[OPE-L] Enzo Traverso. The Origins of Nazi Violence.

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Tue Apr 25 2006 - 17:37:55 EDT

    Enzo Traverso. The Origins of Nazi Violence. 
Translated by Janet Lloyd. New York and London: 
New Press, 2003. vi + 200 pp. Notes, 
bibliography, index. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 
Reviewed by: Shelley Baranowski, Department of History, University of Akron.
Published by: H-German (September, 2004)
Nazism as the Laboratory of the West
Enzo Traverso's provocative essay, The Origins of 
Nazi Violence, locates the Holocaust in the 
material conditions and mental frameworks of the 
West that made the Jewish genocide possible (p. 
6). Principally taking issue with Ernst Nolte, 
Francois Furet, and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, who, 
albeit by different means, place Nazi crimes 
outside Western history, Traverso argues that 
Nazism's uniqueness lay in its lethal synthesis 
of the West's various forms of violence (p. 150), 
or more specifically, its regimes of discipline 
and punishment; its imperialism; industrialized 
death and total war; its scientifically grounded 
racism; and finally its anti-Semitism and counter 
revolution. Traverso draws from the insights of 
Marxism generally and the Frankfurt School 
specifically, as well as Edward Said, Michel 
Foucault, and Hannah Arendt to place the 
Judeocide in a wider context than that of the 
history of anti-Semitism (p. 5). The Shoah, he 
suggests, was a logical outcome of Western 
pathologies, which the Third Reich combined and 
Traverso opens by zeroing in on the products of 
the French and Industrial Revolutions, the 
guillotine, the prison, and the factory, 
including the abattoir. The guillotine serialized 
killing, transformed the executioner into a 
bureaucratic employee relieved of ethical 
responsibility, and de-sanctified capital 
punishment. While embodying the Enlightenment's 
hope of redemption, the prison, organized 
according to military standards, subjected 
prisoners to rigid discipline and constant 
surveillance, and transformed them into captive 
labor. Although factories, unlike prisons, 
employed free workers, they too adopted 
disciplinary and hierarchical practices, 
serializing and segmenting production, while 
alienating and dehumanizing workers. The 
abattoir, the methodical, mass-produced death 
factory for animals, became a cultural reference 
point for the systematic destruction of human 
beings. Taken together, key institutions of the 
dual revolutions introduced modes of violence 
that featured moral indifference, bureaucratic 
efficiency, and the militarized mobilization of 
labor in which work grew increasingly meaningless 
to the worker. Industrialization encouraged the 
spread of European settlers throughout the globe 
and especially the conquest of Africa, wherein 
the mission to civilize through progress 
presupposed its other, the primitive, 
dark-skinned savage whose bleak future Darwinism 
and eugenics foreordained. The extinction of 
inferior races, as much the result of 
administrative rationality as spontaneity, 
received its justification in the view that the 
savages would soon depart the earth as a matter 
of course, unable to adapt to a superior 
civilization and undeserving of normative ethical 
considerations. The belief that expansion would 
alleviate overpopulation, a crucial element in 
empire building, was not unique to Nazism. 
Moreover, imperialism introduced another 
ingredient to the Western exercise of power, 
conquest, ethnic cleansing, and extermination as 
the route to regeneration.
Finally, the mass conscripted armies of 
proletarianized soldiers, interventionist 
economies, and anonymous death of World War I 
derived from industrial and disciplinary 
techniques already in place and from imperialist 
practices: total war, that is, the elimination of 
the distinction between combatant and civilian, 
the racialized demonization of the enemy, 
concentration camps, and genocide. Yet the 
consequences of the war, particularly the 
Bolshevik Revolution, crystallized into the 
moment when Nazism came to the fore. In addition 
to creating a climate that spawned a recognizably 
fascist philosophy of death in which warfare and 
extermination became ends in themselves, the 
war's aftermath witnessed a populist 
counter-revolution, most powerfully expressed in 
Nazism, which co-mingled anti-Bolshevism, 
anti-Semitism, radical nationalism, and imperial 
expansion. Yet rather than promote a teleological 
version of European modernity with Auschwitz as 
its conclusion, Traverso is at pains to state 
that, although Nazi violence emerged from certain 
common bases of Western culture, Auschwitz does 
not represent the fundamental essence of the West 
(p. 150).
Using Arendt's distinction between origins as 
opposed to causes, as well as Foucault's 
geneology, the author maintains that while 
Auschwitz illuminates its own past, the past 
cannot be linked to Auschwitz as straightforward 
cause and effect. Thus, Traverso stresses the 
uniqueness of Nazism even as he analyzes its 
Western roots. The death camps of the Third Reich 
embraced the worst aspects of factories, 
abattoirs, and prisons, combining purposeless and 
humiliating work, assembly-line murder, and the 
