Review Essay of Metaphor, Nation and the Holocaust: The Concept of the Body Politic
Review Essay of Metaphor, Nation and the Holocaust: The Concept of the Body Politic
by Liah Greenfeld
About the Reviewer
Called "one of the most original thinkers of the current period" and "the great historian of Nationalism," Liah Greenfeld is University Professor and Professor of Sociology, Political Science, and Anthropology at Boston University, and Distinguished Adjunct Professor at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. In 2004, she delivered the Gellner Lecture at the London School of Economics on the subject of "Nationalism and the Mind," launching the research connecting her previous work on modern culture to a new perspective on mental illness.
By the Reviewer, Liah Greenfeld
Publisher: Harvard University Press
It’s the American dream — unfettered freedom to follow our ambitions, to forge our identities, to become self-made. But what if our culture of limitless self-fulfillment is actually making millions desperately ill? One of our leading interpreters of modernity and nationalism, Liah Greenfeld argues that we have overlooked the connection between egalitarian society and mental illness. Intellectually fearless, encompassing philosophy, psychology, and history, Mind, Modernity, Madness challenges the most cherished assumptions about the blessings of living in a land of the free.
“A substantial piece of writing, impeccably researched, ambitious in its execution, provocative and fresh in its approach… a tour de force—American Journal of Sociology
“[A] magnificent sweep of several fields”—The American Journal of Psychiatry
Author: Andreas Musolff
This book provides a cognitive analysis of the function of biological/medical metaphors in National Socialist racist ideology and their background in historical traditions of Western political theory.
About the Author: Andreas Musolff is a Professor in the School of Language and Communication Studies at the University of East Anglia, UK.For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.
To the extent that the role of education is to orient the individual in the world, each one of us must be daily reminded of the look of terror in the eyes of a boy, at most ten years old, led with his hands up, to a place of slaughter, of the silent scream of never-to-be-relieved suffering on the faces of even smaller children, starving on the streets of Warsaw ghetto, of the gas chambers and ovens of the crematoria, of the tons of women’s hair, shorn before the women were processed there, of the row of headless bodies in a clean, industrial-looking space, laid out in such an orderly fashion on iron tables to be dismembered and made into soap, and their heads in a tidy metal bowl on the well swept floor.
Someone with a camera obligingly took these pictures. To know what kind of world we live in, we must look at them again and again, for our world is the world in which, however incredible, this did and was allowed to happen.
The pictures, of course, do not help us understand. And neither do Kazetnik’s or Primo Levi’s descriptions, other testimonies, and documentaries such as Lanzmann’s Shoah. All these are just food for thought, to internalize, though never digest, and leave us with the question: how was this possible? how was it possible that some people in an advanced European nation, insisting on the glory of its civilization and accepted by others as highly civilized – Germany – conceived of the plans for the final solution of the Jewish question; that thousands of educated Germans articulated and creatively implemented these plans, achieving undreamt-of efficiency in the killing and inventing ever more sophisticated ways of inflicting unnecessary even for the realization of the plans but most gruesome suffering on the millions of defenseless men, women, and children, ingeniously operationalizing the original concepts and deriving from this the sense of achievement and pride in a job well done; that millions of other Germans – the majority of the German population – knowingly acquiesced in this orgy of violence, clearly unprecedented both in its colossal scale and in the absolute monstrosity of its wanton cruelty, often enthusiastically condoned it and quite contentedly consumed its by-products, such as soap made from human bodies, cloth woven of human hair, objets d’art crafted from human skin, and slave labor of those not yet dead?
How could such people exist in a civilization based on the Bible – the Jewish Bible – with its commandment “thou shalt not kill,” its distinction between good and evil, its ideas of justice and the value of human life? What was it that Germany brought to this civilization, what kept this culture from ever fully becoming of it, made it an exception? And how could the rest of this civilization allow the Holocaust to go on, despite knowing what was going on, for six years, without any concerted effort to extricate the victims or, at the very least, destroy the infernal machine that made the still living among them envy the dead?
