Soldiers as Sacrificial Victims
In the Second World War, German soldiers were asked to sacrifice their lives
for their nation. As the attack against Russia began, General von Rundstedt
admonished the soldiers to emulate the examples of their brothers in the
First World War and "to die in the same way, to be as strong, unswerving and
obedient, to go happily and as a matter of course to his death." As war on
the Eastern Front progressed, Goebbels was satisfied to note that German
soldiers "go into battle with devotion, like congregations going into
service." With rare exceptions, they did not rebel against their duty to
fight and die. German soldiers went like sheep to the slaughter.
The following passages--excerpted from letters depicting unimaginable horror
and suffering--sound familiar: "We were crowded together like sardines in
the cattle car. There were moans, groans, and whimpers in that car; the
smell of pus, urine, and it was cold. We lay on straw. The train waited for
hours." "Food was our most difficult problem. Our eyes gleamed, like the
eyes of famished wolves. Our stomachs were empty and the horizon was devoid
of any hope."
"We stood in interminable lines, to receive a cup of hot water infused with
a minute portion of tea. We had too much food in order to die, but too
little in order to live." "The inability to bathe led to incredibly filthy
conditions, which inevitably resulted in a plague of lice. We felt like
livestock rather than human beings." "There is only anxiety, fear, and
terror, a life without return along with terror without an end." "The heart
is overwhelmed at the unbearable thought that the smell of dead bodies is
the beginning and end and ultimate sense and purpose of our being."
To read Richard Koenigsberg's papers listed below,
PLEASE CLICK HERE <http://home.earthlink.net/~libraryofsocialscience/
* AS THE SOLDIER DIES, SO DOES THE NATION COME ALIVE: The Sacrificial
Meaning of Warfare
* DYING FOR ONE'S COUNTRY: The Logic of War and Genocide
* THE LOGIC OF THE HOLOCAUST: Why the Nazi's Killed the Jews
* THE SACRIFICIAL MEANING OF THE HOLOCAUST
Although these passages sound like descriptions of the camp experience
written by Jews, they are letters to family members and friends written by
German soldiers fighting in Russia--freezing, starving, wounded and dying in
places like Stalingrad. Both Jews and German soldiers were required to
suffer and to die as a result of actions initiated by Hitler and other
German leaders--to become sacrificial victims of the nation-state.
Hitler witnessed the deaths of hundreds of his comrades during the First
World War--yet did not rebel nor become disillusioned. "When in the long war
years Death snatched so many a dear comrade and friend from our ranks,"
Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, "It would have seemed to me almost a sin to
complain. After all, were they not dying for Germany?" When he became
national leader, Hitler had no qualms about sending millions of German
soldiers into battle. If the German leadership had been willing to send
young men like him to fight and die in the First World War, why should he
hesitate to do the same in the Second World War?
Indeed, historian Omer Bartov theorizes that the Holocaust grew out of the
First World War. The concept of mass killing by states, Bartov suggests, as
well as the technological & administrative means for organizing such vast
operations, were "lifted directly from the realities of 1914-18." The death
camps, he says, were "architecturally & organizationally modeled on the
experience of the Great War," incorporating "all the attributes of a
military environment," such as uniforms and barbed wire, military
discipline, barracks, watch towers and roll calls, hierarchy and order,
drill and commands.
Contemplating the fate of the German soldier throughout both wars, Hitler
and other Nazis were confronted with a paradox: If society has the right,
indeed, often the obligation to send its best citizens to die, why should
"inferior" types of persons be spared such a fate? Dr. Pfannmuller, a major
figure in the euthanasia movement, said that the idea was unbearable to him
that "the best, the flower of our youth must lose its life at the front in
order that feeble-minded and irresponsible asocial elements can have a
secure existence in the asylum." In a docudrama based on transcripts of the
Wanshee Conference--where Nazi leaders planned the Final Solution--an
official says: "Will the Jews be in luxury in warm concentration camps while
our soldiers freeze on the Eastern Front?"
As the Einsatzgruppen murdered millions of Jews in late 1941 and early 1942
east of the Soviet border, Hitler professed to be undisturbed by the
extermination of men, women and children: "If I don't mind sending the pick
of the German people into the hell of war without regret for the shedding of
valuable Germany blood," he said, "then I have naturally the right to
destroy millions of men of inferior races who increase like vermin." If he
as national leader didn't mind sending the best Germans--young, healthy
soldiers--to die, Hitler reasoned, why should he have compunctions about
sending Jews--inferior people and mortal enemies of Germany--to their
In his study of the First World War, Denis Winter writes about the railway
lines and cattle trucks that transported German soldiers to the Western
front. He notes that after a stint at the base, "railway took the men toward
the front line." He observes that to a generation with memories of railway
lines running into Hitler's death camps, tense faces peering from cattle
trucks, there is "something disconcerting" about the imagery of the
soldiers' journey from the base camp to the front." Like Jews who were
transported to the death camps, soldiers went in "wagons of the same type,
forty of them in each wagon, kit hanging from hoods in the roof." For both
generations of travelers in these cattle trucks, Winter concludes, "death
was a high probability."
Up to now, we have been unwilling to make this "disconcerting" connection
between the trains that sent Jews to death camps during the Second World War
and those that took soldiers to trenches in the First World War. We wish to
distinguish between genocide and war. We like to imagine that at least in
the First World War, the soldiers had a "fighting chance" to survive.
However, we may note at least what the two cases had in common: The leaders
of Germany--in both the Holocaust and the First World War--willfully
transported human beings from the center to the periphery--physical
locations where they were slaughtered in massive numbers.
A sign at the entrance to Auschwitz read, "I bid you welcome. This is not a
holiday resort but a labor camp. Just as our soldiers risk their lives at
the front to gain victory for the Third Reich, you will have to work for the
welfare of a new Europe." If German soldiers were required to submit, suffer
and to sacrifice their lives for the nation-state, so Jews would be required
to submit, suffer and to sacrifice their lives.
Primo Levi notes that in many of its painful and absurd aspects the
concentration camp world was "only a version, an adaptation of German
military procedure," the army of prisoners an "inglorious copy of the army
proper or, more accurately, its caricature." Another scholar observes that,
"Dressed in rags, the slaves had to march at parade step and with a martial
air when going off to work; while other slaves played military marches.
Crippled by disease, their feet running with sores, the prisoners were
forced to make their beds with geometric precision."
The Nazis glorified surrender to the nation-state and extolled the soldier's
death as the apotheosis of noble submission with words such as "honor" and
"glory." A Jew's death in a concentration camp, by contrast, cannot be
conceived as honorable and glorious. The Holocaust depicts submission to
society as abject degradation. The death camps allow us to perceive the
ugliness and brutality of sacrifice for the nation-state. Here, "dying for
Germany" is stripped of words such as honor and glory.
During the early years of Hitler's rule, Jews had been cast off from the
German body politic. The Nazis declared Jews to be selfish individualists
and therefore unfit to participate in the life of the community. In the
Final Solution, Jews are brought back into the fold. As German soldiers and
civilians were compelled to suffer and die in the war that Hitler initiated,
so Jews would be forced to suffer and die with them. In the end, Jews
rejoined the German people--sacrificial lambs on the altar of the
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