Monthly Archives: December 2013

Mass-Murder by Government


The Holocaust cannot be understood as an event separate from German history and Western civilization. The Holocaust grew out of the calamitous German experience of the First World War, and how Hitler interpreted and responded to this event.

When people learned of the death camps, they were horrified and appalled. “Incomprehensible” was a common reaction. Indeed, the event called the Holocaust is nearly beyond imagination. It is difficult to believe that human beings could bring something like this into existence. The event is so disturbing that some people deny it occurred.

When I became aware of the First World War, I was shocked, horrified and appalled. This event too is nearly beyond imagination. It’s difficult to believe that the leaders of “civilized” nations could ask men to get out of trenches for four years to be ripped apart — killed and maimed — by machine gun fire and artillery shells.

Here is a summary of the results of the First World War:

65 million men mobilized
8.5 million dead
21 million wounded
7.7 million POWs and missing
37 million total casualties

Although I was bewildered when I first began to read about the First World War, historians are apparently not. Perhaps they have become accustomed to this war. Whatever the reasons, historians — and people in general — rarely express surprise or amazement. The term “incomprehensible” is never used.

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In spite of the monumental carnage, the First World War is viewed as a “normal” dimension of history. We’d prefer not to put the First World War — or any war — in the same category as the Holocaust. Why? Because we view the Holocaust as an instance in which a nation intentionally engaged in mass–murder, whereas the 52-month episode of mass slaughter called the First World War is conceived as an event that occurred accidentally, or at least unintentionally.

It wasn’t that nations actually wanted to destroy large numbers of people. Rather, no one comprehended what they were getting into. The magnitude of killing was not expected. Things got out of control and went far beyond what anyone anticipated. It wasn’t as if anyone wanted what happened to happen. No one was responsible.

Can we truly claim that killing during the First War World — 9 million dead — was unintentional? Please provide your own insights on our blog.


Hundreds of books have been written seeking to fathom why some Germans were willing to murder Jews. Controversies have arisen. Were the murderers simply following orders — manifesting a universal human tendency to be “obedient to authority”? Had these people been so thoroughly indoctrinated with the anti-Semitic ideology that they believed that their actions were necessary and virtuous?

Rarely are similar questions asked about participants in the First World War. Soldiers are expected to kill. When they murder, they are simply doing their duty. No explanation is required. Regarding the First World War, we want to know — not only why soldiers were willing to kill — but why were they willing to die. This issue is glossed over. Do we imagine that it is natural for soldiers to go into battle — and to die when leaders ask them to?

One historian has posed the question of why soldiers continued getting out of trenches for four years — running into machine gun fire and artillery shells — when they knew that the results of this behavior were often fatal. In Rites of Spring (2000), Modris Eksteins asks:

What kept them in the trenches? What sustained them on the edge of No Man’s Land, that strip of territory which death ruled with an iron fist? What made them go over the top, in long rows? What sustained them in constant confrontation with death?

The question of what kept men going in this hell of the Western Front, Eksteins says, is “central to an understanding of the war and its significance”:

What deserves emphasis in the context of the war is that, despite the growing dissatisfaction, the war continued, and it continued for one reason: the soldier was willing to keep fighting. Just why he kept going has to be explained, and that matter has often been ignored.

Political scientist Jean Bethke Elshtain (in Women and War, 1995) observes that the First World War was the “nadir of nineteenth-century nationalism.” Mounds of bodies were sacrificed in a “prolonged, dreadful orgy of destruction.” “Trench warfare” meant “mass, anonymous death.” Elshtain observes that we “still have trouble accounting for modern state worship”; the “mounds of combatants and noncombatants alike sacrificed to the conflicts of nation-states.”

I pose three fundamental questions.

  • Why, during the course of the First World War, did national leaders continually ask young men to engage in battle strategies that caused a great number of men to be wounded or killed?
  • Why did men in the great majority of cases follow orders — going like sheep to the slaughter?
  • Why have historians rarely interrogated the suicidal battle strategies of the First World War?
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Carolyn Marvin’s theory of warfare, presented in Blood Sacrifice and the Nation (1999), helps us to answer these questions. Marvin hypothesizes that “society depends on the death of its own members at the hands of the group,” claiming that the underlying cost of all society is the “violent death of some of its members.” In short, one’s nation or society “lives” insofar as members of one’s society die.