These are not academic, not even intellectual questions, and no satisfaction can be derived from answering them. They are, in fact rhetorical; their significance is our protest: this should have never happened, but did! The damage done is irreparable. Still we ask. And, as in our time knowledge rarely comes unsupported by expert scholarship, there are scholars dedicated to the study of the Holocaust. Many document it, uncovering and publishing new testimonies, photographs, memoranda of the participating German officialdom. Some attempt to explain it, if only for therapeutic reasons, for explanation here just begs the question again. Andreas Musolff uses it as a case in point.
Musolff’s book, Metaphor, Nation, and the Holocaust is published among Routledge Critical Studies in Discourse. As its subtitle indicates, it is a book on “the concept of body politic.” Musolff believes that a metaphor, i.e., an instance of linguistic practice of highlighting an aspect of a phenomenon by referring to it in terms reserved for an entirely different class of phenomena, has the power to so misrepresent reality for large masses of people as to make them literally see the referent of the metaphor as belonging to that different class and act according to this misrepresentation. (An example of this would be taking the metaphor of “Lion Heart” attributed to Richard Plantagenet in “Richard the Lion-Hearted” to mean that the famous crusader actually had a heart transplant from a lion or was a monster born with a heart of a big cat species, and treating him as an invalid in constant danger of cardiac arrest or as a freak of nature.)
The metaphor with which Musolff is concerned is that of the body politic – the reference to a political community as an organic body – with all the health and sickness implications that may follow. With roots in deep antiquity, this metaphor, as Musolff demonstrates, was very common in European political discourse and central in Nazi rhetoric, in general, and in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, in particular, where it was applied to Germany attacked by parasites – Jews. “The imagery used by the Nazis,” writes Musolff on page 2 of his book, “to legitimize their genocidal policies provides us with an extreme ‘test-case’, so to speak, of a metaphor that was turned into a horrendous reality of World War and Holocaust.”
This tremendous power of a metaphor to shape reality and the causal significance of the body-politic-attacked-by-parasites metaphor in bringing about the Holocaust is hypostatized (that is, assumed), rather than hypothesized, in the book. The question is only why specifically this metaphor had this power. Introducing his project, Musolff writes: “How could the conceptualization of a socio-political entity as a human body acquire such sinister connotations? Is it a specific historical phenomenon of German political culture in the twentieth century? Or is the metaphor inherently racist, suggesting as it does a physical/physiological concreteness of politics, which perhaps ‘lends itself’ to physical ‘solutions’ of any perceived problems? Should anyone who employs body-related metaphors in politics be viewed as a potential advocate of genocide? These are some of the questions that this book will engage with, with a view to determining the function of metaphor in political communication, i.e. the basic issue of how a metaphorical concept can impact on people’s political perception and behavior, even turn them into genocide perpetrators (or at least, passive bystanders).”
The Holocaust here is, then, a doubly representative phenomenon: on the one hand, it represents the impact of a metaphor on people’s political perception and behavior – the basic issue the book examines; and, on the other, it represents the effects of racism. Therefore, one can use the Holocaust to a double benefit: to help one to determine the function of metaphor in political communication and to identify racist metaphors that may potentially lead to other racist episodes in the future, valuable lessons both.
It is up to every individual to decide on the ethics of using the Holocaust in this way. I myself find it morally repulsive. But here I shall address the book as a work of social science and won’t be concerned with the morality of the enterprise.
What makes Nazi metaphors centered on body politic particularly interesting, says, Musolff (pp. 3-4), is that they were not “mere” metaphors but formed a discourse that was “non-literal and at the same time ‘literal’.” For Hitler, specifically, these metaphors “described reality,” while the other Nazis applied them “in a horrifically ‘literal’ sense by trying to physically destroy and eliminate Jewish people.” This, he says, is confusing, for, after all, Germans could not really see Germany as an organic body or Jews as insects or unicellular organisms – that would be “a grotesque category mistake” and, as such, unimaginable. (For the reader, this raises a question about the author’s understanding of the linguistic role of metaphors as opposed to literal descriptions – don’t all metaphors offer a way to describe reality, doing so, in contrast to literal descriptions, precisely by mixing categories?)
