Nations Have the Right to Kill is Richard Koenigsberg’s answer to three disturbing and often ignored questions. Why did Hitler believe the Jews were acting to destroy Germany? How can humans sacrifice millions for an abstract concept of “nation?” Is destruction and self-destruction the actual purpose of war? Or, stated another way, is the production of sacrificial violence and victims an essential function of the nation-state? This review describes the approach and arrangement of Koenigsberg’s text, discusses the strengths and weaknesses of his answers to his three key questions, and suggests a most timely application.
|E. Sam Cox, Ph.D. is Professor of Communication, Univ. of Central Missouri
Approach and Arrangement
The six page Introduction to Nations Have the Right to Kill presents an excellent overview of the entire book. There Koenigsberg presents the three questions that motivated this work. The answers to the questions are developed in the book’s three parts: “The Holocaust,” “War,” and “The Logic of War and Genocide.” The answers are both insightful and unsettling. Koenigsberg takes a rhetorical/critical approach by grounding his claims in a careful analysis of Nazi writings, speeches and recorded correspondence and conversations.
The text maintains a focus on its question of universal appeal. The point that nations do grant their leaders the right to kill is powerfully documented. The repetition of this point may be necessary given the unsettling nature of that answer. But at times, the redundancy is distracting and is presented in verbatim quotations. For example, the extensive quotation that begins with “Ten ranks of extended line could clearly be distinguished, each one estimated at more than a thousand men …” is repeated on pages 39, 53, 64, and 99. And, since the quotations is apparently verbatim and credited to the same source, a German Regiment’s Diary, different wording raises suspicion regarding the accuracy of Koenigsberg’s quoting.
The book is written like a collegiate debate case: lots of quotations followed by clear and direct claims. And like a debate case, Koenigsberg ignores potential counter arguments or rebuttals. He lays out his case and invites the reader to refute it—an approach that does engage the reader.
The establishment of his case is methodically developed by moving through the three questions—the essence of each major division of the book. The reader experiences the bluntness of Koenigsberg’s battering ram and is forced to wrestle with his disturbing answers. However, as one progresses through the book key argument strengths and weaknesses become apparent.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Arguments
One strength of Nations is the use of original artifacts to support claims. Koenigsberg always begins with data. He presents original statements and claims especially by the Nazi’s. His statements are consistently contextualized and provide bridges to his claims. Linkages to his driving queries are effective.
Question one, why did Hitler believe the Jews were acting to destroy Germany? Nations answers: “Hitler’s totalitarianism insisted upon absolute identification with the community. Not a single person was exempt from the obligation to devote one’s life to Germany and make enormous sacrifices in her name” (p. 6). Erich Fromm had made this claim in Escape from Freedom when he argued that people in Germany were forced to choose to follow the Nazis or deny their identity as German. Thus, from his earliest years Hitler drew a line between “good us”—willing to die for our country, and “bad them”—anyone who did not support their nation’s call to fight (see Berreby for a development of this concept).
The progression in Hitler’s thinking from having met some Jews as clerks who had escaped death in WWI—a clear case of “instance confirmation” of previous prejudice—to his hasty generalization that no Jews had died during WWI, an absolute falsehood, is developed. The premise that the best and brightest Germans had willingly died for their nation while the weakest and dullest had been spared (p. 10) led Hitler first to euthanasia of the mentally ill, and then to the elimination of the Jews.
Hitler conceived of the Jewish commitment to “individualism” as an incurable pathogen—working to destroy the idea of absolute and unconditional devotion to Germany (pp. 6-8). Koenigsberg establishes the motive for and explains the Holocaust in terms of this twisted logic. Radical treatment was called for to eliminate the Jewish cancer of individualism that would disintegrate blind devotion to Germany. Hitler stated, “We do not want to have any other God—only Germany” (p. 5).
The second query in Nations—how can humans sacrifice millions for an abstract concept of ‘nation?’—is powerfully answered with three arguments. One is the commonly held concept that the death of soldiers is the life-blood of nations—Chapter 3. Rather than accept warfare as “normal” (p. 35), Nations argues that what really occurs in war is rarely reported or clearly presented—using the mass slaughter of over eight million people in WWI as a case in point. Instead, the reification of the nation-state in the concept “the individual must die so that the nation might live” is heralded far and wide (p.41).
The principle of unconditional allegiance—graphically illustrated with the four-year perpetual slaughter of WWI (Chapter 4)—solved nothing (p. 48). Battles were assessed by generals only in terms of their soldiers being willing to advance in an “admirable order” while being mowed down (pp. 58-59). Koenigsberg effectively argues that sacrifice is essential to nationhood (Chapter 5): “Killing and dying substantiate the idea that nations exist” (p. 66). In contrast with peoples like the Aztecs who openly acknowledged sacrifice as the purpose for war, the Western world frames war to permanently establish that its ideas and beliefs are “real and true,” whereas those of the enemy are “creations” and thus “fictions and lies” (p. 73).
