Historical and philosophical interpretations of the Holocaust

Historical and philosophical interpretations of the Holocaust

Here is a brief description on some of the main historical and philosophical views regarding the Holocaust.

Historical and philosophical interpretations

The Holocaust and the historical phenomenon of Nazism, which has since become the dark symbol of the 20th century's crimes, is the subject of numerous historical, psychological, sociological, literary, and philosophical studies. All types of scholars have tried to explain what appears as the most irrational act of the Western World, which, until at least World War I, had been so sure of its eminent superiority to other civilizations. Frankfurt school philosopher Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer thus began the "Dialectic of Enlightenment":

"Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity. [ Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, "Dialectic of Enlightenment", 2002 translation) ]

Theodor Adorno went as far as ceasing to work as a composer, declaring: "writing any more poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" ("Nach Auschwitz noch ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch"). Thus, Auschwitz became the metonymic name for the Holocaust and the Nazi barbarity. Although Adorno later retracted this statement, declaring that "Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream...", the concepts of civilization and of progress themselves were severely called into question, and in a much greater manner than had happened due to World War I's massive killings. Germany, which was considered one of the most enlightened European countries, radiant with literature and philosophy (Goethe, Hegel, etc.), art (Bach, Bauhaus, etc.), and which had quickly followed in Great Britain's and France's steps during the competition induced during the New Imperialism period (starting in 1860s), had made itself guilty of one of the biggest crimes against humanity ever committed. Thus, the juridical concept of crimes against humanity was created to qualify what could not be qualified. It was left to literature, such as Primo Levi's "If This Is a Man" (1947) or Robert Antelme's "The Human Race" (1947) to describe what poetry, according to Adorno, could not describe.

Thus, until this day, many different people have tried to explain what many deemed unexplainable due to its horror. One important philosophical question, addressed as early as 1933 by Wilhelm Reich in "Mass Psychology of Fascism", was the mystery of the obedience of the German people to such an "insane" operation. Hannah Arendt, in her 1963 report on Adolf Eichmann, presented him as a symbol of dull obedience to authority in what was at first seen as a scandalous book, "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil" (1963), which has since become a classic of political philosophy. Thus, Arendt opposed herself to the first, immediate, explanation, which accused the Nazis of "cruelty" and of "sadism". Later, the historians' debate concerning functionalism and intentionalism also demonstrated that the question could not be simplified to a question of cruelty. Many people who participated in the Holocaust were normal people, according to Arendt, and that is the real scandal. This led Stanley Milgram's to conduct psychological experiences on obedience, opening up the way to understanding the psychological experiences of "authority" and charisma. The question of charisma was renewed by Gustave Le Bon's 19th century studies about crowd psychology. Thus, his work acquired new force, although Hitler himself had been inspired by Le Bon's description of propaganda techniques to write "Mein Kampf". Furthermore, Hannah Arendt and some authors such as Sven Lindqvist and Olivier LeCour Grandmaison tried to point toward a relative continuity between the crimes committed against "primitive" people during colonialism and the Holocaust. They most notably argued that many techniques that the Nazis industrialized had been experimented on in other continents, starting with the concentration camps invented during the Second Boer War if not before. This thesis was met with fierce opposition by some groups who argued that nothing could be compared to the Holocaust, not even other genocides: although the Herero genocide (1904-07) and the Armenian genocide (1915-17) are commonly considered as the first genocides in history, many argued that the Holocaust had taken proportions that even these crimes against humanity had not achieved.

