In the first chapter of Zygmunt Bauman’s “Modernity and the Holocaust”, multiple perspectives are provided regarding the relationship between modernity and the Holocaust. Bauman begins by refuting the concept of the Holocaust- or any major sociological development, for that matter- as a singular “event” that can be scrutinized in terms of the multitude of historical elements that contributed to its development. Rather, he projects the idea that unless we revise our sociological perspective on the past, we will never see it as anything but “a unique but fully determined product of a particular concatenation of social and psychological factors” (4). Though such phrasing might be a bit gratuitous, Bauman raises an interesting point here: pointing to the research of Nechama Tec, he imprints upon the reader that rather than examining the Holocaust as an “aberration” of human behavior, it must be viewed as a sort of “sleeping menace”- that the kind of moral extremism exhibited on both sides does not arise as a result of human development, but rather exists alongside the norm, and only surfaces when conditions permit (7). Bauman argues that we mustn’t examine the Holocaust through a sociological perspective, but rather see the Holocaust as a revelation of what society is capable of given the culmination of “efficiency…technology…[and] subordinate thought and action to the pragmatics of economy” (13). This inductive approach forces us to reevaluate sociological perspectives on a sweeping scale, which is Bauman’s major point, but his conclusion- that the Holocaust occurred as a result of modernity, advancement, and the conditions that they brought on- is flawed. While this assertion holds a basis in valid reasoning, Bauman merely takes steps in the right direction. The point he seems to miss, however, is ironically his own- that the correlation between the development of industrial and unethical means and the occurrence of genocide are not directly related. It becomes clear, however, when applying Tec’s disputation of the “social determinants” of morality that the Holocaust was not a result of the times, but more accurately a simultaneous development that fostered in an era of efficiency and modernity (5).
The Holocaust may not have been an unpredictable genocide in regards to the potential extremes of human nature, but when compared to other large scale pogroms it remains an anomaly through its modernized nature. The Holocaust does not elicit the usual genocidal imagery often characterized by a type of primitiveness and chaos, but is marked by a bureaucratic industrial system in which the organization of upscaled executions became reminiscent of a pragmatically scheduled business model. How should we expect our ethical values to progress relative to industry?
Zygmunt Bauman explores the pathology behind the Holocaust in Modernity and the Holocaust, an attempt to make sense of the psychology and behavior of modern constructs applied to genocide. Bauman concludes that science has become increasingly distinguished by a “self-imposed moral silence” (29) and that science seems to be making strides in efficiency while simultaneously abandoning morality. Bertrand Russell, a renowned British philosopher (1872-1970) came to a similar conclusion in his prediction of science’s relationship with ethics in his piece ICARUS or The Future of Science in 1924. Briefly put, Russell states that mankind can produce equal good with the power of science as potential harm, but there is a pattern between his observations of men’s passions revolving mainly around “evil” desires, which makes him highly wary of advance technology in the hands of mankind.
So far it seems as though humans have held onto our instinctual ethics while developing more efficient ways to pursue them. The Holocaust remains a perfect example of this. Oddly enough, calamitous events such as this provide short term devastation, but eventual enlightenment. Could it be argued that events like the Holocaust are actually societal building blocks to understanding human behavior and preventing genocide in the future? Or will violence always be as certain as death and taxes?
In the introduction to his most famous work, Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman argues from a sociological perspective that the genocide of non-Aryans by the Nazis in an effort of ethical cleansing can only be strictly understood in the context of a modern and civilized society. His view is quite radical, especially to those raised in the West who have been ingrained with the ideology that developed cultures exclude those that practice all forms of brutal savagery, particularly a Holocaust. Bauman throws away this traditional theory. He also rejects the thesis that the Holocaust was the work of madmen or explainable through European anti-semitic tendencies as extremely simplified and therefore non-considerable.
