Modernity and the Holocaust (1-3).

Chapter 1. Introduction: Sociology and the Holocaust

Two ways to belittle the significance of the holocaust for sociology.
1) Present the Holocaust as Jewish History - this makes the Hol. something 'unique' and sociologically uncharacteristic.
    Example: Continuation of anti-Semitism in Europe.

2) Present the Holocaust as an extreme example of something normal or common.
    Example: Another Genocide, an example of ethnic conflict.

In either view, our vision of social theory need not be revised. We can fit the Holocaust into how we think.
Standard sociology tends to miss the boat., saying that the holocaust was a failure of modernity, not a product, of modernity.

Bauman will argue otherwise. He says that the holocaust was a 'hidden face' of modernity. "Each of the two faces can no more exist without the other than can the two sides of a coin."

He uses the discussion of Weber's work on rationalization to demonstrate how a pattern of rationalization could lead to the kinds of events in the Holocaust. The Holocaust is an example of what can happen with modern industrial organization, "if 'it could happen on such a massive scale elsewhere, then it can happen anywhere; it is all within the range of human possibility, and like it or not, Auschwitz expands the universe of consciousness no less than landing on the moon." (p.11)

This allows Bauman to treat the Holocaust as "a rare, yet significant and reliable, test of the hidden possibilities of modern society." (p.12)

The meaning of the civilizing process
There is a consistent myth in society that become more civilized means becoming more peaceful, that over time we remove violence. Thus, the holocaust is seen as an aberration.

Modern civilization was not the Holocaust's sufficient condition; it was, most certainly, its necessary condition.

Rational bureaucracy was required to carry out the holocaust, and the rationalizing process was key to making it occur. Even without a clear means provided by the leaders. That is, Hitler gave the goal: a nation 'judenfrie', but not the means. The means was left up to the bureaucrats. (p.15)

Bauman points out that the important, modern element of the Holocaust relates to the organization of the killing (p.16) that it was a sequence of very small steps, starting with the goal of ridding the Germany of Jewish people, and ending with extermination.

The Holocaust needed this level of bureaucratic organization to accomplish the level of killing. This bureaucracy, however, is a necessary but not sufficient cause.

Social production of moral indifference.

Bauman argues, following Arendt, that there is a basic 'animal pity' that all humans have which makes it hard for us to hurt others. And even harder to kill others. Thus, there needs to be a mechanism which allows people to overcome this natural moral abhorrence of killing and violence.

In this section, ZB (Zigmunt Bauman) discusses the process of moral distancing that allows people to commit the kind of crimes described in the book. He starts by pointing out that Eichmann (one of the architects of the Holocaust strategy) defended himself by saying the deeds committed would have been praised if the Germans had won, and were condemned only because they had lost. That is, that moral decisions are arbitrary and contextual. He uses this point to lead in the discussion that most people who acted in the Holocaust were 'normal' people, doing what was 'normal' in very abnormal conditions.

He then identifies three conditions that erode moral inhibitions:

1) Authority (authorization of violence)
2) Routinization (make the work routine)
3) Dehumanization (make people seem less than human).

Under a bureaucratic system, the inner organizational rules provide the moral context. What is 'right' is following orders, and good bureaucrats do not worry about the substantive content of the order - that is what the superior is supposed to do.

Consider the feelings of Ohlendorf, a German commander, he said

"I do not think I am in a position to judge whether his measures were moral or immoral I surrender my moral conscience to the fact I was a soldier, and there a cog in a relatively low position of a great machine." (p.22)

He is giving up his own moral judgment to that of his commander.

Authority serves to distance people from each other, and makes it easier to people to let go of the moral responsibility they would otherwise use (this is part of the reason that people were not encouraged to kill at will - they were only supposed to act on orders).

Routinization takes the 'choice' part out of a situation where a moral choice should normally be made. By doing the same thing, over and over again, one is able to act without thinking. Habit and routine kick in, and one does not have to face a moral choice at every point.

Dehumanization is a process of moving a person from outside an actor's "moral universe". Bauman argues that we have a set of people for whom moral laws apply, if a person is renamed and reframed such that they don't fit in that universe (i.e. we have moral feelings about people but not, perhaps, about mice) then we can avoid the moral conundrum of killing the person.

[In a point that Bauman will expand in a later chapter, he also says that the bureaucratic organization of a state made it possible to elicit the help of the Jews. They were constantly put into a position of making a best of two bad choices (select 35 for the train, or we will kill 50 here now). We will follow up on this in detail in the next chapters.]

