Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Nazi Conscience (3)

This is the third part of my review of Claudia Koonz’s The Nazi Conscience, a study of the Nazi attempt to inculcate an ethnic and racial morality into Germans. The first part was in my previous two posts.

Race war
The history Koonz outlines up to this point is bad enough but, of course, it gets it true horror from its grim denouement:
Most of you know what it means when one hundred corpses are lying side by side, or five hundred or a thousand. To have stuck it out and at the same time … to have remained decent fellows. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written.
Heinrich Himmler, Poznan, Poland, October 4, 1943 (p.221).
The organisation of mass murder on racial grounds is where this all led to.

The Nazi ideology of race both needed and created “Racial Warriors”. German soldiers committed atrocities that violated the separation of soldier from murderer that, as Koonz puts it:
violates the warrior’s honour as it has been defined throughout Western history (p.221).
The question is how: how did it happen on such a scale?

Koonz touches briefly on the scholarly debate on whether the mass killings are to be explained either situationally or as the outcome of longstanding trends in German culture and society. Koonz holds that focusing on either battlefield circumstances or lonstanding trends:
obscures a crucial stage in the formation of a genocidal consensus. From 1933 through 1939—the so-called peaceful years—racial warriors underwent mental training that prepared them for their subsequent tasks (p.221).
Whatever state of mind these acts were committed in, before war even began, German soldiers:
had imbibed the core elements of Nazi ideology: respect for the Fuhrer, devotion to the Volk, a belief in the justice of conquest, and the existence of a Jewish peril (p.222).
Particularly the SA and SS, who were primed for racial war.

Koonz uses Elias Canetti’s analysis of the difference between packs and crowds to frame the Nazi use of male packs as the basis for prosecuting the racial war. Particularly the power of the rivalry between the SA and SS “packs”, which proved to be, in many ways, complementary (Pp222ff).

The fluctuations in unsanctioned violence could themselves be misleading:
Because they were accustomed to the rule of law, Germans, whether they were Jews or non-Jews, found it hard to grasp the reality that lawful, orderly persecution would turn out to be more deadly than
random cruelty (p.224).
While the SA-SS rivalry created a “competitive radicalisation” of Nazi policy towards the Jews. Koonz explores the dynamics of this rivalry with chilling realism (Pp223ff).
Julius Streicher’s Der Sturmer avidly sought and published letters about Jewish “outrages”. The use of ‘initials only published” letters encouraged libellous hate. (Shades of comments on the internet.) Der Sturmer portrayed anti-Semites as if they were an embattled minority, explicitly comparing them to early Christians (Pp231-2). Coarseness-and-vulgarity-as-authenticity, demotic-as-legitimacy, salaciousness-as-concern-for-decency; Streicher’s tabloid journalism of hate made the portrayal of Jews-as-evil, the malevolent identity of Jews, powerful and populist (Pp233ff):
In their coarse bombast, Sturmer authors popularized the moral reasoning of theological anitsemites like Gerhard Kittel (p.234).
The SS was a rather different operation to the SA. While Der Sturmer:
expressed the rough-and-ready ethos of old-fighter Nazis … Heinrich Himmler’s SS published Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps), which embodied the élan of a technocratic elite (Pp225-6).
And the SS was an elite organisation, both in its social origins and in its training and ethos:
Nearly 20 percent of SS generals belonged to the nobility, and aristocrats were over-represented among the lower ranks as well. At a time when 2 per cent of all Germans attended university, 41 percent of the SS officer corps had studied at universities (p.240).
As part of the this sense of being elite, and of appealing to the thoughtful, the SS weekly carried a wider range of opinion than any other publication in the Third Reich in the 1930s (P.241). But the Jewish question was covered in a way which made it clear that a judenfrei Reich was the ultimate aim. Emigration was happening—40 percent of the 568,000 Germans citizens defined as Jewish left, 138,000 Jews left Austria after the Anschluss—but not quickly enough (p.246).

