Zygmunt Bauman On What Made The Holocaust Possible (And Whether Something Like It Could Happen Again)

In Modernity and the Holocaust (2000 edition), sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (b. 1925) explores the question of responsibility: who or what is responsible for the direction of the modern world? He explores this question via the prism of the Holocaust and has a provocative thesis: the Holocaust was not a fluke of history, but a consequence of modern forms of social arrangement that we must learn from and henceforth resist, both individually and collectively.

In Bauman’s view, the chief modern structure around which Nazi-style evil was made possible—and so can manifest again in other forms and contexts—is the non-emotional, professional, industrial, technocratic, and routinized bureaucracy in which responsibility is dispersed and subject to endless buck-passing. Bauman quotes a former German commander, on trial after World War II, as saying the following:

I do not think I am in a position to judge whether his [Hitler’s] measures . . . were moral or immoral . . . I surrender my moral conscience to the fact that I was a soldier, and therefore a cog in a relatively low position of a great machine. [22]

Such a machine system is rational in the sense that it is set in motion by some value that takes on the character, in a hierarchy of values, of being the chief value to which all other values (including individual rights) are necessarily subsumed. And that chief value tends to be utopian, aspiring to a “more efficient, more moral, more beautiful” world:

Invariably, there is an aesthetic dimension to the design: the ideal world about to be built conforms to the standards of superior beauty. Once built, it will be richly satisfying, like a perfect work of art; […] This is a gardener’s vision, projected upon a world-size screen. […] Some gardeners hate the weeds that spoil their design—that ugliness in the midst of beauty, litter in the midst of serene order. Some others are quite unemotional about them: just a problem to be solved, an extra job to be done. Not that it makes a difference to the weeds; both gardeners exterminate them. If asked or given a chance to pause and ponder, both would agree; weeds must die not so much because of what they are, as because of what the beautiful, orderly garden ought to be. […] Stalin’s and Hitler’s victims were not killed in order to capture and colonize the territory they occupied. Often they were killed in a dull, mechanical fashion with no human emotions—hatred included—to enliven it. They were killed because they did not fit, for one reason or another, the scheme of a perfect society. Their killing was not the work of destruction, but creation. They were eliminated, so that an objectively better world—more efficient, more moral, more beautiful—could be established. A Communist world. Or a racially pure, Aryan world. In both cases, a harmonious world, conflict-free, docile in the hands of their rulers, orderly, controlled. People tainted with ineradicable blight of their past or origin could not be fitted into such [an] unblemished, healthy and shining world. Like weeds, their nature could not be changed. […] They had to be eliminated […] The more rational is the organization of action, the easier it is to cause suffering—and remain at peace with oneself. [91-93; 155].

But a “rational” utopian design and a “rational” machine system tasked with implementing it are not sufficient for bringing about great evil. A third factor, in Bauman’s estimation, is required: the public’s political paralysis; that is, its noninterference with the machine:

[T]he overwhelming majority [of Germans] preferred to close their eyes and plug their ears, but first of all to gag their mouths. Mass destruction was accompanied not by the uproar of emotions, but the dead silence of unconcern. It was not public rejoicing, but public indifference which ‘became a reinforcing strand in the noose inexorably tightening around hundreds of thousands of necks.’ Racism is a policy first, ideology second. Like all politics, it needs organization, managers and experts. Like all policies, it requires for its implementation a division of labour and an effective isolation of the task from the disorganizing effect of improvisation and spontaneity. It demands that the specialists are left undisturbed and free to proceed with their task. […] The design gives it the legitimization; state bureaucracy gives it the vehicle; and the paralysis of society gives it the ‘road clear’ sign [74; 114].

Bauman sees two keys to assuring the citizen’s docility and paralysis: (1) moral separation; that is, spiritual and physical distance between the individual and the bureaucratic machine’s targets of elimination; and (2) the politics of insecurity (or fluidity). Of moral separation Bauman writes the following:

Responsibility, this building block of all moral behavior, arises out of the proximity of the other. […] Defusion of responsibility, and thus the neutralization of the moral urge which follows it, must necessarily involve (is, in fact, synonymous with) replacing proximity with a physical or spiritual separation. The alternative to proximity is social distance. The moral attribute of proximity is responsibility; the moral attribute of social distance is lack of moral relationship, […] Responsibility is silenced once proximity is eroded; it may eventually be replaced with resentment once the fellow human subject is transformed into an Other. The process of transformation is one of social separation. It was such a separation which made it possible for thousands to kill, and for millions to watch the murder without protesting. It was the technological and bureaucratic achievement of modern rational society which made such a separation possible. […] Julius Streicher, the pioneer of Nazi antisemitic propaganda, found that the most daunting of tasks his paper Der Sturmer was set up to perform, was to make the stereotype of the ‘Jew as such’ stick to the personal images his readers held of the Jews they knew, of their Jewish neighbors, friends or business partners [184; 187].