This raw and direct justification for war is compelling. Nations argues that “leaders initiate war in order to put doubts to rest” (p. 74). Western nations “disguise the sacrificial meaning of warfare by delegating the killing of soldiers to the enemy” (p. 75). Covertly, people believe that society depends on the “death of its own members at the hands of the group” (p.75). In other words, Nations concludes, “We encourage the soldier’s delusion of masculine virility and call him a hero—in order to lure him into becoming a sacrificial victim” (p. 76).
The third question addressed by Koenigsberg in Nations asks: Is destruction and self-destruction the actual purpose of war? Or, stated another way, is the production of sacrificial violence and victims an essential function of the nation-state? Chapters 6 and 7 provide the answer—yes! For example, Hitler stated, “We may be inhumane, but if we rescue Germany, we have performed the greatest deed in the world” (p.80). Thus it can be explained that “Genocide like warfare is a collective or societal rather than individual form of violence” (p. 80).
Since Nazism worshipped the German nation state (p.80), Nazism “represented negation of individuality in the name of the community” (p.83). Hitler believed that “One’s own nation represents an absolute that allows and justifies anything and everything” (p.86). Therefore, Hitler stated, “If the best men were dying at the front, the least we could do was to wipe out the vermin” (p. 89), i.e., anyone unable or unwilling to devote themselves to Germany. Hitler used WWII and the Holocaust as two sides of the same coin. Each provided him with the opportunity “to sacrifice his own people” (p. 92).
Koenigsberg concludes, “Hitler accomplished what he set out to achieve: He sacrificed Jews to the god that he worshipped, Germany” (p. 93). In stunning words, when he learned that 15,000 German officers had been killed in the last month of the war trying to defend Berlin, Hitler said, “But that is what young men are for!” (p. 111). Much like Hitler’s sentiments, most national leaders today believe that calling upon their nations’ youth to sacrifice their lives for the community is their moral duty.
However, rarely does Koenigsberg preempt or provide answers to common objections or counter arguments—like the truth about the percentage of Jewish soldiers who died in WWI (p. 96) or the historical evidence for the willingness of Jews to self-sacrifice for a common national cause as they did in the Maccabean Revolts of 135 BCE and in their defiant stance against the Romans in AD 70 culminating in Masada. Perhaps it is outside the scope of Nations purpose but at times it leaves the reader with a sense of “vendetta” on the part of Koenigsberg rather than discovery.
Similarly, Nations rarely ever suggests applications to current events. It could be argued that this action is also outside the scope of the book. Or, it could be claimed that the application is so obvious that it would be condescending to the reader. However, it seems that unless application is suggested that many readers will dismiss the stunning insights provided by Nations as true only of Nazi Germany and miss perhaps the greatest contribution of the text.
Two Timely Applications
Although Koenigsberg in Nations Have the Right to Kill rarely makes applications to the 21st Century, it seems that perhaps the most significant contribution of his text is its application to the need for secular governments, i.e., in American terms—separation of church and state. Without that separation nationalism easily accumulates the mantel of “God’s side” and infallibility. There is no check on “nationalism.” When any religion—and Nazism was a religion to Hitler’s followers—is wed with politics, the fanaticism that drives genocide is rewarded.
Citizens of a country must resist the lure of the god of nationalism or senseless wars and genocides will continue to be perpetuated in all parts of the globe. It might be Osama bin Laden’s jihad via his el Qaeda network or the extreme fundamentalist religious right in America that prays for the death of President Obama or a group that will kill to see their theocratic version of America become reality (see Walters, One Aryan Nation Under God). Regardless of the group or the nation, it is a profound insight, indirectly provided by Nations, that separation of church and state is vital.
The chilling insights about Hitler’s Nazism must not be lost when today hate groups abound and genocides continue. Nations continually ask their citizens to sacrifice for and to worship the nation, and label anyone unwilling or who questions that government’s call to arms “unpatriotic.” Hate groups and Shock Jocks (see Ridgeway, O’Connor & Cutler, and Whillock & Slayden) thrive on the appeal of sacrifice to save your country from some identified evil. The extreme religious right within Islam, Christianity and Hinduism call for jihads or purifications or destruction of those who oppose their ideology. One of the most important and timely applications of Nations is to the vital role of “separation of church and state.”
When one’s country becomes blurred with one’s religion, i.e. in effect it becomes one’s object of highest devotion. There is no check left on extreme expressions of these beliefs. Secular states must remain secular lest they become blinded by the fanaticism of religious sub-groups. Nationalism can and has run rampant. Groups who see the dangers in the worship of the nation as “god” often are the only ones able to critique the rampage.
Plurality of society is important as is religious freedom. Therefore, Nations seems an excellent place to reemphasize the critical role of the divide between church and state.
Finally, as Zimbardo emphatically agues and establishes, it is not bad people who do horrible things, it is normal people who find themselves in bad situations.
Therefore, Nations Have a Right to Kill presents the kinds of situations that breed holocausts. Separation of religious fanaticism from government policy is one way of checking a potentially dangerous situation.
A second application is the absolutely essential nature of freedom of expression. Once any country is able to silence dissidence, that nation is headed toward blind loyalty and “nation worship”—and eventually to some aspects of totalitarianism. As numerous authors have eloquently argued (see Whillock and Slayden, and Cleary), we must never allow the ability to express dissent be stifled.
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