“[Werner Catel] called for the continuation of the Nazi program of involuntary euthanasia, saying, “…We are not talking about humans here, but rather beings that were merely procreated by humans and that will never themselves become humans endowed with reason or a soul.”
Introduction: History and its Lessons
Johann Chapoutot’s book The Law of Blood: Thinking and Acting as a Nazi is a horrific warning from history. It is a series of reminders about the lessons of history and the question of its relevance to our current political situation. History cannot dictate specific present actions nor provide explicit guidance for moving into the future. The present is not a direct replica of the past with minor updates, nor will the future perfectly fit some intricate plan built around a specific historical framework. Things do not repeat themselves with a few aesthetic changes. This, obviously, does not mean however that we cannot learn anything from our past. The past contains the seeds of the present, out of which our world has grown. Another way to look at history is to view it as the song of human experience, with the chords that bind us to those gone before reverberating in different ways up and down the generations. The act of writing history is the act of putting the words to the eternal melody. While the notes in the song of today are of course different to those played in the past, to pretend that they are the exactly the same or completely different is wrong. We are a community of souls that stretches across time, united with those who have gone before, who lived in times different in many ways but who possessed the same human nature that we ourselves possess. And they were equally open to the possibility for virtue and vice as we are.
As historian Arthur Herman said in a recent interview, history is “an exploration of humanity, of human nature through our actions in the past.” As such, when reading or thinking about history and the lessons it has for today, the emotion that seems most called for is humility: humility at what faced those who lived before us, dealing with the social, cultural, political, economic, and military circumstances in which they found themselves. As Herman also said, “it’s always difficult for us to remember that events that are in the past were once in the future.” We do not know how we would have reacted if we found ourselves in the situations our forebears found themselves in. We like to think that we would be morally upright and honorable in our choices and actions. In reality it is more likely that we’d go down the path to a very dark place. Too often in life, played out today and in history, we witness vice displace the virtue in the hearts of human beings. This is a discomfiting notion, one which we mostly choose to ignore.
Johnann Chapoutot’s book on the ideas that motivated the Nazis forces us to confront this part of ourselves and demonstrates in horrifying detail that ideas matter—that, as Richard Weaver memorably said, ideas have consequences. Ideas, in concert with a specific set of political, military, economic, and cultural circumstances gave rise to the horrors of the Nazi regime. When reading this book and accounts of those times, it is wise to bear in mind that these people were as human as we were. This is the shock of history: discovering that through reading and learning history, you converse with a reflection of yourself in the past, with someone who had the same nature you do with its potential for heroism or horror. Today, with our increasing focus on the politics of identity, history should teach us that the politics of blood led to catastrophe in the past. It is essential that we should not be rushing headlong into our version of those politics in our time. In this part, I’ll focus on Chapoutot’s book. In part two, I’ll delve deeper into the possible lessons from it for today.
The Nazis: Live. Fight. Rule.
Johann Chapoutot begins his book with a trial. The trial, in 1945, was of 18 physicians from Hamburg, who were all on the staff of the Rothenburgsort Pediatric Hospital. They were brought before the German criminal justice system at the request of the occupying British forces. They were charged with the murder, or being accessories to the murder of 56 disabled children between 1939-45. These children were euthanized by lethal injection.
The physicians were acquitted. Hospital director Dr. Wilhelm Bayer denied the charge of a “crime against humanity,” as “such a crime can only be committed against people, whereas the living creatures we were required to treat could not be qualified as human beings.” Werner Catel, professor of pediatrics, gave an interview to Die Welt in 1964. He had also been responsible for the murder of disabled children under the Nazis. He called for the continuation of the Nazi program of involuntary euthanasia, saying, “Don’t you see that when a jury makes a decision it is always judging human beings, even if they are criminals? We are not talking about humans here, but rather beings that were merely procreated by humans and that will never themselves become humans endowed with reason or a soul.”
Both saw their actions not as crimes but as acts of mercy, for the individual and society. While dismissed from his job, Bayer kept his medical license, which was renewed upon review in 1961. Blind justice, with its foundation of equality before the law couldn’t really be served: the Nazis murdered Lady Justice along with all the others they viewed as defective.
How does one approach something like the actions of the Nazis, with these only a tiny fraction of the whole? How does one even conceptualize what drove these people to commit the atrocities they did? Why did the doctrine of Nazism take hold in 1930’s Germany? Why did so many people support this barbaric regime? Where did the driving force for this ideology come from? What ideas were used to develop the ideology? These are the questions Chapoutot considers in The Law of Blood: Thinking and Acting as a Nazi. Through extensive use of the words of the Nazis themselves, Chapoutot gets inside the mindset of these people, and how they viewed the world. His driving motivation is to comprehend how they thought—and how this drove their actions in conjunction with the political and economic structural forces of the day. What emerges is a book that, while not entirely original in its final form, is still even more chilling than one would expect.
