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The Holocaust remains one of the central objects of sociological analysis. The complexity of the Holocaust phenomenon can hardly be overstated. Much has been written and said about the roots of the Holocaust and its implications for the humanity, but it is not before Zygmunt Bauman’s work that the Holocaust was directly related to modernity. The rise of modernity was associated with and affected by numerous forces and influences. The age of reason and scientific advancement, the commodification of markets, the emergence of mass culture, as well as the loss of religious spirits, the expansion of nationalism and state bureaucracy precipitated the rapid movement towards physical, ethnic and cultural violence against the homogenous communities in Western Europe and the rest of the world. Bauman’s theory of the Holocaust as the product of modernity was subject to extensive criticism, but the assumption that modernity gave birth to the Holocaust cannot be easily dismissed. The Holocaust was a product and an extreme form of modernity, born from the sophisticated relationship among the liberal democratic ideals in Western Europe, taxation and marketing, nationalism and power misbalances, as well as the loss of morality and shame under the influence of rationalism.    

The Holocaust: civilization or barbarization?

The Holocaust is at the heart of many social studies. The notion of the Holocaust and the forces responsible for its creation and expansion, have been at the center of many social theories. The Nazi atrocities before and during the Second World War exposed the danger of political omnipotence and weak legal protection of human rights (Levy & Sznaider 2004, p. #). Years after the Nuremberg Trial, the Holocaust would be invariably associated with the fight between barbarism and civilization, in which the latter was the victim (Levy & Sznaider 2004, p. #). The Nazi were claimed to be barbarians, whereas the Jews came to represent the universal face of humanity. The “barbarian” argumentation of the Holocaust later guided the development of human rights legislations and frameworks (Levy & Sznaider 2004, p. #), leaving the question of the Holocaust’s origins mostly unanswered. In reality, the relationship between barbarianism and the Holocaust was profoundly flawed; the Holocaust had nothing to do with barbarians. On the contrary, the Holocaust was an extreme form and a foundational ingredient of the rational modernity in Western Europe in the first half of the 20th century, being shaped by the multiple forces of reason, science, marketing and taxation, power misbalances and nationalism, as well as abnormal rationalism that led to the loss of morality and shame.

The Holocaust as a product of modernity

The relationship between the Holocaust and modernity is extremely complicated, but it is clear that the latter was directly responsible for the emergence of the former. For the purpose of this paper, the Holocaust is not limited to the popular representations of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews, but transcends to cover all forms of explicit and implicit violence against homogenous population groups that are indistinguishable from the surrounding majority (Conversi 2006, p. #). Modernity, in turn, is interpreted as a broad phenomenon born somewhere at the beginning of the 20th century. Modernity is claimed to be directly related to the rapid centralization of the bureaucracy and institutional power (Lee 2005, p. #). It is through the solidification of institutional arrangements and social practices that modern structures were able to create a tremendous killing machine that supported their genocidal programs (Lee 2005, p. #). Based on these definitions, and according to Bauman (1989),

“modern civilization was not the Holocaust’s sufficient condition; it was, however, most certainly its necessary condition. Without it, the Holocaust would be unthinkable. It was the rational world of modern civilization that made the Holocaust thinkable.” (p.13)  

To begin with, the notion of genocide has modern roots. The genocide phenomenon and later its conceptualization emerged in the specific historical and social context in Western Europe at the beginning of the 20th century (Hinton 2002). At that time, the prevailing majority of Western European philosophies revolved around the importance of liberalism and democratic ideals (Hinton 2002, p. #). Those liberal ideals played a crucial role in the emergence and expansion of the Holocaust phenomenon. In the 1930s and afterwards, the international law was modified to include the solid protections against violations of the basic human rights. However, the law did not question nation-states’ sovereignty that apparently contradicted the new legal concept of human rights (Hinton 2002, p. #). As a result, it would be fair to say that the concepts of the fundamental human rights, the genocide, the Holocaust and the advent of modernity were closely linked and could not be separated. This being said, it is important to understand what kinds of forces fueled the emergence and rapid expansion of the Holocaust in conditions of modernity.

According to Bauman (1989, p. #), the Holocaust is not an antithesis to the civilized society, but merely one of its hidden faces. The advent of modernity in Western Europe was closely associated with the rapid monopolization of violence and the creation of new taxation systems; the latter also exemplified a powerful instrument of non-physical violence against nation-state subjects. Western Europe was becoming more civilized, and open violence was no longer part of national routines. The monopolies of taxation and violence became the major sources of power and the means of ruling in Western Europe (Dunning & Mennel 1998, p. #). Moreover, they were believed to be mutually reinforcing (Dunning & Mennel 1998, p. #). Through taxation, nation-states tried to eliminate physical violence from their political scenes and pushed it behind the curtains of the political and economic action. Coupled with the rise in capitalism and commodification, intra-societal relations became very peaceful: nation-states no longer needed powerful armies, except in cases of violent emergencies, and the rights of police in routine situations were heavily restricted (Dunning & Mennel 1998, p. #). Violence moved from the public to domestic realms, leaving sufficient space for the development of thoroughly planned, scientifically organized, and technicized mass extermination campaigns. In the atmosphere of peace, stability and economic wellbeing, the European industrial system broke (Bauman 1989, p. #). It no longer enhanced life, but, on the contrary, created a situation in which Europeans began consuming themselves (Bauman 1989, p. #). That was also the time when nationalism became a reflection of societies’ search for homogenization and self-identification. When all economic and social problems were solved, societies turned to the cultural meaning of their state and power practices. Apart from taxation, marketization, commodification and capitalization, nationalism became the driving force of the Holocaust through modernity.

