The sheer scale of the Holocaust can make it difficult to understand, because while human history is rife with examples of oppression and genocide, never before had it been carried out in such an efficient, industrialized fashion. The methodical murder of some six million Jews, along with millions of other individuals who did not fit the parameter’s of the Nazis’ racial utopia, left a scar on the global consciousness and forced a dramatic reconception of social theories, which now had to account for how the Holocaust could come to happen. The old dualisms of social theory proved insufficient on their own, because the motivations, logistics, and execution of the Nazis’ “Final Solution” defy easy categorization and explanation. Instead, one must examine the explanations provided by each of these theoretical schema and then attempt to formulate a broader, more eclectic explanation of the Holocaust than is provided by any individual theory. Doing so reveals that the Holocaust was “a socially constructed problem whose ‘solution’ involved the active participation and passive compliance of ordinary human beings, the thousands of Germans who, consciously as well as inadvertently, and for purposes that have historical antecedents as well as structural causes, contributed to the Jewish genocide” (Iverson 2003, p. 349). Ultimately, the Holocaust may be viewed as the almost inevitable result of centuries of ignorance and bigotry colliding head-on with the grim realities of Industrialization and modernization, a collision which reverberated through the German economy as well as the German consciousness.
The lasting impact of the Holocaust and its eternal threat to overwhelm is felt immediately upon beginning its examination, because one is forced to decide where to start, and in doing so attempt to encapsulate the entirety of the event. Furthermore, one must be careful when examining the Holocaust not to fall into the tempting trap of “turning to the Holocaust in search of universal moral lessons — ‘lessons’ that merely confirm what we already believe,” because this “risks serious distortion of the past” and does not contribute to the understanding of the phenomena, understanding that might prove crucial in preventing a repeat of this same kind of atrocities in the future (Salmons 2010, p. 57). This difficulty in determining an appropriate point of entry is part of why “Holocaust studies is difficult to define,” and frequently “includes a variety of perspectives: philosophical, historical, sociological, literary critical, psychological” (Reitter 2000, p. 110). The rise of the Nazis and their subsequent actions included such a total dominance over every aspect of society, history, and identity that researchers attempting to understand this rise have been forced to develop eclectic approaches to the topic, but even then this runs the risk of explaining a variety of independent phenomena in German history and culture without ever being able to link them up into the “burnt whole” of the Holocaust itself (Suedfeld 2000, p. 1). Thus, perhaps the easiest place to start is actually with the Holocaust’s ability to overwhelm and defy examination, because examining this issue will offer some insight into why the explanations of the Holocaust provided by the usual theoretical dualisms and schemas of social theory, among the contributions of other fields, are insufficient.
The problem of effectively conceptualizing, and, in the words of one researcher, “fathoming the Holocaust,” rests in the fact that the cruelty and brutality of the Holocaust is so far beyond the scope of usual human imagination, even for those people who lived through it (Berger 2002). This is evident in Elie Weisel’s account of his first night in the Auschwitz concentration camp:
I pinched my face. Was I still alive? Was I awake? I could not believe it. How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent. No, none of this could be true…. Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night…. Never shall I forget the smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever…. And turned my dreams to dust (qtd. In Berger 2002, p. 1).
More recently, this difficulty in comprehending the reality of the Holocaust has been explored more deeply and in a scientific setting, in order to determine if some of the Holocaust’s overwhelming and seemingly impossible nature stems from actual cognitive biases and limitations regarding human beings ability to imagine the reality of the Holocaust.
In a paper titled “Nazi cruelties: Are they literally hard to imagine?,” Rassin et al. (2005) attempted to examine the connection between individuals mental images of World War II and the degree to which they underestimated the extent of Nazi activities during the Holocaust (p. 321). The researchers found that individuals with less clear mental images of World War II, usually based on literally blurry photographs and film reels, were more likely to underestimate or even deny the extent of Nazi cruelty (pp. 328-329). The results were born out of four different experiments and actually supported two distinct yet related phenomena. Firstly, viewing blurry documentary evidence of World War II actually made individuals’ mental images of World War II less distinct, and secondly, less distinct mental images were “associated with the conviction that Nazi cruelties have been exaggerated in the media and history books” (p. 329). Thus, the evidence suggests that contrary to “our common-sense notion that we are able to imagine everything,” imagining, and thus explaining, the realities of the Holocaust is in some ways beyond the cognitive abilities of human beings, and especially those who did not experience it first hand (p. 329).
