Monday, July 30, 2007
"The Nazi Conscience" posted by Richard SeymourIf you're wandering through the bookshops in a daze, collecting more words to clutter up your untidy life with, you might want to grab a copy of Claudia Koonz's The Nazi Conscience. I haven't time for a full review here, but it is one of the most systematic efforts I have read to encompass the specific set of moral claims that facilitated Nazi atrocities, and to detail how these were produced and became hegemonic. What is most impressive about it is how it describes both continuity and discontinuity - that is, it is as attentive to the ways in which the Nazis drew upon norms that were then ubiquitous as it is to the singular range and intensity of the Nazi indoctrination programme. It also, whether the author intended this or not, deals a sharp blow to the Goldhagen thesis that Germans were collectively guilty for the Nazi holocaust, that it was something embedded in their specific cultural arrangements. Koonz shows that by contrast, Germany was among the least antisemitic countries in Europe until the late 1930s. The Nazis, in courting mainstream opinion, suppressed some of their vicious hatred of the Jews - Streicher was good for the activists, but they recognised that they would have to lay the basis for widespread acceptance of racial 'science' through more moderate sounding, 'impartial' bodies and journals. Even Hitler's 1939 speech, which contains what we now rightly see as a threat to commit genocide against the Jews, spent only a few minutes of a lengthy speech on the topic. Victims of the Nazis, like Klemperer, described - even in their most despairing moments - forms of solidarity and aid, even as a terrifying consensus was being constructed against the Jews. That consensus licensed a two-front war: a global war on those blamed for retarding German expansion, and a domestic war on Germany's putative existential enemies.
The construction of that consensus couldn't rely on repression alone, since recent evidence suggests that the Gestapo were frequently ineffective and that Germans could selectively circumvent rules they did not approve of (provided they weren't Marxists or Jews). Nor could it rely on the blaring, vulgar output of rags like the Sturmer. And nor were the conditions of the battlefield a sufficient cause of the atrocities of the frontline. Rather, Koonz urges readers to see Nazi soldiers as being something apart from conventional troops - they were treated and indoctrinated as race warriors, selected for acceptance of the core elements of Nazi ideology (respect for the Fuhrer, devotion to the 'Volk', belief in the justice of conquest, and a belief in the existence of a Jewish threat). For Koonz, there are four basic intellectual and moral assumptions of Nazism. The first is that the life of a Volk is like that of an organism with "stages of birth, growth, expansion, decline and death", a motif drawn straight from the evolutionary sociology of people like Herbert Spencer and from quite widespread rightist doctrine. For example, the response to class struggle was frequently to appeal to workers to sacrifice themselves (their class interests) for the greater good, for the survival of the national organism. The second assumption, also widespread, was that values were specific, appropriate to the nature of the ethnic group and their environment. This appeal to particularism, supremacism in other words, was expressed in the high camp of love for one's ethnic comrade (Volksgenosse) and, of course, for Germany above all else (this, for Goebbels, was "the first commandment of every National Socialist", as he explained it in "The Little ABC's of National Socialism"). The third was the acceptance and promotion of outright aggression against "undesirable" peoples, something also drawn directly from the colonial experience, and the nation-building one. Take L Frank Baum - he of The Wizard of Oz - who wrote that "The whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilisation, are masters of the American continent and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians ... better that they should die than live like the miserable wretches that they are." And of course the final assumption was the right of governments to annul the legal protections of assimilated citizens on the basis of what the government defined as their ethnicity. The Nazis appealed particularly to analogies with American policy in justification, hoping that their racial codes would one day be as widely accepted as US immigration quotas, antimiscegenation laws, involuntary sterilization programs in twenty-eight states, and segregation in the Jim Crow south. What was unique in Nazi persecution was that although their propaganda frequently bestialised Jews and black people and gypsies and so on, they considered their enemy invisible: they didn't oppress on the basis of a visible or cultural marker of difference. Their racialism was hopelessly inconsistent and befuddled, as all quackery is, based on certain arbitrary considerations of lineage: but it was also based on what was considered by US-European ruling class and rightist circles to be the best biological (genetic) knowledge.
