaning depends on a human being’s conception of the world. The body is the key to the "deep structure of consciousness, cognition and rhetoric." Metaphor, Beer suggests, provides a powerful rhetorical tool. When metaphors appear in political rhetoric, the mind merges with the body and we get "hot cognition." Metaphors constitute "hot buttons"—capable of generating political action.

Metaphorical statements contained within political rhetoric provide clues to the underlying meaning of policy formulations. The "hot button"—that which aroused Hitler and propelled him into action—was his belief that Germany was suffering from a potentially fatal disease. Never in the "sluggish days of German bourgeois world-liberalism," Hitler declared, would it have been possible to create in the German people so "gigantic an increase in strength and consciousness of a national mission." Just as the human body develops it strongest hold on life at the moment when it resists a threatening illness, Hitler explained, so "peoples are driven to bring into fullest play the energies slumbering within them only when their existence is threatened or even endangered."

George Lakoff states that metaphors have an "internal structure." "Metaphorical mapping," according to Lakoff, occurs when "slots in the source-domain schema" get mapped onto "slots in the target domain." Target domains are abstract conceptual domains, whereas source domains are familiar ones, most often of the physical world. In his article, "Metaphors and Foreign Policy Decision Making" (1994), Keith Shimko defines analogical or metaphorical reasoning as the "transfer of relational information from a domain that already exists in the memory (usually referred to as the source or base domain) to the domain to be explained (referred to as the target domain)."

For Hitler and the Nazis, the abstract or symbolic domain—the idea of the nation—was structured based on the projection of a source domain—the human body. At the core of Nazi ideology is the idea of the German nation as an actual body (politic) suffering from a potentially fatal disease caused by Jewish micro-organisms. The "source domain" for Hitler and the Nazis was the human body. The abstract domain was the nation (conceived as a body politic). The Nazi project grew out of the idea that just as a human body might contract a disease and die, so might a body politic.

In Analogies at War (1992), Y. F. Khong points to the importance of seeking and finding in the empirical record evidence of the "repeated use of the same set of analogies over time." The identification of "systematic metaphors" in the statements made by decision-makers permits one to be confident that metaphors are playing a truly cognitive function. In "Foreign Policy Metaphors" (1995), Shimko observes that if one is interested in "metaphors that are conceptual (i. e., that play a role in people’s understanding of an issue) rather than merely rhetorical," one will look for metaphors that appear with regularity and are accompanied by a "whole series of expressions and ideas that are related to the central metaphor."

The metaphor that dominated Hitler’s thinking from the beginning of his political career to its conclusion was that of the nation suffering from a potentially fatal disease. Everything that Hitler said and did revolved around this conception of Germany as a body politic that was ill. Hitler’s was clear about his mission: to discover and disclose the causes of Germany’s disease (diagnosis); and then to act to cure the disease.

Hitler had been traumatized by Germany’s loss of the First World War and the social chaos that followed. He desperately sought to comprehend the reasons for Germany’s defeat and to account for the sorry state to which the nation had fallen. Hitler reflected in Mein Kampf that in Nature there are no such things as "inexplicable chance happenings." Every development, Hitler declared, runs its course in accordance with the "law of cause & effect." However, since it is the "effect which is principally seen & felt," most men are content to concern themselves only with the effect and not to seek causes.

The unwillingness to "seek and discover causes," Hitler believed, is "deeply seated in man’s blood." Human beings avoid the search for causes, Hitler said, because the "sudden unveiling of certain causes" might result in "unpleasant knowledge" that would lay "unwelcome obligations" upon the individual. The "corrupted ego," according to Hitler, turned away from unpleasant knowledge because it sought to avoid the burden of having to act upon this knowledge.

Hitler’s staked his claim to leadership based on his promise that he would not shy away from the truth, nor shirk the obligation to act. He insisted that the only way to permanently cure diseased conditions was to "disclose their causes." People would follow a man, Hitler declared in Mein Kampf, who "profoundly recognizes the distress of his people," a man who is capable of attaining the "ultimate clarity" with regard to the nature of the disease, and who then "seriously tries to cure it."