evaporation of morality, the glue of human 
connection. Nazi Lebensraum took inspiration from 
British imperialism and the brutality of white 
settlers against Native Americans. Against Nolte, 
Traverso forcefully argues that imperialism was 
the real model for Nazi violence, not Bolshevism. 
But, he continues, the fusion of anti-Bolshevism 
and anti-Semitism that followed World War I 
occurred with special vigor in Germany, which, to 
a degree not previously seen, biologized both. 
Despite the prevalence of anti-Jewish hatred in 
the West, only the Nazis joined the crusading 
spirit of Christian anti-Judaism with a 
biologically extreme anti-Semitism to produce 
mass murder on an unprecedented scale. Unlike 
previous colonial racism, the Nazi regime did not 
see the Jew as too primitive to avoid extinction, 
but rather as the enemy of civilization that it 
had to actively eradicate with every available 
technological, bureaucratic, and military means. 
In fact, concludes Traverso, the Nazi regime 
sought not merely to conquer territories but to 
Germanize them by remodeling the human race. 
Thus, if Germany did not deviate from a 
putatively liberal democratic West, a la 
Goldhagen and other adherents of the German 
Sonderweg, it became the laboratory of the West, 
having synthesized nationalism, racism, 
anti-Semitism, imperialism, anti-Bolshevism, 
antihumanism, and counter-Enlightenment feeling, 
all of which existed elsewhere in Europe but 
which either remained muted or never entered into 
toxic combination (p. 148).
One must admire Traverso's ambitious synthesis of 
theory and recent scholarship, which results in a 
coherent and effective effort to place Nazism in 
its European context without sacrificing its 
distinctiveness. Rather than understand Nazism as 
simply an expression of modern bureaucratic and 
scientific rationality, he is sufficiently 
sensitive to its political and social context as 
to appreciate its counter-revolutionary core. By 
placing the Final Solution at the center of Nazi 
imperialism, furthermore, Traverso's recognition 
of the bond between anti-Semitism and 
anti-Bolshevism highlights the moment at which a 
centuries-old hatred became genocidal without 
reducing Nazism to the history of anti-Semitism. 
Traverso's effective discussion, finally, of the 
link between antisocialism and racism in the 
bourgeois dread of the dangerous classes, which 
emerged by the late-nineteenth century, begins to 
explain how the racism so mercilessly applied to 
native populations overseas and urban 
insurgencies in Europe, such as the Paris 
Commune, could be reconfigured to assault the 
Jews later.
Nevertheless, Traverso is less successful in 
explaining why fascism at its most virulently 
racist emerged in Germany rather than elsewhere. 
Traverso indicates that only in Germany did 
anti-Semitism become the central component of 
fascism, yet he does not develop his brief 
reference to the visibility of the revolutionary 
Jew after 1918. Eugenics, he notes, fell on 
especially fertile soil in Germany, yet his 
insistence that eugenics was a Western 
preoccupation as well begs some elaboration as to 
how Germany came to occupy a class by itself. If 
class racism helps to explain the historical 
pedigree of Jewish Bolshevism, why then did the 
Third Reich seek to redeem workers but destroy 
the Jews? Why did the Nazi regime pursue 
Lebensraum in the east first, rather than the 
recovery and expansion of its overseas empire 
when the German imperial imagination, which 
incorporated both Lebensraum and Weltpolitik, set 
Germany apart from other European imperialist 
powers? Why, finally, did National Socialism 
synthesize the worst aspects of Western 
civilizations while other nations did not? 
Admittedly, the author's main objective is to 
stress Nazism's Western lineage against some 
tenacious historical conceptions. Yet as 
brilliantly as the author succeeds in 
accomplishing that goal, and as obvious as the 
answers to my questions could well be, Traverso 
leaves us wishing for a reconstruction of German 
specificity without the baggage of past 

Library of Congress Call Number: DD256.5 .T6813 2003

        *       National socialism.
        *       Political violence--Germany--History--20th century.
        *       Political violence--Europe--History--20th century.
        *       National socialism--Europe.
        *       Terrorism--Germany--History--20th century.
        *       Ideology--Germany--History--20th century.
        *       Racism--Germany--History--20th century.
        *       Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)--Causes.

Citation: Shelley Baranowski. "Review of Enzo 
Traverso, The Origins of Nazi Violence," 
H-German, H-Net Reviews, September, 2004. URL: 

Copyright  2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. 
H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting 
of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, 
with full and accurate attribution to the author, 
web location, date of publication, originating 
list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences 
Online. For any other proposed use, contact the 
Reviews editorial staff at 

RSS | Validate: XHTML | CSS

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Sun Apr 30 2006 - 00:00:07 EDT