James M. Glass. Life Unworthy of Life: Racial Phobia and Mass Murder in Hitler's Germany. New York: Basic Books, 1997. xix + 252 pp. $16.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-09844-6.
Reviewed by Richard Weikart (California State University at Stanislaus)
Published on H-German (March, 1999)
The thesis of this deeply flawed book is succinctly stated in the opening sentence: "German society, particularly the professions, enthusiastically pursued genocide because of a culture-wide phobia against touching Jewish flesh, a perception forged by the biological and medical sciences and by a firm belief in the absolute necessity of maintaining racial purity" (p. xiii). Glass, a political scientist, argues that the Holocaust was the product of group psychosis that gripped virtually all of German society. The psychosis was caused by a racial phobia inspired by race hygiene, which dehumanized Jews by representing them as "bacillus," or contaminants that must be removed in order to preserve the health of Germans.
While embracing a group psychotic fear stemming largely from the medical profession, individual Germans were nevertheless not psychotic, according to Glass, and they used logic, science, and technical skill to implement the Holocaust. Ethics were turned upside down, so that what normal people would consider barbarism caused not even a pang of conscience for many of the perpetrators
There are many major problems with this book. First of all, although Glass has read widely on the Holocast, all of his sources are in English, and there are many conspicuous omissions. Henry Friedlander's and Michael Burleigh's recent works on the Nazi euthanasia program, for example, are never cited, despite Glass's coverage of the euthanasia program. Further, just like Goldhagen, who likewise argued that anti-Semitism permeated German society, Glass ignores works that might have corrected his one-sided view, such as Sarah Gordon's Hitler, Germans and the "Jewish Question" (Princeton UP, 1984), and he seems to know very little about the many local studies that might have shed light on this issue. The sources he uses simply cannot sustain the sweeping arguments he makes.
Secondly, Glass's attempts to undermine what he calls the "indifference thesis," which is a central concern of this book, are extremely weak. His main argument is that many Germans must have collaborated in one way or another with the massive task of killing millions of Jews: most Germans knew something about what was happening, and thus they were not indifferent at all, but willing and enthusiastic participants. He quotes from a handful of Nazi doctors, showing their willing participation and thinking that this proves his case. Except for this small group of doctors and Nazi officials, however, Glass never explores WHY other Germans collaborated--he merely assumes they shared the Nazis' "racial phobia." Thus he assumes what he is supposed to be proving.
Thirdly, in my opinion the group-psychological explanations proffered in this book are not only unconvincing, but they make the book uninteresting. After reading the title and dust-jacket, I was excited about this book, but I was severely disappointed. This is the first book I have ever read about the Holocaust that I found boring; it is often repetitive and at times disorganized. Sentences like the following detract from the book: "The Jewish skin became a hallucinated presence endowed with psychic valences possessing a novel relation to historical reality" (p. 122).
Finally, Glass's work explores important questions, but I rather doubt that it will have much impact on Holocaust scholarship. Goldhagen has already stated far more eloquently and with far more evidence Glass's thesis that anti-Semitism permeated all of German society (though I do not find Goldhagen's position convincing either). I also fail to see how Glass's labeling of anti-Semitic ideology as racial phobia and group psychosis does anything to advance our understanding of the complex process leading to the mass extermination of the Jews.
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Richard Weikart. Review of Glass, James M., Life Unworthy of Life: Racial Phobia and Mass Murder in Hitler's Germany.
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