The continuities are not only in the elements of the 'Nazi conscience', but especially in the conception of global war as a 'race war'. Gerald Horne's recent book 'Race War: White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire' investigates some unexplored dimensions of the Pacific War, specifically the way in which both the Japanese and the Allies understood that war as in part a 'race war', in which the Japanese empire sought to subvert (or more correctly, reverse) the colonial racial hierarchy, and very conscientiously utilised the sense of outrage and hostility that populations in South East Asia felt toward centuries of white supremacy. This was manifest in the notorious atrocities carried out in the camps. They encouraged non-Japanese guards of the internment camps to see Europeans as they had always seen others - as inferior, subjugated people. The records show that London and Washington were deeply alarmed about this, and particularly worried about the potentially powerful propaganda appeal. After all, the main allies were all engaged in state-sanctioned supremacist policies, either through colonies (US, Britain, France) or domestic annihilation and domination (US, Australia, Canada). It became a crucial element of Allied propaganda to avoid any public statement that hinted at white supremacy, even while a 'race war' was pursued domestically - and it seems British officials bear partial responsibility for America's internment policy during World War II, advising their US counterparts of the 'lessons' of the attacks on Hong Kong and Pearl Harbour, which essentially involved the claim that America had been lax in allowing an Asian-American hybrid community to develop. Of course, America's own escape from some form of fascist rule was in some ways quite narrow: it is reasonably well known that business leaders in the US plotted a coup against Roosevelt, but there was also a mass, nativist, authoritarian racist movement that was flourishing in the States long before the Nazis were more than a cuckoo clan in Germany. Although they were not the centre of KKK obsessions, Jews were being lynched, or hounded out of institutions, or attacked in the United States, long before that horror began in Germany. The scale of their violent operations, the extent of collusion in the political elite, their ability to penetrate local office, and the unity they achieved between the upper class and 'white collar' workers, points to something that could have been American Fascism - had it not been for multiracial working class combat and resistance against the Klan in the urban centres.
Years of anti-racist struggle, the decolonisation movement, anti-imperialist solidarity campaigns, victories by the oppressed, and so on, have so radically altered official political culture that a world-view which was once only marginally challenged in Europe and America by socialists contesting the capitalist system (and not by all of them either) is now only marginally accepted by cranks. African-Americans destroyed southern apartheid, South Africans destroyed white supremacy, and while the dregs of antisemitism are reconstituted and re-valourised as the official ideology of Israel, it doesn't have much going for it beyond the Levant. So, we're safe, right? Not a chance. After all, imperialism hasn't gone away. European and North American states are still racial hierarchies, with increasingly aggressive anti-immigrant campaigns. The global class hierarchy is still intersected by a racial one. Far right parties have been making electoral gains across Europe, all galvanising antagonism to migrants and especially to Muslims (who are blamed in noxious literature for drugs, rape - of white women and children, of course - for sexual deviancy, crime, and terrorism), all preying on the sense of betrayal and breakdown that comes with the neoliberal assault on society. America still treats black life as cheap, regards young black men as prison material, applies a racist death penalty, and still indulges the occasional spot of ethnic cleansing, as in New Orleans. And, of course, no ruling class is going to hesitate to cancel bourgeois democracy, even as they now don't hesitate to curtail it in the name of a 'war on terror' (revoking the rights of subjects on grounds of suspect loyalty, spying on domestic dissenters, interning and torturing citizens etc). If fascism returns, it may not require the specific apparatus of 'race science': it will surely feed on the darkest excrement in the 'zeitgeist'. The existential threat is now, after all, an immaterial force, something called values, the binds populations and states, guides global agents, turns babies into suicide bombers and statesmen into freedom fighters. The revanchist racism of the Bell Curve may only be a fringe partner of a coalition that could involve minutemen, Christian fundamentalists, deranged 'secularists', militarists etc. The toxic elements are present, and could easily be convoked in a graver crisis than we are presently experiencing.