Sunday, 23 September 2007

The Holocaust and the Modern Age

In 1989 Zygmunt Bauman, professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds had caused an enormous stir within the world of Social Sciences with the publication of 'Modernity and the Holocaust. Bauman himself a Polish Jew, who along with his family had fled the Nazis in 1939 to the Soviet occupied area to avoid the persecution that followed. In 'Modernity and the Holocaust' the essence of Bauman's claim was a challenge to the post-war premise that the Nazis were a phenomena of counter-modernity that had managed to overcome or reverse the 'civilizing' process of modernity. An example of this particular counter-modern view of the Nazis was endorsed by Ernst Nolte who stated that 'fascism has at its command forces which are born of the emancipation process (of Modernity) and then turn against their own origin…and in its radical form is the most complete and effective denial of that society' (Nolte 1963:567).
Bauman, in contrast had asserted that rather than an aberration of modernity, the holocaust was an event which could not have taken place without the social structure and technological advancement of post-enlightenment modernity and was 'done in the modern - rational, planned, scientifically informed, expert, efficiently managed, co-ordinated way' (Bauman 1989:88-9).

Bauman's claim is that the Holocaust 'could merely have uncovered another face of the same modern society whose other, more familiar, face we so admire. And that the two faces are perfectly, comfortably attached to the same body' (Bauman 1969:7). In supporting his view, Bauman directly attributes certain elements of modernity with aiding German society on the path to the Holocaust. These include the political formation of modern Europe into various nation-states, the evolution of the bureaucratic apparatus and forms of organisation which had governed the modern nation-state, and the modern ethos of the pursuit of societal progress, through scientific knowledge and rational thinking. I will now endeavour to evaluate the contribution that each of these processes had made to the rise of Nazism and the perpetration of the holocaust.

In his analysis of the contribution bureaucracy made to the holocaust, Bauman explains that 'though engaged in mass murder on a gigantic scale, this vast bureaucratic apparatus showed concern for correct bureaucratic procedure, for the niceties of precise definition, for the minutiae of bureaucratic regulation, and the compliance with the law' (Bauman 1969:14). Bauman claims that the essence of the modern hierarchical bureaucracy is the right to command and the duty to obey, with the aim of solving difficult problems in a moral vacuum. He also points to a 'free floating' responsibility, which floats upwards from the person carrying out the act to the person who gave the order, distancing responsibility from each participant, who can point to another, higher in the chain of command, being responsible for the actions in question. Bauman claims that human morality is often shaped through what the individual sees with their own eyes, and that there is a biological morality of 'animal pity' to human suffering, which the modern, rational hierarchical Bureaucracy detaches its servants from. Bauman claims that in such an organization, those above their sub-ordinates 'in addition to giving orders and punishing for insubordination…also pass moral judgements - the only moral judgement that counts for the individual's self-appreciation' (Bauman 1989:159).

To support this point Bauman cites Stanley Milgram's study of obedience to authority, conducted by a scientific researcher, who orders participants to administer electric shock punishment to victims for failure to answer questions correctly. Such participants are unaware that no such punishment is being administered to the 'victims'. Milgram's finding was that 65% had administered the maximum voltage to the 'victims', his explanation for this finding is that 'the subordinate person feels shame or pride depending on how adequately he has performed the actions called for by authority…(Freudian) superego shifts from an evaluation of the goodness or badness of the acts to an assessment of how well or poorly one is functioning in the authority system' (Bauman 1989:160).

Milgram had identified that compliance with authority could be reduced with an increase in the obviousness of the victim's plight. An example is that where the victim could not be heard or seen, there was 66% compliance, and when heard but not seen a compliance rate of 62%, however when the victim was only one metre away from the participant, compliance had dropped to 40%. Bauman links Milgram's theory of the distancing of 'victims' to a belief that such rational modern bureaucracies dehumanise to a certain extent, its human subjects as 'soldiers are told to shoot targets…employees of big companies are encouraged to destroy competition. Officers of welfare agencies operate discretionary awards at one time, personal credits at another'. The human subjects behind such decisions are 'better not perceived and not remembered' (Bauman 1989:103).

