Frameworks of Social Engineering

How can we truly go about with categorizing populations? In the case of Stalin’s USSR and Nazi Germany, populations were categorized by class and race respectively. Chapter 6 of Beyond Totalitarianism, Christopher R. Browning and Lewis H. Siegelbaum examine the different “radical recategorizations” of the populations in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. <Christopher R. Browning and Lewis H. Siegelbaum, “Frameworks for Social Engineering: Stalinist Schema of Identification and the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft,” in Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, ed. Michael Geyer and Shelia Fitzpatrick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009)> Browning and Siegelbaum discuss both the Stalinist schema of identification and the Nazi ideal of Volksgemeinschaft and conclude that the need to reach a utopian and ideal society, justified imposing categorizations to better identify “enemies of the state.” In order to categorize populations, identification plays in big role in make categories that have to do with race and class. According to Browning and Siegelbaum,

“The Bolsheviks, without much controversy, identified the landless (batraki) and poor (bedniaki) among the peasantry as proletarians even if many of them did not identify themselves as such.”

This passage struck me the most because it demonstrates the power of the state and its capability to play the role of the “identifier.” In addition, this passage brings many things into question. How do was a proletarian defined as? Better yet, what if many did not identify as such? Similar to Nazi Germany, who was Jewish and who identifies as such? In terms of race, to what extent was someone of Aryan descent or how far can individuals trace back to the Jewish traditions of their families? One important point that I would make about this passage is the idea of human agency. Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to act in the world. When it comes to identity, it is difficult to categorize individuals in an effort to create a utopian society, because human agency will always exist. Although the state may assume the right to inscribe identity and place the population under categories, does order within these authoritarian societies have the potential to prevail?

3 thoughts on “Frameworks of Social Engineering

  1. It also strikes me that the role of an ‘identifier’ in terms of the state is brought up. In our society, we tend to think ourselves as our own identifiers. We naturally give ourselves labels of what we think we are based on; where we live, what language we speak, and what we are interests in. It would be hard to place us in the context of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, where the states gave you labels. They told you how you were going to be identified, whether or not you were going to be shunned upon(especially as a Jewish person in Germany). It would be difficult for any of us to place ourselves into those situations. I like the fact that you brought that point up because it helps us to understand the very idea that some people during that time did not have the free will to be labeled the way they wanted to be labeled. Instead, the State in Nazi Germany, and especially in the Soviet Union gave you labels.

    In a sense, for the Soviet Union taking the role of an ‘identifier’, it seemed like a way of organizing the state so that it could have more control over the population and to accomplish its goal of a ‘classless society.’

  2. I would say that without the order ascribed to these societies (Nazi Germany more so than the Soviets) the totalitarian regimes would never have been able to assert the level of control that they did. Browning and Siegelbaum pushed very firmly the concept that “totalitarianism” itself requires the manipulation of the masses, and the most effective way to exert the authority the Nazis and Soviets aspired to was by reconfiguring society within parameters that they could manage.

  3. While the Soviet Union did act as the “identifier”, the process of identifying people by class was more difficult than that sentence portrays it to be. While the state did categorize people in order to identify potential enemies, children of parents with heterogeneous parents often choose the identity of the parent which would result in being advantageous for themselves. Children could also denounce their parents if they were part of the lishentsy ((Browning and Siegelbaum, “Framework for Social Engineering, 235)). The process of identifying people was complex and often difficult since there were “no universally accepted rules”. This difficulty with concrete rules for deciding class status was in part a as a result of such human agency.

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