However, this does not mean that the attempt is futile, but rather simply that one must recognize and account for the inherent imaginative limitations one faces when confronting the realities and explanations of the Holocaust. In particular, it will be useful to remember the concept of a whole too large to fully discuss when examining the explanations of the Holocaust provided by traditional social theoretical schemas, because all of these explanations ultimately suffer from a kind of limited perspective that is unable to account for the simultaneous influence of preexisting, predetermining structures and individual mutability. This inability is all the more evident when one recognizes that for the most part, the common dualism of social theory are themselves examples of these simultaneous factors, with the only problem being that they are presented as oppositional binaries, rather than coordinated, contemporaneous phenomena.
For example, perhaps the most widely known dualism of social theory is the supposed binary between nature and nurture, meaning the degree to which inherited traits or learned behaviors and attitudes affect an individual’s (and ultimately society’s) actions. The so-called “nature vs. nurture” debate is particularly relevant to a study of the Holocaust, because racism, one of the more obvious motivating factors behind the Holocaust, is itself the product of both nature and nurture. On the one hand, one can find evolutionary biological underpinnings to racism, because it is easy to imagine how an in-born aversion to individuals not of one’s own phenotype might prove evolutionarily beneficial. A tendency to discriminate based on race offers individuals a quick and dirty means of determining whether or not another person represents a threat, but like with so many evolutionary traits, this tendency is only useful up to a certain limit, and actually becomes actively detrimental in a society composed of organizations larger than a single village or extended family unit. Thus, one can clearly identify “nature” as a major component in racism, because from one perspective racism really is nothing more than an overreliance on an evolutionary tendency with limited applicability.
However, while this helps to explain some of the basic cognitive and behavioral sources of racism, the nature explanation cannot account for the complex system of ideology and policy that springs up in order to support and perpetuate racist beliefs. In fact, when racism is discussed, the individual act of discrimination based on race is often the least important part; instead, researchers attempt to examine racism “as a set of institutional conditions of group inequality and an ideology of racial domination, in which the latter is characterized by a set of beliefs holding that the subordinate racial group is biologically or culturally inferior to the dominant racial group” (Bobo & Fox 2003, p. 319). In this context, the important element of racism is not its evolutionary origin, but rather the social dimension that has arisen as a result of conditioning and ideological development, because it is this element that results in a notable power differential and institutionalization of racist policies (Sullivan 2005, p. 140). Furthermore, the fact that not all individuals give in to their evolutionary predisposition to judge based on racial or ethnic divisions suggests that certain non-intrinsic, social factors contribute to the emergence of racism as both an institution and an individual belief system.
Somewhat interestingly, the particular flavor of racist ideology espoused by the Nazis was an example of an ideology born out of nurture making an argument in favor of the primacy of nature. During the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, pseudo-scientific theories of eugenics, based (somewhat tangentially) on the work of Charles Darwin began to emerge, promoting an ideology of “racial domination” like that discussed above, except with the addition of an explicit argument in favor of the notion that genetic inheritance determined practically all aspects of a person’s personality, physical health, and social worth (Cullen 2005, p. 406). In a sense, theories of eugenics were the socially-constructed reinforcement and justification for the somewhat natural tendency to view members of different races or ethnicity with suspicion or even hostility, because they essentially attempted to argue (retroactively) that Europeans’ and Americans’ subjugation of other races was due not to an inequitable society or repressive ideologies, but rather because of an inherent superiority on the part of Anglos and an inherent inferiority on the part of everyone else. In effect, eugenics was the perfect argument for the maintenance of the status quo in regards to the power differential between white Europeans and individuals of other races or ethnicities, because it argued that any particular group’s suffering was not only that group’s own fault, but also genetically preordained (in much the same way that the Protestant work ethic and the myth of American meritocracy allows one to imagine that the poor are poor due to some kind of ethical failure on their part rather than an inherently inequitable economic system).
