IDEOLOGY, PERCEPTION, AND GENOCIDE: How Fantasy Generates History
by Richard A. Koenigberg
- The Country as a Living Organism
- Germany is Suffering from a Disease
- Life Against Death
- The Final Solution
I have developed a method for uncovering the sources of ideology. I examine ideological statements as if manifest content to reveal an ideology’s latent meaning. I place emphasis upon specific words, phrases, images and metaphors bound to central terms of an ideology (e.g., in the case of Nazism, terms like "the German people," "the Jew," etc.). Hitler’s Ideology (1975) presents recurring images and metaphors contained within Hitler’s writing and speeches in order to reconstruct the central fantasy that was the source of Nazism.
Hitler’s ideology revolved around the metaphor of the German nation as an actual body or "living organism." The Jew was identified as a force within this body working toward its destruction. In writings and speeches, Hitler continually referred to the Jew as a force of disintegration or decomposition; the cause of Germany’s disease (a bacteria or virus); and as a "parasite on the body of the people." The nature of these recurring images and metaphors constitute data revealing the fantasies contained within Nazi ideology.
My method grows out of the assumption that language contains and expresses psychic meaning. The words, phrases, images and metaphors that appear in the writings and speeches of Nazi leaders do not occur by chance. Rather, these symbolic constructions express ideas, desires and fantasies that were present in the minds of Hitler and other Nazis. I theorize that ideology is a social construction brought into being in order to express or articulate dimensions of the psyche. Ideologies constitute structures of thought that allow shared fantasies to make their way onto the stage of social reality.
I theorize that ideologies constitute modus operandi for the expression of shared fantasies. Nazi ideology was like a dream or fantasy—that many people were having at the same time. This shared fantasy was powerful enough to give rise to a social movement, and to shape the course of history. Hitler himself was deeply plugged into the Nazi fantasy—was possessed by it—and had the capacity to convey this fantasy to the German people. To know why Nazism achieved such popularity, we need to determine what it was Hitler said that excited and energized the German people, causing them to rise to their feet shouting "Heil Hitler."
A fundamental source of Hitler’s success as a "charismatic leader" was the nature of the ideas he put forth, and his ability to transmit these ideas in words that conveyed the meaning he intended. Many scholars have noted how Hitler expressed himself through his body and its gestures. However, he also communicated through the use of specific words, phrases, metaphors and images. The ideas he expressed and words he used struck a chord within the German people. His words resonated by virtue of the fantasy that they expressed. Hitler said something that was deeply meaningful to many Germans.
II. THE COUNTRY AS A LIVING ORGANISM
At the heart of Hitler’s vision lay his conception of the German nation as a living organism. "My Movement," Hitler declared, "Encompasses every aspect of the entire Volk. It conceives of Germany as a corporate body, as a single organism." According to Hitler there could be 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." In Hitler’s view, there could not be "the least amount of room for apolitical people."
The image of the nation or people as an organism occurs frequently in writings of Nazi political theorists. Gottfried Neese states, typically, that in contrast to the state, the people form "a true organism—a being which leads its own life and follows its own laws." The "living unity of the people 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."
This conception of the nation as a gigantic organism—with each individual constituting a cell—lay at the heart of Nazi totalitarianism. For if the nation is a single organism and each individual a cell, then no individual can escape this organism; each individual is responsible for the health of the organism; and the health of each individual (or cell) impacts upon the health of the entire organism.
Each human being is either a healthy cell contributing to the functioning of the whole, or a malignant cell acting to destroy the nation. As we shall observe, Jews were conceived as pathogenic cells—bacteria or virus—source of a disease within the body politic. The fantasy of Jews as bacteria or virus generated the Final Solution, whose purpose was to destroy these pathogenic cells, and thus to save the life of Germany.
