The Law of Blood: Thinking and Acting as a Nazi
by Johann Chapoutot
translated from the French by Miranda Richmond Mouillot
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018
The crux of Nazi ideology that Sorbonne history professor Johann Chapoutot explains so absorbingly in his 2014 book La loi du sang: Penser et agir en Nazi, new in an English-language translation for the Belknap Press by Miranda Richmond Mouillot, was its all-or-nothing bent, the way it was so often pitched in “purely eschatological” terms to a German populace worn down by years of economic recession and steeped in unfocused resentments that told them the rest of the world was passing them by.
Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party surgically sighted this toxic mixture of grievance and insecurity. They encouraged and fomented violence; they stoked xenophobia; they loutishly strutted on the international stage and mocked the bewilderment this created in former allies; they sowed the seeds of distrust between people who had been friends and neighbors for years; and they did all of it in the ideological framework of desperate necessity: if we don't do all these things, we're doomed. The world is a horror show of violence, crime, and the other, Hitler told the German people in speech after speech, and he alone could fix it.
“If its enemies saw the Nazi Party as a criminal counterculture,” Chapoutot writes, “its members saw it as the only community that was actually generating and proposing values that were relevant to contemporary problems.” The Nazi Party offered those members an outstretched hand, a victory-oriented world-view, a rhetorical bubble in which they could at last indulge openly in their basest impulses and see it justified by their leaders as their cultural obligation. “The imbeciles and the cowards who were upset by the violence of these procedures and chattered on at every turn about humanity were the real criminals.”
The Nazi Office of Racial Purity characterized all opposition as fake news and billed their barbarities as an ongoing struggle, a battle to return the world to some halcyon earlier age when things made sense. A widely-distributed 1937 documentary called Alles Leben is Kampf – All Life is Struggle – captures the message perfectly, and that message was propagated endlessly elsewhere by the ruling party, always linked to notions of expansion and conquest. “For the Nazis, there was an after to history, with its racial dialectics, its struggle and contamination,” Chapoutot writes (and Mouillot elegantly translates), “They believed the time had come to emancipate time itself, to open up the vast spaces of the East and the millennium for themselves through conquest and colonization.”
The Law of Blood does invigorating work in attempting to explain how such a wildly repulsive ideology could take hold in the hearts and minds of shopkeepers, artisans, soldiers, and housewives – how a solid percentage of a modern nation could have aligned itself with such obvious, ham-handed, manipulative cruelty. The book has many strengths, but its greatest is a kind of stern empathy, a cold understanding of the complexities of the exchange that was taking place in Germany in the 1930s. “To the extent that we are engaging in the study of history, that is, that we believe ourselves to be considering human beings, and not madmen or monsters,” Chapoutot writes, “we cannot avoid the observation that killing is an unpleasant and difficult thing to do – all of the sources attest to this. Formulating a discourse that conveys meaning, and even transmits imperatives, maxims, or duties, facilitates the act of killing by establishing, at the very least, the conditions in which it becomes possible.”
Those conditions – crowds of glassy-eyed young men and women chanting “blood and soil” in organized marches, civilized, compassionate people averting the gaze while government agencies carry out brutalities in their name, statesmen remaining mute while their government leaders pitch them into new antagonisms around the world – have seldom had an examination as detailed and ambitious as they get in these pages. The Belknap Press is to be praised for bringing the book to an English-speaking audience.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.