Civilization and Sacrificial Death
by Richard Koenigsberg
The evidence indicates that Hitler waged war in order to sacrifice the German people. His was an ideology of death: kill others (the nation’s “enemies”), then act to bring about the destruction of Germany. There is not a single sentence in Mein Kampf about “conquest.” Of course, most people embrace the shared fantasy of Hitler as a failed conqueror. It also seems as if the sun revolves around the earth.
“If one wishes to comprehend Nazism, one must enter Hitler’s world of (obedience unto) death. When people think of the “Aryan race,” they visualize a brutal Nazi “superman.” Hitler rarely spoke in these terms. Rather, he dreamt of an omnipotent community. The creation of an this community required absolute submission. Far from being a superman, the Nazi was a slave. Actually, worse than a slave: he was required to die when his country asked him to do so.”

Civilization and Sacrificial Death

In Mein Kampf, Hitler put forth his theory of the relationship between the individual and society, stating that the capacity for civilization—for “creating and building culture”—arises out of the individual’s willingness to “renounce putting forward his personal opinion and interests” and to “sacrifice both in favor of the large group.” Out of this readiness to subordinate purely personal interests arises the ability to “establish comprehensive communities.” The state of mind that subordinates the interest of the ego to the conservation of the community, Hitler says, is the “first premise for every truly human community.”

Hitler’s theory resembles the one put forth in Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), where Sigmund Freud argued that the maintenance of society requires renunciation of instinct and desire. The difference is that Freud considers the psychology of individuals—who become “discontent” by virtue of submitting to the demands of society. Hitler, however, comes down entirely on the side of civilization—ignoring the desires of individuals. Hitler’s philosophy of the community elevates devotion to the nation to an absolute value, viewing individuals as significant only insofar as their lives contribute to the community.

What was special about the “Aryan,” Hitler believed, was the extent of his willingness to sacrifice himself for the community. The self-sacrificing will to “give one’s personal labor and if necessary one’s own life for others,” Hitler said in Mein Kampf, was “most strongly developed in the Aryan.” The Aryan was “not greatest in his mental qualities as such,” but in the extent of his willingness to “put all his abilities in the service of the community.”

Hitler sums up his philosophy with the term Pflichterfüllung, which means

Not to be self-sufficient but to serve the community. The basic attitude from which such activity arises, we call—to distinguish it from egoism and selfishness—idealism. By this, we understand only the individual’s capacity to make sacrifices for the community, his fellow men. True idealism is nothing but the subordination of the interests and life of the individual to the community.

Hitler’s Ideology of Death

Hitler’s attachment to warfare is not separate from his attachment to culture and devotion to civilization. Hitler’s thinking on war does not touch the ideas of “conquest.” Rather, he focuses on the common soldier (Hitler role during the First World War)—and how the soldier fulfills his duty to society by participating in battle.

The fundamental term in Hitler’s ideology of warfare is that of sacrifice. The essence of sacrifice is the willingness of the individual to die for the community:

  • “The Aryan willingly subordinates his own ego to the life of the community and, if the hour demands, even sacrifices it.”

  • “The idea of military service dawned on my lads in terms of the living consciousness of the duty to fight for the existence of our people by sacrificing the life of the individual, always and forever, at all times and places.”

  • “To be ‘national’ means to act with a boundless and all-embracing love for the people and, if necessary, even to die for it.”

Like Hitler, Joseph Goebbels put forth a philosophy of sacrifice. In his semi-autographical diary-novel, Michael (1931), Goebbels said that what constituted the modern German was not so much cleverness and intellect, but a new principle: The ability to “give oneself to a cause unreservedly, to sacrifice oneself, to devote oneself to one’s people.” Goebbels understood socialism as “fanatic of love: the capacity for self-sacrifice.” We modern Germans, Goebbels said, are something like “Christ socialists.”

