A Library of Social Science Review Essay
The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the
American Future
(Richard Rubenstein)
By Kimberly Baxter
From the review: “Rubenstein understands World War I as a moment in which human societies developed the capacity for mass extermination of their own members.”
Kim Baxter Kimberly Baxter is philosophy professor at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She earned her Ph.D in Philosophy from New School University.
Kim Baxter The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future

Author: Richard Rubenstein
Publisher: Harper Perennial

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In The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future, Richard Rubenstein writes,

One of the least helpful ways of understanding the Holocaust is to regard the destruction process as the work of a small group of irresponsible criminals who were atypical of normal statesmen and who somehow gained control of the German people, forcing them by terror and the deliberate stimulation of religious and ethnic hatred to pursue a barbaric and retrograde policy that was thoroughly at odds with the great traditions of Western civilization. On the contrary, we are more likely to understand the Holocaust if we regard it as the expression of some of the most profound tendencies of Western civilization in the twentieth century.

Rubenstein traces the transformation of society that culminated in the Holocaust—through which leaders came to view their own populations as expendable—to earlier historical events. He notes that World War I generals whose strategies caused mass casualties among their own troops enjoyed public approval.

He explains German commander Von Falkenhayn’s strategy at the Battle of Verdun:

His objective at Verdun was to exterminate as many of the enemy as possible. This was a giant step towards the death camps of World War II. For the first time in memory a European nation had attempted to alter the biological rather than the military and political balance of power with an adversary. It did not occur to Von Falkenhayn that he could not slaughter the French without suffering the loss of a comparable number of his own men.

But this fact became evident as the battle dragged on. In nine months, about five hundred thousand men died on each side at Verdun, and the battle lines were more or less in the same place at the end as at the beginning.

Rubenstein also discusses British General Sir Douglas Haig’s strategy at the Battle of the Somme. This battle too entailed massive casualties on all sides. The British lost nearly 60,000 soldiers on the first day and 410,000 total, and the battle lines moved only six miles forward. Rubenstein suggests that there must have been a consensus that this kind of sacrifice was necessary:

Falkenhayn and Haig were leading components of the mechanisms of destruction of their respective countries but their decisions were subject to review. Had the decisions been unacceptable, the commanders would have been speedily replaced. Furthermore, it is altogether possible that nations like individuals do not always know what they really want.

Their actions may provide a better indication of what they want than the publicly stated declarations of their leaders. Both Haig and Von Falkenhayn were convinced that the blood sacrifices were indispensable to victory; so too were those who ratified their decisions.

Thus, Rubenstein understands World War I as a moment in which human societies developed the capacity for mass extermination of their own members. He writes, “From the perspective of subsequent history, Verdun offered a hint of the extent to which the leaders of Germany regarded their own people as expendable.”

He notes, however, that there is evidence that Hitler welcomed World War II “because of the opportunity it provided him to institute extermination programs against groups he regarded as undesirable.” The first extermination program of the German government was initiated the very day the war broke out. Then he asks, “Is it possible that one difference between the Nazi-elite and the World War I elites that chose Haig and Von Falkenhayn for their respective posts was that the leading Nazis knew why they had really chosen the path of war?” He suggest that eliminating portions of the domestic population was an objective in both World War I and World War II, but one that was consciously acknowledged only in the latter case.

Although Rubenstein asserts that “the cultural ethos that permitted the perfection of bureaucratic mass murder was most likely to develop in the land of Luther,” he also writes, “my intention is not to blame Protestantism for the death camps.” He argues that we must distinguish between the humanistic ideals the Judeo-Christian tradition asserts, and the ethos generated by that same tradition. He says that although the Judeo-Christian tradition is said to proclaim that as children of God every human possesses an irreducible element of human dignity,

beyond all conscious intent, it has produced a secularization of consciousness involving an abstract, dehumanized, calculating rationality that can eradicate every vestige of that same human dignity in all areas of human interchange. Furthermore, it is the biblical tradition that has led to the secularization of consciousness, disenchantment of the world, methodical conduct (as in both Protestantism and capitalism), and, finally, bureaucratic objectivity… The culture that made the death camps possible was not only indigenous to the West but was an outcome, albeit unforeseen and unintended, of its fundamental religious traditions.

Rubenstein enlists Max Weber in support of his argument that the combination of capitalism and Protestantism made possible the kind of slavery that occurred in the Nazi death camps. He writes that the Holocaust demonstrates that

large scale massacre is no longer a crime and the state's sovereign powers are such that millions can be stripped of their rights and condemned to the world of the living dead. Thus, the process of secularization ends where it began. In the beginning secularization involved the demystification of and the limitation of the sovereign's power. In the end, the secular state has dethroned all mystifications of power and morality save its own. The state becomes the only true god on earth with the power to define realistically what is good and will be rewarded and what is evil and will be punished; this truly sovereign god also has the ultimate power of divinity, the power to decide who shall live and who shall die.

He emphasizes that “the Holocaust was something very different than an outburst of monumental violence and hatred such as the massacres that have all too frequently punctuated human history.” For example, whereas the 1968 massacre in My Lai, Vietnam, “took place because the Americans lost control of themselves under conditions of wartime stress, Auschwitz was made possible because the German bureaucracy and the SS were in control at every step.”

Rubenstein argues that the Nazi death-camps became “a new form of human society” when they became slave-labor camps. While some camps functioned strictly as killing centers, others such as Auschwitz came to function as both slave-labor and execution centers. New arrivals would be sent to one of these two divisions. Only this slave-labor component transformed the camp system into a “society of total domination.” Rubenstein thinks this Nazi creation has ominous implications for the future:

The camps were thus far more of a permanent threat to the human future than they would have been had they functioned solely as an exercise in mass killing. An execution center can only manufacture corpses; a society of total domination creates a world of the living dead that can serve as a prototype of a future social order, especially in a world confronted by catastrophic crises and ever-increasing, massive population redundancy.

It was not only technological advancements that enabled the Nazis to carry out mass extermination. Their organizational skills were essential to the creation of a totalitarian society in which this was possible. Rubenstein notes, “Few weapons were as indispensable to the Gestapo as its files.” The advances in computing technology since the Nazi regime make the kind of bureaucratic domination they pioneered logistically much easier.

In the final chapter, Rubenstein presents several hypothetical dystopic scenarios of future governments eliminating segments of a population through compulsory sterilization or “mercy death,” using Nazi extermination programs as their guides. He states that his aim in speculating about these specific situations is not to predict the future. He observes:

My purpose is rather to point out that the explosive combination of surplus population, finite resources, and the expanding sovereign powers of government suggest that the Nazi extermination program may yet foreshadow other exercises in the politics of total domination by future governments as they face catastrophic population problems arising out of mankind's very success in mastering nature.