Modernity and The Holocaust

Modernity and The Holocaust Modernity Culture Britannica Modernity, The Self Definition Of A Generation About Its Own Technological Innovation, Governance, And Socioeconomics To Participate In Modernity Was To Conceive Of One S Society As Engaging In Organizational And Knowledge Advances That Make One S Immediate Predecessors Appear Antiquated Or, At Least, Surpassed The Eminent Victorians Thus Appeared Old Fashioned To A New Generation Of ModernsModernity And The State East, West OffeModernity And The State Will Be Welcomed By Students And Scholars In Social And Political Theory, Political Sociology And East European Studies Biographie De L Auteur Claus Offe Modernity Wikipedia Modernity, Or The Modern Age, Is Typically Defined As A Post Traditional, Citation Needed And Post Medieval Historical Period Heidegger ,, Central To Modernity Is Emancipation From Religion , Specifically The Hegemony Of Christianity , And The Consequent Secularization Fashion Victim The End Of ModernityThe Modernity Is Even Older Than That, In Fact The Word Modern Has Meant The Latest Thing Since The Late Th Century And Actually Goes Back To Middle English Modernity, Like FashionModernity Meaning, Definition And Aspects Of Generally, The Meaning Of Modernity Is Associated With The Sweeping Changes That Took Place In The Society And Particularly In The Fields Of Art And Literature, Between The Late S And The Beginning Of Second World War Modernity Definition Of Modernity By Oxford Inurban Areas, A Mixture Of Tradition And Modernity Is Reflected In The Architecture Both Setting And Hero Visualize And Glamorize A Modernity Of Sophistication, Leisure, Social Mobility, And Consumption We Acknowledge The Glamour And Modernity Of Eating And Drinking In American Cities By Slavishly Imitating Them In Ours Difference Between Modernity And Modernism Modernity Modernity Is A Broad Term Encompassing Several Concepts, But In Particular It Refers To A Historical Period That Saw The Evolution Of Capitalism And Industrialization The Time Period That Is Known For Rational And Secular Thinking Is The One That Is Characterized As Modernity Though Modernity Is Close In Meaning To Modernism AndModernity BooksSocial Change And Modernity The Term Modernity Was Coined To Capture These Changes In Progress By Contrasting The Modern With The Traditional The Theme, If Not The Concept, Of Modernity Pervades Sociology And The Work Of Its Founding Fathers, Marx, Weber, And Durkheim In Their Work Modernity Was Meant To Bethan A Heuristic Concept It Carried Connotations Of A New Experience Of The World Modernity Referred To A Modernity Modernity Is Delighted To Announce Our Collaboration With CF Hill On Their Post War Andexhibition, Styling Three Rooms Within A Historic Building Near Kungstrdgrden Modernity At PAD GenveModernity Takes Part In The First Edition Of PAD Genve,January ToFebruary, , On The Grounds Of The Prestigious Artgenve Fair

Zygmunt Bauman was a world-renowned Polish sociologist and philosopher, and Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds. He was one of the world's most eminent social theorists, writing on issues as diverse as modernity and the Holocaust, postmodern consumerism and liquid modernity and one of the creators of the concept of “postmodernism”.

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  • Modernity and The Holocaust
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  • 10 March 2018

10 thoughts on “Modernity and The Holocaust

  1. says:

    This is one of those books where I made notes and highlights upon nearly every page. While all the arguments and even their details are important, in the interest of brevity I will try to summarize the key points from the book below.

    There are two major lessons of the Holocaust, different but of roughly equal importance. The one that most people are familiar with positions the Holocaust as fundamentally an episode of Jewish history. In this view the Holocaust was the culmination of centuries of anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe, made more virulent towards the end by the introduction of modern racial theories. Popular European antipathy towards Jews eventually reached its apotheosis in the near-total annihilation of the continent’s Jewish communities by the Nazi regime. This is fundamentally a story about the evils and dangers of racism, particularly anti-Semitism. It is a just and appropriate lesson to take away from the massive anti-Jewish crime that was the Holocaust.

    There is, however, another lesson that we need to learn from the Holocaust. In some ways it’s an even more unsettling one, since it seems that most of us have not learned it at all. Most importantly, it hasn't been learned by the type people who actually committed the crime. The Holocaust was carried out by educated, rational, thoroughly modern citizens of a bureaucratically-organized society. It was carried out by people who were completely “normal” by our contemporary standards and who would probably have no problem today working at a major American corporation or government agency. Rather than a frenzied pogrom committed by millions of sociopaths, the Holocaust was a bureaucratic endeavor that prized reason, organization and rationality, while disdaining and even sometimes penalizing people who expressed passion or rage.

    This lesson of the Holocaust is about the danger of modernity itself: how our bureaucratic, technological, rational society can lead perfectly normal people to collectively commit monstrosities. Rather than representing a breakdown of modern civilization, Bauman argues that the organized and largely emotionless mass killing of the Holocaust represented its chilling pinnacle. Upon reading this book it became disturbingly clear that the bloodless, bureaucratic manner of thinking which made the Holocaust possible is still very much active today.

    The Holocaust was driven by the modern drive towards rationally “perfecting” society, unopposed by any countervailing moral or ethical forces. The anti-Semitism of the Nazi Party naturally resulted in Jews becoming the primary target of their malevolence. But xenophobia was a necessary, rather than sufficient, cause to actually carrying out a crime on the scale of the Holocaust. As Baumann notes, Germany was far from being the most anti-Semitic society in Europe. To the contrary, for many European Jews it was viewed as a relatively tolerant place. It is not obvious that Germany was more anti-Semitic for example than Dreyfuss-era France. Indeed one of the frustrations expressed by the Nazis was that their anti-Semitic propaganda was failing to generate sufficient zeal among the masses.

