Explain and evaluate Bauman’s thesis on the Holocaust and modernity

feb 20 2020

Abstract: Zygmunt Bauman and his work Modernity and the Holocaust have argued that sophisticated and intelligent preparation and execution was required for the Holocaust to function. Historical media as well as popular culture have more often than not portrayed the Nazi Germany and Hitler's regime as barbaric and those that followed Adolf Hitler nothing more than beasts. This essay with the support of Modernity and the Holocaust by Bauman argues that it takes more than beasts to perform a genocide on this grand scale.
Key words: Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman, WW II, systematic elimination, intelligence required for the existence of the Holocaust


The Holocaust, the genocide on the people that Hitler’s Nazi Germany deemed inferior – the Jewish, the Slavs, non-heterosexuals, the Roma people and others was one of the worst catastrophes of the 20th century; this all marks an event when one totalitarian government marked several million people as an obstacle to accomplishing their better future. In this fight for a better society more than 10 million people have died. Most of them did not die as human beings either, but were instead massacred as the lowest possible form of life. This is not something that have occurred during the Dark Ages, thousand and some years ago, but in the 20th century, during the time of cars, scientific discoveries and an otherwise boom of science and everyday life, the age of modernity. And it is modernity itself that is the groundwork in the sociological analysis of the Holocaust by Zygmunt Bauman. He does not use any statistics in his work, the number of the people that have died or those that have done the killings, he instead focused on trying to analyse the mechanisms and factors that influenced this event. His book Modernity and the Holocaust is still considered to be one of the most complete sociological attempts at understanding the Holocaust. Its main goal isn’t to answer the questions of who is responsible and why it happened, but to describe the structures and factors that even allowed for such an event to exist. It is not a historical study but a sociological analysis of this phenomenon. Bauman concerned himself with the fact why was the Holocaust considered to be an everyday occurrence in Nazi Germany; instead of describing it thoroughly.

The study was first published in the year 1989 and since then, thanks to Bauman’s style of writing and its focus on modernity it have become a target of critique by not only sociologists but philosophers and historians as well. Some have reservations against the entire book, others just against some specific parts. The goal of this essay is to describe the criticism of Bauman’s approach and its arguments together with an original interpretation of Bauman’s analysis of the Holocaust and modernity. This essay will also include other works that are not directly connected to Bauman’s theory but their authors have come to different conclusions than Zygmunt Bauman and their findings serve as arguments for those that criticise Bauman’s work.
The first part will describe the study itself – Modernity and the Holocaust and Bauman’s understanding of the Holocaust. This part will also explain the radicalisation of antisemitism and its transformation into the ideology of racism as well as morality and its function. Further mentioning the rationalization of the Holocaust and how it wasn’t a manifestation of violence in the form of murder – something that is impulsive but a very well thought out plan that had to be prepared and performed perfectly, as there were many clerks, intellectuals that categorized the entire event. This part will also mention Raul Hilberg, whose work served as an inspiration for Bauman when making the point that the soldiers performing the executions weren’t anything “special” or abnormal within the German society, just regular members of either the police or the army.

The second part is going to consist of the criticism of Bauman’s theory, describing modernity in greater detail, bureaucracy and instrumental rationality as well as the critiques of Paul Du Gay, Arne Johan Vetlesen, Ian Varcoe and Yehuda Bauer. As well as explaining the idea of antisemitism and how it was constructed in order to help the general public with the acceptance of the Holocaust. As well describing the criticism of Bauman’s theory on antisemitism by showcasing the work of Daniel Goldhagen.

Finally, this essay will conclude with a brief summary and the acceptance of Bauman’s thesis for what it is – an analysis of a phenomenon that can be studied under different methods each time, either within the confines of Sociology or be it any other science.