For Musolff, “some of the confusion,” at least, is avoided by following “the insights of modern metaphor theories that have developed a notion of metaphor as a cognitive ‘framing’ strategy to provide access to innovative perspectives for the conceptualization and the discursive negotiation of all kinds of experience.” The first half of the book is indeed devoted to the exploration of the “frames that enabled [the users of Nazi metaphors] to believe in assumptions that made the project of murdering Jewish people in Europe seem possible, justifiable, and necessary,” the exploration, that is, of the “inferential cognitive link between assumptions embodied in the ‘source’ concepts of bodies, illnesses and parasites and the political conclusions at the ‘target’ level of genocidal ideology (and practice).”
In this reader’s view, however, the insights of modern metaphor theories have no such salutary effect; as presented by Musolff, they represent conspiracy theories of language. The idea that a metaphor is a strategy of any kind implies that metaphors are intentionally created by some mentally-superior agent(s) with a certain goal in mind, and are imposed on others who have no power to resist them, being apparently mindless.
If Hitler is the strategist behind the anti-Semitic Nazi metaphors, we must assume that he was a super-brain. And then, why and how would these metaphors make its users believe in assumptions they did not believe in earlier and that to the extent of participating in genocidal practice (demurely placed by Musolff in parentheses)? Did the users (and possibly the mentally-superior creators) of the metaphors come to believe in the assumptions behind them in order to murder Jews?
It appears that his chosen theoretical framework cannot convince the author himself. “Clearly,” he argues (pp. 6-7), “the Nazis and their audience did not have to rely on a two-thousand-year-old philosophical tradition to motivate their wish to murder all Jewish people in Europe.” (Again the reader is puzzled: What does “motivate a wish” mean? Isn’t to wish – to be motivated, and a wish motivation enough? Is it this wish/motivation that calls for the metaphor as a strategy? If so, what is its strategic importance – what does it explain?)
Musolff reminds himself that Nazi anti-Semitism was a kind of racism and racism surely has some political consequences, e.g., the Holocaust (doesn’t it?): “racists of all times have employed [metaphors in question] to denounce their enemies as agents of (political) disease [though – he seems to be arguing against his own argument, these metaphors were influential in Germany] in a way similar to the pseudo-scientific theories on human ‘races’ that influenced Hitler during his formative years.”
Does this prove the causal role of the metaphors or refute it? He goes on: “The public judgment that a person or political group uses terminology and imagery comparable to that employed by the Nazis still serves as a powerful stigmatization. For German politicians, to invoke body-parasite imagery when dealing with socio-political and ethnic conflicts … is disingenuous and/or potentially self-defeating as long as they want to remain part of the mainstream political discourse.”
He ends the passage helplessly: “So, why do body-illness-parasite metaphors continue to be employed?” And he hopes that the answer will somehow emerge in the following pages, although already knowing all the answers in the book — he lists them in this introductory chapter — and being fully aware that this hope is vain: “we hope to find answers to this question; i.e. we not only try to understand the reasons for [the metaphor’s] ‘success’ in persuading a majority of the German public to participate in or at least tolerate the Holocaust but also the role that body-based metaphors generally play in current racist discourse and thought.”
But this optimistically ambitious declaration also ends on a note of helplessness, as he remarks that some strands of this very metaphor “even point to the ideological opposite of racism, i.e. an enlightened, tolerant vision of society and politics.”
Since the book is evidently written to promote the cognitively oriented approach to metaphor analysis – the theoretical position to which Musolff is committed, he soldiers on with his argument, disregarding considerations which cause him to doubt it. The point is to contribute a nuance to the discourse literature: in contrast to the “traditional analyses of Nazi imagery” as a “mere” rhetorical trick that was incidental to Hitler’s ideology and actual policy, he will – against all odds – insist, instead (pp. 11-13), that “the body-illness-parasite metaphors provided not just a propaganda ornament but were at the core of his racist ideology.”
It is indeed, if anything, a nuance, because, while some research on Nazi metaphors (a veritable industry, surprising in its scope to a non-specialist) has characterized them as “’demagogic’ and ‘manipulative’ abuses of language,” which is, presumably, what “mere” metaphors are, other studies have considered them “as ‘literally’ true expressions of racist ideology.”