    What made the Holocaust possible was not hate — though to some degree that was necessary — but rather a sinister type of indifferent rationality. The elimination of the Jews was, according the Nazis, something intended to scientifically improve Germany. It was described as something like a sanitation or public health project. Like some other modern social engineers, the Nazis viewed society a kind of garden, which must be tended, shaped and periodically exterminated of weeds. In Germany this meant the isolation and eventual elimination of Jews, but also Roma people, the disabled, homosexuals and anyone else deemed to be intruders in the perfect Aryan garden that the party aimed to create. Millions of ordinary, educated bourgeoisie people were enlisted in this project — doctors, engineers, lawyers, truck drivers, accountants, laborers — most of them playing a tiny, generally indirect part in something that added up to an atrocity.

    The essence of modernity is to suppress base human instincts and emotions, enshrining reason in their place. We tend to think of this as obviously a good thing, but this is a dangerous simplification. As Hannah Arendt noted, for example, it is a normal human emotion is to feel basic pity for the pain of other people when they are in distress, especially the young, weak or enfeebled. The Nazi system succeeded in suppressing this “animal pity” in the German population through the effective use of bureaucracy and technology. Germany society under the Nazis put people at a distance from the Jews, while slowly transforming them into an abstraction on spreadsheets and databases. They were spoken about in dehumanizing ways and framed by German leaders as effectively a problem to be solved. While people may have had individual Jewish friends, the abstracted “Jew” became first a public health issue, then later a unit of production for national industry. The only difference is that instead of producing fridges or helicopters, the German industrial machine and all its components was geared to producing dead human beings.

    The Holocaust was the project of an entire working society of millions of people. Almost all of these people were engaged in narrow tasks that did not necessitate deep contemplation. Indeed, there were few incentives and many risks to inquiring too much as to what the ultimate purpose of all this bustle was. It is important to note that the original goal of the Nazis was not necessarily the killing of the Jews, but rather their removal from the perfect Aryan society that they hoped to build. Over time the inherent logic of bureaucracy, constantly seeking efficiency and in this case deprived of countervailing moral pressures, moved the Nazi system inevitably towards the rational conclusion that killing the Jews would be more efficient than deportation. Without any outside constraints or checks this was simply the most efficient way of dealing with what everyone had rationally accepted to be the “problem” of Jews in Germany. Normal people doing normal jobs were gradually led along a path that led to their implication in a massive criminal conspiracy.

    Aside from the people at the top, most ordinary Germans were not aware of the totality of what they were taking part in. They did not have a personal sense of responsibility, even if something bad was happening in Germany as a whole. Someone working at a railway station dealing with the management of spare parts does not see themselves as a murderer, or personally responsible for the crimes that some “higher-up” in their organization may be privy to. When everyone is merely a cog in a machine, no one feels responsible. People could go home after their job transporting materials used for the manufacture of bullets and sleep soundly knowing that their neighbors, colleagues and close family held them in high-esteem and considered them to be kind and moral people. Only in retrospect can we see that the Germans were not who they thought that they were.

    The creation of gas chambers is an example of a task intended to segment the horrible final task of killing as much as possible, breaking up responsibility to the point where it simply “floated” and clearly attached to no one involved. It took a huge supply chain and technological apparatus to create the chambers. Many people were involved, far more than the number needed for an ordinary murder or even an execution by firing squad. Thanks to technology, the monumental act of killing a human being was in fact wedded to the reassuringly small and inconsequential act of pushing a button. As a result even those tasked with actually releasing the gas didn't truly feel that they were personally responsible for as grave an act as mass murder. They were just parts of a machine and effectively saw themselves as such. It had no impact on how they viewed morality in their personal lives.

    The most unsettling part about this book is how much the bureaucratic apparatus that made the Holocaust possible in Germany is also clearly a part of the modern United States. On its face this seems like hyperbole. I was repeatedly struck however by the stark parallels between these two fundamentally modern societies. It is only due to the technological and bureaucratic distancing of ordinary people from the violence of drone warfare and aerial bombardment — not to mention the prison system and capital punishment — that nice, normal and good people are able to contribute to the ongoing perpetration of violence that they would never dream of directly committing with their own hands. The same techno-bureaucratic logic that lets someone push a button on a drone and kill someone on the other side of the planet without feeling responsible also made possible the antiseptic button-pushing murders of the gas chambers.

    Distance, technology, abstraction, are all modern tools that help overcome people’s aversion to acts that their morality would otherwise never let them commit. The analogies go beyond the most extreme act of killing. A person who would never dream of harming a cat can still play the role of consumer in a factory-farming system that tortures and brutalizes millions of animals. A person who would never steal a penny and gives charity regularly can go to work for a credit card company that systematically cheats and impoverishes the most vulnerable people in society. Massive injustices can be committed in which no one feels responsible, since everyone’s most rational option is to simply take part while not think about it too much.

    While we are not presently committing a crime on the scale of the Holocaust, this is in large part due to our own good luck. It isn’t because of some obvious moral superiority possessed by Americans and lacking in Germans. Instead it is due to the continued existence of countervailing institutions, including civil society, free press, independent religious organizations and their secular progeny, which continuously introduce moral challenges into our society. Had we been born into a society already monopolized by one party there would be nothing stopping us from blindly partaking in a collective crime.

