The Sacrificial Meaning of the Holocaust

The fundamental distinction in Hitler's thought is between those willing to surrender their lives, submit to the community, and those not willing to do so. The Aryan or good Nazi represented persons willing to sacrifice unconditionally, while Jews symbolized persons who were unwilling to make the sacrifice. Jews represented, for Hitler, the negation of Nazism: disbelief, lack of faith. The Final Solution was undertaken to demonstrate to the Jews that they were not exempt from the obligation to submit: They too were required to sacrifice, die for Germany.

Hitler: "We do not want to have any other God, only Germany." Nazism was religious worship of the German nation or people, Das Deutsche Volk. Hitler was a fanatic preacher, obsessed with the idea of Germany, imploring others to devote their lives to his god:

Our future is Germany. Our today is Germany. And our past is
Germany. Let us take a vow this morning, at every hour, in each day,
to think of Germany, of the nation, of our German people. You cannot
be unfaithful to something that has given sense and meaning to your life.
Hitler's dream was that of the Volksgemeinschaft, the community of the German people. Nazi totalitarianism meant that everyone was obligated to participate: Volksgemeinschaft, overcoming bourgeois privatism, means unconditionally equating the individual fate and the fate of the nation. No one is excepted from the crisis of the Reich. This Volk is but yourselves. There may not be a single person who excludes himself from this joint obligation. The German nation was a jealous god that would brook no opposition. No one was exempt from the obligation to worship, bow down to her. Genocide was religious war against infidels, "death to the non-believers," but also a way of compelling Jews to submit. The Holocaust served to demonstrate that no one could evade the wrath of the German god.

Nazism meant absolute identification of self with nation. Total commitment was required. In Hitler's mind, the German nation embraced and encompassed all of reality. Nothing could exist in a condition of separateness. The Jew destroyed the dream of a perfect, all embracing German community. Hitler characterized the Jew, over and over again, as a "force of disintegration" working toward the destruction of Germany. What did this mean? The German word zerzetzung is commonly used in chemistry and biology, meaning decomposition, decay, putrefaction. When used in relation to Jews, the word suggested that they worked toward the destruction of all "genuine values," of everything that was sacred to Germans: Germanic tradition, culture, patriotism, patriotic symbols, etc. Goebbels: "The Jews are the incarnation of that destructive drive which in these terrible years rages in the enemies’ warfare against everything that we consider noble, beautiful and worth preserving."

Viewed from the outside, Nazism evokes violence, cynicism and brutality. The Nazis did not see themselves this way. Goebbels: "To be a socialist means to subordinate the I to the Thou, sacrifice the personality for the whole. Socialism is service, renunciation for individuals and a claim for the whole, fanatic of love, courage to sacrifice, resignation for the volk." Americans often have interpreted Nazism according to the idea of "obedience to authority." Germans who followed Hitler, however, did so in a spirit of active devotion rather than passive submission. Rudolph Hess: "We know nothing but carrying out Hitler's orders - and thus we prove our faith in him." A U. S. Department of State Booklet written during the war in an effort to understand what Americans were up against explicated the Nazi ideology of heroism as "that force and conviction which consecrates its whole life to the service of an idea, a faith, a task or a duty even when it knows that the destruction of its own life is certain."

The Jew symbolized the opposite of the heroic, self-sacrificing German who willingly surrendered to Hitler and the Reich. Goebbels contrasted the creative, constructive philosophy of National Socialism with its idealistic goals to the "Jewish philosophy of materialism and individualism." Hitler's Official Programme published in 1927 inveighed against the leaders of public life who all worshipped the same god, "individualism," and whose sole incentive was "personal interest." This was the essence of the Nazi complaint against the Jew: That he lacked the capacity for self-sacrifice, mocked and spoiled German spirituality through his unwillingness to surrender to the community.

War is a sacrificial ritual, the way in which members of a nation prove their devotion to the object they worship, their country. Death and mutilation on the field of battle demonstrate sincerity. In war, the most virile, vigorous men are sacrificed. War is an anti-biological or counter-biological phenomenon, victory of spirit over flesh. Steven Kull:

In the militaristic ethos, the soldier is expected to be willing to sacrifice himself to fulfill the abstract purposes of the group. The emergence of this self-sacrificing behavior in humans represents an extraordinary deviation from previously established patterns. It is awesome that, after billions of years of producing life forms that adhere tenaciously to the goal of survival, evolution suddenly develops a form that intentionally sacrifices itself in the name of abstract principles. We may assume that these behaviors are generated by the activity of the cortex overriding the more primitive tendencies of the lower brain. When young men got out of trenches and ran into machine gun fire and artillery shells for four years, 1914-1918, they were demonstrating devotion to their nations. They were willing to abandon their own bodies in the name of sacred bodies politic. Hitler was among the sixty-five million soldiers who fought in the First World War and he himself barely escaped being killed. On several occasions, it is reported, he moved from a certain spot only to have an artillery shell explode on that very spot a few moments later. He was wounded and in a hospital bed when the war ended, temporarily blinded in a poison gas attack. Later, he would unleash poison gas. Do unto others as others have done unto you.

