Nazis in a Looking-glass World

"Re'iyat Ha'olam Hanatzi: Merkhav, Goof, Safa" ("The Nazi Weltanschauung: Space, Body, Language") by Boaz Neumann, University of Haifa Press and Sifriat Ma'ariv, 368 pages, NIS 89

"Re'iyat Ha'olam Hanatzi: Merkhav, Goof, Safa" ("The Nazi Weltanschauung: Space, Body, Language") by Boaz Neumann, University of Haifa Press and Sifriat Ma'ariv, 368 pages, NIS 89

Since the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II and the revelations of its "success" in exterminating most of European Jewry over a half-century ago, many scholars have tried to reconstruct the historical events that led up to that unprecedented genocide in the very heart of European civilization, and to consider the philosophical and theological implications of that "black hole" in human culture. However, despite the ever-increasing chronological distance separating us from the Holocaust and the immense amount of literature on the historical, conceptual and metaphysical aspects of that event, all those who read the documentation - the diaries of the victims and the memoirs of the survivors, as well as the orders issued by the murderers and their personal papers - inevitably experience a sense of powerlessness and emptiness, attributable mostly to the fact that the details of the Holocaust transcend the limits of the human imagination. In other words, if we generally tend to believe that our imagination can lead us into areas beyond reality, the Holocaust is proof that reality - the work of human beings - is capable of smashing the borders of the imagination and calling into question our capacity of ever providing a rational explanation for that reality.

One method of avoiding the role-reversal between reality and imagination that is forced upon us by the Nazi phenomenon in its most murderous garb - that is, in the death camps - is to do what the vast majority of researchers do: namely, to separate the two aspects of the event. The moment a scholar focuses solely on the murderers or, alternatively, on the victims, the event takes on some sort of internal logic as we make an attempt to understand it in its entirety.

The Nazis, of course, believed that their actions were being driven by a solid, uncompromising historical logic. The removal of the Jews from the world would automatically bring about its improvement and, especially, would guarantee the superiority of the Aryan race. Thus, in the Nazi perception of the world - and not just in the actual implementation of the genocide, which, as we all know, was organized in the best tradition of the industrialized nation-state and by means of a rational, efficient bureaucracy - there was a certain logic that was questioned only when juxtaposed to its concrete consequences. Those who were forced to witness, or participate in, the process of extermination were at times plagued by doubts - or, at least, they experienced involuntary physical reactions, such as disgust, fear or even a nervous breakdown. The victims, on the other hand, were generally capable of understanding the logic of the events dictated by the Nazis only when it was too late.

Nevertheless, historical, philosophical and theological essays that attempt to reconstruct the event and to impart meaning to the victims' fate succeed in doing so only if they concentrate exclusively on the victims and totally ignore the murderers. The recognition that the murderers were basically human beings just like their victims and could, theoretically at least, have changed roles with them, could sabotage the narrative of the victims, whether it is based on a metaphysical understanding of the fate of the Jews or whether it argues that a historical process led inevitably to the destruction of the Jewish presence in Europe.

Living space, dead space

The major innovation in Neumann's book is the fact that this is the first attempt to reveal the circumstantial connection - at the conceptual and operational levels - between the Nazi perception of the Jew and the Nazi perception of the Aryan. For the first time in Holocaust studies - and in any language - readers are provided with a systematic, comprehensive analysis of the relationship between Nazism's "positive" and "negative" aspects.

Neumann tries to demonstrate that each aspect in the Nazi Weltanschauung (a word he uses in the literal sense, distinguishing Weltanschauung from ideology, which he defines as a rational system of ideas) had two aspects: one that focused on the existence of the Aryan and the other that focused on the destruction of the Jew. In Neumann's view, the Jew was, in fact, a vital component in the Nazis' Weltanschauung even though the realization of the Nazi vision of the future was dependent on the total liquidation of the Jewish people.

Thus, for example, the Nazi concept of Lebensraum or "living space" necessitated the concomitant creation of a "dead space" for the Jews. The traditional "Pale of Settlement" in its Nazi translation was a region in which the Jews were already dead even before their physical death, argues Neumann, because their very existence in the Pale meant the forfeiture of their life. Thus, the very concept of moving from life to death lost all meaning in that region - as acutely demonstrated in the figure of the Musselmann (a term used by concentration camp prisoners to describe an inmate who had lost the will to live).

On the other hand, the German "living space" was a region in which Aryans would achieve the very peak of their development and would lay the foundations for the "master race." Similarly, whereas the Nazi urban sphere was expressed in the planning of architect Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler's protege, the Jew's urban existence was the ghetto, whose function was, in the final analysis, to bring about the elimination of the Jews through famine, plague and murder.

Neumann also applies this concept of a looking-glass world in his analysis of the Nazi perception of the human body. The blond Aryan, as we all know, had an upright, firm body, while the Jew had dull-colored skin, was short and had a weak body. Moreover, the Aryan body was part of the organic mass that was powerfully expressed in the sports stadium, in parades and in mass Nazi tributes. The Jewish body, on the other hand, either turned into a corpse even before the person actually died and was broken down into its components, as exemplified in the figure of the Musselmann, or else it became one of a pile of corpses that no longer had any connection with individual human bodies.

Whereas the Nazi organic body was eternal (the individual's death only reinforced the Volksgemeinschaft or German racial community), the dismembered Jewish body was actually a corpse whose human existence ceased to be significant even before the individual's physical death.