    In modernity, people tend to become something less than the morally-autonomous individuals that they consider themselves to be. In a thoroughly bureaucratized society, morality is not so much eradicated as channeled into new forms and molded to the benefit of the bureaucracy. Being a moral person thus can be redefined to mean "doing a good job," earning the loyalty and respect of your peers, and living up to the duties that your superiors and institutions expect of you. Some people in Germany felt uneasy about the Holocaust when they thought about it too deeply. But this unease was typically assuaged by the fact that society as a whole was constantly reassuring them that they were doing the right thing.

    The people who went out of their way to save Jews from being murdered were the “freaks” of German society. They broke the law and transgressed every norm and value that they had been taught, betraying the world that raised them in the process, as well as their friends and colleagues. Baumann argues that the existence of people like this even in a totalitarian society like Nazi Germany suggests an inherent moral compass in human beings that even the most effective bureaucracy will struggle to completely eradicate. It reminds me that when Chelsea Manning revealed a video of innocent people being murdered by laughing U.S. soldiers in Baghdad, many people genuinely believed that Manning was the one who had committed the moral transgression in this situation.

    This book was a deeply disturbing examination of the logic of our currently existing society. While no one can say that racism and anti-Semitism have been eliminated, at the very least these are evils of which people are generally aware. The evils of a morally distorting, bureaucratic rationality are less obvious. It is important that people like us who live in modern societies to remember the Holocaust. It was "nice, normal people" (albeit ones who had also accepted xenophobia) rather than raving psychopaths who committed genocide, mostly while working from their office desks and indifferently going about their lives at home. To stop such a monumental crime from happening again, and to stop the crimes that are indeed being committed right now, we should reflect on what the lessons of the Holocaust are for the types of modern people who committed it.

  2. says:

    Bauman argues against the notion that the Holocaust was an essentially Jewish tragedy, traceable to uniquely German causes. Rather, Bauman believes that the Holocaust was an outgrowth of modernity. His conclusion is Habermasian in that he stresses the freedom of the state from “social control” as enabling the Holocaust, echoing Habermas’ famous proposition of the system’s separation from and colonization of the lifeworld:

    The Holocaust was an outcome of a unique encounter between factors by themselves quite ordinary and common[…] The possibility of such an encounter could be blamed to a very large extent on the emancipation of the political state, with its monopoly of the means of violence and its audacious engineering ambitions, from social control – following the step-by-step dismantling of all non-political power resources and institutions of social self-management (xiii).

    Yet Bauman is quite un-Habermasian in that he does not draw a distinction between instrumental rationality and communicative rationality. In Bauman’s work, it seems, all reason is instrumental, and modernity is defined by instrumental rationality’s dominance.

    Bauman begins by countering arguments attributing the Holocaust primarily to popular anti-Semitism. He correctly notes that, prior to the rise of the Third Reich, German anti-Semitism was no more and very likely significantly less vicious and widespread than that of the French, Russians, Poles… Moreover, popular anti-Semitism has existed for millennia in Europe and elsewhere; whereas the attempt to systematically exterminate the Jews is unique to the twentieth century. Thus, while Bauman by no means claims that anti-Semitism played no role in the Holocaust, he deduces that something else must have been at play as well to transform anti-Semitism into genocide.
    The structural component necessary to transform anti-Semitism into mass murder was, according to Bauman, the “boundary-drawing” drive, unique to rationalized, analytic modernity. In pre-modern times, Jews had coexisted with Christians throughout Europe. Though they faced discrimination, prejudice, and outbreaks of violence, they were not transformed into the antithetical other. This is because 1) corporate divisions were endemic to premodern society, and the Jews found their niche as just another organ within the compartmentalized body politics and 2), correspondingly, the boundary drawing drive was not nearly as intense in the messy landscape of premodern socio-political life as it is in modern times. Prior to the French Revolution and the popularizing of the equality of citizens, the Jews were more or less just another oppressed group among many others.
    And yet, Bauman insists, there was something unique about the Jews even in pre-modern times that carried over into the twentieth century and eventually marked them out as an absolute other. In the middle of Christendom, Jews, simply put, were not Christians:

    Jews were not simply pre- or post-conversion infidels, but people who in full consciousness refused to accept the truth when given the chance to admit it. Their presence constituted a permanent challenge to the certainty of Christian evidence. The challenge could be repelled, or at least rendered less dangerous, only by explaining Jewish obstinacy by malice, ill intentions and moral corruption (37).

    Even in the midst of the modern secularization of Europe, this stigma remained attached to the Jews:

    The age of modernity inherited ‘the Jew’ already firmly separated from the Jewish men and women who inhabited its towns and villages. Having successfully played the role of the alter ego of the Church, it was prepared to be cast in a similar role in relation to the new, secular, agencies of social integration (39).

    Compounding the Jews’ otherness in the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, was the Jewish diasporic existence. In an age of nations and nation-states, the Jews further blurred boundaries by their status as a people without a nation, constantly crossing borders and questioning identity. As Baumann writes, “They undermined the very difference between hosts and guests, the native and the foreign (52).” The cosmopolitanism and humanism of leading Jewish intellectuals, as well as their propensity for acting as peace-brokers in times of war, only exacerbated this prejudice: “They were the opacity of the world fighting for clarity, the ambiguity of the world lusting for certainty (56).”
    Legitimating these new sources of prejudice as well as the old ones (which Bauman sees largely as instances of what he calls “heterophobia,” which he claims is instinctual and non-ideological) were doctrines of racism, particularly scientific racism, which is undeniably a uniquely modern phenomenon. Such doctrines came about in the age of the nation-state because “differences had to be created now, or retained against the awesome eroding power of legal equality and cross-cultural exchange.” Thus

    If [Jewish otherness] was to be salvaged from the assault of modern equality, the distinctiveness of the Jews had to be re-articulated and laid on new foundations, stronger than human powers of culture and self-determination. In Hannah Arendt’s terse phrase, Judaism had to be replaced with Jewishness (59).