War is a ritual performed by nations — in order to claim sacrificial victims. Society, Marvin says, “depends on the death of sacrificial victims at the hands of the group itself.” The maintenance of civilization, society and the nation-state, according to Marvin, requires blood sacrifice in war.

What an unpleasant theory. However, is it less pleasant to reflect upon the 200 million plus human beings killed by governments in the 20th century? It is not a question of this instance of war, or that; of this instance of genocide, or that. Rather, the slaughter of citizens by nations is a consistent theme — a prominent feature — of twentieth century history.

Do we have theories to account for these recurring episodes of governmental mass murder? Of course, each historical event is unique. However, do we really wish to claim that each episode of societal killing has a separate cause?

Marvin’s theory arose out of her study of United States history, yet works perfectly to explain the phenomena I have studied. The First World War may be understood as a massive, collective ritual of blood sacrifice. Societies acted to cause the deaths of young men — in order to keep their nations alive. In some instances (for example, Australia and Canada), blood sacrifice gave rise to the nation.


Marvin’s theory explains why wars recur — their function for societies and human beings. Just as significantly, her theory seeks to explain the fact that we don’t want to know the truth: that warfare is sacrificial ritual. The occurrence of war — and the denial of warfare’s purpose or function — are part of the same dynamic or complex.

According to Marvin, knowledge that society depends on the death of sacrificial victims at the hands of the group is the “totem secret”; the “collective group taboo.” While we enact warfare as a sacrificial ritual, we simultaneously don’t wish to know that we are enacting this ritual.

Throughout the twentieth century, governments have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of human beings. Did each war and episode of genocide occur because of reasons unique to each given event? Perhaps a more parsimonious hypothesis is that episodes of violence generated by societies and governments represent the fulfillment of a collective desire.

Warfare is not forbidden. Indeed, we take it for granted that nations will wage war. It’s what they do. This is what I mean when I say that people believe that Nations Have the Right to Kill (Koenigsberg, 2009). We are not forbidden to wage war, but up to now we have been forbidden to know why we wage war.

The sacrificial meaning of warfare once was a secret — but no more.


Dear Colleague,

Book reviews soon to be published by Library of Social Science on Mark Schantz’s book, Awaiting the Heavenly Country, will examine the meanings of the “suicidal charges” that characterized the Civil War from start to finish. Why did men slaughter each other so promiscuously—with a “zeal we still grope to understand”?

I’m not an expert on the Civil War. However, I’ve been studying the First World War for 25 years—another conflict characterized by suicidal battle tactics. Having read hundreds of books and written thousands of pages on this topic, the fundamental question—the one I sought to answer when I began this research—remains:

Why did leaders of civilized nations ask young men—for four years—to get out of trenches to be mowed down by machine gun fire and artillery shells? Why did these young men continue to obey orders—for four years—to go “like sheep to the slaughter,” resulting in 37 million casualties?

For a brief period (1992-2000), it seemed that the human race had reached the end of history; that there was nothing to kill and die for. Quite apart from the politics of September 11, 2001, the suicide bombers brought back into consciousness the idea that some human beings are willing to die in the name of a value or ideal considered to be sacred. Since most of us do not worship Allah, the event seemed “incomprehensible.”

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Field Marshall Douglas Haig was a British senior officer during World War I who commanded the British army from 1915 to the end of the war. He directed the Battle of the Somme (July 1 to November 18, 1916), in which more than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The first day of fighting resulted in 60,000 casualties, the worst day in the British army’s history.

Visiting the battlefield on March 31, 1917, Haig reflected that credit had to be paid to the splendid young officers who were able to attack again and again. “To many,” Haig stated, “it meant certain death, and all must have known that before they started.”

Apart from questions of ideology, historical context and tactics, what Haig says about British soldiers could be said by a radical Islamic leader speaking about men he had sent to perform a suicide bombing: “It meant certain death, and they knew it from the beginning.”

