Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman Has Found the Origins of Evil

Bauman argues that the West's great efforts to civilize other peoples are what gave rise to the violence against the 'alien.'

Yitzhak Laor
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Yitzhak Laor

“Modernity and the Holocaust,” by Zygmunt Bauman. Translated from English to Hebrew by Yaniv Farkash; scientific editing by Amos Goldenberg. Resling Press, 337 pages, NIS 99

The origins of evil, according to “Modernity and the Holocaust” by Zygmunt Bauman, are enlightenment and its “neighbors”: culture and education. Even though Bauman does not mention Moses Mendelssohn, here is what the German Jewish philosopher wrote in 1784: “The words ‘enlightenment,’ ‘culture,’ ‘education’ are still newcomers to our language. At the present time they belong merely to the language of books. The common masses scarcely understand them.” Every last tabloid in Germany, as in every other country, today uses the term culture as an everyday word, a news item, a consumer product, a whip to educate the children, barbarians, immigrants. This institution has triumphed.

From Bauman’s standpoint, the need to civilize the ruled contains the explanation for evil. Let it be said, to the wise Mendelssohn’s credit, that of all the Enlightenment thinkers, he alone had enough irony to anticipate some of the disaster that culture could bring with it: “An educated nation knows of no other danger than an excess of national happiness ‏(Nationalglueckseligkeit‏), which, like the most perfect health of the human body, can in itself be called an illness, or the transition to an illness” ‏(from “What is Enlightenment?” edited by Azmi Bishara, translated from German into Hebrew by Yedidiah Peles‏).

It ought, perhaps, to be explained somewhat ironically that only a Jew could have likened, in the late 18th century, the national happiness associated with culture to excessive health − and excessive health to a disease. Bauman returns to that prophesy, even if he does not mention it.

About Enlightenment, he writes: “It has interpreted the history of its ascendance as the gradual yet relentless substitution of human mastery over nature for the mastery of nature over man. It has presented its own accomplishment as, first and foremost, a decisive advance in freedom of human action, creative potential and security. It has identified freedom and security with its own type of social order: Western, modern society is defined as civilized society, and a civilized society in turn is understood as a state from which most of the natural ugliness and morbidity, as well as most of the immanent human propensity to cruelty and violence, have been eliminated or at least suppressed. The popular image of civilized society is, more than anything else, that of the absence of violence; of a gentle, polite, soft society.”

Latecomer to the shelf

A little more than 200 years separate the essay of the wise, optimistic and clear-eyed Jewish philosopher, who was born in Dessau and died in Berlin, and Bauman, the wise Jew who was born in Poznan, fought the Nazis, lived in Warsaw and immigrated to Tel Aviv and then to Leeds, where he lives today. What appeared to Mendelssohn to be very promising − culture, even though it contained danger − seemed to Bauman to be like an explanation.

The important work “Modernity and the Holocaust” came out in 1989, and it joins, very belatedly, those works that heralded it − the monumental effort by Raul Hilberg, “The Destruction of the European Jews,” and “Eichmann in Jerusalem” by Hannah Arendt − in the so-called Hebrew bookshelf. At its center is trenchant criticism of the social sciences in general, and sociology in particular. How is it that no real sociological study was written ‏(until 1989‏) about the Nazi extermination mechanism? How is it that no sociologists followed in the footsteps of the historians, from whom Bauman drew his shocking data?

Seeing as Holocaust research became, since the book appeared, a central topic in Western thought, Resling Press did well to devote a good share of its version to the stellar introduction by the knowledgeable Holocaust historian Amos Goldenberg. He brings, among other things, Arendt’s statement that, “the supreme crime ... the physical extermination of the Jewish people, was a crime against humanity, perpetrated upon the body of the Jewish people, and that only the choice of victims, not the nature of the crime could be derived from the long history of Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism.”

Bauman sharpens this contention, to get at the sociological blindness inherent in it: “Most people − like us − listen to reason and stop short of letting their aversions and hard feelings guide their actions ... Why did Hitler’s executioners kill Jews? Because they were anti-Semites. How do you know they were anti-Semites? Because they killed Jews ‏(forget the 250,000, which is more than a third of the total population of Gypsies, and the 360,000 mentally retarded and ‘sexually perverted’ Germans who followed or preceded the Jews on the road to the gas chambers and crematoria).”

Well, then, there are two approaches in Holocaust research. The one that views German anti-Semitism as the main cause, as opposed to the one that sees it as something bigger, more horrifying, more callous, more sophisticated. From Bauman’s perspective, what sociology failed to see is that it was part of an ideological setup, which could have taken part in the horror. No, not “because that is the nature of man,” but rather because sociology is part of the phenomenon called enlightenment. In the absence of sociological research, an answer is found: culture.

The West’s great efforts to civilize others, and the violence inherent in that process, are what gave rise to the total violence wielded against the “alien.” The prevailing image in discussions of modernity − and Bauman finds many examples of this before Nazism, and during the era of the Holocaust − is the field of horticulture. What is common to the Nazis and those who celebrated modernity was the desire to design a society that weeds out whatever is alien to it. The modern experience of entrenchment of a properly run country that holds censuses, expunges that which does not belong and offers “law and order” to its citizens, precisely by cleaning the garden of anything does not fit − this is the sort of country within whose framework Nazism, an extreme expression of the cult of “folk” and the state, found the Jews to be easy prey.

It is exactly because of this that there is tremendous importance to the chapter Bauman devotes to Jewish collaboration with the Nazis. The topic has been much discussed already; indeed, recently some rather embarrassing things have been written about blatant collaborators. Bauman does not think that non-cooperation on the part of the Jewish councils and the rest of the community bigwigs − whom the Nazis cultivated and made sure to appoint as executors of the transports − would have prevented the extermination. He is convinced that if the Nazis had to annihilate the Jews all by themselves, the Holocaust would have added up to another barbaric conquest of conquerors murdering a population. Thus, Jewish collaboration better explains the connection between the Holocaust and the death industry.

The contribution of the Jewish mechanisms, their efforts “to save a few Jews,” the indefatigable need to placate the Nazi commanders − this is exactly what we now know by the name Holocaust, the industrial extermination of a people. That is the thing that distinguishes the Holocaust from other genocides. The Holocaust would not have occurred the way we have learned about it had there not been, on the victims’ part, such exemplary organization for placating the exterminators.

However, Bauman ‏(who fought the Nazis as a communist partisan‏) insists on citing the names of Jews and various bodies that behaved courageously in the decisive moments of the collaboration. We are familiar with the bravery of Adam Czerniakow, who swallowed poison the moment he was required to supply transports from the Warsaw Ghetto. Bauman cites a long list of those who committed suicide and refused.

I feel the book lacks a chapter of some kind, even an addendum, on Stalin’s gulags. It is true that Stalin is mentioned twice briefly, but Bauman’s description calls for expanding on the other horror of the 20th century. When all is said and done, modernity is the common context. 

Zygmunt Bauman. At the center of his book is trenchant criticism of the social sciences in general, and sociology in particular.Credit: AP