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 III 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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As a scholar eminently au currant of every recent fad, Musolff turns to the latest: data-mining. Fortunately for him, some second-hand big data are available, which he gratefully acknowledges: “By providing a searchable database and a systematic overview over the whole range of metaphors in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Felicity Rash,” he says (see A Database of Metaphors in Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, 2005; The Language of Violence, 2006), “has given a new empirical grounding to political metaphor research in general and the study of Hitler’s imagery in particular.”

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But was not this empirical grounding already given in Mein Kampf itself? Apparently not to Musolff, for like many confused others, “empirical” for him means not data that exist but only “quantified” data, and, like the others who misunderstand the very logic of the scientific process, he clearly believes that the greater the quantity of such quantified evidence, the clearer is the point it makes.

Unfortunately for him, the point made by Rash’s searchable database is not at all clear: “she has convincingly shown that almost none of the metaphors that Hitler employed were particularly original; … they either consisted of well-worn phrases and idioms that were used in general parlance or were prefigured in anti-Semitic and xenophobic hate speech well before Hitler’s time.” So, after all, Hitler was not the strategic super-brain inventing the metaphor to deploy in order to change the mind – and behavior – of the German public. Why was he then “so horrendously successful in propagating his blended bio-social/political worldview”?

Musolff valiantly tries to extricate his argument from this morass by bringing into it selfish genes, memes, and mind-viruses (pp. 19-23), and the proliferation of this metaphorical fauna taken literally succeeds to suck the reader into such horrendous, inarticulate, viscous logical habitat, that one barely escapes mental suffocation.

A coup de grace seems to be delivered with the following statement: “like the gene-meme analogy, the virus metaphor has to be used with care, as its meaning oscillates between scientific and colloquial registers.” In common language, the term virus has negative connotations on account of its connection with illness (and is therefore a favorite source concept for racist and xenophobic metaphors).

In biological terms, however, viruses are seen as types of non-cellular life forms that are ‘parasitic’ in the sense that they depend for their reproduction on other organisms. Inasmuch as ideologies depend on human brains to entertain and (re)produce them, they can be considered to be ‘parasitic’ in this latter case, but so are all other concepts, regardless of whether they are useful or harmful.

Apart from the irony that Nazi racism may itself be labelled a virus, the analogy appears to be of limited explanatory value for the analysis of their specific ideology and its propagandistic success, and – worst of all – scholars using it still mention “the ‘right social conditions’ for triggering an actual ‘mind-infection’ [which] reintroduces the historical dimension that the memetic-naturalist approach promised to bypass.”

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

But no, even this is not the end, for after implying that all culture is parasitic on human brains, just like all life is parasitic on matter, water is parasitic on the elements H and O, and soup is parasitic on a pot, after having eliminated all distinction between metaphors and explanatory concepts methodically created to capture the general nature of reality, mercilessly Musolff goes on trying to explain the use of a particular metaphor by this very metaphor.

To disabuse the reader who, after all this, still hopes to learn something new about metaphor, nation, and Holocaust, Musolff warns continuously: “The study does not in itself present new material or insights [, not even] into the core ideological context of Mein Kampf; its main aim is to reconstruct the 'ontology' underlying his worldview in the form that Hitler was happy to admit to in public…. Our aim is to understand the structural patterns that made it possible for Hitler’s imagery to be believable to the point of quasi-literal acceptance by large parts of the German public. Whilst the textual manifestations and the historical implementation of Nazi racism are a thing of the past, the underlying cognitive patterns that underpinned them can be assumed to be typical for many more extremist worldviews, including future ones, and thus of general relevance.” Holocaust, he reminds us, is really not the issue.

Endlessly repetitive as it is, the book does not stop to surprise. At one point (p. 43) Musolff states: “Physically, the Holocaust could have happened without any propaganda (metaphorical or otherwise), but such a ‘mute’ genocide is extremely implausible,” causing the reader to gasp: in what way propaganda makes the Holocaust plausible? And what, specifically, is meant by its “physicality”?

At another (p. 138), he opines: “But the ‘German case’ is not unique: Native speakers of British English who employ the phrase body politic may not be aware of all the historical details from the metaphor’s heyday during the Tudor Renaissance, but they will recognize it as a special phrase… and may associate it with Shakespeare’s texts.” This is a book with the Holocaust in the title, the reader wishes to protest, and it is the fact that speakers of English also use a certain phrase that makes the “German case” (why in quotes?) not unique?! But it is not a book about the Holocaust, the author keeps patiently demonstrating – though, for some reason, he never once states this explicitly.

Obviously, Musolff knows that the Holocaust is what made us pick up his book in the first place; that’s why, in the concluding paragraphs (pp. 141-145), he tells us what he told us about this “test-case” for the cognitivist theory of metaphors. He is honest. He does not tell us he provided any new knowledge or answered any questions; he tells us that he raised a question about the role of a particular metaphor in bringing the Holocaust about.

