Savage Modernism

Savage Modernism

A refugee from Nazism and a distinguished New York psychoanalyst, Sandor Rado had thought long and deeply about Hitler’s takeover of Germany. Years ago, the writer Otto Friedrich interviewed hi


A refugee from Nazism and a distinguished New York psychoanalyst, Sandor Rado had thought long and deeply about Hitler’s takeover of Germany. Years ago, the writer Otto Friedrich interviewed him in his Manhattan apartment and asked him why the Nazis came to power. “There is a long silence…’That is not an easy question that you ask me,’ Dr. Rado says. Another long silence. Dr. Rado stares into the dusk of his study, thinking. Finally, he decides on his answer. He speaks very slowly, very carefully. ‘I don’t know.'”

Rado’s “I don’t know” may stand as the ultimate statement about the Nazi genocide, honest humility of reason faced with human irrationality. We don’t know. Or we do know, but only in pieces and chunks? The whole continues to elude us. Yet the effort to comprehend the why and the what of Nazism not only proceeds but intensifies. Sixty years ago few wrote about the Nazi slaughter. Today an expanding literature addresses every aspect of it.

The more ambitious efforts to understand Nazism fall into two categories. One type identifies something specifically in German history as the root cause: German authoritarianism, feeble liberalism, brash nationalism or virulent anti-Semitism. From A.J.P. Taylor’s The Course of German History fifty-five years ago to Daniel Goldhagen’s recent Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Nazism is understood as the outcome of a long history of uniquely German traits. Approaches like these command an immediate plausibility and often popularity. After all, Germany began the war and organized the genocide. “Nazi” designated a member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. German malfeasance derives exclusively from German factors.

As satisfying as such an account may be, it runs into immediate problems. In isolating something peculiarly German, it seems to forget the map. Germany partakes of Europe–and Western civilization–and shares its strengths and weaknesses. Germany hardly monopolized anti-Semitism, for instance. Indeed, for decades anti-Semitism in France and in the Austrian empire far exceeded that in Germany. Edouard Drumont’s Jewish France, a two-volume compendium of racist nonsense, sold more than a million copies in 1886. For many contemporary observers, the Dreyfus case of the 1890s pegged France as the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. Before World War I, two out of three Austrians voted for anti-Semitic parties. When Germany occupied Austria in 1938, a half-million Austrians wildly greeted Hitler in Vienna, a gathering whose size is still unsurpassed in Austria to this day. Hitler himself was Austrian.

If one approach to Nazism focuses on specifically German features, the other follows the opposite path, and highlights wider issues such as larger European anti-Semitism. Of course, these studies go beyond anti-Semitism to consider modern nationalism, capitalism, racism, mass society, totalitarianism and human psychology. In this category is Hannah Arendt’s still-controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem, subtitled A Report on the Banality of Evil, as well as Christopher Browning’s much more recent Ordinary Men, a study of a German police battalion that rounded up and shot Jews. These books suggest that the nature of bureaucracy, the propensity for obedience or lack of imagination, render genocide “banal” or ordinary. Any nation or individual could be caught up in a murderous operation. If the German-centric method seems to ignore Germans’ links to the rest of the world, the danger here is the opposite; it dissolves German history in a universal solvent. No one person or thing is guilty because everything is.

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.

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.

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