The Holocaust and the Trial of Modernity

By Yaki Menschenfreund

Radical thinkers are all too eager to portray the Final Solution as a byproduct of Western rationality.

Maximilian Aue, the protagonist of Jonathan Littell’s controversial novel The Kindly Ones, is a rising star in the SS assigned to a key position in Heinrich Himmler’s Ministry of the Interior. As part of his new job, Aue must ensure maximum output from the concentration camps’ labor force. To this end, he meets with Gerhard Maurer, the head of the Arbeitseinsatz (“labor intake”) division. Maurer, “a man still young, without any diplomas but endowed with solid professional experience in accounting and management,” impresses Aue greatly:
I was to see him again several times afterwards and to correspond with him regularly, always with the same satisfaction. Maurer represented for me a certain ideal National Socialist who, though he must be a man with a Weltanschauung, still has to be a man who gets results. And concrete, measurable results formed Maurer’s very life. Although he himself hadn’t invented all the measures set in place by the Arbeitseinsatz, he had out of whole cloth created the impressive statistical data collection system that now covered all the wvha camps. This system he patiently explained to me, itemizing the standardized, pre-printed forms that each camp had to fill out and send in, pointing out the most important figures and the right way to interpret them.1
For Aue, this combination of the correct worldview and the ability to get “concrete, measurable results” makes Gerhard Maurer, the diligent clerk, an “ideal National Socialist”—and many readers, removed as they are from Nazi ideology, would no doubt agree. However powerful our aversion to the “ideal” embodied by Maurer, he aptly reflects the puzzling duality that is the Nazi phenomenon. If there is any mystery in the rise of the Third Reich, in the crimes it committed against humanity in general and the Jews in particular, it lies precisely in the inconceivable dissonance between the barbaric ideology of the Nazis and the “modern,” rational manner with which their actions were carried out during the darkest period of German history.
Yet, according to a well-established opinion within certain intellectual circles, there is no mystery here at all. What seems to be a clash of two opposite sides of the human soul is actually proof of the strong affinity between them. It is no surprise that Nazism adopted modern characteristics so easily, since modernity itself had something “Nazi” about it from its very beginning.
It is not difficult to see how this opinion fits into the more general trend—extremely popular within contemporary academia—of harshly criticizing Western culture in general and the Enlightenment tradition in particular. This radical school of thought strives tirelessly to expose the broken promises of humanism, science, and reason—the mainstays of the West since the eighteenth century—and reveal the truth of their repression and exploitation. According to the historical narrative constructed by these “critical theorists,” Nazism was not a sudden stumbling block on European civilization’s road to progress, but rather a milestone on that route; the Holocaust, likewise, was not the product of a deviant ideology that turned its back on the values of the Enlightenment, but an extreme and horrendous, yet utterly logical, upshot of that very worldview. “In the apocalypse at Auschwitz,” declared French philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, “it is no more or less than the essence of the West that is revealed—and that has not ceased since that time to reveal itself.”2 In a similar vein, Jewish Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, in his Modernity and the Holocaust, claimed the Holocaust was “a legitimate resident in the house of modernity; indeed, one who would not be at home in any other house.”3 Jewish American theologian Richard Rubenstein went so far as to state that “Genocide is an intrinsic expression of modern civilization as we know it,”4 while Israeli philosopher Adi Ophir placed the “death theater” of Nazi concentration camps on the same continuum with Western democracies:
Auschwitz is, among other things, the specific combination of putting to death by gas, mass killing, and methodical and orderly extermination, which allowed the death machine to operate with such horrifying efficiency. When this machine is broken down into its component parts, one finds that its technologies and the practices maintaining it exist or are ready for operation in various combinations at the heart of Western society, not only far away beyond its borders, and that they are an inseparable part of the systems of domination and government in almost every contemporary democratic regime, and of the power relations within and outside these.5
The arguments incriminating modernity in the catastrophe of the Holocaust certainly have their appeal. They skillfully combine intellectual sophistication with compelling moral rhetoric. Yet as we will discover, they are based on flawed and misleading analyses, emphasizing certain aspects of the “project of modernity” while obscuring others that do not coincide with the dark image they seek to conjure. Exposing the fallacies upon which these accusations rest is therefore not only necessary for redressing outrageous historiographical distortions. It is also an ethical imperative, replacing as it does the moral despair so fashionable these days with a genuine—and necessary—faith in man’s ability to redeem himself.
There is, of course, good ground for identifying Nazism as a typical modern phenomenon. The Third Reich was not a backward state, after all, but a scientific and technological superpower. In his insightful study The Nazi War on Cancer, Robert Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford University, lists the technological achievements of German scientists under Hitler’s rule, including developments in such fields as television broadcasting, electronic computers, the improvement of the jet engine, experiments in magnetic recording, atomic research, the design of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the invention of the ejection seat.6
Yet while no one can deny the significance of these accomplishments, it is doubtful whether they may be attributed to “Nazi science.” True, such research was conducted under the watchful eye (and generally with the encouragement) of the Nazi regime, by scientists who were in many cases of Nazi persuasion and who frequently employed “Nazi methods” (one atrocious example is that of experiments performed by German physicians on camp inmates to examine the influence of changes in atmospheric pressure on the human body). Yet the science itself—the collected data, the inventions, and the improvements it produced—had nothing German or Nazi about it, just as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is not particularly “Jewish,” nor is Darwinism an “Anglo-Victorian” doctrine. Anton Chekhov, the Russian author and playwright, put it best when he wrote: “There is no national science just as there is no national multiplication table; what is national is no longer science.7
Slightly more complicated are those fields of German scientific research that were enlisted to validate the Nazi worldview and served it with enthusiasm. The Ahnenerbe Institute, for example, which was founded by Himmler in 1935, employed scholars from a variety of disciplines in an attempt to trace the allegedly ancient roots of the Aryan race. To that end, institute members plundered museums throughout occupied Europe and conducted cruel experiments on human beings.8 Even greater resources were invested in the Nazi policy of “racial hygiene,” designed to ensure the health and vitality of the German nation by ridding it of all vestiges of biological contamination. This policy, which recruited the services of physicians, psychiatrists, and geneticists from all corners of the Reich, led to the sterilization of approximately 400,000 people (the infirm, the handicapped, the mentally ill, and anyone deemed “unworthy” of reproducing); to the murder of 200,000 people under the “euthanasia” program at the beginning of World War II; and, eventually, to the ultimate act of biological “purification”: the extermination of European Jewry.9
The preoccupation with racial hygiene was not unique to the Third Reich, however. In 1883, the English naturalist Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s half-cousin, coined the term “eugenics” (from the Greek prefix eu, meaning “good” or “well,” and the suffix gen, meaning “source”) to describe the quest for the enhancement of humanity by nurturing superior—and weeding out inferior—hereditary qualities. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, the eugenics movement flourished in the United States and Europe, its growing influence manifest in legislation and public policy. In 1907, for example, Indiana passed a law enacting compulsory sterilization of criminals and mentally challenged individuals residing in state institutions; by the 1930s similar acts had been passed in thirty other states. Sterilization laws were also passed in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland, among others. Ironically, it was the biggest eugenics experiment in history—the one that took place under the Nazi regime—that finally discredited the eugenics movement in the West, although some traces of its ideas have remained with us to this day.10

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