Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The origins of 'eliminationism'

Well, since this blog is the first entry in a Google search of the term "eliminationism," I suppose I'm going to have to take some ownership of it. And I'll gladly do so, because its increasing appearance in right-wing rhetoric is indeed an important phenomenon.

But I will be the first to point out that I didn't invent the term. I first encountered it in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's text Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, where it appears extensively and plays a central role in his thesis that "eliminationist antisemitism" had a unique life in German culture and eventually was the driving force behind the Holocaust.

A word about Goldhagen: In the ensuing debate over his thesis, I found myself falling more in the Christopher Browning camp, which doubted that "eliminationist antisemitism" was quite as pervasive as Goldhagen portrayed it, and that, moreover, it was as unique to Germany as he described it. Having some background of familiarity with the history of American eliminationism (particularly the "lynching era" and the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the "Yellow Peril" agitation and the subsequent internment of Japanese Americans during World War II), I agreed especially with the latter point.

That said, Hitler's Willing Executioners is an important and impressive piece of scholarship, particularly in the extent to which it catalogues the willing participation of the "ordinary" citizenry in so many murderous acts, as well as in the hatemongering that precipitated them. And his identification of "eliminationism" as a central impulse of the Nazi project was not only borne out in spades by the evidence, but was an important insight into the underlying psychology of fascism.

Reexamining the text, it's hard to find a single point at which Goldhagen explains precisely the meaning of "eliminationist," except that it is spelled out in nearly every page of the book's first hundred pages (Part I is titled "Understanding German Antisemitism: The Eliminationist Mind-set"). Probably the closest I can come to a distillation of the concept appears on p. 69:
The eliminationist mind-set that characterized virtually all who spoke out on the "Jewish Problem" from the end of the eighteenth century onward was another constant in Germans' thinking about Jews. For Germany to be properly ordered, regulated, and, for many, safeguarded, Jewishness had to be eliminated from German society. What "elimination" -- in the sense of successfully ridding Germany of Jewishness -- meant, and the manner in which this was to be done, was unclear and hazy to many, and found no consensus during the period of modern German antisemitism. But the necessity of the elimination of Jewishness was clear to all. It followed from the conception of the Jews as alien invaders of the German body social. If two people are conceived of as binary opposites, with the qualities of goodness inhering in one people, and those of evil in the other, then the exorcism of that evil from the shared social and temporal space, by whatever means, would be urgent, an imperative. "The German Volk," asserted one antisemite before the midpoint of the century, "needs only to topple the Jew" in order to become "united and free."

Of course, I'm struck in that passage by how easily one could replace "Jewishness" with "liberalism" and "liberals" in much of the current environment -- as well as a number of other targets for right-wing elimination, particularly illegal immigrants.'

I'm planning to write more on the subject soon, but I've noted previously that the eliminationist project is in many ways the signature of fascism, partly because it proceeds naturally from fascism's embrace of palingenesis, or Phoenix-like national rebirth, as its core myth. And I've also noted that eliminationist rhetoric has consistently preceded, and heralded, the eventual assumption of the eliminationist project.

This is the case not merely in Europe, but in America as well. Perhaps more germane in terms of our current milieu, eliminationism has a long and colorful -- and ultimately, shameful -- history in this country.

Halfwits and propagandists who assure us that it can't happen here are ignoring that, in fact, it has. It's buried in our hard-wiring. And the modern American right is doing its damnedest to bring it back to life.

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