This risk is not news to Enzo Traverso, who seeks in The Origins of Nazi Violence to remain loyal to German particulars while locating them in a wider European framework. Indeed, the title suggests a narrowness that the book belies, and a more exact translation of the original French title, Nazi Violence: A European Genealogy, would have been preferable. Traverso teaches political science in France and has written often about Nazi genocide; perhaps his best-known book is a study of Marxism and the Jewish question. In fact, several of his books, including this one, resound with the Marxism of Gramsci and Adorno.
In weighing into specialized debates about Nazism, Traverso's introduction might put off the nonacademic reader. Yet he has written with verve and style a provocative book about European violence. He begins by discussing a machine named after a French doctor. In the early stages of the French Revolution, Dr. Guillotin suggested that a beheading device might lessen the pain and suffering that accompanied hanging by rope or decapitation by ax. The instrument that was perfected, and that carried the doctor's name, used gravity and a descending steel blade to swiftly separate head and body. It was viewed as a victory for compassion, since cruder execution procedures were abolished, and for equality, since the same method would be used for rich and poor. To later observers the guillotine came to signify the routinization of death. Even the executioner, once an inglorious and shadowy person, became just a regular state employee. For Traverso, the guillotine marks the entry of the Industrial Revolution into capital punishment. Executions became "mechanized and serialized...a technical process...impersonal...rapid." Soon "men began to be slaughtered as though they were animals."
Indeed, Traverso takes up the slaughter of animals and sketches how slaughterhouses in the nineteenth century moved out of the central cities to the outskirts--out of sight and out of mind. At the same time, the killing of animals became rationalized. He gives a short course on prison construction and the modern factory system, with its use of Frederick Taylor's ideas on the rationalization of labor--how to break it down into separate movements, measure it and render it more efficient and impersonal.
This is still only chapter one, but the results are not far off. Auschwitz stands not only at the end of this process but at its beginning--the industrialization of death. The four figures of the guillotine--the doctor, the engineer, the judge and executioner--"play an irreplaceable role" in "Operation T4," the Nazi gassing of the mentally ill, which preceded the genocide. The modern factory system finds its culmination in the death camps. "Through an irony of history, the theories of Frederick Taylor," writes Traverso, were applied by a totalitarian system to serve "not production, but extermination."
Traverso keeps up a fast pace, highlighting the forces of domination, racism and colonial expansion that make Nazi violence if not inevitable, then at least unsurprising. He assembles striking quotations from nineteenth-century colonialists and imperialists calling for the destruction of inferior peoples. Fed by social-Darwinist thought, these ideas were often put into practice. The Belgians, the British, the Germans and the French not only dominated Africa and East Asia through "rational organization," but caused a precipitate decline in their populations by disease, famine and overwork "that in a number of cases can only be described as genocide." In its massive killing, propaganda and cult of violence, World War I served as "an anteroom of National Socialism." Nor is Traverso's argument done. He takes up what he calls "class racism," the hatred of workers, which fed into the Nazi myth of the "Jewish Bolshevik," as well as nineteenth-century notions of euthanasia and eugenics, which targeted, and sometimes sterilized, the putatively unfit. For Traverso such ideas on eugenics and "radical hygiene," the fruit of liberal institutions and thinking, "provided Nazism with a number of essential bases."
Traverso offers an indispensable lesson, especially for those who view Nazi genocide as a deviation from the main contours of modern history. Yet he casts his net so widely that the Nazi slaughter seems almost expected. "The guillotine, the abattoir, the Fordist factory, and rational administration," he writes in his conclusion, "along with racism, eugenics, the massacres of the colonial wars and those of World War I had already fashioned the social universe and the mental landscape in which the Final Solution would be conceived and set in motion." The only surprise is that he leaves some topics out. He says nothing, for instance, about Western slavery, which surely would help his case.
It is worth backing up a bit. Traverso states early in the book that "the history of the guillotine provides a paradigmatic reflection of the dialectics of the Enlightenment." That phrase alludes to the wartime book by two refugees, Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment. Yet that book underscores progressive and regressive moments of the Enlightenment that are missing in Traverso. His story reads like a one-way street, Enlightenment to genocide.