Review of Hitler’s Holocaust
Review Essay of Hitler's Holocaust: The Logic of War and Genocideby James Tyner
During the Second World War, the Nazis produced the Holocaust through state-sanctioned violent practices that stemmed from a basic geographic imagination: To construct a pure living space for one population through the elimination of others.1 The planners of the Holocaust, as Claudia Koonz explains, “followed a coherent set of severe ethical maxims derived from broad philosophical concepts.”2 These include a mixture of racial and geopolitical theories that, combined, were used to determined who might live and who must die.
According to Peter Fritzsche, the “Nazis are frightening because they expanded notions of what is politically and morally possible in the modern world.”3 He explains that for the Nazi leaders, worldviews could bring a world into view and, as such, their geographical imaginations “posed the question of life or death, national survival or annihilation, in the most radical terms.”4
Although directed primarily against ‘the Jew’, the Nazi state in effect assumed the right to eliminate those peoples who, according to Nazi logics, contributed nothing to society and, indeed, served to undermine a racially pure nation. The Holocaust proceeded on a mortal accounting—a demographic balance sheet—of those lives worth living or sacrificing, and those unworthy of life, and unable or unwilling to make the ultimate sacrifice. In effect, the Holocaust was born of a racial ideology whereby life paralleled death, and genocidal exclusion paved the way for communal inclusion.
Richard Koenigsberg, in his brief monograph Hitler’s Holocaust: The Logic of War and Genocide, provides an argument for Nazi ideology that highlights the salience of sacrifice in Hitler’s geographical imagination.5 Simply put, for Koenigsberg, “Nazi ideology revolved around the glorification of sacrificial death.”6
In the classical conception of sovereignty, according to Michel Foucault, the right of life and death was one of the sovereign’s basic attributes. In other words, to say that “the sovereign has a right of life and death means that he can … either have people put to death or let them live.”7 Life and death, therefore, are removed from the realm of the ‘natural’ and fall within the field of governance. Mortality effectively becomes politicized.
The origination and transformation of the modern territorial nation state, however, coincided with a changed ethic regarding the sovereign’s right over life and death.8 Returning to Foucault, the classic right to take life or to let live was gradually replaced by a power to foster life or to disallow life to the point of death. Significantly, the modern state’s right to foster or disallow life never erased the classical right to kill.
As Sarat and Culbert explain, “In a regime dedicated to putting and keeping life in order and safe, the state may still exercise the right to death associated with the classic sovereign. To do so, however, it has to describe those who will be put to death as incorrigible monsters or as biological hazards so that their demise and final disposal can be represented as an unpleasant but necessary task that the state reluctantly but decisively undertakes for the well-being of its citizens.”9 Not so in Hitler’s Germany, argues Koenigsberg. Here, the state’s call for men to sacrifice themselves in war was the noblest calling possible; as corollary, the killing of those who failed to measure up was the hallmark of a civilized society.
To capture fully Koenigsberg’s argument, it is necessary at this point to introduce also the philosophical insights of Giorgio Agamben.10 In an extension of Foucault’s work, Agamben argues that a thanatopolitics, that is, a politics of death, constitutes the first principle of sovereignty. As Nikolas Rose explains, a thanatopolitics is predicated on the understanding that “life itself is subject to a judgement of worth, a judgement that can be made by oneself (suicide) but also by others (doctors, relatives) but is ultimately guaranteed by a sovereign authority (the state).”11
Agamben centers his argument around the subject of homo sacer, an obscure figure of archaic Roman law. For Agamben, homo sacer is one who can be killed with impunity, one whose death constitutes neither homicide nor sacrifice. Homini sacri, consequently, are situated outside both human and divine law; they are included in politics only through their exclusion; they constitute, in short, bare life, that is, a life beyond politics.12
This has tremendous importance both for our understanding of modern statecraft but also specifically of Nazi ideology. Following Rose, “At the very moment when political sovereignty was established over a territory, power was linked to the living bodies of its subjects, if only because this is what enables the sovereign alone to make legitimate political use of their death.”13
As such, decisions to kill, to foster life, or to disallow life to the point of death are made within a context of state valuation: Matters of life and death are understood within the domain of bioethics. Agamben writes, to this end, that “in modern biopolitics, sovereign is he who decides on the value or the nonvalue of life as such.”14 Throughout Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied territories, Hitler and his followers enacted daily such valuations; and, according to Koenigsberg, these calculations assumed a stark choice: “Either die for Germany, or we will kill you.”15
The concept of community conjures a mythic, but also fundamentally geographic imagination. It is a concept that evokes commonality, that is, of an inclusive social group that shares particular values, beliefs, and morals. Community likewise implies a sense, or obligation, of security and solidarity, a togetherness infused with a sense of purpose.
