NB: Originally published on Countercurrents in October 2009
The prospect of reviewing a recent book on the Holocaust from an eco-socialist perspective may strike some as unexpected or even strange. The relevance of the attempted extermination of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators to the present predicament may perhaps appear questionable. It will however be the not uncontroversial assertion of this review that Richard A. Koenigsberg’s Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War can help to illuminate some of the factors that currently threaten the continued existence of much of humanity by means of what will here be called climate genocide.
If Koenigsberg is to believed, Nations Have the Right to Kill constitutes the culmination of the forty years he has spent investigating the Nazi genocide of the European Jews. His book, though not terribly well-written, and plagued as it is by a maddening tendency of his to literally repeat his points verbatim on multiple occasions throughout the text, presents an intriguing perspective on why it is that the Holocaust took place. Though radical critics of the existent may not finds his conclusions particularly new, his argument is nonetheless important to contemplate, especially in light of the looming climate catastrophe.
Koenigsberg situates the mass-industrial murder of European Jews during the Nazi era within the framework of sacrifice and nationalism. Problematizing the seemingly widespread view of warfare as a ‘normal’ occurrence in human affairs, Koenigsberg finds war and genocide to result from the historical establishment of the state in human society. It is devotion to the state, or nationalism, that Koenigsberg sees as having played a rather significant role in legitimizing many of the most brutal episodes of violence of the twentieth century: in World War I as in its sequel, says Koenigsberg, soldiers of each respective country were led to believe that sacrificing one’s own life in battle constituted the very meaning of strength, virility, and even love. Such ideology was central to Nazism, claims Koenigsberg: it was willingness to give one’s life for the community, the “overcoming of bourgeois privatism,” that was supreme in both Hitlerism and in the German people’s support for such totalitarianism.
As he develops his argument, Koenigsberg comes to assert that the mass murder of the Jews followed from the demands placed by the Nazi regime upon German soldiers. Given that, beginning in September, 1939, Hitler had sent millions of ‘good’ Germans to lay down their lives in furtherance of his war aims, Koenigsberg tells us that the Führer felt no compunction about the prospect of killing those ‘inferior’ peoples deemed, as a “plague bacillus,” to be the enemy of the German people and their state. The mass killings of Eastern European Jews by the Einsatzgruppen together with the implementation and prosecution of the Final Solution as well as the euthanasia programs that predated and presaged these atrocities, then, are to be understood as decidedly extreme illustrations of the total domination demanded by Nazi totalitarianism—specifically, that all were obligated to suffer and die for Germany, to give over their bodies to the German state.
In an illustrative historical parallel, Koenigsberg briefly compares the Nazi war project and the Final Solution with Aztec warfare. According to Koenigsberg, the Aztecs saw the very purpose of warfare as sacrifice: war was necessary, on this account, to capture enemies and later sacrifice them to the gods who in Aztec thought required the blood of humans for nourishment. The very continuation of life, in this sense, demanded human sacrifice. Koenigsberg claims much of Western state violence to have been prosecuted for a similar end: that is, precisely to “produce dead and wounded soldiers” so as to “establish the truth of a society’s ideology.” The Nazi genocide of the Jews is little different, in Koenigsberg’s view: the Jews were sacrificed by the Nazis to the god they worshipped, the German state.
There is much of value, in the opinion of the present author, in Nations Have the Right to Kill . The critique of nationalism and the state that permeates the work seems entirely justified, as does the claim that the devaluation of the lives of German soldiers was easily transferred to those of the European Jews. Koenigsberg’s brief examination of the Nazi euthanasia program as operating on terms that also allowed for the sacrifice of German soldiers and Jews seems legitimate; it calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s comments on the question in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Other than for the typographical errors and the sometimes-bizarre writing style employed in Nations Have a Right to Kill , one of the major weaknesses with the work seems to be a marked lack of discussion regarding the odious views promoted by Nazism vis-à-vis the Jewish people—the various ideologies that legitimated the Holocaust. The argument of the book almost seems to assume the radical separation between German and Jew as a given and as such seems to beg the question central to the book’s very thesis.
Above all, nonetheless, it is surely in its relevance to the present that Koenigsberg’s work is most important. Besides the value Nations Have the Right to Kill has for critical analyses of such currently prevailing realities as imperialist war, ethnic conflict, colonialism and neo-colonialism, and all other forms of racist violence, it is to be imagined that this work can help shed light on the present problem of dangerous anthropogenic interference with the global climate—that is to say, the catastrophic changes that capitalist societies have wrought on the atmosphere and the very life that depends upon it for continued existence.
As is well-known, climate change stands to threaten agricultural production across much of the globe, radically diminish the global supply of freshwater, inundate low-lying coastal settlements currently home to hundreds of millions of people, prompt widespread desertification, and literally eradicate some countries that today exist. The specter of such life-negating realities seems to find its genesis in capitalist society, a form of totalitarianism that essentially values profitability above all else. The response of nearly every advanced-capitalist country to the now well-established reality of climate change has been entirely inadequate toward the end of allowing much of humanity and life itself the chance to flourish or even survive the projected consequences of anthropogenic global warming; their lack of meaningful action on this question—a lack which results from the desire to hold existing society more or less unchanged—is systematic. It cannot merely then be stated that the mass murder—the rendering-impossible of human life—that follows from reformist inaction is a mistake, an unintended consequence, an ‘externality.’ Such horrifying consequences are today essentially inevitable in contemporary capitalism; as such, dominant Western treatment of these questions bears much in common with other genocidal episodes of human history.
