The Holocaust as on Ongoing Possibility

May 2009By Jean Bethke Elshtain

Jean Bethke Elshtain is Centennial Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. Her latest books are Women and War, and an edited collaboration with Sheila Tobias, Women, Militarism, and War.

Modernity and the Holocaust.  By Zygmunt Bauman. Cornell University Press. 224 pages. $29.95.



Consider the following: In answering his critics concerned with the bombing of West Bei­rut during the 1982 Lebanon War, Menachem Begin, then Israel’s Prime Minister, cried out: “If Adolph Hitler were hiding out in a building along with twenty innocent civilians, wouldn’t you bomb the build­ing?” Begin was responded to by Amos Oz, Israeli citizen and writer. Powerfully and disturbingly, Oz wrote: “There are times when, like many Jews, I feel sorry I didn’t kill Hitler with my own hands. I’m sure you feel the same way. There is not, and there never will be, any healing for the open wound. Tens of thousands of dead Arabs will not heal that wound. But, Mr. Begin, Adolph Hitler died thirty-seven years ago. Pity or not, the fact is: Hitler is not hiding in Nabatiyah, in Sidon or in Beirut. He is dead and burned to ashes. Time and again, Mr. Begin, you publicly betray a weird urge to resur­rect Hitler from the dead just so that you may kill him over and over again each day….”

Drawing upon debates from recent Israeli politics seems the most appropriate way to introduce Zygmunt Bauman’s important book; Bauman is determined not to re-encode those understand­ings of the Holocaust that view it as “an interruption of the normal flow of history, a cancerous growth on the body of civilized society, a momen­tary madness….” He la­ments the sedimented insist­ence that the Holocaust is a tragedy “that occurred to the Jews and the Jews alone” and that the blame for the Holo­caust must lie in the demented minds of a handful of patho­logical criminals. Bauman ar­gues to the contrary that the Holocaust “was born and exe­cuted in our modern rational society at the high stage of our civilization and at the peak of human cultural achievement and for this reason it is a problem of that society, civili­zation and culture.”

With Amos Oz, Bauman laments the attempt of some leaders of the Israeli govern­ment to, in Oz’s words, “em­ploy the tragic memories [of the Holocaust] as the certificate of its political legitimacy, a safe-conduct pass for its past and future policies and, above all, as the advance payment for the injustices it might itself commit.” Bauman’s claims and concerns will no doubt get him into enormous trouble, but he makes an argument little dif­ferent from that posited by many contemporary Israeli thinkers and activists whose views, alas, are not as well known and represented in debates in the U.S. as they ought to be.

Whatever use and abuse is made of the sinister and hor­rifying tragedy of the Holo­caust within contemporary Israeli society, Bauman’s book should trouble all of us be­cause it does not let us off the hook. Bauman claims that to view the Holocaust as an anomaly and its perpetrators as bizarre and deranged pre­vents us from realizing that the Holocaust is an outcome made possible by modernity, especially the emergence of the bureaucratic nation-state, rath­er than a throwback to pre-modern “irrationalism.” He sees his work as beginning a long overdue task, namely, “bringing the sociological, psy­chological and political lessons of the Holocaust episode to bear on the self-awareness and practice of the institutions and members of contemporary so­ciety.” This is a tall order and, not surprisingly, Bauman falls short from time to time. The book is marred by excessive repetition and by asides direct­ed exclusively at sociologists.

Despite such irritations, this is a book well worth read­ing because Bauman is so in­sistent that the powerful, top-heavy political state, having been emancipated in moderni­ty and having assigned to it­self “audacious engineering ambitions,” including the “dismantling of all non-politi­cal power resources and insti­tutions of social self-man­agement,” leaves all us mod­erns in the danger zone. If we are to appraise those dangers unblinkingly, we must assimi­late “the lessons of the Holo­caust” into the mainstream of our theories and our under­standing of modernity.

The first of Bauman’s lessons is a negative one: The way not to present the Holo­caust is as an event in Jewish history which makes it unique, uncharacteristic, and “sociolog­ically inconsequential.” It is important to be clear about what Bauman is saying here. When he argues that to treat the Holocaust as anomalous makes it inconsequential, he is not making a moral statement but a sociological claim. Sociol­ogists from the beginning looked for general patterns to civilization, for the ways in which very diverse societies all developed structures of, and rule-governed patterns for, so­cial life. Deviations from set­tled patterns are easily dis­missed as “sociologically in­consequential” rather than con­tinuing possibilities. Hence Bauman insists that “the Hol­ocaust has more to say about the state of sociology than sociology in its present shape is able to add to our knowl­edge of the Holocaust.” The Holocaust, pace orthodox soci­ological opinion, was not a failure of modernity but a product of it. This is the un­welcome news that Bauman brings. In the Final Solution “the industrial potential and technological know-how boast­ed by our civilization scaled new heights in coping with a task of unprecedented magni­tude.”