Bauman also points to the modern division of labour, as creating a mental distance within the industrial production process. This division of labour is typified by those carrying out a part of the process, having little, if any, awareness of what the corresponding part does. Each function in the process is, in itself, devoid of meaning until the production process is completed, thus psychologically distancing most of its participants from the final outcome and bringing 'more than the suspension of moral inhibition, it quashes the moral significance of the act…moral dilemmas recede from sight, while the occasions for more scrutiny and conscious moral choice become increasingly rare' (Bauman 1989:25). Bauman cites Kren and Rappoport's example of chemical plant workers producing napalm and the link between them and infants burned by such a substance, stating that 'it is chemical plants that produce napalm, not any of their individual workers' (Bauman 1989:100).

Bauman's view of the moral unconsciousness of Nazi bureaucrats, in their contribution to, and participation in the holocaust, is refuted by a number of sources. Christopher Browning, in his study of Nazi bureaucrats involved in dealing with 'Jewish' affairs prior to the final solution, disagrees with Bauman's view that they were mentally distanced from the suffering of their human subjects. Browning states that they 'lived in an environment already permeated by mass murder…(which) included wholesale killing and dying before their very eyes….these men had articulated positions and developed career interests that inseparably and inexorably led to a similar murderous solution to the Jewish question' (Browning 1992:143).

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen also refutes Bauman's claim that the Nazi bureaucracy's attitude to Jewish suffering was blinded by a rational approach to problem solving. Goldhagen claims that all the institutions involved in the holocaust, from the start to the finish of the process, shared the crucial common feature of a belief that their Jewish subjects were 'evil, powerful and dangerous', a view which 'structured the character of the institutions of killing as much as architectural plans did their physical plants' (Goldhagen 1997:168). Raul Hilberg also disagrees with that these bureaucrats had merely shown concern for correct procedure and legal compliance, claiming that the holocaust 'was not so much a product of laws and commands as it was a matter of spirit, of shared comprehension, of consonance and synchronization' (Browning 1992:125).

Bauman also claims that the rationality of the modern age had even filtered down to Jewish populations subjected to Nazism, which had enabled the Nazis to co-opt even the victims of their own genocide. The Jewish councils (Judenrate) in order to minimize the overall death toll, had listed and rounded up other Jews, as they were forced into a choice of 'death or survival' by the Nazis. Bauman also highlights that Judenrate leaders, like the industrialist Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, responsible for the Lodz ghetto, had a flawed assumption of Nazi rationality, which lead to their attempting to prove the Jews to be too economically useful for extermination. Such leaders had however aided the Nazis, because as a result 'almost everything was done to achieve maximum results with minimum costs and efforts' (Bauman 1989:149).

Laying the blame for Judenrate co-operation with the Nazis at the feet of modernity and the idea of rational thinking, however overlooks some of the essentially pre-modern features of the Judenrate as an organisation and their original reactions to dealing with the threat that Nazism posed to the Jewish population. The concept of the Judenrat 'was based upon centuries-old practices which were instituted in Germany during the Middle Ages' (, 29/03/2006), and like the Jewish population as a whole, was to a certain extent influenced by pre-modern received wisdom in dealing with past persecution. Laura A. Buck notes that 'for centuries, the Jews had learned that in order to survive they had to refrain from resistance. Through all the attacks against them they lost many people, but always emerged again like a rock from a receding tidal wave, they always survived….but the Nazis were a force unlike anything before' (, 29/03/2006).

It also needs to be emphasized that, although in most cases the Judenrate ultimately failed to keep much of their populations from deportation to the death camps, their rational thinking had kept many from their deaths for as long as possible. As Laura A. Buck notes 'reports show that the councils who obeyed German orders and did not create problems, kept their ghetto population alive longer….Ghettos that revolted were liquidated immediately. The Germans arrested, killed and replaced any Judenrate who did not obey orders'. (, 29/03/2006). This shows that the Nazis would have been just as willing to carry out the holocaust by indiscriminate slaughter, if the 'orderly' genocide that Bauman claims the Judenrate provided, wasn't forthcoming. As the only real attainable goal for the Judenrate was to preserve as many Jewish lives, for as long as possible, their rational thinking could be considered to a certain degree a success.

