Hitler's Metaphor of Parasitic Annihilation
We are grateful to Liah Greenfeld for her wonderful essay on Andreas Musolff’s Metaphor, Nation and the Holocaust: The Concept of the Body Politic.

You may read sections of Greenfeld’s review essay on the Library of Social Science Newsletter site here, here and here. You may read the complete essay at the Library of Social Science Review Essay site.

Library of Social Science does not consider any review the “last word.” What characterizes the Internet is its revolutionary ability to generate development and change.

Greenfeld presents Musolff’s argument fairly, but raises the following question. Musolff assumes the power of the metaphor of the Jew as a “parasite on the body of the German people,” but is unable to explain why this metaphor became so powerful—how it enabled the Holocaust.

Given that metaphors function to provide a “cognitive frame” for political ideologies, we are ready to turn to the next question: Why do certain metaphors acquire such power within societies? What do these metaphors mean? Why do they “move” people—become capable of generating collective forms of action?

Andreas Musolff’s Metaphor, Nation and the Holocaust: The Concept of the Body Politic provides a “cognitive analysis of the function of biological/medical metaphors in National racist ideology.” Musolff argues that the metaphor of the German nation as a body that needed to be rescued from a deadly poison constituted the “conceptual basis rather than a mere propagandist by-product of Nazi genocidal policies”—culminating in the Holocaust.

Liah Greenfeld’s review essay states that Musolff’s book is on the “concept of the body politic.” This metaphor references a “political community as an organic body” with all the “health and sickness significations that may follow.” The imagery used by the Nazis to legitimate their genocidal policies provide us with an extreme “test case” of the power of metaphor, showing how a “metaphor was turned into the horrendous reality” of the Holocaust and a World War.

Musolff poses the question: “How could the conceptualization of a socio-political entity acquire such sinister connotations?” The question of Hitler and the Holocaust is framed within three broader issues:

  1. The tremendous power of a metaphor to shape reality.

  2. The causal significance of the body.

  3. How a metaphorical concept can impact on political perception and behavior.

The Nazi case raises the issue of the function of metaphor in political communication, and the role of the body in politics.

Greenfeld notes that Musolff believes that what makes Nazi metaphors centered on the body politic particularly interesting 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 other Nazis applied them in a “horrifically literal sense”—by trying to physically destroy and eliminate Jewish people.

Of course, as Musolff himself acknowledges, Germans could not actually “see Germany as an organic body, or Jews as unicellular organisms.” So the central question—that Greenfeld raises throughout her review essay—is why specifically this metaphor (of the Jews as parasite) had such power.

It’s clear to Musolff that bodily metaphors—the idea of the Jewish parasite—“framed” political discourses. Musolff’s book seeks to explain the “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).”

There is a second fundamental question: not only why certain metaphors had power, but how were they chosen? Why did Hitler decide to frame his ideology—to express himself in his writing and speeches—in terms of bodily metaphors? The idea that metaphor is a strategy of any kind, Greenfeld says, implies that metaphors are “internally 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.” If Hitler was the strategist behind the anti-Semitic Nazi metaphors, we must “assume that he was a super-brain.”

Greenfeld asks: “Why and how would these metaphors make its users believe in assumptions they did not believe in earlier—to the extent of participating in genocidal practice?” And: “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?”

Greenfeld’s critique of Musolff revolves around the following dilemma: On the one hand, Musolff is persuaded—and states this again and again—that Nazi metaphors had “cognitive import.” But on the other hand, he is never able to explain why this should have been the case.

In contrast to certain analyses of Nazi imagery that view it as a “rhetorical trick that was incidental to Hitler’s ideology and acted policy,” Musolff insists that the body-illness-parasite metaphor provided “not just a propaganda ornament but was at the core of his racist ideology.” Metaphors and other so called rhetorical figures of speech were more than “stylistic ‘ornaments’ that add some extra associative or emotional value to the ‘core’ meanings of a proposition.” Rather, they conveyed “fundamental cognitive processes.”

The “body-state metaphor” was not a mere propaganda slogan, but rather an “integral part of the ideology that was necessary to make the Holocaust happen.” The metaphor scenario supporting genocide was integrated into a “systematically distorted discourse.”

In this discourse, the “metaphor of parasitic annihilation played the central role of naming and explaining the core content of Nazi policy against the Jews.” The astonishing persuasiveness of the cure-by-elimination scenario, Musolff says, is unexplainable if dismissed as a “propagandistic extra to Hitler’s ‘real’ policies.”
He concludes that Hitler’s metaphorical presentation of parasitic annihilation is a “natural, self-evident and necessary therapy for the existential problems of the German body politic convinced the public of his genocidal agenda.”

Still, as Greenfeld points out, Musolff is unable to explain the power of Nazi metaphors, rather simply assumes their effectiveness. He is unable explain the “extraordinary psychic appeal of Nazi anti-Semitic imagery,” its seeming “plausibility and conclusiveness.” What was the source of the power of this metaphor—its capacity to generate such radical forms of collective action? Why was Hitler so horrendously successful in “propagating his bio-social/political worldview?”