Monthly Archives: January 2014

A Century of Genocide: Review Essay by Murray Schwartz

Developmental Time, Cultural Space

Princeton University Press

Eric D. Weitz

Format: Paperback

Published on: Jan. 2005
ISBN-10: 0691122717
Language: English
Pages: 368

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.

Blending gripping narrative with trenchant analysis, Eric Weitz investigates four of the twentieth century’s major eruptions of genocide: the Soviet Union under Stalin, Nazi Germany, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and the former Yugoslavia. Drawing on historical sources as well as trial records, memoirs, novels, and poems, Weitz explains the prevalence of genocide in the twentieth century — and shows how and why it became so systematic and deadly.

About the author: Eric D. Weitz is Dean of Humanities and Arts and Professor of History at The City College of New York.

About the Reviewer

Murray Schwartz teaches Shakespeare, Holocaust Literature and Literature and Psychoanalysis at Emerson College in Boston.

His writing spans a wide range of interdisciplinary interests and includes essays on Shakespeare’s last plays, the work of Erik Erikson, applied psychoanalysis, modern poetry and trauma studies. He has also co-edited several anthologies, including Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays(1980), Memory and Desire: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Aging (1985) and Psychoanalytic Encounters (2009).

He is President of the PsyArt Foundation and edits the online journal, PsyArt.

His book The Dance Claimed Me (Yale, 2012) is available from Amazon. For information on how to order, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

Dear Colleague,

In his review essay on A Century of Genocide, Murray Schwartz focuses on the “primacy of race.” From this idea of race, many other terms follow, including “lives unfit to live,” “elimination,” “purification,” etc. The Nazis, Schwartz says, sought “perfection” that could be attained only through “perpetual war against lesser races.” Unrestrained violence grew out of “racial categorization.”

However, what precisely did “race” mean to Nazi ideologues such as Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels—whose ideas generated mass murder? Contrary to popular conceptions, there is no evidence that these men associated race with physical characteristics. Rather, the “Jewish race” was conceived in terms of certain psychological characteristics that were believed to be inborn.

Murray Schwartz’s complete review essay of A Century of Genocide 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.

The essence of the “Aryan,” according to Hitler (see the LSS Newsletter of January 2), was the extent of his willingness to sacrifice for the community. The Aryan was “not greatest in his mental abilities” (Mein Kampf, 1925), but in his self-sacrificing will to “give his personal labor and if necessary his own life for others.”

The Jew, by contrast, Hitler said, represented the “mightiest counterpart to the Aryan.” Whereas the Aryan “willingly sacrificed himself for the community,” Jews lacked the “most essential requirement for a cultured people, the ‘idealistic attitude.’” What characterized Jews was the “absolute absence of all sense of sacrifice.”

Key to understanding the genocidal process, Schwartz suggests, is the idea of “the individual.” Genocidal regimes insist that “individuality must be eliminated.” Hitler’s Official Programme (1920) put forth the Nazis’ central complaint: “The leaders of our public life all worship the same god—Individualism. Personal interest is the sole incentive.” The central plank of the Nazi program was “The Common Interest before Self Interest.”

The Nazis considered individualism a “sin” because it was conceived as opposing devotion to the community—willingness to sacrifice. For Hitler, the Jews’ tendency toward “selfish individualism,” meant they were incapable of assimilating into a national community.

Murray Schwartz’s complete review essay of A Century of Genocide 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.

Since Hitler believed that willingness to sacrifice was the “first premise for every truly human community,” Jews were therefore inferior—inhuman—because they lacked this capacity for sacrifice. According to Hitler, the Jewish inability to “renounce putting forward personal opinions and interests” and to “sacrifice both in favor of the large group” was a biologically given character trait.

The following judgment by the Cologne Labor Court (January 21, 1941) denied the claim of Jewish employees to a vacation (in Noakes & Pridham, 2001):

The precondition for the claim to a vacation—membership of the plant community—does not exist. A Jew cannot be a member of the plant community on account of his whole racial tendency, which is geared to forwarding his personal interests and securing economic advantages.

This crucial passage states that—because of the Jew’s proclivity toward pursuing personal interests and economic advantages (which was a “racial tendency”)—they could not be a member of the community.

Murray Schwartz’s complete review essay of A Century of Genocide 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.

Hitler called Jews the “ferment of decomposition” in peoples. Since the Jew “destroys and must destroy,” Hitler said, it was “beside the point whether the individual Jew is ‘decent’ or not.” In himself he “carries those characteristics which Nature has given him.”

According to Hitler, the Jew could not be other than who he was—because he possessed certain characteristics that Nature had given him. By virtue of his race—his biologically given nature—the Jew “lacked completely a conception of an activity which builds up the life of the community.”

Nazi scholarship declared that the peculiar characteristic of Judaism was its “hostility to human society” (Weinreich, 1999) — which is why there could be “no solution to the Jewish question.” A true understanding of Jews and Judaism insisted on their “total annihilation.”

Schwartz analyzes the Cambodian genocide, which, he says, “exceeded even Nazi Germany and their Chinese predecessors in the destruction of traditional forms of life.” He cites a survivor, Rithy Panh, writing in The Elimination (2013) about the infamous Tuol Sleng prison and torture house:

Everything was subordinated to the Angkar, the mysterious, all-powerful “Organization.” I know of no other example in history of such dominion, of a sovereignty almost abstract by virtue of being absolute. In that world, I’m not an individual. I have no freedom, no thoughts, no origin, no inheritance, no rights: I have no more body. All I have is a duty, namely to dissolve myself in the Organization.

The phrase “dissolve oneself in the Organization” contains the essence of totalitarianism. Hitler explained to his German people, “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” Hitler aspired to throw men into the “great melting pot, the nation,” so that they could be “welded one to another.”

People who are melted together—welded to one another—naturally lose their individuality and freedom. The totalitarian dream conceives of human beings as “cells” that are capable of uniting in order to create a single, omnipotent body (politic).

Working to build up his Nazi state, Hitler believed the German people had been won over by the “eternal national and social ideal” he put forth—persuading them to “subordinate their own interests to the interest of the whole society.” Nonetheless, Hitler said, there were still a few “incurables” who did not understand “the happiness of belonging to this great, inspiring community.”

Jews specifically, for Hitler, symbolized people who were “incurable”: unable to assimilate into a national community. Jews, according to Hitler—in any society—represented a “force of disintegration” acting to tear nations apart. By virtue of their biologically given nature, Jews caused nations to “break into pieces.”

Murray Schwartz’s complete review essay of A Century of Genocide 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.

“Racism,” it turns out, had little to do with physical characteristics . Rather, Nazi racism was a complex psychological—even metaphysical—conception. Jews represented an idea in the mind of Hitler and other Nazis, symbolizing individualism and separation—tendencies acting to destroy national unity.