Insofar as Hitler conceived of the nation as a living organism or real body politic, it followed that the purpose of politics was to maintain the health and life of this body. Politics, Hitler insisted, can be nothing other than the "realization of the vital interests of a people” and the "practical waging of its life-battle with all means available." This life-battle "has its initial starting point in the people."
The people is the "object, the value in and of itself which is to be preserved." All of the functions of the body politic, Hitler declared, should ultimately fulfill only one purpose: "securing the preservation of this body in the future." The purpose of politics, in short, was to make certain that the German body politic "lived on."
The discourse of nationalism personifies or reifies nations: speaks of and treats them as if they are actual beings possessing a life of their own. Typically, for example, people "love” or "hate” their nation; countries are said to be "healthy" or "sick" or "falling apart," etc. Nazism represented the apogee of nationalism in its tendency to reify the nation-state. Hitler conceived of Germany as an actual body (politic). He claimed that Germany was a "national organism" consisting of people as the cells of this organism.
III. GERMANY IS SUFFERING FROM A DISEASE
If the first part or foundation of Hitler’s ideology was his conception of Germany as a living organism, the second part—source of all that followed—was his belief that the nation was suffering from a disease that might prove fatal. From the earliest days of the National Socialist movement, Hitler and other Nazis were haunted by the specter of a disease within the body politic that could lead to the death and disappearance of the German nation. Hitler believed that his role as political leader was first to diagnosis or disclose the cause of Germany’s illness; and secondly to act to cure the disease.
Hitler in Mein Kampf wrote about the typical or ordinary German politician. It would be a mistake to believe, he said, that adherents of various politic tendencies that were "tinkering around on the national body" were bad or malevolent men. Their activity, however, was condemned to sterility because the best of them "saw at most the forms of our general disease and tried to combat them, but blindly ignored the virus." Ordinary politicians were aware that Germany was ill, but did not dig deeply enough. They were unable or unwilling to comprehend the cause of Germany’s disease.
Hitler, by contrast, would stake his claim to leadership on his capacity to diagnosis and cure Germany’s illness. He believed that people would follow a political leader who "profoundly recognizes the distress of his people," works to attain the "ultimate clarity with regard to the nature of the disease," and then "seriously tries to cure it." Hitler aspired to become "Doctor of the German people."
Hitler revealed his reflections on Germany’s disease and how he would deal with it when he asserted that every distress has "some root or other." It was not enough for the Government to issue emergency regulations amounting to "doctoring around on the circumference of the distress and trying from time to time to lance the cancerous ulcer." It was necessary, Hitler insisted, to penetrate” to the seat of the inflammation—the cause." Whether the irritating cause was discovered or removed today or tomorrow was unimportant, the essential thing was to realize that "unless it is removed no cure is possible."
Hitler identified the Jew as the source of Germany’s disease: a pathogen whose continuing presence within the nation would lead to its demise. It was necessary, therefore—in order to cure Germany’s disease—to eliminate the Jew from within the body politic. According to Hitler’s biological conception of politics, rescuing the life of Germany required removing from within the body politic the source of her disease. The Nazi movement was conceived as a struggle of life against death: between the healthy German organism, and the viral Jewish element.
IV. LIFE AGAINST DEATH
The Nazi movement was a struggle of "live against death"—conceived by Hitler as a struggle between the disease from which the nation was suffering and the will of the German people. Hitler challenged Germans: Do you have the insight to perceive the nature and source of the disease? Do you have the courage to rise up and take action against it? To take action against Germany’s disease meant that one would not shirk responsibility. However difficult or painful the course of action, one would take whatever measures necessary in order to save the life of the nation.
From the beginning of his career, Hitler’s ideology was framed around this "either-or" conception of political action. "The future of Germany," Hitler declared, means "the annihilation of Marxism." Either the "racial tuberculosis" would thrive and Germany would die out; or it would be "cut out of the Volk body" and Germany would thrive.