To this end, communities must be both defined and defended. The promotion of community, therefore, is inseparable from broader political questions of socio-spatial exclusion: A determination of who belongs and who does not. By extension, when we ask who has the authority to include or exclude, we are properly talking about sovereignty.16
Questions of community and belonging figure prominently in Nazi ideology. For Koenigsberg, Nazism was a religion revolving around the worship of the German nation.17 Hitler believed that Aryans were unique because they were willing to abandon self-interest and transcend egoism in the name of surrendering to the community.18 For Hitler, therefore, willingness to sacrifice for a national community constituted the essence of civilization.19
It is not coincidental that many Nazi leaders, among them Hitler, Goebbels, Bormann, Himmler, and ministers such as the Minister of Justice Otto-Georg Thierack and the Minister of Culture Bernhard Rust, 8 out of 41 party regional leaders, 7 out of 47 higher SS- and police leaders, 53 out of 554 army generals, 14 out of 98 Luftwaffe generals and 11 out of 53 admirals, followed by a yet unknown number of lower Nazi officials, took their own lives either shortly before or after the total German surrender on May 8, 1945.20
Contemporary observers, Christian Goeschel notes, shared the view that the spate of Nazi suicides were nothing but acts of cowardice. Departing from this view, however, Goeschel counters that dying the death of a soldier was more dignified than negotiating for peace; and that the significance of dying a violent death dated back to the initial period of the party’s struggle for power, which led to an idealization of the soldier’s death in Nazi ideology.21 In this way, Goeschel concludes, “the suicides of Nazi leaders in 1945 were not understood as suicides as such, but as heroic self-sacrifices.”22
From this vantage point, the taking of one’s life—the sacrifice of one’s life—was the noblest and most civilized expression of one’s devotion to community, nation, and the state (which, according to Nazi ideology, were the same). To this end, Koenigsberg argues, Nazism was the negation of the individual in the name of the community.23 The ultimate act of virtue—self-renunciation—was dying for Germany.24 Crucially, for Hitler, Jews were incapable of making such a sacrifice for the nation and, for Koenigsberg, this distinction (for Hitler) between the self-sacrificing German, on the one hand, and Jewish unwillingness to sacrifice, on the other, was the bedrock of everything that followed.25
Most acts of violence, including state-sanctioned violence, are instrumental; and most acts of violence are justified in the mind of the perpetrators or bystanders. On this point, Hannah Arendt is clear: Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues.26 Hitler embodied the sovereign right to take life and his beliefs infused Nazi ideology. According to Koenigsberg, Hitler’s devotion to the ideal of self-sacrifice and the nobility of dying for one’s nation is rooted in his experiences of the First World War.
Ideologies do not appear fully formed; rather, material experiences provided the bedrock upon which ideologies materialize. Indeed, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously write, “It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.”27 For many men and women of Hitler’s generation, their political consciousness derived from the horrors of the First World War.