Bauman clearly contradicts his own view, stating that 'the range of choices was not set by them….(the Judenrate) deployed their reason and their skill of rational judgement to choices which had been made available to them' (Bauman 1989:149). He also states that 'one can hardly charge Chaim Rumkowski….with making an irrational response to the German threat. He had surely underestimated the German's murderous irrationality, and over-estimated their inherent business-rationality' (Bauman 1989:137). Therefore he acknowledges that the Nazis held the real power over life or death in this situation, and in exercising it were motivated by murderous irrationality rather than enlightened rational thought. Thus Bauman's equating modern rationality with culpability in such a situation is hard to fathom.

In citing the modern nation-state's central role in creating the conditions that lead to the holocaust, Bauman claims that in its carrying out of the 'civilising' process of modernity, rather than eradicating violence from every day life, it has given itself a monopoly of its exercising, through state apparatus such as the police or armed forces. He claims that 'somewhere in the wings physical violence is stored - in quantities that put it effectively out of the control of ordinary members of society and endow it with irresistible power to suppress unauthorised outbursts of violence' (Bauman 1989: 107). Bauman's claim is that this has brought a mellowing of manners and daily security for its citizens, but also a paradox, in that they are less likely to challenge state authority, allowing it the opportunity to carry out actions like the holocaust.

In assessing whether Bauman's claim of the nation-state's monopoly in exercising force, is as true in practice as it is in theory, account needs to be taken of Goldhagen's claims that German soldiers had often perpetrated acts against the wishes of their superiors. He claims that members of the Police Battalions that played a central role in implementing the 'Final Solution' had often photographed much of their actions against Jews, in defiance of orders of prohibition. Also one member of a police battalion had testified that they were 'monthly instructed that, in accordance with a Himmler order, nobody can order us to shoot anyone' (Goldhagen 1997:380).

Goldhagen states that rather than being unthinking robotic automatons 'Germans of all ranks, even the most Nazified, disobeyed orders that they opposed…Generals who willingly contributed to the extermination of Soviet Jews conspired against Hitler. Army soldiers, on their own, participated in the killing of Jews without orders to do so, or in disobedience of orders to keep their distance from massacres' (Goldhagen 1997:382). Goldhagen's conclusion is that they formed their own opinions about the rules they were supposed to adhere to, and often could exercise a choice in whether or not to follow them, and above all 'the evidence that no German was ever killed or incarcerated for having refused to kill Jews was conclusive' (Goldhagen 1997:381).

Goldhagen also claims that those who worked as Nazi concentration camp guards were barely concerned with correct procedure handed down by their superior officers. According to Goldhagen, such camps were 'a site of the freest self-expression' (Goldhagen 1997:172) and that 'every German guard was an unquestioned, untrammelled, absolute lord over the camp's inmates…(and) could indulge any urge by degrading, torturing, or killing a camp prisoner at whim, without fearing or suffering repercussions' (Goldhagen 1997:174). Bauman also claims that the nation-state's role in the path to the holocaust, came from its very notion being grounded in the inter-twining of a culturally homogenous population with a defined territory of maintained boundaries, excluding those alien from such a group. Bauman asserts that the pre-modern era, prior to the formation of nation-states, was characterised by divisions of several castes and orders, in which 'the Jews were just one estate or caste among many….the Jews were set apart, but the state of being set apart in no way made them unique' (Bauman 1989:35).