Jews, according to National Socialism, did not have the capacity to abandon individuality in order to fuse with a national community. The Jewish inability to bind to a body politic, Hitler believed, was biologically given—which is why there could be no “solution to the Jewish problem” other than the Final Solution.

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

Glorification of the Death of Heroes: Review Essay by Rana Salimi

Developmental Time, Cultural Space


Cornell University Press


Mark Schantz

Format: Paperback

Published on: Apr. 2008

ISBN-10: 080143761X

Language: English

Pages: 264

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.

In Awaiting the Heavenly Country, Mark S. Schantz argues that American attitudes and ideas about death helped facilitate the Civil War’s tremendous carnage. Asserting that 19th-century attitudes toward death were firmly in place before the war began — rather than arising after the losses became apparent — Schantz has written a fascinating and chilling narrative of how a society understood death, and reckoned the magnitude of destruction it was willing to tolerate.

About the author: Mark S. Schantz is Professor of History and Director of the Odyssey Program at Hendrix College.

About the Reviewer

For the past 7 years, Rana Salimi, Ph.D has researched Palestinian bombers, especially female bombers, who choose the path of violent resistance — risking the lives of their victims, their family members, and the lives of their own.

Her doctoral dissertation, “Visual Representation of Palestinian Female Martyrs Inside and Outside of Muslim Culture”, deals with the issue of self-sacrifice for a higher cause: how individual volunteers — motivated by either nationalist, religious, or political agendas — transform into “political performers” before carrying their bombing missions.

Rana Salimi received her Ph.D from UC San Diego, department of Theater and Dance. Currently, she lectures at UC San Diego and National University on a variety of subjects, including theater, history and language arts.

Dear Colleague,

Please read Rana Salimi’s exciting review essay of Mark Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country directly below, on our blog or on the LSS Book Reviews website.

Salimi summarizes Schantz’s argument: Religious beliefs about death were “deeply significant for the Civil War.” Soldiers marched off to war secure in their belief that “their bodies would be restored and they would be reunited with loved ones in heaven.” These beliefs about death, according to Schantz, “insulated soldiers and their families from the horrors of war.”

On a more fundamental level, the ideology of the Civil War demanded that citizens “sacrifice their lives and commit violence against their fellow countrymen so the nation as a whole could survive.” The individual could achieve eternal life and be commemorated as a hero “if, and only if, he was ready to sacrifice himself.”

Here, we are on familiar grounds. The ideology of sacrificial death—“The individual must die so that the nation might live”—lies at the heart of many wars fought by many nations at many different times and places. Thus, it is difficult to argue that a 19th-century culture of death was the primary source of America’s willingness to accept casualties during the Civil War.

The following are examples of troops fighting in other wars that engaged in suicidal battle strategies resulting in enormous casualties:

  • Japanese soldiers in the Russo-Japanese war (1905).
  •  British, French, Italian, Australian, Italian, Australian and Turkish soldiers (among others) during the First World War.
  • Japanese soldiers during the Second World War.
  • Royal Air Force pilots during the Second World War (the number of UK airmen who gave their lives was ten times greater than the number of kamikaze pilots who died).
  • American soldiers at the Battle of Normandy. German soldiers fighting Russia in the Second World War (e.g., the Battle of Berlin).
  • Chinese troops attacking Americans in North Korea during the Korean war (1950): the “human wave attacks.”
  • Iranians fighting in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88): human wave attacks

These are cases with which I’m familiar. I’m certain historians can provide many additional examples.

The Civil War is only one among many wars characterized by suicidal battle strategies resulting in an extraordinary number of casualties. It is not parsimonious to explain a constant (suicidal battle strategies and the acceptance of casualties) by a variable (the 19th-century American attitude toward death).

Salimi notes that—far from being unusual (as Schantz suggests)—many national and religious groups today “share values with the Civil War society of the United States,” for example, jihadists who see death as a means of redemption, and activists who die engaged in violent political protest. Indeed, Salimi says, the belief system that defined the Civil War—that through sacrificial violence (death of the corporeal body) freedom is achieved, the nation liberated, an ideology preserved and the hero commemorated— “exists today in ideologies throughout the world.”

The idealization of sacrificial violence that characterized the Civil War has been common in many wars in many societies, at different times and places. Indeed, episodes of massive political violence are so common that we rarely ask why they occur. What is the meaning of our willingness to die and kill in the name of ideologies?

According to Jonah Winters (1987), the word for “martyr” and “witness”—shahid—is nearly identical in Greek and Arabic. Shahid usually is taken to mean that the martyr is one who “witnesses to the sincerity of his faith or political conviction through the ultimate proof—his own life.” Franco Fornari hypothesizes (1975) that war is a spectacular demonstration whereby “death assumes absolute value.” The ideas for which we die have a right to truth because death becomes “a demonstrative process.”

People who wage war, Fornari says, believe that “faith in a just idea legitimates every sacrifice.” War as a sacrificial duty signifies “destruction put into the service or preservation of what is loved.” To understand political or collective violence, therefore, it is necessary to identify that which is loved in a particular society, the nature of the “sacred object” in the name of which sacrificial actions are performed.

The beloved object for Northerners who fought in the Civil War was the idea of the American Republic (the “perfect union”), and the ideal of “freedom.” However, the beloved object for which people die and kill has been given many names: Great Britain or France or Germany or the Emperor or Allah or the communist party. The names differ, but the dream remains the same.

Human beings wage war—die and kill—in order to demonstrate devotion to ideas or entities conceived as greater or “higher” than concrete existence. By engaging in suicidal battle strategies that generate enormous casualties, we demonstrate our sincerity: show that we truly believe.

Death in war is performed to prove that the idea or ideal or entity that we worship is real. We seek to prove that there is a transcendent domain of reality beyond actual existence. Surely there must be some thing that gives rise to all the sound and fury. It is difficult to imagine that all of that death and destruction could have been undertaken in the name of no thing.

Best regards,
Richard Koenigsberg


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

Schantz, Mark, Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008) xv, 245pp., notes, index. Review by Rana Salimi.

In Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death, Mark S. Schantz notes that during the Civil War era Americans encountered death in “myriad and intimate ways.” Pointing to the ever-present shade of death as a result of high infant and childhood mortality rates, the pervasiveness of tuberculosis, and frequent epidemics, Schantz argues that “Americans . . . taught each other how to die.”