    Homogeneity had to be maintained against the enemy in one’s midst, and the concept of race provided a useful marker for distinguishing the other.
    Bauman emphasizes the utility of racism in modern utopian projects of creating an immaculate future society. The Nazis are, of course, the foremost example of this mentality. In their bid for a utopian Aryan future, the Nazis had to root out all that was alien and foreign from their midst, especially the very embodiment of alieness, the Jews. The terms in which they went about outlining and espousing this program were explicitly racist.
    Racism as the purest, most potent distillation of the boundary-drawing impulse could only come about in the modern world, Bauman argues; it is an outgrowth of Enlightenment thought. The section in which Bauman makes this claim, “Racism as a form of social engineering,” is the pivotal point of Modernity and the Holocaust. It is here that Bauman attempts to validate his premise that the modern age is one marked by hyper-boundary-drawing. He does this by referencing two aspects of the Enlightenment tradition: the glorification of science and the project of utopia. Of the first, Bauman writes,

    With the Enlightenment came the enthronement of the new deity, that of Nature, together with the legitimation of science as its only orthodox cult, and of scientists as its prophets and priests. Everything, in principle, had been opened to objective inquiry; everything could, in principle, be known – reliably and true (68).

    Bauman draws a direct line between the prevalence of the scientific ethos and the advent of phrenology:

    In the form in which it was moulded by the Enlightenment, scientific activity was marked by an ‘attempt to determine man’s exact place in nature through observation, measurements, and comparisons between groups of men and animals’ and ‘belief in the unity of body and mind.’ The latter was supposed to express itself in a tangible, physical way, which could be measured and observed. Phrenology (the art of reading the character from facial features) captured most fully the confidence, strategy and ambition of the new scientific age (69).

    Bridging the gap between phrenology and eugenics is the second inheritance from the Enlightenment that Bauman cites: projects of utopianism and/or progress through human means, particularly social engineering.

    From the Enlightenment on, the modern world was distinguished by its activist, engineering attitude toward nature and toward itself. Science was not to be conducted for its own sake; it was seen as, first and foremost, an instrument of awesome power allowing its holder to improve on reality, to re-shape it according to human plans and designs, and to assist it in its drive to self-perfection. Gardening and medicine supplied the archetypes of [this] constructive stance, while normality, health, or sanitation offered the archmetaphors for human taks and strategies in the management of human affairs (70).

    Keenly, Bauman cites Hitler’s statement to Himmler that “The discovery of the Jewish virus is one of the greatest revolutions that has taken place in the world. The battle in which we are engaged today is the same sort as the battled waged, during the last century, by Pasteur and Koch (71).” Thus, on Bauman’s thesis, Hitler and the Nazis were not monsters; they were rather men concerned for the future of humanity, expressing that concern in a manner sanctioned by the intellectual cornerstones of modernity: “From the point of view of those who designed and commanded the mass murder of the Jews, Jews were to die not because they were resented (or at least not primarily for this reason); they were seen as deserving death (and resented for that reason) because they stood between this one imperfect and tension-ridden reality and the hoped-for world of tranquil happiness (76).”

    Having dealt with the ‘why’ of the Holocaust, Bauman moves on to the ‘how.’ He determines that this latter, too, was characteristically modern. More specifically, it was the modern state and its agencies of control, chiefly bureaucracy, that made the implementation of the Holocaust possible.
    Bauman points out cogently that if Nazi leaders had relied on traditional means of mass murder, such as the mobilization of the mob, the Holocaust could not have happened. It would have been far too long and slow of a process, allowing the victims too many chances to flee or fight back and others (Germans included) chances to intervene on their behalf. The Holocaust thus required the “replacement of the mob with a bureaucracy (90).”
    Though bureaucracies are all, according to Bauman, capable of mass murder, it takes a combination of certain conditions to mobilize them towards such. These conditions are not rare in themselves, but only in their confluence. They are radical state-racism, a powerful state with command of a powerful bureaucracy, and a state of emergency, as provided in total war. Obviously, these conditions were fulfilled in the Third Reich.
    Bauman focuses his critique on the first two factors. In the first place, he takes aim at the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. Though violence may not be as evident in everyday modern life as it often was in pre-modern life, this does not mean that modern civilization lacks violence but rather simply that violence has been veiled and displaced. The state now controls violence, exercising it on the periphery or behind closed doors and thus keeping it out of sight and out of mind. The result is that the modern state is capable of deploying more destructive power than any previous institution or network of institutions: “Once centralized and free from competition, means of coercion [are] capable of reaching unheard of results (97).”
    Though it is still human beings and not some abstract “state” who must, in the final analysis, enact this violence, bureaucratic methods of control and manipulation facilitate their doing so. Here Bauman draws upon the Foucauldian notion of discipline, in that he claims that the division of labor distances actors from the consequences of their actions (Milgram serves as empirical backing for this claim). To great effect, he points out that workers in a chemical factory producing napalm in no way see themselves as responsible for the children burned alive on whom napalm-bombs fall (100). This dynamic of the division of labor compounds an ethos of workmanship, that involves the “substitution of technical for moral responsibility (97).” Bauman may have Weber in mind when he writes that “morality boils down to the commandment to be a good, efficient and diligent expert and worker.” Similarly, the objects of this work become dehumanized. Once again, one sees the influence of Habermas:

    [The victims] are already dehumanized – in the sense that the language in which things that happen to them (or are done to them) is narrated safeguards its referents from ethical evaluation. In fact, this language is unfit for normative-moral statements. It is only humans that may be objects of ethical proposition (103).