Moderns are taught to admire technical efficiency and praise cost-effective strategies. The Final Solution, according to Bauman, was taken up as the most effective method of dealing with a problem. Hence it represents an ongoing possibility in modern society if that socie­ty is placed in a situation of ex­treme political and military stress. Bauman refers throughout to the modern “gardening state.” This is a view that sees society as “an object of designing, cultivating and weed poison­ing.” The gardening metaphor is but one metaphor. Another is the notion of a laboratory state, the insistence that the state exists in order to manipu­late and experiment with pop­ulations. These are “rational” approaches, although the out­comes often seem desperately irrational. The choice of physi­cal extermination resulted from means/ends calculations, bu­reaucratic procedures, and a notion that the state has the right to cleanse itself of unde­sirable elements or to prune those elements.

After all, had not the En­lightenment reassured us that nature was meant for reason to master? Further, even as nature could be controlled and improved, so could human beings become targets for social engineering. The Holocaust was a social engineering proj­ect on an extraordinary scale. It eroded those moral inhibi­tions that obtain for most peo­ple most of the time, because the violence was dehuman­ized, routinized, and author­ized. Even more horribly, the co-operation of victims with SS bureaucrats was sought and of­ten, as Raoul Hilberg’s pio­neering work shows, gained.

The pathos of the story Bauman tells is almost unbear­able. It includes evidence of the ways in which the simple acts of Jewish councils, in pro­viding information, money, and labor to their German su­pervisors, helped to guarantee, not, as the councils hoped, the best outcome in a terrible situ­ation but, instead, to pave the way for the worst. Alas, the leaders of the very communi­ties that were doomed often performed “most of the prelim­inary bureaucratic work the operation required (supplying the Nazis with the records and keeping the files on their pro­spective victims), supervised the productive and distributive activities needed to keep the victims alive until the time the gas chambers were ready to receive them, policed the cap­tive populations so that law and order tasks do not stretch the ingenuity or resources of the captors, secured the smooth flow of the annihila­tion process by appointing the objects of its successive stages, delivered the selected objects to the sites from which they could be collected with a min­imum of fuss and mobilized the financial resources needed to pay for the last journey.”

This is the terrible and desperate irony of a situation in which victims were con­stituted as part of those social arrangements which are meant to destroy them. Unwittingly, desperate people may play in­to the hands of their oppressors because “modern rational, bureaucratically organized power” can “induce actions functionally indispensable to its purposes while jarringly at odds with the vital interests of the actors.” This is, of course, a controversial claim, although it is one that Hilberg has solid­ified as part of the enormous body of material on this cen­tury’s premier historic tragedy. Rational behavior, in these ter­rible circumstances, meant co­-operation with the state in or­der that the worst not happen. But, tragically, co-operation encouraged the worst to hap­pen.

This leads Bauman to one of his most important conclu­sions, one that may be shock­ing to sociologists, but will not surprise moralists, ethicists, and political philosophers in the least, namely, that “morali­ty may manifest itself in insubordination towards socially upheld principles, and in an action openly defying social solidarity and consensus.” That Bauman regards this as news to sociologists comes as a bit of a shock to those of us raised in various Christian traditions for whom defiance of Caesar was always a possi­bility and, at times, a moral imperative.

The modernist hope was that taking the vagaries of in­dividual moral decision making out of the hands of ordinary people and lodging them with the state would guarantee that the state would act with re­straint, given that civilized Western Europe had, after all, created the state. In practice, things did not work out that way. Wertfrei, or value-free, sociology should be indicted as one among many forces impli­cated in modern horrors. Dis­articulating the political from the ethical helped smooth the path of those determined to do harm to others in the name of raison d’état, or in order to quell anarchy or purify the state of undesirable elements.

Let me reiterate that Bau­man’s theses may sound strange and initially unaccept­able to many readers because we have been immured into viewing the Holocaust as irra­tional and its perpetrators as deranged. Also congealed in our collective consciousness is the view that the motor that drove the Final Solution was an untempered German anti-Semitism. Here too the enor­mous spate of recent works by scholars of 20th-century Euro­pean history apprise us of the fact that popular German anti-Semitism ran a rather “poor second” to Jew-hatred in quite a few other European countries. As Sarah Gordon’s work demonstrates, anti-Semitism was not a primary motivating factor in the political commit­ments of most of those drawn to the Nazi Party. Traditional anti-Semitism is unreliable as an instrument of sustained de­struction; it is episodic and dif­ficult to forge into anything like a systematic and continu­ing effort. As Hannah Arendt has argued, and as Bauman states, modern racism is “un­thinkable without the ad­vancement of modern science, modern technology and modern forms of state power.” The Nazi revolution “was an exercise in social engineering on a grandiose scale that made traditional anti-Semitic out­bursts pale by comparison.” Bauman is convincing that mere “rage and fury are pitia­bly primitive and inefficient as tools of mass annihilation.” Systematic genocide, as op­posed to sporadic pogroms, required a powerful, central­ized, huge, and efficient bureaucratic apparatus.

Bauman leaves us with the mordant realization that mod­ern civilization is incapable of “guaranteeing moral use of the awesome powers it brought into being.” We require more than ever a sociology attuned to the poignant and fragile story of humanity, aware of our vulnerabilities, disabused of our capacity to control all events, and dubious of the presumption that history is the story of progress. Bauman, with Freud, would bow to the reproach that he has no consolation to offer, but he has offered us a prescient warning, a cautionary tale.



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