Bauman notes that 'there was no shortage of prophecies that once the newly fashioned legal equality was extended to Jews, their distinctiveness would fast evaporate, and the Jews…would soon dissolve in the now culturally and legally uniform society' (Bauman 1989:44). Goldhagen supports this view, claiming that German Liberals, who supported legal emancipation, had wanted to eradicate 'Jewishness' from German society, rather than eradicating the Jews. A major influence on German Liberal thought toward the Jews was Wilhelm Von Dohm, who believed that 'Jewishness stood in opposition to desirable…"human" qualities, and for a Jew to be laudable, his Jewishness must be denied' (Goldhaven 1997:57). Famous examples of Jews who had converted to Protestantism to pursue a position of standing in Germany include the Journalist and Professor of Literature at Dresden University, Victor Klemperer and the composer Felix Mendelssohn.

Bauman had noted however that the reality was that the Jews of Europe, instead of being intertwined with the rest of the nation, had found themselves as the 'foreigner within' each nation-state throughout the continent as 'the boundaries of the nation were too narrow to define them' (Bauman 1989:52). The upshot of this, according to Bauman is that anti-Semitism had changed from one based around pre-modern 'hetrophobia', the mere reaction of fear to the presence of groups who are a cultural 'other', to the 'biological' otherness of racism. And the 'solution' of such a problem according to Bauman, eventually lay in the use of modern science.

According to Bauman, Jews had been transferred from redeemable sinners to carriers of an eradicable vice who 'cannot repent. They have not sinned, they just lived according to their nature' (Bauman 1989:72). The logical extension to this biological racism, according to Bauman was 'the conviction that a certain category of human beings cannot be incorporated into the rational order, whatever the effort' (Bauman 1989:65). Bauman's claim is that modernity had brought a 'garden' culture, in which man can manipulate nature to perfection removing the unsightly, like the 'weeding of a garden' and that the Jewish victims of the Nazis were removed because they did not fit the 'rose garden' image of modern society that the Nazis held.

Bauman highlights that this was one of several instances where the Nazis had borrowed much of the pro-active attitude to problem-solving from the modern sciences, particularly the advances of the medical profession, where 'one can train and shape 'healthy' parts of the body, but not cancerous growth. The latter can be 'improved' only by being destroyed' (Bauman 1989:65). Adolf Hitler had specifically linked the 'discovery of the Jewish virus' with the medical advances of the proceeding century by the like of Louis Pasteur. The effort to eliminate the Jews was also clothed in medical terminology, particularly 'Judensauberung' (cleansing of Jews) or the 'gesungdung' (healing) of Europe.

Bauman highlights that science and the Third Reich were very much in close association with each other. Due to science's reliance on large funds 'a government who stretches its helpful hand and offers just that can count on the scientists gratitude and co-operation' (Bauman 1989:109). Bauman cites Robert Procter's study on science and the third reich and his findings that 'widespread opinion sorely underestimates the degree to which political initiatives…were generated by the scientific community itself, rather than imposed from outside….and the extent to which racial policy itself was initiated and managed by the recognised scientists with academically impeccable credentials' (Bauman 1989:109).

However one can view the Nazis enthusiasm for scientific progress, not quite as a full implementation of modernity, but that of a unique form of 'reactionary' modernism. This view is elaborated by Jeffrey Herf, who believed that Germany's particular form of modernism, was at fault for the rise of the Nazis, rather than the very essence of modernity itself. Herf explains that 'there is no such thing as modernity in general. There are only national societies each of which becomes modern in its own fashion' (Herf 1984:1).
Herf explains that pre-1945 German society had experienced an incorporation of the enlightenment only partially and inadequately, thus creating the paradox of an embrace of modern scientific technology, but a wholesale rejection of the political aspects of enlightenment reason, such as the values of universalism, political equality, and the improvement of societal ills. Herf explains that 'the reconciliations of technics and irrationality….were not and are not inherent in modernity, capitalism, or the enlightenment, but rather in a peculiarly authoritarian, illiberal and unenlightened national variant of them' (Herf 1984:219).

Herf points out how Germany's industrial revolution had occurred later than in England or France, though its industrial modernization was a quicker and a more thorough process, due to its authoritarian regime. The result of Germany's authoritarian industrial revolution, according to Herf, was that in Germany 'the bourgeoisie, political liberalism, and the enlightenment remained weak' (Herf 1984:5). One could therefore explain the disappearance of faith in the ability to incorporate Jews into German society, as emanating from the weakness of political liberalism in German society, rather than an enthusiastic embrace of science.