    Bauman ends with an attempt to develop a “sociological theory of morality.” He has already indicated, in a section on Milgram, that what he calls “evil” is socially manufactured by the social virtues of obedience to authority, solidarity-through-othering and othering-through-solidarity, and the ethos of workmanship over compassion. Presently, Bauman challenges the standard sociological view that morality is socially constructed. He cites the uniformly negative international reaction provoked by the Holocaust and the trial of Nazi war criminals as proof that morality cannot be socially constructed, that there must be something primal in morality. He writes, “There would be no war criminals and no right to try, condemn and execute Eichmann unless there was some justification for conceiving of disciplined behavior, totally conforming to the moral norms in force at that time and in that place, as criminal (177).”
    In fact, rather than a sociological theory of morality, Bauman adopts an existential-ontological one, that of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas, according to Bauman, asserts that responsibility is the very essence of intersubjectivity and thus (as one is only constituted in mediation with the other), of subjectivity itself. To be proximate to others is to be responsible for them. It is thus clear to see that Bauman takes a rather rosy view of human nature. It cannot be humans as such that do evil but only humans as instruments of the state or another form of authority. Sociologically, this leads him to a Habermasian conclusion. It was the absence of democracy that was responsible for the Holocaust following the separation, if one will, of system and lifeworld:

    If we ask now what the original sin was which allowed [the Holocaust] to happen, the collapse (or non-emergence) of democracy seems to be the most convincing answer. In the absence of traditional authority, the only checks and balances capable of keeping the body politic away from extremities can be supplied by political democracy (111).

    The Holocaust came about in a “state of affairs in which political and military forces [were] neither counterbalanced nor restrained by resourceful and influential social ones (111).” And only by creating “social distance” between victims and perpetrators by the devices of bureaucracy can states overcome the natural responsibility between humans, which takes the subjective form of compassion (In this focus upon moral feeling, rather than communicative rationality, as a counter-balance to instrumental reason, Bauman is most un-Habermasian).


    Bauman’s work is lucid, very well argued, theoretically sophisticated, and mostly empirically well supported. Modernity and the Holocaust deserves its reputation as a classic.
    However, there are some key points on which Bauman is rather weak. The drive to draw boundaries is not new to modernity. The old order was structured along boundaries as well, most famously those between those who pray, those who fight, and those who work. These boundaries collapsed with the overthrow of the old order and the onset of modernity. This vacuum led to a search for new orders and a competition between competing candidates. It was in this context not of boundary-drawing per se but of drawing new boundaries and of the modern utopian enterprise, which Bauman does address, that the Third Reich arose and the Final Solution took the lives of millions.
    Further, Bauman’s treatment of science leaves much to be desired. He does not seriously address any theories of science, be they current or contemporaneous with National Socialism. He describes the business of science as consisting of observing, measuring, and comparing (69) but he neglects to mention experimenting. Many would argue that the Nazis had no evidence for their conclusions regarding the inferiority of the Jews and other “races” and that the failure of eugenicists to support their hypotheses with experimentation and concrete proof places eugenics very much on the side of pseudo-science. The reviewer lacks sufficient knowledge to come down on either side of the debate, but the debate itself does merit treatment in a work such as Bauman’s.
    Bauman perhaps overestimates the role of bureaucracy in the Holocaust. As many as two million Jews were murdered face-to-face and with very little division of labor by Einsatzgruppen and occupying forces in Russia, Poland, and elsewhere. Bauman would answer such an objection by pointing to bureaucratic mechanisms of “social distancing.” However, outside of Milgram’s experiment, Bauman has little empirical evidence at which to point in support of this concept. He is, however, determined to impute all wrongdoing and cruelty to abstract notions of “state” and “authority” and to preserve human beings in an essentially pristine state, corrupted by outside forces but not inherently bad.
    This leads me to my final critique of Bauman, the wishful thinking of his theory of morality and its implications for political theory. In the first place, he does not demonstrate that the view of the morality as a social construct lacks merit. Had the Nazis won the war, they could have eventually publicized the Final Solution and habituated the German people to it. It was only in the context of their defeat that the victors passed judgment on the Final Solution. In other words, members of one society, or group of societies, was passing judgment on another members of another society. Having faced an existential threat from this society, the victors were quite reasonably apt to impose their own social norms on the vanquished. Eichmann was not executed because he violated the norms of Nazi Germany; he was executed because he violated the norms of “Western civilization.” Secondly, Emmanuel Levinas’ existential-ontological view of morality, as presented by Bauman, is extremely weak. If “responsibility” were the essence of subjectivity, it would be impossible to defy that responsibility without ceasing to be a subject, without ceasing to exist. This theory of morality is simply wishful thinking. Bauman presents no evidence to support it. If social distancing does open a gap between victims and perpetrators, there must be something in the latter that is equally primeval with their compassion to allow them to opt for social distancing over responsibility. Otherwise, boundary-drawing drives and respect for authority could hold no overriding appeal. The problem of cruelty does not lie in civilization or society alone but in human beings.
    Such a recognition poses problems to Bauman’s assertion that democracy is the best safeguard against future Holocausts. Empirical evidence has the same effect. Weimar was an extremely pluralistic democracy. Its downfall and Hitler's rise, most historians agree, were due largely to popular demand for order and unity. Once Hitler was in power, the Social-Democrats’ extremely well developed network of social institutions offered no serious resistance to the political power of the Nazis, nor did the churches. And if Germans looked the other way during the Holocaust, it is only because they were willing to do so. Needless to say, such moral failings are hardly unique to Germans; they are a part of the human condition.

  3. says:

    As I started reading this, I realized it was going to be a great, thought-provoking book. As I read on, I realized it may be one of the most important works of non-fiction I've ever read.