Musolff does not believe, however, that the latter approach has much in common with the one he advocates and, as such, can no more than the former explain “the extraordinary public appeal of the Nazi anti-Semitic imagery, its seeming plausibility and conclusiveness.” Such “literalness can,” he says, “be understood as a weird ‘category mistake’ that literally confused the domains of humans and of (non-human) animals [specifically, parasites], due to the fanatical ideology held by the Nazis. Such an extreme stance is psychologically untenable.”
In the framework of the argument that a metaphor has the power to shape (in the sense bordering on determining) political behavior, however, it is clear that Musolff presumes the source of the appeal to be in the metaphor itself, just as the appeal of food or sex to an animal is in the smell of food or of a potential mate in heat. Metaphors, for him, work like signs, in distinction to symbols which, of course, they are.
Even as regards food and sex, in-so-far as we, humans, are concerned, the appeal or repulsion they evoke are as often a function of what they symbolize, as of what they are. Symbols, though, are necessarily interpreted by every user and recipient, and so cannot be imposed.
To disregard this crucial difference between signs and symbols is, indeed, to commit a weird categorical mistake, indeed implying as it does that the mental functioning of the German public was, literally, no different from that of non-human animals living in the world of signs which do not lend themselves to interpretation, that, in other words, German people had no more responsibility for their actions, no more moral agency behind them, than the dogs trained for guard duty in the concentration camps, and that just like these quadrupeds, they simply obeyed orders. Such an extreme stance, one must agree, is psychologically untenable.
The argument is not helped by the addition of methodological fetishism to the theoretical one (pp. 14-18). Musolff presumes the correctness of the “cognitivist” approach to Nazi metaphors, repeating endlessly: “The problem has generated a substantial body of research over the past decades, which has specifically focused on metaphors as cognitive phenomena. From the cognitive viewpoint, metaphors and other so-called ‘rhetorical’ figures of speech… are more than stylistic ‘ornaments’ that add some extra associative or emotional value to the ‘core’ meanings of a proposition. Instead, they are seen as fundamental cognitive processes, i.e. as ‘mappings’ or ‘blendings’ of conceptual inputs from varying domains… this claim by cognitivists to go beyond ‘rhetorical’ analysis is of particular significance. If metaphors structure our worldviews, they are clearly of fundamental importance in political ideology and their critical analysis can provide ‘particular insight into why the rhetoric of political leaders is successful’.”
Yet, he claims that it is necessary to “investigate (rather than presume) a genocidal ‘set of cognitions’ on the basis of Hitler’s imagery….What is needed… is a comprehensive survey of the metaphor system operated by Hitler and other leading Nazis, to provide a basis on which their public reception can be assessed.”
As a scholar eminently au currant of every recent fad, he turns to the latest: data-mining. Fortunately for him, some second-hand big data are available, which he gratefully acknowledges: “By providing a searchable database and a systematic overview over the whole range of metaphors in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Felicity Rash,” he says (see A Database of Metaphors in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, 2005; The Language of Violence, 2006), “has given a new empirical grounding to political metaphor research in general and the study of Hitler’s imagery in particular.”
But was not this empirical grounding already given in Mein Kampf itself? Apparently not to Musolff, for like many confused others, “empirical” for him means not data that exist but only “quantified” data, and, like the others who misunderstand the very logic of the scientific process, he clearly believes that the greater the quantity of such quantified evidence, the clearer is the point it makes.
Unfortunately for him, the point made by Rash’s searchable database is not at all clear: “she has convincingly shown that almost none of the metaphors that Hitler employed were particularly original; … they either consisted of well-worn phrases and idioms that were used in general parlance or were prefigured in anti-Semitic and xenophobic hate speech well before Hitler’s time.” So, after all, Hitler was not the strategic super-brain inventing the metaphor to deploy in order to change the mind – and behavior – of the German public. Why was he then “so horrendously successful in propagating his blended bio-social/political worldview”?
