Modernity and the Holocaust

In Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman contends that the Holocaust should not simply be understood as an accident along the road to modernity. Rather, Bauman argues that modernity provided the “necessary conditions” (Bauman, 13) for its undertaking. As Bauman puts it, the Holocaust was “a legitimate resident in the house of modernity” (Bauman, 17). To support this contention, Bauman suggests that the principles of rationality and efficiency which so uniquely characterize the modern era may have had, in the case of the Holocaust, some unintended consequences: “at no point of its long and tortuous execution did the Holocaust come into conflict with the principles of rationality. The ‘Final Solution’ did not clash at any stage with the rational pursuit of efficient, optimal goal-implementation” (Bauman, 17). Indeed, for Bauman, it wasn’t so much that modernity caused the Holocaust, but rather that it failed to prevent it. While its execution may have been “long and tortuous,” and while its established goal was no less inhumane than the total destruction of an entire race of human beings, with its emphasis on rational and efficient mechanisms the Holocaust was an evil rendered compatible with modern society. 

To Bauman then, the Holocaust deeply problematizes modernity. While modernity did not cause the holocaust, it did provide a fertile ground for its initial conception and subsequent expansion. As Bauman explains, “it arose out of a genuinely rational concern, and it was generated by bureaucracy true to its form and purpose” (Bauman, 17). Modernity’s strict adherence to reason and the system of bureaucracy that naturally emerges from that adherence to reason are therefore understood to be the key ingredients of that fertile ground.

In his review of Modernity and the Holocaust, titled “Modernity and Its Victims,”[1] Ravi Sundaram understands Bauman’s thesis to be that “the spread of instrumental reason with the rise of capitalism enforced a means-ends to the exclusion of morality from social action. It was this bureaucratic culture which is a condition of modern society in general, which made the holocaust possible” (Sundaram, 459). The force of instrumental reason, then, was so powerful that it managed to displace morality as a factor influencing the actions of society and of those individuals who make up that society. The alluring power of capitalism, indeed the shear “common sense” of capitalism, promoted instrumental reason to such an extent that other, less pertinent, or perhaps even interfering factors such as morality were permanently sidelined, if not forgotten altogether.  The “bureaucratic culture” that set itself into modern society as a byproduct of instrumental reason eventually took on a greater jurisdiction for itself; it became a more pervasive characteristic within society, no longer uniquely serving the interests of capitalism. The bureaucratic culture began to inform all of society’s actions and attitudes, as if morality had never even existed, or as if to adjust for a long-standing overemphasis on morality.

The key message to be had from Bauman’s thesis is not to disregard the significant deficiencies within modernity that the holocaust may be pointing to, lest we condemn ourselves to repeating our own bloody history.  Sundaram points to the fact that “the holocaust provides us with a profound insight into the consequences of the ethically blind pursuit of efficiency and goal-maximisation that informs bureaucratic culture” (Sundaram, 459). In Modernity and the Holocaust, Bauman seems to be similarly suggesting that society in its modern form has been inflicted with a form of ethical blindness. The sense of morality that might otherwise occasionally give pause to individuals and solicit their consideration of the ultimate repercussions of their actions is effectively nowhere in sight. Instead, individuals remain purely fixated on meeting the immediate objectives that have been set out for them in the most efficient possible manner.

This ethical blindness is the immediate effect of the “social production of distance” (Sundaram, 460) which in turn results from the division of labor in modern capitalist society. The functional separation of tasks which has been such an important driver for the efficiency gains that have characterized modernity has also had the undesirable side-effect of distancing each individual actor from the end-product he or she is contributing towards. With this distancing effect, moral considerations which may surround the end-products are themselves also removed from sight. As Sundaram points out, “most people involved in the holocaust simply never faced difficult moral choices” (Sundaram, 460). And as Bauman explains, “the struggle over moral issues never takes place, as the moral aspects of action are not immediately obvious or are deliberately prevented from discovery or discussion” (Bauman, 24). So, not only is the distancing itself an issue, but also the fact that ill-intentioned perpetrators of criminal acts can use such distancing to conceal the moral implications of their actions.

 Bauman’s identification of rationality, efficiency and bureaucracy as the defining characteristics of modern society are supported by the critical theory of Horkheimer and Adorno.  In “The Concept of Enlightenment,” Horkheimer and Adorno engage in a critique of the enlightenment by highlighting, among other things, its dominating tendency. As Horkheimer and Adorno’s argument goes, the main thrust of the enlightenment is the human desire to conquer its fear of the unknown through the accumulation of knowledge.  Within the context of modernity, this knowledge takes on the specific form of technology: “technology is the essence of this knowledge. It aims to produce neither concepts nor images, nor the joy of understanding, but method, exploitation of the labor of others, capital” (Horkheimer/Adorno, 2). Technology, the knowledge of modernity, is therefore understood as a particularly cold form of knowledge. It is a knowledge that is as agreeable to methodological predictability and calculability as it is weary of illusion: “for enlightenment, anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility must be viewed with suspicion” (Horkheimer/Adorno, 3).

