Mass Violence and Collective Identity

Inspired by the British historian Eric Hobsbawm’s famous epithet, according to which the twentieth century was the “Age of Extremes,” I am looking at the history of  war and genocide with a focus on Germany. Inquiring into the radicalization of total warfare into genocidal violence organized by state terrorism in the first half of the 20th century and the development of an apparently peaceful democracy afterwards, my German book Kameradschaft. Die Soldaten des nationalsozialistischen Krieges und das 20. Jahrhundert (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006) explores how actions, emotions and ideas of German WWII soldiers were shaped by the myth of comradeship. Straddling recent findings in gender and military history and profiting from approaches offered by cultural anthropologists, this study shows how the mythical leitbild of comradeship shaped the pursuit of the Nazi War— how the latter was discursively prepared for; how it was experienced on by soldiers and civilians; and finally, how it was committed to memory after 1945. To this end the book explores the entire period from the First World War to the close of the 20th century. Comradeship was social cement, in primary groups, in male bonding, in “imagined communities” such as the German military and the German nation. Comradeship “combined” male bonding through criminal means (terror against others) with in-group solidarity and, indeed, an idea of “humanity”, thus giving the perpetrators a sense of being good boys while participating in mass murder. Above all, comradeship was the model of a shame culture, which after 1918 became deeply anchored in German society; it dismissed guilt culture, which, according to Ruth Benedict’s famous book on Japan (1946), usually shapes western civilization.

My most recent book (his first in English) takes up some ideas of Kameradschaft, but goes much further in encompassing the entire German society rather than only the soldiers. Profiting from approaches offered by cultural anthropologists like Victor Turner, Mary Douglas and Ruth Benedict, Belonging and Genocide. Hitler’s Community, 1918-1945 (Yale University Press, 2010) tracks the rise of “shame culture” in Germany after WWI and reveals how the longing for community, the practice of togetherness, and the ethos of comradeship became the basis of mass murder—how an advanced civilian society became a genocidal society. Drawing on diaries, letters and memoirs of ordinary people, the book paints a new picture of Nazi society that focuses on “normal” human feelings and longings—such as for community. Belonging and Genocide does not elide the complexities of a modern society but focuses on the different ways Germans felt about and dealt with nation-building by mass crime. Eventually, the totalization of war also at the home front made sure that Germans from different regions and classes actually encountered each other more than ever before. Mass death stimulated national belonging.

Currently, I am exploring the ‘creative’ side of mass violence and its relation to social identity and community building in a broader historical and comparative perspective. I am also deeply interested in debates on the historiography and collective memories of genocides and wars in Europe’s twentieth century.