Not everything with a human face is human.
Carl Schmitt, newspaper article, 1933 (p.2).
The Golden Rule applies only to your “racial comrades”.
Nazi publication, 1934 (p.119).
“The Nazi conscience” is not an oxymoron (p.1).Bigotry—the (moral) grading of people by category, regardless of any actual harm to person, property or relations between people that they have done—is a moral claim. It turns a difference into a (moral) distinction: it is about who is, or is not, covered by which moral protections on grounds of “worthiness” by category, one not based on any actions they have done to harm persons, property or the connections between people. If you do not understand that bigotry is a moral claim, you do not understand it. Indeed, one might say that often ‘bigotry’ is “morality you do not agree with”.
Thinking about such matters led me to Claudia Koonz’s The Nazi Conscience, a study of the Nazi attempt to inculcate an ethnic and racial morality into Germans.
An ethnic conscience
Her very first line is:
“The Nazi conscience” is not an oxymoron (p.1).Quite so. Consider C. S. Lewis’s observation:
... those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences.As will those who torment others in the name of the general good. The truly terrible thing about a Nazi gauleiter or Soviet commissar was not that they lacked a conscience, but precisely that they had them: consciences that burned to “purify” society. It is exploring the ethic that led to (indeed drove) megacide that is the subject of Koonz’s study.
It is all about the framing: in the Nazi case, an ethnic framing.
Koonz starts by considering the nature of the conscience and how the notion of ‘others’ in treating others as you would be treated (or not treated) has been subject to redefinition. Nazi Germany provided the knowledge (the scienta) about which humans deserved moral consideration according to one’s conscience (con scienta, ‘with knowledge’). Hence:
The term “Nazi conscience” describes a secular ethos that extended reciprocity only to members of the Aryan community, as defined by what racial scientists believed to be the most advanced biological science of the day (p.6).Koonz identifies the Nazi conscience’s four key assumptions as being: the life of the Volk was an organic cycle; that each people developed its own values appropriate to its nature and environment; that aggression was justified against those who obstructed the Volk; and that the government could annul such groups’ legal protections (Pp6-7).
One of the themes of The Nazi Conscience is Nazi frustration with the general German population not adopting Nazi principles anywhere near as wholeheartedly as the Nazi elite and functionaries desired. Koonz points out that, based on behaviour, Germans were not particularly anti-Semitic prior to 1933 (p.9). Jew-hatred played little role in the rise of the Nazis. Rather, the Nazis used the immense popularity of ethnic revival to promote Jew-hatred. Koonz summarises the evidence as:
Germans did not become Nazis because they were antisemites, they became antisemites because they were Nazis (p.10).For:
careful investigations of public opinion in Germany reveal that, while most Germans shared the “polite” or “cultured” antisemitism common in Western Europe and North America, they disapproved of diehard Nazis’ coarse racism and pogrom-style tactics (p.11).That Koonz has studied the internal operations of Nazi operations and efforts, how they looked “from the inside”, gives her a fine sense of difficulties the Nazi ethnocrats (a term from historian Michael Burleigh that she agrees with [p.163]) confronted. That much of the Reich’s citizen were Protestant likely further limited the level of Jew-hatred, since none of the mainstream Protestant churches had put anywhere near the effort of the contemporary Catholic Church into promoting an identity of malevolence for Jews.
But, under the Nazi regime, personal relations between Jews and Germans frayed and broke, leading to Jewish isolation as ordinary Germans became indifferent bystanders to—or collaborators with—persecution. This did not come from terror (which was understaffed and limited) or relentless propaganda (anti-Jewish themes were a minor element in Goebbels’ propaganda efforts until well into the War). It came primarily, Koonz argues, from pushing an “ethnic fundamentalism” that promoted an ethnic arrogance. With key elements of Nazi ideology—the cult of the Fuhrer and his Volk, phobic racism and Lebensraum—being disseminated via the Nazi’s replacement of the avenues of a collapsed democracy for civic engagement with ones under their control (Pp11-13).
