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Chapter XIX: The Psychological Interpretation of Culture and History

Genocide as Immunology (Part I)
Richard A. Koenigsberg
More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor

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In Hitler’s Ideology (1975)—and a series of presentations at scholarly conferences—I analyzed recurring images and metaphors in Hitler’s writings and speeches. I discovered that Hitler’s ideology possessed a coherent structure—revolving around the idea of Germany as an organism, and Jews as pathogenic micro-organisms whose continued presence within the nation could lead to its demise. Genocide grew out of the logic of this fantasy.

I had developed a fruitful methodology, but without a theory underlying my method. In the 1990s, the idea of “embodied cognition”—developed by George Lakoff and Mark Turner—began to emerge. The theory of embodied cognition—supporting my findings—allowed me to expand upon them.

In a paper presented at the 1993 meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Francis Beer proposed embodiment theory as an alternative to “international realism.” He stated that “We understand things in terms of our bodies; the body is in the mind.” The body is the key to the “deep structure of consciousness, cognition and rhetoric.” Metaphor, Beer explained, provides a powerful rhetorical tool. When we use metaphorical expressions, the mind merges with the body—and we get “hot cognition.”

The metaphorical hot button for Hitler was the idea that Germany was suffering from a potentially fatal disease. This idea aroused and stimulated him, provoking his frenzied, passionate speechmaking. Hitler explained:

Never in the sluggish days of German bourgeois world-liberalism would it have been possible to create in our people so gigantic an increase in strength and in the consciousness of a national mission. Just as the human body develops it strongest hold on life at the moment when it resists a threatening illness, so peoples are driven to bring into fullest play the energies slumbering within them only when their existence is threatened or even endangered.

The idea that Germany was suffering from a potentially fatal disease drove Hitler into politics. The metaphor of a “disease within the body politic” was the “hot button” that drove other Germans to act—to work toward “saving the nation.”

Lakoff and Turner developed (1989) the concept of “metaphorical mapping.” This occurs when “slots in a source domain schema” get mapped onto “slots in the target domain.” Target domains are abstract conceptual ones, whereas source domains are familiar ones, most often in the physical world.

In the case of Hitler, the abstract domain was the German nation, and the source domain the human body. Hitler projected bodily experience into the idea of the German body politic.

In a methodology similar to mine, Y.F. Khong (in Analogies of War, 1992) points to the importance of seeking and finding in the empirical record evidence of the “repeated use of the same set of analogies over time.” The identification of "systematic metaphors" in the statements made by decision-makers permits one to be confident that metaphors are playing a truly cognitive function.

From his entry into politics—to his death in 1945—the dominant metaphor in Hitler’s writings and speeches was that of Germany as a body suffering from a potentially fatal disease. This systematic metaphor structured everything Hitler said and did. The Final Solution constituted an enactment of this metaphor.