Part of the ability to get people to kill has directly to do with how the killing is carried out. These effects make a person invisible morally.

He gives three such processes:

1) Mediating the action of killing
2) Making the victims invisible - killing at greater and greater distances
3) Making the humanity of the person disappear.

The first, mediating action, relates to how each link in a long chain of events allows the person on one end to distance him/her self from the final outcome. In a rationalized organization, each person gives an order and takes an order, thus someone else carries out what you say, and what you do is a result of someone else's decision.

The second, making the victims invisible, refers first to the physical process of making people hard to see as people. Armies do this by killing at greater distances (from knives, to guns, to artillery, to bombs, to missiles) - thus allowing at each further remove the ability to see people as people less and less. They do this by changing the clothing and appearance of the victim (naked and starved, they don't look like people - at least not like the people who the killer recognizes as people). [For a great discussion of this, see Dave Grossman's book: "On Killing"]

The third way is to deny the victim's humanity. Refer to them with a non-human name (epithets, slurs,) especially names that refer to things people want to kill (like bugs, lice, vermin). All of which make it easier to consider the person an 'other' - something that is not human.

Moral consequences of a Civilization process
ZB points out to commonly assumed elements of the 'civilizing process' (see Norbert Elias, "The Civilizing Process" for some of this). First, there is an every increasing suppression of the irrational instead, we do everything for a reason. Second, there is an ever decreasing amount of violence in every-day life, or to be exact, a compartmentalization of violence (thus, instead of each of us butchering our meat, specialist do it).

ZB says that this image is only one side of the coin. At the same time, we have gained to possibility to combine these two for a rational implementation of violence - and at a greater and more deadly level. He argues that the subordination of violence to a rational calculus tends to take the use of violence out of a moral sphere and into a 'cost benefit' form of acting.

Chapter 2. Modernity, Racism and Extermination I.

One might assume that anti-Semitism caused the Holocaust. This cannot be the whole story, however, since there have long been anti-Semites, but the Holocaust was new. Similarly, the level of anti-Semitism in Germany was significantly lower than that in France or many other European countries at the time. Being perpetual and wide spread, it is hard to use anti-Semitism as an explanation for a unique event.

That being said, it was certainly the case that the Holocaust perpetrators were anti-Semites. Thus, we need to understand the unique characteristics of the hatred for Jews, relative to other types of group hatred.

Some peculiarities of Jewish Estrangement

  1. anti-Semitism has a very long history. Since shortly after the rise of Christianity, the peoples of Europe have disliked the Jews. Thus, the first unique feature of Jewish Estrangement is that it has been around for such a very long time.
  2. anti-Semitism is always a relation of a minority to a majority, a 'host' to a 'dependent sub-group' in the population. The German hatred of Jews was thus different from the German hatred of the French, since the French had their own country, and were seen as legitimate members of another state.

This is importantly linked the universality of the Jewish homelessness problem - there were a nation without a nation, and thus the 'foreigner inside'.

Even in the face of this long standing history, during the feudal era, rules of interaction with Jews allowed a stable place in the social structure for Jews. The real disorganization occurred as Modernity progressed.

Jewish incongruity from Christendom to Modernity
The Jews occupied a strange place relative to Christians in Medieval Europe. From the standpoint of Christians, unlike the 'unschooled' godless barbarians, Jews knew of Christ and rejected him. Importantly, they are in fact responsible for fulfilling the messianic prophecy, by crucifying Christ. Thus, in a very important sense, the self identify of Christians at this time depended on the Jewish people.

Over time, the Jewish position as a boundary spanner - one who was "pre Christian" allowed them to become a sort of go-between in the early political system.

They tended to occupy a position in the status structure, but one that was both inside and outside (recall Weber's discussion of 'Pariah people').

The notion of boundary spanner is important. Because the Jewish population belonged simultaneously to many different groups, multiple other groups could see them as a threat - they were considered 'alter' to most other groups. "The Jew" came to be an empty marker for 'not-us'. They had no positive referent, instead taking on the role of pure alter. Read the section around p. 41 (bottom) closely.

Modern dimensions of Incongruity
The Jews provided a natural lightning rod for anti-modernist sentiment. Their position as a 'pariah group' (Weber) gave them a strong interest in the individualistic ethos arising with modernity, and made them a strong target for those who's position in the established pre-modern social structure was being destroyed.