A passage from Hitler’s speech of January 27, 1934 contains and reveals the bodily fantasy that was the basis for National Socialism:

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.

Insofar as each individual constituted a cell within a single organism, therefore there could be no such thing as an autonomous person. Just as a cell cannot exist separately from the organism of which it is a part—according to Hitler’s theory of society—so a human being cannot exist separately from the nation of which he or she is a part.

In Mein Kampf Hitler plaintively posed the question, "Could anyone believe that Germany alone was not subject to exactly the same laws as all other human organisms?" Writing in 1972 in The Science of Self, David Wilson provides a sketch of the purpose and functioning of the immune system: "The only way in which the animal body can possibly cope with the enormous range of disease organisms threatening it," Wilson states, is by some mechanism that recognizes "what is its ‘self’ and rejects everything else as ‘not-self’." On every cell, Wilson reports, there is a ‘flag’ or identification mark (expressing the nature of the nucleic acid inside the cell). Each body "knows its own flag" as signifying self and "knows all other flags as indicating not-self."

The law to which Hitler believed Germany was subject, I hypothesize, was the law of the immune system. Insofar as the German nation constituted a "single organism," therefore one might expect it to act like every other organism—to reject cells identified as not-self. The Final Solution, it would appear, was generated based on this idea or fantasy that Germany was an actual body (politic) possessing an immune system. As a body possessing an immune system, the German nation would react like any other body—automatically destroying cells identified as foreign.

Philosopher Alfred Rosenberg set forth this immunological concept as the basis of National Socialism. The "spirit of the race," Rosenberg declared, realizes its ability to assimilate everything racially and spiritually akin, and at the same time the iron need to "eliminate and suppress everything foreign." The German race would eliminate what was foreign—not because it was false or bad, but because it was "out of tune with our kind and violates the inner construction of our being." The paramount task was to build up "Nordic cells of soul."

Heinrich Himmler similarly viewed the world through the lens of immunology. Even though "alien blood lines" had merged into the German people, Himmler said, nevertheless German blood had the "strength to win through." Again and again the Aryan race had "sifted out and cast aside what was unfit, what did not belong with us." As long as Germany had the strength to eliminate the unfit and alien, Himmler declared, "This brotherhood will be healthy."

Professor Eugen Fischer, Rector of the University of Berlin, asserted in a lecture on June 20, 1939 that when a people wants to preserve its own nature it must "reject alien elements." When these elements already have insinuated themselves, the people must "suppress and eliminate them." The Jew, Fischer declared is "such an alien" and therefore when he wants to insinuate himself he must be "warded off." Such actions were merely self defense. "I reject Jewry," Fischer concluded, "with every means in my power."

In The Nazi Doctors (1986), Robert Lifton discusses an influential manual by Rudolf Ramm of the medical faculty at the University of Berlin that proposed that each doctor was no longer to be merely caretaker of the sick but was to become a "physician to the Volk" and "biological soldier." Nazi doctor Johann S. spoke to Lifton with pride about the principle of being "doctor to the Volkskorper (‘national body’ or ‘people’s body’)." Ramm’s manual specified that a doctor was to be an "alert biological soldier" living under "the great idea of the National Socialist biological state structure." It claimed that National Socialism is "in accord with the biology of man."

Physicians, Lifton says, could thrill to this message. Dr. S., for instance, described joining the Party immediately after hearing Deputy Party Leader Rudolf Hess—at a mass meeting in 1934—say that National Socialism is "nothing but applied biology." Perhaps the thrilling message of National Socialism was that Germany was a real body functioning according to biological laws. Doctors and other party members warmed to the task of ferreting out people judged to be unhealthy or asocial, unable or unwilling to contribute to national life. People who could not contribute to the life of the whole were conceived as if defective cells within the national organism that needed to be removed or eliminated.

The Final Solution had a substantial pre-history. In 1920 lawyer Karl Binding and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche published a book on The Destruction of Life that is No Longer worth Living, a tract hailed as expressing the feelings of many as a result of the war and its aftermath. They argued that doctors were responsible for the welfare of the totality of the social organism and that exterminating the lives of harmful or useless members was necessary. They estimated that there were 500,000 ‘idiots’ with ‘valueless lives’ in the mental hospitals and a further 10,000 congenitally crippled.

