Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Key Concepts in Nazi Antisemitism: 1. Social Death

Author: Jonathan Harrison
This is the first of several blogs in which I evaluate the usefulness of theoretical concepts in understanding the nature of Nazi antisemitic beliefs. This initial study looks at the notion of "social death", which was first employed by Orlando Patterson in "Slavery and Social Death" (1982) and then adopted in Daniel Goldhagen's infamous "Hitler's Willing Executioners" (1996). I argue below that "social death" was a key factor in the ability of the Nazis to generate indifference to the fate of Jews, but that Goldhagen abuses Patterson's original usage and fails to understand its real applicability to the Holocaust.

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As Claudia Card notes, the infliction of social death on a group prior to its murder is a feature of genocides that distinguishes them from other mass murders:
Social death, central to the evil of genocide (whether the genocide is homicidal or primarily cultural), distinguishes genocide from other mass murders. Loss of social vitality is loss of identity and thereby of meaning for one's existence. Seeing social death at the center of genocide takes our focus off body counts and loss of individual talents, directing us instead to mourn losses of relationships that create community and give meaning to the development of talents.
However, it should be noted that social death can be inflicted without physical death. If this distinction is not made, social death loses all analytical power, because it simply becomes a synonym for genocidal acts that involve murder. It ignores the fact that, for example, medieval Jews and lepers sometimes existed in a state of social death without being subjected to killing; pogroms occurred in some times and places but not others. This is one of the errors that Goldhagen makes when he abuses the concept, because his model assumes that social death must be accompanied or followed by extreme violence in all cases. This leads Goldhagen to make the abusive claim (p.169) that:
In a fundamental sense, slaves did not suffer complete "social death"...Jews were really socially dead.
Goldhagen (ibid.) makes the totally unsupported assertion that:
slave societies depend upon slaves for production and even honour...and some, if not many, of them have had ongoing social relations and ties to their oppressors, including intimate and even loving sexual relations.
This was clearly not Patterson's meaning when he originated the term. Goldhagen's hypothetical slaves, if they ever existed, bore no relation to most of those described by Patterson, whose lives were a "living death" (p.8) and who were "Formally isolated in their social relations" (p.5). Goldhagen thus denies the reality of slave experience in order to privilege the social death of Jews. He ignores the fact that the Nazis did not just inflict social death on Jews but also did so on all groups who were defined as 'non-Aryans'. Social death was a racial schema for the Nazis, not a concept that they applied uniquely to the Jews. Instead, Jews were subjected to a social death that was combined with specifically antisemitic forms of dehumanization that must be analyzed in their own right, rather than simply being conflated with Patterson's concept.

Goldhagen thus fails to understand that the uniqueness of the Final Solution lies, not in the infliction of social death, but in the escalation in policy from social death to total extermination, a radicalization that social death enabled (by making the general public indifferent to the fate of non-social beings) but did not determine. Social death was a necessary, but not sufficient, precondition for the implementation of eliminationist antisemitism by the Nazis. To understand why this escalation occurred with Jews but not with Polish gentiles, it is therefore necessary to examine the additional ideological themes of Nazi Jew-hatred. This will be the task of the remaining blogs in this series.

1 comment:

Bogman said...

Does Goldhagen make the distinction between medieval slaves, serfs etc. and American negro plantation slaves? The former were integrated more into society and were treated better. The latter seemed to suffer a sort of "social death."