What’s more, to my astonishment, Haig justified the fatalities he caused by citing a Muslim military leader, Mughal Emperor Babur (1483-1530) whose views on “heroic death”, he said, are “curiously appropriate now”:

“The most high God has been propitious to us: If we fall in the field, we die the death of martyrs. If we survive, we rise victorious the avengers of the cause of God.”

This statement, Haig said, gets at the “root matter of the present war.”

So there it is: Haig conceptualizes the fatalities of the First World War in a manner identical to how a Muslim warrior conceptualizes death on the battlefield: either one is victorious (with God on one’s side), or one dies a martyr (and presumably rises to paradise or heaven).

In his report of August 22, 1919, Features of the War, Haig states that total British casualties in all theaters of war—killed, wounded, missing and prisoners (including native troops)—were approximately three million (3,076,388). He claims that these casualties were “no larger than to be expected.”

Indeed, according to Haig, British casualties were worth the cost because the issues involved in the stupendous struggle were “far greater than those concerned in any war in recent history.” In the First World War, “Civilization itself was at stake.”

While many of us find the actions of suicide bombers to be incomprehensible, we take for granted the behavior of soldiers in the First World War—who acted like suicide bombers—running into machine gun fire and artillery shelling—martyring themselves for a god given the name of “Great Britain.”

I pose the question: Why do we not find the behavior of leaders and soldiers during the First World War to be incomprehensible? Why are we blasé in our acceptance of the radical behavior that characterized this war? Because it is “written up in history books”? We accept the slaughter as natural, even normal, because the slaughter was undertaken in the name of gods in which we continue to believe.

What would it mean if we could distance—alienate—ourselves from our history: view it from outside the framework of our own belief system? What if we abandoned our faith in the “goodness” of society? What if we no longer worshipped “nations”? What if we allow ourselves to acknowledge—become aware of—the monumental, profound pathology that lies at the heart of civilization?


Richard A. Koenigsberg, Ph.D
Telephone: 718-393-1081
Fax: 413-832-8145

War as Extermination: Review essay by Brian Crim

Developmental Time, Cultural Space
Author: André Mineau
Format: Paperback
Published: Apr. 2012
ISBN-10: 9042035064
Language: English
Pages: 144

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon, click here.

SS ideology was the expression of a philosophical self-containing system of thought, articulated around a systematic body of knowledge. It portrayed itself as a global approach to society and civilization, based on eugenics and ethnic cleansing. SS theory and praxis was a response of the cultural shock brought about by World War I — and promoted total war for the sake of total health.

SS Thinking and the Holocaust is part of Rodopi’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies (HGS) series, which is committed to philosophical examinations of the Holocaust and genocide.

About the author: André Mineau is Professor of Ethics and History at the University of Quebec at Rimouski.

About the Reviewer

Brian Crim is Associate Professor of History at Lynchburg College, where he teaches courses in modern European history and the Holocaust. His research revolves around war, political violence, and antisemitism in modern Germany.

His monograph entitled Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938 will be published by Lexington Books in 2014.

Dear Colleague,

In his essay on Heinrich Himmler, Max Hastings writes about the “stunning incompetence” with which the Nazi war machine was conducted. Even with his familiarity with the period, he never ceases to be amazed by the authority entrusted to men of miserably meager talents.

Himmler, Heydrich and the SS, Hastings says, were amazingly careless of the “rational priorities of war,” devoting themselves with “demented single-mindedness to pursuing, herding, eventually killing Europe’s Jews.”

Brian Crim’s complete review essay of SS Thinking and the Holocaust appears on our website.

Click here to read the complete review essay.

We would appreciate your comments on this Newsletter — or the entire review essay. Leave your reflections and commentary below.

Hastings writes about the economic and strategic cost to Germany of undertaking a program of “liquidating those who were unwanted, while the outcome of the war still hung in the balance.” Only fools could have chosen to “address the agenda of supposed ethnic purification before Nazi hegemony on the Continent was secure.”

