Towards Auschwitz

Enzo Traverso, Europejskie korzenie przemocy nazistowskiej (The Origins of Nazi Violence), Instytut Wydawniczy Książka i Prasa, Warsaw 2011

The Origins of Nazi Violence by the Italian- French researcher Enzo Traverso is a panoramic depiction of European civilization—a civilization which at least since the French Revolution had been striving towards Auschwitz. However, behind this striving or this downright weighing down, as Traverso likes to underline at every turn, there is no cultural-historical “causality”, even though, as Traverso has been trying to capture, “(…) violence and crimes of Nazism emerged from certain common bases of Western culture”.

The scrutiny of elements comprising these “common bases” conducted by the author is marked by true laboratory precision. The phenomena which Traverso throws light upon, and names in order to reveal in the end their source identity with the mainstream European culture, are well known to historians and have already been described many times. Yet, Traverso claims that the basic interpretative models of Nazism have been ignorant of the continuity of these civilizational trends and have totally left them aside or have singled them out as qualities characteristic of the Nazi culture alone, without realizing at the same time that their genealogy is sensu stricto European.

Traverso has chosen as points of reference the works of historians specializing in Nazism, including Ernst Nolte, Francois Furet and Daniel Goldhagen (plus, sporadically he refers to Raul Hilberg). The common denominator of these interpretations and analyses is the aspiration to capture, within the model of historical research, the essence of Nazism, its bases, sources or a kind of core constitutive idea for the whole movement. However, each of their in-depth analyses of the conditions which made Nazism possible is rejected by Traverso and deemed excessively fragmentary. Diagnoses of Nazism compiled by Ernst Nolte, according to whom Nazism was in its source an anti-Bolshevik movement, seem to be focused only on one aspect of the phenomenon, a vital but definitely not the core one. On the other hand, Furet’s thesis according to which Nazism and communism were both antiliberal movements, symbiotically fastened together in a radical fight against the same opponent (i. e. democracy), are assessed by Traverso as more comprehensive, but at the same time restricted by the ideological idea that liberal democracy constitutes a kind of a Fukuyamist “end of history”. Goldhagen in turn, whose stance is described by Traverso as “extensive intentionalism”, also concentrates only on one aspect of the phenomenon, namely on anti-Semitism.

All the above mentioned approaches envisage the Shoah as something torn away from the complex background of the West. Thus, one way or the other, it becomes an excess. Whereas Holocaust, Traverso claims, results from the core processes which are most constitutive for modernity and from the cultural changes unleashed during the French Revolution or, to be more precise, which were initiated when two French doctors, Antoine Louis and Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, joined their forces.

The fruit of their cooperation was obviously the guillotine—the death machine, the first tool in Western history (even though some prototypes were constructed already in the Middle Ages) designed for mass extermination. The mass application of the guillotine brought about a fundamental transformation of the Western approach to death, human corpse and, last but not least, violence, leading in the end to the subsequent trivialization of death and at the same time, the trivialization of life. Another feature of this Western background depicted by Traverso is the simultaneous development of modern penitentiary institutions. This was connected on one hand with the differentiation and categorization of social strata affected by penal expulsion and isolation (tramps, prostitutes, madmen, criminals etc.) and on the other hand with a radical expansion of surveillance, deprivatization and depersonalization of a condemned person (or a mad one) who was ultimately relegated to the biological sphere of his/her body which required constant control (exercised by officers of the emerging biopower).

In the reality of the 19th century, with the rapid development of industrial capitalism, these redefinitions were commonly used. A modern factory utterly deprived a worker of his subjectivity and transformed him into a part of the machinery fuelled by the lust for profit, stripping him of aspirations and perspectives. This machinery, complemented by the dehumanizing “scientific” conceptualization of work developed by Frederick Taylor, the founding father of contemporary corporatism, as well as of the work culture that you can observe in fast food chains, also indelibly belonged to the picture which according to Traverso would one day become fertile soil for National Socialism.

However, Hitler along with his ideas of “war of attrition”, the hierarchic, pseudoscientific and saturated with Darwinist ideology “race war” (the necessary winner of which had to be obviously, in line with the indispensable laws of nature, the blue-eyed Übermensch) would have never come into being in the first place, had it not been for 19th-century colonialism. As it was precisely the colonial culture, as Traverso insists after Hannah Arendt, or more accurately the away-from-home extermination of indigenous peoples in Africa or Northern America carried out in cool blood, which later turned into a special laboratory, a one of a kind prelude to the extermination conducted one century later in the very heart of Europe.

The extent to which almost the whole “enlightened” social strata were involved in the gloomy colonial slaughter is gigantic, and at the same time it remains forgotten by Western culture. It was during the times of expansive colonialism that more or less sophisticated theoretical explanations and conceptualizations of “war of attrition” (here the reference is most of all to Darwin, who by the way was also an advocate of the suppression of the “less developed peoples”, by the “more developed races”), the goal of which was not only to occupy the territory of a given country or conclude a peace deal in order to establish a “new order” but rather to perform absolute, methodic extermination of the representatives of a given people, race or culture. Holocaust, claims Traverso, was a direct act of colonization and war of attrition, the only difference being it was committed within the Old Continent.

Hitler’s passion for Charles May’s books, as well as his openly colonist rhetoric used with relish in the description of Endlösung, are by no means incidental, but rather result from a full cultural identity of these two projects: the project of expanding European civilization to the furthest and “wildest” backwoods of the African “heart of darkness” and the project of expanding the Third Reich’s civilization as far as the furthest and wildest backwoods of a Slavic “heart of darkness”. The ideologies underlying this expansion, in Traverso’s view, including the notion of “lifespace” (Lebensraum) or of “life which is not worth living” (lebensunwerte Leben), class racism, visions of a eugenic paradise and the creation of a mythical, abstract figure of a “Jew”, being a destroyer of the system of values which are fundamental for the organic community, seen in opposition to the liberal idea of a “society”, all stem directly from the colonial phantasms and moral-ideological explanations of the slaughter in which their true colors showed.

However, the penultimate note in the history of Holocaust genealogy was, according to Traverso, the impersonal industrial slaughter carried out during the First World War, along with its ideological and political implications. In the diachronic order applied in Traverso’s work, the apocalyptic, dehumanized “beauty of massacre” extolled by Ernst Jünger, the radical aesthetization of politics or, finally, the use in the political discourse of such categories as “land” or “blood” constitute the direct predecessors of the violent outbreak of the Hitler’s mass murder machinery.

Obviously, the author repeatedly underlines that all phenomena referred to are by no means necessary conditions for the occurrence of Auschwitz. After all, within the scope of historical studies, which he has chosen as the background for his narrative, there is no such a thing as necessity. Still less, that the phenomenon of National Socialism is perceived by Traverso as a clearly separate quality, with no simple precedent in the Western history. The deliberate extermination of a whole nation, carried out with the use of industrial methods, claims Traverso, still remains a wholly unique occurrence in the bloody history of Europe.

Yet, this unique occurrence would have never happened, had history taken a different course. And there we have the fundamental and convincingly substantiated thesis advanced in this brilliant work. T

Tomasz Stawiszyński

Philosopher, essayist and literary critic, author of Clashes with Freud. Myths, pitfalls and temptations of psychotherapy (2013).

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