Hitler, Nationalism, Sacrifice
by Michael Roberts
This is Part I of Michael Roberts' Review Essay.
To read the entire essay on our website, click here.
Michael Roberts joins the Library of Social Science to participate in our Comparative Study of Sacrifice Project.

Michael Roberts, historian and anthropologist, is a well-known political commentator and public intellectual. An authority on nationalism, terrorism and war, he is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Adelaide.

By the Reviewer, Michael Roberts

Roberts’ latest book is a collection of his recent essays, with Chapters on the following topics:

  • Sacrificial symbolism & “dead body politics”
  • Death & eternal life: contrasting sensibilities in the face of corpses
  • Nationalism and sacrifice
  • Killing Rajiv Gandhi
  • The Tamil death toll during the end game
  • Torture images on television
  • Misrepresenting the Sri Lankan war

Ever since he wrote Hitler’s Ideology: A Study in Psychoanalytic Sociology in 1975 (New York: Library of Social Science), Richard A. Koenigsberg has deployed his very own institutional base—the Library of Social Science in New York City—to expose specific themes in the Nazi ideology with evangelical zeal. In this monograph, one theme focuses on the manner in which Hitler’s experiences in the trenches of the First World War entrenched his support for Germany’s goals in that war—and the principle that the individual must sacrifice self for national cause.

Rather than decry the horrors of wartime bloodshed, Hitler was elevated by the community of the trenches and venerated those comrades who died in the fight.

Please send comments for Library of Social Science and/or Michael Roberts to oanderson@libraryofsocialscience.com

Modris Eksteins has told us that this bohemian loner of the pre-1914 years “came to regard his war experience as … his training in life,” so that his subsequent retellings bubble with exuberance (1989: 307-08). Koenigsberg argues that on this foundation Hitler directed his fury towards the weak Germans who were deemed to have shirked their duty, specifically the German Jews. Thus, the logic of war in Hitler’s reasoning led to the logic of genocide (pp. 14).

In an important move, this theme about Hitler’s obsessions is expanded by Koenigsberg to expose the horrendous maiming and killing that occurred in the battlefields of World War One. Statistical and descriptive details serve as a platform for analysis of the nation-state and its adjunct ideology, nationalism. Germany was not alone in the overwhelming emphasis on the call of the nation: a sacrificial ideology suffused the thinking of all the protagonists.

Koenigsberg’s task is to expose the “fundamental structure of thought” and “psychological dynamic” underlying this war effort (pp. 65, 45); and, by implication, all modern wars. His book, therefore, is a searing criticism of the fact that “in war, human bodies are sacrificed in the name of perpetuating a magical entity, the body politic” (p. 42).

Significant facets of twentieth century Europe were thrown up before my outsider eyes:

One: the quotations from leading Nazi figures display their deep commitment to Germany as heimat and collective. “Bourgeois privatism” was simply detested (p. 18). The individual was to be totally subordinated to the nation. “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” said Hitler on one occasion (p. 13).

The “socialism” in the Nazi title was the fraternity of the frontline trenches. As one Nazi ideologue put it, the nation was “simply ‘a higher human being’” (quoted in Eksteins 1989: 195). This leads Eksteins to conclude that in Nazi thinking “the individual was the nation. The nation had been telescoped into the dynamic individual” (1989: 195).

Two: Koenigsberg highlights some striking analogies. The railway cattle trucks that brought masses of German troops to the battle front during WW-I were not dissimilar to the cattle trucks taking jam-packed Jewish people to concentration camps some 20 years later (pp. 27-28). Indeed, the conditions suffered by German troops on the Russian front in the latter stages of the Second World War were not far removed from the situation in the concentration camps.

Some caveats should be attached to the latter comparison: the German Army had overreached itself in Russia and not all the troops were destined to die. However, the more important issue for specialist social scientists is whether such sidelights sustain the thesis that the Nazi logic of genocide flowed out of the logic of war (p. 14).

Three: the most significant aspect of this book is the move from the specifics of German policies to that of the other countries involved in the First World War. Military strategy was directed by the belief that human wave attacks had enabled the Japanese to triumph over the Russians in 1904-05. Thus informed, both sets of protagonists pursued a policy of “offensive at all costs” (p. 47). Directed by this goal the maintenance of morale and discipline was seen as a determining factor of success.

In consequence a total of 9 million soldiers were killed, 21 million wounded and nearly 8 million were taken prisoner or reported missing – adding up to 58 percent of the total manpower that was mobilized (p. 47). Such horrendous casualties developed out of military thrusts that, for the most part, gained little ground and got continually bogged down in stalemate.

Four: remarkably, the idiom of sacrifice drummed up by each nation’s leaders and media outlets was accepted and reiterated by some men as they resided in the stench and mud of the trenches. “I shall have died the most glorious of deaths. Do not bewail me too much…” wrote a French soldier, George Morillot, in a letter to a kinsperson (p. 42). Apparently such commitment was widespread and desertions were relatively few. On a regular basis, men marched in line into machine gun fire and were cut down like blades of grass before a scythe.