Antebellum Americans wanted a “good death,” one that came at a ripe old age, took place in the bosom of the family, and enabled the dying person to “utter last words that would reveal not only the disposition of their soul but also serve as a spiritual lesson to those who attended the death.” Daniel C. Eddy, the author of Angel Whispers; or the Echo of Spirit Voices Designed to Comfort Those Who Mourn (1857), promoted a religious view of disease and even wrote about the “advantages of consumption” because it gave the dying person plenty of time to undergo authentic conversion in preparation for eternal life. Instead of focusing on the corporeal death of the individual, Eddy and his contemporaries highlighted the significance of the soul.

Schantz argues that religious beliefs about death were deeply significant for the Civil War. Soldiers marched off to war secure in the belief that their bodies would be restored and they would be reunited with loved ones in heaven. In a conflict that violently took the lives of 620,000 men, who were not just killed but “ripped apart,” these beliefs sustained soldiers on both sides of the conflict who wrote about heaven as a home where death and suffering would be no more. Schantz writes that such beliefs about death insulated soldiers and their families from the horrors of the war. Thus, religious notions of life and death served political purposes and set the ground for the bloodiest war in American history.

Schantz turns his attention to a group of Americans who rarely had the opportunity to die the “good” death, African American slaves, for whom the ideas of freedom and death were part of a daily calculation. He traces the thought of African American abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet, who argued that the hope of freedom rested on the willingness of slaves to risk death. For Schantz, this notion goes even deeper: if African Americans were to “grasp the fruits of freedom fully,” they would need to “make friends with the prospect of death.” For abolitionists and former slaves, slavery was already a form of death, what Frederick Douglass called “a life of living death.” Schantz points out that this concept anticipated sociologist Orlando Patterson’s notion of “social death” by many decades. Choosing to die while resisting slavery was a distinctly African American version of the “good death.” Schantz then turns this lens on African American soldiers who volunteered for service in the Civil War. Although their willingness to kill and be killed were viewed, and rightly so, as an indication of their commitment to racial equality and their desire for citizenship, Schantz argues that it was the already familiar equation of the risk of death in the pursuit of freedom that helps us understand why African Americans were willing to risk so much in the Civil War. Noting that black soldiers risked death just as willingly as their white counterparts, Schantz points out that only in death did black soldiers achieve the status of American heroes.

Schantz explores the rise of rural cemeteries and the emphasis on the proper burial of the deceased in the antebellum and war years. The growth of cemeteries throughout America created what Schantz calls a “liminal spiritual terrain,” hovering between heaven and earth, where the dead would be properly buried and remembered, where Christians would find solace in the face of grief. Grief, in this new setting, became a family affair, one that included the young and the tender. Memorialization of the dead was meant to bring together the living in a climate of support and solidarity. However, as Schantz points out, the inclusiveness the cemetery promised “stopped hard at its gates.” Most new cemeteries were for white Protestants only; large groups of Americans, including African Americans, Native Americans, Catholics, and Muslims, were excluded from these pastoral refuges for the dead and grieving.

The last chapter of the book is dedicated to the items Americans used to complete proper mourning. The “art of mourning” that helped families confront and come to terms with the death of their loved ones included many physical remembrances, such as memorial lithographs, postmortem photographs of the loved one, and cemetery monuments. These material evidences of mourning were intended to preserve individuals and their families. Schantz briefly touches on the gendered nature of grief; in the “vital tasks of weeping and mourning for the dead,” women had an elevated role.

In contrast to the focus on the needs of families cemeteries represented, Civil War battlefield photographs had a political agenda. In addition to glorifying the martyred soldiers of the war, sanitized photographs of battlefields indicate the desire of the American public for an aesthetic view of the war. Dead bodies were arranged carefully for the camera and the landscape occupied the photograph more than the dead soldiers. Such “recordings” of traumatic events helped the public come to terms with the unimaginable by giving it images that could be comprehended. In Civil War photographs, the dead bodies are always peaceful and complete without a trace of gunshots or dismemberment. The “beautiful death” was visualized on a body that had apparently not been ravaged by death; these were not photographs of soldiers who experience the far more common fate of being blown to bits. The peacefulness and wholeness of the dead hero implied that the martyr in a higher cause never dies but remains intact and memorable. The photographers who produced such images publicized the political agenda of the pro-Union war.

The construction and political system of U.S. society in the Civil War era demanded that its citizens sacrifice their lives and commit violence against their fellow countrymen so the nation as a whole could survive. The dominant religious ideology, literature, and the arts of the time imposed the culture of “good death” on the nation and required citizens to voluntarily exchange the mundane world for the heavenly rewards of the afterlife. In other words, the individual could achieve the eternal life in heaven and could be commemorated as a hero if, and only if, he was ready to sacrifice himself. However, the individual never acted alone. It was the pressing torment of war that completed the doctrines of the “good” and honorable death. It was the reality of a nation perishing in the course of a devastating war that urged the culture to seek peace in the death of its children.

In the twenty-first century, political upheavals and social systems similarly shape the decisions and actions of the individuals who are identified, rightfully or otherwise, as terrorists. It is in individual sacrificial violence (the death of the corporeal body) that freedom is achieved, the nation liberated, an ideology preserved, and the hero commemorated. The oppressed individual who experiences “social death” on a daily basis feels the urge to find solace in a rewarding and heroic ending. Self-sacrifice promises an ending that is at least regarded as a “good death,” even though it does not resolve the critical issues. Schantz’s scholarship suggests that readers ponder the Civil War in an attempt to understand the ones who “fought the American Civil War in such a way that respects both the manner in which they lived and the ways in which they died.” Perhaps the same profound, scholarly, and clear comprehension is required for reading between the lines of violent protests that create turmoil in the world today.

In his epilogue, Schantz cautions against assuming that we are the same as the mid-nineteenth-century Americans he writes about. He argues that in their embrace of mass death, they are in fact alien to us, concluding that “if we participate in the nineteenth-century culture of death today, it is most evident perhaps in our willingness to honor and valorize the past.” I wonder if this is accurate. It depends on who “we” is. If we expand the definition beyond the borders of the United States, the values Schantz writes about seem very present in our modern world. Jihadists who believe in death as a means of redemption, activists who engage in acts of violence to protest corrupt political systems, and religious and national ideologies that promote self-sacrifice share certain values with the Civil War society of the United States. The difference perhaps is that in the Civil War, the enemy was from within; today’s volunteers for martyrdom draw attention to the crushing power of occupation, colonization, and defeat at the hands of external forces. Just as the overwhelming pressure of slavery induced many individuals to choose death as a form of freedom, oppression today initiates the response of extremist violence around the world, even when that violence necessitates the death of the actor.

Review Essay of Dynamic of Destruction by Joanna Scutts

Developmental Time, Cultural Space

Publisher: Oxford U. Press
Author: Alan Kramer
Format: Paperback
Published on: Mar. 2009

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.

