Monthly Archives: October 2013

"Ideologies must be irrigated by blood"

Ideologies and Blood Sacrifice

Sheikh Abdullah Azzam

Sheikh Abdullah Azzam

In his lecture, “Martyrs: The Building Block of Nations,” Sheikh Abdullah Azzam—a revolutionary Islamic leader who influenced Bin Laden—presents a theory of history. History, Azzam explains, “does not write its lines except with blood.” Glory does not build its lofty edifice “except with skulls.” Honor and respect cannot be established “except on a foundation of cripples and corpses.” The Muslim Ummah continues to exist, Azzam says, by virtue of the “blood which flows as a result of spreading this divine ideology.”

Similarly, Ali Benhadj—leader of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front—states that a faith becomes real to the extent that one’s belief is “watered and irrigated by blood.” Principles must be reinforced by “sacrifices, suicide operations and martyrdom.” A faith is propagated by “counting up deaths every day—adding up massacres and charnel houses.” Since the purpose of death and martyrdom is to confer truth upon one’s ideology, it “hardly matters if the person who has been sacrificed is no longer there.”

According to the theory of history presented by these Islamic radicals, ideologies come alive to the extent that people are willing to kill and to die for them. The “truth” of a faith or belief system is founded on the blood that flows in the name of that ideology or belief system.

These ideas relating ideology and the flow of blood echo the theory of Carolyn Marvin, who states that “blood sacrifice creates the nation.” What is really true in any society, Marvin says, is what is “worth killing for, and what citizens may be compelled to sacrifice their lives for.” In the West, people “die for the country.” Azzam and Benhadj advocate martyrdom for the sake of the Ummah—the Islamic community.

Marvin’s theory grows out of her study of American politics and history. Yet her understanding of the relationship between ideology and sacrificial death is identical to Azzam’s theory, which claims that “history does not write its lines except with blood,” and that of Benhadj, who states that a belief becomes established only to the extent that it is “watered and irrigated by blood.”

We may broaden this theory. Perhaps—in the domain of politics—sacrificial death functions as a mode of validation. Ideas come to be believed as true to the extent that human beings in societal groups are willing to die and kill for them. As Franco Fornari puts it: “The ideas for which we die must be true—because death becomes a demonstrative process.”

Recent issues of this Newsletter have interrogated the meaning of that episode of societal mass slaughter we call “The First World War.” What was going on? Why would political leaders ask young men to get out of trenches and run into machine gun fire and artillery shelling for four years (1914-1918)—resulting in 9 million dead and 21 million wounded? Perhaps the theories of these Islamic radicals provide a clue.

As Azzam and Benhadj were enamored with the idea of sacrificial slaughter, so did a number of Western political commentators look favorably upon the deaths of soldiers during the First World War. P. H. Pearse—founder of the Irish Revolutionary movement—was thrilled to observe the carnage (cited in Kamenka, 1976):

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.

As Benhadj states that a belief must be “watered and irrigated by blood,” so Pearse claims that it is good for the world to be “warmed with the red wine of the battlefield.” Benhadj says that faith in Allah is propagated by “adding up massacres” and “counting up deaths every day;” Pearse understands the death of millions of soldiers as a form of “august homage”—an offering to God and country.

Sacrificial death (slaughter), in short, functions as a form of validation or verification. The production of blood—of cripples and corpses–brings an ideology into being—brings it alive. One may call the sacred ideal—in whose name dying and killing occur—Allah, or the Muslim Ummah, or (the Christian) God, or the country. Regardless of the entity for which people die and kill, in our hearts, the dream remains the same.

In a similar vein, French nationalist Maurice Barrès had this to say (in The Undying Spirit of France, 1917/2009) about his nation’s soldiers who were dying daily during the First World War:

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.

Barrès gushes over the deaths of French soldiers. The fact that they have given their lives for France means that their value is greater than the value of ordinary citizens. Based on the souls of these young men, “France will be rebuilt”: blood sacrifices create the nation. Sounding like an Aztec priest, Barrès claims that the “sublime sun of youth” sinks into the sea and becomes the “dawn which will hereafter rise again.”