    Most of us have a stock set of answers concerning what caused the Holocaust. It's driving forces all seem pretty self-evident: anti-semitism, totalitarianism, etc. In Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman sets out to uncover the major lesson the world has yet to learn from it, namely that such a crime could only have been committed within modern civilization. The major hallmarks of modern society he targets are the supremacy of rationality, bureaucratic techniques of organization, and rapidly advancing technology; and with these three instruments at their disposal, the social engineers of the modern state. All of these, in their ascendance, are unique to the modern world, and enable a unique effectiveness never before dreamed of.

    Rather than a regressive attack on modern civilized society, like some spontaneous, bloodthirsty pogrom, Bauman argues that the Holocaust was the climax of all that makes that society distinctive: rationalistic management techniques, bureaucratically administrated nation-states, assembly-line style division of labor, social engineering projects. The bloodless systems by which Holocaust was carried out were routinely, unceasingly efficient and rational. Nothing about the phenomena of bureaucracy, technology, and rationality would prevent such a crime from happening again, argues Bauman. We have not learned our lesson. Especially in the developed world, we heartily embrace the means by which the Holocaust was accomplished, and actually assume these phenomena are protecting us from such crimes.

    Bauman writes:

    "At no point of its long and tortuous execution did the Holocaust come in conflict with the principles of rationality...The most shattering lesson deriving from the analysis of the "twisted road to Auschwitz' is that - in the last resort - the choice of physical extermination...was a product of routine bureaucratic procedures: means-ends calculus, budget balancing, universal rule application...The Nazi revolution was an exercise in social engineering on a grandiose scale.

    "From the Enlightenment on, the modern world was distinguished by its activist, engineering attitude toward nature and toward itself." Science was a power "allowing its holder to improve on reality, to reshape it according to human plans and designs, and to assist it in its drive to self-perfection...Human existence and cohabitation became objects of planning and administration; like garden vegetation or a living organism, they could not be left to their own devices, lest should they be infested by weeds or overwhelmed by cancerous tissues...the murder of Jews was an exercise in the rational management of society."

    To my mind, this "modern, rational flavor" of the Holocaust is a quality not well understood. At the street level, I have never heard anyone explain it as a phenomenon of modernity. Even listening to some teachers I've known, you would think the Nazis and German society were all lunatic monsters (Bauman frequently cites Hannah Arendt against this assumption), and that the road to a Nazi-style extermination is best tracked through the rise of racism or some other sort of "hatred." It would appear that progressives (and that’s almost everyone, on some level) are especially loath to consider the Holocaust as a thoroughly modern event, because from within the ideology of progress we are required to assume that progress is improvement and vice versa, and clearly institutions of modernity are vast technical improvements over those of the pre-modern order. Thus the modern state and its tools must be essentially better - in every way - than pre-modern society, or else we would have to give over our progressivism. (This accounts for much of the often sneering, superior tone with which modern people refer to peoples of the past.) Progressivism must instinctively grab hold of the easier explanation of racism/antisemitism to fully explain the Holocaust, but must ignore that modern, technically superior "civilization" and its architects and managers, nation-builders, social engineers, etc, operating by fully rational designs and means, were central to the Holocaust's execution; and that all of these have only become more advanced with time. Nothing like the Holocaust ever took place before modernity, nor could it have.

    "Alone, antisemitism offers no explanation of the Holocaust." It seems that, during the first part of the 20th century, had one asked "which European nation is most likely to mount an extermination campaign against Jews," the informed bystander would have thought of France, or a number of others, before Germany. Even during Hitler's regime, the Third Reich's standard-bearers were disappointed in the low level of zeal among German citizens for their anti-Jewish projects. Bauman does not shrink from calling this an anti-Jewish, anti-semitic crime. But he makes clear that anti-semitism was a necessary, but not sufficient, cause:

    "Only in its modern, 'scientific,' racist form, the age-long repellence of the Jews has been articulated as an exercise in sanitation...Before that, the Jews were sinners; like all sinners, they were bound to suffer for their sins, in an earthly or other-worldly purgatory - to repent and, possibly, to earn redemption...Cancer, vermin, or weed cannot repent...There is nothing to punish them for. By the nature of their evil, they have to be exterminated..." It is impossible, he says "to conceive of such an idea separately from the engineering approach to society, the belief in the artificiality of social order, institution of expertise and the practice of scientific management of human setting and interaction... the exterminatory version of anti-Semitism... could occur only in an advanced state of modernity."

    In one of my favorite passages Bauman unveils the assessment modern civilization seems to have of itself; its "etiological myth" (and this recalls that superior tone I mentioned):

    "Western civilization has articulated its struggle for domination in terms of the holy battle of humanity against barbarism, reason against ignorance, objectivity against prejudice, progress against degeneration, truth against superstition, science against magic, rationality against passion. It has interpreted the history of its ascendance as the gradual yet relentless substitution of human mastery over nature for the mastery of nature over man. It has presented its own accomplishment as, first and foremost, a decisive advance in human freedom of action, creative potential and security. It has identified freedom and security with its own type of social order: Western, modern society is defined as civilized society, and a civilized society in turn is understood as a state from which most of the natural ugliness and morbidity, as well as most of the immanent human propensity to cruelty and violence, have been eliminated or at least suppressed."

    But:

    "...the overall non-violent character of modern civilization is an illusion. More exactly, it is an integral part of its self-apology and self-apotheosis...It is not true that our civilization exterminates violence... If modernity is indeed antithetical to the wild passions of barbarism, it is not at all antithetical to efficient, dispassionate destruction, slaughter, and torture... terrorism and torture are no longer instruments of passions; they have become instruments of political rationality."