Many Germans agreed that war casualties and the nation’s lack of resources justified euthanasia. It was claimed that it was wrong to sustain worthless lives of the sick and deranged, while worthwhile lives of starving children (due to food shortages after the First World War) were being lost. Binding and Hoche re-defined euthanasia as being of curative value for the social organism and refuted the charge that this was murder. Hoche argued that the Volk was an organism of a higher order with rights above that of the individual. "The state is a whole," Hoche wrote, with its own laws and rights "much like one self-contained human organism which, in the interest of the whole, also—as we doctors know—abandons and rejects parts or particles that have become worthless or dangerous."

    Laws to initiate euthanasia were  proposed in the early Twenties, but not passed.  When the Nazis came to power, these ideas were translated into  action. A sterilization program began in  1933, effecting 500,000 Germans. In 1938 a program for exterminating deformed  or defective children was undertaken. In 1939, psychiatrists began killing  mental patients judged to be &quot;incurable.&quot; Approximately 5000 children  and 90,000 mental patients were murdered. These programs of medical killing  were formulated, organized and carried out by scientists and doctors.<br />
    <br />

One of the clearest explications of National Socialism’s immunological concept of the nation-state was presented by Konrad Lorenz (later to win a Noble Prize for his work in ethology) in the 1930’s in the "German Journal of Applied Psychology and Characterology." Lorenz explained that there was a close analogy between a "human body invaded by a cancer" and a nation "afflicted with subpopulations whose inborn defects cause them to become social liabilities." Just as in cancer the best treatment is to eradicate the parasitic growth as quickly as possible, the eugenic defense against afflicted subpopulations, Lorenz claimed, is of necessity "limited to equally drastic measures."

According to Lorenz, when "inferior elements" are not eliminated from a healthy population, then—just as when cells of a malignant tumor are allowed to proliferate throughout a human body—they will act to "destroy the host body as well as themselves." Inferior elements or classes of people within a nation, Lorenz believed, were like malignant cells within a body. In each case, drastic measures were required in order to "eradicate the parasitic growth."


One of the images appearing with greatest frequency in the rhetoric of Nazi leaders is that of the Jew as bacteria or virus. In a speech before the Reichstag on January 30, 1937, Hitler explained that the anti-Jewish policy he had inaugurated in National Socialist Germany reflected his endeavor to make the German people "immune against this infection." Measures enacted by National Socialism, Hitler said, were designed to enable the German people to avoid "close relationship with the carriers of this poisonous bacillus."

Measures to isolate and avoid contact with Jews evolved into the policy of extermination. Goebbels acknowledged in his diary entry of March 27, 1942 that the procedure was "pretty barbaric" and wrote that "not much will remain of the Jews." However, he was unapologetic. The policy of the Nazis, Goebbels believed, was necessary and unavoidable, being a manifestation of the "life-and-death struggle" being waged between the "Aryan race and the Jewish bacillus."

In a famous speech delivered to SS leaders and army generals on October 6, 1943, Himmler defended the radical policy he had instituted by declaring that Germany had the "moral right, the duty towards our people to destroy this people that wanted to destroy us." We do not want, he said, to be "infected by this bacillus and to die." In his 1935-6 propaganda booklet about the SS as an anti-Bolshevik battle organization, Himmler presented his theory that struggles between Jews and nations had occurred throughout history.

The "battle against peoples conducted by Jews," Himmler declared, "has belonged, so far as we can look back, to the natural course of life on our planet." One could calmly reach the conviction, therefore, that the struggle of life and death—between nations and Jews—is as much a law of nature as "man’s struggle against some epidemic;" as the struggle of a healthy body against "plague bacillus."

According to Himmler’s analysis, just as human beings throughout history always had been attacked by bacteria, so nations throughout history always had been attacked by Jews. The "life and death struggle" between nations and Jews, therefore, could not be avoided. This struggle represented a "law of nature" that was part of the "natural course of life on our planet."

