THE NATION’S DISEASE
By Richard Koenigsberg
National Socialism built upon the fantasy that it was necessary to destroy a “disease” within the body politic in order to keep the nation alive. Hitler generated the Final Solution based on treating the idea of the nation-as-an-organism-containing-a-disease as if this idea was reality; as if Jews actually were bacteria that needed to be destroyed if Germany was to survive. In the Final Solution, the Nazis played out a grotesque, immunological fantasy: destroying “not self” Jewish cells.
In Hitler’s imagination, Germany was an actual body suffering from a disease that could prove fatal. Jews were conceived as bacteria or viruses or parasites—the cause of Germany’s illness. The Final Solution enacted the idea that Germany was a body containing an immune system. SS “killer cells” would act to destroy pathogenic microorganisms—the source of Germany’s disease. The Final Solution was undertaken in order to make Germany (and Europe and the Soviet Union) “Jew free.” If Jews were not destroyed, Hitler believed, they would continue to divide and multiply. Consequently, the German nation—and Western civilization—would die.
Jews symbolized that force within each organism that leads to its demise. Jews were conceived by Hitler as a “force of disintegration” whose presence caused nations to fragment; fall apart. Hitler aspired to transform Germany into a special kind of body: one that did not contain a force of disintegration and therefore was capable of living forever. Hitler’s project was to destroy the force of death lurking within Germany—the Jew—thereby forging a body politic that could live forever.
The Final Solution represented an effort to disinfect the national body. By gassing Jews, Hitler imagined that he was destroying microorganisms that were the source of Germany’s disease. The Final Solution represented the enactment by the Nazis of a shared fantasy about the body. In the Final Solution, we witness the social construction of reality. On what basis was this reality constructed? The Nazis projected a fantasy about the body into the outer world and acted out this fantasy upon the stage of social reality. Given that Jews were conceived as bacteria or viruses, every single one of them had to be destroyed, lest they begin once again to divide and multiply.
Robert Lifton suggests in The Nazi Doctors (1986) that the National Socialist movement was “nothing but applied biology.” Genocide articulated the fantasy of “killing to cure.” Jewish bacteria or viruses symbolized the idea that certain cells present within the body politic—living on and within it—did not belong there. These cells lived off the national organism, but made no contribution to its well being. Hitler plaintively asks in Mein Kampf (1925), “Could anyone believe that Germany was not subject to exactly the same laws as all other human organisms?” According to Hitler’s fantasy, the immune system of the German body politic had identified Jews as destructive or alien or foreign. Like any other organism, Germany would act to reject and destroy these “not self” cells.
Hitler imagined that he was the “Robert Koch of Germany:” that leader who had diagnosed the nation’s illness–identified its cause. Just as Koch discovered the specific bacterium that caused tuberculosis, so Hitler proclaimed that he had discovered the “Jewish bacteria”—cause of Germany’s disease and the suffering of her people. Hitler generated the Final Solution to enact an immunological fantasy: eliminating Jewish bacteria in order to save the nation. How fantastic! Yet this actually happened.
Hitler feared a catastrophe: the demise of a great nation. He imagined that Germany might succumb to her disease and lapse into a state of non-being. Hitler conceived of and depicted himself as “Doctor of the German people.” Nazism was hysteria—mass-hysteria—a response to the belief that Germany was suffering from an acute disease. By pointing to the presence of this disease within the body politic, Hitler excited and energized the German people, persuading them to build up their powers of resistance in order to “fight against death and rise up against the fate that has been planned for us.”
The National Socialist movement represented the struggle to destroy a disease imagined to be present within the German body politic. It was a question of life against death. Hitler lectured and hectored his audiences. To those who declared that it was impossible for Germany to recover, he screamed: “I am not one of the men who allow themselves to say, ‘It is impossible.’ It must be possible. For Germany must live.” Hitler imagined that by virtue of the power of the German will, the nation could triumph over death. The German people would not “go gentle into that good night” (Dylan Thomas), rather would “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The Nazi’s victory over death would constitute a “triumph of the will” (the title of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 movie about Hitler).
Hitler’Hitler’s fantasy of the German nation was that of a body that had the potential to become immortal if not for the presence of a force of disintegration within it. Hitler identified Jews as Germany’s death instinct: that which leads organisms to their demise. In order to rescue Germany, Hitler would act to master the force of death operating within the body politic. He would isolate the Jewish disease; then attempt to annihilate it.
Hitler believed that Germany could survive only if the Jewish people were destroyed. Jews were killed as concepts or symbolic objects. What did the Nazis imagine they were killing when they killed Jews? What was the problem to which genocide was proposed as the Final Solution? The problem that Hitler sought to solve was the problem of death.
Hitler imagined that if it were not for the existence of Jews, Germany could become a perfectly healthy body politic—capable of living forever. The Jew was conceived as that force within national bodies that obstructs or negates their aspiration to immortality. Hitler identified Jews as the ultimate enemy (though they posed no threat to the German people). The Jewish enemy was the voice of doubt that proclaimed: there are no such things as immortal bodies. Jews symbolized the reality of death from which no body can be rescued.
The ideology of nationalism declares that the impulse toward survival should be directed toward the body politic rather than toward one’s actual body. The body politic becomes a substitute for one’s own body. Human beings create and identify with nations based on the fantasy that countries are immortal bodies politic. Unlike one’s actual body (frail and vulnerable, subject to death and decay) nations are imagined to be invulnerable bodies capable of “living on” through time.
Hitler proclaimed to his people, “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” What is nothing according to Hitler is the human being’s actual, concrete existence. What is everything is the idea of a volk that can live forever. Nazism revolved around the sacrifice of the human body in the name of the body politic. “The individual must die, so that the nation might live:” the blood of the human body pours into the body politic, infusing it with life.