Thursday, December 3, 2015

Still trying to understand WWI

by Richard Koenigsberg

I. Aztec warfare: feeding the sun god

In our conventional thinking, warfare occurs when one group of people attacks another group of people. We imagine that this attack is occasioned by the perception of a threat to one’s own group, by a desire to conquer or plunder the other group, or to obtain revenge for past injustices. In any case, people believe that warfare constitutes a condition or state-of-being characterized by human beings performing acts that are "aggressive."

I propose to reconceptualize the nature and meaning of warfare. Aztec warfare provides a beginning case study. Aztec warfare did revolve around conquest and plunder, but more fundamentally, its purpose was to capture warriors from the opposing city-state—in order to sacrifice them.

When the Aztecs waged war, they did not try to kill their adversaries. Rather, they captured soldiers and brought them back home to the sacrificial block at the top of a pyramid—where priests cut open their chests, extracted their hearts and offered the warrior’s heart to the sun god.

According to historian Alfredo Lopez Austin (1988), as long as men could offer the blood and hearts of captives taken in combat, the "power of the sun god would not decline"—he would "continue on his course above the earth." To keep the sun moving in its course so that "darkness should not overwhelm the world forever," anthropologist Jacques Soustelle explains(2002) that it was necessary to "feed it every day with its food"—the "precious water," that is, with human blood.

Unlike the Aztecs, we in the West imagine that wars are fought for "real" reasons or purposes. We understand the death or maiming of soldiers in battle as the by-product that occurs as societies seek to attain practical or political objectives. We do not claim that warfare’s purpose is to produce sacrificial victims, although the result of every war is a multitude of dead soldiers.

II. Sacrifice for gods called France, Germany and Great Britain

In the course of the First World War (1914-1918) approximately 9 million men were killed, 21 million injured, and 8 million captured or reported missing. This war was one of the greatest instances of mass slaughter in the history of the human race. The death toll for one five-month period in 1916—during which the Battles of the Somme Verdun took place—was almost a million men. This represented more than 6,600 men killed every day: 277 every hour, or nearly five each minute.

World War I is famous for the strange way in which battles were fought. Men were asked by the leaders of their nations to get out of trenches and to advance toward the enemy line, where they were met with and torn apart by artillery shells and machine gun fire. In spite of the futility of this strategy, it was never abandoned. The result: four years of perpetual slaughter.

What was going on? Why were leaders willing to continue to push men into battle—and why did young men continue to fight—knowing there was a high probability that they would be killed and a low probability that anything would be accomplished?

We're dealing with something extraordinary. Historians to this day despair when they attempt to explain the monumental carnage. Joanna Bourke in Dismembering the Male (1996) states that during the First World War the male body was "intended to be mutilated." How can we comprehend an event—created by human beings—whose primary product was death and the maiming of men’s bodies?

When war was declared in 1914, excited crowds celebrated in every major city. One million volunteers joined the British army during the first year. War Office recruiting stands were inundated with men persuaded of their duty to fight. The soldiers were cheered on as they rushed off to battle.

The First World War cannot be understood apart from peoples’ attachment to entities called "countries." Leaders, combatants and populaces alike believed that they were acting to defend and preserve their nations. A monumental orgy of destruction was undertaken and justified in the name of regenerating gods called "France”, "Germany”, and "Great Britain”.

Perhaps the Aztec case throws light upon the First World War. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George described the war as a "perpetual, driving force" that "shoveled warm human hearts and bodies by the millions into the furnace."

III. The individual must die so the nation might live

In the midst of the First World War, nationalist writer Maurice Barrès praised French soldiers (in The Faith of France,1918) who were dying on a daily basis:

Oh you young men whose value is so much greater than ours! They love life, but even were they dead, France will be rebuilt from their souls. The sublime sun of youth sinks into the sea and becomes the dawn which will hereafter rise again.

Soustelle notes that the Aztecs believed that the warrior who died in battle or upon the stone of sacrifice "brought the sun to life" and became a "companion of the sun." The rising sun was the "reincarnation of a dead warrior."

Barrès declared that French soldiers—the "sublime sun of youth"—would sink into the sea to become the dawn that would "rise again." Just as the Aztecs believed that the bodies and blood of sacrificed warriors kept the sun god alive, so Barrès believed that the French nation would be regenerated based on the bodies and souls of dead soldiers.

According to historian Burr Brundage (1986), Aztec warriors who died or were cremated on the field of battle "spilled their blood on the bosom of mother earth" and then in flames ascended to "enter the sun god’s entourage." Commenting on the First World War in 1915, P. H. Pearse, founder of the Irish Revolutionary movement, gushed that the previous 16 months had been the "most glorious in the history of Europe." The earth, he said, needed to be "warmed with the red wine of the battlefields." He described the carnage as an offering to God: millions of lives "given gladly for love of country."

The First World War was undertaken, justified and perpetuated in the name of countries. The assumption seems to have been that the "lives" of nations were more significant than the lives of human beings. Germany, France and Great Britain were fed with the bodies and blood of soldiers—sacrificial victims—in order to keep these entities alive.

