The issue is not simply that the groups and individuals who opposed the catalogue of evils that Traverso assembles go unmentioned; rather, it is the ambiguity at the center of Modernism that Traverso overlooks. The French Revolution brought us not only the guillotine but the metric system and the rights of man. Would Traverso have us believe that the uniformity of the metric system marked a step in the bureaucratization of death? More to the point, the rights of man belong to the same Enlightenment esprit. Indeed, the split between science and philosophy belonged to the future. Dr. Guillotin himself was a member of the first revolutionary assembly. Thomas Paine, the famed defender of rights in both the United States and Europe, expended much effort designing and building a new type of iron bridge. He is as "paradigmatic" as Dr. Guillotin of the dialectic of Enlightenment. Traverso refers often to Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism, with its discussion of imperialism and racism, but forgets that her treatise revolves around the eclipse of the rights of man.
The problem can be framed differently--and returns to the basic conundrum of investigating Nazi genocide as something specific to Germany or, more generally, to Western society. All the vicious ideas and actions that Traverso plots bespeak the United States, Britain and--to some extent--the former Soviet Union as much as they do Germany. Yet the Allies defeated Germany and ended the genocide. The slaughterhouses of Chicago, the Ford factories of Detroit and American eugenics did not result in genocide but in a war against it. Where would Traverso be if this were not so? It is a mite too easy for the modern Western intellectual composing at a high-tech computer and zipping about in a sleek automobile to opine that modern society is intrinsically genocidal.
The fact that the Allies defeated Germany, however, can feed a complacency that Traverso forcefully punctures. History might have unfolded differently if Hitler had played his cards more prudently. Facts are not fates. After all, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States, not the reverse, and invaded the Soviet Union, not the reverse. The home of the rights of man, France, succumbed to the German Army. Neither in Europe nor in the United States did the slaughter of the Jews raise especial concern. We can hardly take pride in a successful war against Germany motivated less by principle than realpolitik. For this reason Traverso's project--his insistence, as he says in his final sentence, that Auschwitz was "an authentic product of Western civilization"--is bold and salutary.
The danger of an undifferentiated indictment remains. Traverso says at one point that "Auschwitz introduced the word 'genocide' into our vocabulary." He is right, but also wrong. Raphael Lemkin, an émigré Jewish-Polish lawyer, coined the term in 1943 to alert the world to the slaughter of Jews by Germany--and for his efforts Lemkin died, as Michael Ignatieff has put it, "alone and forgotten in a Manhattan hotel." Traverso's formulation shares the old ailment of Marxist history. People with their individual bravery and guilt disappear under the steamroller of history. The universal engulfs the particular. No specifically German events or factors appear. Only in the last pages does Traverso unconvincingly introduce something he calls "regenerative anti-Semitism" as a uniquely German phenomenon that arises after World War I.
Traverso does not breathe a word of another unique constellation, the impact of the complete collapse of the German economy. The Great Depression hit all of Europe and the United States, but in France, England and the United States it largely drove politics to the left, in Germany to the right. Why? The Nazis were a fringe party until Germany was struck by vast unemployment. In 1928, before the Depression, the Nazi's won 2.6 percent of the vote; in 1932, they became the largest party. This is hardly irrelevant to the success of Nazism, but Traverso, whose scholarly sympathies lean toward Marxism, oddly fails to so much as mention it.
What was Nazism? We still do not know and perhaps never will. Yet in an era when the beneficence of the West is trumpeted, it is good to be reminded that modern barbarians emerged from within its portals, not from outside them. They were not distant mullahs following foreign scripts but familiar officials, citizens and soldiers schooled in Western thought and technology. For all its hyperbole, and because of it, Traverso has written an arresting and provocative essay on the savagery of progress.