Musolff valiantly tries to extricate his argument from this morass by bringing into it selfish genes, memes, and mind-viruses (pp. 19-23), and the proliferation of this metaphorical fauna taken literally succeeds to suck the reader into such horrendous, inarticulate, viscous logical habitat, that one barely escapes mental suffocation. A coup de grace seems to be delivered with the following statement: “like the gene-meme analogy, the virus metaphor has to be used with care, as its meaning oscillates between scientific and colloquial registers.” In common language, the term virus has negative connotations on account of its connection with illness (and is therefore a favorite source concept for racist and xenophobic metaphors). In biological terms, however, viruses are seen as types of non-cellular life forms that are ‘parasitic’ in the sense that they depend for their reproduction on other organisms. Inasmuch as ideologies depend on human brains to entertain and (re)produce them, they can be considered to be ‘parasitic’ in this latter case, but so are all other concepts, regardless of whether they are useful or harmful. Apart from the irony that Nazi racism may itself be labelled a virus, the analogy appears to be of limited explanatory value for the analysis of their specific ideology and its propagandistic success, and – worst of all – scholars using it still mention “the ‘right social conditions’ for triggering an actual ‘mind-infection’ [which] reintroduces the historical dimension that the memetic-naturalist approach promised to bypass.”
But no, even this is not the end, for after implying that all culture is parasitic on human brains, just like all life is parasitic on matter, water is parasitic on the elements H and O, and soup is parasitic on a pot, after having eliminated all distinction between metaphors and explanatory concepts methodically created to capture the general nature of reality, mercilessly Musolff goes on trying to explain the use of a particular metaphor by this very metaphor.
To disabuse the reader who, after all this, still hopes to learn something new about metaphor, nation, and Holocaust, Musolff warns continuously: “The study does not in itself present new material or insights [, not even] into the core ideological context of Mein Kampf; its main aim is to reconstruct the ‘ontology’ underlying his worldview in the form that Hitler was happy to admit to in public…. Our aim is to understand the structural patterns that made it possible for Hitler’s imagery to be believable to the point of quasi-literal acceptance by large parts of the German public. Whilst the textual manifestations and the historical implementation of Nazi racism are a thing of the past, the underlying cognitive patterns that underpinned them can be assumed to be typical for many more extremist worldviews, including future ones, and thus of general relevance.” Holocaust, he reminds us, is really not the issue.
Endlessly repetitive as it is, the book does not stop to surprise. At one point (p. 43) Musolff states: “Physically, the Holocaust could have happened without any propaganda (metaphorical or otherwise), but such a ‘mute’ genocide is extremely implausible,” causing the reader to gasp: in what way propaganda makes the Holocaust plausible? And what, specifically, is meant by its “physicality”?
At another (p. 138), he opines: “But the ‘German case’ is not unique: Native speakers of British English who employ the phrase body politic may not be aware of all the historical details from the metaphor’s heyday during the Tudor Renaissance, but they will recognize it as a special phrase… and may associate it with Shakespeare’s texts.” This is a book with the Holocaust in the title, the reader wishes to protest, and it is the fact that speakers of English also use a certain phrase that makes the “German case” (why in quotes?) not unique?! But it is not a book about the Holocaust, the author keeps patiently demonstrating – though, for some reason, he never once states this explicitly.
Obviously, Musolff knows that the Holocaust is what made us pick up his book in the first place; that’s why, in the concluding paragraphs (pp. 141-145), he tells us what he told us about this “test-case” for the cognitivist theory of metaphors. He is honest. He does not tell us he provided any new knowledge or answered any questions; he tells us that he raised a question about the role of a particular metaphor in bringing the Holocaust about.
But then he goes on and, as if this question was answered, hypostatizes the role the metaphor played, exactly as he did in the opening paragraphs. “A second main question we have raised,” he writes, “concerns the ‘cognitive import’ of the body-state metaphor when we consider its central role in Nazi anti-Semitic ideology. … was it a ‘mere’ propaganda slogan to accompany, and perhaps camouflage, the ‘real’ Nazi policies of genocide and war, or was it an integral part of the ideology that was necessary to make the Holocaust happen?”
There was, he states,
a general awareness of the enormous dimensions of the genocide. On the basis of these data, we can conclude that the metaphor scenario supporting the genocide was integrated into a systematically distorted discourse that treated the murder of European Jewry (as well as other groups) as an ‘open secret’. In this discourse the metaphor of parasite annihilation played the central role of naming, explaining (and supposedly justifying) the core content of Nazi policy against Jews…Hitler’s ‘diagnosis’ of Germany’s post-World War I crisis thus sounded plausible not despite but because of its metaphoric character and history.