"The individual must die so that the nation might live" has been uttered throughout the history of modern warfare. But what does this proposition mean? The First World War represented an extraordinary enactment of this idea or fantasy: the nation was imagined to come alive insofar as it was fed with the bodies and blood of sacrificed soldiers. Warfare represented the enactment of a fantasy of death and resurrection.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Was WWII Japan Fascist?

By Walter Skya

What was the ideology that mobilized the Japanese masses to fight to the death—and inspired the elite to wage war in Asia and the Pacific? Writings on Japanese history have referred to it by a number of names such as “Japanism,” “State Shintō,” “ultranationalism,” “emperor-system fascism,” but most often just plain “militarism”—which of course tells one nothing about the ideology.

The question of Japanese ideology has generated debate among scholars since the end of the Second World War. One reason for the lack of clarity is the fact that there was no single individual or group of individuals who came to power on a specific date—such as Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party in 1922, or Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Worker’s Party in 1933. Further, one cannot point to a single piece of writing such as Mein Kampf that served as an authoritative text.

The central debate has revolved around the question: was Japan fascist or not? Some scholars argued that the Japanese case was so different from Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany that it could not be characterized as “fascist”. This view dominated the discussion for several decades. Scholars Daniel Okimoto and Peter Duus, for example, in “Fascism and the History of Pre-War Japan: The Failure of a Concept” (1979) argued that comparing prewar Japan to German Nazism and Italian Fascism was misguided.

Other scholars disagreed. Maruyama Masao, Japan’s leading postwar political scientist, argued that Japan’s prewar ideology was “fascism from above,” emphasizing that Japan’s ultranationalistic bureaucratic elites engineered Japan’s slide into World War II. Harvard’s Andrew Gordon found enough similarities among Italian Fascism, Nazism, and prewar Japan to conclude that “fascism” was a useful concept to describe the prewar Japanese ideological-political system.

In short, in the early decades after the postwar period, the majority of Japanese historians held the opinion that prewar Japan was different from European fascism, and that the parallel was a misleading one. Recently, the scales have shifted. In The Culture of Japanese Fascism (Tansman, 2009), Marilyn Ivy observes that the consensus that the term fascism was not applicable to Japan has been broken. In Japan in the Fascism Era (Reynolds, 2004), Joseph Sottile shifted the debate by looking at prewar Italy, Germany, and Japan within a broader framework of “Axis Powers” studies.

Curiously, there has been almost no analysis of the influence of prewar Japanese thinkers on Italian Fascists and German Nazis—despite the fact that arguably Japanese thinkers had a much more profound effect on both Italian Fascists and German Nazis than either had on Japan. A close examination of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf shows that Japan was very much on Hitler’s mind in the early 1920s. He referred to Japan numerous times and praised the Japanese for making right choices in history. In 1936, he recognized the Japanese as “honorary Aryans.”

Heinrich Himmler was another admirer of Japan and the Japanese. In 1937, he wrote the forward to the book Die Samurai: Ritter Des Reiches in Ehre und Treue (The Samurai: Knights of the Empire in Honor and Loyalty) by Heinz Corazza. Although Corazza was not a member of the SS, the book was written primarily for SS troops. The focus on Japanese samurai (or bushi) loyalty mirrored the ideology of Himmler’s SS. The SS are identified with the Japanese samurai—glorification of the Japanese! Accordingly, the moral authority and leadership of the samurai in Japanese society became simultaneously the expression of the role of the SS in German society.

Giovanni Gentile, the great Italian philosopher, dreamt that the immortal spirit of Rome would be reborn in Fascism. Gentile pointed to Japan as another model for his Fascist dream, stating that the Japanese spirit lived on in “immortal unification of the living and the dead.” Gentile was in awe of Japan.

In Japan in the Fascist Era, Klaus Antoni observes that German admiration for Japanese ideology can be seen in a report compiled by the SS from 1938 to 1945 (Meldungen aus dem Reich, Reports from the Reich). In one report (August 6, 1942), the SS authors seek to understand the reasons for Japan’s astonishing power—entering the war against the West in alliance with Germany despite fighting a war in China for many years.The report revealed a German inferiority complex—in face of the Japanese willingness to sacrifice the self. The Japanese appeared to be “Teutons squared.” There was even fear that the “Japanese power might one day turn against us.”

Considering the massive influence of Japan on German Nazism and Italian Fascism, one wonders why American scholars have been so keen to equate prewar Japan with European fascism. Why not think of Fascism and Nazism as local manifestations of Japan’s wartime ideology? So—what was the nature of the Japanese ideology that awed both the Italian Fascists and German Nazis, and that prompted Fujiwara Chikao to proclaim that Japan was the ideological leader of the Axis Alliance powers? 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Rescuing the Nation from Death

by Richard Koenigsberg

“There is a profound connection between the idea of one’s nation and the idea of an enemy. The enemy is the Siamese twin of one’s nation—what must be destroyed if one’s nation is to survive. Nationalism revolves around rescuing one’s nation—saving the country from death. The enemy is the source of death. For Hitler and the Nazis, Jews were the enemy par excellence.”