Either the nation would "sink," and the German people "through their despicable cowardice" would sink with it. Or else Germans would dare to "enter on the fight against death and rise up against the fate that has been planned for us." A momentous struggle would ensue to determine "which is stronger: the spirit of international Jewry or the will of Germany."
V. THE FINAL SOLUTION
The Nazis described the extermination of the Jews as the "Final Solution." If exterminating Jews was the solution, what was the "problem" that required killing Jews as the solution to the problem? The problem that the Nazis sought to resolve by killing Jews was the problem of death.
Insofar as Jews were imagined to be the source of Germany’s disease, therefore the issue of national survival could not be resolved until the source of disease—the Jew—was removed from within the body politic. The Nazis did not wish to have the specter of the Jewish disease hanging over their heads. Better to devise a solution that would eliminate this threat—once and for all. The development of the killing centers represented a manic, hysterical struggle to kill the source of death.
The Final Solution grew out of a fantasy that identified Jews as bacteria that would continue to multiply and divide lest actions were taken to halt its spread. I now present data delineating the nexus between language and action. Examination of the portrayal of Jews in newspapers, books, movies, radio broadcasts, magazine and journal articles—as well as in speeches and proclamations issued by leaders, official organs of the party, government and army—allows one to comprehend how such a radical form of activity could have been undertaken. While not a comprehensive presentation of the evidence, the following excerpts provide a sense of how Nazi images of the Jew generated the Final Solution.
From the beginning, the idea of the Jew as the source of a disease—and the wish to eliminate the Jew—lay at the heart of National Socialism. Hitler’s Official Programme, written by Gottfried Feder and published in 1927, declared that "Anti-Semitism is the emotional foundation of our movement." The anti-Semite "recognizes the carrier of the national plague-germ and demands the expulsion of the Jew from our state."
Tracing the evolving perception of the Jew, C. C. Aronsfeld in Text of the Holocaust (1985) reports that after the Reichstag election in 1930, Count Reventlow called the Jew "a tape-worm in the human organism which it is our duty to exterminate." A German medical journal in June 1935 explained that just as weak people were liable to succumb to tuberculosis more easily than strong ones, so only racially weak people would "fall victim to the bacilli of Jewish infection."
Perhaps the clearest, most elaborate articulation of the fantasy that led to genocide appeared in a pamphlet of instruction issued in 1941 by the office of Rosenberg. The body, this pamphlet explained, is a highly developed ‘State’ composed of cells. This body can be "invaded by parasites, such as bacteria." These can "live in a body," multiply, and "attach themselves to certain spots," where they "secrete their poison."
These bacteria cause "such reactions of the body as can be well compared with the internal processes in the life of nations.” A national body thus afflicted must "defeat the bacteria which have penetrated it;" otherwise it will be defeated by them. Once the nation has defeated the bacteria, it should for its own sake also "cleanse its whole environment of the bacteria to prevent further infection."
With regard to processes of this kind, the pamphlet goes on to say, "Humanitarian principles cannot be taken into consideration at all" as little as humanitarian principles apply to "disinfecting a body or a contaminated room." It is necessary in such cases to clear a path for a "completely novel way of thinking." Only such thinking can really lead to "the final decision” which must be made in order to safeguard the "existence of the great creative race."
The use of the body as metaphor for the state is applied so intensely and thoroughly in these passages that the reader becomes confused: the boundary between a human body and the nation-state blurs. In any case, the meaning is clear: The nation-state—like a body containing bacteria living within it—must "defeat the bacteria" that have penetrated into it; otherwise it will be defeated by them. Once the bacteria have been defeated, the body must "cleanse its whole environment" in order to prevent further infection.
The Final Solution was a form of "cleansing:" eliminating Jewish bacteria from within the nation. With regard to this process, "humanitarian principles" could not be taken into consideration, any more than one would apply humanitarian principles to disinfecting a body. The author of the pamphlet recognizes that he is clearing a path for a "completely novel way of thinking," but insists that this new way of thinking is required so that a "final decision" can be made—in order to safeguard "the existence of the great creative race."