From this steadfast human determination to accumulate knowledge, we arrive at the concepts of power and domination. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, “power and knowledge are synonymous,” and “what human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts” (Horkheimer/Adorno, 2).

To understand nature, that is to say to explain it scientifically, is therefore to control it. But as we gain control over nature in this way, we at the same time distance ourselves from it. Say Horkheimer and Adorno, “human beings purchase the increase in their power with estrangement from that over which it is exerted” (Horkheimer/Adorno, 6). Science, with its emphasis on conceptualization and classification, inherently seeks to diminish individuality. The various objects of nature are defined and classified according to their common traits, as determined by science, and any sign of individuality or uniqueness is deemed insignificant.  This lessening in the importance attributed to individuality, even this scientific denial of individuality, accounts for man’s estrangement from nature.  Furthermore, human beings themselves suffer from the effects of this. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, “not only is domination paid for with the estrangement of humans beings from the dominated objects, but the relationship of individuals to themselves, have themselves been bewitched by the objectification of mind.” As a result, “individuals shrink to the nodal points of conventional reactions and the modes of operation objectively expected of them” (Horkheimer/Adorno, 21).

The modern social characteristics of moral distance and ethical blindness alluded to earlier in relation Bauman’s thesis seem to be directly related to this idea of an estrangement from nature put forth by Horkheimer and Adorno. As the latter two go on to explain, “individuals define themselves now only as things, statistical elements, successes or failures” (Horkheimer/Adorno, 21). This estrangement from nature has therefore led man to focus solely on his own degree of success or failure in relation to some arbitrary standard. He is able to dismiss the moral and ethical considerations associated with his actions insomuch as they do not impact his likelihood of success or failure. And as he systematically dismisses these irrelevant moral and ethical concerns, he effectively distances himself from them further and further, until he can no longer even see them at all.

It was under these circumstances that man committed the unthinkable. Capitalizing on man’s estrangement from nature and his resulting moral blindness, the Nazi holocaust enterprise proceeded towards the Final Solution with all the legitimacy and coordinated efficiency of modern technological industry.

[1] Sundaram, Ramy, “Modernity and Its Victims,” Economic and Political Weekly, February 29, 1992.


11 thoughts on “Modernity and the Holocaust”

  1. Abortion has indeed been made possible by certain advancements in modern technology. So yes, abortion can also be understood as a “legitimate resident in the house of modernity.”

  2. isn’t the holocaust the same as any other form of genicide, regardless of time, e.g. stalin’s in early 1900’s that killed more people than the holocaust? what about the mass murders that have happened since the dawn of man and his ability to choose to enact violence on others, i.e. always? what would be the engine that drives these choices regardless of era and technology?

    1. Dear Glen.You have to understand the source of ‘mankind’s’ knowledge throughout history, and how and in what way such events have come about. The function of modernism and the notions of reason and instrumental reason are key in understanding the holocaust of WWII. It is a unique event in history (refer to Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust).Slavery in ancient Egypt was remarkably different from the Black Atlantic Slave System as much as the Genocide of the Jews was distinctively different from the Rawandan Genocide. Even the deaths caused by Stalin in the Gulags bare little resemblance to the NAzi ‘death camps’ other than the nature of the imprisonments (mostly political under Communism), mostly social and racial (under Nazism). and the terrible conditions that they had to endure. However, there is no doubting that both regimes were totalitarian, and this is also a very modern theme. Modern technologies are also a key factor in defining certain events from those pre-modern.

  3. Glen, thanks for your thoughtful question. Bauman’s thesis, the way I understand it, is not to deny that other genocides of equal or greater proportions have occurred throughout history. Rather, what sets the Holocaust apart from preceding genocides is that it was a uniquely modern enterprise. For Bauman and Sundaram, the Holocaust enterprise could not have been undertaken as “successfully” as it was without the uniquely modern phenomena of the social production of distance and ethical blindness. The Holocaust should therefore prompt us to think seriously about the possible implications of the “objectification of mind” that Horkheimer & Adorno understand as the active ingredient in scientific and technological “progress.”

  4. Jean-Michel, thank you also for taking the time to respond. I understand your response and would like to say that your responses truly help your blog come alive and give it all the more success. Great stuff!

  5. Dear Jean-Michel, would you say that the recent evictionand exlcusion of Romany Gypsys specifically in Dale Farm but also elsewhere, would be “legitimate resident in the house of modernity.” in today’s society?

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