From the Western Front to the Balkans, from Italy to the war in the East, the First World War was the most apocalyptic the world had ever known. This book tells you how and why the civilized nations of Europe descended into unprecedented orgy of destruction.

About the Author: Alan Kramer is Professor of European History at Trinity College Dublin.

About the Reviewer

Joanna Scutts is a literary critic and cultural historian with teaching and research interests in all aspects of modernism. She holds a BA in English from the University of Cambridge, MA from the University of Sussex, and a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, where her research focused on World War One commemorative practices and their impact on British literary modernism.

Her writing and research seminars, on “The Return of the Soldier” and “Memory and the City” respectively, explore questions of cultural memory and identity, and both focus on the ways that literature shapes our understanding of history, gender, and place.

She has written book reviews and essays for publications including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Nation, and is currently at work on a new book project about self-help culture and feminism in the 1930s. More information is available through her website.

Click here to read her article on commemoration, Battlefield Cemeteries, Pilgrimage, and Literature after the First World War.

Dear Colleague,

We are very grateful to Joanna Scutts for her review essay on Alan Kramer’s Dynamics of Destruction. You may read the complete review directly below, or on the LSS Book Reviews website. Here are my own reflections:

Scutts discusses the idea of “mass death,” defined by Kramer as the “killing of a large proportion of a military formation, or a large number of civilians,” distinguished from genocide by “reciprocity.” In other words, during the First World War, one group murdered members of another group—while the group on the other side could kill back. Whereas in the case of the Holocaust, one group murdered members of another group—while the other group could not kill back.

Omer Bartov has observed (1996) that the Nazi death camps were “architecturally and organizationally modeled on the experience of the Great War,” incorporating all the attributes of a military environment such as uniforms and barbed wires, watch towers and roll calls, hierarchy and order, drills and commands. The Holocaust, Bartov says, was “almost the perfect reenactment of the Great War,” with the important correction that “all the perpetrators were on one side and all the victims on the other.”

Bartov observes that there is reluctance to associate the imagery of the Great War with the Holocaust because of our “discomfort of perceiving national wars as an instance of industrial killing;” and because of our desire to insist that there is a difference between war and genocide.

Historians, Scutts notes, tend to view the First World War as some kind of “natural disaster,” an extension of masculine violence, or an instance of a war that somehow got out of control—people and cultural artifacts being destroyed by a “whirlwind” or a “machine.” The most important contribution of Dynamics of Destruction, according to Scutts, is how Kramer brings into focus how human agents brought the First World War into being. Mass-murder and mass-destruction arose based on “specific decisions of specific commanders, by orders decreed from above and carried out by armed men on the ground.” Human being acted to create—and to perpetuate—the First World War.

So what is the difference between the First World War and the Final Solution? One might say that the Holocaust was a case of “intentional” mass-murder, whereas the First World War was an instance of “unintentional” mass-murder.

However, if young men were asked to get out of trenches for four consecutive years (the “slow march of men into machine guns” and artillery shells)—based on specific decisions made by specific commanders—can we truly say that the extermination of young men that occurred during the First World War was “unintentional?”

Thanks again to Joanna Scutts. Please read about her in the column to the right, take a look at her website, and read her online publication, “Battlefield Cemeteries, Pilgrimage, and Literature after the First World War”.

To comment on Scutts’s review essay (or on my own comments), please write below.

Best regards,
Richard Koenigsberg


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

Kramer, Alan., Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Reprint 2013. 434pp. ISBN 9780199543779. Reviewed by Joanna Scutts, New York University.

Any history of the First World War begins with numbers. The war is defined by the dizzying casualty rate on all combatant sides, and remembered in acres of grave markers and monuments listing what Siegfried Sassoon called the “intolerably nameless names” of the missing. Its impossible statistics make the war feel both modern and historic: modern for ushering in a century marked by mass death, yet old-fashioned in its combat methods (the slow march of men into machine guns, the last shreds of the cavalry) and the sheer size of its amateur army. But as historians like Jay Winter have made clear, statistics alone are an inadequate measure of meaning. Even in the rare cases where numbers are accurately calculated and recorded, they can only be understood when placed into a dynamic relation with other numbers, other facts, other testimony.

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

Alan Kramer’s comparative history of the First World War, Dynamic of Destruction, acknowledges a debt to Jay Winter’s demographically rooted approach, but digs more deeply into what numbers can tell us at the distance of a century. He pays attention to statistics that are usually footnoted in conventional histories of the war: civilian deaths in the early weeks of the German advance into Belgium; the massive casualty rates of the wars that bookended the conflict in the Balkans and Russia; Italian fascist violence in North Africa; and the genocide of the Armenians. In the process he disrupts many fixed assumptions about the war, and urges the reader to a bold reimagining of what mass death means, for victims, perpetrators, and societies at large.

“Mass death” is defined by Kramer in broad terms as “the killing of a large proportion of a military formation, or a large number of civilians,” and is distinguished from genocide by “reciprocity.” (2) His study begins with a detailed account of the German mass murder of civilians in the Belgian university city of Louvain in August 1914, an atrocity compounded by the destruction of the university library and many other historic buildings. The attack on Louvain, and subsequently on Rheims cathedral in France, instigated a wave of international condemnation of German military tactics.

In the United States, in particular, the attacks were denounced as evidence of German “barbarism.” Yet for Kramer they are not barbaric, in the sense of a throwback to a pre-civilized world, but rather represent a stage in the evolution of twentieth-century warfare. German tactics in Belgium in 1914 were “an expression of something entirely modern: the logic of annihilation.” (27) His analysis of the events in Louvain, which draws on both Belgian civilian sources and the evidence of German soldiers and the military high command, sets the stage for Kramer’s central thesis, that the First World War brought together the destruction of people—soldiers, prisoners, and non-combatants—with the destruction of culture—churches, libraries, ancient buildings, archives, and museums. This cultural annihilation was more extensive than ever before and, Kramer argues, was a deliberate military tactic, ordered by senior officers and carried out by individual soldiers.

The brutal combination of human and cultural destruction was not some kind of natural disaster, nor the logical extension of human (or masculine) violence, as it was (and is) often explained. Instead, it “arose from strategic, political, and economic calculation.” (41) This is perhaps the book’s most important contribution: the awareness that people and cultural artifacts were not destroyed by a “whirlwind” or a “machine” but by the specific decisions of specific commanders, by orders decreed from above and carried out by armed men on the ground. Historians are usually reticent to assign “blame” in the First World War, and often dismiss contemporary reports of German atrocities as mere Allied propaganda. By contrast, Kramer convincingly shows that the German war aims and policies, especially in the crucial months of July and August 1914, were indeed “total war” aims in a way that the policies of the other combatant powers were not.