The fact that the twentieth century was the century of nationalism has been widely recognized. Nationalism became a distinguishing feature of the twentieth century. Never before has the extermination of peoples and communities been so massive and fast (Conversi 2006, p. #). Nationalism accompanied the rapid growth of Western European populations before the Second World War: once the size of the Western European community made personal acquaintance among community members impossible, the community had to be imagined (Anderson 1993, p. #; Janowitz 1995, p. #). Imagination became the driving force of nationalism in modern Europe, and cultural and ethnic homogeneity was part of the imagined routines (Anderson 1993, p. #). Patriotism and commitment to fraternity gave place to rationalism and demographic systematization that bordered on ethnic cleansing and the superiority of the nation-states. To a large extent, the concept of modernity by itself was conceived in terms of the European triumph of superiority over non-Western nations (Conversi 2006,p. #). Nationalism was believed to glue the most productive elements of the European society and justified the physical and non-physical tyranny against selected communities. The perceived threat of instability and failure was still very high (Conversi 2006, p. #). Nationalist movements were further supported by paranoid leadership and an unprecedented expansion of nation-states’ bureaucratic machines (Conversi 2006, p. #). Altogether, those trends and influences triggered the nationalist fervor against ordinary people. The nationalist fervor was led by states. Wars and civil conflicts invoked the sense of patriotism against “internal enemies” and “outsiders” further, leading nations and peoples towards self-elimination (Conversi 2006, p. #). Wars and conflicts became a good cover for the Holocaust decisions. Those communities and groups which could not oppose to the overwhelming power of nationalist states were claimed to be the internal enemies threatening the stability of the social order in those states.

As Europe entered the final stage of civilization and assimilation, small ethnic groups came to exemplify the source of potential cultural and social threats and had to be eliminated. Back to the concepts of civilization, systematization, and rationalization, the Holocaust reflected the overtly rational nature of nationalism in Western Europe. The Holocaust and genocides became a norm, and Western states turned violence into a legitimate instrument of their foreign policies (Conversi 2006, p. #). Britain and the United States are rightly considered as the most violent international powers during the Cold War period (Conversi 2006, p. #). Rationalization became the determining feature of modernity, leading to the loss of spirituality, religion, and the feeling of shame.

Individual and cultural indifference and the loss of shame were at the heart of most modernity developments in Western Europe. Shaming had always been crucial to crime control (Braithwaite 1993, p. #), but modernity left no room to emotions and feelings. It is not a coincidence that, in light of the growing indifference to the mass atrocities against selected communities, mass crimes against humans were flourishing. Modernity, urbanization, civilization, systematization, rationalization and commodification invalidated the power of intangible variables, such as shame. The civilizing process that was described by Norbert Elias (1978, p. #; 1982, p. #) was incompatible with shame. Shame ceased to be an effective instrument of social control. States became monopolists of violence and physical force, followed by the rigid division of labor (Braithwaite 1993, p. #; Elias 1978, p. #; Elias 1982, p. #). Leadership was no longer affectionate, and successful political decisions were built on self-control and rational knowledge of all political rivals (Braithwaite 1993, p. #). In the process of state formation, which is inseparable from the processes of pacification, networking, infrastructure development, transport growth and trade expansion, shame as a moral construct gave place to the rational rules of politics and economics. Capitalist structures destroyed the myth of informal controls (including shame), leaving only formal methodologies of power (Braithwaite 1993, p. #). As a result, the ruling forces in Western Europe had no moral concerns with regard to their mass extermination decisions. In modern societies, shame lost its power because of the fragmented roles which individuals played and their indifference toward how they were viewed by others (Braithwaite 1993, p. #). The Holocaust was the ultimate and extreme form of non-shameful modernity, and the fact that it was just one of the many modernity faces, makes the whole situation even worse. In the context of modernity, the Holocaust was a norm, having no analogies or conceptions in the earlier societies. The main question faced by sociologists today is whether globalization can give a rise to new holocausts, and how to ensure that the free market ideology does not challenge the dogmas of cultural diversity and basic human rights. This question is to be answered in future papers.

The Holocaust was the product of modernity. The specific cultural and historical conditions in Western Europe favored the rise of violent moods. The Holocaust is a product and an extreme form of modernity, born from the sophisticated relationship among the liberal democratic ideals in Western Europe, taxation and marketing, nationalism and power misbalances, as well as the loss of morality and shame under the influence of rationalism. Rationalism displaced shame and turned the Holocaust into the distinguishing feature of modernity. Having no analogies in the earlier societies, the Holocaust became one of the many faces of modernity. Nowadays, sociologists must decide whether globalization has the potential to trigger new holocausts and how to balance free market philosophies in line with the concepts of human rights protection and cultural diversity. 

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