What also needs to be taken into account is that the Nazis' policy of linking of race with science, rather than being a genuine product of the scientific rationality of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was based on the theories of the 'pseudo-science' of eugenics. Eugenic theories had much opposition within highly regarded scientific opinion, as its basis for the construction of 'racial' inferiority was social rather than biological, as 'biology supplied no evidence for the mainline-eugenic assumption that Italians, Poles, Lithuanians or other national groups were biologically uniform' (Kelves 1985:132).

Thomas Hunt Morgan, who had been awarded the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, had noted in 1925 that the definition of 'race' had not been 'in a biological sense, but social or political groups bound together by physical conditions, by religious sentiments, or political organisations' (Kelves 1985:132-33). Above all the essential reason why eugenics was discredited as a science was because, as H.L. Mencken notes 'in none of the books of its masterminds is there a clear definition of the superiority they talk about so copiously' (Kelves 1985:147). Kenan Malik also disagrees with Bauman's view that modern racism arises from rationality, as the 'belief in reason, espousal of the scientific method and a universalistic conviction do not of themselves imply a racial viewpoint' (Malik 1996:41).
Malik divorces racism and enlightenment theories, explaining that the 'belief in the unity of humanity and the equality of man was held by virtually all Enlightenment thinkers. Human beings were naturally equal; inequality was created by society…The certainty that there existed a universal human nature and a common human psyche led to a greater willingness to accept unfamiliar values and to a more tolerant and humanistic attitude to non-European peoples' (Malik 1996:49).

Malik argues that modern 'scientific' racism has its historical roots in the structure of post-industrial revolution capitalist society and the relationships of economic inequalities that result from the pursuit of profit. This had occurred during the nineteenth century, rather than in the early eighteenth century where enlightenment theories had their origin. Malik's claim is that capitalist society creates a clash with theories of enlightenment-endorsed equality, and brought difficulties in attaining such an equality. Malik asserts that as a result of conflating capitalism with the enlightenment 'the specific problems created by capitalist social relations become de-historicized….racial theory, colonialism or the holocaust are not investigated in their specificity, as products of distinctive tendencies within capitalist society, but are all lumped together as the general consequences of 'modernity' (Malik 1996:246).

In conclusion therefore, Bauman fails to comprehensively establish a link between Modernity and responsibility for the holocaust, or the Nazis rise to power in Germany. He overstates the power of the hierarchical bureaucratic organisation in the modern era and underestimates the ability of those within such organizations to evaluate the moral content of their actions. He fails to recognise that obedience to such authority does to a great extent 'depend upon the existence of a propitious social and political context' (Goldhagen 1997:383) and underestimates the ideological element of the Nazis rule through a tendency to 'bracket off, or at least to leave radically under-theorised, the specifically non rational' (, 30/03/2006).

It can be seen to a certain degree that the Nazis exercised a modern rational approach to carrying out the final solution, applying the highly efficient processes of a modern nation-state to pursuing racial purity, however Bauman overestimates the power of force that the modern nation-state could exercise over its own citizens. As Goldhagen's study shows, it was proven that throughout the holocaust many of its officers had perpetrated inhuman acts against others which had not been within the authority conferred upon them by the power of the state.
Despite the fact that there was a degree of organisational and scientific rationality on the path to the final solution, the overall philosophy which led to the holocaust was undoubtedly irrational.
Bauman fails to recognise that the degree of enthusiasm for scientific modernity that the Nazis had was grossly asymmetrical with their feelings on political modernity, and their linking of science and race was inaccurate as a scientific theory and discredited by highly regarded scientific opinion of its time. Therefore it is conclusive that Germany while under Nazi rule was an insufficiently modern society, with many features, especially socio-politically, that were specifically counter-modern and Bauman's claim that modernity was specifically responsible for the holocaust is one that is inaccurate.

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