On the other hand, Bauman asserts his own powerfully convincing thesis — That the true potential of a modern, civilized society is actually exemplified through the Holocaust and is representative of the cruel reality that humans are capable of creating. He cautions that if not prevented, it is in the realm of possibility that either current or future societies are adapted to committing genocide on perhaps an even larger scale than what was witnessed in the dark period of the early 1940s. Further, he makes clear that this genocide was not committed by a group of anomic barbarians, but a so-called moralized and democratic society that not only allowed the creation of death camps but was complicit and vital to their functioning. Through implementing the production capabilities of the industrialized factory system, coordinated with the efficiently organized chain of command facilitated through bureaucracy, the Third Reich applied the advanced technological and business models available in the 20th century to a sophisticated killing machine, the concentration camps. To Bauman, the success of the Nazi’s mass murder scheme was rooted in its ‘correct use’ of bureaucracy. It was essential that the German administration utilized this formalized system of procedure to have efficiently achieved their government goals by synthesizing (1) the civil service composed of ‘normal’ citizens, (2) brute military force, (3) an industrialized mode of production, and finally (4) a single political party that provided an overall idealistic sense of a united nation. (13-14 Bauman) In the Third Reich, tied to the sense of a united nation was a united German Volk, of only the purest Germanic blood. Hitler’s functional objective of a judenfrei Germany was not originally presented in the terms of ridding the world of all Jewry through mass murder. His sinister dream of a ‘racially pure’ Aryan nation began in active forced deportation of minority groups to surrounding European nations. But as the war continued and the National Socialists political-military prowess and territory swelled, Germany quickly was responsible for more Jews than they knew what to do with or had any desire to humanely deal with.
As Bauman explains, The Final Solution was enacted and rationalized in a civilized nation through a tri-fold effect that would only have been possible in a modernized state. First, the SS hierarchy always shifted duty for otherwise immoral acts to a superior in command. Second, killing was always performed when capable at a physical distance with the aid of technology and never with zealous motivation, only professional efficiency due to the Fuhrer and Vaterland. In this way, responsibility for mass murder was diverted (in the minds of the killers) by the flick of an electrical switch and the psychological intention of murder was detached from the physical act of murder. Gas chambers were used purposefully; a chemical and technological barrier between the victim and the killer was intentionally in place. Shooting was discouraged and by the time the Einsatzgruppen mobilized, executioners who were overzealous about the concept of carrying out the firing squad were removed from that station. Finally, the Nazis systematically removed anything close to resembling humanity and humanness from their victims through removal of all basic rights, starvation, torture, and forced slave labor. In this way, the ‘invisibility’ of the Muselmanner (walking corpses) was complete. The murder of millions under the Third Reich regime was possible because each dead body was not considered as a corpse; it was just another final, capitalized product of the factory-line system.
In Bauman’s summarizing words, “It [the Holocaust] was a legitimate resident in the house of modernity; indeed, one who would not be at home in any other house.” (Bauman 17) He emphatically rejects the notion of the German Final Solution as an irrational aberration from traditional civilized tendencies. In fact, he presents civilization not a force that has overcome barbarism, but one that actually supports natural violent tendencies towards ethnic minorities. He continues to explain his meaning of civilization, which in his words has dual, co-existing potentialities for extreme good as well as extreme evil. In Bauman’s sociological viewpoint, the humanity that put the man on the moon and co-orchestrated the Olympics is the same humanity that allowed the death camps of the Third Reich to murder 6 million Jews and 5 million other civilians, all in the heart of Western Europe only 70 years ago. He quotes Rubenstein to what he concludes as the ultimate lesson of the Holocaust, “Both creation and destruction are inseparable aspects of what we call civilization.” (Bauman 9) In conclusion, Bauman explores the devastation of the Holocaust as strictly a rationally explained historical incident explicitly to be considered in the framework of highly bureaucratic and highly industrialized nations, both of which are only possible in a modernized civilization.
Is the Holocaust a failure or product of modern society? Bauman in the first chapter of his book Modernity and the Holocaust argued the Holocaust represented the darker possibilities of modern civilized life. Using the bureaucracy and social engineering utilized by the Nazis to create a judenfrei Europe as evidence to support his claims, Bauman stipulated that the Holocaust existed as an extension of modern civilization. This thesis contradicts a mainstream theory of sociology, i.e. the prevailing notion that the Holocaust was a failure, not a product, of modern society. However, the bureaucracy, industrial complex pattern, and, rational efficiency all utilized by the Nazi’s to exterminate the Jewish people relate to Weber’s characteristics of modern society. All of these characteristics differentiate the Holocaust and put it in a unique place as the first example of modern genocide. In essence, Bauman argued that Nazi’s followed the precursor’s of all the traits encouraged in modern society to their rational, if not moral, conclusion.