Writing about the Final Solution, Hannah Arendt explained that anti-Semitism “explains everything and therefore nothing.” To say Hitler and the Nazis hated and wanted to eliminate the Jews because they were anti-Semitic is equivalent to saying, “Hitler and the Nazis hated and wanted to eliminate the Jews because they hated and wanted to eliminate the Jews.” Recalling freshman philosophy, I believe this is what is called a tautology.

The question is: what did anti-Semitism mean to people like Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels? Why did the idea of “the Jew” arouse such a passionate, hysterical response? Why did Nazi leaders—and many other Germans—feel it was necessary to destroy or eliminate the Jews, conceiving of the Final Solution as a moral imperative?

Hitler said, “We may be inhumane, but if we rescue Germany, we have performed the greatest deed in the world.” Hitler’s ideology grew out of a rescue fantasy. He wanted to “save the nation.” This is not an unusual motive. Much of politics grows out of this idea that one must act to “save” one’s nation—from external and internal enemies.

Indeed, this motive—the desire to “save one’s nation”—is so ordinary that we barely reflect upon it. What is it that individuals wish to save? What is the nature and meaning of these threats to one’s nation—that often evoke such radical, violent forms of action?

There is a profound connection between the idea of one’s nation and the idea of an enemy. The enemy is the Siamese twin of one’s nation, that which must be destroyed if one’s nation is to survive. Nationalism revolves around rescuing one’s nation—saving the country from death. The enemy is the source of death. For Hitler and the Nazis, Jews were the enemy par excellence.

In a previous essay, I hypothesized that “identification with one’s country” is equivalent to equating one’s actual body with a body politic. This is why threats to one’s nation evoke such passion. The idea of an attack upon the nation is experienced as if an attack upon the self—upon one’s own body.

Thus, “national defense” can be understood as a form of paranoia. The enemy is imagined to be violating the boundaries of one’s body. Likewise, the struggle against “internal enemies” (foreign “cells”) may be experienced as if a “disease within the body of one’s people.” In either case, the enemy is experienced as a threat to one’s body.

Hitler identified deeply with the Germany body politic: “Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler,” as Rudolf Hess put it. Hitler experienced threats to Germany as a threat to his body. Politics was deeply personal for Hitler. There was little separation between the ideology he put forth and his experience as a human being.

When he spoke to the German people, he conveyed this experience—through words and gestures. It’s not as if Hitler invented his ideology for an ulterior purpose. His ideology grew out of his bodily experience. Hitler transformed his deeply emotional experience into an ideology and plan of action.

Hitler understood Jews in terms of a force of disintegration that threatened to destroy the German body politic. He called the Jew a “ferment of decomposition among peoples,” the “demon of disintegration,” symbol of the “unceasing destruction” of a people’s life. As he rose to power, Hitler believed the German nation was in the midst of a “process of dissolution.”

Hitler called communists the “international disintegrators of a people.” Jews “destroyed the state organization.” Bolshevism sought to “tear the world asunder.” Democracy acted continually to “disintegrate the European states.” Hitler looked out into the world, and saw the “increasingly rapid falling to pieces of the organic structure of the nation.”

Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not separate from his attachment to Germany. His response to the Jews was based on his belief that they were acting to bring about Germany’s demise. What did Hitler’s life amount to, after all the history books have been written? His struggle to “save Germany from death” by destroying Jews.

Hitler declared that Germany would not capitulate: he would act to prevent the “threatening dissolution” of Germany’s political life in order to ban the “spread of the process of disintegration.” It was necessary to establish a “clear separation” between the two races. A new body politic would be formed that could overcome the “ferments of decomposition.”

The Final Solution grew out of Hitler’s experience of German disintegration. Because he identified so deeply with his nation, he experienced threats to Germany as a threat to his body. Hitler imagined that if Germany disintegrated, he would too.

The Final Solution revolved around removing the “force of disintegration” from within Germany, Europe and the world. Hitler’s ideology was rooted in paranoia, or hysteria. “The Jew” was experienced by Hitler as a painful entity within his body. There was no separation between Hitler’s inner world and the policies he enacted.

When it comes to Hitler, there are no secrets: what he said was what he was. This is why the German people loved him. He embraced German nationalism hook, line and sinker. When he spoke, he spoke for the German people.

The Jew was the cause of Germany’s pain, and therefore had to be removed from the body politic. Germany’s suffering was Hitler’s suffering. He experienced the pain of the German people (the Jew) within his own body.

The Final Solution was undertaken to “save the nation” by removing the force of disintegration operating within the body politic. When thinking about eliminating the Jews, Hitler said, it was necessary to “act radically.” When one pulls out a tooth, one does it with a “single tug,” and the pain goes away quickly. In order to eliminate the malady, the Jew had to “clear out of Europe.”

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