That they were a 'non-national nation' -- a nation of people without a geographic base, made them threatening to the very idea of a nation-state grounded in the simultaneous overlap of territory and language. Inside every nation there was a (somewhat separate - due to the history of segregation) separate Jewish nation. They thus occupied a position as 'foreigner inside' This position contrasted with the neat, ordered system of a nation state. As Bauman says:

"They [the Jews] were the opacity of the world fighting for clarity, the ambiguity of the world lusting for certainty. They bestrode all the barricades and invited bullets from every side." (p.56)

The Modernity of Racism (concluding section of the chapter)

Modernity brought the leveling of differences socially. Thus differences with the Jews had to be manufactured.

The inherited religious explanation was unfit for the task. The physical separation also no long made the distinction clear.

Thus, there was a transformation from 'Judaism' - a religion - to "Jewishness" an essential, unchangeable characteristic.

This leads to the essential notion of what someone is, and thus to racism as we know it.

Chapter 3. Racism, Modernity and Extermination II

There is a peculiar paradox in the history of racism.

  • On the one hand, racism was instrumental in the mobilization of anti-modern sentiment. Elimination of the Jews was here presented as a synonym of the rejection of the modern world order. This suggest a pre-modern element to racism.
  • On the other hand, racism is unthinkable without the advance of modern technology, science and forms of state power. Racism is a modern product, modernity created the 'demand' for racism. In an era that declared that individual achievement was the only measure of human worth, a theory of ascription was needed to redeem boundaries among groups.

Thus, racism is the modern weapon used to fight a pre-modern struggle.

Racism is not, according to Bauman, the same as simple inter-group resentment or prejudice. He provides two other types of inter-group conflict/prejudice: heterophobia (the fear of people who are different than you) and contestant enmity (the resentment of someone/group who might be a threat to your way of life). In both of these cases, the source of the fear or resentment could be changed. Thus, if I run into a group of spiked-hair, studded-leather punks who frighten me, if they were to change into a shirt and tie, I would not find them threatening. Similarly, if economic situations changed, a group that I was competing with for jobs might later not be a threat.

The distinguishing characteristic of racism is that it posits undesirable characteristics of a group of people as an essential element of their being - and completely unchangeable. It is in the genes, and thus no set of circumstances can alleviate the 'negative' aspects of the person.

Thus racism manifests the conviction that a certain category of human beings cannot be incorporated into the rational order.

If there are certain 'deformities' of character that are essential and unchangeable, they lie outside the bounds of correction. In the modern era, the metaphor of medicine is often invoked. In general, we try to cure the social body of ills (rehabilitate criminals, for example). Because racism sees a characteristics as unchanging, it identifies people of another race as a 'cancer' - as something that to fix has to be removed.

Thus racism arises at the same time as a general notion of 'social engineering' - that by scientific and careful planning, we can organize the world and make it a better place. When the conception of 'better' includes removing the 'permanent deformities' of another race, you have a recipe for disaster. Thus, racism is at its height when one plans to build a 'perfect' society.

Bauman says that racism was resonant with the world view of modernity in two respects:

  1. With the enlightenment came the enthronement of a new divinity: Nature, w/ science as the 'theology' and scientists as its "priests". The goal is to classify and understand every thing's position in the natural order, including humans. When science turned toward mankind, it sought to place humans within the grand overall scheme. This has lead to some very questionable science (such as the eugenics and phrenology movements), and provided a scientific basis for Hitler's racist agenda.
  2. The enlightenment age was distinguished in it's activist, engineering attitude toward nature. Not only did one want to understand nature, but we wanted to control nature. When applied to society, this means that people wanted to control the place of mankind in the natural order.

With these two concepts ready, the Nazis could use science to identify Jews as an inferior race, and with the activist/engineering side could seek to 'correct' this problem through elimination.

From repellence to extermination
If you deem something as incurable, it must be exterminated. On the Nazi logic, since Jews could not be cured or rehabilitated (since the undesirable characteristics were innate) As Goebbels said:

"There is no hope of leading the Jews back into the fold of civilized humanity by exceptional punishments. They will forever remain Jews, just as we are forever members of the Aryan race." (quoted in Bauman, p.72)

Racism alone, however, could not be sufficient to accomplish the holocaust. To do so would require activating huge numbers of people to carry out riotous pogroms, and make them willing to kill. Racism in Germany simply wasn't that pervasive. There was diffuse resentment, but not active hatred.

Thus, mass destruction was accomplished not through an uproar of emotions, but by the deadly silence of unconcern.

Looking Forward
In this section, Bauman is cautiously optimistic about the future. With it's current market driven, pluralist world view (as opposed to a social engineering - command & control design), we may find less fruitful grounds for new racist movements to take root in national politics and practices.

Do you think this is true? Why?