The “stones” mentioned by Barrès evoke headstones—the memorials of the First World War—that served to commemorate soldiers who had died in battle. Even before the war ended, the French government (as well as governments of many other nations) began creating enormous, elaborate cemeteries. The French lavished meticulous care upon these cemeteries—showing much more concern for the lawns with their elaborate rows of crosses—than they showed for the young men whom they carelessly and promiscuously threw into battle.

Why War?

In 1989, I was on the fourth floor of the Bobst library at NYU. Having read most of the books on Nazism, Hitler and the Holocaust, I drifted across the aisle and started browsing through the volumes on the First World War—and was astonished at what I discovered.

I was astonished—not only by the persistence and magnitude of the slaughter—but by the blasé way historians described what had occurred. It seemed as if mass murder was taken for granted: nothing special. At least the Holocaust evoked shock and bewilderment. But the extermination of 9 million human beings (most of them young men) evoked little amazement.

I began studying the topic more deeply, assuming historians would reveal the causes. What was so significant that could generate such massive slaughter? Of course, historians were able to trace how one event led to another. But why did the slaughter take place? Why was it necessary? Gradually, I realized historians were unable to answer these questions.

Orion and I were reading back issues of the New York Review of Books earlier this week—as a model for Library of Social Science Book Reviews—and came across a terrific article by Jason Epstein. In his review essay, Epstein poses several questions I have been thinking about during the past 25 years.

Reviewing John Keegan’s The First World War, Epstein conveys this great historian’s conclusion: that the nations of Europe (and the world) “had no compelling reason to fight.” Keegan asked: “Why did the states of Europe proceed as if in a dead march and a dialogue of the deaf, to the destruction of their continent and its civilization?” It is this question—and others like it—that we pose in this Newsletter, and through our Websites.

The most profound flaw in the thinking of historians and political scientists is their assumption of rationality. They proceed as if it is possible to identify “real reasons” for mass murder—and for the tendency of nation-states to proceed as if self-extermination was their objective.

Epstein cites a sermon presented by the Bishop of London in 1915, who urged Englishmen to kill Germans…to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young men as well the old,…to kill them lest the civilization of the world should itself be killed. As I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity…for the principles of Christianity. I look upon everyone who dies in it as a martyr.

The words in this brief passage (that easily could have come out of Hitler’s mouth) reveal several themes that have emerged from my research on collective forms of violence.
Warfare revolves around the idea that it is necessary to kill or destroy the enemy. There is blind passion in the Bishop’s words—he insists it is necessary to “kill Germans,” the “good as well as the bad,” the “young men as well as the old”. Why this belief that it necessary to kill—or kill off—each and every member of another nation or societal group?

Nations and enemies go together. It seems that one requires the other, almost as if nations need enemies in order to energize themselves—to stay alive. The nation’s identity seems to be dependent on its capacity to identify an enemy to hate, revile—and possibly kill.

The Bishop asserts that it is necessary to kill Germans “lest the civilization of the world should itself be killed.” I have found that the idea of “rescuing civilization” is central in generating warfare. War is not about “primitive aggression.” Rather, nations initiate acts of war when they imagine that the future of civilization is at stake.

Somehow, the other civilization (or group) is imagined to threaten the existence of one’s own civilization. This principle applies to contemporary political struggles—as well as the First World War. Warfare arises as a form of morality, or moral righteousness. The enemy Other is imagined to be acting to destroy one’s own society. Violent acts are therefore necessary—required.

Hitler explained, “We may be inhumane, but if we rescue Germany, we have performed the greatest deed in the world.” If you think about any case of political violence that you have studied or are familiar with, you will probably conclude that Hitler’s statement is applicable. Collective forms of violence are undertaken in the name of a rescue fantasy. “Yes, we are performing acts of inhumane violence. However, if our nation or society is to survive, we have no other choice but to undertake them.”