Glynne Dyer, in his masterful video series on the nature of war, concludes: "You offer yourself to be slain: This is the essence of being a soldier. By becoming soldiers, men agree to die when we tell them to." Joanna Bourke, writing about the First World War, notes that the most important point to be made about the male body during this war is that it was "intended to be mutilated." Isn't it astonishing that the great protest movements of the Twentieth Century revolve around the complaints of workers against capitalist, colonialists against imperialists, women against men, yet barely a peep, a word of protest from or about the young men who have been sent to their deaths in such prodigious numbers during the Twentieth Century? Why this silence?

A glimmer of perception arose in the Sixties when students yelled, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" In our conventional way of thinking, we say that when a soldier dies it is because the enemy killed him. When French Soldiers got out of their trenches, moved into no manes land and the encounter with machine-gun fire from the opposing side, we say that Germans were killing them. Likewise, when German soldiers moved forward en masse to be slaughtered by machine guns and artillery, we say that the French killed them. Wouldn't it be more parsimonious to say that the leaders of one's own nation, by putting men into such an untenable situation, were killing their own soldiers? By acknowledging that war is a sacrificial ritual, we can begin to say that French soldiers were being killed by the French nation and its leaders, Germans soldiers by the German nation and its leaders.

War represents a massive, desperate psychopathology at the core of civilization. It seems noble and beautiful at a distance. P. H. Pearse, founder of the Irish Revolutionary movement, was thrilled in 1916 to observe the carnage of the First World War:

The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth. It is good for the world to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefield. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country. And the French nationalist Maurice Barres, writing in 1917, had this to say about the soldiers dying on a daily basis: Oh you young men whose value is so much greater than ours! They love life, but even were they dead, France will be rebuilt from their souls which are like living stones. The sublime sun of youth sinks into the sea and becomes the dawn which will hereafter rise again. The Aztecs believed that the sun arose each morning because it was fed with the heart and blood of sacrificial victims. The structure of thought articulated in the previous passages is identical: Nations arise by virtue of being fed with the blood and bodies of soldiers. France, Barres said, was to be rebuilt from the souls of dead soldiers, which were like "living stones." Even before the First World War ended, the French government began creating cemeteries, with their endless rows of crosses. To this day, they are cared for meticulously, attended to with much greater care and consideration than the soldiers who were so promiscuously thrown into battle.

Hitler was among the greatest devotees of the sacrificial religion of German nationalism. In Mein Kampf he stated that in the First World War, "The most precious blood sacrificed itself joyfully, in the faith that it was preserving the independence and freedom of the fatherland" and observed that "More than once, thousands and thousands of young Germans have stepped forward with self-sacrificing resolve to sacrifice their young lives freely and joyfully on the altar of the beloved fatherland." Apparently, the sacrifices of World War I were insufficient. World War II was an extension and perpetuation of the slaughter.

The Second World War and genocide arose out of the First World War. The Germans did not exactly "lose" World War I. Each nation seemed to be willing to continue to send young men into the furnace. But when the Americans entered the war, the Allies had many more bodies than the Germans. Some German leaders decided the cause was futile. Hitler experienced the ending of the war as a betrayal of the fighting men by the government. The politicians who negotiated the surrendered were called the "November criminals." Hitler held Jews responsible for this "stab in the back" which he neither forgot nor forgave. He could not bear to acknowledge that the sacrifices had been in vain, that the war had been lost in spite of two million Germans killed and two million more maimed or wounded.

Tens-of-thousands of books have been written about Hitler, Nazism, the Holocaust and World War II. But few writers have taken the trouble to listen to Hitler carefully in order to understand what he had in mind and thought he was doing. Here is what Hitler said on September 1, 1939, speaking before the Reichstag as German planes and troops crossed the Polish borders in a devastating Blitzkrieg:

As a National Socialist and a German soldier, I enter upon this fight with a stout heart! My whole life has been but one continuous struggle for my people, and that whole struggle has been inspired by one single conviction: Faith in my people! I ask of every German what I myself am prepared to do at any moment: to be ready to lay down his life for his people and for his country. If anyone thinks that he can evade this national duty directly or indirectly, he will perish. We are acting only in accordance with our old principle. Our own life matters nothing, all that matters is that our people, that Germany shall live. In this passage, Hitler tells us quite clearly what the war is about and predicts its outcome. He asks every German to do what he was prepared to do (and eventually did): To lay down his life for his country. He puts forth his idea quite unambiguously: That the war is being fought in order to provide the occasion for persons to sacrifice themselves for Germany.

