A Review of Zygmunt Bauman's book "Modernity and the Holocaust," with comments by the reviewer.
Regarding the holocaust, in the foreword to this book by Zygmunt Bauman, he reminds us that we have a duty to remember. But then, almost as an afterthought, he asks his readers the rhetorical question, to remember what?
In what elsewhere has been described as a stunning set of original reflections, Bauman has shaken us out of our moral comfort zones. With a kind of detached brilliance rarely seen today, he disturbs the very moral ground that our perceptions of the holocaust rests on, opening our eyes up to new more provocative and disturbing ways of seeing that part of modern Western history. It is a book that every American, as well as everyone else in the rest of the world, must read, study and understand.
Decent societies are correct to express self-righteous indignation at those who deny that the holocaust ever occurred, or who deny that even if it did happen, something less than six million Jews were murdered. The poster child for this kind of mindless, intentionally evil denial, include the skin-heads that now populate many Western countries, including the U.S.. And not insignificantly, they include at least one prominent recent head of state from the Middle East, ex-President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
A key theme of this book is the author's not so subtle suggestion that "crazies" such as the "skinheads" or Ahmadinejad, are not the only holocaust deniers. The window that this analysis has cracked open, and then pried completely off its hinges, is that there is yet another much larger group of holocaust deniers, ones that just happen to include nearly all the rest of us?
This group includes all of those of us who continue to deny that the holocaust was an organic product of the most sophisticated, technologically advanced, rational and respected representative of Western culture at the time, Germany. And thus, this author argues that as the flagship of modern Western cultural values, morality and humanity, far from being the aberration of "a lone nut anti-Semite," more than anything else, Hitler's Germany has turned out to be little more than a "proxy" for the emerging morality of the modern world.
The author can say this without it being considered scandalous, or fear of contradiction because since World War II, a dozen or so "other holocausts" have occurred but have gone mostly under the radar of our dullened post-modern sensibilities, virtually unnoticed in the wake of the carnage of World War II.
Thus clearly, even in retrospect, the European Holocaust can no longer be considered just an isolated Jewish tragedy -- just a private matter between Hitler and the Jews -- but arguably, represents a more generalized process of moral decay and failure of the very basis of the morality of the modern and post-modern world.
By pretending that Hitler's "final solution" of insulated bureaucratized and mechanized, technocratic mass murder, was a one time act of a lone nut and his henchmen, and thus pretending further that it had nothing at all to do with the rest of us, almost reduces our unconscious collective denial to being about as ludicrous as the conscious denials of Ahmadinejad and his skin head friends?
By portraying Nazi genocide as the mere isolated act of "a lone nut psychopathic mass murderer," rather than what it really was: part of the organic progression of 1200 years of anti-Semitism and racism that even today remains deeply entrenched, embedded in and endemic to Western culture, we do not so much insulate ourselves from guilt and complicity as we reveal a deep ignorance about the true meaning of the European holocaust.
And equally, we reveal our deep-structure need to avoid facing the truth about the shared moral responsibility for the European Holocaust as well as for other inhuman conditions that still exist in our modern world -- but from which we conveniently have turned our heads away.
What the author drives home forcefully here is that there is a dark side to our Judeo-Christian civilization that we best start owning up to, a side that leads directly and inexorably from Native American genocide, to slavery, right through the Crusades, the scattering Jews across the world, the inquisition and burning of people at the stake, five centuries of religious intolerance, pirating on the high seas, Jim Crow and instigating wars of aggression, mindless exploitation, greed, directly to Hitler and Auschwitz.
And as much as we pretend not to know it, Hitler's "technocratic industrialized production of death" that ended in the ovens of Poland, was not at all the case of a lone nut and his henchmen, but was indeed a normal progression of the Judeo-Christian tendency to be openly and publicly self-righteous about our moral failings on the one hand; but then turn just beneath our breaths and engage in actions that systematically regulate our collective moral culture downwards, on the other. And as we do so, we "condition" and "desensitize" ourselves to, and cultivate a habit of, turning our heads away from the moral ugliness that goes on within our midst across the globe everyday.
