Gtz Aly, Karl Heinz Roth. The Nazi Census: Identification and Control in the Third Reich. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. xii + 178 pp. $20.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-59213-259-1; $63.50 (library), ISBN 978-1-59213-199-0.
Reviewed by Quinn Slobodian (Department of History, Wellesley College)
Published on H-German (September, 2005)
Counting as Crime
Nowadays, the "ambiguity of modernity" thesis no longer surprises. Authors such as Zygmunt Bauman, Detlev Peukert, and Rainier Zitelmann have demonstrated amply that those practices and impulses that we consider modern were central to Nazi schemes of mobilization and organization. In its extreme form, as in Bauman's Modernity and the Holocaust, this literature casts the Nazi enterprise as the modern project par excellence, and the extermination of the Jews as the realization of an inherent tendency in modern statecraft to track, order and purify populations. Bauman's idea of the modern state as a "gardening state" is helpful to think with--but like much of the literature that seeks to reveal the suppressed truths of modernity through analysis of the Nazi period, it runs into a certain problem: namely, to what extent can observations about the Nazi state be used to make claims about modernity, or the modern state, in general, or even the West German state in particular? Is the observation that the Nazis put modern state practices to diabolical ends enough to make those practices themselves diabolical? To what extent do certain technologies and state practices carry imperatives within them, and to what extent are they adaptable to diverse and often opposing political goals? These questions are particularly pointed in the question of population science. Censuses, family planning, genetics, and material welfare schemes all figured centrally in the prospective realization of the Nazi vision of, to use Michael Burleigh's term, "the racial state." The question of whether these practices have been ethically tainted by their use by the Nazi state remains directly relevant in a political climate in which abortion rights, stem cell research, and the dismantling of the welfare state are pressing political concerns.
We can thank Gtz Aly and Karl Heinz Roth and their 1984 publication Die restlose Erfassung (republished in slightly shortened form in 2000 as Die restlose Erfassung: Volkszhlen, Identifizieren, Aussondern im Nationalsozialismus) for being among the first to begin the conversation about continuity between Nazi and post-Second World War state practices. Their book, translated and published as The Nazi Census: Identification and Control in the Third Reich, was written originally as a pointed intervention into a political issue of the time: plans for a national census. Aly and Roth were part of an anti-census campaign concerned primarily with the fact that census data, ostensibly collected for only scientific purposes and aggregate analysis, was slated to be handed off to municipal authorities as a way of keeping track of personal information. The census plan was challenged and in 1983, a Federal Constitutional Court decree improved the transparency of information use, specifically prevented the transfer of census information to administrative authorities and put in place stringent data protection laws. Nonetheless, the anti-census lobby remained active with, most notably, the Green Party boycotting the census in 1987.
Seeing Aly and Roth's book as a specific political intervention is necessary for understanding its tone and format. It is a short book, just under 150 pages and was by their own admission written in only six months. The work is often polemical, sometimes discontinuous in its flow and written with a penchant for the slightly overreaching end-of-section flourish. The final paragraph of the last full chapter, for example, attributes the lack of resistance to the regime almost entirely to registration, saying, "We have often asked ourselves why there was no greater resistance in the last months of the war, especially among women, youths, and forced laborers, against the hated regime. The explanation that it was because of the regime's terror tactics is insufficient. The registration system, although far from perfect, rounded up the wrecked and burned-out population with a sufficient amount of precision and saw to it that everyone, each and every individual, performed his or her assigned duty" (p. 145).
The introduction also slightly overstates its case, saying: "it was neither through the ideology of blood and soil nor through the principle of guns and butter, upheld until the end of 1944, that the National Socialists secured their might or carried out their destructive activities. It was the use of raw numbers, punch cards, statistical expertise and identification cards that made all that possible" (p. 1). The authors use this statement to indict statistics as such, calling censuses an "assault on the social imagination" (p. 7) and asking, "Is not the simple abstraction of humans into mere numbers a fundamental assault on their dignity? By profiling individuals, does the temptation not arise to regulate and, as statisticians like to put it, clean them up?" (p. 6). Some readers, such as Cambridge historian J. Adam Tooze who provides a critical assessment of the book in his Statistics and the German State 1900-1945, may be understandably put off by these flourishes and their implications about statistics and registration that are both too general and too grand. Those who are able to place them provisionally aside will find a provocative and highly original analysis of the way the Nazi state worked and how knowledge produced within the Nazi state worked to sanction and reinforce state policy of population renovation and mass murder.