The Bishop’s war cry, Epstein observes, could have “landed him in an asylum” had he delivered it a year earlier. Warfare, it would appear, renders normal what in other circumstances would be judged insane. Outside the context of war, asking men to get out of trenches and to run into machine gun fire and artillery shells for four years—would be considered a form of insanity.

I worked with a psychiatrist in 1998 developing an all-day seminar on warfare. She was not a historian and was unfamiliar with the First World War. We were sitting on a couch watching Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). When we came to the scene in which soldiers were compelled to get out of their trench and move into no man’s land—in the face of massive shelling (click the link to view the video), she jumped up from the couch and screamed, “It’s crazy. It’s insane.”

This, perhaps, is the normal or natural reaction of a human being who has not been socialized into the historical discourse on the First World War. And yes, what occurred between 1914 and 1918 was insane. However, we don’t like to say this. We shy away from acknowledging that insane forms of behavior are contained within the fabric of civilization.

What’s more, human beings to not seem to be ashamed of their proclivity toward mass murder and self-destruction. Leaders who are responsible for the deaths of millions of human beings often live to a ripe old age. Perhaps we are even proud of our willingness to kill and die for abstract ideas—our sacred ideals. It’s what distinguishes us from other animals.

Can we begin to “bracket” the ideology of warfare—to conceive of this institution as something other than who we are? Post-modernists have deconstructed nearly everything. However, the idea of warfare (and of the nation-state, which generates war) reigns supreme.

It is easy to be “against” war. However, we have yet to pose and answer fundamental questions: Precisely what is warfare? Why do we need it? Why have human beings become so attached to the idea or ideology of warfare? These are questions we seek to answer through our Library of Social Science Newsletter, our Ideologies of War website, and through Library of Social Science Book Reviews.

We may not be ready to conceive of warfare as an institutionalized form of insanity. So let’s say that warfare is like a dream that many people are having at once: a collective fantasy that has been embraced and called “reality.”

We hope you will join us in our project of working to awaken from the nightmare of history.

Psychology of Totalitarianism

Bob Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone”—one of the most popular of the twentieth century—may contain esoteric meanings:

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

However, it also serves as a description of one’s emotional reaction upon coming to live in New York City—the ultimate “Gesellschaft society.”

Sociologists define the “Gemeinschaft society” as one characterized by personal interaction: one’s relationship with other human beings defines the community. The Gesellschaft or urban society, on the other hand, is characterized by the absence of interaction and intimacy among people in the physical environment.

One of the first questions I asked myself when I began living in New York City was, “How can I connect with other human beings?” I knew no one on my block (West 95th Street near Central Park West) and barely spoke to people in my apartment building. What was my “community,” and how would I develop a relationship to it?

I began reading The New York Post and The New York Times—and following the Knicks. Like so many others, my relationship to the community came to be constituted by a relationship with the mass media and “famous people.”

The mass media are so ubiquitous now that we take them for granted. We forget that one has to learn—be socialized into—this feeling that we have an intimate and personal relationship with events and people in the “outer world.”

When I was young, there was a clear distinction between one’s personal life and life presented by the mass media. One had to be seduced into paying attention to “current events” (David Letterman uses the term current events in a satirical way, bringing us back to a time when we didn’t take public events so seriously). We clearly distinguished between our “real lives,” on the one hand, and what was happening “out there”: what we read about in newspapers, heard on the radio, and saw on television.

What is totalitarianism? It is an ideology insisting that public life—the national community—is far more significant than one’s personal life. Totalitarian ideologies insist that there is no such thing as private life: one’s personal existence should be subordinated—always and forever—to the “life” of one’s nation.

Hitler explained to his people, “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” Nazi legal expert Wilhelm Stuckart described the German “Volk community”:

The community of the Volk is the primary value in the life of the whole as well as of the individual. National Socialism does not recognize a separate individual sphere which, apart from the community, is to be painstakingly protected from any interference by the state. The moral personality can prove itself only within the community. Every activity of daily life has meaning and value only as a service to the whole.