The image of Jew as virus or bacteria was present in the minds of leading Nazis as the killing process unfolded in 1942 and 1943. In February 1942, Hitler proclaimed that the "discovery of the Jewish virus" is one of the "greatest revolutions the world has seen." The struggle in which the Nazis were engaged, Hitler said, was similar to the one "waged by Pasteur and Koch in the last century. How many diseases must owe their origins to the Jewish virus? Only when we have eliminated the Jews will we regain our health."
On March 27, 1942, aware of the fact that the Final Solution had been undertaken, Goebbels wrote in his diary that "not much will remain of the Jews." The "procedure" was "pretty barbaric" and "not to be described here in detail." However, what was occurring was unavoidable in the face of the "life-and-death struggle between the Aryan race and the Jewish bacillus."
In a famous speech delivered to SS leaders and army generals in 1943, Himmler claimed 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, because we have destroyed a bacillus to be "infected by this bacillus and to die."
We noted that Hitler insisted early in his career that it was insufficient for politicians to "doctor around on the circumference of the distress" without acting to "lance the cancerous ulcer." By February 4, 1945 when the war clearly was lost, Hitler continued to speak in these terms. In a note dictated to Martin Bormann, Hitler declared that National Socialism had tackled the Jewish problem "by action and not by words." This action had been an essential "process of disinfection."
To the very end, Hitler did not alter his thinking. Apparently he felt that he had remained "true to himself." Though the war had lost, he had achieved his primary objective: "We have lanced the Jewish abscess, and the world of the future will be eternally grateful to us."
The preceding passages document the relationship between the Nazi’s perception of reality, and actions undertaken based on this perception. At the core of Nazi ideology was belief that a "disease" had invaded the body politic. In the absence of measures taken against this disease, Germany would die.
Jews were imagined as bacteria or virus, source of the nation’s disease. The Nazis constructed a radical institution of enormous scope whose purpose was systematically to murder these human beings conceived as bacteria. The elimination or destruction of the Jews was necessary, Hitler believed, in order that Germany might "live on."
It is astonishing that such an idea could have been believed and been the source of historical action. The bizarreness of the fantasy is matched by the bizarreness of the activity that was generated by this fantasy. Most people prefer to imagine that there were "real" reasons for what occurred. The Enlightenment belief in "rationality" does not die easily. People seek to identify the source of what occurred in the "external world.”
Having studied the Holocaust for nearly forty years, I conclude that there were no "real" reasons. Jews posed no threat to the Germany. I often ask people to guess how many Jews there were in Germany in 1933 out of a population of 66 million. The responses I receive from educated people and scholars (non-historians) range from three-million to twenty-million.
In actuality, there were 550,000 Jews in Germany in 1933, substantially less than 1% of the population. People find it difficult to imagine that the Jews were killed for no reason at all, that is, for reasons that were purely psychological. One begins to understand the dynamics of genocide not by searching for "reasons," but by unpacking the logic contained within the Nazi fantasy.
What the Nazis did was generated by a fantasy that was projected into the political arena. This fantasy revolved around the idea that Germany was an enormous body (politic) suffering from a disease that could prove fatal. Jews were identified as pathogenic cells—the source of the nation’s disease. Genocide was undertaken in order to destroy these pathogenic cells.
Historians often write about obedience or compliance as the central motive allowed what occurred during the Nazi period to occur. This may or may not be the case. An alternative hypothesis is that many Germans embraced the fantasy that Hitler and the Nazis put forth.
Nazi political theorist Ernst Rudolf Huber in Constitutional Law of the Third Reich stated that the Führer was the "bearer of the collective will of the people." In the will of the leader, Huber said, the "will of the people is realized." Hitler’s will was not the "subjective will of a single man." Rather, the "collective national will" was embodied within the leader.
