Why the Holocaust in Europe?

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.

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14 thoughts on “Why the Holocaust in Europe?

  1. I love where this is going. Our intuitions and judgments are all predicated off first prejudices – that the national security state is necessary, that the current educational structure is essentially unmaleable – and these form a Quine’s Web of rigid predisposition, and socially formed ideology. We might be capable of imagining change, but how far do we have to go in questioning our basic tenants? And as far as generations go, our foundations get decreasingly self-substantiated. We might not have to utilize Descartes’ hyperbolic doubt, but perhaps an abandonment of everything that’s been politically indoctrinated thus far.

    I tend to sympathize with Slavoj Žižek’s idealist posit of ideology as not the prism through which we see the world, but the world itself, or as far as its surface area goes. We cannot not see it, except, possibly, through immense labors of critical thinking.

    Amazing to still see casual and robust Antisemitism today, and yet not entirely surprising based on its extensive history depicted here. I went to an alternative high school abound with ridiculous conspiracy theories (not shy of shape-shifting aliens or blood oath covenants) and many kids unable to drive had unshakable beliefs in behind-the-scenes Jew overlords. All it might really take to abandon bigotry is education mixed with exposure.

    • Exactly. What I was trying to get at, towards the end of my post, was an exhortation to get thinking. Thinking about ancillary political positions critically will ultimately, I hope, get people thinking about their most basic premises. That is the philosophical attitude.

      As to your last point, education and exposure will be useful, certainly. Knowing the history of the ideology and how pervasive it has been will go a long way in undermining it. However, anti-Semitism and its long history are relatively arcane topics. They will probably remain unknown to most people, unless they take the time to study them, and unless they care enough to examine their own ideologies. Anti-Semitism being integral in some ways to Western society, it will also not be examined and expunged unless Westerners decide their cultural, religious, and political ideologies require a thorough cleaning – imagine American evangelicals, strong supporters of the state of Israel, examining the anti-Semitic origins of their support: in Christian millenarianism, in the fervent hope the Jews will finally convert and be defeated as a religion forever. Children find it so easy to tap into anti-Semitic narratives because they are so ingrained, and so malleable. As in the Enlightenment, Jews attained wealth and power in the hope it would expunge their previous status as the lowest stratum of society. It only transformed it. Now, when the Jew leaves the ghetto, and uses the strategies that made ghetto life livable – group conformity, group support, exclusionary tactics, etc – he is attacked for forming a cabal. The Jews rule Hollywood, the Jews rule finance, it’s a Zionist-Occupied Government (ZOG!). There is no winning.

  2. Why … in Europe? [and by that you mean Germany, i.e. Germany’s expansion of that time?]
    “Winning” history tends to hide the reality. Point of fact, practically all of the world was infatuated with [America and England included] anti-Semitism, eugenics/sterilization, blatant racism, population determinism, and a plethora of social engineering. Every nation has had its hands bloodied in rooting out “unwanted populations.” The worst of all, of all time was the Soviet Union, with over 60+ million eradicated.
    The numbers may deem misleading. Perhaps percentages of the populations would lend a different result. Either way, the world [world’s governments] have been “darwinizing” its undesirables en mass for the last couple of centuries with reckless abandon. No thanks to science/technology and “education.”

    • You seem to have mistaken the point of my post.

      The question isn’t “Why did Germany decide to ethnically cleanse its undesirables?” Even if it were the question, your answer to it (“All governments do it, it happens [it is in the nature of government (?)]”) is a fact and not an explanation. WHY do governments do it? WHY the obsessions with purity? That would be an interesting discussion, but your dismissal of the topic is not.

      The question at hand here is: “Why did one large population center of a minority undergo extermination, but another large population center of the same minority did not?”

      When you ask that question, you have to explore how the conditions in both places differed, and what conditions were important for the difference. It is my contention that anti-Semitism’s unique nature in European culture was the causal factor. Everything else was accidental.

      Would you like to debate that point?

  3. Of course I did answer “why.” They [all] euthanize, sterilize, social engineer, control population, etc. all on their aggressive, immoral, and self-utopian darwinian evolution [and this is the central focus] OF FAVOURED RACES.
    As to the Jewish focus during those times, they were but one of many. Gypsies, the Polish, the Croatians, the Serbians, Black, Italian,French,and FAR too many others to mention were afflicted. That’s not even counting the weak, the ill, the handicapped, unwanted children, and anyone opposed to their empires. There was no minority spared populations, by geography or otherwise. America, even, held no relief for those refugees who sought asylum. They were turned away by the boatload.

    • Nope, still didn’t answer. You’re focusing on what occurred, and you haven’t begun to dig into why.

      Governments often designate favored groups, many times with a founding mythology of why said group is worthy and others are not. Why is there this impulse?

      • Seriously? Why? B/c man. It is the nature of the beast. It’s why man is not fit to govern.

  4. Matthew, you make two factual errors in this post. First, Herzl’s foundational book of Zionism was not Altneuland–his second book and a science fiction novel–but Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews usually translated into English as The Jewish State), which was his first book. Second, Jewish emancipation in Western Europe didn’t occur in the late 17th and early 18th century as you state but rather in the early 19th century following the French Revolution. It was Napoleon who granted Jews an equal civil status with Christians provided that they left the Jewish community.

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