The Holocaust as on Ongoing Possibility
Modernity and the Holocaust
By Zygmunt Bauman
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Pages: 224 pages
Review Author: Jean Bethke Elshtain
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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