By marshaling evidence against myth, Kramer continually debunks popular theories about what started the war—for instance, he refutes the idea that it was made inevitable by the binding treaty structures of pre-war Europe in part by pointing to many instances before 1914 when treaty obligations were avoided. Drawing on his previous work on the German atrocities in Belgium, he shows that at least in the West, these specific German tactics (and attendant worldwide outrage) were what precipitated British and French entry into the war.

The anti-war approach of many historians, emphasizing the conflict’s wasteful pointlessness, had tended to understand this connection backwards, as evidence of the power of bellicose propaganda. By this light, the German atrocities (bayoneted babies, raped nuns, and so on) are downplayed as the hysterical imaginings of right-wing pro-war journalists and politicians. Yet as Kramer even-handedly demonstrates here and in his German Atrocities 1914: A History of Denial, the mass murder of civilians, including women, children, and elderly men, as well as rape and forced prostitution in the occupied territories were distinctive—and deliberate—features of Germany’s invasion.

This central insight, that mass murder and cultural destruction were specific instruments of policy, serves as a kind of moral anchor to Kramer’s study, as he goes on to examine the concept of “total war” and the ways in which the First World War did and did not correspond to it. This is where his comparative approach truly pays off, in the nuance and variety he uncovers within the overwhelming scale of the conflict. Cultural destruction was not universal, for instance—churches, cathedrals, and cultural monuments were often spared, in the wake of Louvain and Rheims.

Human destruction, too, was not usually genocidal during the war itself: it was aimed at the enemy’s political and economic collapse (and hence the victor’s gain), rather than at ethnic “cleansing” or murder. At the same time, however, much of the war’s worst attendant violence—the destruction of Catholic Louvain, the Armenian genocide, the horrific conflicts in the Balkans as the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires fractured—was spurred or worsened by racial and religious prejudice. These mass killings at the historical edges of the conflict made the unthinkable possible, and made familiar deaths in the tens or hundreds of thousands by forced displacement, mass incarceration, starvation—all methods that would precede and accompany the more technologically advanced mass murder of the Holocaust.

The Second World War unavoidably shadows this investigation of the First World War’s human and cultural destructiveness. As both wars recede into history, Kramer notes, they increasingly “appear as a single period,” or in Eric Hobsbawm’s words, a “Second Thirty Years’ War.” (328) By this logic, the brutalization of war tactics and interwar politics leads somehow inevitably or inexorably to Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. Here again, Kramer’s careful comparative approach provides a thoughtful counterweight to this too-simple argument.

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

He shows that the notion of the universal “brutalization” of politics in interwar Europe is false, and that in Britain and France, and even in Weimar Germany after the anti-Communist violence of the immediate postwar period, governments were strenuous in their avoidance of political violence and in their commitment to establishing international laws against it. By contrast, in Soviet Russia and Italy, violence entered the political mainstream as any distinction between civilian and military leadership crumbled.

Although arguments about the causes of the Second World War are largely beyond the scope of Kramer’s book, his concluding chapters offer some intriguing new ways of understanding the links—and discontinuities—between the two wars. In the spirit of debunking historical myths, for instance, Kramer revises conventional understandings of the Versailles treaty, by showing that the German “stab in the back” myth was deliberately stoked by right-wing extremists rather than truly felt by the majority of Germans.

Unlike historians who tend to blame Versailles for producing the (supposedly inevitable) conditions for the Second World War, he demonstrates that the reparations were not beyond Germany’s ability to pay, nor was the “war guilt” clause so loathed by the Nazis unique to Versailles or much remarked on at the time—similar clauses were a standard part of other contemporary treaties. Instead, if we read the war guilt clause in its original spirit, rather than through the lens of the Second World War, it is an important recognition that German war aims were indeed different to those of the Allies, that conquest and extermination of the enemy were part of the theoretical planning of the German military, and the military had far greater control over the government than in other nations.

What this book eloquently shows is that the history of the First World War should not be remembered merely for the scale and nature of death in trench warfare, nor should our understanding of it be dominated by the interpretations of the poets, like Wilfred Owen, who stressed its “futility” and tragic meaninglessness. Kramer’s great achievement is to imbue the war’s mind-numbing numbers with meaning, and to begin to dismantle the historical myths around them.

Why, for instance, do the British remember the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 as the ultimate expression of the war’s tragedy, when more of their troops died on the first day of the 1918 German Spring Offensive? Is it because “futility” and trench immobility have so absorbed British historical memory that it cannot make space for the urgent, mobile beating-back of an offensive that nearly won the war for the Germans? What are the consequences for history of such selective memory?

Kramer’s book is also an important deepening of the analysis of military modernization in the Great War. As he shows throughout, it is not merely the development of aircraft, tanks, poison gas, and heavy artillery that made the war “modern,” but the way in which these weapons and their capabilities were understood. For the first time, modern science provided metaphors to expand the range of what was permissible in warfare—the language of hygiene, surgery, ethnic difference and “cleansing” providing a spurious intellectual justification for mass murder. Kramer thus emphasizes the role played by modern writers and artists, especially the Italian Futurists, in developing and popularizing pseudo-scientific fantasies of historical rebirth. Similar excitement over the new and modern was apparent in the German military, with generals keen to put the ideas of Schlieffen and other total-war theorists to the test.

Despite his comprehensive comparative approach that enlightens not only the German and Allied experience but the less-studied events of the Italian front, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Serbia, and the Balkans, Kramer stresses that there is still much archival research to be done. In particular, the Turkish government’s refusal to allow historians to properly investigate the Armenian genocide means that the importance of this event at the time, and in subsequent understandings of the war, is still underestimated. Yet Kramer’s careful weighing of the available evidence, and his insistence on taking seriously the way that events were understood at the time rather than perpetuating historical myth, provides an instructive methodology for future historians. In its centennial year, our understanding of the First World War is still incomplete. Alan Kramer shows us why it is so important to continue to investigate its events and interpretations.

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We Don't Know What War Is


Germans being shelled in their trenches during the Battle of the Somme.

From: Walter Smoter Frank (2004), Hitler: the Making of a Fuhrer, Chapter 9.

In the preliminary bombardment that opened the battle, the British and French fired over 40,000 shells every hour in hopes of pulverizing German defenses. As the shells came raining down on the German positions, the land itself seemed to burst open and flash. As far as the eye could see, fountains of mud, iron and stone filled the sky.

Gas moved across the land and filled the valleys and meadows. Talk was impossible for one could not be understood. Men huddled in their shelters as exploding shells cleared away the earth protecting them. Trenches disappeared. Dugouts vanished. Screams were heard between the explosions. Where men had sat only lumps of flesh and bits of uniform remained.