A people’s collective will, Huber explained, is rooted in the "political idea which is given to a people." The political idea is present in the people, but the Führer "raises it to consciousness and discloses it." The role of the leader, in other words, is to "disclose" a people’s political idea, that is, to bring into consciousness that which had been unconscious.
The leader functions to bring forth or make manifest ideas and desires that had been latent within a culture. His ideology reveals and crystallizes a people’s shared fantasies. The leader invents images, metaphors and phrases to convey these fantasies. The leader processes his own fantasies and those of his people and "returns" information to his audience—in the form of a societal discourse.
By virtue of being transformed into a societal discourse or ideology, energies and passions bound to shared fantasies are released for action. The ideology transforms latent desires and fantasies into the collective will to act. The will to act is generated by the wish to actualize or bring into reality the fantasy contained within the ideology. The role of the leader is not only to bring into consciousness fantasies shared by members of society, but also to devise a plan or program allowing these fantasies to be enacted in reality.
The Final Solution grew out of a fantasy present in the mind of Hitler, Nazi leaders and many other Germans. This fantasy revolved around the nation as a body politic confronted with a threat to its existence in the form of a deadly disease, the Jew. The disease within Germany was described concretely—as the invasion of the body politic by bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
Hitler conceived of himself as "Doctor of Germany:" that leader who had the capacity to diagnose and master Germany’s disease. Genocide was the cure: a monumental race against death—a struggle to destroy Jewish bacteria before the bacteria could destroy the nation.
All of this, of course, makes no sense. Jews were not bacteria and exterminating Jews could not save the nation. Nevertheless, the Holocaust occurred. Apparently, some people bought into this strange fantasy—that in turn generated an equally strange social institution.
The idea that it was necessary to eliminate Jewish bacteria generated a "social construction of reality." The death camps, gas chambers and crematoria were constructed based on the fantasy that if Germany was to survive, Jewish bacteria had to be destroyed.
In his seminal essay, "The Jewish Parasite," Alex Bein suggests that Nazi ideology spread and took hold as a consequence of the repeated use of certain words and images that led to "belief in the reality of a fantasy." In language, Bein explains, thoughts and conceptions are mirrored. Nazism crept into the flesh and blood of the masses "by means of single words, turns of phrase and stock expressions which, imposed upon the people a million times over in continuous reiteration, were mechanically and unconsciously absorbed by them."
The presentation of Jews as corroding and poisonous parasites, as vermin, bacteria and bacilli—everywhere infesting and striving to destroy the body of the German people as a whole and each individual German with a demonic power—"paralyzed to a large extent any internal resistance on the part of the masses." Lagarde’s metaphor of the Jews as "bacilli not to be negotiated with but to be exterminated" could, in the atmosphere of Bio-Mythology, become a horrible reality.
Moreover, Bein theorizes, it may well have been that the image of the Jew presented by the Nazis contributed to the method of extermination. Killing the Jews in gas chambers was but the logical consequence of their "final identification with parasites, cankers, bacilli and vermin." Once the Jews were really so regarded, Bein suggests, it was not only imperative to exterminate them, but also quite obvious that in the process the "same means we use against bacilli and vermin was to be employed: poison gas."
The Final Solution followed as a consequence of the perception of reality contained within Nazi ideology. Jews were depicted as bacteria or virus, source of a "disease within the body politic" that needed to be cured if the nation was to survive. Hitler was "Doctor of the people" who diagnosed Germany’s disease, and prescribed the cure. The cure that Hitler prescribed and carried out was destruction of the Jewish bacteria, i.e. genocide.
Of course, having identified or uncovered this Nazi fantasy, the task of explanation has only just begun. The next step is to interpret or ascertain the meaning of this fantasy. Why did Hitler imagine that Germany was a body containing a disease? Why did this metaphor resonate with the German people? What were the nature of those psychological needs and desires that caused a population to embrace and to enact such a fantasy?