What were the conditions that made the Holocaust possible, and are those conditions present in the world today? Sociologist Zigmunt Bauman (b. 1925) tackles this two-part question in his book Modernity and the Holocaust (2000 edition).
He begins by analyzing bureaucracy. In Bauman’s view, the modern structure that made Nazi-style evil possible starts with bureaucracy. Bureaucracy for Bauman is the non-emotional, rational, professional, industrial, and technocratic style that disperses responsibility among functionaries, making buck-passing easy. He quotes a former German commander on trial after World War II as saying the following (22):
I do not think I am in a position to judge [Hitler] . . . 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.
The bureaucratic machine is value neutral: it will calmly, professionally, and rationally carry out any directive that comes from the top, however that decision is arrived at. In the hierarchy of values, the directive from the top is taken to be of the highest priority, subsuming other values.
Utopian vision as a state’s highest value is Bauman’s second condition for the Holocaust. Utopianism aspires to a “more efficient, more moral, more beautiful” world: “Once built, it will be richly satisfying, like a perfect work of art; . . .” The metaphor typical of utopian bureaucracies is the garden (weeds must be exterminated, seeds must be protected, schedules for fertilizing must be established, etc.). It is “a gardener’s vision, projected upon a world-size screen.” (91-93; 155).
We thus have two conditions for bringing about Holocaust-level horrors through politics:
But a “rational” utopian directive 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. In Nazi Germany, for example, “Mass destruction was accompanied not by the uproar of emotions, but the dead silence of unconcern.” Bureaucracy “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 average citizen’s docility and paralysis:
- moral separation; that is, spiritual and physical distance between the individual and the bureaucratic machine’s utopian goal or targets of elimination; and
- the politics of insecurity (or fluidity; the fact that things change).
Of moral separation, Bauman argues that, psychologically, an individual needs some personal link to a victim—spiritual or physical—before caring about what happens to him or her. Because caring and taking responsibility for others is a function of inclusion and distance (who’s in, who’s out; who’s near, who’s far), Bauman writes the following (184):
Responsibility is silenced once proximity is eroded; it may eventually be replaced with resentment once the fellow human subject is transformed into an Other.
In Nazi Germany, emotional and physical distance from Jewish victims “made it possible for thousands to kill, and for millions to watch the murder without protesting.” Therefore, antisemitic propaganda was not, in and of itself, sufficient to alienate Germans Christians and German secularists from German Jews. Segregation, ghettos, and concentration camps were also required.
Bauman characterizes Julius Striecher, the publisher of the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Sturmer, as having a daunting task in the 1930s, making “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” (187). To bring about his agenda of Jewish elimination, Striecher needed the segregation help of the German bureaucracy.
Of the politics of insecurity (fluidity)—the second key to assuring citizen docility—Bauman writes the following:
Perhaps modern life started, as Sigmund Freud suggested, from surrendering a large slice of individual freedom in exchange for collectively endorsed security.
Security. This is the key word here. And it is shadowed by its opposite, insecurity. In modern states, insecurity—especially economic insecurity—is used as a weapon for keeping people in line. Because the state cannot promise economic security in fluid times, politicians can at least win office by offering a stew of other compensations: simple and reassuring “solutions” to complex problems; flag-waving nationalism; scapegoating of out-groups; and greater police protection (including funding for prisons and the military). Economic security, in other words, is replaced with the politics of nationalism and “law and order” safety. And so Bauman writes:
[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.
In other words, politicians unable to deliver economic security in fluid times can nevertheless quell anxiety and channel aggressive sentiment, rendering the citizenry docile. Elements within the bureaucratic state can then go about their business unmolested.
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:
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.
At his book’s conclusion, Bauman draws two lessons from the Holocaust. The first is that most people confronted with a choice between moral action and safety will choose safety; that is, they will “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.” Bureaucratic states and corporations bet on this timidity: “Evil needs neither enthusiastic followers nor an applauding audience—the instinct of self-preservation will do, . . .” The second lesson Bauman draws from the Holocaust is 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—whether state or corporate—as capable of producing the grossest evils when combined with utopianism and citizen docility. This docility is fostered by moral separation and the politics of insecurity (fluidity). Therefore, courageous—even reckless—activism is imperative, for something very like the Holocaust could happen again.
In The Holocaust and the Crisis of Human Behavior (1980), George Kren and Leon Rappoport write that “Auschwitz expands the universe of consciousness no less than landing on the moon” (quoted in Bauman, 11).
- 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).