Despite Hitler’s hatred for intellectuals, the fact that the key Nazi thinkers that Chapoutot considers were often highly academically credentialed further demonstrates that the Nazi ideology was not the product of a few ill-educated cave-men. It also demonstrates that education is no barrier to evil.
For Chapoutot, it is not enough to dismiss the Nazi ideology as a shallow series of slogans designed to control the mindless, hateful masses. As Carl Trueman writes in his review, “Chapoutot presents Nazism as a vast, internally coherent and rhetorically compelling system of belief and behavior that was quite capable of adapting contemporary events to become part of its grand, self-justifying narrative.” The Nazi ideology had deep intellectual and philosophical roots. These roots had been developed and disseminated by philosophers and thinkers for years before the Nazis came on the scene. Many of the themes they used to bolster their ideological narrative had been swirling around the German cultural conversation for years. It was thus not such a stretch for many Germans to believe what the Nazis were saying or writing; they’d heard or read similar things for a long time before. Despite Hitler’s hatred for intellectuals, the fact that the key Nazi thinkers that Chapoutot considers were often highly academically credentialed further demonstrates that the Nazi ideology was not the product of a few ill-educated cave-men. It also demonstrates that education is no barrier to evil.
As Chapoutot lays out, there was a reverence, indeed a deification of nature at the heart of the Nazi ideology. For Nazi thinkers like Alfred Rosenberg, among others, the natural world was everything: there was nothing transcendent beyond it, only the pulsing vitality of organic life acting according to the divine law of nature. Nature was God; God was nature. As a result of this, human cultures were part of nature based in biology, in blood, and occupied a hierarchy. Jews were outside this hierarchy; they were bacteria. The schism between man and nature, the source of modern man’s alienation, was held to be a Jewish pathology, with the Christian worldview a cover for Jewish influence. Man was most at peace when he was in nature, moving in harmony with its rhythms as they sang in his blood. The purer the blood (the less racial mixing there was), the stronger and more vital the culture. The Nazi thinkers saw the German race, inevitably the most direct descendants of the Nordic Aryans, as a distinctly morally perfect race.
The Nazis viewed history as a battlefield. Civilizations fought and rose, fought and declined depending on how racially pure they remained, how close to their Aryan ancestors they were. The Roman Empire fell because the Romans became racially mixed, so they lost their vitality and thus their place in nature. This racial view of history pertained to the Germans themselves, who were held to have been in a constant state of race conflict going back to the wars with the Roman Empire.
The Jews, seen as a bastardized mixture of different races, were unable to connect with and hear the law of nature communicated through their impure blood. Thus, they needed the codified laws of their Bible to repress their vices and direct their actions.
For the Nazis, history was one long catalogue of efforts to suppress and even destroy the German race through military and religious conquest. The sediment of culture that had built up over millennia, with its Jewish-inflected Christian ethics that emphasized love, pity, and mercy, threatened to bury the wholesome German population beneath the crawling mass of “idiots, outcasts and cripples,” as the documentary Alles Leben ist Kampf argued. Chapoutot quotes Richard Eichenauer from a 1934 textbook twice reprinted, that, “For as long as man lived in strictly natural conditions, the same was true for him. Natural man is dominated by the laws of fertility … and selection.… It is so-called culture that overturned these realities.” The cultural dispensation had denatured men, particularly “the ethical culture, the morality of pity,” which had led to “a counter-selective preference for the weak.”
The Germanic people were the most in tune with nature and its law. But this was under threat, with only a little time to save the race. The Jews, seen as a bastardized mixture of different races, were unable to connect with and hear the law of nature communicated through their impure blood. Thus, they needed the codified laws of their Bible to repress their vices and direct their actions. The Nazis viewed the Jewish God (and by extension the Christian God) as the opposite of what true sacredness was: a cold, distant and dictatorial figure directing human affairs from afar, as opposed to a holistic view of life where everything in the natural world pulsed with the immanent beat of creation.
Everything was about blood-feeling; rationality itself was a source of alienation, further cutting off man from his place as part of the natural order of things. The Nazis’ view of life extended to judicial law, which along with nearly everything else in their biological view of human societies was viewed as inherently corrupted by Jewish influence. The need for written laws and legal procedures was a testament to this influence, as good Germans of healthy racial stock wouldn’t need written laws: their blood told them what was good and bad, right and wrong. And what was good and bad, right and wrong? Why, that which was good and bad for the race and its survival of course. The Jewish bacteria were an infection debilitating the German body. They needed to be purged.