The heroic acceptance of death by so many males was preceded by the fanfare and glory surrounding marching bodies of troops—as the public in all major cities on both sides of the war assembled in excitement to acclaim their patriotism (p. 65). The “euphoria” in Germany when war was declared in August 1914 is said to have been “millenarian.” Hitler was among those in Odeonplatz in Munich who was rendered ecstatic by the announcement (Eksteins 1989: 197, 306: see photo of his face in this book).

Let me inject two embellishments: it would appear that the cult of masculinity and encouragement of “muscular Christianity” during the latter half of the nineteenth century came home to roost in 1914-18. By way of example, Australia and Australians joined the war effort with pride and trumpet. They would show the world that they were worthy of nationhood: prove their worth in a “baptism of fire.” That they did, in their own estimation, in the magnificent defeat at Gallipoli.

Thus, the landing of troops at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915 has become enshrined as Australia’s de facto national day. The cultural producers of print, visual arts and rhetoric who fashioned the image of the heroic (Australian) Anzac in subsequent years—and inscribed motifs of youthful virility, purity and innocence within this icon (Flaherty & Roberts 1989).

The mateship and sacrificial heroism of the Anzac men was widely extolled, with a special emphasis on the dead. Significantly, the first commemoration of this event was marked at Westminster Cathedral on 25 April 1916. Subsequent intellectual work and material artefacts built on this heritage.

Five: An emphasis on sacrifice on behalf of the nation was pervasive in most countries participating in the First World War. The vocabulary was drawn from the religious lexicon, even when these countries had moved towards establishing a secular modern state. French soldiers spoke of their sacrifice as a force towards redemption. Attending a field mass for 500 dead, an observer affirmed that “it is by … suffering that regeneration occurs” (quoted p. 67).

This is Part I of Michael Roberts' Review Essay.
To read the entire essay on our website, click here.

Likewise, in his exhortatory and legitimizing rhetoric, the French novelist and politician, Maurice Barres, spoke of rebuilding souls (p. 68). It would seem that the language of state inspiration and mobilization on the one hand, and thus the language of justification as well as the subsequent language of reflection, could not but draw on the religious imagery that is so deeply etched into Western cultural form.

Six: drawing inspiration from Bruce Kapferer’s work, it can be suggested that the idiom and symbolism of inspiration and commemoration deployed during and after World War One was not purely “Christian,” but rather “Judeo-Christian.” In his analysis of the Anzac symbolism commemorating the war for Australia, Kapferer insists that the “Anzacs are vital symbolic embodiments of the Australian nationalist imagination because they established an identity for Australia in the context of the very ideological roots of Western Judeo-Christian civilization” (1988: 126-27).

Seven: significantly, Kapferer sees his comparative study of Australian and Sinhalese nationalism in contemporary times as a work that reveals how “nationalism makes the political religion and places the nation above politics.”

The nation is created as an object of devotion— and the political forces focused upon it are intensified in their energy and passion. The religion of nationalism, wherein the political is shrouded in the symbolism of “higher” purpose, is vital to the momentum of nationalism. This momentum [can be] among the most liberating, but also among the most oppressive political energies of [our time]. The religion of nationalism has engulfed political ideas and doctrines—liberal democracy, communism, socialism, fascism, and anarchism — in its path. These have become subordinate to the national purpose (1988: 1).

At one point, Kapferer notes that the “political nation [as] the object of devotion assumes messianic and proselytizing dimensions” (1988: 136). At such point, one is reminded of the images of Hitler in his most insane mood.

Here then we have Kapferer crossing Koenigsberg’s trail. Though his position is not grounded in the theoretical foundations that sustain Kapferer’s arguments, Koenigsberg insists that Nazism “was a form of religion” (p. 18) within a more general argument that “nationalism is a living religion” (p. xiii).

Eight: rather to my surprise, one of the ecstatic celebrations of the heroic dead in the fields of Europe recounted within Koenigsberg’s book came from the turbulent heart of Padraig Pearse: “The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. … It is good for the world to be warmed with the red wine of the battle field. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this….” (pp. 22 & p. 42).

My surprise originates in my passing familiarity with Patrick Henry Pearse. His stirring orations in the cause of Irish resistance to British domination had been among the ingredients that I had drawn upon in my early work on the stimuli for anti-colonial movements. To hear him praise the heroism of his English enemies seemed incongruous – till reflections led me to see the logic energizing his devotion to heroic sacrifice.

For it is from dead Irish martyrs that Pearse drew some of his inspiration. It was the path of death in the Irish nationalist cause that Pearse himself trod a few months after he made this statement: he was one of the leaders of the Easter Uprising of 1916, an effort that failed and eventually led to his execution on 3 May 1916.

Nine: in this manner, then, through Pearse, we find that resistance struggle in search of self-determination is meshed into Koenigsberg’s argument that “war is a sacrificial ritual that valorizes the nation-state” (p. 45). Through Pearse, therefore, we can expand our survey to other conflicts today where participants see themselves as liberation fighters. One such contemporary example is the effort of those Tamils in Sri Lanka who set forth to hive off an independent state in the island of Sri Lanka, a goal embodied in the name “Eelam” which identified this state-to-be.

This is Part I of Michael Roberts' Review Essay.
To read the entire essay on our website, click here.