Hitler goes on to say that if anyone thinks he can "evade the nation duty," that is, the obligation to lay down one's life for his people, he will "perish." In short, Hitler is saying that either one must demonstrate one's faith in and devotion to Germany through a willingness to fight and die for her, or that one will be killed; either die for the country, or we will kill you. Jews symbolized the idea that one need not devote one's life to one's nation. This is the idea or thought that enraged Hitler: That some persons were exempt from the sacrificial obligation, outside of the German dominion; that it was possible to evade or escape the nation-state. Hitler is saying, in effect: "There shalt be no other god before Germany." Everyone must submit. Violence, domination and aggression have the purpose of forcing others to submit to the nation, the god to which Hitler had submitted. The term "Holocaust" has the religious meaning of "burnt sacrifice" or "an offering wholly consumed by fire." The Final Solution was undertaken in order to make the sacrificial offering total, complete.

The Jews were sacrificial victims, but so were the Germans. As the war against Russia began, German General von Rundstedt admonished the soldiers of the Second World War to emulate the examples of their brothers in the First World War and "to die in the same way, to be as strong, unswerving and obedient, to go happily and as a matter of course to his death." As the war on the eastern front progressed, Goebbels was satisfied to note that "The German soldiers go into battle with devotion, like congregations going into service." With rare exceptions, German soldiers did not rebel against the duty to fight and die for Germany. They went like sheep to the slaughter.

The following passages, excerpted from letters depicting unimaginable horror and suffering, sound familiar to us: "We were crowded together like sardines in the cattle car. There were moans, groans, and whimpers in that car; the smell of pus, urine, and it was cold. We lay on straw. The train waited for hours." "Food was our most difficult problem. Our eyes gleamed, like the eyes of famished wolves. Our stomachs were empty and the horizon was devoid of any hope." "We stood in interminable lines, to receive a cup of hot water infused with a minute portion of tea. We had too much food in order to die, but too little in order to live." "The inability to bathe led to incredibly filthy conditions, which inevitably resulted in a plague of lice. We felt like livestock rather than human beings." "There is only anxiety, fear, and terror, a life without return along with terror without an end." "The heart is overwhelmed at the unbearable thought that the smell of dead bodies is the beginning and end and ultimate sense and purpose of our being."

Of course these passages sound like descriptions of the death camps written by Jews. Actually, they are letters written by German soldiers fighting in Russia, freezing, starving, wounded and dying in places such as Stalingrad. The primary sacrifice for Hitler and the Nazis was one's own people, the good German, faithful soldier who did not struggle against the obligation to fight and die. Hitler had no compunctions about sending millions of soldiers into battles where death was probable. Writing in Mein Kampf about his experience of World War I, he wrote: "When in the long war years Death snatched so many a dear comrade and friend from our ranks, it would have seemed to me almost a sin to complain. After all, were they not dying for Germany?" If German leaders did not hesitate to send young men off to fight and die in the First World War, did he not have the right to do the same in the Second World War? Is this not the prerogative of the Commander-in-Chief of a great nation?

At this point in contemplating the logic of warfare, Hitler and other Nazis are confronted with a paradox: If a leader has the right, indeed is often obligated, to send the best, most devoted of its citizens to their deaths, why should other persons, often "inferior" types, be spared such a fate? Dr. Pfannmuller, a major figure in the euthanasia movement said that "The idea is unbearable to me that the best, the flower of our youth must lose its life at the front in order that feeble-minded and irresponsible asocial elements can have a secure existence in the asylum." In a docudrama on the Wanshee Conference, where the Final Solution was planned, an official says: "Will the Jews be in luxury, in warm concentration camps while our soldiers freeze on the Eastern Front?" As the Einsatzgruppen murdered millions of Jews in late 1941 and early 1942 east of the Soviet border, Hitler professed to be undisturbed by the extermination of men, women and children: "If I don't mind sending the pick of the German people into the hell of war without regret for the shedding of valuable Germany blood, then I have naturally the right to destroy millions of men of inferior races who increase like vermin."

Here we approach the crux of the matter and the meaning of the Holocaust. Hitler is suggesting that if he as national leader has the right to send German soldiers to their deaths, then certainly he has the right to send the mortal enemy of the German people, the Jews, to their deaths. Hitler and the Nazis conceived Jews as a disease whose continued existence would lead to the demise of the nation. The Final Solution was undertaken according to the logic: "The Jew must die so that Germany might live." But the death of the German soldier, patriotic sacrifice, was justified on the basis of an identical logic: "Individuals must die so the nation might live."