Language of life and death

Neumann studies the gap between the Nazis' language regarding the Aryan and the Jew as a stereotype. According to the Nazis, the language spoken by Germans was pure, direct and self-understood. The "language of the Jews," on the other hand, was a hodgepodge of languages whose sole purpose was to deceive its listeners. At a second level, claims Neumann, the language of the Nazis was a strident one characterized by propaganda and commands, whether it was heard at Nazi party rallies or in concentration camps. The language of the Jews' "Pale of Death" - that is, the death camps - was the language of silence. The Jews were forced to stop talking even before they ceased to exist and their liquidation was a subject that one was not permitted to discuss directly.

In the German "living space," the language was one of action: Propaganda was translated into "territory" by means of occupation, enslavement and mass murder. In the Jewish "dead space," on the other hand, a "non-language" was created because the victims could not describe to themselves or to others the reality of extermination in which they found themselves. In certain respects, it could even be said that this same "non-language" continues to be dominant in the narrative - or "non-narrative" - of the extermination of the Jews.

Obviously, a daring and comprehensive analysis such as this, although it may rely on a large quantity of secondary literature and on the many personal documents written by victims and survivors, exposes itself to criticism at the conceptual level as well as that of the details it offers. In the present context, I cannot deal with all the weak points in the thesis Neumann proposes and I will therefore limit myself only to a few comments.

First of all, despite the justified emphasis Neumann places on the polar contrast between "Aryan" and "Jewish" in Nazi thinking, a large segment of the examples he uses are taken from the writings of political prisoners - not from Jews who were imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps.

The writings, for example, of Jorge Semprun, Robert Antelme and Charlotte Delbo are regarded as the most important creations in the literature of the concentration camps and have had a major impact on our understanding of what David Rousset - yet another political prisoner - called "l'univers concentrationnaire," or the concentration-camp universe, as early as 1946. However, these individuals were not imprisoned as Jews nor did they play any central role in the Nazi Weltanschauung. They were not incarcerated as representatives of humanity's dark side, the Jewish anti-race, but rather as persons who had chosen to fight the Nazis. That is also the reason why such people were generally sent to concentration camps and not death camps and why, statistically speaking (although this sounds hideous), their chances of survival were far greater.

Different `ideal' camps

All the political prisoners I have referred to here (and many others as well) have also emphasized the substantive difference between their fate (grim as it was) and that of the Jewish victims of the Nazis. In other words, political prisoners did not belong to the Jews' "dead space" and they were sent to concentration camps largely as a result of a choice that they had consciously made. Thus, Neumann's use of their writings is problematic, and he should have at least made some critical remarks about those documents.

This problem becomes even more acute when one realizes that Neumann has ignored one of the most important research studies written in recent years on the concentration camps. If Neumann is proposing to us a sort of "ideal type" of death camp from the Jewish perspective, German sociologist Wolfgang Sofsky, in his "Die Ordnung des Terrors," proposes the "ideal type" of concentration camp from the perspective of the political prisoner.

Both authors tend to slide into categories that are not typical for the model they are proposing. If Neumann slides into the category of political prisoners, Sofksy tries to include the death camp in the final chapter of his book, which focuses primarily on what he terms the "order of terror," although the logic behind the fact that the SS was in charge of the concentration camps (the SS were forced to cooperate with the elite groups among the prisoners, who were initially the criminal inmates and whose "position of prominence" was subsequently assumed by German communists) was substantially different from the industrialized mass murder of the Jews in the death camps.

Had Neumann used, in a critical fashion, the model Sofsky employs, he perhaps might have avoided the problem of a distinction between categories of victims and camps - a distinction that is a major feature of his book. It would seem to me that it would be a good idea to read Neumann's and Sofsky's books simultaneously in order to arrive at a better understanding of the connection between the world of concepts and existential reality in the Nazi universe. One reason for simultaneously reading the two books is the fact that, as far as Sofsky is concerned, the concentration camps were severed from their political context and were driven by a dynamics of "absolute power," rather than by the dictates of any ideology.

I would also add here the significant and no less problematic book by Tzvetan Todorov, "Facing the Extreme," in which he argues that what he terms ethical life continued to be practiced in the concentration camps, and that this is proof that the Nazis failed to erase the inmates' humanity.

Production-line murder

A second substantive problem in Neumann's thesis is the link between the Nazi ideal of "healthy" rural settlement in that idyllic "living space" which he describes, and the Nazi regime's tendency toward progress and modernity, as expressed in the organization of both the economy and the army in preparation for war and in those areas that especially interest Neumann, such as urban planning. The same can be said about the regime's "negative" side, namely, the extermination of the Jews. After all, what is so unique about the Holocaust, in comparison with the many other acts of genocide perpetrated in the 20th century, is the industrialized mass murder of millions of human beings with the use of production-line techniques.

Many scholars have called attention to the friction between reaction and modernism in fascism, in general, and in Nazism, in particular, although one could hardly say that any consensus exists on this issue. However, Neumann makes no mention of that central question, which, of course, has a direct bearing on his book's central thesis. The common denominator in the extermination of the Jews and in the construction of the new Reich was the use of the most modern techniques - as seen in the Wehrmacht's Blitzkrieg and in the crematoriums at Auschwitz.

What transforms Auschwitz in many respects into an integral part of the modern world and what rules out the use of terms such as "another planet" - terms that distance Auschwitz from its historical context and from human awareness - is the fact that it was a direct, albeit not a necessary or unavoidable, product of the modern industrialized state and not necessarily of an archaic, reactionary Weltanschauung.

Despite these reservations, Neumann's book breaks new ground in developing a new line of thinking on the substantive link between Jew and Aryan in the Nazi Weltanschauung. It is hoped that this publication in Hebrew will soon appear in translation, particularly in German and English, so that Neumann's ideas can reach a wider audience.

Omer Bartov is John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History at Brown University's Department of History, and is currently a fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. His book, "Germany's War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories" has just been published by Cornell University Press.