In his book explicating the functioning of the immune system, The Body is the Hero (1976), physician Ronald Glasser presents a similarly fatalistic view of the relationship between micro-organisms and human beings. "No matter how we may wish to view ourselves," Glasser explains, despite all our fantasies of grandeur & dominion, the "real struggle has always been against bacteria & viruses." In the battle for species survival, Glasser says, it has been "our immune system that has sustained us & allows us to endure."

For example, each person’s blood contains antibodies against another’s red blood cells. If those red cells are of a different type than one’s own, the body will act to destroy these foreign cells. "But why are the antibodies there?" The answer Glasser tells us is "strictly chemical." It has nothing to do with "reason or sense, but rather with blindness and struggle." The immune system has "no recognition of our human concerns." It "follows its own ways, as it always has—going after any chemical surface it reads as different." The immune system, Glasser says, works "entirely at the level of physics & chemistry."

Himmler spoke of the Final Solution as the "fulfillment of a heavy task." It was as if the German people, in Himmler’s view, had no other choice but to act to exterminate the Jewish people. Thus Himmler could "calmly reach the conviction" that destroying the Jews represented the manifestation of a law of nature. The German body politic could no more avoid killing Jews than a healthy body politic could resist destroying "plague bacillus."

At the Wansee Conference in 1942, Nazi chief Reinhardt Heydrich and other high-ranking Nazi officials met to determine the fate of 11 million European Jews. Their files contained voluminous statistics on the precise number of Jews in each country under Nazi occupation. With fanatic determination, they plotted to kill every single Jew in each of these countries. Immunologist Ronald Glasser reports that our battles against microbes have "never been a war of percentages." Every microbe that enters our body, Glasser explains, has to be destroyed, not 98% of them or 99, but 100%. It has to be "total war; not one single enemy can be left alive." Just one survivor, by continuing to grow, would eventually mean death, and "so all have to be eliminated."

Perhaps the ruthlessness and monumental scope of the Nazi’s destructiveness reflected their conception of the genocidal project from the perspective of immunology. They were persuaded that it was necessary to wage "total war" against the Jews so that "not one single enemy would be left alive." Given the equation of Jews with bacteria, it followed that if even a single Jew survived, the bacteria would begin again to multiply and divide, thus spelling death for Germany.

Glasser describes the activity of an immune cell working to kill a virus. Once a killer lymphocyte (white blood cell) couples to the surface of an infected cell, Glasser explains, its own "cell-killing machinery turns on." Coupling with the infected cell turns on the "chemical switch that transforms the T cell into a killer cell." Chemicals are produced within the lymphocyte that "diffuse out of these killer cells like poison gas out of a canister," entering the infected cell, killing the virus, and stopping the viral spread; thus giving the body a chance to regenerate itself.

The Final Solution and genocide, it would appear, grew out of the Nazi’s conception of Germany as a body (politic) possessing an immune system. Given that the nation was a body politic with an immune system, it would react automatically—like any other organism—to destroy cells identified as not-self. SS men were like "killer cells" coupling with Jewish bacteria. The gas chambers produced chemicals analogous to those produced by white blood cells—"diffusing like poison gas out of a canister"—killing Jewish bacteria, assuring that Germany would not succumb to a fatal disease.

We noted that the Rudolf Ramm’s manual proposed that doctors become "physicians to the Volk" and "alert biological soldiers" living under the great idea of the "National Socialist biological state structure." According to this manual, National Socialism was in "accord with the biology of man." Rudolf Hess claimed that National Socialism was "nothing but applied biology." It would appear that the idea of the nation as a body possessing an immune system lay at the heart of National Socialism and the extermination policies the movement pursued. Unfit people, the mentally ill, Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and other "inferior" classes of people were conceived as if defective cells, incapable of contributing to the health of the national organism. National Socialism revolved around eliminating these dangerous or unproductive cells.


In his study of the history of German medicine, Health, Race and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism, 1870-1945, Paul Weindling (1989) traces the impact of medical and scientific ideas on social and political thought. Rudolf Virchow—the renowned German doctor and pathologist—in 1861 compared the individual citizen to a cell. He introduced the concept of an aggregate of cells of citizens that coalesced to form a "cell state." He and Oscar Hertwig viewed the multi-cellular organism as a state where each individual citizen had a social duty to respond to the organic whole.

