Friday, June 27, 2008

Key Concepts in Nazi Antisemitism: 3. Pollution

On 13 March 1942, a Nazi court delivered a death sentence against Lehman Israel Katzenberger, whose age at that time was over 68 years, for the crime of 'racial pollution' under Article 2 of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. Katzenberger was beheaded by guillotine at Stadelheim Prison in Munich on 2 June 1942. The presiding judge, Oswald Rothaug, declared that “It is sufficient for me that the swine said that a German girl had sat upon his lap.” He also stated that:
Together with his offense of racial pollution he is also guilty of an offence under paragraph 4 of the ordinance against people’s parasites. It should be noted here that the national community is in need of increased legal protection from all crimes attempting to destroy or undermine its inner cohesion.
Rothaug thus admitted that a key political strategy of the Nazi state was to maintain the 'cohesion' of its mythical racial identity by accusing Jews of polluting the body politic. Why did the Nazis pick this particular strategy and what were its historical antecedents?

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Pollution is a syncretic political strategy which exploits a myth that appears historically in three different but overlapping contexts: religious, medical and nationalist. The strategy enabled the Nazis to overcome resistance to their political authority among religious believers, doctors, academics and the armed forces by tapping into their mentalities and igniting themes that were part of their institutional histories but were often marginalized during the century of relative liberalization that preceded the Nazi rise to power. Uncovering the genealogy of the myth therefore gives an insight into how the Nazis melded old and new prejudices into a dogma of genocidal force.

The link between pollution and social cohesion strategies has been noted by anthropologists. The most famous of these, Mary Douglas (1966), argued that pollution myths concerning the body were projected on to the entire group in order to symbolize dangers to its unity. Dirt signified "matter out of place" (p.36) and came to represent pollution of the entire social order (p.5):
Reflection on dirt involves reflection on the relation of order to disorder, being to non-being, form to formlessness, life to death
Pollution thus came also to represent social death in certain caste systems. For example, Lifton (1986: 482) notes that the Japanese outcaste group, the Burakumin, used to:
bear the name "Eta", whose literal meaning is "full of filth", "full of pollution" or "abundant defilement".
However, anthropologists like Douglas were referring primarily to the social cohesion of minority sects, such as the Israelites in the Biblical era. Pollution myth only became genocidal when it was used by a majority against a stigmatised minority. In Europe, that process dates from the eleventh century, when the Church and state united to form a 'Persecuting Society' (R.I. Moore, 2001). From around the time of the First Crusade in 1096, Jews began to be accused of crimes such as 'ritual murder' and 'usury'. An example of the pollution discourse used to frame these accusations is provided by Robert Chazan (1997: 122):
William of Chartres, in concluding his report on the discussion between Louis IX and his advisers with respect to Jewish usury, has the king speaking of Jews as infecting his land with their poison. The discussion ends with the king telling his advisers: “Let those prelates do what pertains to them concerning those subject Christians, and I must do what pertains to me concerning the Jews. Let them abandon usury, or they shall leave my land completely, in order that it no longer be polluted with their filth”
However, at this point, the alleged pollution was spiritual, not biological. The Jew was usually allowed (or forced) to convert to Christianity. This began to change in the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition, when converted Jews were accused of being false converts or 'Marranos' (pigs). Pollution began to find expression in peculiar beliefs about the Jew's Body (Gilman, 1991). For example, Beusterien cites this claim by a royal physician:
In 1632 Doctor Juan de Quiñones, an official in the court of King Philip IV, devoted an entire treatise to Jewish maladies, focusing on the allegation that Jewish males menstruated. He wrote: "every month they suffer from a blood flow as if they were women."
Even before the emergence of racial science, therefore, there was already a potential for the syncretic merging of religious and medical delusions about Jews. It was not necessary to invent biological racism from scratch, as its seeds were already in the culture of post-Inquisition Europe. The fact that was unique to the post-1800 period was the inclusion of classes below the ruling elites in the definition of the 'body politic'. This was due to the fact that race and nation functioned as tools of vertical integration. This had the effect of multiplying the numbers of groups eligible to be included in the myth of the nation, until it became a concept that was amenable to socialist and liberal applications as well as reactionary ones. We therefore find that, by 1900, Jews could be blamed by a range of political groups for a variety of national ills across the European continent, expressed in terms of biological degradation.

