There’s a video available online that has created quite a scandal this week. It shows a fashion designer in Paris telling someone he loves Hitler and that their mothers and forefathers would have all been gassed to death.
I think the staying power of Hitlerian madness is more easily understood when we properly understand that Hitler and the Nazis didn’t invent it out of whole cloth but built on a deep tradition that had long dominated European and U.S. culture. I wrote about U.S. influences on Hitler in “War Is A Lie.” Another book that should be required reading is “Exterminate the Brutes,” by Sven Lindqvist.
I just spoke at an event together with Ben Ferencz, the last living prosecutor of the Nazis at Nuremberg, and he compared current U.S. foreign policy to the actions of the Nazis. At the same event, author Sandy Davies described the current U.S. war on Iraq as genocide. I’ve also noticed in recent years that U.S. abuses of civil liberties abroad swiftly make their way home. Lindqvist documents the roots of the Nazis’ genocidal policies in the earlier colonial and imperial policies of Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, England, and the United States. Maybe we should be paying closer attention to the policies of aggressive war that Ferencz denounces.
Lindqvist borrowed his book’s title from a line in Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness,” a book that, he suggests, accurately portrayed what was happening in European empires in the late 19th century — a book that was, in fact, able to convey scenes without much detailed description because the reality was widely understood. In fact, Lindqvist argues, it was understood and accepted as an act of charity to exterminate “inferior races.” Lindqvist quotes Winston Churchill’s description of a slaughter of Africans by British guns, which Churchill concludes thus:
“It was a terrible sight, for as yet they had not hurt us at all, and it seemed an unfair advantage to strike thus cruelly when they could not reply.”
“An old-fashioned concept of honor and fair play, an admiration for such pointless bravery, had still not been superseded by the modern understanding that technical superiority provides a natural right to annihilate the enemy even when he is defenseless.”
Lindqvist says nothing more about Churchill, but Churchill was clearly with the program when he remarked in 1937 in reference to Palestinians:
“I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
This so-called modern understanding developed among scientists during the mid- to late-19th century. Charles Darwin, in “The Descent of Man” (1871), Lindqvist writes, “made public his conviction. Today between the primates and civilized man are intermediate forms such as gorillas and savages, he says in chapter 6. But both these intermediate forms are dying out. ‘At some future period not very distant as measured in centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.'”
It was only at the end of the 18th century that European scientists began facing up to the fact that species of any animal could go extinct, and indeed had done so. By the end of the 19th century this was believed to be inevitable and desirable for “inferior” varieties. But the exterminations of peoples by the Europeans had begun in 1478, when the Spanish had taken over the Canary Islands, whose native population of some 80,000 human beings had been exterminated through disease and murder by 1496. By then Columbus had brought European diseases, slave drivers, and war makers to the Americas.
While whole peoples were wiped out in the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific over the centuries, the example of Tasmania, an island the size of Ireland off Australia, was later much discussed. The first Europeans had arrived in Tasmania in 1803 and begun massacring the local people in 1804. In 1829, all non-Europeans were concentrated in one area and hunted down. When “The Origin of Species” was published in 1859, only nine Tasmanian women remained, all too old to have children. The last Tasmanian woman died in 1876. Her skeleton is displayed in the Tasmanian Museum. Lindqvist doesn’t mention it, but only creative nonviolent action later saved the Maori people of New Zealand from extermination.
In 1891, Friedrich Ratzel published “Anthropogeographie” in Germany with a chapter devoted to “the decline of peoples of inferior cultures at contact with culture.” Ratzel considered this a deplorable situation, but Germany was developing colonial ambitions, and Ratzel quickly came to consider the extinctions of “inferior” people simply the speeding up of an inevitable process. In his “Politische Geographie” (1897), a book that Hitler was given in 1924, Ratzel managed to group Jews and gypsies with “the stunted hunting people in the African interior.” Ratzel was drawing on French and British traditions, and Germanizing them. Alexander Tille, a lecturer in German at Glasgow from 1890-1900, did the same, bringing Spencer’s and Darwin’s theories together with Nietzsche’s Ubermenschen morality.
In 1904, the Germans proved they could do what the Americans and British had mastered: they could hasten the end of an “inferior” race. This the Germans did to the Herero people of Southwest Africa, murdering them, driving them into the desert, and imposing hard labor on the survivors in concentration camps. That term, “concentration camp,” had been invented in 1896 by the Spaniards in Cuba, used by the Americans, and used in the Boer War by the British. Now it was German too.
So was another term used by Ratzel: “Lebensraum.” Ratzel had been to North America and seen how the Americans killed off the Indians by taking their land. He thought that any great agricultural state needed to seize more land from “lesser” races. As it happened, this was the industrial age, and as Lindqvist notes, “Hitler started the war to acquire more agricultural land a few decades before all the states of Europe began to pay their farmers to reduce cultivation.” But Hitler thought of Eastern Europe as farm land to be taken by his master race, in fact as colonial territory equivalent to the colonies that other European nations had long maintained at greater distances from home.
People living to the east of Germany, in Hitler’s view, were uncivilized and better off dead. Only 3.5% of English and American prisoners of war held by the Nazis died in captivity, because the Nazis followed standards appropriate for those of their own race. In contrast, 57% of Soviet prisoners of war, including 3.3 million Russians, died while held by the Germans. Lindqvist credits this disparity to the racial theories and motivations of the Nazis, and it seems very likely that he is at least partly right. Lindqvist explains:
“The main intention behind the conquest was not to murder Jews, just as the Americans did not advance westward in order to murder Indians. The intention was to expand Germany’s own Lebensraum. The Russian Jews lived in just those areas Hitler was after, making up 10 percent of the total population there and up to 40 percent of the urban population. To faithful Nazis, the killing of Jews was a way of implementing the most central point of the party program. For those less faithful, it was a practical way of reducing the consumption of food and making room for the future German settlement.”
Another way in which Lindqvist could have phrased that is this: Hitler’s main intention was to kill Jews in order to gain Lebensraum. An important point to stress, with such an emotional issue, how ever unfathomably simple-minded it may seem, is that Hitler and the Nazis did what they did. The fact that the Germans and other European states had done so before in Africa, in America, and on islands in the Pacific doesn’t make any crime better or worse or get anyone off the hook for ordering or participating in genocide.
The historical roots of European/American genocide can, however, do a couple of useful things, I believe. The pre-Nazi genocides can direct our gaze in a new way at the post-Nazi genocides, including our recent action in Iraq. We now talk of “humanitarian wars,” but those wars leave dead or driven out of their land significant portions of the population. And there can be little doubt that were Vietnamese or Iraqis “white” and Christian, the history of U.S. crimes would be far less hideous. The right to annihilate inferior peoples now goes unsaid, replaced in our rhetoric not with Churchill’s sportsmanship but with the idea that by making war on people we are helping them. This is an idea with deep roots in the history of spreading “civilization.” In fact, central to that history is the idea of benefiting “savages” by exterminating them.
Perhaps by looking into this heart of darkness and experiencing the proper revulsion we can finally overcome it.
David Swanson is the author of “War Is A Lie” http://warisalie.org