Like other conventional historians, Hastings sets up a dichotomy between the “rationality” of warfare, on the one hand, and the “irrationality” of genocide or ethnic cleansing, on the other. But what if the primary objective of Nazism was precisely ethnic cleansing, specifically ridding the world of Jews? How then will we understand Nazi warfare?

Brian Crim is a young historian challenging the view that genocide and warfare are inct political forms. Building upon Andre Mineau’s book, SS Thinking and the Holocaust, Crim demonstrates that the Holocaust and Second World War were two sides of the same coin: the struggle to free the world of “Jewish Bolshevik bacteria.”

Crim cites an order issued by Field Marshall Reichenau to Wehrmacht forces in October 1941, just three months into the German invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa). Reichenau states that the objective of war against the “Jewish Bolshevik system” was “complete destruction of their means of power and elimination of the Asiatic influence from European culture.” The troops faced tasks that “exceed the one-sided routine of soldiering.

The need to eliminate “Asiatic influence from European culture,” Crim suggests, meant that “nothing short of genocide, a racial reordering of the continent under National Socialist terms, accomplishes this goal.” Reichenau’s directive, Crim says, encapsulates the National Socialist worldview by framing war as a “clash of civilizations inevitable and indispensable to saving the German race.” Nazism grew out of the belief that Germany and the world were threatened by “biological evils.” Operation Barbarossa and the Holocaust therefore, according to Crim, were “inextricably linked to the same massive biological engineering project.”

Brian Crim’s complete review essay of SS Thinking and the Holocaust appears on our website.

Click here to read the complete review essay.

We would appreciate your comments on this Newsletter — or the entire review essay. Leave your reflections and commentary below.

Mineau puts it more starkly: “Operation Barbarossa and the Holocaust can be understood as a single and gigantic sanitary operation.” To the SS, space management — providing for the security of the German Lebensraum — was essentially an “antibiotic operation.” Confronted with the pervasiveness of biological evil, Nazism was the “politics of hypochondria.”

The Nazi party, Crim observes, consistently portrayed Germany as a “patient in danger of racial infection.” War was a matter of self-defense, a “prophylactic,” and therefore ethical. Total war sought “total health.” The war against the Soviet Union was officially discussed by Hitler on March 30, 1941, during a speech to top Wehrmacht commanders. General Franz Halder noted the essentials:

This would be a “clash of two ideologies,” a “war of extermination.” It was necessary to fight against the “poison of disintegration.” Commanders would have to “overcome their personal scruples.” After decades of fostering an anti-Semitic world view, Crim says, the Wehrmacht was encouraged to “act against Judeo-Bolshevism without restraint.”

If the “Final Solution” sought the extermination of the Jewish people, and Operation Barbarossa was a war of extermination, what is the difference between genocide and war?

Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, in the largest military operation the world had ever seen. By the time the brutal Russian winter descended, millions of Soviet POWs were dying in captivity, penned in behind barbed wire with no protection from the elements, being executed  en masse by the German Army or transported to Germany for extermination by the hundreds of thousands.

Adam Jones estimates that in a mere eight months, 2.8 million Soviet prisoners-of-war died from systematic starvation, forced labor, disease, shooting and gassing. This case, Jones says, vies with the genocide in Rwanda as the “most concentrated mass killing in human history.” During the course of the Second World War, according to Crim, 5.5 million Soviet POWs died in captivity.

If nearly 6 million Soviet prisoners-of-war were killed by German soldiers, what was the difference between the Holocaust and Operation Barbarossa?

Brian Crim’s complete review essay of SS Thinking and the Holocaust appears on our website.

Click here to read the complete review essay.

We would appreciate your comments on this Newsletter — or the entire review essay. Leave your reflections and commentary below.

Max Hastings disparages the Nazi leadership for undertaking a program of ethnic purification while the “outcome of the war still hung in the balance.” However, if the objective of warfare was precisely ethnic cleansing—to destroy Jewish-Bolshevik bacteria—was the Nazi way of waging war ineffective?

Historians twist about, straining to maintain their belief in rationality: to pretend sense exists within a sea of senselessness. Hitler could have defeated Great Britain had he focused exclusively on achieving this goal. However, he was preoccupied—distracted by his belief that Europe was being inundated by “disease bacilli which at the moment have their breeding ground in Russia.”