The Holocaust was indeed characterized by an industrial project of extermination; compared to it, other genocides seemed to lack "professionalism". This led authors such as Enzo Traverso to argue in "The Origins of Nazi Violence" that Auschwitz was "an authentic product of Western civilization". [ See also Enzo Traverso, [http://mondediplo.com/2005/02/15civildiso "Nazism’s roots in European culture - Production line of murder"] in "Le Monde diplomatique", February 2005 ] Beginning his book with a description of the guillotine, which according to him marks the entry of the Industrial Revolution into capital punishment, and writes: "Through an irony of history, the theories of Frederick Taylor" (taylorism) were applied by a totalitarian system to serve "not production, but extermination." (see also Heidegger's comments). In the wake of Hannah Arendt, Traverso describes the colonial domination during the New Imperialism period through "rational organization", which lead in a number of cases to extermination. However, this argument, which insists on the industrialization and technical rationality through which the Holocaust itself was carried out (the organization of trains, technical details, etc. — see Adolf Eichmann's bureaucratic work), was in turn opposed by other people. These point out that the 1994 Rwandan genocide only used machetes.

Others have presented the Holocaust as a product of German history, analyzing its deep roots in German society: "German authoritarianism, feeble liberalism, brash nationalism or virulent anti-Semitism. From A. J. P. Taylor's "The Course of German History" fifty-five years ago to Daniel Goldhagen's recent "Hitler's Willing Executioners", Nazism is understood as the outcome of a long history of uniquely German traits", writes Russell Jacoby. [ [http://www.thenation.com/doc/20031013/jacoby "Savage Modernism"] , Russell Jacoby, "The Nation", October 13, 2003 issue ] Furthermore, while many pointed out that the specificity of the Holocaust was also rooted in the constant antisemitism from which Jews had been the target since the foundation of Christianity (and the myth of the "deicide people"), others underlined that in the 19th century, pseudo-scientific racist theories had been elaborated in order to justify, in a general way, white supremacy. In his works on "biopolitics", philosopher Michel Foucault also traced the origins of "state racism" to the eugenicist policies invented during the 19th century (it is one of the few praise that Foucault accorded to Freud's psychoanalysis, that he adamantly opposed himself to such a project of "racial hygiene").

Why did people participate in, authorize, or tacitly accept the killing?


Stanley Milgram was one of a number of post-war psychologists and sociologists who tried to address why people obeyed immoral orders in the Holocaust. Milgram's findings demonstrated that reasonable people, when instructed by a person in a position of authority, obeyed commands entailing what they believed to be the death or suffering of others. These results were confirmed in other experiments as well, such as the Stanford prison experiment. In his book "Mass Psychology of Fascism" (1933), Wilhelm Reich also tried to explain this obedience. The work became known as the foundation of Freudo-Marxism. Nobel prize winner Elias Canetti also addressed the problem of mass obedience in "Masse und Macht" (1960 - "Crowds and Power"), developing an original theory of the consequences of commandments orders both in the obedient person and in the commander, who may well become a "despotic paranoiac". Two recent "experiments", one called The Third Wave and one conducted by Jane Elliott, tried answer the question of: "How can a people be a part of something terrible and then claim at the demise that they were not really involved?"

Psychological mechanisms

The Holocaust is a clear example of two factors at work. One is described by the "boiling frog" theory, which says that an enormous change will not be noticed if it occurs in gradual steps. The other factor is the primal and powerful mechanism of herding, which has its home in the limbic system and ensures that individuals conform to the group. This mechanism has evolved through natural selection to ensure that human groups survive. Together, these factors make conforming to the group a stronger impulse than breaking out, even if the individual does not agree with what the group is doing. So long as the gradual changes in group behaviour are small, herding can eventually take the group towards a state that is far removed from past behavior and is more and more extreme. Thus, participants in the Holocaust may have privately felt horror or disgust at what they were ordered to do but stayed in line with the group. These effects have been exploited many times in history by demagogues and revolutionaries; they are also seen in bullying. [ [http://orp.uoregon.edu/downloads/Bullying.pdf Bullying in Schools] - URL retrieved September 2, 2006]

Studies of mass psychology, kick-started by Carl Jung but currently being developed under various labels, suggest that the causal mechanism for crowd behaviour is the reverse of what is commonly believed. The socionomic perspective says that, rather than persecution making people fearful and downtrodden, fearful and downtrodden people look for someone to persecute.Prechter, Robert R., Jr. 2000. "The Wave Principle of Human Social Behavior and the New Science of Socionomics". New Classics Library. ISBN 0-932750-49-4.]