In the deeper shelters, old and battle-hardened troops peered through their masks at one another and shook their heads. The new recruits with big eyes and quivering bodies were watched with apprehension. Some turned green and began vomiting. Some began sobbing. Those with haunted protruding eyes attempted to dig deeper into the earth with their bare hands.

Some snuggled up to their stronger comrades and looked out from behind a kindly shoulder like frightened little children peeking out from behind their mother’s hip. As the shells tore apart the upper layers of concrete and began working their way toward them, many lost control of their bowels.

The smell of putrefaction mixed with the stench of exploding powder. No one condemned them for in war it was a common thing. After a hundred continuous hours of bombardment, even old soldiers experienced wet foreheads, damp eyes, trembling hands and panting breath as spasms of fear fought their way to the surface. Men felt they were already in their graves waiting only to be closed in.

Germans in their trenches at the Third Battle of Ypres, July 1917.

From: Frank, Walter Smoter (2004). Hitler: The Making of a FuhrerChapter 11.

The Germans had been forced, by the water soaked soil in the region, to abandon deep dugouts in favor of small concreted pillboxes which held machine gun crews and twenty to thirty men during heavy shelling. As the men huddled in their shelters the bombardment continued and churned the wet soil.

Between the rounds of exploding shells, the British also began hurling their latest inventions—new deadlier forms of gas and “cylinders of liquid fire.” Although the pillboxes could resist the shells of light artillery, many were engulfed by the early form of napalm or torn to shreds by the heavier shells.

For some of the lucky soldiers, death came quickly. Those in the area of an exploding shell simply vanished. For others, all that was left behind were a few body parts. Most men however, did not die so easily. Men who survived saw friends with half their legs missing running to the next shell hole on splintered stumps. Between bursting shells they saw burning men running in circles. They saw men running with their entails dragging twenty feet behind them.

They saw living men without legs, without arms, without jaws, without faces. They saw opened chests, opened stomachs, opened backs and opened skulls. Clumps of flesh that no longer resembled anything human continued to breath. Mercifully, some men never knew how badly they were hit and died in the middle of a sentence.

Others died slowly as they looked on in shock at a large part of their body laying yards away. Some looked at their deadly wounds in bewilderment and their long faces seemed unable to accept the fact that it had happened to them. Others gasped in horror, looking and longing for help they knew would never come.

DEAD BODIES ON THE BATTLEFIELD, the First World War, September 1916

From: Frank, Walter Smoter (2004). Hitler: The Making of a Fuhrer, Chapter 9.

Because of the speed at which the men were fed to the guns, it often became impossible to bring in the dead for burial. Bodies lay scattered upon the field until the exposed flesh became the same color as their gray-green uniforms. Strange distorted, taut, dead faces, all alike, revealed terror, anguish and suffering.

Gases within swollen dead bellies, hissed, belched and made movements. Bodies and parts of bodies were dumped into shell craters or abandoned trenches where huge gloated rats fattened themselves. Huge shells fell upon the graves and lifted the rotting corpses back onto the earth.

Heads, torsos, limbs, and grotesque fragments lay everywhere scattered among the scorched, torn and pitted earth, rotting and stinking. A miasma of chloroform and putrefaction rose from the piles and shifted back and forth over the living. Old cemeteries were not spared, and the stained bones and skulls of those who had perished centuries before were heaved back upon the earth and scattered among the fresher dead as though to inquire about the progress of leaders.

For a hundred and fifty miles, from the Somme to Verdun, the land was a giant lunar-scape with dying men, open grave-yards, and rotting corpses. At Verdun the Germans advanced about five miles, while on the Somme the British advanced about the same. For this trade the leaders of the opposing countries sustained over 600,000 casualties at Verdun and over 1,000,000 on the Somme.


Most of us don’t know what war is. We haven’t experienced its concrete reality—the actuality of battle. For most people, war is an abstraction, a geopolitical fantasy. Many relish the idea of warfare: the struggle to defeat the enemy, destroy evil, protect and defend one’s nation, etc. However, whether one is “for” or “against” war, most of us don’t know what war is.

Even those who advocate or believe war is a necessary enterprise prefer not to contemplate the reality of the warrior’s dead or maimed body. We don’t want to look closely at the results of battle: blood and gore. When soldiers return from battle, we don’t want to hear too much about what they’ve experienced. We stay away from hospitals. We don’t want to see—or think about—their wrecked bodies.

The title of Rene Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1987) refers to the “scapegoat” mechanism: a concealed dynamic which, he believes, has worked to maintain civilization from its beginnings. Girard writes about the scapegoat as an outside group selected because it is weak or unable to defend itself. He is not familiar with the concept of insider violence: how soldiers function as victims and unifiers of society.

According to Girard, the sacrificial mechanism must be disguised or hidden in order to be effective. We avert our eyes from the victim. S. Mark Helms states that the working of mythical sacrifice in society requires that people “know not what they do.” Sacrificial scapegoating is “most virulent when it is most invisible.” The effectiveness of the mechanism of sacrificial killing depends on “blindness to its workings.” To “avert one’s eyes from the sight of the victim,” Helms says, is that “characteristically human act” that lies at the heart of scapegoating.

When it comes to warfare, we know and don’t know. We know, but don’t want to know too much. History books produce statistics on “casualties.” But we don’t like to contemplate what occurred. We prefer not to speak or write about the fact that our own nation kills and maims people. The truth hurts.

We don’t want to think about the dead and maimed bodies of our own soldiers. Certainly, we don’t want to see these bodies. We keep them out of sight. We don’t want to see body bags containing the dead. We don’t even want to see coffins that contain the remains of dead soldiers. In the midst of sound and fury, we like to keep war hidden. It’s our secret.

The institution of warfare and denial of reality go hand and in hand—they are two sides of the same coin. What is most deeply denied is the reality of what happens to the bodies of soldiers in battle. Historians like to write about geopolitical issues, political machinations, and battle strategy—anything to avoid looking at reality.

Denial of the reality of the death and maiming of soldiers is nothing new. Douglas Haig was the British Commander-in-Chief responsible for the disastrous Battle of the Somme. 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)—was approximately three million (3,076,388). He claims that these casualties were “no larger than to be expected.” Yet Haig’s son reports that the General felt that it was his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty stations because “these visits made him physically ill.” French Commander Joseph Joffre said to his Staff: “I mustn’t be shown any more spectacles. I would no longer have the courage to give the order to attack.”

How strange and bizarre that men so close to the battlefield—responsible for the deaths of millions of young men—refused to look at the results of the orders they gave. Yet each of us inhabits a psychic space that is not radically different from that of the Generals. Although war may fascinate as a geopolitical enterprise, we don’t want to know or think about what happens to soldiers in and after the battle.