For example, in France, Jews were blamed for the loss of the Franco-Prussian war (Brustein, 'Roots of Hate', p.121), and this fuelled the Dreyfus Case two decades later. French and German nationalism borrowed from the 'degeneracy' theories of Gobineau, whilst German Volkish discourse took on a virulently antisemitic tone in the work of Wilhelm Marr and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Marr had been a socialist in his youth. In Italy, Cesare Lombroso was an assimilated Jew and a socialist who nonetheless believed that the "white race" was threatened by the innate criminality of degenerate breeds. In Britain, the Eugenics Society included such liberal figures as the Webbs, Beveridge and Keynes. Beveridge, the future founder of the Welfare State, wrote in 1905 that:
It is essential…to maintain the distinction between those who, however irregularly employed, are yet members, though inferior members, of the industrial army and those who are mere parasites, incapable of performing any useful service whatever…[The unemployable] must be removed from industry and maintained adequately in public institutions, but with the complete and permanent loss of all citizenship rights - including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood [cited in Rose, 1999: 254-255]
The influence of these ideas on antisemitism became apparent in the passing of the 1905 Aliens Act, which was designed to keep out East European Jews (Gainer, 1972). Beatrice Webb, a leading Fabian, had referred to "the greed of the Jew" in her research into the textile industry in the East End; and the liberal economist J.A. Hobson had blamed financiers, "chiefly German in origin and Jewish in race" for the Boer War.

However, it should be noted that radical antisemitic parties fared poorly in national elections in Britain in 1906 and Germany in 1907, so there was no immediate risk prior to 1914 of such ideas leading to mass killing. It was Germany's defeat in 1918, followed by the displacement of educated elite groups by Germany's economic problems in the 1920's, that allowed the Nazis to intensify these ideas into forms of hatred that could appeal to mentalities that would be amenable to its policies.

The result of these alliances was support among carefully chosen elites for the kind of state murder discussed in the opening paragraph. Hitler declared that Jews were a "race of criminals" and was able to recruit enough doctors to carry out sterilizations, judges to pass death sentences, and SS men with PhD's to lead the Einsatzgruppen (Stahlecker, Rasch, Ohlendorf).

It was thus a simple exercise to escalate from individual judicial and medical murders to a mass genocide. The willingness of doctors and judges to knowingly conspire in individual murder leading to genocide is made clear in primary sources. On 11 May 1942, Dachau doctor Rascher wrote to Himmler that:
For the following experiments Jewish professional criminals who had committed race pollution were used.
Similarly, the correspondence from the Reich Minister of Justice Thierack to Reichsleiter Bormann dated 13 October 1942 revealed that:
With a view to freeing the German people of Poles, Russians, Jews, and gypsies and with a view to making the Eastern territories which have been incorporated into the Reich available for settlements for German nationals, I intend to turn over criminal proceedings against Poles, Russians, Jews, and gypsies to the Reichsfuehrer SS. In so doing I base myself on the principle that the administration of justice can only make a small contribution to the extermination of members of these peoples. The Justice Administration undoubtedly pronounces very severe sentences on such persons, but that is not enough to constitute any material contribution towards the realization of the above-mentioned aim.
Pollution had thus escalated from a 'crime' that warranted individual death penalties to a menace that required the extermination of all Jews.


  1. All I could find on the internet was that Rothaug was sentenced to life in prison. So, how much time did he really serve? Two months?

  2. His sentence was commuted to 20 years and he was released in December 1956. So he served nine years. He died in 1967.

  3. jonathan: Thank you for responding to my question.

  4. Do we get to know why he was not released from prison after the fall of the Nazis?

  5. Rothaug was imprisoned by the Yanks, not the Nazis. He received a life term but it was commuted to 20 years.


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