Using the Holocaust: Review Essay of Metaphor, Nation and the
Holocaust: The Concept of the Body Politic
(by Andreas Musolff)
by Liah Greenfeld
This is Part II 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.

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

What makes Nazi metaphors centered on body politic particularly interesting, says, Musolff (pp. 3-4), is that they were not “mere” metaphors but formed a discourse that was “non-literal and at the same time ‘literal’.” For Hitler, specifically, these metaphors “described reality,” while the other Nazis applied them “in a horrifically ‘literal’ sense by trying to physically destroy and eliminate Jewish people.”

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This, he says, is confusing, for, after all, Germans could not really see Germany as an organic body or Jews as insects or unicellular organisms – that would be “a grotesque category mistake” and, as such, unimaginable. (For the reader, this raises a question about the author’s understanding of the linguistic role of metaphors as opposed to literal descriptions – don’t all metaphors offer a way to describe reality, doing so, in contrast to literal descriptions, precisely by mixing categories?)

For Musolff, “some of the confusion,” at least, is avoided by following “the insights of modern metaphor theories that have developed a notion of metaphor as a cognitive ‘framing’ strategy to provide access to innovative perspectives for the conceptualization and the discursive negotiation of all kinds of experience.”

The first half of the book is indeed devoted to the exploration of the “frames that enabled [the users of Nazi metaphors] to believe in assumptions that made the project of murdering Jewish people in Europe seem possible, justifiable, and necessary,” the exploration, that is, of the “inferential cognitive link between assumptions embodied in the ‘source’ concepts of bodies, illnesses and parasites and the political conclusions at the ‘target’ level of genocidal ideology (and practice).”

In this reader’s view, however, the insights of modern metaphor theories have no such salutary effect; as presented by Musolff, they represent conspiracy theories of language. The idea that a metaphor is a strategy of any kind implies that metaphors are intentionally created by some mentally-superior agent(s) with a certain goal in mind, and are imposed on others who have no power to resist them, being apparently mindless.

If Hitler is the strategist behind the anti-Semitic Nazi metaphors, we must assume that he was a super-brain. And then, why and how would these metaphors make its users believe in assumptions they did not believe in earlier and that to the extent of participating in genocidal practice (demurely placed by Musolff in parentheses)? Did the users (and possibly the mentally-superior creators) of the metaphors come to believe in the assumptions behind them in order to murder Jews?

It appears that his chosen theoretical framework cannot convince the author himself. “Clearly,” he argues (pp. 6-7), “the Nazis and their audience did not have to rely on a two-thousand-year-old philosophical tradition to motivate their wish to murder all Jewish people in Europe.” (Again the reader is puzzled: What does “motivate a wish” mean? Isn’t to wish – to be motivated, and a wish motivation enough? Is it this wish/motivation that calls for the metaphor as a strategy? If so, what is its strategic importance – what does it explain?)

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

Musolff reminds himself that Nazi anti-Semitism was a kind of racism and racism surely has some political consequences, e.g., the Holocaust (doesn’t it?): “racists of all times have employed [metaphors in question] to denounce their enemies as agents of (political) disease [though – he seems to be arguing against his own argument, these metaphors were influential in Germany] in a way similar to the pseudo-scientific theories on human ‘races’ that influenced Hitler during his formative years.”

Does this prove the causal role of the metaphors or refute it? He goes on: “The public judgment that a person or political group uses terminology and imagery comparable to that employed by the Nazis still serves as a powerful stigmatization. For German politicians, to invoke body-parasite imagery when dealing with socio-political and ethnic conflicts … is disingenuous and/or potentially self-defeating as long as they want to remain part of the mainstream political discourse.”

He ends the passage helplessly: “So, why do body-illness-parasite metaphors continue to be employed?” And he hopes that the answer will somehow emerge in the following pages, although already knowing all the answers in the book — he lists them in this introductory chapter — and being fully aware that this hope is vain: “we hope to find answers to this question; i.e. we not only try to understand the reasons for [the metaphor’s] ‘success’ in persuading a majority of the German public to participate in or at least tolerate the Holocaust but also the role that body-based metaphors generally play in current racist discourse and thought.”