As Pierre de Mazenod wrote in 1922, “The war has left its imprint in our souls [with] all these visions of horror it has conjured up around us.”28 Indeed, Scott Poole explains, that the horror of the Great War consumed the lives of soldiers and civilians alike and, effectively transformed European culture and consciousness.29 For Hitler, however, the horrors of the First World War evoked not revulsion but grandeur. Why, asks Koenigsberg, did Hitler’s experience of the First World War not lead him to critique the ideology of warfare?30
In Mein Kampf, Hitler writes, “When in the long war years Death snatched so many a dear comrade and friend from our ranks, it would have seemed to me almost a sin to complain. After all, were they not dying for Germany?”31 For Koenigsberg, this is a crucial passage, in that it exemplifies Hitler’s idealized understanding of the noble sacrifice. For Hitler, “dying for one’s country represented the apogee of love and devotion.”32
This observation, however, presented Hitler with a paradox. In war, why do the best, the most noble of men die, while others live? As Koenigsberg explains, “this conundrum preoccupied Hitler for the rest of his life: Why in war do the best human beings die, while the worst survive?”33
The phantoms formed in the brains of men, Marx and Engels suggest, are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process.34 For Hitler, the phantoms of the First World War appeared in two simple guises: those who are willing to make the noblest of sacrifices and those who are not. The cowardice of the latter constitutes, for Hitler, the gravest of injustices possible. Simply put, “those who adhere to societal norms by enthusiastically performing their duty are killed; whereas those who behave immorally—evading their social responsibility to fight for their country—are rewarded by survival.”35
The answer to Hitler’s paradox appeared in the form of eugenics. In the United States Supreme Court’s 1927 decision of Buck v Bell, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices … in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence.”36
In this passage, Holmes echoes the concerns expressed in Germany, namely the question of why states could demand sacrifices of its soldiers, yet ask no less of those persons who contributed nothing to society: the imbeciles, morons, idiots, and feebleminded. In Germany, eugenicists argued that the right of life and death belonged to the state and, as such, the state was well within its sovereign right to authorize the direct killing of people.
In 1920, for example, Alfred Hoche, professor of medicine, and Rudolf Binding, professor of law, asserted that the right to live must be earned and justified; those not capable of human feeling, described as ‘ballast lives’ or ‘empty human husks,’ could have no sense of value of life; theirs is a life worth living; destruction, therefore, is not only tolerable, but humane.37 They argued that the destruction of lives unworthy of life was in fact a pragmatic act, in that these lives were essentially already ‘dead’. For Hoche and Binding, putting people to death “is not to be equated with other types of killing … but [is] an allowable, useful act.”38
For eugenicists such as Hoche and Binding, the state-authorized taking of lives unworthy of life was natural, for the justification was written into their genetics. As Roberto Esposito explains, the perception of bodies as ‘empty human husks’ or ‘human ballast’ “has precisely the objective of demonstrating that in their case death does not come from outside, because from the beginning it is part of those lives—or, more precisely, of these existences because that is the term that follows from the subtraction of life from itself. A life inhabited by death is simply flesh, an existence without life.”39
Importantly, however, is the observation that these deaths not be understood as sacrificial deaths. Lives unworthy of life were not synonymous with those of soldiers who died gloriously for their nation. Rather, these lifeless lives were beyond the law. The mentally ill, hereditary asocials, homosexuals, racial Others, and, especially, Jews, were all homo sacer lives that could be killed with impunity, their murder registered neither has homicide nor sacrifice.
