Saturday, August 10, 2013

Reflections on the Holocaust V: WHY--Pseudo-Scientific Beliefs

To the centuries-old pseudo-religious beliefs in Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus Christ and in the blood libel, the Nazis added quite a bit of modern pseudo-scientific nonsense of their own. Perhaps this pseudo-science appeared all the more respectable because Germany was the center of true science in the first half of the 20th Century. In his memoir Survival at Auschwitz, Primo Levi, an Italian, explains that he knew German (a great advantage in the concentration camp, which was run by German Nazi officers) because of his university degree in chemistry. In Italy, Levi had had to study chemistry in German, the language of science.

Side by side with legitimate science, however, there existed a number of pseudo-scientific beliefs, all promoted by men calling themselves scientists of one kind or another. Yehuda Bauer lists several of these on pages 42 and 43 of A History of the Holocaust. Christian Lassen “proved” that Yiddish was an inferior language. Houston Stewart Chamberlain held that each race carried its own benevolent spirit (Aryan) or malevolent spirit (non-Aryan). Eugen During and Paul de Lagarde taught that a person’s blood held indelible characteristics of pure race (Aryan) or impure race (non-Aryan).

None of this was based on the results of true scientific inquiry, experiment, and observation, but rather on reading into nature what the pseudo-scientists’ own prejudices had conditioned them to see. This type of pseudo-science was also prevalent in the United States, where pseudo-scientists “proved” that black African-Americans were inferior to white Caucasians.

On page 43 of A History of the Holocaust, Bauer quotes Paul de Lagarde equating the Jews with a repulsive image, that of the insect, the parasite. Speaking of the Jews, Paul de Lagarde says, “With trichinae and bacilli one does not negotiate, nor are trichinae and bacilli to be educated: they are exterminated as quickly and thoroughly as possible.”

Bauer further points out on page 90 that these pseudo-scientific beliefs led to a crazy classification of peoples. At the top were the fully human peoples—Aryans of Germanic blood. Aryans of Germanic blood included the Germans themselves as well as the English and the Scandinavians, who were considered worthy to be allies of Germany. Next in line were the sub-human peoples—Aryan peoples whose blood was not Germanic. These were the Latin peoples and the Slavic peoples, who were to be ruled by and to become servants of the Germans. At the bottom came the non-humans—the non-Aryans, namely the Jews. The Jews—equated with the devil himself and with parasitic insects—were to be exterminated for the good of the rest of the world.

The Jews, thus, became the quintessential Other. Our Coursera Professor, Peter Kenez, points out in his lecture “The Jews of Western Europe,” that the Jews were in fact visibly different from other Europeans, especially in Eastern Europe. They were different in their religion, their language, their physical characteristics, their dress, their occupation, their self-government, and their dedication to learning. Kenez says, “After the expulsion of the Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula [in the late 15th Century], the Jews were the only non-Christian Other in Europe.” Second, as we have seen, the Jews were believed to be different in crazy and fantastical ways: they were believed to be the devil incarnate, something non-human.

As the quintessential Other, the Jews were prime targets for the unhealthy psychological processes of projection and scape-goating. This will be the subject of my next post.

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