1 Modernity and the Holocaust

Bauman’s book can be divided into several parts. In the first part, Bauman is trying to map out the contemporary status of sociology and its attitude towards the Holocaust and how it is trying to understand this phenomenon. The second and most important part consists of an analysis of the Holocaust with its focus being put on the role of modernity, the individuals that helped make it happen, the usage of rationality and emotional distance. In its last part, Bauman uses the morality in its sociological aspect, i.e. he proposes a new theory of morality based upon the experiences drawn from the Holocaust. This essay will focus not just on the last part, the one that deals with morality, but with the second part as well; which is the one where the core of his study lies and within it Bauman is trying to accomplish a complete sociological analysis of the Holocaust and the mechanisms that accompanied it.

The Holocaust serves as an example of fail safes and obstacles that are supposed to protect any given society before violence and are actively trying to constrain the power of the state and its institution. It used several modern approaches and tools that were supposed to serve society and them itself were supposed to be an obstacle against misusing the power of the state against its citizens. This is one factor that is distinguishing the Holocaust from other genocides. Mass murder has distanced itself from being spontaneous and had become much more rationally oriented and it was being carried out according to a specific and established plan. Therefore, according to Bauman, categorized murder has become the result of a process involving in the creation of communities; a utopian process which had the betterment of a specific society in mind as its primary goal. During this process are parts of the population classified as “unwanted/unnecessary” for whom there is no place amongst the new “better” order and in fact, their actual existence is what is stopping this new order to happen. According to Bauman, categorized murder is a type of destruction that was understood as both cleansing and productive. Therefore, elimination was the same as creating something new; and in this case it was the creation of a better stronger society. As such a part of the population had to be marked as a tumour that needs to be excised, isolated and put somewhere outside where it can no longer infect the strong host. This mind-set is what later allowed the liquidation of said tumour, physical liquidation with the intent of creating something better. (Bauman, 1989: 27)

Such feelings and thoughts were spread by the Nazi propaganda in order to demonize their victims and ease the minds of everyday people who have noticed that something wrong is going on in their own backyard. These deliberations had been connected with societies for some time, they were closely connected with the skills of management and bureaucratic institutions whose goals was the instrumentalization of behaviour which allowed those that were being controlled to effectively carry out whatever goal was set by the ruling authority. Therefore most of the work-force could have been in absolute obedience without questioning anything. (Bauman, 1989: 144-145)

The Holocaust was not an irrational outburst or some abnormal detour, neither it was a culmination of tendencies before modernity – it was a modern process, which was not in conflict with modern criteria of rationality and effectiveness. However, simply due to the fact that the Holocaust is considered as a part of modernity, it does not automatically mean that modernity is the Holocaust. Baumaun makes a point that it is a by-product of modern tendencies to plan and to control. The Holocaust would probably have not happened without modernity – but again, this does not automatically mean that modernity would sooner or later create something similar to the Holocaust where modernity has shown itself in its worst manifestation. (Neville, 1999)

The plurality of the world we live in more often than not protects society against a phenomenon of this type. It is only after gaining absolute power which is stronger than plurality itself is it possible to realize such terrifying ambitions. The difference of the Holocaust consists of the combination of basic characteristics of modernity which in any other way would function separately. The combination of certain effects, which belong to the concept of modernity and their transformation into the tools of the Holocaust is what is abnormal in this instance, not the characteristics, neither the tools themselves. As such the Holocaust helped reveal tendencies of a modern society which are under different circumstances hidden and which during the Nazi regime allowed the misuse of normal social mechanisms that are based on rational behaviour against millions of people and their lives. Our society therefore underestimated the potential of modern civilization where it assumed that scientific discovery and rationalism automatically guarantee morality and humane treatment. (Bauman, 1989: 46)

Modernity is the core motive of Bauman’s analysis of the Holocaust and he considers it to be one of the main conditions of the Holocaust, which utilized rationality and effectivity in enabling the German Nazis to plan and realize their vision of a “better” world. One of the main criticisms of his work is that modernity itself, even though considered to be the core motive, is not devoted to enough time in Modernity and the Holocaust. To Bauman, modernity is more the mould in which he is performing his study. As such, he is writing about it most of the time, be it in the form of instrumental rationality and depersonalization of German bureaucracy or in the change of the social position of the German Hebrew population. Modernity therefore acts as one big bowl that is holding Bauman’s analysis together.