While the eugenics movement had its start in American and Great Britain, before long it had migrated to Germany, where it fit quite seamlessly into the centuries-long oppression of Jews and Roma (Cullen 2005, p. 408). At this point one might be tempted to conduct a kind of psychological evaluation of particular Nazi leaders (most notably Hitler) in an attempt to determine how the larger-scale eugenics movement incorporated itself into the development of their specific racist ideologies, but this must be resisted, because prioritizing the experience and motivations of an individual runs the risk of “a dubious pathologization of historical processes or personalities” that ultimately obscures the larger issues at stake (LaCapra 1998, p. 180). Instead, one must recognize that any individual actor, even one as influential and dominant as Hitler, can only be considered as one point in a larger system, with a degree of autonomy but only within the bounds allowed by that system.
This is where the commonalities between the different key dualisms of social theory become clear, because the tension between nature and nurture is in many ways reflected in the tension between “social structure and human agency, of conscious will and objective limits to its realization” (Laibman 2007, p. 369). Just as nurture can produce a wide variety of results within the ultimately hard limits of nature, so too can the individual human only act as a semi-autonomous agent within the bounds of his or her immediate social context. Recognizing this in the context of the Holocaust is crucial because it allows one to understand not only the active roles played by the Nazis and the German military, but also the passive acquiescence of the German populace (and even Western democracies) by highlighting how the particular social and economic context of Germany in the 1920s and 30s allowed for an almost demanded the kind of radical, racial uprising that characterized the rise of the Nazis.
Even then, however, multiple explanations arise, and none of them is entirely or exclusively convincing. On the one hand some researchers argue that the primary social cause of the Nazis party’s success was precisely its “irrationalist appeal,” because “the irrational, anti-intellectual, and visceral nature of the Nazi appeal to the masses” seems necessary to explain “what was it that impelled apparently sane, rational individuals to support an organization advocated the destruction of a people” (Brustein 1996, p. 1). While the emotional appeal of Nazi ideology undoubtedly helped it gain its following, this is still not sufficient to explain the Holocaust, particularly because much of Nazi ideology, while frequently anti-intellectual, nevertheless depended upon a veneer of science and intellectual rigor.
Thus, to this one must add the practical, somewhat rational (if ill-informed) motivations for supporting the Holocaust that undoubtedly influenced the German people, namely, “the effects of German modernization and the Great Depression,” which simultaneously provided the logistical backbone for the industrialized slaughter to come while creating an entire class of German citizens whose political and social institutions were seemingly failing them (Brustein 1996, p. 7). In this context German citizens’ decision to support the Nazi party may be viewed as reasonable (within an admittedly ignorant, ill-informed framework), because initially the Nazis “offered an ‘imaginative and proactive’ economic package that resonated well with their own material self-interest,” partially because that package identified Jews and other minorities as the cause of Germany’s economic woes (Anheier 1998, p. 395). The importance of the Nazis’ economic message cannot be unstated, particularly because the Nazis were able to effect a kind of economic recovery during the 1930s that was almost unprecedented for a country still recovering from both World War I and the Great Depression (Preparata 2004, p. 1025).
Thus, one may view the economic state of Germany during the 1920s and 30s as “the necessary condition for making the Nazi party more attractive to voters,” which was followed by a rise in nationalism and anti-Semitism that proved to be the factors sufficient to carry the Nazis on towards total domination (Anheier 1998, p. 396). Eventually, the party reached a kind of critical mass and its spread was almost inevitable, even to those regions where its economic message was less well-received (Flint 2000, p. 154). By the time the Holocaust began in earnest in the 1940s, those Germans who might have had second thoughts about the Nazis’ racial ideology were either too deeply entrenched in the organization or else fearful of their own well-being to mount any kind of effective, internal resistance.
As should now be clear, no single schema of social theory can effectively explain how the Holocaust could occur, because no single schema can sufficiently account for the complex combination of social, economic, and even biological factors that allowed the Nazi party’s rapid rise and eventual genocide. However, examining the variety of explanations offered by the key schemas and theoretical dualism nevertheless allows one to begin to come to terms with the sheer scale of the Holocaust, because as their similarities and differences become evident, one is able to paint a clearer picture of the contemporaneous forces at work. The Nazis’ rise was the result of an attractive economic platform melded with a racial and nationalist ideology “that was deliberately designed to highlight [â€¦] every manipulative device — symbols, language, ritual, hierarchy, parades, rallies culminating in the Fuhrer myth,” in order to forcibly create a kind of social structure wherein the continued existence of Jews and undesirables would become a functional impossibility (Brustein 1996, p. 4).
