“The risk in our increasingly polarized and tribally divided times is that these societies —ours among them—are thrashing around in a sea of hopeless liquid modernity and risk coming apart in a storm of violence.”
n writing The Law of Blood: Thinking and Acting as a Nazi, Chapoutot was trying to communicate through the use of the words of the Nazis and their philosophers that the ideas of the Nazis were part of an ideological framework with deep intellectual roots that had spread across the continent of Europe. As a result of a confluence of political, military and economic circumstances in 1930’s Germany, these ideas were adopted and implemented by the Nazis and sent into battle in the war between races. Their holistic worldview—with German society a biological organism rooted in nature, morals defined by blood feeling, and survival under peril—required ejecting the parasitic parts of German society that debilitated the German organism. The disabled were cut away like a diseased organ, and the Jews were flushed away like bacteria. The race-war was fought to preserve the German race, with the Eastern-Front campaign attempting to roll back both the temporal frontiers of national borders that were strangling the German national body, and to roll back the frontiers of time themselves, which threatened to bury the German race under history’s sands. The goal of the thousand-year Reich was untaken seriously, took on a metaphysical meaning, and promised the German utopia across a sea of blood.
As is clear from this brief summary, this is a horrifying book, all the more so for the extensive use of the words of the Nazis and the thinkers who provided the intellectual foundations to their evil ideology.
As is clear from this brief summary, this is a horrifying book—all the more so for the extensive use of the words of the Nazis and the thinkers who provided the intellectual foundations to their evil ideology. The temptation when faced by something as monstrous as the crimes of the Nazis is to immunize ourselves from the horror by dehumanizing the perpetrators of such atrocities. This is understandable: it is not a comforting notion that we share a human nature with those who supported and fought for the ideas presented in this book. This shared humanity calls for serious reflection on our roles in our times: how should we comport ourselves so that we prevent ourselves from traveling our own dark roads towards terror and ultimate perdition? I would argue that the new investment in the politics of blood is a potentially disastrous course to take.
The Return to the Politics of Blood
Chapoutot writes that, “[t]o many at the time, the NSDAP had the tremendous merit of clearing a straight path through a confusing world, with tangible and easily comprehensible guideposts.” History is a rhyme rather than a repetition. We are not going to see a repeat of those times: the “literally Hitler” crowd and those who compare their political opponents to Nazis are not thinking clearly. More importantly, they do a rhetorical grave-dance on those killed by the Nazi regime. The events in Europe of the mid-twentieth century happened because of a specific confluence of circumstances in a particular place interacting with a set of ideas whose roots were spread across the continent. These ideas were taken to the extent they were because they were enabled by the circumstances of the time.
We should not be complacent, however. Robert Kaplan argues in his book The Return of Marco Polo’s World that people need something to cling to, to orient themselves toward which gives their lives a sense of meaning in a world where the pace of change is ever-increasing . As I wrote on loneliness—which Hannah Arendt saw as a key ingredient that primed the Germans for the Nazis’ message—I’m concerned that “[w]ith the increase of loneliness and isolation, along with the increase in political polarization, fed and enabled by technological division,” people are indeed, as Kaplan noted, “dangerously ready for a new catechism given the right circumstances.’” The far-right conservative revolutionary writer Ernst von Salomon, member of the Freikorps, had one of the characters in his book The Outlaws proclaim, “We don’t want happiness, we want a destiny.” The Nazis provided the German people with a sense of destiny and look were it led.
The fact that people still seek a destiny today is not surprising: we each feel a soul-deep longing for meaning that extends beyond our lives, lives which involve more than the ultimately unsatisfying attainments that stem from our culture of radical individualism, forever locked in an eternal present. Disaster arises when that destiny is shown to us by millenarian demagogues. The “dictatorship of relativism” identified by Benedict XVI has ushered in a situation where everything is true so that nothing is. This cannot go on. This lack of solid a foundation cannot sustain individuals in community or society at large. We cannot survive without having a metaphysics that frames our lives and gives them a sense of meaning, both in this world and beyond.