Robert Koch discovered the tuberculosis bacteria in 1882. He postulated that each disease was caused by a specific pathogenic microorganism. Between 1873 and 1900 the causal organisms of a great number of bacterial diseases were isolated. In order to boost the image of bacteriology, Koch described how hordes of alien parasites invaded the body. Laboratory researchers were glamorized by being described as "warriors against disease." There was widespread adulation of Koch. Thousands of handkerchiefs on which his face was embroidered were sold.

Pasteur developed immunization against anthrax in 1881. This and other spectacular advances in bacteriology during the 1880’s and 1890’s greatly enhanced the public prestige of laboratory science. Experimental biology inspired the hope that degenerate germplasms could be located and prevented from reproducing. Just as pathogenic bacteria could be isolated, so it was hoped that the germs of psychopathic mental illness, criminality and feeble-mindedness could also be located. Robert Koch won the Nobel Prize in 1905 when Hitler was sixteen years old.

In his article, "Nazi Medicine and Public Health Policy," Robert N. Proctor states that Hitler was celebrated as the "great doctor" of German society and as the "Robert Koch of politics." On the evening of February 22, 1942, Hitler met with Himmler and a Danish SS major and expounded his conviction that the discovery of the Jewish virus was "one of the greatest revolutions that has taken place in the world." The battle in which we are engaged today, Hitler said, is "of the same sort as the battle waged, during the last century, by Pasteur and Koch. How many diseases have their origin in the Jewish virus! We shall regain our health only by eliminating the Jew." Hitler concludes: "Everything has a cause; nothing comes by chance."

This statement echoes opinions that Hitler had expressed from the beginning of his political career. We have observed that Hitler insisted that the only way to cure diseased conditions within a nation was to "disclose their causes." He stated that people would follow a man who was capable of attaining the "ultimate clarity with regard to the nature of the disease" and who "seriously tried to cure it." Hitler’s political promise was that he would discover the cause of Germany’s disease, and not flinch from taking the measures required to bring about a cure.

It would appear that Hitler believed that he had discovered the cause of Germany’s suffering; of the nation’s disease. He revealed his discovery to the German people: it was the Jew who was responsible for all the troubles that had befallen Germany; Jewish bacteria that were the source of the disease that had gripped German society. Just as Koch had discovered the specific pathogen responsible for tuberculosis, so Hitler claimed that he had discovered the pathogen responsible for Germany’s illness.

A chapter of Edleff Schwab book Hitler’s Mind (1992) focusing on Hitler’s attraction to immunology is entitled "The Pasteur-Koch complex." Schwab poses the question of what possible connection Hitler could have discovered between the work of two scientists who had devoted their lives to the betterment of the human race and his own obsession with destroying Jewish people? He suggests that something must have "struck a chord when early in his life he heard and Pasteur & Koch;" their major scientific breakthroughs must have "fascinated him as he pondered the meaning of the world." Hitler, Schwab suggests, found in Pasteur’s and Koch’s contributions a model that became the "nuclear element in his paranoid system and assumed a major role in his entire emotional life."

The renowned chemist Louis Pasteur (1822-95) had reasoned that sickness in animals and people can be caused by bacteria. Support for this notion was provided soon after by the German researcher Robert Koch (1843-1910). The concept of social disease, Schwab theorizes, fused in Hitler’s mind with the teachings of these two bacteriologists, Pasteur and Koch. Hitler took it upon himself to become a self-appointed crusader to salvage the health of the nation.

Like Pasteur and Koch, Hitler saw himself as a benefactor of humankind. Just as a physician kills bacteria and viruses by applying medication to restore health, Hitler felt that by killing people he could save human civilization. In planning the Final Solution, Schwab suggests, Hitler thought he was applying the procedures of modern medical technology on a massive scale as a health-restoring program to assure human existence in the future. Thus did ideas about the body, disease and the immune system become the basis of Hitler’s paranoid belief system.