    In modernity, violence is merely shunted to the margins, or contained in pockets that are made invisible to mainstream society. One of the most shocking qualities about the Holocaust is just this invisibility- both its secrecy, and the bureaucratic, technological means by which this secrecy was accomplished. According to Bauman, the "functionalist" school of Holocaust studies has won the day- the project was not intended from the beginning as a mass extermination, but the requirements of rational calculus eventually and by stages yielded the conclusion that extermination was cheaper and easier than relocation. The success of the program would depend on as little public knowledge as possible- if a general outcry was to be prevented, the Jews would need to be kept unaware of their fate, as would the general population, to the greatest possible degree. As horrors became progressively known, it was with a well-managed social distance between populations which eroded the likelihood of such an outcry. This secrecy was maintained by techniques of communication and the technology of mass killing which enabled even the people directing crowds and pushing the buttons never to be confronted with the results of their actions, or even to know what those results were. A new, bureaucratically cleansed language emptied reality of meaning: gas chambers were "baths," blood and excreta caused by execution methods were "fluids" to be managed.

    The efficient liquidation of masses of people at minimum expense was accomplished through the "meticulous functional division of labor, and the substitution of technical for a moral responsibility" that occurs within modern society and workplace. Links in a bureaucratic chain may have no knowledge of the tasks set before those lower in the hierarchy. Those in command, unlike a premodern state in which the master knows everything the journeyman does only better, may have no practical or functional knowledge about how a project gets from beginning to end, or only an "abstract, detached awareness" of it. "The kind of knowledge best expressed in statistics."

    "Would workers in the chemical plants that produced napalm accept responsibility for burned babies?... Would such workers even be aware that others might reasonably think they were responsible? Of course they wouldn't, and there is no bureaucratic reason why they should. The splitting of the baby-burning process in minute functional tasks and then separating the tasks from each other have made such awareness irrelevant... remember as well that it is chemical plants that produce napalm, not any of their individual workers." In this state of affairs “only the quantifiable success or failure matter, and seen from that point of view, the tasks do not differ.”

    "The result is the irrelevance of moral standards for the technical success of the bureaucratic operation.” The pretense of moral thinking is retained, but morality is redefined in terms of the rational-technical instead of good and evil. One is a "good" worker when one carries out his duty with excellence and according to plan, in submission to the expert prescriptions of the workplace authority. The tasks of individual workers are narrowly defined, as in an assembly line, reducing the possibility of moral assessment of the task, and making it interchangable with others. One can manage personnel in a weapons plant, or manufacture a necessary widget, with roughly the same skillset as in a car dealership.

    "In such a society the effects of human action reach far beyond the 'vanishing point' of moral visibility." A missile is fired with the push of a button, thousands of miles away, and pointing in the opposite direction of the target, with no visible evidence of the destruction available to the button-pusher. We need no longer be confronted with the effects of what we do. Tasks that once required soul-searching and moral consideration are divided up into many discrete parts and parcelled out to various persons, who are kept distant from their effects, thus rendering the old-fashioned 'moral sensibility' inoperative. In this fashion reprehensible things can be done (with maximum efficiency), even while making any later possibility of assigning blame very difficult.

    These examples of technologically and bureaucratically induced distance are related to the phenomenon of "social distance" necessary to keep people indifferent to suffering. The process of staging successively greater social distance between Jews and non-Jews was essential for deadening any moral impulses the average German may have had for the impoverishment, incarceration, and destruction of their Jewish neighbors. Bauman notes how, while the average German did feel moral revulsion at the idea of mass murder, and routinely made exceptions in their generalized anti-semitism, they were much more likely to support laws/policies targeting Jews because it was against “the conceptual Jew” which Nazi propaganda sought their support. The contrast between their inter-personal experience with Jewish neighbors and the Nazi-engineered outcry over the conceptual Jew did not occur to them as cognitive dissonance. Nazi language and imagery had succeeded in using the political, the generalized, and the distant to annul real-life affection and day-to-day inter-personal knowledge among neighbors. Bauman employs the infamous Milgram experiment to show how social distance and monolithic authority can annul a person's normal moral inhibitions against cruelty. Reading the Milgram results back into the Holocaust, he explains this cruelty not as (per Durkheim) the creation of a new, bloodthirsty impulse in people, but the immobilization of the normal, socially reinforced moral impulses. So Nazism didn't create thousands of monsters out of normal people, it simply created the social distance (reinforced by the "officialness" of policy) that would reduce moral feeling to indifference or even cooperation.

    Likewise, this engineering of social distance helps us understand yet another of the most bone-chilling aspects of the Holocaust: the participation of the victims in the demise of their own people, and of themselves. "The rationality of the ruled is always the weapon of their rulers...the oppressors encountered surprisingly little difficulty in soliciting the rationally motivated complicity of their victims." Native French Jews felt themselves lucky as Yiddish speaking immigrants were deported. In exchange for the privilege of staying momentarily alive, the upper classes and the most skilled were eager to provide the desk-work necessary to manage the rounding up and destruction of their kin. Class antagonisms were easily manipulated to keep people suspicious of one another, despite all alike being targeted for destruction. Betrayal of kinsmen was a norm. All of this was part of the bureaucratically planned and administered drive toward efficiency- the less expense to the Reich in this massive undertaking, the better. But more importantly, it was an efficient management technique which wielded social distance to keep people indifferent to the fate of their neighbors, so that the rulers would encounter minimum resistance, and minimum costs.

