Is war driven by motives such as conquest, territorial expansion, or the defense of boundaries, as is commonly supposed? Does war really have any rational purpose? Historians’ standard accounts of World War II state that Hitler planned to create a master race, and attribute Germany’s invasions to his goal of world domination. But careful study of Hitler’s speeches and writings shows that both the war and the Holocaust were prompted by his deeper wish for the annihilation of himself, his nation and the German people.
In his declaration of war, Hitler asked his people to do their duty—to be willing to “lay down their lives” for their country. Those who were unwilling to demonstrate their loyalty to the nation, Hitler said, would “perish.” Hitler insisted that in the Second World War, no one would be exempt from the obligation to sacrifice their lives in the name of the sanctification of Germany.
The logic of genocide grew out of the logic of war. Hitler declared that he didn’t mind sending his own troops into war “without regret for the shedding of valuable German blood.” If German soldiers were obligated to sacrifice their lives for the nation, Hitler reasoned, why should Jews—mortal enemies of the German people--be spared?
Through the vehicle of the death camps that the Nazis created, Hitler was trying to tell us something about the meaning of war. The soldier’s death—dying for one’s country—frequently is viewed as noble and beautiful. The Holocaust portrays submission to the nation state in another guise, placing before our eyes the abject, degrading fate of a body that has been given over to, taken over by the state. The Holocaust depicts sacrificial death stripped of words such as “honor” and “heroism.”
The SOLOMON ASCH CENTER is an academic institution within the University of Pennsylvania created to advance research, education, and policy-relevant study in ethnic group conflict and political violence. The Mission of the Center is to sustain and enhance the efforts of social scientists to identify the origins, trajectory, and impact of violent intergroup struggles.
RICHARD KOENIGSBERG, Ph.D., is the Director of the Library of Social Science. He is the author of several books, including Hitler’s Ideology, The Psychoanalysis of Racism, Revolution, and Nationalism, and Symbiosis and Separation. He lectures extensively on the psychology of culture and history.
For further information on this lecture, please contact the Library of Social Science by email or phone.
Jay Bernstein, Ph. D.
Associate Director, Library of Social Science
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