And of the politics of insecurity (fluidity) he writes this:

Perhaps modern life started, as Sigmund Freud suggested, from surrendering a large slice of individual freedom in exchange for collectively endorsed security. In its present-day phase, though, the offer of social guarantees of individual security has been withdrawn or is no longer to be trusted. This state of affairs is a recipe for a life of insecurity and anguish; and also for a desperate search for a—genuine or putative, but trustworthy-looking—promise of a great simplification of a world too complex to walk safely through. […] [S]afety (bodily safety and the safety of the extensions of the body—personal possessions, home, the street, the neighbourhood, the environment), [is that] in which the political states can show themselves to be resolute, resourceful, active and useful, and in which electoral support may be sought and gained. The constantly replenished supplies of anxiety and the pent-up aggression it generates are therefore channelled in to concerns with ‘law and order’: into fighting crime and rounding up the criminals, or into control over the suspicious, unreliable and thus feared elements—mostly foreigners, people of different or opaque customs and lifestyle, who are presently filling the place vacated by the ‘dangerous classes’ or ‘polluting races’ of yore. In the age when mobility is fast turning into the major factor of stratificiation, privilege and discrimination, a growing section of law-and-order concerns focuses on the figures of the prowler, stalker, traveller, migrant—on whom the diffuse fears of increasingly alien, wayward and erratic Umwelt converge; and on a tough police force, long prison sentences, high security prisons and capital punishment, as well as on the isolation and deportation of ‘undesirables’—on these and other deemed remedies for the novel, off-putting and disturbing experience of the fluidity of space.

In other words, to live in fluid times—that is, modern times—means insecurity, and the state answers to that insecurity, and manipulates people’s anxiety over it, to make way for its ends.

Knowing what modern bureaucratic machines have done in the past to produce great evils—and knowing that they’re still operative today—what can the moral individual do about them? Bauman thinks the answer lies in courageous activism—a willingness to recklessly expose yourself to grave risks. He concludes his book in the following manner:

The lesson of the Holocaust is the facility with which most people, put into a situation that does not contain a good choice, or renders such a good choice very costly, argue themselves away from the issue of moral duty (or fail to argue themselves towards it), adopting instead the precepts of rational interest and self-preservation. […] Evil can do its dirty work, hoping that most people most of the time will refrain from doing rash, reckless things—and resisting evil is rash and reckless. Evil needs neither enthusiastic followers nor an applauding audience—the instinct of self-preservation will do, encouraged by the comforting thought that it is not my turn yet, thank God: by lying low, I can still escape.

And there is another lesson of the Holocaust, of no lesser importance. If the first lesson contained a warning, the second offers hope; […] Evil is not all-powerful. It can be resisted. The testimony of the few who did resist shatters the authority of the logic of self-preservation. It shows it for what it is in the end—a choice. One wonders how many people must defy that logic for evil to be incapacitated. Is there a magic threshold of defiance beyond which the technology of evil grinds to a halt?

In sum, Bauman sees the modern bureaucratic machine as capable of producing the grossest evils when combined with utopian designs and citizen docility (fostered via moral separation from victims and the politics of insecurity or fluidity). Therefore, courageous—even reckless—individual and collective resistance to the coming together of this witch’s brew of factors is imperative, for something very like the Holocaust can happen again.


  • Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Cornell University Press, 2000)
  • Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg (editors). The Weimar Republic Sourcebook (University of California Press, 1994)


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Zygmunt Bauman On What Made The Holocaust Possible (And Whether Something Like It Could Happen Again)

  1. Paradigm says:

    That’s one part of the truth, but Hitler came to power with very direct and emotional speeches about the Jews – and people cheered enthusiastically. It’s hard to believe that they all needed to detach themselves from what happened later.

    It think this goes back to tribalism. At the root of the problem we have one rather sectarian group with immense power that is more or less independent of the democratic system, even controling that system in many ways. When normal middle class people literally ended up in the street the Jews were doing fine and didn’t seem very bothered. I think Hermann Göring’s situation as a kid when his wife’s Jewish lover moved in with her and had her husband and Göring’s dad live in the basement (or possibly first floor) is emblematic of the situation.

    That’s not to say I blame the Jews. I’ve distanced myself completely from the Left here because of their cowardly closet anti-semitism. But I blame those who think tribalism will work itself out in an unproblematic way. They are setting the stage for a new holocaust.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      I have a slightly different take on Bauman’s observations. I think Bauman has put his finger on what exacerbates tribalism: the politics of insecurity (or fluidity). When people are under stress, they’re tribal, meaning they get paranoid and indifferent toward outsiders. If you can keep the masses in this state, then the machine of the state, with its dispassionate bureaucracy, can do its work unhindered. And if you get a crazy man like Hitler at the top of the bureaucratic machine, stoking tribalism among the masses and setting the bureaucracy on a utopian task, you can end up with great evil.

      I think the pushback is to encourage tribes of people to live and mix with one another on the Los Angeles urban model; to insist that, where they conflict, individual rights always trump utopian visions; and to make individuals accountable for what goes on within bureaucratic machines.

      Also, on the individual level, people have to have some courage and take some risks in standing up to machines of power.

      —Santi : )

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