The Jungian-socionomic analysis says that after the humiliation of World War I, the economic ruin of the Weimar Republic, being forced to pay war reparations and the Great Depression, it was natural for the German people to become angry and look for someone on whom to vent their anger; herding behaviour amplifed this anger and the Holocaust was the result.

Functionalism versus intentionalism

A major issue in contemporary Holocaust studies is the question of "functionalism" versus "intentionalism". The terms were coined in a 1981 article by the British Marxist historian Timothy Mason to describe two schools of thought about the origins of the Holocaust. Intentionalists hold that the Holocaust was the result of a long-term masterplan on the part of Hitler's and that Hitler was the driving force behind the Holocaust. Functionalists hold that Hitler was anti-Semitic, but that he did not have a masterplan for genocide. Functionalists see the Holocaust as coming from below in the ranks of the German bureaucracy with little or no involvement on the part of Hitler. Functionalists stress that the Nazi anti-Semitic policy was constantly evolving in ever more radical directions and the end product was the Holocaust.

Intentionalists like Lucy Dawidowicz argue that the Holocaust was planned by Hitler from the very beginning of his political career, at very least from 1919 on, if not earlier. Later, Dawidowicz was to date the decision for genocide back to November 11, 1918. Other Intentionalists like Andreas Hillgruber, Karl Dietrich Bracher, Gerhard Weinberg and Klaus Hildebrand suggested that Hitler had decided upon the Holocaust sometime in the early 1920s. More recent intentionalist historians like Eberhard Jäckel continue to emphasize the relative earliness of the decision to kill the Jews, although they are not willing to claim that Hitler planned the Holocaust from the beginning. Saul Friedländer has argued that Hitler was an extreme anti-Semite from 1919 on, but he did not decide upon genocide until the middle of 1941. Yet another group of intentionalist historians such as the American Arno J. Mayer claimed Hitler only ordered the Holocaust in December 1941.

Functionalists like Hans Mommsen, Martin Broszat, Götz Aly, Raul Hilberg and Christopher Browning hold that the Holocaust was started in 1941-1942 as a result of the failure of the Nazi deportation policy and the impending military losses in Russia. They claim that what some see as extermination fantasies outlined in Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and other Nazi literature were mere propaganda and did not constitute concrete plans. In "Mein Kampf" Hitler repeatedly states his inexorable hatred of the Jewish people, but nowhere does he proclaim his intention to exterminate the Jewish people.

Furthermore, Functionalists point to the fact that in the 1930s, Nazi policy aimed at trying to make life so unpleasant for German Jews that they would leave Germany. Adolf Eichmann was in charge of facilitating Jewish emigration by whatever means possible from 1937 until October 3, 1941, when German Jews were forbidden to leave, Reinhard Heydrich issuing an order to that effect. Functionalists point to the SS's support for a time in the late 1930s for Zionist groups as the preferred solution to the "Jewish Question" as another sign that there was no masterplan for genocide. The SS only ceased their support for German Zionist groups in May 1939 when Joachim von Ribbentrop informed Hitler of this, and Hitler ordered Himmler to cease and desist as the creation of Israel was not a goal Hitler thought worthy of German foreign policy.

In particular, Functionalists have noted that in German documents from 1939 to 1941, the term "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" was clearly meant to be a "territorial solution", that is the entire Jewish population was to be expelled somewhere far from Germany and not allowed to come back. At first, the SS planned to create a gigantic "Jewish Reservation" in the Lublin, Poland area, but the so-called "Lublin Plan" was vetoed by Hans Frank, the Governor-General of occupied Poland who refused to allow the SS to ship any more Jews to the Lublin area after November, 1939. The reason why Frank vetoed the "Lublin Plan" was not due to any humane motives, but rather because he was opposed to the SS "dumping" Jews into the Government-General. In 1940, the SS and the German Foreign Office had the so-called "Madagascar Plan" to deport the entire Jewish population of Europe to a "reservation" on Madagascar. The "Madagascar Plan" was cancelled because Germany could not defeat the United Kingdom and until the British blockade was broken, the "Madagascar Plan" could not be put into effect. Finally, Functionalist historians have made much of a memorandum written by Himmler in May, 1940 explicitly rejecting extermination of the entire Jewish people as "un-German" and going on to recommend to Hitler the "Madagascar Plan" as the preferred "territorial solution" to the "Jewish Question". Not until July 1941 did the term "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" come to mean extermination.

