Advanced technology cannot explain it, for far lesser civilizations such as Cambodia, pre-industrial China, and the many Bantustans of Africa prove that nothing more than a machete, or a pistol, or indifference are required for mass murder. However, it can explain how Nazi Germany could kill off ~11 million people in six years, in multiple countries in Europe and North Africa, while fighting wars on two fronts against industrialized world powers. Without their technological advancement and smoothly functioning bureaucracy, the pace and extent of the slaughter could not have been possible.
The status of minorities within the state cannot explain it, for the persecution of undesirable minorities in Germany was, paradoxically, restrained by the stable governance of the nation until the end of the war. Only in the East, where military “government” was nothing but a term and warlords ruled with impunity over fiefdoms the size of Poland, did the protections of law break down so that whole peoples could be liquidated – only in a state of utter lawlessness were such actions, contrary to all laws and customs, ever possible. This is largely why the extent of the Holocaust remained largely unknown until the end of the war amongst the Allies, and largely unknown in the West for years after.
Material conditions in Germany could not explain it, for if one were to look for the most likely culprit of an anti-Semitic genocide, it would not be enlightened, cultured Germany, but France or Russia. France became notorious in the late 19th century for falsely convicting a highly decorated officer of treason – because he was Jewish. Crowds jeered at this son of Moses in the streets for his creed. His trial became the catalyst for Herzl’s der Judenstaat, the foundational book of modern Zionism. Russia was known throughout the world for its state-sanctioned anti-Semitism, and the many pogroms it allowed or overlooked. That it would be Russia that liberated many of the Jews from the death camps at the end of the war is nothing if not a historical irony.
The success of the Holocaust in Europe shows the lasting triumph of ideology in human affairs. Only in Europe had anti-Semitism enjoyed such a long and insidious history. Only in Europe had hatred of the Jews seeped into the foundation stones of churches and parliaments, into ditties and songs and folk tales and political programs. Only in Europe could the Jew be turned into the root of all evil, rapine, and civilizational decline. The Holocaust could not have occurred without this narrative, constructed over hundreds of years of enmity.
As I said in my comment on Brandon’s recent post:
Christianity has had a fraught relationship with Judaism from its foundation. It could never really get past its humble beginnings as a Jewish cult, and its theologians could not grasp why the Jews would not accept Jesus as the Messiah who was promised in apocalyptic literature. The dominant viewpoint among Christians became that Jews could be permitted to live and work in their lands, but only in a fallen and wretched state, a reminder to all who would not hear the Good News that this is what becomes of the heathen – you can find one of the earliest articulations of this in St. Augustine’s writing. Anti-Semitism became a virulent, and in some ways integral, strain of European culture. In every country, the Jew was forced into ghettoes, required to wear demeaning garments, robbed of the ability to work freely, forced to pay exorbitant donatives at the will of the ruler, and often murdered or driven out. The emancipation of the Jews in the early 19th century eliminated many of the material conditions brought on by institutionalized anti-Semitism, but the attitudes themselves deepened and took on a twisted and contradictory nature: Jews were downtrodden, but their great wealth makes them a powerful menace! Jews have no culture, but these beasts have become our most prized artists, actors, and musicians! The ugly inner nature of the Jew marks him out as benighted among the nations, but lo! He can infiltrate anywhere, he is impossible to spot!
It also led to the development of a newer narrative: the Jew is insidious whether he is oppressed or free – what is the final solution to the Jewish problem in Europe? Assimilation? Expulsion? Destruction? These questions were debated in the closing years of the 19th and into the 20th centuries, without a satisfactory answer. Part of the reason Nazi Germany became so murderous is because, unlike past states which oppressed Jews in addition to other duties, Nazism was a Manichaeism that saw Jews as the pole of evil, and their eradication as the panacea that would usher in an age of pan-Nordic domination. One of many policies became the central pillar of state propaganda. They provided a definitive answer to the new question of “whither the Jew?” That they were so destructive is due to mechanization, but it cannot explain the destruction itself, which was the culmination of 1500 years.
The Holocaust remains an important lesson in many ways. Most importantly, it teaches us that ideology proved to be the great enabler of all the horror that followed. When the Jew came to be seen as evil not as a result of action but of being, his destruction was assured. Can something irredeemably evil be given sympathy and be saved, after all? All other factors are subordinate to this, which gave life and purpose to the machinery of genocide.
This leads to some problems, because it is impossible to live without ideology of some kind. At its most basic level, ideology forms the framework of thought, the prism through which we see the world and can interpret it, the unconscious reaction to and existence in the world. For example, that the world is real, that we act within it, and that our actions have consequences on the other beings we perceive within this world are basic positions that must be held to function.
As an aside, if one philosophically disagrees with them, that only adds an additional layer of complexity to the ideology, without challenging the ideology itself: even if Descartes believed an evil demon could, possibly, be controlling his experience, he would not test the hypothesis by throwing himself off of a cliff. The reality we have, regardless of its true nature or whether it is true in itself, is held to be beyond reproach for all practical purposes. Skepticism is thus a thinking man’s attitude to truths that are taken as given by everyone else. The truths are explored without being denied, and are given a deeper meaning. As Schopenhauer quotes:
The fundamental tenet of the Vedanta school consisted not in denying the existence of matter, that is, of solidity, impenetrability, and extended figure (to deny which would be lunacy), but in correcting the popular notion of it, and in contending that it has no essence independent of mental perception; that existence and perceptibility are convertible terms.
Whether this is true is a philosopher’s dilemma, but it is an example of my point that no matter the inquiry, fundamental experience remains unchallenged, and so the ideology becomes enriched without quite changing its essential properties.
If this schema is broadly applicable, then it can be easily seen in the political sphere. The national security state exists to keep us safe, it protects us from the terrorists, and all good Americans hold this to be true – it becomes part of the being of America, and so is no longer questioned. The educational system is necessary to the functioning of the American polity, it is the foundation of our economic might and its lack of quality is a detriment to our competitiveness, hence it is for the common good, the common good is the highest good, and to deny any of this is to deny the foundations of American democracy, and America itself. Global climate change is obviously caused by humans, all the major scientists agree, and to disagree is to not only challenge consensus, it is to challenge science itself – and science is the only rational means of interaction with the world!
When a position descends from something that is questionable to something that is ideological, rational thought will mostly cease. Only loons and freaks will debate these obvious truths. We should be careful, as we stake out our own ideology and what that means for our perception of and interaction with the world, that we maintain for ourselves an openness to the validity of other truths, an ability to question our own deep-seated ideological beliefs, and a willingness to abandon what is no longer suitable to replace it with something good.
In sum, we must not let the ideology we have keep us from creating the ideology we need! And what the hell does that mean? Certainly the topic for another post.