In his study of the First World War, Denis Winter writes about the experience of German soldiers as they were transported to battle:

After the stint at base, the railway took the men toward the front line. To a generation with visual memories of the railway lines running into Hitler's death camps, tense faces peering from cattle trucks, there is something disconcerting about the imagery of this journey from base camp. The soldiers went in wagons of the same type, forty of them in each wagon, kit hanging from hoods in the roof. Death was a high probability for both generations of travelers in these cattle trucks. This is the "disconcerting" connection we human beings have not wished to make: That the manner in which Hitler sent Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust was not unlike the manner in which German leaders, as well as the leaders of many other nations, sent soldiers to their deaths in World War I. It is estimated that over 9 million soldiers were killed and at least 21 million wounded in the First World War. A sophisticated technology evolved in order to kill human beings en masse. As Hitler's comrades had been sent to be slaughtered in vast numbers on the Western front during World War I, so would vast numbers of Jews be sent to be slaughtered in the death camps. One might say that the soldiers, unlike the Jews, had a "sporting chance" to survive. But during some World War I battles, such as the Battle of the Somme in 1916, 25,000 soldiers were killed in a single day, a number equivalent to an efficient day at Auschwitz.

A sign at the entrance to Auschwitz read: "I bid you welcome. This is not a holiday resort but a labor camp. Just as our soldiers risk their lives at the front to gain victory for the Third Reich, you will have to work for the welfare of a new Europe." If the German soldier had been forced to submit to the leadership and undergo a horrible ordeal, the Jew would be obligated undergo an even more painful ordeal. Primo Levi: "It seems evident that in many of its painful and absurd aspects the concentration world was only a version, an adaptation of German military procedure. The army of prisoners was an inglorious copy of the army proper or, more accurately, its caricature." Another scholar writes: "Dressed in rags, the slaves had to march at parade step and with a martial air when going off to work; while other slaves played military marches. Crippled by disease, their feet running with sores, the prisoners were forced to make their beds with geometric precision." The death camps reveal the true condition of the German soldier: Portrayed as an aggressive warrior, but actually a pathetic victim, submitting absolutely to the nation and its leaders, dying when he is asked to do so. Jews in the death camps depicted the experience of the soldier in its abject guise; sacrifice stripped of ideas such as honor and glory; the horrible, degrading fate of a human body that has been put at the disposal of the state.

As German soldiers had been obligated to submit to the nation and its leaders, so now Jews would be forced to do so. The Holocaust represented affirmation of the totalitarian principle that the state encompasses all, that no one is exempt from the sacrificial obligation. Jews had been split off, separated from the German nation. Their selfish individualism meant they were not fit to participate as members of the community. In the Final Solution, Jews are brought back into the fold. As the German soldiers and people were suffering and dying, so would the Jew suffer and die with them. In the end, the Jews join the German people, sacrificial lambs on the altar of the nation-state.

The Jew symbolized, I hypothesize, perception of the ugly, painful quality of the sacrificial intention, the sordid, brutal consequences of the wish to surrender one's life to the community. But the Nazis refused to perceive the destructiveness of their ideology, acknowledge that their struggle was futile, in vain. They devised their grandiose "Final Solution" as an effort to stifle once and for all, the voice of doubt. But as the Nazis affirmed their dream of state omnipotence, they also performed a critique of nationalism, teaching us a lesson we shall never forget about the monumental destructiveness that can arise out of "love of country."

We return to Hitler's speech made as he declared war on September 1, 1939. He began by asking every German to do what he was prepared to do: To lay down his life for his people. Then he says: "If anyone thinks that he can evade this national duty directly or indirectly, he will perish." True to his word, this policy was carried out. Stephen Fritz, in his study of the war in Russia, notes that German soldiers suspected of desertion were often executed and left dangling from trees or poles with placards around their necks that read "cowardice in the face of the enemy." Sixteen-year-old Hans-Rudolf Vilter never forgot the picture of chaos in Berlin in 1945, especially the deserters and apprehended soldiers that one saw hanging on the lampposts and trees with the sign: "I hang here because I am too cowardly to defend my fatherland."

To the end, Hitler refused to allow Germans to say that the war was lost. He continued to require them to lay down their lives. He fulfilled his prophecy that one would die in the process of fighting for Germany, or perish. One soldier, according to Fritz, recalled with bitterness that in the fall of 1944, armed German officers gave his unit no choice but to attack enemy lines. The other option was clear: be shot by your own leaders. Units established special formations whose instructions were to "make immediate use of their weapons in order to enforce obedience and discipline." The situation in which many soldiers found themselves, as Helmut Altner wrote caustically, was devilishly simple: "There were only two possibilities. Death by a bullet from the enemy, or by the ‘thugs’ of the SS." Thus did Hitler enforce the sacrificial obligation: Either die for Germany, or be killed.

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