Tuesday, 17 January 2017
Kimberly Baxter writes in the Library of Social Science:
In The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future, Richard Rubenstein writes,
Rubenstein traces the transformation of society that culminated in the Holocaust—through which leaders came to view their own populations as expendable—to earlier historical events. He notes that World War I generals whose strategies caused mass casualties among their own troops enjoyed public approval.
He explains German commander Von Falkenhayn’s strategy at the Battle of Verdun:
But this fact became evident as the battle dragged on. In nine months, about five hundred thousand men died on each side at Verdun, and the battle lines were more or less in the same place at the end as at the beginning.
Rubenstein also discusses British General Sir Douglas Haig’s strategy at the Battle of the Somme. This battle too entailed massive casualties on all sides. The British lost nearly 60,000 soldiers on the first day and 410,000 total, and the battle lines moved only six miles forward. Rubenstein suggests that there must have been a consensus that this kind of sacrifice was necessary:
Thus, Rubenstein understands World War I as a moment in which human societies developed the capacity for mass extermination of their own members. He writes, “From the perspective of subsequent history, Verdun offered a hint of the extent to which the leaders of Germany regarded their own people as expendable.”
He notes, however, that there is evidence that Hitler welcomed World War II “because of the opportunity it provided him to institute extermination programs against groups he regarded as undesirable.” The first extermination program of the German government was initiated the very day the war broke out. Then he asks, “Is it possible that one difference between the Nazi-elite and the World War I elites that chose Haig and Von Falkenhayn for their respective posts was that the leading Nazis knew why they had really chosen the path of war?” He suggest that eliminating portions of the domestic population was an objective in both World War I and World War II, but one that was consciously acknowledged only in the latter case.
Although Rubenstein asserts that “the cultural ethos that permitted the perfection of bureaucratic mass murder was most likely to develop in the land of Luther,” he also writes, “my intention is not to blame Protestantism for the death camps.” He argues that we must distinguish between the humanistic ideals the Judeo-Christian tradition asserts, and the ethos generated by that same tradition. He says that although the Judeo-Christian tradition is said to proclaim that as children of God every human possesses an irreducible element of human dignity,
Rubenstein enlists Max Weber in support of his argument that the combination of capitalism and Protestantism made possible the kind of slavery that occurred in the Nazi death camps. He writes that the Holocaust demonstrates that
He emphasizes that “the Holocaust was something very different than an outburst of monumental violence and hatred such as the massacres that have all too frequently punctuated human history.” For example, whereas the 1968 massacre in My Lai, Vietnam, “took place because the Americans lost control of themselves under conditions of wartime stress, Auschwitz was made possible because the German bureaucracy and the SS were in control at every step.”
Rubenstein argues that the Nazi death-camps became “a new form of human society” when they became slave-labor camps. While some camps functioned strictly as killing centers, others such as Auschwitz came to function as both slave-labor and execution centers. New arrivals would be sent to one of these two divisions. Only this slave-labor component transformed the camp system into a “society of total domination.” Rubenstein thinks this Nazi creation has ominous implications for the future:
It was not only technological advancements that enabled the Nazis to carry out mass extermination. Their organizational skills were essential to the creation of a totalitarian society in which this was possible. Rubenstein notes, “Few weapons were as indispensable to the Gestapo as its files.” The advances in computing technology since the Nazi regime make the kind of bureaucratic domination they pioneered logistically much easier.
In the final chapter, Rubenstein presents several hypothetical dystopic scenarios of future governments eliminating segments of a population through compulsory sterilization or “mercy death,” using Nazi extermination programs as their guides. He states that his aim in speculating about these specific situations is not to predict the future. He observes:
Posted on 01/17/2017 9:09 AM by Richard L. Rubenstein
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