Modernity and the Holocaust

From p. 332 in Social Theory Re-Wired 2e

First, ideational processes that by their own inner logic may lead to genocidal projects, and the technical resources that permit implementation of such projects, not only have been proved fully compatible with modern civilization, but have been conditioned, created, and supplied by it. The Holocaust did not just, mysteriously, avoid clash with the social norms and institutions of modernity. It was these norms and institutions that made the Holocaust feasible.This is a radical proposition. Bauman is challenging the idea that the Holocaust was an aberration in the modern era, simply the result of the madness—or evil—of a select few individuals. Instead he is trying to point out in this essay how the structure, both social structures and internal thought processes, of modernity in fact made possible the genocide that killed over 6 million Jewish men, women, and children.

From p. 335 in Social Theory Re-Wired 2e

Truly modern genocide is different. Modern genocide is genocide with a purpose. Getting rid of the adversary is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end: a necessity that stems from the ultimate objective, a step that one has to take if one wants ever to reach the end of the road. The end itself is a grand vision of a better, and radically different, society. Modern genocide is an element of social engineering, meant to bring about a social order conforming to the design of the perfect society.Social engineering is not used here in the contemporary sense of manipulating people into giving up confidential information or tricking people to circumvent online security measures. Bauman is talking about social engineering as planned attempts to improve society, efforts that include strategies to alleviate poverty or stop teen pregnancy as well as strategies to create “a more perfect union.” While some efforts at social engineering over the Twentieth Century have been very successful—like reducing child mortality rates through prenatal care or reducing poverty among the elderly through the implementation of Social Security—others have had more deadly results. Chairman Mao Zedong, leader of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 until 1976 led an effort to modernize the Chinese economy. To do this, his government instituted new and unproven agricultural techniques, banned some private food production, and enforced the collective ownership of livestock. In combination with drought and floods, these techniques produced widespread starvation. Estimates of the number of deaths caused by famine in the period from the late-1950s to the early 1960s range from 20 to 45 million people. While death from famine is surely different from genocide, the point that Bauman makes here is that modernity has produced large-scale efforts at social planning and engineering, and the Holocaust must be understood within that context.

From pp. 335-36 in Social Theory Re-Wired 2e

Often [the Jews] were killed in a dull, mechanical fashion with no human emotions—hatred included—to enliven it. They were killed because they did not fit, for one reason or another, the scheme of a perfect society. Their killing was not the work of destruction, but creation. They were eliminated, so that an objectively better human world—more efficient, more moral, more beautiful—could be established.It is difficult to reconcile this notion that killing was somehow imagined as creating a better human world with the sense that killing is morally wrong. And that this may in fact be consistent with modernity. A parallel case might be found in the eugenics movement. Read this post from Sociological Images about Coercive Sterilization: Think of the Children! Here again we see this notion that we can engineer a better society by controlling others.

From p. 336 in Social Theory Re-Wired 2e

The two most notorious and extreme cases of modern genocide did not betray the spirit of modernity. They did not deviously depart from the main track of the civilizing process. They were the most consistently uninhibited expressions of that spirit. They attempted to reach the most ambitious aims of the civilizing process most other processes stop short of, not necessarily for the lack of good will. They showed what the rationalizing, designing, controlling dreams and efforts of modern civilization are able to accomplish if not mitigated, curbed or counteracted.This passage suggests that the hallmarks of modernity—rationality, control, efficiency, and calculability—were crucial to the genocidal efforts of Hitler and his followers. These same characteristics that allow for your Quarter Pounder to taste the same whether you’re in Bangor, Maine or Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, allowed for the depersonalization and efficiency in carrying out mass murder. In The McDonaldization of Society, George Ritzer explores these characteristics in great detail. Most soldiers in Hitler’s army were responsible for only one, discrete part of the plan. Responsibility was diffused across thousands of participants. And German civilians could distance themselves from what was happening.

From p. 338 in Social Theory Re-Wired 2e

What in fact has happened in the course of the civilizing process, is the redeployment of violence, and the re-distribution of access to violence. Like so many other things which we have been trained to abhor and detest, violence has been taken out of sight, rather than forced out of existence. It has become invisible, that is, from the vantage point of narrowly circumscribed and privatized personal experience. It has been enclosed instead in segregated and isolated territories, on the whole inaccessible to ordinary members of society; or evicted to the ‘twilight areas’, off-limits for a large majority (and the majority which counts) of society’s members; or exported to distant places which on the whole are irrelevant for the life-business of civilized humans…In the second Iraq war, beginning with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, television networks celebrated the invasion with fireworks-like displays of “shock and awe”, a clear illustration of the violence “over there” described by Bauman. The creation of a detention camp in Guatanamo Bay in Cuba in 2002 (following the attacks of September 11, 2001) provides an even better illustration of Bauman’s point. The capture and detention of hundreds of detainees without formal charges being brought against them, the accusations of torture, and the secrecy surrounding activities at the site all illustrate the removal of violence to “distant places which…are irrelevant to the life-business of civilized humans.”

Related Activity

Complete the related activity for Modernity and the Holocaust:
"Bauman, Violence, and Modernity"