Totalitarian ideology revolves around the idea that there is no domain of life or sphere of reality separate from the national community. Totalitarianism means devotion to “the whole.” The significance of the individual is denied. Totalitarianism means denial of separateness and separation.

The development of the modern nation-state is dependent upon accepting the proposition that one’s own fate and destiny are intimately linked with the fate and destiny of one’s nation. Totalitarian ideology takes nationalism a step further, insisting that the fate of the individual and the nation are entirely bound together: there can be no domain of reality where individuals pursue desires unrelated to the state’s goals.

Embracing the Volksgemeinschaft, Hitler required that individuals identify absolutely with Germany. It was necessary to overcome “bourgeois privatism” in order to “unconditionally equate the individual fate with the fate of the nation.” The Volk would encompass each and every German: “No one is excepted from this crisis of the Reich,” Hitler declared. “There may not be a single person who excludes himself from this joint obligation.” The Volk, Hitler explained, “is but yourself.”

Karl Marx similarly embraced the proposition that separation of the individual from society was intolerable, explaining that “liberty as a right of man” is not founded on the relations between men, but rather upon the “separation of man from man.” Human rights were founded on the “right of such separation”—the right of the “circumscribed individual withdrawn into himself.”

“Man as a member of civil society,” Marx said, is an individual separated from the community—“wholly preoccupied with his private interest and private caprice.” Like Hitler, Marx disdained “bourgeois individualism”: a mode of existence insisting upon the individual’s freedom to pursue personal interests and private aspirations.

According to Marx, “Human life is the true social life of man.” Only by virtue of one’s relationship to society did one become a human being. The ideology of freedom or the “rights of man”—asserting the individual’s right to act in accord with private interests—produced an exclusion from societal life that was “more complete, unbearable and dreadful” than exclusion from political life.

The liberal idea of freedom, from Marx’s point of view—the right to become “released from the shackles and limitations imposed by man”—was the expression of man’s “absolute enslavement and loss of human nature.” Liberation from society was a form of slavery. The true achievement of “human emancipation,” Marx insisted, would occur only when the individual man had “absorbed into himself the abstract citizen.” Liberation would occur when the individual—in his everyday life, work and relationships—had become a “species being.”

What Nazism and Communism had in common, philosophically, was the idea that there could be no truly human existence unless one’s life was devoted to the life of the community or collective. “Society” was all. The individual was required to subordinate himself to, and live for, “the whole.”

Hitler’s life consisted of his determination to kill off the idea of separation or separateness. This is precisely what “the Jew” meant: someone who was incapable of integrating into a national society. The Jew symbolized a “free-floating individual,” unable to bind to a nation-state—like a bacterium that roamed within a body, but was unable to find a permanent, stable place within it.

In killing “Jewish bacteria,” Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels sought to kill off the idea of individuality: exterminate individuals who were imagined to exist in a condition of separateness from the nation-state. As one ideologue put it, “You will be a Nazi—or we will bash your head in.” “You are one of us—part of the German nation—or you have no right to exist.”

Hitler’s Official Programme (Feder, 1927) put forth as its central plank, “The Common Interest before Self-Interest,” condemning leaders of public life who “worship the same god—Individualism” and “make personal interest the sole incentive.” Nazi totalitarianism was a revolution against individualism—the idea that a human being can exist in a state of separateness from society, the national community.

Germany was everything. That which was or desired to become separate from Germany could not—would not—be permitted to exist. Hitler’s fantasy of mass-murder was generated by his desire or need to destroy anyone and everything that was not part of the German self.

National Disintegration

Anyone following recent political events in the United States will have a feeling of what it means to say that a nation is falling apart. Given this experience, one can begin to comprehend Adolf Hitler—whose entire political career originated in his belief that Germany was “disintegrating.”

Hitler’s Ideology presents and analyzes the central images and metaphors in Hitler’s writings and speeches. Hitler’s rhetoric often refers to the “disintegration” of Germany. In my book, Hitler’s statements clustering around this term appear in a table entitled “The Disintegration of the National Body.”