In the international system for instance, including within the United Nations, it is almost an article of faith that no matter how morally depraved are acts of genocide that go on. So long as they stay within the sacred boundaries of the nation state, we try as much as our diminished morale sensibilities will allow us, to ignore them. For we know that no matter how much they violate international law, there will be leaders waiting in the dock of the General Assembly with weak rationalizations to defend their own state-sanctioned depravity. The nation-state system is an Old Boys club that protects its own moral ingrates. To the most outrageous acts of moral depravity, the most international law can do as presently constituted, is to issue a stern public rebuke in the form of a "finger wagging" UN Resolution.
It is curious that in terms of why we continue to tolerate genocides that go on in our own times, both Albert Speer (Hitler's second in command) and the international psychologists Herbert C. Kelman agree on what the preconditions are for the erosion of cultural norms and moral inhibitions that lead directly to genocide and racial holocausts. They are that: (1) people must be operating under the rules of "authorized violence;" (2) such violence must become numbingly routine; and (3) the targeted victims must be dehumanized.
It seems to me that throughout its history, including today, the U.S. qualifies on all three accounts: It has participated in more wars than any other nation in the history of the world, and domestically remains one of the most violent nations on earth, with 327 million guns, 2.3 million of its own citizens in jails, and 20 to 35,000 gun deaths per year.
What could be more numbing than that? And due to 300 years of sanctioned racist practices, it holds in its wings a ready made scapegoat: its black population -- which, remains in a permanent inferior caste system that is constantly primed and targeted for justification of further dehumanization. And do we need to add that it was the U.S. Eugenics Program, with the assistance of American Archaeologists, Psychologists and Sociologists, that gave Hitler his first racist ideas about ridding the world of the genetic "weeds" (Jews) of Western civilization through a "final solution?"
Beyond the U.S. there is also the international community at large, which even today, although the UN has finally outlawed the right for a state to commit genocide against its own peoples, we nevertheless have seen repeatedly (in East Timor, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Kurdistan, and the Sudan, among others) the UN edicts going ignored and unenforced; and its laws thus essentially remaining a dead letter.
But as if this were not enough evidence that modernity carries the germ of holocausts to come, international law aside, the author points out that there is nothing within Max von Weber's own exposition of modern bureaucracy (the rational spirit, principles of efficiency, that science is instrumental and value-free, relegating values to the subjective, etc.) that precludes the possibility of any of the excesses committed by the Nazis from recurring.
What professor Bauman reminds us of here is that whatever moral instinct is to be found in human conduct, we can never forget that it is not inherent in the human condition: Morality must be learned; it is "socially produced." And sadly, so too are its inhibitions and the tendency to be "indifferent to" or to "distance ourselves from," our own evil, and especially from the moral responsibility of our own evil acts.
Thus, what Professor Bauman tells us the holocaust teaches us about ourselves in particular, and about the modern world more generally, is that, what little morality that remains in our post-modern cultures, quickly dissolves as soon as societies malfunction.
The paradox he uses to brings this point home most clearly is that in an otherwise entirely innocent or primitive state, (that is one that is altogether free of social influence and regulation such as religious teachings, formal education, political ideologies, etc.), people at worse are indifferent to injuring one another.
However, when the mere presence of social regulation and organized indoctrination occurs, they then become anxious to injure at the behest of societal administrators, tribal, racial, religious and group rules and norms -- or worse, even for pleasure or for pay.
Put simply, the intended civilizing thrust of social regulation, which was to impose moral constraints on our otherwise rampant selfishness and our inborn tendency towards savagery, in actual practice too often works in exactly the opposite way: Savagery in the name of societal rules and causes, that is condoned and excused, and is conveniently masked by after-the-fact rationalizations, and often wedded to ideology through the psycho-social reward and punishment structure of society, becomes a bureaucratic tool that historically has collectively lowers the inhibitions of those within a group. It does this at the same time that it prods them to commit acts of savagery in the name of the tribe, race, religion, ideology, or nation -- acts of savagery they otherwise would not commit.
As perfect cases in point, witness the Crusades, or its most recent reincarnation, attempts by Muslims to return to the same era through talks about creating post-modern caliphates.
As the author notes, Hannah Arendt, one of my intellectual heroes, was shouted down when she suggested that victims of the holocaust may have lost some of their humanity on the road to perdition. It brings to mind the scene in the movie Munich in which the Golda Meir character said: "just because Jews were victims of the holocaust, does not make them decent."