In support of his overall thesis that the Holocaust was a product of modernity , Bauman pointed out the path of the Nazi plans to remove Jews from their territory. By presenting the gas chambers and concentration camps as the logical conclusion to what might have been a costly relocation project, the extermination of millions of people became a rational, cost cutting plan to realize Hitler’sThird Reich. By dehumanizing the Jewish people and making them another quirk in the system to be solved as efficiently as possible, the involvement of normal German citizens becomes comprehensible. The people outlining the plans for the gas chambers could remain distant and claim to be merely following orders, similar to the SS officers responsible for mobile killing. Everyone was just listening to their superior, and therefore not responsible for the greater outcome, similar to the necessity of a well-oiled cog in a factory machine.
The common notion that civilization has somehow advanced beyond the barbarism and savagery of the past becomes a falsity if Bauman remains correct. Moreover, the factors of the Holocaust remain a normal part of the makeup of modern society. Reason and logic failed to eliminate violence, instead they merely amplified and facilitated the ability of humanity to exterminate an undesirable, regardless of any moral quandary.
In Bauman’s article, Modernity and the Holocaust, it is questioned whether the Holocaust was a social phenomena or the culmination of European antisemitism. Genocide is a ‘normal’ aspect of human civilization, one group reaches a point where it believes it is necessary to eliminate the other. Often this is carried out by senseless violence and bloodshed, Rwanda for example. It is a logical conclusion that the Holocaust occurred due to ethnic and religious hatred, yet, the murder of millions of Jews was carried out by a systematic, and well-oiled machine, the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is something that has exploded in modern life, and with it came the Holocaust. As Bauman states, “whatever moral instinct is to be found in human conduct is socially produced. It dissolves once society malfunctions” (Bauman 4). In the case of Nazi Germany, the people were willing to give up many freedoms and power to achieve normality in their lives given the turbulence following WWI. The Jews were a common scapegoat. The leaders of Germany made it morally acceptable to its soldiers and citizens to commit the Holocaust by making violence authorized, routine, and dehumanizing the victims. Given this, the everyday man could have a hand in a mass murder. Only 10% or so of SS men were sadistic or considered madmen, most were normal men, the accountant down the street, the salesman, the father of four. Men no longer felt responsible for their actions when they were following orders, the man who gave the order to kill did not pull the trigger and did not feel responsible, he merely signed a piece of paper. The man who did pull the trigger felt no responsibility as the actions were not his own, he was merely following orders, being a good soldier.
The Holocaust could not have occurred without the chain of bureaucracy, which is a development of modernity. The Holocaust was a failure of modernity, the bureaucratic system was corrupted, used for unthinkable cruelty, yet was utilized to its utmost potential. The Holocaust is a product of the modern world, no longer is it necessary to run through a village brandishing torches and pitchforks to remove undesirables, you merely have to file the proper paper work to send millions to their graves. This is the triumph of the modern world.
Zygmunt Baumans’ article provides the reader a look at the sociological aspect of modernity and the holocaust. In his article, Bauman mixes “modernity” and ‘sociological behavior” together while using the Holocaust to look at human behavior. Bauman argues that the Holocaust is another chapter in modern society. Like many events that preceded the Holocaust, violence, in Bauman’s mind, was a “constitutive feature of Modern Civilization” and that the “Holocaust-style phenomena must be recognized as legitimate outcome of civilizing tendency.” (Bauman Pg 28) He thinks that because of how humans interact with one another, how each individual thinks differently, and how each individual solves problems differently, humanity will always be doomed to use violence from time to time to solve its problems. For example, he believed that the Holocaust had a feeling of familiarity from its past. He uses the “slaughter of Albigensian heretics” and “the British invention of concentration camps during the Boer War” as examples of how the Holocaust took a familiar path from other events in history.
Bauman provides his audience with a valid argument in that the Holocaust became another example of how human behavior tends to lead toward violence from time to time. As society has and will continue to advance, humans will continue to fight over various issues. Over the course of time, Humanity has seen violence over Religion, imperialism, politics, and present day terrorism. In the 20th and 21st centuries, humans continue to fight over natural resources and politics. These conflicts over natural resources and politics have led to two global conflicts and many more small scaled wars. Whatever the reason may be, the fact that violence continues today makes a strong case for Baumans argument that humans will continue to fight and the Holocaust was another chapter in modern societies.
Bauman used the term “Modernity” to describe the social beliefs humans have and will have toward the world. He used it in a way that helped him explain how the legacy of the Holocaust became another example of human tendencies toward violence, like predeceasing conflicts before it.