The Nazi effort proceeded in layers: Koonz delineates three sources for the “production of Nazi morality”. One was the role of Hitler as preacher and paragon of communitarian morality and virtue, where his own personal struggle paralleled and embodied that of the Volk. The second was the effort of “midlevel” functionaries (prominent being philosopher Martin Heidegger, legal theorist Carl Schmitt and the head of the Nazi Party Office of Racial Politics [ORP], Walter Gross) to rebrand Jews as pariahs, creating an anti-Semitism that was both “respectable and ruthless” (Pp13-14).
The third was the debate within Nazi policy circles to evolve a policy consensus on racial aims and policies. It was the latter which solidified into the Holocaust, an erratic process whose eventual conclusion Koonz regards as never seriously in doubt, one that:
evolved not as a clear evil but as the shadow side of virtue (p.15).In other words, as the consequences of Nazi ethnic-centred virtues. The propagation of a shared vision of a Volk so righteous, and an enemy so vile, had a natural end even before the means were conceived or put into practice. Koonz holds that to understand Nazism and the Nazi regime, we need to take the Nazi claim to be propagating a moral order seriously (p.16).
A politics of virtue
Having set the framing, Koonz takes us through the Nazi “Politics of Virtue”, a politics that celebrated a Volk to be “saved” from democracy and decay. The Reichstag fire provided an opportunity that was eagerly seized. Whereas, however, repression of revolutionary Marxism was popular, blaming and attacking the Jews as much less so, even though Hitler’s own rhetoric was much more aimed at the latter than the former. Outrages against Jews were generally limited to regions where Nazism was already popular. Nevertheless, Hitler’s own image as a paragon and first advocate of virtue provided a rallying point for “respectable” Germany to identify with the regime. Protestant theologian Otto Dibelius (who later joined the resistance) rejoiced in that Germans now lived under “One Reich, One Volk, One God” (p.38).
Repression of revolutionary Marxism was popular at home and abroad, while racist outrages provoked protests. The Nazi regime moved to damage control, using its “respectable” members (such as von Papen and Schacht) to reassure international opinion (Pp39-40).
Though Koonz does not explore the point, there is no mystery to this difference. Given the history of Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet Union, the activities of the Comintern, the revolutionary turmoil of 1918-1920 in Italy, Hungary, Bavaria and elsewhere, the ambitions for social transformation involved in revolutionary Marxism, there was nothing that a respectable middle class person might hold dear for them and their family—not life, liberty, property, culture, or religion—that was not threatened by the prospect of a Leninist takeover or military advance. There was a widespread, practical fear of revolutionary socialism that Jews simply did not engender.
The Nazi regime therefore had to work much harder at anathematising the Jews, via the lever of the popularity of the politics of ethnic revival. In this, they were assisted by “Allies in the Academy”. Koonz uses the philosopher Martin Heidegger, the political theorist Carl Schmitt and the theologian Gerhard Kittel—three contemporaries of Hitler (they were born within one year of each other, and Hitler, in 1888-89)—to chart the appeal of the Nazi politics of ethnic rejuvenation to intellectuals and “respectable” opinion. It was, in many ways, the triumph of emotional appeal over doctrinal precision:
The reactions of thee three quite different men illustrate the ecumenical attractiveness of a charismatic force so plastic that listeners could fasten their own myths of the Fuhrer. To Heidegger, Hitler was authenticity personified to Schmitt he was a decisive leader, and to Kittel, a Christian soldier. The differences in their views of Hitler reminds us that the muddle doctrine denigrated as vapid by Hitler’s opponents contributed to the resilience of the “Hitler myth”. Three very different ideas of what constituted Nazism converged on one point—the desire for moral rejuvenation of the Volk—even as Nazi paramilitaries destroyed the civil society of the Weimar Republic (p.48).The logic of powerful or intense belief is so often an emotional logic. (A point that Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues explore in their studies of the moral foundations of human psychology.)