And indeed if we look at the events currently unfolding in the Israel-Palestine situation, we see clearly that Arendt's point sadly, is ruthlessly being carried out by none other than Israeli Jews.
There is also a Chinese proverb that says: "society prepares the crime and the criminal only carries it out." Put simply, "internal state violence" is undeniably just another socially orchestrated "We versus Them" drama of heroism and victimology, making existential claims on the collective minds of its citizens through patriotic morality plays and socially-approved narratives.
All scripts of these manufactured dramas, follow the same contours of, and are different in degree rather than in kind, if not entirely interchangeable with, those used by the Nationalist Socialist Democratic Workers Party of 1934 Germany.
It may come as a surprise to the reader to know that much less than the normal ten percent of Hitler's SS were considered psychopaths. And more importantly, that when discovered, they were summarily removed from duty. Himmler, the vile and evil head of Hitler's Gestapo, threw up when he was forced to go on an inspection tour where he had to witness the mass murders that he had ordered.
Thus, his main problem was not sadistic killers chomping at the bit to murder more Jews, but that of keeping normal Germans, who overnight had been turned into state-sanctioned murderers, from going insane? Indeed, it was modernity -- technology and bureaucracy that served as a buffer that would overcome this human revulsion to killing that saved the day for Himmler and eventually led to, not 6, but 20 million people dying in Hitler's death camps and ovens.
And while it would be wrong to suggest that Mr. Obama's use of drone technology is just another step in the progression of "mechanized stand-off killing at a distance," a chill went through my body when it was announced a few days ago, that someone had launched a drone at the White House?
Even though this was an accident or a prank, it nevertheless is mindless to misunderstand that it is only a matter of time before drone technology will boomerang back on us? It ever there was a poor man's weapon of mass terror, it is a computerized drone, a technology within the capability of even a high school student. How can it be that one of our shrewdest but most morally flexible Presidents does not realize this?
In summary, this author tells us that the "Hitler did it," dog won't hunt. The roots of the horrors of the holocaust was not just a hiccup along the path of Western moral development , but was a giant step up the ladder in a straight line progression of moral development into our modern world.
The roots of the holocaust do not lie just in Hitler's anti-Semitic obsession, or in the obsequiousness of his henchmen, or even in the mindless cruelty of his followers, or the moral indifference of the German character (which is an embedded racist theory in itself), but within the weaknesses inherent in our Judeo-Christian ethics and the way the Western world has arranged to manage them.
And more importantly, he tells us that pretending that it is otherwise, pretending that we are more moral than Hitler, that our religion or our democratic institutions make us morally superior, when this is indeed at least arguable, leaves us morally disarmed against the very same weaknesses that led to the European Holocaust and the near two dozen unacknowledged holocausts that have occurred, since.
Our denial simply disarms us against the reality of the kind of humanity we have become since Hitler's days: a society that lives on moral credit and on its own self-reinforcing moral bluster, pretending not to know that our everyday actions continue reducing our collective cultural moral inhibitions so low that we are capable of crimes at least as dastardly as those of a Hitler.
But unlike Hitler, we have now perfected the bureaucratic and military technology that will allow us to do so even more efficiently and effectively than Hitler, and will allow us to do so seamlessly as Mr. Obama has demonstrated through his and Mr. Bush's drone technology and strategy.
They both did so without ever having to see or acknowledge the consequences of the damage of their handiwork. and also without having to experience the likely low-tech boomerang effects yet to come? In fact, arguably we have taken yet another giant step down the same path as Hitler, of "buffered collective murder:" Each of those "stand-off" drones have been launched in our collective names.
We are the culture that glorifies the kind of video gaming that is little more than a subliminal training ground for "stand-off bureaucratic technocratic targeting."
We are the nation that has become the training ground for the first generation of expert drone targeteers. Those who sit at a computer console and kill, and the culture sees nothing morally reprehensible about this?
As well, as we speak, one of the movies up for an Academy Award in the U.S. is that of a sniper, who hides in the shadows and "picks off" innocent men, women and children, just as Mr. Obama's drone program does? They are all considered American patriotic (and moral) heroes?
If this is not a new step in the same direction as the technocratic death machine begun during the European Holocaust, would someone please tell me, what is? 100 Stars.
Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at Seattle. A graduate of the National War College and a Phd from the University of Southern California.