Hitler wrote and spoke about the “decomposition” of the German nation, and of the “splitting up of the body politic.” He stated that the German people found itself in the midst of a “process of dissolution,” observing that “internally the body of the people began to dissolve.” It was a “chaos of views and concepts,” Hitler believed, that had “torn asunder the German people.”

According to Hitler, the bourgeois world had failed to notice the beginnings of a process that threatened to “dissolve the German people once more into its basic elements.” This increasingly rapid “falling to pieces of the organic structure of the nation” acted to “destroy the people’s trust in their leaders.”

Hitler became profoundly anxious reflecting upon Germany’s incipient decomposition or disintegration. What to do? Hitler’s response to this question was the source of everything that followed. His career revolved around his determination to prevent or reverse the process of German disintegration.

Rudolf Hess often introduced his Fuehrer’s speeches with the phrase, “Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler.” Perhaps few people have ever identified as deeply with their nation as Hitler did. He experienced himself as being “at one” with his nation. Germany existed within the fabric of his being.

Hitler spoke of Germany as if it were an actual physical entity. What was disintegrating when the nation was falling apart—was the German body. What more, Hitler identified his own body with the body politic. When he claimed that Germany was disintegrating, it is likely that he experienced this disintegration as a condition of his own body. Thus, from Hitler’s perspective, the “falling to pieces” of the German nation was simultaneously a world historic event and a personal one.

The following passages provide a sense of the immense power that Hitler attributed to the destructive force attacking Germany, and of the cosmic threat that he believed it posed:

This attack is levelled against the very substance of peoples as peoples, against their internal organization: it is levelled, too, against the leaders of these peoples, against those who represent each people’s own race, against their intellectual life, against their traditions, against their economic life, in a word against all those other institutions which determine the picture of the individuality, the character, and the life of these peoples and States. This attack is so embracing that it draws into the field of its action almost all the functions of life, while no one can tell how long this fight may last.

It is only rarely that the life of peoples suffers from such convulsions that the deepest foundations of the edifice of social order are shaken and that this social order itself is threatened or destroyed. But to-day who will refuse to see or even deny that we find ourselves in the midst of a struggle which is not concerned merely with the problems of frontiers between peoples or States but rather with the question of the maintenance or the annihilation of the whole inherited human order of society and its civilizations? The organization of human society is threatened.

According to Hitler, the attack taking place was directed not only against Germany, but against races, peoples and states. What was at stake was the survival or annihilation of the “whole inherited human order of society and civilization.”

Hitler was unique in that he believed that it was his personal responsibility to rescue Germany—and Western civilization. Germany was falling apart. Society was disintegrating. Hitler was an activist who refused to sit back while the world collapsed. He made it his business to “do something” to rectify the situation.

At the moment Hitler perceived the incipient breakdown of civilization—this is when violence enters the picture—based on his belief that he had identified the cause of national disintegration. Hitler believed that communism, or the Jew, was responsible. Doing something about Germany’s plight, therefore, meant taking action against communism and the Jew.

Hitler claimed that Marxism was a conception of the world with disintegration as its aim—leading to the “splitting up of the body politic.” The Jew, he felt, was a “ferment of decomposition” among races—a “dissolver of human culture.” The Jewish “demon of disintegration” symbolized the “unceasing destruction of peoples’ lives.”

Modern political structures grow out of the individual’s willingness to “identify with the nation.” Nationalism is a cultural form with profound psychological implications. As people are expected to devote themselves to their countries, so is the nation incorporated into the self.

Individuals vary in the degree to which they identify with their nations. What characterized Hitler was the depth of his attachment: the degree to which he equated own being and body with Germany.
Hitler explained to his people, “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” Hitler applied this proposition to himself. He was willing to become nothing in order to be everything. One became everything to the extent that one identified with one’s nation. Hitler projected his self entirely into Germany.

Thus, his struggle for survival (Mein Kampf) was simultaneously a struggle for the survival of the German nation. The Jewish force of disintegration within Germany was within Hitler’s body. If the nation was to survive—if Hitler was to survive—the Jewish force of destruction had to be removed— from within Hitler’s body, from within Germany, and from the world.