However, this melding of economics and racist ideology transcends the ostensible divide suggested by any particular dualism, because it depended on nature and nurture, emotion and rationalism, and preexisting social structures as well as the concerted direction of human agency. Racism itself is the product of biological evolution, but the particular racist ideology espoused by the Nazis was born out of the combination of Europe’s historical treatment of the Jews and the newly emergent theories of eugenics that actually served to retroactively justify that historical treatment in the eyes of their adherents. The Nazis’ appeal to the German populace was likewise more complex than any single schema could account for, because it was simultaneously rooted in highly emotional appeals to national pride and racial solidarity as well as coldly rational estimation of economic self-interest. Furthermore, while Hitler’s personal agency constituted the driving force behind the Nazi party’s ideology and ultimately its entire strategy, the Holocaust would not have been possible without the social and logistical structures already in place, because otherwise Hitler simply would not have been able to mobilize the resources and personnel necessary to carry out genocide on such an efficient, relatively seamless, industrialized scale.
Confronting the reality of the Holocaust remains difficult not only because it resulted from a complex interaction of individuals, social structures, ideas, and actions, but because the entirety of the Holocaust’s horrors are almost literally beyond human beings’ ability to imagine; in fact, one might even go so far as to say that imagining the true extent of the Holocaust is impossible, because even Hitler was likely incapable of admitting or acknowledging the extent of the brutality and cruelty that occurred throughout Nazi-controlled Europe. However, the Holocaust’s eternal threat to overwhelm and escape examination is actually instructive, so long as the researcher is willing to acknowledge his or her own cognitive and theoretical limitations. Recognizing that the Holocaust’s importance is precisely due to the fact that it represents a phenomena well beyond the scale of anything human beings have to deal with on a regular basis allows one to begin examining and developing explanations for the Holocaust that do not fall into the trap of reductionism or unnecessary dualism. Instead, one is able to examine the Holocaust from a variety of perspectives, revealing that the Holocaust was the result of Germany’s modernization and industrialization coupled with economic conditions and a social history positively ripe for exploitation and radicalization. The effects of World War I and the Great Depression, coupled with Europe’s history of discriminating and subjugating Jews, made 1920s Germany the ideal place for a biologically-inspired but socially-condition racist ideology to gain traction and ultimately complete power. In a sense, then, the Holocaust can almost be viewed as the inevitable result of human society circa the early and middle twentieth century, because the conditions were just too conducive to an ascendent racism.
Anheier, H.K. 1998, “The Logic of Evil: The Social Origins of the Nazi Party, 1925-1933,”
Social Forces, vol. 77, no. 1, pp. 394-396.
Berger, R. (2002), Fathoming the Holocaust: A Social Problems Approach, Walter de Gruyter
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Bobo, L. & Fox, C. (2003), “Race, Racism, and Discrimination: Bridging Problems, Methods,
and Theory in Social Psychological Research,” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 66, no.
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Cullen, D. (2005), “Nature vs. Nurture: Eugenics,” Choice, vol. 43, no. 3, pp. 405-413.
Flint, C. (2000), “Electoral geography and the social construction of space: the example of the Nazi party in Baden, 1924-1932,” GeoJournal, vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 145-156.
Lacapra, D. (1998), History and Memory after Auschwitz, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
Laibman, D. 2007, “Making History: Agency, Structure, and Change in Social Theory,” Science & Society, vol. 71, no. 3, pp. 369-371.
Iverson, N. 2003, “Fathoming the Holocaust: A Social Problems Approach,” The Canadian
Review of Sociology and Anthropology, vol. 40, no. 3, pp. 349-350.
Preparata, G.G. 2004, “The Malthusian physiognomy of Nazi economics,” International Journal
of Social Economics, vol. 31, no. 11, pp. 1014-1028.
Rassin, E., Anne-Fleur, v.R., van, DH, Ugahary, A. & Wagener, S. 2005, “Nazi cruelties: Are they literally hard to imagine?,” British Journal of Psychology, vol. 96, pp. 321-30.
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Auschwitz, by Dominick LaCapra,” Shofar, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 110-110.
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