Attachment to nations/Attachment to warfare

Richard Koenigsberg, courtesy of Ideologies of War Newsletter

If warfare is destructive and the experience of battle painful and traumatic, why don’t human beings abandon this ideology? What is the nature of our attraction to an institution that generates death, maiming and other forms of suffering? One may approach this question through the case of Adolf Hitler, who fought for the German army in the First World War for four years, 1914-1918. Based on what Hitler experienced, one might imagine or expect that Hitler would have abandoned warfare forever. Yet he did not.

Rather, upon becoming Chancellor and Fuehrer, he led Germany into a Second World War.Hitler was in a hospital bed recovering from a poison gas attack in November 1918 when he learned that Germany had suffered defeat in the First World War.  He writes in Mein Kampf about the state of doubt and despair into which he fell:

Hitler’s Reaction to Germany’s Surrender

“And so it had all been in vain. In vain all the sacrifices and privations; in vain the hunger and thirst of months which were often endless; in vain the hours in which, with mortal fear clutching at our hearts, we nevertheless did our duty; and in vain the death of two millions who died. Was this the meaning of the sacrifice which the German mother made to the fatherland when with sore heart she let her best-loved boys march off, never to see them again?”

Throughout Mein Kampf, Hitler laments the fate of German soldiers who had been “uselessly sacrificed dead and maimed.” He writes that if the graves of Flanders Field were to open, from them would arise the “bloody accusers”: hundreds of thousands of the best young Germans who were driven “poorly trained into the arms of death;” thrown as “defenseless cannon fodder to the enemy.”

Hitler places blame for Germany’s defeat on the “sins of the German Reichstag”; the “parliamentary rabble who stole from the hand of the nation its weapon of self-preservation.” He condemns “Jews in their Marxist and democratic press” for Germany’s surrender. [Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War  by Richard Koenisgberg]

Hitler, rarely, however, has anything bad to say about German Generals Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg who sent millions of young men to die. Nor does he place blame upon the German nation itself. He grieves the death of German men, doubts the value of their sacrifice, but finally comes down on the side of warfare. The following passage from Mein Kampf reveals how Hitler resolves his ambivalence:

Why Hitler Does Not Abandon the Ideology of War

“When in the long war years Death snatched so many a dear comrade and friend from our ranks, it would have seemed to me almost a sin to complain—after all, were they not dying for Germany?”

Despite two million dead and four million wounded, Hitler declares that it would be a “sin to complain.” Hitler refuses to complain because his comrades were “dying for Germany.” In the face of this idea, “Germany”, Hitler loses his capacity to resist. He acquiesces to the monumental slaughter that occurred. Hitler cannot abandon the idea of warfare because he cannot abandon the idea of Germany.

What is the nature of the “sin” that prevents Hitler from rebelling against his nation and the suffering that it has caused? Why is Hitler unable to protest against the death and maiming of millions of young men? What is this thing, “Germany,” that transforms death and maiming into a form of virtue?

These questions I pose about Hitler are relevant for each of us. What are “countries” and why do people feel that it is good and righteous to kill and die in their name? This question is not, fundamentally, a moral or ethical one. Questions about whether this or that war are just or unjust will go on forever. What I am posing is a psychological question revolving around the symbolic meaning of words such as Germany, France or America.

What is the nature of our attachment to these symbolic objects? What is the relationship between attachment to nations and the human proclivity to wage war? Why does the mere utterance of words such as Germany or France or America allow people to overcome their aversion to killing, dying and maiming?

For Hitler, “Germany” is a magical incantation that makes everything all right. In the face of this word, Hitler loses his capacity to complain, resist, protest or rebel. He falls into a state of helplessness, accepts the death and maiming of millions of his comrades, and continues to embrace the ideology of warfare.

At the core of Hitler’s thinking—as an individual and an ideologue—is the ideal of sacrificial death in warfare. Hitler accepts and embraces the Western idea that it is “sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” (Horace):

Hitler’s Ideology of Sacrificial Death

“More than once, thousands and thousands of young Germans had stepped forward with self-sacrificing resolve to sacrifice their young lives freely and joyfully on the altar of the beloved fatherland.”

“With Fatherland love in our heart and songs on our lips, our young regiment had gone into the battle as to a dance. The most precious blood there sacrificed itself joyfully, in the faith that it was preserving the independence and freedom of the fatherland.”

What are the psychic and symbolic meanings of these objects—nations or countries—in the name of which human beings die and kill? Why is it difficult to pose this question? Perhaps because, like Hitler, when we move toward deconstructing nationalism (our attachment to countries), we feel like sinners. How dare we examine these objects that constitute the essence of political existence? If one abandoned these sacred objects, would one become a man without a country?



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