Why Did Hitler Kill?
As the Final Solution began, 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 precious German blood, then naturally I have the right to destroy millions of men of inferior races who increase like vermin.”
Hitler reflected that if he—as commander in chief of a great nation—was not faulted when he sent his own soldiers to die in massive numbers—why could he not also require Jews to die in massive numbers?
The Holocaust was generated based on the logic of warfare: As Hitler asked his German soldiers to be obedient unto death, so did he ask the same of the Jews.
The Soldier’s Body Gives Rise to the Reality of the Nation
So pervasive and all-encompassing is the ideology of nationalism that we must remind ourselves—when we utter words such as France, Germany or America—that these terms refer to ideas or concepts (created by human beings) rather than to entities that exist substantially. When people say, “The individual must die so that the nation might live,” the implication is that the nation is a being with a life of its own. For some people, the preservation or continued existence of this entity—one’s nation—is deemed more significant than the preservation of actual human lives.
In war, nations come alive. Killing and dying substantiate the existence of the nation-state. The sound and fury of battle lends credence to the idea that nations are real. Warfare and battle—the production of dead and wounded soldiers—anchors belief in material reality. Human beings are sacrificed in the name of perpetuating a magical entity—the body politic.
During the First World War, soldiers’ bodies were fed into the jaws of battle under the assumption that the “lives” of nations were more significant than those of young men.
British political leader David Lloyd George stated that every nation was “profligate of its manpower” and conducted its war activities as if there were no limit to the number of young men who were fit to be “thrown into the furnace to feed the flames of war.” He described the First World War as a perpetual, driving force that “shoveled warm human hearts and bodies by the millions into the furnace.”
Just as the Aztecs believed that the hearts and blood of sacrificial victims were required to keep the sun god alive, so during the First World War millions of hearts and bodies were sacrificed to preserve the lives of nations. The First World War was a monumental potlatch—ostentatious destruction or conspicuous waste—whose purpose was to confer prestige, with each nation striving to demonstrate its greatness by throwing away the most men and materiel.
“If I can ask German soldiers to be obedient unto death, why can’t I ask the same of Jews?”
The Final Solution or Holocaust—the systematic extermination of the Jewish people—began well before the construction of death camps and gas chambers. As the German army moved east into the Soviet Union in late 1941 and early 1942, they were followed by the Einsatzgruppen, or mobile killing units. Approximately 1.5 million Jews were shot and killed, many of them buried in gorges mass graves that bear a striking resemblance to the trenches of the First World War.
Hitler professed to be undisturbed by the extermination of men, women and children, providing the following rationale: “If I don’t mind sending the pick of the German people into the hell of war without regret for the shedding of valuable German blood, then I have naturally the right to destroy millions of men of inferior races who increase like vermin.” This statement reveals the “logic” of the Holocaust.
Hitler understood that as commander-in-chief of a great nation, he would not be faulted if he sent his soldiers into battle—where they would die in massive numbers. Hitler knew that—as Germany’s leader—he had the “right” to sacrifice his own young men.
Then he reflected: “Why are the best my nation has to offer—the ‘pick of the German people’—being sent to die, while the worst people, Jews, are destined to survive the war?” Writing in Mein Kampf about the First World War—and his belief that while German soldiers had willingly sacrificed their lives, Jews had shirked their duty—Hitler declared: “If the best men were dying at the front, the least we could do was to wipe out the vermin.”
Hitler vowed that the Second World War would be different. Jews would not escape scot-free: they would not be exempt from the obligation to suffer and to die. They too would be required to become “obedient unto death.”
For Hitler, the logic of genocide derived from the logic of warfare. War, Hitler believed, was the occasion when a nation asks its people to die for their country. However, if a nation has the right to sacrifice its own soldiers, why should it not have the right to sacrifice others as well? In the Holocaust, Jews would join German soldiers and participate in the sacrificial ritual. Jews too would die when Germany commanded them to.
The Holocaust Victim as a Symbol of the German Soldier
Although German soldiers are usually portrayed as aggressive warriors, the reality of their experience during the Second World War—as they waged war on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union—was pathetic. The following passages are excerpts from letters written home by German soldiers (see Stephen G. Fritz, 1997)—starving, freezing, wounded and dying in places like Stalingrad:
“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.”
“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.”
Primo Levi observes (1986) 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 an “inglorious copy of the army proper or, more accurately, its caricature.” Leon Poliakov (1979) notes that Jewish victims in the camps were required to behave like soldiers, performing standard military rituals: “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 Nazis glorified their willingness to surrender absolutely to Hitler and Germany. Sacrificial submission was conceived as honor, loyalty and faithfulness. Upon the death of a German soldier in the Second World War, newspaper obituaries announced the name of the soldier, stating that he had died “For the Fuehrer, the German people, and the fatherland.”
German soldiers had given over their bodies entirely to the nation-state. Jews also were required to do so. However, no one would say that the death of a Jew was honorable and noble. The Holocaust depicted submission to a nation—suffering and death—without sugar coating. The Holocaust enacts the abject fate of a body that has been given over to—taken over by—the nation-state.
German soldiers in the First and Second World Wars entered battle at the behest of Germany, often dying a brutal, ugly death. However, in spite of bodily mutilation and death, soldiers’ actions were described as noble and beautiful. The Holocaust enacted a perverse version of “dying for the country”—depicting the horrific consequences of submission to the nation-state.
Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War
Table of Contents
PART ONE: THE HOLOCAUST
Chapter I: The Logic of the Holocaust
Jewish Disease within the German Body Politic
Devotion to Germany
Jewish Individualism as Negation of the German Community
Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?
Jews Too Shall Die
Chapter II: The Sacrificial Meaning of the Holocaust
War as a Sacrificial Ritual
The Duty to Lay Down One’s Life
Soldiers as Sacrificial Victims
The Right to Destroy Millions of Men
Die for Germany-or be Killed
PART TWO: WAR
Chapter III: As the Soldier Dies, So the Nation Comes Alive
Obfuscation in the Depiction of Warfare
The Magnitude of Destruction and Futility of the First World War
What Was Going On?
Reification of the Nation-State
Willingness to Die as Declaration of Devotion
As the Soldier Dies, so The Nation Comes Alive
Chapter IV: Virility and Slaughter
The First World War as Perpetual Slaughter
Doctrine of the “Offensive at All Costs”
The Battle of the Somme
Virility-The Battle of Verdun
The Sacred Ideal
Virility and Slaughter
Chapter V: Aztec Warfare, Western Warfare
The First World War
Why the Perpetual Slaughter?
The Body and Blood of the Soldier Gives Rise to the Reality of the Nation
War as Potlatch
Warfare as Truth
The Nation-State Kills Its Own Soldiers
PART THREE: THE LOGIC OF WAR AND GENOCIDE
Chapter VI: Dying for the Country
Why Did Hitler Wage War?
Identity of Self and Nation
Aryan Willingness for Self-Sacrifice
Hitler’s Experience of the First World War
Willingness to Die for One’s Country
Why do the Best Human Beings Die in War While the Worst Survive?
As German Soldiers Die, So Must Jews
Sacrificial Death Stripped of Honor
Chapter VII: The Logic of Mass Murder
The First World War
Hitler and the First World War
The Euthanasia Program
Obedience (Unto Death)
Hitler Goes to War