What is the meaning of this “Germany” that compelled Hitler to embrace—refuse to abandon—war? What is the meaning of a “nation” for any human being? Why do we feel that it would be a “sin to complain” about our country, even though we know it has generated death and destruction? Please leave your reflections and insights below.


Adolf Hitler—unlike most of us—experienced the reality of battle. He’d been there, witnessing and experiencing the horror: death, maiming and the decaying bodies of young men. In the face of Hitler’s experience of the First World War, it’s reasonable to ask: why did he not become a pacifist? That Hitler did not become a pacifist lies at the heart of this inquiry, raising a broader question: Given our knowledge of the massive destruction that war has caused, why do so many continue to embrace and advocate warfare?

Despite the fact that he was still holding Austrian citizenship, Hitler asked for—and was granted permission—to join the Bavarian Army in August 1914 (at age 25). He was present at a number of major battles, including the First Battle of Ypres, the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Arras, and the Third Battle of Ypres (The Battle of Passchendaele).

Hitler was a dispatch runner, taking messages back and forth from the command staff in the rear to the fighting units near the battlefield. Based on what we know, Hitler was a highly competent, dedicated and passionate soldier. On December 14, 1914, he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class, in 1915 was promoted to Lance Corporal, and on August 18, 1918, he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st class for service since 1914 as a messenger.

Hitler joined the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment (known as the List Regiment). After its first engagement near Ypres, 2500 of the 3600 men in Hitler’s regiment were killed, wounded or missing. According to Walter Smoter Frank, the chances that a 1914 volunteer of the List Regiment would be killed or maimed was almost guaranteed. Because of replacements, Hitler’s Regiment suffered 3754 killed before the war ended. For most of the war, Hitler led a charmed life. He was nearly killed on numerous occasions. It was miraculous that he survived. However, during the Battle of the Somme on October 7, 1916, he was seriously wounded in the left thigh when a shell exploded in the dispatch runners’ dugout. He spent two months in a hospital, was sent to Munich after being discharged, then returned to his regiment on March 5, 1917.

Hitler was temporarily blinded by a mustard gas attack on October 15, 1918, and also lost his voice. He was hospitalized in Pasewalk, and learned of the Armistice (November 11, 1918) marking Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Hitler reacted with bitterness and profound sadness.

What was the psychological meaning of “Germany” for Hitler? Why was this word—the simple evocation of “Germany”—so powerful that it prevented Hitler from complaining about the deaths of thousands of his comrades? What is the nature of our attachment to nations that makes it impossible for us to complain? Please leave your reflections and insights below.


The Battle of the Somme, also known as the Somme Offensive, was one of the largest battles of the First World War. Fought between July 1 and November 1, 1916 near the Somme River in France, it was also one of the bloodiest military battles in history. On the first day alone, the British suffered more than 57,000 casualties, and by the end of the campaign the Allies and Central Powers would lose more than 1.5 million men.

The British planned to attack the German trenches on a 15-mile front on July 1, 1916. To ensure a rapid advance, Allied artillery pounded German lines for a week before the attack. According to Robert Whalen (1984), between June 24 and 29, 1916, some 50,000 French and English gunners (a force the same size as Wellington’s entire army at Waterloo) fired 1,500,000 rounds into German positions near the Somme.

The passages to the right present Walter Smoter Frank’s descriptions of the German experience of trench bombardment, and of a First World War battlefield (1916). It is likely that Adolf Hitler witnessed much of what Frank describes.

A fair amount has been written documenting Hitler’s experience of the First World War. Among the best accounts is an online publication by Walter Smoter Frank, who reconstructs the experience of German troops on the receiving end of a massive artillery barrage—as they waited for the British attack in late June 1916. Hitler was at the Battle of the Somme and experienced first-hand many of the things that Frank describes. Hitler later stated, “I saw men falling around me in thousands. Thus I learned that life is a cruel struggle.”

What is the meaning of this “Germany” that compelled Hitler to embrace—refuse to abandon—war? What is the meaning of a “nation” for any human being? Why do we feel that it would be a “sin to complain” about our country, even though we know it has generated death and destruction? Please leave your reflections and insights below.


In Mein Kampf. Hitler relates how he learned about and reacted to Germany’s defeat in the First World War. On November 10, 1918, a pastor came to the hospital in Pasewalk (where Hitler was recovering from his poison gas attack). This “old gentleman,” Hitler reports, told him and his comrades that “we must now end the long war”; that the war had been lost and that Germany was now “throwing ourselves upon the mercy of the victors.”

“Again,” Hitler says, “everything went blank before my eyes. I tottered and groped my way back to the dormitory, threw myself on my bunk, and dug my burning head into my blanket and pillow.” Since “the day when I had stood before my mother’s grave,” Hitler says, “I had not wept.” Hitler’s experience at the end of First World War metamorphosed into a trauma from which he never recovered.

I want to focus here, however, on another aspect of Hitler’s response. Upon learning of Germany’s defeat, Hitler says, “I nearly lost heart for a moment.” He has a flicker of doubt and ambivalence, seems tempted to abandon hope. Hitler bolsters himself, however, remembering his earlier struggles on the battlefield and how he developed “merciless hardness and defiance,” then declares:

“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?”

In spite of having witnessed the death and maiming of thousands of his comrades during his four years of fighting, Hitler refuses to complain, indeed declares that it would be a “sin” to do so. It is a sin to complain about the death of his dear comrades and friends because they were “dying for Germany.” Hitler’s attachment to his nation transcends everything that he experienced as a soldier.


I’ve suggested that human beings don’t know what war is. More significantly, we don’t know what “nations” are and why they impact upon us so profoundly. “Countries” are in the background of most historical accounts of war. We don’t often analyze the meaning of nations because we take them for granted. They are always there. We identify so deeply. We possess countries, and countries possess us. We barely conceive of who we are apart from our attachment to our nation with its “national life.”

Hitler is unable to abandon warfare—to become a peace activist—because of his attachment to the nation with which he identifies. Actually, there is no separation between Hitler’s attachment to Germany and his attachment to warfare. Because he refuses to consider abandoning Germany, he refuses to consider abandoning war—despite the massive suffering that he witnessed and experienced.

What was the psychological meaning of “Germany” for Hitler? Why was this word—the simple evocation of “Germany”—so powerful that it prevented Hitler from complaining about the deaths of thousands of his comrades? What is the nature of our attachment to nations that makes it impossible for us to complain? Please leave your reflections and insights below.

In light of previous LSS Newsletter issues, one might suggest that Hitler doesn’t complain about the death of comrades and friends because he is committed to an ideology of national sacrifice. We’ve noted that Hitler believes civilization could not exist if human beings were unwilling to die for their countries. Still, why does he imagine that nations require sacrifices?

