Murderous Intellectuals: German Elites and the Nazi SS
By: Jonathan Maxwell
Publisher: Millennial Mind Publishing
Publication Date: November 2009
Reviewed by: Tracie Rubeck
Review Date: October 27, 2009
In his book Murderous Intellectuals: German Elites and the Nazi SS, Jonathan Maxwell sets himself two daunting and urgent tasks—to explain why the Holocaust occurred and to prevent future genocides. In doing so, he takes the reader from the minutest of details about individual Nazis (one, for example, had trouble with his lymph nodes as a child) to grandiose narratives about human nature, psychology and civilization.
The first part of the book provides overviews of various categories of Nazi “intellectuals” or “elites”: bureaucrats, doctors, scientists, educators, lawyers and soldiers—each category filled with individuals who perverted their professions in pursuit of Nazism. Thus, we learn of doctors who perfected methods for killing people, scientists in pursuit of racial purity above reason and evidence, lawyers who dismantled the rule of law in pursuit of state sponsored terrorism, and so on. These chapters are flush with biographical sketches of Nazi leaders, chock-full of dates, titles, job duties, wayward sentences, and ample speculation about said leaders’ psychological shortcomings and split temperaments. Throughout these chapters we are also repeatedly reminded of these leaders’ pedigrees—their education, wealth or social status—as evidence that they should have known better than to stand in opposition to their respective professions’ best values. One wonders why, given the magnitude of Nazi crimes, Maxwell sets out to prove the evil of Nazi leaders by calling them names and emphasizing their character flaws.
A possible explanation for that castigating approach—moral outrage as lens of analysis—is offered in the second half of the book, which evaluates a range of explanations for the Holocaust. Was it simple self-interest? Yes, some Germans became Nazis for power, prestige, opportunities for theft and even, Maxwell claims, for access to alcohol. They were not, however, “simply following orders.” Were all Nazis just sadists? Maxwell argues that while some individuals were sadists, Nazi policy was driven by cold efficiency and ideology, not sadism. Were they all simply psychotic? No, Maxwell argues that their personality flaws or maladjustments were not “psychopathic,” and, thus, Nazi leaders were of “sound mind.” Finally, with an extended (i.e. tangential) overview of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, he also argues that one cannot point to any individual Nazi’s troubled childhood as an excuse for his or her crimes. Thus, the biographical sketches from the first half of the book seem tailored to fit Maxwell’s conclusion: “Ultimately, evil provides the most satisfactory explanation for Nazi behavior” (289). He closes, “These men and women each had a choice. They enjoyed free will, unlike their many victims” (291).
This is a disappointing conclusion, one that is further reflected in Maxwell’s struggle with more “macro” explanations of Nazism and the Holocaust. These macro explanations trap the author in a series of unexplored contradictions. For example, he explores theories of human civilization that emphasize that the degrees of violence and social inequality in a given society are directly proportional to its size and complexity. One wonders, then, why the elites of a society (particularly one that he repeatedly claims is inherently authoritarian) should be expected to behave “morally” when doing so would threaten their status in said society. Further, he argues that the primary mode for preventing future genocides is liberal and moral education—no more, as he puts it, “dry, dull business courses” and standardized tests (299). Yet, he presented ample evidence that Nazis thought that they were returning to a “simpler” mode of life for their children, one they defined in moral terms. He also presents evidence from across Western history of genocides committed in the name of civilization or Christianity, and of democracies under the sway of cult leaders who promised returns to simpler times and triumphs over externalized and dehumanized others. Yet, Maxwell himself doesn’t tackle this question directly: does “barbarism” precede civilization or is it inherent to civilization’s preservation? In other words, the contradiction throughout the book is that Maxwell expects Nazi “elites” to act on a moral code external to Nazism that is premised on a notion of “civilization” that he himself repeatedly provides evidence against. It’s much easier to prove Nazi leaders heinous (after all, who would argue that point?) than to consider that they saw themselves not in opposition to civilization, but as its final arbiters.
However, Maxwell’s book is quite impressive in the ground that it covers. It displays a considerable effort to understand the history of Nazi Germany from multiple disciplines—history, anthropology, sociology and psychology—and it marshals a range of sources and boundless factual information as it does so. This book could prove an interesting primer for a lay reader who was interested in philosophizing about the Holocaust as a window into “the human condition.”
Quill says: Murderous Intellectuals opens the reader to explorations of the concept of “collective responsibility,” the nature of evil, and competing notions of human morality and civilization.