The tactics and methods of climate genocide are undoubtedly different than those exhibited in the genocide with which Koenigsberg concerns himself in Nations Have the Right to Kill —there are no extermination camps like Auschwitz or Treblinka in the present, just as there seems to be no conscious attempt to murder millions more generally. However, present reality, along with the likely future capitalist societies have engendered through both their contributions to climate change and their decidedly weak responses to it, speaks for itself: 300,000 people die annually in the present day as a result of the 0.7-0.8° C increase in average global temperatures that has already taken place because of past emissions.1 Essentially all of the deaths, economic cost, and other misfortune for which climate change is responsible are borne in the present by what has been termed the developing world.2
As horrible as this is, considerations of the future for the Earth’s social majorities are more distressing still: a 2° C increase in average global temperatures beyond pre-industrial levels, the ‘safe target’ to which most hegemonic global institutions have claimed to be working to aim for, would likely see the total disappearance of the Andes glaciers and thus problematize the source of life for the millions who currently live in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile.3 It would, among other things, also cause at least three-quarters of the population of Mali to starve.4 An average global temperature increase of 3° C, for its part, sees much of southern Africa desertified, its environment nearly rendered uninhabitable for life, as well as the desertification of the Indus basin, the collapse of agricultural productivity in Central America, and the instauration of a permanent El Niño Southern Oscillation5—this last being a cyclical climatic variation that Mike Davis has found to have synergized with the onset of European colonialism at the end of the nineteenth century to result in the most catastrophic famines recorded in human history.6. Reflecting on these matters, it seems that some of the likely realities of a world with an increased average global temperature beyond 3° C need not be quantified: of their myriad horrors there can be no doubt.
The world-historical negations that climate change threatens to introduce to history seem to require at the very least something akin to what Hannah Arendt calls a revolutionary “new guarantee,” a “new law on earth” protective of human welfare, dignity, and freedom.7 Clearly, the constituted powers of the world have completely failed to deliver in this sense, just as they have failed severely countless times in the past. There is little indication that they will consent to, let alone encourage, radical action aimed at mitigating their contributions to climate change in the near future, even as numerous reports are released concluding that such approaches would make catastrophic climate change inevitable— inter alia , warnings from climatologists that the world would likely fail to stabilize temperature increases to 2° C,8 a study that claims that the average global temperature increase could reach 4° C by 2060,9 and another that estimates that such temperatures could well increase by over 7° C in the present century.10
Indeed, amidst the prospect of such horrors, the U.S. Congress produces legislation that would decrease U.S. emissions by 17-20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020—a mandate that amounts to a reduction in emissions of between 4 to 8 percent in 1990 levels to be realized by 2020, or more or less what the Kyoto Protocol had demanded of the U.S. by 2012. As such, this policy falls dramatically short of the proposed 25 to 40 percent reductions from such levels to be achieved before 2020, as called for by the governments of nearly all poor countries, most serious climate scientists, and the United Nations.11 Such a decidedly weak response by the society most responsible for climate change is entirely outrageous and illegitimate; it belies Obama’s absurd claims, as recently presented at the UN, that the U.S. “understand[s] the gravity of the climate threat” and “will meet [its] responsibility to future generations.”
The remarkable lack of action aimed at mitigating future climate change up to this point taken by the industrialized world as well as the surfeit of money thus far made available by advanced-capitalist societies for poorer societies to adapt to catastrophic change amount to collaboration with the future death of a decidedly overwhelming number of human beings—this, on a scale far greater than any other in human history. The deaths of these individuals would result not from ‘natural’ causes but rather human-induced ones; they would consequently be killed, theirs deaths homicide.
What is currently occurring, then, is the mass-murder of the global South by much of the global North. There has of course been a marked tendency toward this dynamic now for some time in human history, but it seems climate genocide constitutes the most final of these historical denials. The very ability for most humans currently existing as well as those expected to soon be born to survive has been problematized by the behavior of most capitalist societies: the lives of the myriad victims of climate change, both present and future, stand to be sacrificed to the exigencies of the capitalist system. Though the nameless, foreign others sacrificed by climate change are not usually referred to as a “plague bacillus” or an “epidemic” against which one had to struggle, it is largely assumed in the main that the ‘normal’ operation of capitalist society need not be interrupted by concern over the very prospects for the continued existence of much of humanity—it is expected, indeed, that humankind and even life itself be subordinate to the demands of capital.
Just, then, in Koenigsberg’s words, as “[t]he Holocaust depicts the ugliness, futility and meaninglessness of submission to the nation-state,” so does the prospect of climate genocide illustrate the naked abomination of capitalism. Dialectically, of course, it also holds out the necessity of the institution of eco-socialism: it demands that humanity cut the fuse, in Walter Benjamin’s words, “[b]efore the spark reaches the dynamite.”12
1 John Vidal, “Global warming causes 300,000 deaths a year, says Kofi Annan thinktank.” The Guardian , 29 May 2009
3 Mark Lynas, Six Degrees (Washington , D.C. : National Geographic, 2008), p. 102-107
4 Ibid , p. 112
5 Ibid , p. 123-127, 134-137, 159-153
6 Late Victorian Holocausts (London: Verso, 2002), p. 7
7 The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harvest: San Diego, 1968 ), p. ix
8 David Adam, “World will not meet 2C warming target, scientists agree.” The Guardian, 14 April 2009
9 Ibid, “Met Office warns of catastrophic global warming in our lifetimes.” The Guardian, 28 September 2009
11 “The Waxman-Markey Bill: A Good Start or a Non-Starter?” Yale Environment 360, 18 June 2009
12 One-Way Street and Other Writings (Harvest: London, 1997), p. 80