Explaining this requires that we ascertain what “Germany” meant to Hitler. Indeed, to understand the meaning of warfare we need to know what “countries” mean for anyone. We conceive of nations as real entities existing outside our minds. Of course, countries exist as political and social structures. The question, however, is: What do nations mean to us, psychologically? Why do they play such a powerful role in our psyches—to the extent that we are willing to kill and die in their name, and to forgive them for all the suffering they cause.

It is difficult to think of “nations” and not to think of actual entities possessing objective existence. However, whatever reality nations possess, they function as mental representations. Nations exist within our minds and play a profound role in the psychic economy of each and every one of us.

What is the meaning of this “Germany” that compelled Hitler to embrace—refuse to abandon—war? What is the meaning of a “nation” for any human being? Why do we feel that it would be a “sin to complain” about our country, even though we know it has generated death and destruction? Please leave your reflections and insights below.

Killing is Sacrificing


Willingness to sacrifice — die for one’s country — constituted a philosophy of life for Hitler. Dying for Germany was the supreme virtue — and essence of National Socialism. Beginning with this understanding, it is not difficult to follow the “logic” of everything that happened after.

If virtue or goodness for Hitler was the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s nation, the absence of virtue (or evil) was unwillingness to sacrifice one’s life. Hitler revered, honored and glorified the German soldier who volunteered for military service and risked his life.


On the other hand, what about those who did not serve in the military — who sought to “shirk” their duty? Hitler became deeply disturbed — obsessed — with the idea that some Germans had avoided fighting in the First World War. Hitler pondered the question: “Why had the best (most courageous and patriotic) men died in the war, whereas the worst (most cowardly, unpatriotic) survived?” Why is virtue punished while lack of virtue is rewarded?

In hundreds of thousands of cases, Hitler explained in Mein Kampf, it was always a matter of “volunteers to the front, voluntary patrols, voluntary dispatch runners, volunteers for telephone detachments, volunteers for bridge passages, volunteers for U-boats, volunteers for airplanes, volunteers for storm battalions, etc.”

During four-and-a-half years, “again and again, again volunteers on a thousand occasions.” It was men who were filled with an “ardent love for their country,” urged by a “lofty sense of duty” who always answered the call for volunteers.

Some, however, sought to avoid military duty. These men, Hitler believed, lacked courage and a sense of duty. Hitler summarized his view in Mein Kampf:

One extreme of the population, which was constituted of the best elements, had given a typical example of its heroism and had sacrificed itself almost to a man. The other extreme, which was constituted of the worst elements of the population, had preserved itself almost intact, throughout taking advantage of absurd laws and also because the authorities failed to enforce certain articles of the military code.

The best, most heroic elements of the population had “sacrificed itself almost to a man.” Whereas the worst elements of the population — taking advantage of “absurd laws” — had “preserved itself almost intact.” The best men had died, whereas the worst had survived: This is what Hitler believed he had learned after four-and-a-half years of fighting in the First World War.


Hitler addresses the issue again:

While for four-and-a-half years our best human material was being thinned to an exceptional degree on the battlefields, our worst people wonderfully succeeded in saving themselves. For each hero who made the supreme sacrifice and ascended the steps of Valhalla, there was a shirker who cunningly dodged death on the pretense of being engaged in business that was more or less useful at home.

Since the best “human material” was being “thinned out,” this kind of human material steadily “grew scarcer and scarcer.” Those soldiers who did not actually die were “maimed in the fight” or gradually had to “join the ranks of the crippled” because of the wounds they received.

The 400 thousand who died or were permanently maimed on the battlefields “could not be replaced,” Hitler explained. Their loss was “far more than merely numerical.” With their death, the scales — already “too lightly weighed at the end which represented the best human qualities” — now became “heavier on the other end with vulgar elements of infamy and cowardice.” In short, there was an “increase in the elements that constituted the worst extreme of the population.”


It was not possible to do anything about the men who had already died. On the other hand, it would be possible to take measures in the future against elements of the population that had not sacrificed their lives. National Socialism would specialize in killing people who were unwilling (or unable) to sacrifice their lives. Nazism revolved around “thinning out” classes of people defined as the “worst elements.”

The sacrifice of German soldiers went without saying. This was “standard operating procedure.” This is what nations do: sacrifice young men in battle. Hitler initiated the Second World War in order to continue the sacrificial dying that had ceased when the First World War ended.

In the future, Hitler would expand the categories of people that would be required to die. Why should only soldiers be compelled to sacrifice their lives? Once in power, Hitler would require other kinds of people to forfeit their lives: defective children, mental patients, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and finally German citizens. They too would be compelled to “die for Germany”.

People commonly focus on “aggression” or killing as the essence of political violence. However, what is the purpose of aggression? Is killing a demented form of entertainment? On the contrary, political violence contains a profound psychic and social meaning. Nations kill in order to produce sacrificial victims.

Some people sacrifice their lives voluntarily. These types of people are called “heroes.” Other kinds of people may be compelled to forfeit their lives. These people are involuntary sacrifices. Once the Nazis took power, Hitler sought to make certain that no one would be exempt. Everyone would be required to die for Germany.

Excerpts from TO DIE FOR GERMANY


In November 1917, the youthful idealist Walter Flex wrote, “We died for Germany’s glory. Flower, Germany, as garland of death to us!” His benediction glorified all of the sacrificial dead of the war. During the Great War, propagandists and poets alike joined hands in exalting the blood sacrifice of the youth of Germany, thus transforming carnage into ethereal national revelation. Heroic death in war became a philosophy of life.


Eleven thousand young men lie buried in the student cemetery at Langemarck, testifying to the depravity of war. Yet through propaganda and poetry, their graves were rendered sacred shrines. They had not died; instead, their souls had passed the earthly boundaries and had been transfigured. Their blood sacrifice had guaranteed the nation’s future.


Rudolf Hess:

The stream of blood which for Germany is eternal — the sacrifice of German men for their Volk is eternal — therefore Germany will also be eternal.


Sacrifice for the German people was not to be feared. “Death holds no sting for us,” Himmler affirmed, because individuals die, while the Volk lives on.” Because the men of the Germanic SS were more concerned about the future of the Volk than about their individual destinies, members would “willingly and bravely seek death, wherever that is necessary.”


In his last letter to his mother, written before his death on the western front in 1940, Hitler Youth officer Ernst Nielsen tried to prepare her for the loss of her son. When the news arrived, he warned, she was not to grieve; rather, she was to affirm the nobility of the cause:

If I die, mother, you must bear it, and your pride will conquer your pain, because you have the privilege of offering a sacrifice that is what we mean, when we say Germany.