Andreas Hillgruber sees a parallel between the launching of the war against the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Final Solution, suggesting that the conquest of European Russia, for Hitler, was inextricably linked with the extermination of these bacilli, the Jews. The racist component of Hitler’s thought was so closely interwoven with the central political element of the program that “Russia’s defeat and the extermination of the Jews were—in theory and later in practice—inseparable for him.”

Hastings claims that Nazi leaders like Himmler, Heydrich and Goering were amazingly careless of the “rational priorities of war.” Yet it is estimated that over 21 million people died in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. And that nearly 60 million people overall died in that war. Even if Germany had “won” the Second World War, by what measure could this war have embodied or reflected rationality?

From a conventional military perspective, Hitler had lost the war. But if his goal was to kill as many Jews (and other humans) as possible, did Hitler fail?

Brian Crim’s complete review essay of SS Thinking and the Holocaust appears on our website.

Click here to read the complete review essay.

We would appreciate your comments on this Newsletter — or the entire review essay. Leave your reflections and commentary below.

On February 4, 1945, Hitler dictated a note to Martin Bormann, proudly declaring that National Socialism had “tackled the Jewish problem by action & not by words.” This action had been an essential “process of disinfection.” Hitler had been true to himself: had achieved the objective he set out to achieve when he entered politics 25 years before. He set forth the substance of his achievement: “We have lanced the Jewish abscess, and the world of the future will be eternally grateful to us.”

Richard A. Koenigsberg, Ph.D
Telephone: 718-393-1081
Fax: 413-832-8145

Warfare: Slaughter or Sacrifice?

Destroying the World to Rescue the World

Paul Kahn: The popular sovereign emerges when all members of the polity can experience the pain of politics. All citizens are equal, when all read the same history of suffering as their pain, and all stand equally before the threat of future pain—sacrifice—for the state.

At the heart of the state, we find a commitment to the willing sacrifice of all of the national resources—human and material—for the end of preservation of the state. All can be called upon to sacrifice—to suffer—for the maintenance of the state. Nuclear weapons are the perfect expression of democratic pain. A policy of mutual assured destruction is the end-point, ending in a vision of universal self-sacrifice founded on a love of nation.

Richard Koenigsberg: Better dead than red. Hitler declared, “You are nothing, your nation is everything”: destroy the world in order to rescue one’s nation and its sacred ideals. But the other side—one’s enemy—they too are willing to destroy the world in order to preserve their sacred ideals.

Destroy the world in order to save the world. This is the fundamental structure of political ideologies: Where is evil located? Who is the enemy? Evil is located within the heart and soul of the enemy. Political ideologies are rescue fantasies. To save the heart and soul of the world, one must destroy evil—kill off the enemy.

Hitler located evil in “the Jew.” If Germany was to survive, every single Jew in the world would have to be located and destroyed. “We may be inhumane,” Hitler declared, “but if we rescue Germany we have performed the greatest dead in the world.” Is there any political ideology that does not have this structure?

Ideologies differ in terms of the class of people identified as the source of evil: Jews, communists, capitalists, the great Satan, terrorists. Political ideologies seek to locate the source of evil. In our hearts the dream remains the same: if only this class of people did not exist, the world could return to a state of perfection. Destroy the enemy to save the world.

Torture—or Noble Sacrifice?

Paul Kahn: Nothing is easier than to describe the horror of the battlefield. Yet, despite our knowledge of that horror, we celebrate a political history of achievement on the battlefield. The West not only experienced the destruction of a generation of young men in the First World War, it pursued the Second World War to the point of genocide and the destruction of European material wealth and civil society.

The experience in the trenches of the First World War may come to appear as nothing other than a torturous mauling and destruction of bodies. For the soldier who has lost faith in the sovereign character of a politics of sacrifice, war becomes a scene of horrendous torture: broken bodies, pain and death. Once a family loses this faith in the sovereign, it will only see the state conscripting and killing its loved ones.