The danger is that our search for a destiny that isn’t rooted in the divine looks for answers in places that have led to disaster in the past. If we are now in sociologist Phillip Rieff’s Third World, where nothing is sacred beyond this world to justify and ground our existence, and where we’re now apparently meant to justify our existence on ourselves, are we really so surprised that identity politics, primarily based in biology, is on the rise? Why should we be surprised at this development which deifies the self, particularly the biological racial self, something seen on both Left and Right?
As Jason Burke has written in the Guardian on the ideology of the Christchurch terrorist, to understand where these atrocities come from we need to understand what drove them, and to do this we need to do what Chapoutot did and understand the ideas. To repeat, when they interact with a confluence of circumstances, ideas have consequences. Comprehending them does not mean we condone them. The similarities between the narratives employed by the Far-Right and the Islamists have been noted, with both longing for a return to an idealized ethnic or religious past projected into the future, brought about by revolution grounded in references to past military glories, achieved by removing what ISIS calls the grey-zone of the middle-ground and hurrying us all into a civil war. If we should not attempt to understand the way ideas influence actions, then we might as well just not bother researching how the Islamist ideology motivates Islamist terrorists either. As we resist the calls to do this for the Islamists, so must we do the same for the Far-Right.
The ideology of the Christchurch shooter is rooted in that followed by the Far-Right Identitarian movement. He was the pathological and murderous end-product of this focus on biological identity that has seeped further and further into our cultural debate. The killer repeatedly referred to himself as a being whose very essence, his soul, was based in his race. He claimed in his manifesto that he was in favor of diversity, the diversity of peoples that is really racial separatism for the 21st century. He wants “diverse peoples to remain diverse,” with different groups remaining “separate, unique, undiluted, unrestrained in… cultural expression.”
This is redolent of the work of Identitarian writers like Guillaume Faye and Pierre Krebs, who, in turn, were inspired by French New Right figures like Alain de Benoist. They emphasize the idea that biology and culture are inextricably linked: Krebs calls it “bioculture.” Therefore any mixing is the death-knell to the so-called “ethnocultures” of the European nations, which includes Australia, New Zealand, and America, as well as Europe itself. This is why the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, where non-white populations move into the lands of white people and eventually replace them, holds such sway.
The Identitarians conflate ideas and biology. They thus engage in a deification of their own skin color. If white people are wiped out, then so are the ideas rooted in their biology. In such a worldview, the death of the white race is the death of God. The fact that the Identitarian ideologues repudiate National Socialism does not alter the fact that their ideas swim in the same swamp, as evidenced by the similarities of language between the Identitarians and the Nazi thinkers in Chapoutot’s book.
This conflation of ideas and biology holds sway on the Far-Left as well. Of course, no-one on the Far-Left holds direct responsibility for what the Christchurch terrorist did. However, to pretend that the increasing emphasis on the politics of blood and identity does not play a role in dragging us into the whirlpool of rage caused by the Far-Right, Far-Left, and Islamists is equally false. The cultural conversation on the other side of the divide feeds into this. With the Far-Left there is a similar desire to hermetically seal cultures off from one another, to protect and preserve them. There is the idea that cultural appropriation—really the communication of cultures—is a form of imperialism and that the only solution is to protect cultures from each other to avoid contamination and exploitation. The problem with this is that if cultures are too open or too closed, they die. The attendant imprecation to “stay in your lane,” to never reach beyond the sphere of the identity-confined self is a rhetorical act of separatism hiding beneath the guise of compassion for the oppressed.
The main difference between the two sides of the identity politics coin is that one puts biology in front of ideology, while the other puts ideology in front of biology. Even so, both sides have in common an ideological way of seeing the world that breeds intolerance for differing voices, intolerance for dissent within their own ranks, and a tendency towards censorship and purging of those they consider a threat to their world-views. They both see their side as victimized by the other in a landscape defined by zero-sum conflict for supremacy, disguised by the language of survival. This partners with the use of intimidation tactics—for example against Chelsea Clinton—and downright violence, for example with Far-Right vigilante groups and Antifa. This cycle of intimidation was what happened in Weimar Germany, as demonstrated by Richard J. Evans in his books on the Third Reich. This is all designed to pull society further apart and remove the grey-zone, thereby ushering us closer to whichever “heaven” they long for. This dividing of society into armed camps based in identity tribes risks dragging all of us under and destroying the social order that provides the stability that guarantees our liberty.