But this optimistically ambitious declaration also ends on a note of helplessness, as he remarks that some strands of this very metaphor “even point to the ideological opposite of racism, i.e. an enlightened, tolerant vision of society and politics.”

Since the book is evidently written to promote the cognitively oriented approach to metaphor analysis – the theoretical position to which Musolff is committed, he soldiers on with his argument, disregarding considerations which cause him to doubt it. The point is to contribute a nuance to the discourse literature: in contrast to the “traditional analyses of Nazi imagery” as a “mere” rhetorical trick that was incidental to Hitler’s ideology and actual policy, he will – against all odds – insist, instead (pp. 11-13), that “the body-illness-parasite metaphors provided not just a propaganda ornament but were at the core of his racist ideology.”

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

It is indeed, if anything, a nuance, because, while some research on Nazi metaphors (a veritable industry, surprising in its scope to a non-specialist) has characterized them as “’demagogic’ and ‘manipulative’ abuses of language,” which is, presumably, what “mere” metaphors are, other studies have considered them “as ‘literally’ true expressions of racist ideology.”

Musolff does not believe, however, that the latter approach has much in common with the one he advocates and, as such, can no more than the former explain “the extraordinary public appeal of the Nazi anti-Semitic imagery, its seeming plausibility and conclusiveness.” Such “literalness can,” he says, “be understood as a weird ‘category mistake’ that literally confused the domains of humans and of (non-human) animals [specifically, parasites], due to the fanatical ideology held by the Nazis. Such an extreme stance is psychologically untenable.”

In the framework of the argument that a metaphor has the power to shape (in the sense bordering on determining) political behavior, however, it is clear that Musolff presumes the source of the appeal to be in the metaphor itself, just as the appeal of food or sex to an animal is in the smell of food or of a potential mate in heat. Metaphors, for him, work like signs, in distinction to symbols which, of course, they are.

Even as regards food and sex, in-so-far as we, humans, are concerned, the appeal or repulsion they evoke are as often a function of what they symbolize, as of what they are. Symbols, though, are necessarily interpreted by every user and recipient, and so cannot be imposed.

To disregard this crucial difference between signs and symbols is, indeed, to commit a weird categorical mistake, indeed implying as it does that the mental functioning of the German public was, literally, no different from that of non-human animals living in the world of signs which do not lend themselves to interpretation, that, in other words, German people had no more responsibility for their actions, no more moral agency behind them, than the dogs trained for guard duty in the concentration camps, and that just like these quadrupeds, they simply obeyed orders. Such an extreme stance, one must agree, is psychologically untenable.

The argument is not helped by the addition of methodological fetishism to the theoretical one (pp. 14-18). Musolff presumes the correctness of the “cognitivist” approach to Nazi metaphors, repeating endlessly: “The problem has generated a substantial body of research over the past decades, which has specifically focused on metaphors as cognitive phenomena. From the cognitive viewpoint, metaphors and other so-called ‘rhetorical’ figures of speech… are more than stylistic ‘ornaments’ that add some extra associative or emotional value to the ‘core’ meanings of a proposition.

Instead, they are seen as fundamental cognitive processes, i.e. as ‘mappings’ or ‘blendings’ of conceptual inputs from varying domains… this claim by cognitivists to go beyond ‘rhetorical’ analysis is of particular significance. If metaphors structure our worldviews, they are clearly of fundamental importance in political ideology and their critical analysis can provide ‘particular insight into why the rhetoric of political leaders is successful’.”

Yet, he claims that it is necessary to “investigate (rather than presume) a genocidal ‘set of cognitions’ on the basis of Hitler’s imagery….What is needed… is a comprehensive survey of the metaphor system operated by Hitler and other leading Nazis, to provide a basis on which their public reception can be assessed.”

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