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Occasionally, I’d like to share somewhat longer excerpts from things I’ve read and been impressed by than my usual slender quote-of-the-day offerings. Here’s the first, from Hannah Arendt’s Essays in Understanding 1930-1954:

“In trying to understand what were the real motives which caused people to act as cogs in the mass-murder machine, we shall not be aided by speculations about German history and the so-called German national character, of whose potentialities those who knew Germany most intimately had not the slightest idea fifteen years ago.  There is more to be learned from the characteristic personality of the man who can boast that he was the organizing spirit of the murder.  Heinrich Himmler is not one of those intellectuals stemming from the dim No Man’s Land between the Bohemian and the Pimp, whose significance in the composition on the Nazi elite has been repeatedly stressed of late.  He is neither a Bohemian like Goebbels, nor a sex criminal like Streicher, nor a perverted fanatic like Hitler, nor an adventurer like Goering.  He is a bourgeois with all the outer aspect of respectability, all the habits of a good paterfamilias who does not betray his wife and anxiously seeks to secure a decent future for his children; and he has consciously built up his newest terror organization, covering the whole country, on the assumption that most people are not bohemians nor fanatics, nor adventurers, nor sex maniacs, nor sadists, but first and foremost jobholders, and good family men.

It was Péguy, I believe, who called the family man the ‘grand adventurer of the 20th century’.  He died too soon to learn that he was also the great criminal of the century.  We had been so accustomed to admire or gently ridicule the family man’s kind concern and earnest concentration on the welfare of his family, his solemn determination to make life easy for his wife and children, that we hardly noticed how the devoted paterfamilias, worried about nothing so much as his security, was transformed under the pressure of the chaotic economic conditions of our time into an involuntary adventurer, who for all his industry and care could never be certain what the next day would bring.  The docility of this type was already manifest in the very early period of Nazi Gleichshaltung (synthesizing).  It became clear that for the sake of his pension, his life insurance, the security of his wife and children, such a man was ready to sacrifice his beliefs, his honor, and his human dignity.  It needed only the Satanic genius of Himmler to discover that after such degradation he was entirely prepared to do anything when the ante was raised and the bare existence of his family was threatened.  The only condition he put was that he should be fully exempted from responsibility for his acts.  Thus that very person, the average German, whom the Nazis notwithstanding years of the most furious propaganda could not induce to kill a Jew on his own account (not even when they made it quite clear that such a murder would go unpunished), now serves the machine of destruction without opposition.  In contrast to the earlier unites of the SS men and Gestapo, Himmler’s overall organization relies not on fanatics, nor on congenital murderers, nor on sadists; it relies entirely on the normality of jobholders and family men.

We need not specially mention the sorry reports about Latvians, Lithuanians, or even Jews who have participated in Himmler’s murder organization in order to show that it requires no particular national character in order to supply this new type of functionary.  They are not even all natural murderers or traitors out of perversity.  It is not even certain that they would do the work if it were only their own lives and future that were at stake.  They felt (after they no longer needed to fear God, their conscience cleared through the bureaucratic organization of their acts) only the responsibility toward their own families.  The transformation of the family man from a responsible member of society, interested in all public affairs, to a bourgeois concerned only with his private existence and knowing no civic virtue, is an international modern phenomenon. The exigencies of our time – ‘Think of the hunger and the great cold in this valley that rings with lamentation’ (Brecht) – can at any moment transform him into the mob man and make him the instrument of whatsoever madness and horror.  Each time society, through unemployment, frustrates the small man in his normal functioning and normal self-respect, it trains him for that last stage in which he will willingly undertake any function, even that of the hangman.  A Jew released from Buchenwald once discovered among the SS men who gave him the certificates of release a former schoolmate, whom he did not address but yet stared at.  Spontaneously the man stared at remarked:  ‘You must understand, I have five years of unemployment behind me.  They can do anything they want with me.’“



Jul. 12th, 2011 12:57 pm (UTC)
there's nothing particularly new about otherwise decent people helping or ignoring atrocity in order to protect themselves/their families. There's also nothing new about "upstanding members of society" having ugly corners of their souls that are totally fine with hating a minority group.
Jul. 12th, 2011 03:48 pm (UTC)
Well, Arendt isn't arguing that respectable citizens had never before hated minority groups -- only that they had never before been convinced to take part in their slaughter to the degree and scale that they did during the Holocaust. Which, as far as I know, is true.