Koonz takes us through Heidegger, Schmitt and Kittel’s “paper trails” as public intellectuals. Her conclusion is damming:
To their well-educated peers—precisely the people most likely to have Jewish friends and colleagues—Heidegger, Schmitt and Kittel provided the moral basis for the scores of antisemitic restrictions that followed the April boycott. The advanced the values of the Nazi conscience in their praise of a communitarian ethnic utopia. Each, in his own way, contributed to the redefinition of courage as the capacity to harm the vulnerable without shirking, in the name of the Volk (p.68).It has long been a feature of Jew-hatred that it claims that “standing up” against the Jews is an act of courage: a necessary claim because otherwise it is just monstrously bullying a small and vulnerable minority in the name of a large majority. (Queer-hatred displays the same pattern for the same reasons: precisely because Koonz explores moral exclusion in the name of virtue so perceptively, much of what she has to say applies directly to the patterns for “moral” exclusion of queers.) Koonz sets out the redefining of virtue by prominent public intellectuals in the service of a genocidal regime in ways that facilitated that genocide. A regime that none of the three ever publicly regretted their support for (p.49).
Taking the culture
Koonz then considers “The Conquest of Political Culture”, the processes by which public life was Nazified: streets renamed, culture censored, institutions taken over or eliminated. The latter in particular faced the choice of either Gleichschaltung or dissolution (p.73). (Indeed, Koonz’s discussion of how Gleichschaltung works has some clear contemporary resonances in the quiet processes by which careers are fostered or inhibited, funding granted or denied, actions forgiven or penalised, celebrated or denounced, according to dominant views.) The combination of the appeal of the politics of ethnic revival, the offering of a sense of public virtue, as well as rewards and punishments for conformity, encouraged a process of Selbengleichschaltung or self-conforming, self-Nazification: a process that continued even after the first flush of enthusiasm waned (p.75).
Hitler as preacher and embodiment (in his carefully managed public image) of virtues that were continually connected to ordinary life and ordinariness was a powerful part of the process. Hitler had long since perfected the technique of re-framing criminal acts as moral ones: so the Night of the Long Knives was reframed in precisely this way, just as the Beer Hall Putsch had been. That the killings and gaolings associated with the Night seemed to have also been about suppressing knowledge of Hitler’s past was also about preserving Hitler as public embodiment of virtue (p.96).
Other voices assisted this process; the Minister for Justice Hans Gurtner (not a Nazi: indeed, he was later to die in hospital after displaying deep distress over conditions in conquered Poland amid rumours that he had been poisoned [p.262]) held that the killings were justified to stop citizens distrusting the state while Carl Schmitt described the Fuhrer’s will as the supreme embodiment of justice and so sufficient in itself (p.98).
Hitler developed the technique of what Koonz calls ‘cryptograms’ whereby public statements contained messages to Nazi faithful reassuring them that public restraint in his statements did not involve abandonment of his core racial beliefs: denouncing an already unpopular idea as Jewish, project his hatred of Jews on “life-threatening” enemies of the Reich, using Mein Kampf as a continuing token of his ultimate aims—all embedded in a public campaign designed to reassure ordinary Germans so that they could rationalise their support of the regime and preserving his distance from unpopular aspects of his regime Hitler thereby:
communicated in cryptograms to the Nazi faithful while reassuring mass audiences that his intentions were benign (p.102)Versions of this occur in contemporary politics: such as Muslim leaders saying one thing in Arabic and another in English.
