A Library of Social Science Commentary
Murder in Our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial
Killing, and Representation
(Omer Bartov)
By Kimberly Baxter
What is the difference between the First World War and the Holocaust, two events in which millions of human beings were killed? Well, it’s clear that deaths that occurred in the Holocaust were “intentional.” However, were the deaths that occurred in the First World War “unintentional?” When men are asked to get out of trenches and to run into machine-gun fire and artillery shells—do we really wish to say that their deaths were unintentional?
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.
Book by Omer Bartov

Murder in Our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation

Paperback: 272 pp.
Publisher: Oxford U. Press

In Murder in Our Midst, Omer Bartov analyzes representations of World War I and the holocaust in literature, film, historical texts and museums. He shows the striking resemblance between experience of the soldiers on Great War battlefields—and those of the death camp inmates.

Both inhabited environments so unimaginable, Bartov says, that not even the most perverse human mind could have conjured them in fiction. Even Hell as portrayed in medieval painting lacked features of the World War I battlefield and the Holocaust: Hell only imprisons sinners, not the innocent.

Bartov observes that many are reluctant to associate these two events. There is discomfort with the idea that national wars are occasions for industrial killing. Also, many people insist on the uniqueness of the holocaust—or at least on making a sharp distinction between genocide and war.

Bartov refers to the holocaust as a “reenactment” the First World War, noting the common features: barbed wire, machine guns, charred bodies, the gas, the uniforms, the military discipline and the guards. The important difference was that—in the case of the holocaust—all the perpetrators were on one side while all the victims were on the other. The holocaust was totally safe for the guards and totally lethal for the inmates.

Bartov argues that there is a significant causal link between the First World War and the Nazi holocaust. The Great War produced the very idea of mass killing by states—and the technological and administrative means for organizing killings on a large scale. It made possible the militarized genocide that was the holocaust.

The Great War also link to Nazi ideology in that racial hygiene that was central. The notion that warfare would strengthen the gene pool by eliminating inferior individuals was a justification for the war explicitly stated by some intellectuals during the war. However, as the war dragged on and in its aftermath, observers recognized that many great men were sacrificed or impaired.

A corollary to this observation was concern that the gene pool had become unbalanced as the inferior genes of shirkers—and people who had been disqualified for combat due to medical reasons—now represented a larger proportion of the population. Thus, Bartov argues, perpetrators of post-1918 industrial killing believed that their actions redressed this imbalance, eliminating the threat of genetic degeneration. The organizers of the holocaust and those who supplied the scientific rationale were members of an elite who thought they were part of a heroic mission to save humanity from extinction.

Bartov emphasizes the role of two essential figures in the holocaust: the modern physician-scientist who invents a ‘danger’ to public health—and whose credentials cause widespread belief that the threat is genuine; and the lawyer who codifies permission for society to eliminate the danger. Genocide, Bartov explains, resulted from the marriage of human brutality and prejudice with the advanced science and technology that made industrial killing possible.

In his analysis of cinema, Bartov expresses skepticism that anti-war films that depict battle scenes have their intended effect. He suggests that contrary to filmmakers’ intentions, the intensity of these scenes can create demand for films that portray mindless, pornographic war violence.

Bartov believes that films that don’t depict battle at all but focus on war’s effects on its most innocent victims—civilians—are the best anti-war films. He also finds fault with Spielberg’s Schindler’s List because, he argues, it ignores the key event—mass industrial killing—and disguises the fact that chance determined who survived.

Bartov surveys several museums devoted to the holocaust. He thinks their other agendas—such as promoting the need for a Jewish state or advocating tolerance—detract from the message that should be these institutions’ focus. Bartov argues that the main point—the way the holocaust was conceived and made legal in modern technological society—is obscured in these exhibits. He speculates that state-funded institutions may not feel at liberty to make this point in the way that they should.