Recently, a synthesis of the two schools has emerged that has been championed by diverse historians such as the Canadian historian Michael Marrus, the Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer and the British historian Ian Kershaw that contends that Hitler was the driving force behind the Holocaust, but that he did not have a long-term plan and that much of the initiative for the Holocaust came from below in an effort to meet Hitler's perceived wishes.

Another controversy was started by the historian Daniel Goldhagen, who argues that ordinary Germans were knowing and willing participants in the Holocaust, which he claims had its roots in a deep eliminationist German anti-Semitism. Most historians have disagreed with Goldhagen's thesis, arguing that while anti-Semitism undeniably existed in Germany, Goldhagen's idea of a uniquely German "eliminationist" anti-Semitism is untenable, and that the extermination was unknown to many and had to be enforced by the dictatorial Nazi apparatus.

Religious hatred and racism

The German Nazis considered it their duty to overcome natural compassion and execute orders for what they believed to be higher ideals. Much research has been done to explain how ordinary people could have participated in such heinous crimes, notably psychologist Stanley Milgram's famous experimental studies of obedience to authority. But there is no doubt that, like in some religious conflicts in the past, some people poisoned with racial and religious ideology of hatred committed the crimes with sadistic pleasure. Crowd psychology has attempted to explain such heinous acts, although Gustave Le Bon's "The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind" (1895) was also a major influence of "Mein Kampf", in particular relating to the propaganda techniques described in it. Sadistic acts were perhaps most notable in the case of the genocide committed by members of the Ustashe, whose enthusiasm and sadism in their killings of Serbs appalled Germans, Italians, and even German SS officers, who even acted to restrain the Ustashe. However, concentration camp literature, such as the writings of Primo Levi and Robert Antelme, describe numerous individual sadistic acts, including some committed by Kapos.

Martin Luther (a German leader of the Protestant Reformation) made a specific written call for harsh persecution of the Jewish people, including that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, prayerbooks destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. Luther argued that Jews should be shown no mercy or kindness, should have no legal protection, and that these "poisonous envenomed worms" should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. "Martin Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies" American historian Lucy Dawidowicz, concluded that the line of "anti-Semitic descent" from Luther to Hitler is "easy to draw," in her book "The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945". Adolf Hitler wrote of his admiration of Martin Luther in "Mein Kampf" [http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200601.txt "Mein Kampf"] .

Some authors, such as liberal philosopher Hannah Arendt in "The Origins of Totalitarianism" (1951), Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist or French historian Olivier LeCour Grandmaison have also linked the Holocaust to colonialism. They argue that techniques put in place during the New Imperialism period (first of all, concentration camps during the Boer War), as well as the pseudo-scientific theories elaborated during this period (e.g. Arthur de Gobineau's 1853 "Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races") had been fundamental in preparing the conditions of possibility of the Holocaust. Others authors have adamantly opposed these views, on behalf of the "unicity" of the Holocaust, compared to any other type of genocide.Fact|date=January 2007 Philosopher Michel Foucault also traced the origins of the Holocaust and of "racial policies" to what he called "state racism", which is a part of "biopolitics".

Finally, many have pointed the ancient roots of antisemitism, which has been present in the Western world since the foundation of Christianity. These sentiments were not different in pre-war Germany than elsewhere, but the Nazis were the first political party to organize, promote, and officialize antisemitism, while withdrawing legal protection from Jews. Modern ecumenism efforts, in particular by the Roman Catholic Church who asked pardon to the Jews, are being done in order to avoid any repetition of such acts.


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