But then he goes on and, as if this question was answered, hypostatizes the role the metaphor played, exactly as he did in the opening paragraphs. “A second main question we have raised,” he writes, “concerns the ‘cognitive import’ of the body-state metaphor when we consider its central role in Nazi anti-Semitic ideology. … was it a ‘mere’ propaganda slogan to accompany, and perhaps camouflage, the ‘real’ Nazi policies of genocide and war, or was it an integral part of the ideology that was necessary to make the Holocaust happen?”

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

There was, he states,

a general awareness of the enormous dimensions of the genocide. On the basis of these data, we can conclude that the metaphor scenario supporting the genocide was integrated into a systematically distorted discourse that treated the murder of European Jewry (as well as other groups) as an ‘open secret’. In this discourse the metaphor of parasite annihilation played the central role of naming, explaining (and supposedly justifying) the core content of Nazi policy against Jews…Hitler’s ‘diagnosis’ of Germany’s post-World War I crisis thus sounded plausible not despite but because of its metaphoric character and history.

This apparent plausibility was grounded in its familiarity as an age-old tried and tested commonsense analogy….As the secretly recorded statements of popular opinion show, [Nazi] genocidal agenda was understood by the majority German populace sufficiently to at least ‘tolerate’, if not participate in, the final solution. This astonishing persuasiveness of the cure-by-elimination scenario remains inexplicable if we dismiss it as a propagandistic extra to Hitler’s ‘real’ policies or view it as the re-manifestation of a ‘mind-virus’ (in an accidental, tragic historical context). Our findings show that Hitler’s metaphorical presentation of parasitic annihilation as a natural, self-evident and necessary therapy for the existential problems of the German body politic convinced the public of his genocidal agenda.

So we end as we began, and still for no discoverable reason, with Hitler as a super-brain and the majority German populace as mentally sub-human. To this Musolff adds: “even ‘respectable’ authors often come dangerously close to suggesting radical and potentially genocidal cures for perceived political illnesses. … Not even truly rationally oriented versions of the body-state metaphor are immune to being reconfigured as closed scenarios that legitimize murderous policies.”

Should one counter that not even passenger airliners are immune to being used as weapons of mass destruction, and that this is so not because of the nature of the airliners, but because of the people who desire to so use them? Oblivious to this truly commonsense analogy, Andreas Musolff closes his discourse, pronouncing: “The metaphors by which nations define their destiny have the potential to shape that destiny.” What?

Against the background of the Holocaust it would be absurd to lament the misunderstanding of the cultural process, of the role of language in it, of the concept of “ideology.” What does all of this matter? Wearily to shrug one’s shoulders is all one can do. Clearly, no individual metaphor or set of metaphors shape any nation’s destiny – and in the terrible case before us the metaphor allegedly responsible for it only served an existing interest, gave expression to a particular experience (the experience being the existential envy of the Jews, built-into the very core of the German national consciousness, and the interest – to eliminate the disturbing presence which made Germans feel culturally inferior).

In this sense, its role was very much in line with the role of language, in general. Of course, the interest and the experience themselves were shaped by ways of thinking the language codified. But it took a huge complex of expressed attitudes – to life, to death, to blood, to torture, among which the attitude to Jews was only one, however central, attitude – to do so, and the folk tales collected by the brothers Grimm, unquestionably, played a far greater role in this than all the metaphors borrowed from other languages.

If it had any influence at all, the contribution of one particular metaphor complex, commonplace outside of Germany, even if especially popular there, to the Holocaust must have been infinitesimally small. The Holocaust might not have happened without the brutal message drummed by the brothers Grimm into the minds of generations of German children about the thrills of plucking out people’s eyes, beating the living daylights out of them, and burning them alive, and the especial fun of applying all these satisfyingly gory methods to the humiliation and torture of the natural enemy of the German – the Jew. But it could certainly have happened if the body-illness-parasite “scenario” was replaced by any other familiar trope.

It must be kept in mind that the only way to account for the Holocaust in the framework of the fundamental understandings of the Western civilization, within which it was committed, is to regard it as an aberration, a totally implausible, horrific episode due to the German cultural exceptionalism (which prevented Germany from being fully a part of this civilization, despite its location smack in the middle of Europe), an aberration which other countries allowed to happen precisely because they could not ever imagine and bring themselves to believe that something like that could be happening.

To explain it otherwise is to reject these fundamental understandings altogether and, with them, reject the Western civilization. This is simple logic; there is nothing more to it. The Holocaust has forever undermined this civilization’s self-confidence, and it is quite possible, judging by the political events of the last quarter century (after the fall of Communism which, while it lasted, kept the Western world’s fomenting sense of self-betrayal in check) that this rejection is already happening. The civilization is evidently under a relentless attack – from within, and it well may be in its death throes. But dying civilizations do not evolve new fundamental understandings, and our logical possibilities for making sense of the realities, including historical realities, around us, remain limited to what we have.

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