Hitler’s struggle was to keep Germany—and himself—alive. Given that this was a question of “life against death,” no actions were off-limits. Thus followed the fundamental premise of Nazi morality:

We want to prevent our Germany from suffering, as Another did, the death upon the cross. We may be inhumane, but if we rescue Germany, we have achieved the greatest deed in the world.

The Goal of War is Death

Hitler’s view of the “Aryan” was not what many people imagine. What was “most strongly developed in the Aryan,” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, was his willingness to sacrifice himself for the community: to “give one’s personal labor and if necessary one’s life for others.”

The Aryan was “not greatest in his mental qualities,” but in the extent of his willingness to “put all his abilities in the service of the community.” The Aryan “willingly subordinates his own ego to the life of the community and, if the hour demands, even sacrifices it.” The “superiority” of the Aryan race grew out of the capacity of the Aryan to sacrifice his own life for the sake of the community.

The idea that one should sacrifice one’s own life for the sake of one’s community or nation was the bedrock of Nazi ideology: the anlage out of which everything else grew. Nazism meant absolute devotion to Germany: willingness to die for one’s country. Hitler’s “will” revolved around actualizing this ideology—bringing it into being.

Nationalism, Hitler believed, meant acting with a “boundless and all-embracing love for the people,” and, if necessary, dying for it. A man proves his love for his people “solely by the sacrifices he is prepared to make for it.” Giving one’s life for the community constituted the “crown of sacrifice.”

Military service meant consciousness of the duty to fight for the existence of the German people by “sacrificing the life of the individual, always and forever, at all times and all places.” To be a Nazi, in short, was to be endlessly, eternally willing to die for Germany.

Hitler was deeply disturbed by Germany’s loss of the First World War (or, rather, by her surrender). On the other hand, he idealized the death of the German soldier in battle. The young regiments went to death in Flanders, Hitler wrote , crying Deutschland ueber Alles in der Welt (Germany above everything in the world). With “fatherland love in our heart and songs on our lips,” Hitler’s regiment had “gone into battle as to a dance.”

More than once, Hitler said, thousands of young Germans had stepped forward to “sacrifice their young lives freely and joyfully on the altar of the beloved fatherland.” Having died in battle, the best comrades—“still almost children”—slumbered in the sacred ground having “run to their death with gleaming eyes for the one true fatherland.”

Nazism was an ideology of sacrificial death. To be a Nazi was to be willing “to die for Germany” (the title of a book by Jay Baird). “Obedience to authority” does not convey the meaning of Nazism. Rather, the willingness to submit and to sacrifice one’s life grew out of faith: love for one’s country and loyalty to Adolf Hitler, who was conceived as the perfect embodiment of Germany.

When a boy entered the Hitler Youth at age 10, he swore to devote all his energies and strength to Adolf Hitler, vowing that he was “willing and ready to give up my life for him.” The Wehrmacht soldier swore by a sacred oath that he would render “unconditional obedience” to Hitler, willing at all times to “give my life for this oath.” And the SS-man famously vowed “obedience unto death.”

Nazism was a cult of sacrificial death. Willingness to die for Germany constituted the core of Nazi ideology. “Obedience unto death” was the fount of morality: a vow to surrender one’s life when Adolf Hitler asked one to.

Hitler explained to his people, “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” Nazism was the will to nothingness: negation of the self in the name of glorifying one’s nation. Sacrificial death was the highest ideal. Dying for Germany was the summum bonum: the end in itself (at the same time containing all other goods).

Warfare constituted a vast arena giving Germany the opportunity to sacrifice young men. When the war against Russia began, German General Gerd von Rundstedt admonished the soldier of the Second World War to emulate his brothers of the First World War and to “die in the same way”: strong, unswerving and obedient, going “happily and as a matter of course to his death” (cited in Baird, 1975). Goebbels was satisfied that German soldiers went into battle “with devotion, like congregations going into service.”