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Modernity and the Holocaust

4.8 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0801487194
ISBN-10: 0801487196
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Editorial Reviews


"A stunningly original set of reflections on racism, extermination, rationality, individual responsibility in criminal societies, and the sources of obedience and resistance."―Voice Literary Supplement

"Such is the concentrated brilliance of Modernity and the Holocaust that it is sure to find an appreciative audience in every field of research which touches on the Holocaust (or which has been touched by it). Above all, to those who still hold faith with the notions of civilization, progress, and reason, this book will sit alongside others which have challenged fundamental beliefs of our time."―Times Literary Supplement

"Intellectually rich and provocative. . . . This is a text which belongs in our classrooms as well as on our shelves. Exceptionally well written."―Contemporary Sociology

"A new afterword to this edition tackles difficult issues of guilt and innocence on the individual and societal levels."―Shofar, Summer 2001, Vol. 19, No. 4

"This book is an intense scrutiny of the lengths to which haters sink in displaying their hostility to targeted victims of that malady sometimes called xenophobia."―Rabbi Sam Silver. Indiana Jewish Post and Opinion. 8/22/01

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 254 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press (February 23, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801487196
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801487194
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #229,337 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. Henderson on November 23, 2000
Format: Paperback
Peruse any mega-bookstore for works on the Holocaust and you will likely find yourself in a section called "Jewish Studies" or "Holocaust Studies." This is indicative of a general attitude that the Holocaust was merely a gross aberration in the advancement of western civilization, that it is exclusively a Jewish problem or, at best, an anomalous eruption of the irrational latent in the German psyche.
In this stunning, bold, and original work, Professor Bauman challenges this conventional wisdom. The Holocaust is not the story of European civilization gone awry; rather it embodies the most salient principles of modernity itself. It was "horrifyingly normal."
The logic of self-interest, rational management, modern bureaucratic order, technological efficiency, the relegation of values to the realm of subjectivity, science as intrinsically instrumental and value-free: such are the values comprising the shared vision of western civilization set in motion during the Enlightenment. And Bauman identifies the sum of these values as the necessary (but not sufficient) cause of the Holocaust. The SS exploited the logic of rational self-interest by making the cooperation of prisoners a condition for self-preservation. Death camps utilized the applied technology of mass production and transportation. The Third Reich was the picture of modern bureaucratic efficiency. All of this was done by highly trained engineers, technicians and doctors within an ethical framework consistent with modernity's moral relativism. And each of these conditions is still present today. This is a sobering, thought-provoking study of the Holocaust and its haunting resonance with the values of modern thought.
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Format: Paperback
Zygmunt Bauman argues that the modern society we accept as normal and the highest form as civilization, contains the seed, soil and water of the Holocaust. He argues that the Holocaust is not an anomaly but a warning and sign of what we, as human beings, have become. The Holocaust would not have happened save for modern civilization. Technological know how is important, but not the only important factor.
Mass atrocity requires three things: that violence be authorized by a legitimate authority, that the violent actions be routinized, and that the victims be dehumanized. Bauman recounts the experiments of Stanley Milgram in support of his argument. I add that, after weeks of chanting "Kill, kill, kill" over and over, and of hearing the "enemy" described as "dinks", "slopes", "gooks", "japs", "women", "niggers" and "injuns", I was able to sit through a lecture on the "law of war" in which my medic class was instructed that one of our jobs would be to execute wounded prisoners. Yes, that's illegal, immoral, and something terrorists do. Military training works. (If you respond that "war is hell" and that such things are normal, think of the fuss we put up about how our prisoners are treated.)
Military training works because normal socialization prepares us for it. Society, Bauman writes, silences morality. Rather than supporting our innate morality, society replaces it, teaching us what is good and what is bad, who is good and who is bad. It divides the world into the "moral universe", relatively small, and the universe in which we are encouraged to to act with amoral abandon. Take, for instance, the example of "family values".
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Zygmunt Bauman, a leading sociologist who has done a great deal of seminal work on modernity (in the perception of someone like me who is not a sociologist), turns his attention to the Holocaust of European Jewry in this book under the inspiration of his wife, who lived through it, survived it and has chronicled her experiences. Bauman was born in Poland, an epicentre of the Nazi "final solution of the Jewish problem", though he managed to flee to the Soviet Union and spent the war serving as an officer of the Red Army.

In contrast to Daniel Goldhagen's analysis in Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, which sees a long and deeply entrenched tradition of viciously eliminationist anti-Semitism, among ordinary Germans as a sine qua non for the Holocaust, Bauman denies flatly that ordinary Germans were viciously anti-Semitic and that deep-rooted atavistic instincts made the Holocaust possible. On his account, rather than being the expression of primitive instincts, what made the Holocaust possible was modernity, represented by an efficient and rational managerial bureaucracy, nested in the context of a totalitarian State.

Bauman's analysis is intelligent and demanding. The book does not make for easy reading, either emotionally or intellectually, but it is well worth the effort it takes to work through it. It should be of interest to anyone concerned with the Holocaust, with the history and dynamics of genocide and attempted genocide in Armenia early in the previous century, in Kampuchea, and in Rwanda, inter alia, and about modernity, bureaucracy, and ethics, whether the readers agree with Bauman's compellingly-argued thesis or not.
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