Readers familiar with Aly's later book (written with Susanne Heim) Architects of Annihilation (2002; originally published in 1993 as Vordenker der Vernichtung) will recognize the use of mid-level state functionaries and academics to drive the narrative of The Nazi Census. After a brief overview of the various projects to count the population undertaken in the Nazi period, including the censuses of 1933 and 1939, the Volkskartei (population registry) in 1939 and the "Personal Identification Number" of 1944, the authors move into a discussion of the specific technologies used in these projects, specifically the Hollerith punch card machine. Dismissing the centrality of the "pomp of the blood and soil, hereditary man and the dying-Volk rhetoric," Aly and Roth see the Nazi project as one of social transformation enabled by "the abstraction of individuals" through the use of modern technologies through which "the person becomes a case, an example, an index card" (p. 23).
In the authors' understanding, the extermination of Jews does not stand alone but must be understood alongside a complex of other projects of population mobilization. This imbrication of projects is illustrated well in the Volkskartei effort undertaken after 1939. Volkskartei registry cards recorded specific skill sets (language, education, driving) alongside racial status (Jew or Gypsy) and were later used for selection related to both categories (pp. 45-53). Transfer of census information between the Office of Statistics, the Security Service and the military facilitated both the identification of Jews and other "asocials" for deportation as well as the tracking of individuals for mobilization in the war effort. Specific attention is given to Jews in a detailed chapter with an emphasis on the way systems of counting and tracking populations were exported to areas of Nazi occupation. Documentation practices were particularly well-developed in the occupied Netherlands, where population registries became frequent targets of sabotage by resistance fighters. Authorities responded by tightening "the bureaucratic net." By 1944, the SS officer in charge declared his intention to "move the entire Dutch population at least twice a year" through population registries (p. 70). Similarly frantic attempts to retain administrative control of individuals were made throughout the Reich. In the last months of the war, the Ministry for Armaments and Munitions and the military tried to implement a comprehensive Volksnummerung (general coding of the populace), which was cut short by the defeat (pp. 140-145).
As with Aly's Architects of Annihilation, the explanation in The Nazi Census for the focus on Jews is primarily given through paradigms of scientific rationality and utility. Later chapters introduce many of Aly and Heim's arguments about the dominance of an actuarial sensibility in the Reich's scientific and state communities that measured the "value of a human being" in the purely economic terms of cost versus productivity (pp. 94-98). According to their telling, populations were selected for marginalization and eventual murder based primarily on this criterion. As with the later book, the question of "Why the Jews?" is not sufficiently addressed. Also as with the later book, the avenues of causality and decision-making in Aly and Roth's model are not always clear. Are we to see the statisticians as simply sanctioning already occurring state projects or did they, through their contribution, radicalize the project underway? In the authors' understanding of the Nazi state, functionaries do not "simply follow orders" as in Arendt's "banality of evil" model. Rather, the Nazi worldview, particularly the centrality of racial thinking, is refracted through specific disciplinary epistemologies, multiplying the scope and range of a unitary transformational project.
If one is willing to live with this overt functionalism and the accompanying tendency to underemphasize disorganization and conflict within the Nazi state, there can be few complaints about The Nazi Census as a history of the Nazi period. It is regularly cited in published works for facts about dates of registration programs and change in citizenship policy. As part of Aly's attempt to augment the complicity of silence with the complicity of science, it is also an important work in an evolving historiography on Nazi world-making and -unmaking. The book is also fascinating as a revelation of the recent pedigree of many everyday practices of state. As the authors point out, policies of registration and identification which did not exist before the Nazis continue to "profoundly affect" the daily relationship between individual and state in postwar Germany (p. 146).
With these positive points in mind, the conscientious reader will still be forced to take issue with the fundamental continuity Aly and Roth trace between the practice of statistics in Nazi Germany and in the Federal Republic. The sparse carryover of personnel demonstrated by the authors is not enough for this argument to hold (pp. 25-29, 114-118). Aly and Roth's work has been followed by much comparable academic work on state practices of individual identification, surveillance, and control. The best of this work is careful to note the dual nature of state practices in liberal-democratic states. In the introduction to their edited volume on identity documents, Jane Caplan and John Torpey (editor of the series The Nazi Census appears in) cite Charles Taylor on the fact that state practices of identification, though occasionally used to nefarious ends, are always the basis of claims for rights and the grounds for making demands from the state and other authorities. For a work associated with the "ambiguity of modernity" thesis, The Nazi Census is too univalent. It fails to see the fundamental difference between the Nazi state and a postwar state in which census data can be used to make effective political arguments. Public health advocates, for example, routinely use statistical data about rates of asthma and other ailments to support funding demands for specific geographical areas. Social security numbers, the epitome of the authors' nightmare of "abstracting people into mere numbers" are the administrative precondition for receiving social services. A polity without statistics would not necessarily be more free and would likely be less equal. Critics of modern state practice like Aly and Roth must keep questions of political use constantly in mind.
. Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), pp. 57, 67-77.
. J. Adam Tooze, Statistics and the German State, 1900-1945: The Making of Modern Economic Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 36-39, 285-287.
. Jane Caplan and John Torpey, eds., Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 6.
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