Using the Holocaust: Review Essay of Metaphor,
Nation and the Holocaust: The Concept of the Body Politic
by Liah Greenfeld
This is Part I of Professor Greenfeld's essay.
To read the entire essay on our website, click here.
About the Reviewer

Leah Greenfield

Called "one of the most original thinkers of the current period" and "the great historian of Nationalism," Liah Greenfeld is University Professor and Professor of Sociology, Political Science, and Anthropology at Boston University, and Distinguished Adjunct Professor at Lingnan University, Hong Kong.

By the Reviewer, Liah Greenfeld

Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Format: Hardcover
ISBN-10: 0674072766
ISBN-13: 978-0674072763
Pages: 688

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.

It’s the American dream — unfettered freedom to follow our ambitions, to forge our identities, to become self-made. But what if our culture of limitless self-fulfillment is actually making millions desperately ill? Mind, Modernity, Madness challenges the most cherished assumptions about the blessings of living in a land of the free.

“[A] magnificent sweep of several fields”—The American Journal of Psychiatry Metaphor, Nation and the Holocaust: The Concept of the Body Politic

Publisher: Routledge
Author: Andreas Musolff
Format: Hardcover
ISBN-10 0415801192
ISBN-13 978-0415801195
Pages: 220

This book provides a cognitive analysis of the function of biological/medical metaphors in National Socialist racist ideology and their background in historical traditions of Western political theory.

About the Author: Andreas Musolff is a Professor in the School of Language and Communication Studies at the University of East Anglia, UK.

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Today, knowledge about the Holocaust must be a central element in every person’s education. This singular historical episode has changed the image of the West, including its self-perception, negated Western civilization’s claims to moral authority, and for all times destroyed its self-confidence; it has also forever altered our sense of human reality as such.

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To the extent that the role of education is to orient the individual in the world, each one of us must be daily reminded of the look of terror in the eyes of a boy, at most ten years old, led with his hands up, to a place of slaughter, of the silent scream of never-to-be-relieved suffering on the faces of even smaller children, starving on the streets of Warsaw ghetto, of the gas chambers and ovens of the crematoria, of the tons of women’s hair, shorn before the women were processed there, of the row of headless bodies in a clean, industrial-looking space, laid out in such an orderly fashion on iron tables to be dismembered and made into soap, and their heads in a tidy metal bowl on the well swept floor.

Someone with a camera obligingly took these pictures. To know what kind of world we live in, we must look at them again and again, for our world is the world in which, however incredible, this did and was allowed to happen.
The pictures, of course, do not help us understand. And neither do Kazetnik’s or Primo Levi’s descriptions, other testimonies, and documentaries such as Lanzmann’s Shoah. All these are just food for thought, to internalize, though never digest, and leave us with the question: how was this possible? how was it possible that some people in an advanced European nation, insisting on the glory of its civilization and accepted by others as highly civilized – Germany – conceived of the plans for the final solution of the Jewish question; that thousands of educated Germans articulated and creatively implemented these plans, achieving undreamt-of efficiency in the killing and inventing ever more sophisticated ways of inflicting unnecessary even for the realization of the plans but most gruesome suffering on the millions of defenseless men, women, and children, ingeniously operationalizing the original concepts and deriving from this the sense of achievement and pride in a job well done; that millions of other Germans – the majority of the German population – knowingly acquiesced in this orgy of violence, clearly unprecedented both in its colossal scale and in the absolute monstrosity of its wanton cruelty, often enthusiastically condoned it and quite contentedly consumed its by-products, such as soap made from human bodies, cloth woven of human hair, objets d’art crafted from human skin, and slave labor of those not yet dead?

How could such people exist in a civilization based on the Bible – the Jewish Bible – with its commandment “thou shalt not kill,” its distinction between good and evil, its ideas of justice and the value of human life? What was it that Germany brought to this civilization, what kept this culture from ever fully becoming of it, made it an exception? And how could the rest of this civilization allow the Holocaust to go on, despite knowing what was going on, for six years, without any concerted effort to extricate the victims or, at the very least, destroy the infernal machine that made the still living among them envy the dead?

These are not academic, not even intellectual questions, and no satisfaction can be derived from answering them. They are, in fact rhetorical; their significance is our protest: this should have never happened, but did! The damage done is irreparable. Still we ask. And, as in our time knowledge rarely comes unsupported by expert scholarship, there are scholars dedicated to the study of the Holocaust. Many document it, uncovering and publishing new testimonies, photographs, memoranda of the participating German officialdom. Some attempt to explain it, if only for therapeutic reasons, for explanation here just begs the question again. Andreas Musolff uses it as a case in point.

This is Part I of Professor Greenfeld's essay.
To read the entire essay on our website, click here.

Musolff’s book, Metaphor, Nation, and the Holocaust is published among Routledge Critical Studies in Discourse. As its subtitle indicates, it is a book on “the concept of body politic.” Musolff believes that a metaphor, i.e., an instance of linguistic practice of highlighting an aspect of a phenomenon by referring to it in terms reserved for an entirely different class of phenomena, has the power to so misrepresent reality for large masses of people as to make them literally see the referent of the metaphor as belonging to that different class and act according to this misrepresentation. (An example of this would be taking the metaphor of “Lion Heart” attributed to Richard Plantagenet in “Richard the Lion-Hearted” to mean that the famous crusader actually had a heart transplant from a lion or was a monster born with a heart of a big cat species, and treating him as an invalid in constant danger of cardiac arrest or as a freak of nature.)

The metaphor with which Musolff is concerned is that of the body politic – the reference to a political community as an organic body – with all the health and sickness implications that may follow. With roots in deep antiquity, this metaphor, as Musolff demonstrates, was very common in European political discourse and central in Nazi rhetoric, in general, and in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, in particular, where it was applied to Germany attacked by parasites – Jews. “The imagery used by the Nazis,” writes Musolff on page 2 of his book, “to legitimize their genocidal policies provides us with an extreme ‘test-case’, so to speak, of a metaphor that was turned into a horrendous reality of World War and Holocaust.”

This tremendous power of a metaphor to shape reality and the causal significance of the body-politic-attacked-by-parasites metaphor in bringing about the Holocaust is hypostatized (that is, assumed), rather than hypothesized, in the book. The question is only why specifically this metaphor had this power. Introducing his project, Musolff writes: “How could the conceptualization of a socio-political entity as a human body acquire such sinister connotations? Is it a specific historical phenomenon of German political culture in the twentieth century? Or is the metaphor inherently racist, suggesting as it does a physical/physiological concreteness of politics, which perhaps ‘lends itself’ to physical ‘solutions’ of any perceived problems? Should anyone who employs body-related metaphors in politics be viewed as a potential advocate of genocide? These are some of the questions that this book will engage with, with a view to determining the function of metaphor in political communication, i.e. the basic issue of how a metaphorical concept can impact on people’s political perception and behavior, even turn them into genocide perpetrators (or at least, passive bystanders).”

The Holocaust here is, then, a doubly representative phenomenon: on the one hand, it represents the impact of a metaphor on people’s political perception and behavior – the basic issue the book examines; and, on the other, it represents the effects of racism. Therefore, one can use the Holocaust to a double benefit: to help one to determine the function of metaphor in political communication and to identify racist metaphors that may potentially lead to other racist episodes in the future, valuable lessons both.

It is up to every individual to decide on the ethics of using the Holocaust in this way. I myself find it morally repulsive. But here I shall address the book as a work of social science and won’t be concerned with the morality of the enterprise.

This is Part I of Professor Greenfeld's essay.
To read the entire essay on our website, click here.