Genocide qualifies as a systematic object for social science: Zygmunt Bauman (1989)

Previous blog posts at the Preserved Stories website have addressed social history in the context of deindustrialization and documentary making.

I’ve also shared highlights from studies addressing history and social theory in the context of postmodernity and a return to narration. As well, I’ve shared information related to military history and the relation between instrumental reason and modernity.

The current post is concerned with modernity with a focus on ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Ethnic cleansing, genocide, and modernity

As noted in a previous post, Harald Welzer has argued, in Climate wars (2012, pp. 19-20), that ethnic cleansing and genocide are “not a deviation from the path of modernity but possibilities that first arose with the development of modern society.”

From such a point of view, he argues, “such cataclysms as the Holocaust should be understood not as a ‘breakdown of civilization’ (Dan Diner) or a ‘relapse into barbarism’ (Horkheimer and Adorno) but as a result of modern attempts to produce order and to solve perceived social problems” (p. 20).

Welzer notes, as well, that Zygmunt Bauman has argued that the Holocaust has, in Welzer’s words, “never become a systematic object for social science:  first, its perception as an event in Jewish history has defined it as a pathological, rather than normal, problem of modernity; and, second, it has been attributed to an unfortunate set of circumstances, which, though not so explosive in separation and usually tamed within the social order, came together disastrously in interwar Germany.

“If,  instead of reassuring themselves in this way, sociologists had methodologically studied the phenomenon, they would have discovered industrial mass extermination as a ‘test case’ for the latent potential of modernity, which provided new insight into its character and motive mechanisms” (p. 20).

[Updates: A March 1, 2013 New York Times article describes recent research regarding the extent of the Holocaust during the Second World War. The article notes that the number of ghettos, slave labor sites, concentration camps and killing factories that the Nazis set up throughout Europe was much higher than previous documentation had indicated. An Oct. 8, 2013 New York Times article highlights the role of women in the Third Reich. End of updates]

Characteristics of totalitarian societies

Welzer adds that Hannah Arendt “impressively incorporated modern institutions such as the concentration camp into the theory of society.

“In her account, the camps show that totalitarian societies and the dynamics of force create new realities, in which the actors in question can integrate particular rationalities that otherwise appear meaningless or deranged into comprehensive semantic systems. The standard instruments of social science, geared to rational models of behaviour, are not calibrated for the explanation of such systems” (p. 20).

Welzer notes that faced with such problems, “historians read meaning back into events that may not have been there for people living at the time. One reason for this is that social history takes its bearings from concepts of understanding used in the human sciences, which involves ’empathetic observation of an earlier state of culture’ and has ‘its roots in an idealistic, culturally optimistic, conception of history.’

“This kind of understanding proves ineffectual in relation to the criminal activities of modern totalitarian regimes, because the reality it has to deal with there is not understandable in any conventional sense” (pp. 20-21).


Image from Arsenal Lands west of Small Arms Building at Dixie Road and Lakeshore Road East. Jaan Pill photo

Image from Arsenal Lands west of Small Arms Building at Dixie Road and Lakeshore Road East. Jaan Pill photo

A May 7, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: ” ‘Forbidden Films’ Exhumes Nazi Poison From the Movie Vaults.”

The opening paragraphs read:

“The Third Reich was not only a totalitarian state but also a total multimedia regime. Seven decades after its fiery collapse, the embers remain — including some 1,200 feature films produced under Joseph Goebbels’s ministry of propaganda. Are they historical evidence, incitements to murder, fascist pornography, evergreen entertainments, toxic waste or passé kitsch? All of the above?

“Those questions are raised by ‘Forbidden Films: The Hidden Legacy of Nazi Film,’ a documentary essay by the German filmmaker Felix Moeller, opening May 13 at Film Forum for a weeklong, free-admission run.

“Mr. Moeller, born 20 years after Germany’s defeat, is concerned about what he sees as youthful disinterest in the Nazi period and the concurrent rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe. He arrived at “Forbidden Films,” he said by telephone from Berlin, after making ‘Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss,’ a documentary about the family legacy of Nazi Germany’s most celebrated director, Veit Harlan. Harlan’s most notorious film, “Jew Süss” (1940) — a period melodrama in which a Jewish moneylender connives to take control of the duchy of Württemberg — is as incontrovertibly anti-Semitic as it was enormously popular.”

[End of excerpt]

Also of relevance, regarding these topics, are the following posts:

Buddhist Warfare (2010) highlights connections between Buddhisms and violence

Christian Gerlach’s 2010 genocide-related study focuses on extremely violent societies


A Feb. 7, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “‘My family resisted the Nazis’: why director had to film Alone in Berlin.”

A study of relevance to the topics at hand is entitled: Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate (2009); a blurb reads:

“Remembering the Holocaust explains why the Holocaust has come to be considered the central event of the 20th century, and what this means. Presenting Jeffrey Alexander’s controversial essay that, in the words of Geoffrey Hartman, has already become a classic in the Holocaust literature, and following up with challenging and equally provocative responses to it, this book offers a sweeping historical reconstruction of the Jewish mass murder as it evolved in the popular imagination of Western peoples, as well as an examination of its consequences.

“[Jeffrey] Alexander’s inquiry points to a broad cultural transition that took place in Western societies after World War II: from confidence in moving past the most terrible of Nazi wartime atrocities to pessimism about the possibility for overcoming violence, ethnic conflict, and war. The Holocaust has become the central tragedy of modern times, an event which can no longer be overcome, but one that offers possibilities to extend its moral lessons beyond Jews to victims of other types of secular and religious strife. Following Alexander’s controversial thesis is a series of responses by distinguished scholars in the humanities and social sciences–Martin Jay, Bernhard Giesen, Michael Rothberg, Robert Manne, Nathan Glazer, and Elihu & Ruth Katz–considering the implications of the universal moral relevance of the Holocaust. A final response from Alexander in a postscript focusing on the repercussions of the Holocaust in Israel concludes this forthright and engaging discussion.

“Remembering the Holocaust is an all-too-rare debate on our conception of the Holocaust, how it has evolved over the years, and the profound effects it will have on the way we envision the future.”

[End of text]

A June 20, 2017 London School of Economics and Science article is entitled: “Book Review: The Holocaust: A New History by Laurence Rees.”


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