At its core, Hitler’s ideology is an ideology of death. However, Hitler’s attachment to death cannot be separated from his attachment to the community or nation. For Hitler, there is virtually no separation between the idea of sacrificial death in battle and the ideal of devotion to one’s nation. From this perspective, Hitler is in the mainstream of a Western tradition that declares that it is “sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Nazi violence and aggression grew out of deep, profound idealism. I frequently use the term “slaughter” to characterize what occurred in First World War battles—in order to detach the reality of violence and death from idealistic terms that support and sustain violence and death. But in actuality—from the perspective of those who generated and fought in the First World War—violence and idealism were part of a single package.

Soldiers as the Embodiment of Virtue

If the essence of virtue is willingness to sacrifice for the community, then the most virtuous individual is the soldier—willing to die for his country. During the First World War, Protestant clergy extolled the life of the German soldier. In his study, The Gospel of Nationalism: German Patriotic Preaching from Napoleon to Versailles (1986), Arlie Hoover summarizes the themes that appeared in pastors’ sermons during the Great War.

Far from being sinful, the life of the soldier was portrayed as one of the most “exemplary lives one could choose,” a life of moral courage, devotion and self-denial. The soldier, according to German pastors, must “like Christ, be ready to place his earthly life on the altar of love;” be prepared to “die for family, brethren, or country.” He must say: “It is not necessary that I live, but it is necessary that I do my duty.”

Many German preachers, according to Hoover, looked upon the warrior’s death as “the most beautiful of all deaths.” The hero’s death resembled the “free-will offering of Christ himself,” who gave his life voluntarily for his brethren. One pastor expressed this idea precisely: “German nationality and Christianity agree at their very core in heroism—nothing is greater than to leave your life for your friends & your brethren. Both are fulfilled in the hero’s death.”

It may seem strange to compare the life of the German soldier with that of Christ. But many Germans during the First World War did think of the soldier in these terms. Like Christ, the soldier was a human being willing to give his life for his people and community. The soldier from Hitler’s perspective—by virtue of his willingness to die for his country—was the most virtuous and moral of all human beings.

To Die for Germany

In To Die for Germany: Heroes in the Nazi Pantheon (1990), J. W. Baird writes about this German philosophy of sacrificial death. Walter Flex, a German author, soldier and idealist who fought in the First World War, ended his The Wanderer between Two Worlds (1916) with the thought that “We died for Germany’s glory. Flower, Germany, as garland of death to us!” Flex’s benediction, Baird says, “glorified all the dead of the war.”

During the Great War, according to Baird, propagandists and poets alike joined hands in “exalting the blood sacrifice of the young of Germany,” thus “transforming carnage into ethereal national revelation.” Only in Germany, Baird says, did heroic death in war become a “philosophy of life,” a “significant component of the ethos of radical nationalism.”

Hitler’s Glorification of Sacrificial Death

  • “More than once, thousands and thousands of young Germans have stepped forward with self-sacrificing resolve to sacrifice their young lives freely and joyfully on the altar of the be- loved fatherland.”

  • “The young regiments went to their death in Flanders crying “Deutschland ueber Alles in der Welt” (Germany above all).”

  • “In the sacred ground the best comrades slumbered, still almost children, who had run to their death with gleaming eyes for the one true fatherland.”

  • “The most precious blood sacrificed itself joyfully, in the faith that it was preserving the independence and freedom of the fatherland.”

Hitler embraced this philosophy of sacrificial death, refusing to “complain” about his comrades’ deaths in the First World War. Indeed, Hitler glorified and gloried in the idea of “dying for one’s country.”

If one wishes to comprehend Nazism, one must be willing to enter into Hitler’s world of (obedience unto) death. When people think of the “Aryan race” they tend to visualize a brutal Nazi “superman.” Hitler rarely spoke or thought in these terms. The greatness Hitler aspired to resided in the strength of the nation rather than the strength of individuals. Hitler dreamt of an omnipotent community. The creation of an omnipotent community required absolute submission. Far from being a superman, the Nazi was a slave. Actually, worse than a slave: he was required to die when his country asked him to do so.