A social scientist long concerned with war, violence and terror (ideologiesofwar.com), Koenigsberg titled this book with irony, underscoring Hitler's--and many others'--justification for subordinating human life to the state. The main thesis holds that there is a "fundamental dynamic that leads nations to go to war" independent of political circumstances. This purpose or driving force is destruction and self-destruction, a mass human sacrifice that, in modern times, elevates the nation to a sacred place at the expense of its people. "Nationalism is a living religion, so powerful that we barely conceive of it as a religion. (p. xv).
Jews were a small proportion of the population of Germany in Hitler's time, yet he made their extermination a requirement based on a disease metaphor: the smallest bacillus could infect and destroy the whole population, and Jews were often described with metaphors of infection and plague. Added to this was the idea that Jews were non-nationalistic, hence a basic threat to the state, which demanded its people to be both healthy and willing to give up life for the glory of the state, which could then be eternal.
Hitler was profoundly affected by serving in World War I, where he repeatedly saw healthy men walk to their death in a hail of artillery and bullets. Koenigsberg quotes letters from soldiers reassuring their families that death in battle for the nation was glorious, not to be regretted. Officers were subject to criticism and worse if casualties among their troops were low--supposedly indicating that their men lacked courage and patriotic willingness to sacrifice their bodies for the nation. Hitler and others noted with disgust that healthy heroes willingly sacrificed themselves for national glory but that sick, retarded, insane, crippled, unpatriotic and cowardly citizens were sustained by the state for no good reason. Eugenic motives along with prejudice led to extermination policies against those who sullied the nation or dragged it down. Hitler wrongly asserted that Jews did not serve the German nation in that War. A striking assertion is that the nations fighting that irrational war, in which 8.5 million combatants died, and 21 million were wounded, were killing their own best and brightest, i.e. willingly sacrificing them for symbolic immortality of the nation. As cannon fodder the troops became automatic heroes.
"In war, human bodies are sacrificed in the name of perpetuating a magical entity, the body politic. Sacrificial acts function to affirm the reality or existence of the sacred object, the nation. Entering into battle may be characterized as a devotional act, with death in war constituting the supreme act of devotion." (p. 42). And, "We disguise the sacrificial meaning of warfare by delegating the killing of soldiers to the enemy." (p. 75) Koenigsberg points out that paradoxically, nations are killing their own healthy men in the guise of killing the enemy.
This is a thoughtful, sometimes startling, well-written but poorly edited book. The reader comes upon facts, whole sentences, even whole paragraphs, repeated verbatim, as though the author forgot he already presented them. Missing from the bibliography is Sander Gilman, whose The Case of Sigmund Freud (1993) deals extensively with the history of the diseased Jew metaphor, which started well before Hitler's time. Also missing: references to Otto Rank and Ernest Becker, who pointed out how socially approved killing is supported by death fear and the fantasy of killing death itself. Despite its flaws, this is an important and challenging book.
© 2010 E. James Lieberman
E. James Lieberman, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Emeritus, George Washington University School of Medicine