The sacred loses its power and we are left with the tortured body—a residue of politics when faith in the sovereign has disappeared. Wilfred Owen captures this residue of the dying body when he writes: “What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?” Not sacrifice, but slaughter; not the transcendence of the merely human, but the evil of the loss of the human. To those who do not hear God, Abraham’s action must have looked like a bizarre torture of his son.

Richard Koenigsberg: Yet historians continue to write about episodes of mass destruction as if they make sense. Historians are true believers. Their craft builds upon faith in sovereign entities given names like France and Great Britain and Germany. Dying for one’s country: sacred devotion.

Losing faith, one perceives the horror of the battlefield. Warfare comes to be experienced as torture: the torture of young men. The First World War was a massive scene of torture, with national leaders sending young men to be blown to pieces: broken bodies, pain and death.

But they were “dying for their countries.” Faith transforms slaughter into sacrifice. Dying for Great Britain, the young men are revered, memorialized, commemorated. The soldier—like Christ—is resurrected in the immortality of the nation. And so in the soldier all will be made alive. The soldier dies so that we may live.

Destroying Witches/Killing Enemies

Paul Kahn: A secular age looks back at the wars of religion and sees in them a great evil: bodies were destroyed for “no real reason.” All the suffering and destruction to what end? Similarly, we look at the tortured destruction of witches and heretics as a kind of madness producing great evil. Once faith is gone, we are left with only tortured and maimed bodies.

So we are beginning to see our own political past. We do not see political martyrs, but senseless suffering. No longer understanding the sacred character of the political, we see only the tortured bodies of the victims. We see a field of arbitrary death and destruction that contributes nothing to the well-being that we would place at the heart of the contemporary political narrative.

Or, I should say, this is what we might begin to see—or even hope to see—but still not quite yet. The politics of the sublime, of the sacred character of the nation, recedes but is not yet gone. The popular sovereign remains a brooding presence capable of enthralling the nation. It remains a hungry god and we remain willing to feed it our children. We react in only half-forgotten ways to the attack of September 11.

Richard Koenigsberg: Yet we do not yet understand political mass murder as a “kind of madness.” We still do not equate our drive to destroy “enemies” with the “tortured destruction of witches and heretics”: a form of madness producing great evil.

Looking back upon the twentieth century, historians imagine that—somehow—it all made sense: anti-Semitism was a cultural form rooted in Western civilization and history; communism was a doctrine created by serious thinkers who believed that a humane world required the elimination of capitalism and capitalists; and preservation of the American way of life required the destruction of communism and communists (generating “witch-hunts”).

Was killing Jews in Nazi Germany analogous to killing witches? Yes. However, the enlightenment belief in rationality persists: we seek “reasons”; assume there must have been reasons, refusing to embrace the reality of collective madness. MAD = mutually assured destruction: “A doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of high-yield weapons of mass destruction by two opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both attacker and defender.”

Insanity—or Noble Sacrifice?

Paul Kahn: Willingness to sacrifice for the creation and maintenance of political meanings always appears inconceivable to those outside of the community. We find it incomprehensible that Palestinians would be willing to blow themselves up for the maintenance of a political identity. But the suicide bomber is not different in kind from the Israeli soldier. Both know that political identity is a matter of life and death.

Both sides in this conflict wonder at the capacity of the other to kill and be killed. We have the same reaction to the sacrificial politics of others as we do to those who believe in different gods, rituals, and sacred texts. It literally makes no sense to us; it appears “crazy.” How, we wonder, can anyone believe that the gods appeared in that object or that place? This shock of difference, however, usually does not cause us to doubt our own beliefs. We think others strange, but that does not unmoor us from our own sacred rituals. The same is true of our own political meanings.

Richard Koenigsberg: How strange and bizarre that Islamic radicals would willingly die for Allah. How weird. Yet 360,000 Union soldiers died in the American Civil War in the name of “preserving the Union.” And 126,000 American soldiers died in the First World War—in order to “make the world safe for democracy.” We don’t find these deaths strange at all. There is nothing “crazy” about dying for our own sacred ideals. By virtue of faith, slaughter becomes noble sacrifice.