From this vantage point, their death had no meaning beyond a means to an end. For Esposito, what the Nazis wanted to kill in the Jew and in other lives not worthy of life was not life, but the presence in life of death: a life that was already dead because it was marked hereditarily by an original and irremediable deformation.40
Hitler’s ideology of self-sacrifice and his sovereign right over life and death centered principally, although certainly not exclusively, on the Jewish population. Jews, from Hitler’s viewpoint, failed to make the ultimate sacrifice when duty called in the Great War. For Hitler, the best human beings died, while the worst survived.41 While brave German soldiers endured hardships and faced death in the trenches of France, Belgium, and beyond, Jews stayed home and amassed fortunes. Hitler was wrong, of course. Approximately 100,000 German Jews fought in the First World War, with upwards of 12,000 dying.42
But Hitler saw none of this, blinded by hatred and anti-Semitism. For Hitler, Jews above all were homo sacer and, as he prepared for war to bring to expand living space for the Aryan nation, vowed to even the score. Quite simply, according to Koenigsberg, “Hitler undertook the extermination of the Jewish people in order to balance the scales of death.”43 To this end, for Koenigsberg, the “Holocaust represented an extension of the logic that allows leaders of nation-states to sacrifice the lives of their own soldiers…. If German soldiers were suffering and dying in massive numbers on the field of battle, so Jews would be required to suffer and die in massive numbers in the camps.”44
Aryans, according to Hitler, were by nature inclined to sacrifice their lives for the nation; Jews, as genetically inferior subjects, were incapable of making such sacrifices. Consequently, Hitler’s bio-logics necessitated state intervention. Only through the physical elimination of Jews (and other non-Aryans) would the racial balance sheets tally at the end of the day. For Koenigsberg, however, the mass murder of millions of Jews and other so-called lives not worth living raised for some Germans an uncomfortable specter, in that the figure of the dead Jew came to symbolize, or embody, the unpalatable idea that sacrificial death—dying for one’s country—is meaningless.45
This is a debatable point, that “by creating the Holocaust … Hitler brought into being precisely what he had attempted to deny. He conveyed or depicted the ugliness and uselessness of sacrificial death.”46 Certainly, the self-sacrifice of Hitler and so many other Nazi leaders at the end of the war call into question their acquiescence to genocide. What is less arguable is that a moral compass oriented toward self-sacrifice in the guise of nationalism points also to a logic of extermination. If one is willing to die for an ideology, one is certainly able to kill for it also.
- This theme is developed in James A. Tyner, Genocide and the Geographical Imagination: Life and Death in Germany, China, and Cambodia (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012). [return]
- Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 1. [return]
- Peter Fritzsche, Life and Death in the Third Reich (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 15. [return]
- Fritzsche, Life and Death, 5. [return]
- Richard A. Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust: The Logic of War and Genocide (New York: Library of Social Science, 2018). [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 1. [return]
- Michel Foucault, “Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the Collége de France, 1975-1976 (New York: Picador, 2003), 240. [return]
- Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 138. [return]
- Austin Sarat and Jennifer L. Culbert, “Introduction: Interpreting the Violent State,” in States of Violence: War, Capital Punishment, and Letting Die, edited by Austin Sarat and Jennifer L. Culbert (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 1-22; at 6. [return]
- Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998); and Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 2002). [return]
- Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 57. [return]
- Agamben, Homo Sacer. [return]
- Rose, The Politics of Life, 57. [return]
- Agamben, Homo Sacer, 142. [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 2. [return]
- James A. Tyner, Space, Place, and Violence: Violence and the Embodied Geographies of Race, Sex, and Gender (New York: Routledge, 2012), 135-136. [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 3. [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 5. [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 6. [return]
- Christian Goeschel, “Suicide at the End of the Third Reich,” Journal of Contemporary History, 41, no. 1 (2006): 153-173; at 155. See also Christian Goeschel, Suicide in Nazi Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). [return]
- Goeschel, “Suicide,” 156. See also Sabine Behrenbeck, Der Kult um die toten Helden. Nationalsozialistische Mythen, Riten under Symbole (Vierow bei Greifswald, 1996). [return]
- Goeschel, “Suicide,” 156. [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 3. [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 4. [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 6. [return]
- Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt, 1970), 51. [return]
- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology: Including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), 42. [return]
- Quoted in W. Scott Poole, Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2018). [return]
- Poole, Wasteland. [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 9. [return]
- Quoted in Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 9. [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 9. [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 12. [return]
- Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 42. [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 12. [return]
- Quoted in Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 111. [return]
- Robert N. Proctor, Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 178. See also Michael Burleigh, Death and Deliverance: ‘Euthanasia’ in Germany 1900-1945 (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Stefan Kühl, The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); and Richard A. Koenigsberg, Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War (New York: Library of Social Science, 2009). [return]
- Quoted in Robert J. Lifton The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 1986), 47. [return]
- Roberto Esposito, Bíos: Biopolitics and Philosphy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 134. [return]
- Esposito, Bíos, 137. [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 13. [return]
- Tim Grady, The German-Jewish soldiers of the First World War in history and memory (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2013). [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 14. [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 18. [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 19. [return]
- Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Holocaust, 20. [return]