As for the first point, I think there was something new in what she described. For one thing, the bourgeois was a somewhat recent historical phenomenon, so the specific situation she's describing couldn't have existed before; average people during massacres of antiquity (in China, say, or the religious slaughters of Christian Europe) didn't participate in the society in the same way that the bourgeois of the post-feudal era did. For another, again, the degree and scale of the participation of ordinary people in the day-to-day functioning of the Holocaust was unprecedented. Never before had so many people known about and cooperated in the systematic slaughter of human beings; most other such massacres were done with a certain degree of secrecy (as with the Armenians), or were not especially organized or planned (as with the mass killings of Native Americans), or were exclusively carried out by members of the military (as with almost everything else prior to 1939 that could be considered a genocide).

Some incidents, like the Holodomor, didn't rely on violent force; others, like the Irish potato famine, were somewhat unplanned and were hotly debated. Really, with the exception of the Armenian genocide -- which, again, was not widely known about by most of the population, and which all took place at the hands of the military -- nothing similar to the Holocaust had really ever taken place. That's part of Arendt's essential argument. Its scale, thoroughness, brutality, and complete integration into the whole of society set a historical precedent. There was something new about decent people ignoring/participating in an atrocity of that scale; that's the reason the whole world was asking how Germany could have let it happen, when they didn't ask the same of Japan (whose atrocities were all carried out by the military, on foreign soil, in a country without the same class structure).
Jul. 12th, 2011 04:12 pm (UTC)
Japan's atrocities weren't all carried out by the military on foreign soil... They kidnapped hundreds of thousands of Koreans and Japanese, shipping them to Japan to work as slaves in mines/other sorts of forced labor.

I think the reason the Japanese atrocities are not considered as "strange" is more because Japanese society at that time was considered more vicious, barbaric, etc. I don't think Americans conceieved of the Japanese as "bourgeois." This perception is probably mostly based on the anti-Japanese propaganda at the time of WWII. Germans, on the other hand, were white and Christian. See, e.g., why the Japanese-Americans and not German-Americans were interned in America.

You (and Arendt) probably right though that WWII was the first war in which theoretically "civilized" (read: white, Christian, regularly bathing) people carried out a systematic genocide - neatly murdering entire populations of men, women, children, and even babies, with no excuse of passion or military callousness. I probably have difficulty seeing this as surprising simply because I was raised after WWII. A contemporary Jewish education includes education on the Holocaust - and, frankly, the conclusion that we are never really safe in any non-Jewish society, no matter how "civilized" it may seem. What the Holocaust taught the Jews, and what we pass on, is that when push comes to shove, the vast majority of our friendly neighborhood gentiles will support, facilitate, and implement a mass murder of Jews, down to the last baby.

When you consider human history, this is not surprising, but I can see how people were surprised back then. It's objectively hard to believe that our friends and neighbors would kill us, or permit us to be slaughtered. But they would.
Jul. 12th, 2011 06:40 pm (UTC)
We had been so accustomed to admire or gently ridicule the family man’s kind concern and earnest concentration on the welfare of his family, his solemn determination to make life easy for his wife and children, that we hardly noticed how the devoted paterfamilias, worried about nothing so much as his security, was transformed under the pressure of the chaotic economic conditions of our time into an involuntary adventurer, who for all his industry and care could never be certain what the next day would bring.

This may be (probably is) tangential to the point, which stands well enough on its own, but: It strikes me that this is one of the better arguments for a two-breadwinner family. Then at least the pressure that can be brought to bear is lessened, somewhat, and things have to be a little more pear-shaped before the man can no longer quit... not too much, but just a little more.


flavored with age
Gun-totin', Chronic-smokin' Hearse Initiator
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Leonard Pierce is a freelance writer wandering around Texas with no sleep or sense of direction. If you give him money he will write something for you. If you are nice to him he may come to your house and get drunk.

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