Bauman uses the description of normal when he is writing about the Holocaust. In this context the term normal refers to the mechanisms and actions that were used/taken to make the Holocaust happen – they were nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, these were actions and types of behaviour that exist in everyday life even today and they are considered completely fine. And one of these normal approaches had been the bureaucracy, which allowed the Nazis to use regular methods instead of violence; methods that were a part of everyday life. These methods have also proved to be the most effective when carrying out “the final solution”.

One of the main inspirations for Bauman was without a doubt the work of the historian Raul Hilberg, whom he also referenced quite a lot, for example when dealing with the topic of those responsible for the genocide. This is where Bauman bases his idea that the perpetrator was a regular German, be it a member of the police or the army who was just simply there. A every important factor when it came to the loyalty of those that carried out these horrid things was the organized discipline, which was required from those involved; complete obedience and the fulfilment of orders without looking at other factors and effects. Basically ignoring the consequences and implications of their actions – transferring their moral responsibility upon their superiors, who transferred it further up the chain of command. This created a chain of moral ambiguity or a lack thereof. Such discipline put the loyalty to the organization as the most important thing that could be accomplished and lead to the personal identification of an individual with the organization, suppressing any personal identity.

Instrumental rationality was also encouraged within the victims as well. Which is curious, since by definition, within a genocide it is impossible to have the victims cooperate. Mass murder instils fear, shock and resentment. When it came to the Holocaust it was much simpler to use rationality with the victims instead of their cooperation. Making false promises, providing safety for those who helped with the process only to in turn have them murdered as well. When fulfilling their orders, the Nazis were committing these atrocities in smaller segments, instead of doing them en masse so as not to cause panic, rage and a possible revolt amongst the population targeted for extermination. Another example of the rationalization during the Holocaust.

For Bauman antisemitism wasn’t an adequate explanation as for what is the main motive behind the Holocaust – he rather supports the idea that it needs to be connected with more important factors. This idea is prevalent throughout the entire book. At the same time it is one of the main criticisms from historians of antisemitism and the Holocaust against Bauman, according to whom Bauman disregarded the importance of antisemitism. When describing and interpreting the hatred against the Hebrew population, Bauman is more concerned with allosemitism rather than antisemitism. According to which, the opinion concerning the Hebrew population, whether it be positive or negative, is not based upon the fact that they are Jewish, but on the simple reality that they are different from other unrelated ethnic groups and nations. Which is Bauman’s transformation of antisemitism into the contemporary description of racism.

2 Criticism

As stated in the introduction, the criticism towards Bauman and his work is quite limited. The most critical dissection of Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust is in the form of Evil and Human Agency (2005) by Arne Johan Vetlesen. Besides Vetlesen, Paul du Gay and Yehuda Bauer also both criticised Bauman’s work.

When it comes to the topic of modernity of Zygmunt Bauman, there is not much criticism involved – the critics take that modernity into account when discussing the modern nature of German bureaucracy. However, Yehuda Bauer does criticize Bauman’s use of modernity in his work Rethinking the Holocaust where he is questioning Bauman’s claim that the Holocaust was a specific genocide which was made possible through the combination of ideology and modernity by a totalitarian government. Bauer uses the examples of Great Britain and the USA which he does not consider to be less modern countries than Germany, at that time. Which is the basis for Bauer’s claim that when looking for the cause of the Holocaust, one must look further than just into the definition of modernity. In his book, Bauer also used the example of fascist Italy and the WW II Japan as proof that neither countries tried to eradicate their Hebrew population. According to Bauer, they were missing the “idealistic” impulse against the Jewish that the Nazi Germany possessed. (Bauer, 2002) The need for an idealistic impulse is something that Bauer finds lacking within Bauman’s study of the Holocaust.