    I think I'm going to break off here and finish up, because... well, you could just go on forever. The only final thing I will mention is the one point at which Bauman recommends something: he believes that pluralism is the social character best suited to prevent the kind of social distance, depersonalization, and moral deconstruction that the totalitarian state wields to accomplish its ends. I tend to agree. Rather than trying eliminate the political or racial Other, we ought to assume some form of that Other needs to be a present, countervailing pressure so that various parties and pressure groups are held in tension. We should assume our own group can get out of hand and oppressive just as soon as any other could, and those whose party gets its way rarely find themselves in the driver's seat getting exactly what they want, and are often subjected to violent power dynamics within their own party, ones they find odious, and perhaps even regret working with in the end.

    So to close this absurdly long review, one very much "catches the drift" during this flood of sociological scrutiny- the Nazi world was not a world populated by bloodthirsty monsters bent on carrying out the goals of their irrational hatred. It was populated by those we would not notice as much different then ourselves- going about the workday, playing with children, using reason and technology to solve problems, and trusting in big, mostly invisible institutions to administer public life. We inhabit roughly the same world they did, and the reason that we are not perpetrating a crime on the scale of the Holocaust is simply that there has not been the necessary convergence of certain modern phenomena yet. People in our time and place are not particularly more moral, or more capable of resisting a Holocaust-like event, than Germans were in 1933. Modernity has trundled (or soared) on, and we mostly continue to assume that its distinctives are 'normal,' and are the only type of priorities one could possibly employ in the success of a society. This conviction largely transcends political differences, with liberals and conservatives each slandering each other as "irrational," and angrily shrieking for 'change' in the leadership of the bureaucracy and technocracy, but not substantially disagreeing that it's bureaucracy and technocracy that are best suited to defining and governing the world.

    This is a difficult, technical book that will be read by only a specialized audience, often parsing intramural debates of sociology, but it's so important that I felt the need to give my review unrestricted length, in case it's the closest someone gets to encountering this evaluation of modernity. Highly recommended.

  4. says:

    I read this book for a sociology class at BYU in 2001. I remember it easily enough because on the big screen at the front of the class I watched the world towers come crashing down. We were still early enough in the semester that I didn't know anyone in the class, but I remember sitting there, looking at each other and the news and the towers falling wondering what happened, how could this happen?
    I didn't make the connection at the time, but this book explains a lot of how it happened and why and how it could happen again. It deals with the holocaust perpetraited by Nazi Germany but tells how anyone-- yes! Even you!-- can be part of a terrible event like the holocaust as its victim or perpetrator.
    It's a dense book, difficulty to parse; I remember one sentence going on for the length of an entire paragraph. It's complicated, but fascinating, and well worth the effort. It made me see the world and myself quite differently. If you're of the group of people who are okay with turing away refugees, I would urge you to read this book.

  5. says:

    Excellent book that shows the link between the Holocaust and the European Enlightenment. Bauman shows that the values and theories that emerged because of the Enlightenment are precisely what allowed the Holocaust to happen. In other words, the Holocaust was not an exception to the Enlightenment, but a result of it. He focuses especially on rationality.

  6. says:

    Simply one of the best books I have ever read. Taking in an astonishing breadth of disciplines, from sociology to cinematic theory to historiography, Bauman rigorously illustrates the Holocaust as the ultimate example of modernity: a terrifying archetype of science, bureaucracy, industrial efficiency and rationality.

    He bravely and convincingly leaves Zionist revisionists such as Daniel Goldhagen and entire disciplines of academia (sociology, psychology) in the dust, and condemns them for the reluctance, deliberate or otherwise, to confront the Holocaust as the ultimate example of modernity's strength and the dominance of the modern state.

    Highlighting the dangers of segregating the genocide as the concern only of the Jewish people, with little relevance to anyone else, Bauman deconstructs this argument brick by brick, condemning it as the ultimate offence against the memory of those who were tragically slaughtered by the Nazi state. Prepare to re-think everything you thought you knew about the most horrific moment in the 20th century; this is essential reading.

  7. says:

    Argues convincingly that the Holocaust was not an eruption of pre-modern passion or madness but an utterly modern event; that the tools of modernity (rationalization, bureaucracy, technology, etc) made this level of mass killing possible for the first time. In the latter half of the book, Bauman wrestles more specifically with the question 'what is the significance of the Holocaust for us?' Opposing many intellectuals who see the Holocaust as primarily about German inherent evil or antisemitism, Bauman says our greatest tragedy holds a lesson about all humans and our potential for evil, given the right (social) conditions. I don't understand why Bauman isn't more lauded than he already is. This book, along with 'Liquid Modernity' and 'Liquid Love' are each amazing.

  8. says:

    Bauman's writing style can be lengthy at times. The organization of the book could have been better, and main points are also revisited from nearly the same angle which makes some sections feel redundant.

    On the positive, the thesis (see the description for these notes) is powerful, and the argument is crafted with care. The author's many-angled approach to similar ideas requires a slow, thoughtful read. In the end, this work goes a long way to dispel the popular myths of the holocaust, and induces the reader to analyse the current state of society.

  9. says:

    What I love about sociology is the ability some of the thinkers have to change my whole perception of a subject, and to me this was such a piece of work. Bauman's perspective of the holocaust as a product of modern society, rather than an angry mob driven by a hating ideology, is interesting and thought provoking. Though a bit lacking when it comes to solutions or a more complete picture, it does help me to ask some unnerving questions about our society in the future.

  10. says:

    A book that i started to read due to an exchange office, but after this book was turned into a bitter truth about Holocaust.
    There ,where many people lost their life,where human values died without mercy and the freedom was imprisoned.
    "The Holocaust" wasn't a wound only for Jewish society but a wound in the world's heart .A world represented by freedom ,democracy and modernity!

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