This apparent plausibility was grounded in its familiarity as an age-old tried and tested commonsense analogy….As the secretly recorded statements of popular opinion show, [Nazi] genocidal agenda was understood by the majority German populace sufficiently to at least ‘tolerate’, if not participate in, the final solution. This astonishing persuasiveness of the cure-by-elimination scenario remains inexplicable if we dismiss it as a propagandistic extra to Hitler’s ‘real’ policies or view it as the re-manifestation of a ‘mind-virus’ (in an accidental, tragic historical context). Our findings show that Hitler’s metaphorical presentation of parasitic annihilation as a natural, self-evident and necessary therapy for the existential problems of the German body politic convinced the public of his genocidal agenda.
So we end as we began, and still for no discoverable reason, with Hitler as a super-brain and the majority German populace as mentally sub-human. To this Musolff adds: “even ‘respectable’ authors often come dangerously close to suggesting radical and potentially genocidal cures for perceived political illnesses. … Not even truly rationally oriented versions of the body-state metaphor are immune to being reconfigured as closed scenarios that legitimize murderous policies.”
Should one counter that not even passenger airliners are immune to being used as weapons of mass destruction, and that this is so not because of the nature of the airliners, but because of the people who desire to so use them? Oblivious to this truly commonsense analogy, Andreas Musolff closes his discourse, pronouncing: “The metaphors by which nations define their destiny have the potential to shape that destiny.” What?
Against the background of the Holocaust it would be absurd to lament the misunderstanding of the cultural process, of the role of language in it, of the concept of “ideology.” What does all of this matter? Wearily to shrug one’s shoulders is all one can do. Clearly, no individual metaphor or set of metaphors shape any nation’s destiny – and in the terrible case before us the metaphor allegedly responsible for it only served an existing interest, gave expression to a particular experience (the experience being the existential envy of the Jews, built-into the very core of the German national consciousness, and the interest – to eliminate the disturbing presence which made Germans feel culturally inferior).
In this sense, its role was very much in line with the role of language, in general. Of course, the interest and the experience themselves were shaped by ways of thinking the language codified. But it took a huge complex of expressed attitudes – to life, to death, to blood, to torture, among which the attitude to Jews was only one, however central, attitude – to do so, and the folk tales collected by the brothers Grimm, unquestionably, played a far greater role in this than all the metaphors borrowed from other languages.
If it had any influence at all, the contribution of one particular metaphor complex, commonplace outside of Germany, even if especially popular there, to the Holocaust must have been infinitesimally small. The Holocaust might not have happened without the brutal message drummed by the brothers Grimm into the minds of generations of German children about the thrills of plucking out people’s eyes, beating the living daylights out of them, and burning them alive, and the especial fun of applying all these satisfyingly gory methods to the humiliation and torture of the natural enemy of the German – the Jew. But it could certainly have happened if the body-illness-parasite “scenario” was replaced by any other familiar trope.
It must be kept in mind that the only way to account for the Holocaust in the framework of the fundamental understandings of the Western civilization, within which it was committed, is to regard it as an aberration, a totally implausible, horrific episode due to the German cultural exceptionalism (which prevented Germany from being fully a part of this civilization, despite its location smack in the middle of Europe), an aberration which other countries allowed to happen precisely because they could not ever imagine and bring themselves to believe that something like that could be happening.
To explain it otherwise is to reject these fundamental understandings altogether and, with them, reject the Western civilization. This is simple logic; there is nothing more to it. The Holocaust has forever undermined this civilization’s self-confidence, and it is quite possible, judging by the political events of the last quarter century (after the fall of Communism which, while it lasted, kept the Western world’s fomenting sense of self-betrayal in check) that this rejection is already happening. The civilization is evidently under a relentless attack – from within, and it well may be in its death throes. But dying civilizations do not evolve new fundamental understandings, and our logical possibilities for making sense of the realities, including historical realities, around us, remain limited to what we have.