A similar idea regarding modernity is presented by Hans Joas, who mentions England as a classical example of modernization. Joas is questioning whether England survived the process of creating a huge modern apparatus or was it spared thanks to its economic and geographical situation. Joas is proposing the idea that there might exist several types of modernity – which are less state-centric and more oriented on the rights to rule of its citizens. Based upon the idea of Joas, it can be assumed that Bauman’s understanding of modernity cannot be compared to the transformation of Great Britain and the USA. According to Joas, Bauman is being loyal to his origins and his analysis which is most applicable to continental Europe. (Joas, 1996)

These arguments are similar to the conclusions of the German theory Sonderweg, according to which Germany followed a different path of national development than the rest of Europe. The theory builds primarily on the late unification of Germany as well as the late process of creating a modern nation. As an important factor within the theory is the history of failed revolutions which is trying to explain the decline of liberalism within the German nation. (Varcoe, 1998)

Du Gay analyzed Bauman’s theory by discussing Bauman’s work on bureaucracy within Moderniy and the Holocaust. Du Gay based his criticism on the ideas of Max Weber and right from the beginning he is trying for a more specific interpretation. Du Gay claims that even though Bauman himself mentions the works of Max Weber, his final theory is Weber’s antithesis. Du Gay compares Bauman’s and Weber’s thoughts regarding rationality and makes a point that Weber’s understanding of formal bureaucratic rationality and ethics is based upon the callousness to specific moral values, but this callousness is based upon the thought of an existing reality of various different moral values. As such it is impossible to put forth one of these values because doing so might have unpredictable consequences. This concept of Weber – as opposed to Bauman’s; does not operate with an amoral and instrumental take of action, but with liberal and pluralistic understanding of responsibility which considers the consequences of putting more emphasis on one value over the other. (Gay, 1999)

As Du Gay claims, Bauman is describing and judging the moral tendency of bureaucracy as a whole – as opposed to Weber. Therefore Bauman’s conclusions, according to Du Gay make a “sterile” impression because they are ignoring historical and political circumstances which are having an effect on that already mentioned moral aspect of bureaucratic action. The simple existence of the bureaucratic process does not talk about the course which bureaucracy is heading towards or about its possible further evolution. Classifying bureaucracy into a specific historical and political context is one of the basic steps when trying to determine its next course of action. Du Gay portrays these differences between both theorists upon the conceptions of Weber on German bureaucracy during the First World War. Weber’s concerns about the way where it is heading were based upon reality, the fact that it came to illegal expansion of administrative culture into the sphere of high politics and most often than not, bureaucracy was acting beyond its legal borders. (Gay, 2000)

Bauman on the other hand did not cover the historical context of the Holocaust; and bureaucracy according to him failed because it was not cultivating the concept of taking action that is based upon a strong moral principle.

Arne Johan Vetlesen criticized Bauman’s theory of German bureaucracy as well, proposing several examples where Bauman’s theory is not applicable. He talks about the fact that many murderers that were organizing the killings also participated in the actual executions. In this case, the example are the officers of Einsatzgruppen – paramilitary units that were created before the invasion of USSR, their main goal was the preparation and subsequent elimination of Jews, Gypsies and any supporters of the Communist Party. (Earl, 2009) As such the Einsatzgruppen had offices in Berlin and also overseen, and participated in the massacres on the Eastern front. According to Vetlesen, Bauman’s theory of clerks that states there were people behind office desks who decided the fate of many people without having to feel direct responsibility loses its persuasiveness – since it can be historically proven that were instances where the opposite that Bauman claims had happened. Vetlesen believes that this is what pokes holes in Bauman’s work and lessens its importance as a whole. (Vetlesen, 2005: 43-44)

Besides the Einsatzgruppen, Vetlesen also uses the example of the pogrom at Jedwabne, a village in Poland which was massacred in July 1941 – the victims were neighbours of their killers and the massacre happened without any German instigation (Gross, 2001) Vetlesen is trying to prove that the killings of the Hebrew population was not committed solely by the German army and police as their set objective but it could and did happen without the use of necessary technologies, work division and distance. Jedwabne therefore does not fit Bauman’s theory on the Holocaust. (Vetlesen, 2005: 39-40) However, the question remains whether the mass killings of Jews outside the Holocaust is something that Bauman was trying to cover, or if he was solely concentrating on the mass extermination by Nazi Germany.