This purging was deemed essential. Chapoutot demonstrates that the Nazis believed that if the origin story of the Nordic race was one of actual superiority to the rest, then its life would be inevitably be wracked by struggle as it moved toward its ultimate destiny of ultimate triumph in the race war. As a result, there would be a war within against the enemies of the race, the Volksfremde, and a war without. In terms of the former, Germans had to push aside any feelings of pity for those inferior beings that lived a miserable half-life, such as those poor wretches described at the beginning. Such emotions were likely to undo the grand destiny of the Nordic race and were not worthy of those of good German stock. This need to keep the German organism as healthy as possible to compete and win the great race conflict led to the passing of a “law for the prevention of hereditary disease.” This called for the sterilization of diseased individuals identified by a “hereditary health court.” As a result, 360,000 people were sterilized.
The looming war brought the issue of the physically deficient to a head. Ballast existences (Ballastexistenzen) were a threat to Germany’s survival. In October 1939, Hitler therefore decided to eject the human ballast as a matter of racial survival. He signed an order in October for the murder of Germany’s disabled population. The order was backdated to September 1, 1939, the outbreak of war. The committee responsible was led by Hitler’s physician, Karl Brandt. This program of murder became known as Aktion T4, after the street address of the Chancellery department on Tiergartenstrasse founded to carry it out. A trial case was called for in 1938 and carried out in July 1939 on 5 month old Gerhard Kretschmar.
Murder was now mercy, or Gnadentod. Murder of the defenseless was inverted to become the new dignity in the film Ich Klage an, among others. Racial hygiene, or Rassenhygiene was all, and time was of the essence. The Nazis emptied the hospitals, care homes, and asylums of their patients, lists of which were required from the institutions built to care for them. Some mental patients were lucid enough to be aware of what was happening when they were euthanized by lethal injection. Others went to their deaths not knowing what was happening. By 1941, 5,000 disabled children were killed, sometimes with the consent of their parents, often without, having been removed to improved Special Sections for “care.” Children of all ages were killed, but they were often younger than three years old. The last child to be killed was Richard Jenne in May 29, 1945.
Eventually practicality interfered, and, in occupied Poland patients, were shot by Einsatzkommando 16. Then, gassing to death was introduced. The first gassings took place at Fort VII in Poznan, Poland in October 1939. Heinrich Himmler witnessed one of these gassings in December 1939 and was eminently pleased with the results, ensuring its use on many of Europe’s Jews later in the war. Personnel who took part in the development of the methods to gas disabled people to death were later involved in implementing the Shoah at death camps like Treblinka. Records were kept with typical efficiency. In the end, around 300,000 disabled people were murdered, 200,000 in Germany, 100,000 in the rest of Europe. Their deaths marked the prelude to the Holocaust, which killed 6 million Jews, mostly shot and gassed to death in the bloodlands of Central and Eastern Europe. The cutting away of the dead flesh of the disabled from the German body politic was followed by the flushing away of the Jewish infection from the German organism.
All this was in service to the preservation and ultimate triumph of the German race through conquest of the East, of Russia and Eastern Europe’s breadbasket. This attainment of sufficient lebensraum for the German body —political and biological—would nourish it on the East’s fertile black earth, watered by the blood of conquerers and conquered alike. The German race would have room to breathe and prosper, served by a mass of Slavic helots, grateful for their noble German masters ordering everything in its proper place in the racial hierarchy.
The campaign on the Eastern Front was an act of racial preservation by rolling back the frontiers of artificially imposed borders erected to stifle the German organism. It was also an apocalyptic effort to roll back the frontiers of time which threatened to close in and bury the German race under time’s sands of racial warfare. The millennium, as Chapoutot demonstrates, was an idea taken utterly seriously by the Nazis and those whose philosophy provided the intellectual foundations to their movement. The idea of the Thousand Year Reich, achieved against the record of the whole of human history of the biological rise and fall of civilizations, was a concept that took on metaphysical meaning. It was the final destination, a heaven on earth to which the German race would sail across a sea of blood, and it took an ocean of blood from the Allies to put a stop to it.
The lessons that we can draw from history need to be approached with caution: drawing the wrong lessons can itself lead to bloodshed if we swing to wildly towards one set of overreactive corrections or another. History must be approached with a care that allows for the acceptance that no historical time period maps onto another directly, and that this cannot act as a definitive guide for action, particularly political action. The ideas described in cold and sometime furious detail by Chapoutot and the actions they motivated are unlikely to arise in the same way. We should most certainly not be in denial of the continued existence of these ideas under different guises: the Christchurch mosque shooting and the ideas of the white Identitarian/Alt-Right that catalyzed it have their intellectual roots in these ideas. Yet we should also be extremely wary of crying “Nazi” without serious justification for fear of watering down terms weighty with historical horror. In my next piece I’ll look at these issues and what possible lessons we can draw from this darkest moment in history for our own time.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.