March 24, 2004

A tremor of intent

First, an apology for the erractic posting lately. Last night, our stove was in the dining room, right next to the refrigerator. We couldn't go into the kitchen, nor could we use the first floor bathroom. The basement remains off limits, and my rather modest collection of books is still stacked in the one good room down there, a solid storage closet. The renovation of stately ideofact manor continues, and the last two weeks have been fairly disruptive. The good news is that as of today, the kitchen is back together, as is the bathroom. The basement will probably be done in another week or -- to be on the safe side -- two. I'll have to buy new bookshelves (I tossed the old ones, cheap Ikea things I'd had since my days as a bachelor) and some other incidentals -- a better desk, for one thing -- but there's a decent chance that life will be back to normal by the time I write this year's check to the Internal Revenue Service. Well, not back to normal -- decidedly better, I think. Meanwhile, despite all the disorder, life goes on (as will the Qutb series, later this week). And the books I've been buying keep piling up...

Not the most elegant segue I've ever written, but what the hell, you get what you pay for. The title of this entry is taken from an Anthony Burgess novel, that, mighty Amazon tells us, will be released in July. It's not a great novel (in the way that, say, Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities is a great novel), but of Burgess' books, it's my personal favorite. A Tremor of Intent is both a spy novel and an exploration of human weakness and depravity -- sort of a combination of Ian Fleming and St. Augustine. It was the first Burgess novel I read (I didn't get to A Clockwork Orange until much later, after I'd already had a year of college Russian under my belt), at the all too tender age of 16, and it made a deep impression on me, and not merely because the spy poses as a typewriter designer, and there's a rather interesting discussion of the technology and history of typewriters. (The book also had a fair amount of sex in it.) I remember the front cover of my old Norton edition, which called the book an "eschatological spy novel," which seemed to be a bit of overselling on the part of Norton's promotional people. While the novel deals with religion rather directly, it's in no way eschatological -- it's far more a meditation on morality and faith.

All of which brings me, in a rather roundabout way, to a somewhat different subject. I'm rarely astonished by much I read anymore, but this piece in Opinion Journal made me do something of a double take. The piece is called "What Happened in the East: The origins of the Final Solution lay in the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union," and discusses a recent book (which I haven't read) called The Origins of the Final Solution by Christopher Browning. The article suggests,

Between 1939 and 1941--when the Wehrmacht invaded and occupied Poland and the Balkans, then virtually all of Western Europe, while securing alliances with Romania and Hungary--Hitler was still planning to cleanse Europe by expelling the Jews to a far-off location.

The Nazis found themselves in control of nine million Jews, far more than the mere 600,000 who lived in Germany. For a time, the Nazi leadership seriously considered shipping them to Madagascar. Hitler confided this plan to Mussolini in June 1940; a month later, the Nazis even halted the building of the Warsaw ghetto because they assumed they would be sending the Jews away. As Christopher Browning explains in his superb "The Origins of the Final Solution": "The commitment to some kind of final solution to the Jewish question had been inherent in Nazi ideology from the beginning. Thus Nazi Jewish policy . . . first envisaged a judenfrei Germany through emigration and then a judenfrei Europe through expulsion."

It was not until the invasion of Soviet territory, though, in June 1941--and the almost immediate occupation of the Baltic states, Ukraine and large parts of Belorussia--that the Nazis understood that they were now embarked on "a vast racial and ideological conflict." Hitler had warned his officers that spring that the impending invasion "would be very different from the war in the West." The military soon understood that all Jews would be killed.

A while back, I agreed with Lynn of In Context that there was something about the Holocaust that was sui generis -- while there had been other incidents of mass murder by states, the Holocaust was a low for humanity -- an evil unparalleled in human history. Reading the Opinion Journal piece, it struck me that perhaps I could begin to articulate why.

The supposition of the article is that the final solution was a consequence of Hitler's having invaded the Soviet Union gets things backwards. I tend to think that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in order to get control of the population of Eastern European Jews. I tend to think that Hitler conceived of the war the Nazis were fighting was a war on Jews. I think Hitler believed that he would win the war if only he could eliminate the Jews, and that some of the strategic blunders he made can only be understood in the context of this overriding goal. For Hitler, the struggle with Jews was truly eschatological -- absent their complete extermination, Germany would lose the war. This is why, I believe, that in the final year of the Thrid Reich, when it was clear to conventional thinkers that Hitler should divert all possible resources to shoring up the Eastern Front, he instead diverted resources to continue the killing in the death camps, starving his army to ensure that the war against the Jews would be won. And this is what makes the Holocaust sui generis: an entire state was employed in what became a suicidal attempt to eliminate the Jews out of a horrific idea, that the Jews represented such an eschatological danger to the world that they must be eradicated.

I probably haven't stated this especially well, and it is most likely necessary to provide references to back up this thesis, but I think, by and large, that it's sound.

Posted by Ideofact at March 24, 2004 09:42 PM

I think you're exactly right about Hitler, eschatology & the Holocaust. In Michael Burleigh's The Third Reich he discusses the historiographical tradition stretching back to Eric Voegelin (who fled Germany in '38 & taught at LSU) of Political Religions. As Burleigh states (p.13) [Nazism was] "politics as a biological mission, but conceived in a religious way."

Posted by: Matt at March 26, 2004 09:20 PM