Vetlesen is trying to disprove the applicability of Bauman’s theory and his arguments, dissecting specific examples that are covered by Bauman in his study. Vetlesen’s goal therefore is to provide a proof of Bauman being wrong and in this endeavour he is approaching Bauman’s thesis as a universal theory that is trying to give explanation to anything that can be described as being a part of the Holocaust. The conclusion that can be made based upon this is that Vetlesen understands Bauman’s theory in a different way than what Bauman intended, who believes that the Holocaust would not take place had the German bureaucracy would have been absent.

Bauman’s analysis of antisemitism is not criticised as much as his aspect of bureaucracy and if anyone is being critical of it (such as Bauer) it is because it is considered to be too vague when Bauman is trying to just make it fit into the concept of modernity. Vetlesen analyzed Bauman’s take on antisemitism through the use of Goldhagen’s work. In his book Hitler’s willing executioners, Goldhagen proposes a one way analysis of the Holocaust in which he is acknowledging that there were many different factors involved, but when it comes to motivation behind regular Germans he considered the simple explanation as satisfactory. This simple explanation being the destructive aspect of German antisemitism. According to Goldhagen, there may have been several other motivations behind the German extermination of the Jewish population but one dominant motive was the antisemitism that was very prevalent. Even Bauman himself gives mention in Modernity and the Holocaust to Goldhagen’s work and its effect. The same way that the afore mentioned criticism, even Bauman himself criticized Goldhagen’s simple explanation of something so complicated as the moral collapse within Nazi Germany and Goldhagen’s reduction of a complicated modern dilemmas of an individual to a basic dichotomist decision. (Goldhagen, 1997)

Comparing Goldhagen and Bauman the observation can be made that each is covering a different aspect. Goldhagen is studying the German participation in killings from every possible aspect of persecution and discrimination, while Bauman is describing the power of the techno-instrumental logic of Nazi Germany that manifested itself in the day to day affairs of German extermination camps. Owing it to the nature of such an approach, which is based upon the instrumental rationality and effectivity the Nazi Germany evolved its effort of extermination from pogroms and the incentive to create hatred into a systematic and prepared extermination within the camps.

3 Conclusion

Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust is literally a modern analysis of the Holocaust. Bauman is describing the Holocaust as a modern phenomenon which was fuelled by extensive bureaucracy that used effectivity and instrumental rationality. A horrible series of events which put forward the goal beyond its applied methods.

Some critics have come to understand Bauman’s depiction of bureaucracy as his explanation as to why the Holocaust happened, which is not entirely correct. It is more one of the main tools which was used along with the vision of a better world and a political party that is suppressing any form of plurality, whether it would be political or social. It is plurality itself that enables the possibility of having an alternative, different opinions and helps distinguish between the right course of action and wrong. All of these aspects, however would not be useful without the application of modernity and its consequences, because modernity is the groundwork for many bureaucratic methods and instrumentally rational action. Typical of modernity is also the effort to establish a better order where everything is supposed to have its place and meaning.

The criticism of such an understanding of modernity within the Holocaust is aimed at trying to prove that Bauman’s modernity is not a universal theory. As the arguments of his critics are based around the examples of genocides and political bodies that do not fit Bauman’s thesis. Such criticism however is not the proof that Bauman’s theory was insufficient or conflicting, neither it serves as the proof of the inability of his critics. It is all an analysis of the phenomenon itself. The Holocaust took place in many places under various conditions and with the participation of thousands of people and institutions. Given the nature of this phenomenon it is impossible to create a universal theory which would explain all of its manifestations and differences. However, Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust cannot be perceived only as the analysis of the Holocaust, its scope and critical thinking is much more expanded. The book talks about a modern contemporary society, not just one horrible phenomenon which took place more than half a century ago. By describing the normality and modernity of the Holocaust, Bauman transferred it into current thinking, made something that is in the past contemporary and therefore possible.

Author: lt. MSc. BA Jan Janek


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