The Politics of Blood Will Drown Us
I’ve discussed Franz Rosenzweig before, and I believe he was right in his diagnosis of the mortality of societies that do not believe in the possibility of immortality through the transcendent sacred. These societies, heavy with the presentiment of death, will be the quickest to die. The risk in our increasingly polarized and tribally divided times is that these societies —ours among them—are thrashing around in a sea of hopeless liquid modernity and risk coming apart in a storm of violence.
This is something we are all at heightened risk of witnessing. The live-streamed Christchurch massacre was evidence of the increasing ability for carnage to be shared by millions as a result of our increased connectivity, outlined by David Betz in Carnage and Connectivity. The conflicts of today are less about clashes of state armed forces with a monopoly on violence and more about a war of hearts and minds based in ideology and blood open to wider participation, conducted on a global scale through digital communications networks, most obviously social media. According to Robert Kaplan, our technology has made the world, “smaller and more claustrophobic, so that each patch of earth is more dearly held and more closely contested than ever before, while each region and crisis zone is more interconnected with every other one as never before.” This gives non-state actors like ISIS—and now people like the Christchurch terrorist—the ability to spread their terror to a global audience: even if the carnage is on the far side of the world, we feel in the midst of a war zone.
This vicarious existence, experiencing the lives and now deaths of others through our digital portals amplifies the worst in our flawed nature. The online world has a horrible tendency to emphasize the lowest-common denominator of human commonality, and this rapidly seems to becoming ties of blood and kin allied to ideological purity. Again, we should not be arrogantly self-satisfied at our own moral rectitude; we share a human nature with those who both communicated and received the ideas in Chapoutot’s book and those who carried out the atrocities they led to. However, we should also avoid alarmism and draining words and concepts of their weight. When everyone is Hitler, then no one is. This could prove deadly when those who justify this claim appear and we are disarmed by our own acts of rhetorical irresponsibility.
We must try to avoid being drowned by the waves of liquid modernity, where nothing feels solid or stable anymore as a result of the ever increasing churn and change of modern life, and resist grasping for the lead-lined life-jacket of identity politics. That’ll only pull us even faster into the whirlpool of rage-driven identity tribalism. We instead need to swim to the dry land of hope, ideally grounded in a belief in the sacred which acts as an ethical compass point. We need to discover those things that bind us across identities into a society grounded in respect for the inherent dignity of the human soul and the human person. It is difficult to see the autonomy maximizing technocratic liberalism of the last few decades, which emancipates individuals from all roots in our shared social order as the answer. Instead, this removal of the mediating institutions that mould the individual into someone capable of upholding the order that anchors and conserves society has led to an atomized isolation and a resulting reactionary seeking for tribal identity that turns what was once a society into armed camps, based in fear and distrust of each other.
We allowed this to happen, and this dangerous complacency in allegiance with denial of changing reality is reflected in the political sphere. We do not talk enough about the loss of the ties of sympathy that bind us together in a society that nurtures the individual to uphold the order that provides stability, preserves our liberty and engenders a sense of meaning rooted in community. We do not focus enough in our impoverished cultural conversation on the deeper questions of political order, and this philosophical impoverishment is proving poisonous to our societies. As Sohrab Ahmari recently wrote, much of our debate today, “elides questions about the origins and purposes of political order and the origins and purposes of human life.” We must develop a way of living and doing politics that, as Ahmari says, offers, “a substantive vision of the common good.” Otherwise, we will see the journey down the path of identity tribalism continue towards its destructive conclusion. It is hard to otherwise see a way for our societies to avoid the Scylla of tribalism or Charybdis of atomized individualism.
It would be better for everyone if we could find our way to dry land, and home once again. If history means anything, it is that we hear and pay careful attention to its echoes in our own time. Chapoutot’s book brings those echoes to chilling life for today, and we should be grateful to him.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.