The discussions in the SS weekly, like the rest of Nazi framing of the “Jewish problem”, prepared the ground for the Final Solution:
… the cerebral racism of the SS provided the mental armour for mass murderers (p.250).
Just as the Nazi euthanasia program trialled techniques and habituated technicians for industrial-methods mass murder. The entire rhetoric about the dangerous, subhuman Jews in which terms such as ‘extinction’ and ‘annihilation’ were used both set and spread the mindset:
When they received their orders on the eastern front, SA and SS militiamen may have been surprised, but they were not unprepared (p.252).
On the sixth anniversary of his appointment as Chancellor, Hitler broke his public reticence about his intentions for the Jews and launched into a now infamous anti-Jewish rant in the Reichstag. Hitler’s “prophetic” comments in his 30 January 1939 speech were barely noticed at the time (p.254). It is now seen as foreshadowing of the slaughter of the Jews:
Today I will be a prophet once again. If the international Jewish financial establishment in Europe and beyond succeeds in plunging the peoples of the world into yet another world war, then the result will not be Bolshevikization of the globe and thus a victory for Jewry, but the annihilation [Vernichtung] of the Jewish race in Euope (Pp253-4).
Koonz notes that it as also enunciates the four themes of the Nazi conscience:
(1) Preserving the common destiny of the Volk from racial disaster.
(2) Self-denial in the service of the Volk as the cardinal virtue. In Hitler’s words:
What is unimportant or detrimental to the existence of the Volk can never be ethical
From which followed;
(3) The German’s right to claim the lebensraum they deserved.
(4) The denial of universal morality, something that Hitler derived from, in his words:
the laws and necessities of life, as they reveal themselves to man through reason and knowledge (Pp254-5)
The last is not far from the Thomist moral rhetoric that a Catholic school boy could have picked up from a Catholic Church whose formal commitment to universal morality has always had a lot of caveats. The Catholic Church has, after all, always been a bitter opponent of equality before the law—for pagans, Jews, other Christians, queers. In each case (apart from the Jews), it has been a bitter opponent of such groups even having an acknowledged existence within the community, while its theology of Genesis 19 is explicitly that of purifying extermination.

Nazism was a secularisation of aspects of Catholic theology: the utterly trumping moral authority against which no human claims had standing was the Aryan race rather than God; it was blood that was sacred and conveyed salvation, rather than God’s grace; but—with the exception of Slavs—the victims of the Holocaust (Jews, queers, Gypsies [who are pagans], “incorrect believers”) were all those whom the Catholic Church has spent centuries propagating malevolent identities against: Nazism was as much series of substitutions on Catholic patterns as a rejection of them—it is noticeable how many of the key organisers of the Holocaust were either born and raised Catholic or, if Protestant, raised in predominately Catholic milieus. Hence the special animus many senior Nazis had for the Catholic Church—it was in so many ways a competitor and an embarrassing mirror.

Koonz cites various observers at the time who could see where things were going. As one horrified German bystander observed:
What happened to the Armenians in Turkey … is, more slowly and efficiently being done to the Jews (p.255).
A grim observation, given Hitler’s infamous rhetorical question of "who remembers the Armenians?".

The series of stunning German victories in the early stages of the Eurasian War created both an opportunity—wartime control and mobilisation—and a problem. How could such a tiny Jewish remnant (less than one percent of the population) be any sort of threat to a strong, powerful, self-confident and triumphant Volk? The answer was to depict Jews as either a racial plague or agents of global conspiracy. Antisemitic think tanks and research institutes produced new “evidence” of Jewish malevolence and corrupting power:
Well in advance of the first feasibility study for mass extermination (commissioned in July 1941), a continuous flow of fraudulent research on the Jewish question shaped the moral context within which desk murderers and field commanders when about their work (p.258).
The process of extermination itself got underway using the “ordinary” processes of a modern bureaucratic state, thereby attracting less attention. Ordinary Germans were aware of the New Order having a dark side, but Jewish suffering was mainly met with apathy, though acts of kindness, even of protection, still occurred. The Nazi regime permitted fairly wide latitude of private conscience—indeed, treating acts of kindness or dissent as matters of private conscience minimised their political consequences—while ethnocrats who found the consequences of their efforts to create a new racial order hard to face were able to move to other positions (Pp258ff). But, as Koonz observes:
The everyday decency of a few magnifies the complicity of the man (p.264).
Walter Gross continued his tireless efforts of racial indoctrination throughout the war, though increasingly upstaged by Goebbels (Pp264ff).