Nazi moral politics involved a conjunction of “Ethnic Revival and Racist Anxiety”. Koonz examines the efforts of self-styled “racial philosopher” Walter Gross in the context of efforts to invigorate the Volk—including sterilisation campaigns, celebration of images of racial perfection, identification of enemies of the Volk. What Gross himself labelled:
our drive to implant concern for the biological life of the nation into the conscience of the Volk (p.103).Mass publications were issued, celebrating Hitler as a moral giant, propagating racial messages (in one, Hitler compared ethnically mixed marriages to “unions between ape and human” [p.116]) such as a middlebrow magazine (Neues Volk), full of authors identified by their degrees or occupation. The racial message was carefully contained within a much large mass of, generally positive, material. The politics of ethnic revival was packaged as a politics of health, vigour and healthy participation in the life of the Volk. The use of repellent or negative images and phrasings were clearly about defining the limits of the Volk, or threats to all this healthy vigour. Gross himself was active in conferences (both national and international), assemblies, pamphlets, speeches, courses for physicians and other professionals, selling calendars celebrating the “Aryan” physique. A citizen of the Reich would encounter Gross’s efforts in many forms and settings (Pp115ff).
Gross agonized on how to tell if the newly Nazified (particularly new Party members and activists) were sincere or not. Like other old Nazis, he disliked rules and procedures as “deadening” of the spirit of Nazi activism yet privately complained at the disorder endemic in Nazi rule. Ironically, Gross found his early hopes of a clear and definitive racial science running afoul of messy facts. What he did manage to do is to prepare the ground for genocide:
Gross and his colleagues in the ORP established the ethical foundations for extermination by presenting the Volk as an endangered organism (p.130).And they had lots of help: future Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz contributed an article for Gross’s office in which:
he compared the Volkskorper with “defective” members to a healthy individual who had malignant tumours. “Fortunately,” he added, “the elimination of such elements is easier for the public health physician and less dangerous for the supra-individual organism than such an operation by a surgeon would be for the individual organism.” The Volk itself had become the body to be purified, and “unwanted” people had become mere malignancies (p.130).It was all part of process that Gross was such a central figure in whereby:
a genocidal consensus evolved among the proponents of a relentless bureaucratic war against Jews in Germany (p.130).Koonz judges that Gross’s own cognitive dissonance about any empirical problems for his racial doctrines just increased his ardour for invigorating and “purifying” the Volk.
The creation of moral criteria disconnected from any specific acts harming persons, property or the relations between people creates the basis for exclusion-by-category. So Marx’s labour theory of value and exploitation—by making employing people for profit economically superfluous “exploitation”—consigns whole classes of people to moral exclusion. As does the notion that reproduction is the only purpose able to justify sexual acts—so all other sexual acts are “immoral”. Thus does being same-sex attracted (or, worse, oriented), or being “bourgeois”, became manifestations of being “morally twisted”. Race theory turns racial difference into boundaries crossing of which is dangerous “moral pollution”: thus does being racially “inferior” become a moral “threat”.
In each case, a trumping moral authority—God, natural purpose, the classless society, the health of the Volk—is invoked against which no human claims have standing, supported by moral criteria unconnected to any specific, real moral harm. Thus do moral claims “justify” stripping categories of people of moral protections, with the harm thereby done to them becoming emotionally invisible, and morally irrelevant, due to the trumping moral claims of the exclusory theory.
The disconnect from any acts which actually harm (or otherwise morally transgress against) specific individuals is a necessary part of the process. Otherwise, one has to treat the people in the relevant categories as individuals, judge them as individuals and count the harm done to them as morally relevant. It takes a truly grand moral theory to justify—for example, making a 13,14,15,16-year-old think they are against God and "outside nature", that they are "objectively disordered", that they are "oriented towards an intrinsic evil" because they are attracted to members of their own sex—to make the harm done to them emotionally invisible and morally irrelevant. Nazi theory took traditional “offenses against God” and “the natural moral order”, turned them into “offenses against the Volk” and “the imperatives of nature”, and then appealed to a grand ethnic narcissism to sell a brutal, and ultimately, exterminatory, moral exclusion. Not so hard, when the ground had been so prepared, for so long.
(The rest of this review will be continued in my next two posts.)