Kooonz strips away the postwar claims of Germans that they at most vaguely knew of bad things happened “in the East”. A map (p.268) of the concentration camp network displays vividly just how large—and all across Germany—the camp network was, while the process of identification and expulsion required the compliance of many thousands of ordinary Germans.

How was such active and passive compliance achieved?
Germans’ readiness to expel Jews from their universe of moral concern evolved as a consequence of their acceptance of knowledge disseminated by institutions they respected (p.272).
Nazi Germany was not a society of rigid control such as Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The creation of a broad ethnic consensus was thus crucial in creating the Nazi racial order (Pp272-3). Koonz offers the best one paragraph summary of Nazism and the Third Reich I have read:
Nazism offered all ethnic Germans, whether or not they joined the party, a comprehensive system of meaning that was transmitted through powerful symbols and renewed in communal celebrations. It told them how to differentiate between friend and enemy, true believer and heretic, non-Jew and Jew. In offering the faithful a vision of sanctified life in the Volk, it resembled a religion. Its condemnation of egotism and celebration of self-denial had much in common with ethical postulates elsewhere. But in contrast to the optimistic language of international covenants guaranteeing universal rights to all people, Nazi public culture was constructed on the mantra: “Not every being with a human face is human” (p.273).
Because Koonz has so immersed herself in the way Nazism worked as a system of thought, of virtue, of alternative morality, she can see how:
Hitler founded a consensual dictatorship that was “neither right nor left” on the political spectrum but occupied an entirely different political terrain. Like other fundamentalisms, it began with a powerful leader and drew on populist rage against corrupt elites who had betrayed the “common man” (p.273).
Nazism is something it is very important to understand in its own terms, according to its own nature, not placed into some convenient pre-conception. Which is why Koonz’s study is so revealing.

Nor has the appeal and pattern of ethnic fundamentalism died with Nazism but—as Koonz points out—kept recurring in the break-up of imperial orders. For ethnic fundamentalism is:
a creed that gathers force when modernizing societies are convulsed by dislocations which threaten conventional systems of meaning … Reforging bonds that may be religious, cultural, racial, or linguistic, ethnic fundamentalism merges politics and religion within a crusade to defend values and authentic traditions that appear to be endangered (p.274).
The recent history of the Balkans displays this very clearly.

We live in an age of moral flux (“what critics call moral meltdown”) which lets loose some grim possibilities, as Koonz warns in her final words:
Political leaders who appear to embody the communitarian virtues of a bygone age purport to stand as beacons of moral rectitude in a sea of sin. Although they incite hatred against anyone they deem to be ethnic outsiders—whether sexual degenerates, pacifists, defenders of human rights, or simply misfits—their devoted constituencies share a fear of moral and physical pollution so profound it transcends partisan politics. Long after the demise of Nazism, ethnic fundamentalism continues to draw its power from the vision of an exclusive community of “us”, without “them” (p.274).
Part of the art of political leadership being, of course, to not get so out of touch with popular concerns than such messages begin to gain resonance.

Koonz’s The Nazi Conscience is a profoundly sensible and perceptive study of Nazism as a system of virtue and persuasion. The patterns of moral exclusion are portrayed and dissected in a way that is very accessible and revelatory: one that both reveals patterns that have wider application while being thoroughly grounded in the specificities of the Nazi experience. It is a splendid work of history and moral perceptiveness.


  1. You were brought up a protestant I presume? Catholic bashing is never too far away, yea?

  2. I was raised Anglican (Episcopalian in US-speak), but not very seriously. My commments do not come, however, from my upbringing but by examining the historical evidence.

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