Pregenocide; Warnings and readiness to protect;

An international conference on the road to the

 Holocaust and other Genocides.

 ’Sinatur’, Lyngby, Denmark

26-28 September 2018

 Before the catastrophe

  1. Anticipating the catastrophe

In 1933 the German sociologist Norbert Elias, at the time 39 years of age, left the country of his birth and upbringing, Germany, only months after the Nazi usurpation of power. For a brief spell he lived in France, before moving again, this time to Great Britain. Did Norbert Elias, one of the most perceptive observers of his generation, anticipate the annihilationist turn that the Nazi-regime was to take in the years to come? He certainly did not dally and left his country in time for safer, more alluring shores.

            In an interview, Elias describes the general mood in the Germany of the 1930s:[1]‘There was a real bisection of the country. That did not mean that people with different positions on the party spectrum at the university did not speak to each other. But you could feel the power of the right gradually increasing. All the same, no one in my circle imagined anything remotely like what later happened’.

            In 1932, Norbert Elias was already well aware of the danger threatening the Weimar Republic, because, as he put it, the army no longer was subordinate to the state, but to traditional conservatives. Every movement, from the Communists and the Social Democrats to the Conservatives and the National Socialists, had its own militia roaming the street and attacking its opponents. The state was about to lose its monopoly of violence and that robbed the Rechtsstaat of the effective means to uphold the legal order.

            At the time Hitler was appointed Reichskanzler,in 1933, Norbert Elias was head of the Frankfurt Sociological Institute (the breeding ground of what was later to become world famous as the Frankfurter Schule)It occurred to him right away to gather and destroy the membership lists of leftwing student organizations that had been left lying around.  A few days later the SS came for Elias and he was forced to hand over the keys of the Institute. Next, the SS told him not ever to show up again at the Institute.

            That same year, after driving to Switzerland to try in vain to find a job at a university there, Elias decided to move to France, where he continued his studies. With two other German refugees he operated a small toy factory that helped them survive. Norbert Elias was the sales agent.                    

            Two years later, in 1935, Elias briefly returned to Germany to visit his parents. Order in the country had been restored by the Hitler regime and people had regained confidence in the Rechtsstaat. ‘Think of it - even my parents were not afraid enough to leave Germany. […] It was all dreadful, it was of course terrible. A dictator, Hitler… one felt real contempt for him, and it was bad that this man was ruling Germany. But that did not mean that people like my parents - or like myself, when I travelled through Germany - were in acute fear for their lives. Such an idea is always a projection from later; you see, the National Socialists themselves only slowly got the idea of the “Final Solution”. They had not planned the gas chambers from the first, it was a gradual process. So how could we have had an inkling of it?[2]

Norbert Elias’s parents came to England to see their son in 1939, on the eve of World War II ‘I begged them to stay. I did not want them to go back to Breslau [their home town], as I had the feeling they were in danger there. I begged them with all my power.’

His father said and I quote it in the original German: ‘Ich habe nie etwas unrechtes getan, was können sie mir tun?’[3] I never did anything wrong, what can they do to me? It was the greatest trauma of his life, that Elias could not convince his father and mother to stay. Both his parents were to die in the next few years, his mother in Auschwitz.

I have quoted, at some length the vicissitudes of Norbert Elias in the thirties of the last century, because he was at the time one of the most attentive and insightful observers of society. In those years, he witnessed the rise of a regime that was to become genocidal through and through. Almost from the start he realized that there was no place for him in the new Reich, but the SS obligingly helped him to achieve that insight by telling him never to come back to his desk at the university. He had completed his doctorate, he was at the time in his mid-thirties, without the burden of a family of his own. He was, so to say, part of the freischwebende Intelligenz. He must have been in the first cohort of German Jews to flee the country and he settled in France for the time being. There, initially, Elias felt quite disoriented, but he succeeded in building a new life, albeit quite tenuously. He left France for England, not because of any foresighted calculations about the odds of survival in case of a German invasion, but because ‘it was hopeless’, there was no perspective for a job in France, let alone for an academic career. And as such things go, friends from his hometown Breslau who had settled in Britain suggested he go there to. Norbert let himself be persuaded, even though he spoke no English (his French was fluent and nearly without accent), and prospects were not much better in England. This move, although it was hardly motivated by political foresight, most likely saved his life.

            Elias was not naïve, he was very well informed about the politics of his day, he had a sound grasp of the situation and he was also guided by a theoretical idea: the collapse of the state monopoly of violence had to bring about the disintegration of the Rechtsstaat. That insight served him well to evaluate the long term consequences of the chaotic upheavals that succeeded one another from day to day. It was that very same idea in reverse that would become the foundation of his Civilizing process, which, after all, is the outcome of a protracted, extending and intensifying pacification, i.e. the disappearance of violence from everyday society.[4]

My father, Meik de Swaan sr, a younger man at the time, he was born in 1911, witnessed the rise of National Socialism from Amsterdam, where his parents and five brothers had moved from Groningen. This small town in the North of the Netherlands had a sizeable Jewish community, mostly very pious and mostly very poor (almost all of them were murdered in Sobibor). The brothers all turned away from Judaism. My father became a left socialist, one older brother and his German wife became card-carrying members of the underground KPD, the German CommunIst party. Moreover, the brothers knew many German refugees who arrived with the latest tales of horror from the Third Reich. They also all were avid newspaper readers, even at the table during the meal that their mother cooked them every Friday. My mother, Hennnie de Swaan-Roos, remembered jerking the papers from their hands, thus earning the lifelong esteem of her mother in law. 

            Obviously, the brothers were very well informed. And yet… One brother, the oldest, an astute businessman without much intellectual or political ambition, decided to leave the Netherlands for the US in April 1940, just in time. (He and his wife and young son arrived in New York on May 9, the day before the German invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium and France). He had tried hard to persuade his younger brothers to join him in emigration, but he had been unsuccessful and the three other brothers that lived in the Netherlands staid there throughout the war (they all survived, my father’s two brothers because of their marriage to women who were not considered Jewish by the Nazi’s).

            On May 10, as German troops crossed the frontier with the Netherlands and bombers flew over Dutch territory, thousands of Jews and quite a few leftwing intellectuals and politicians, as yet tried to escape. The only way out of the country was across the North Sea, to England. Everyone tried to get hold of a car to reach the port of IJmuiden where boats were ready to ship them to Britain. It was total mayhem. My father’s best friend and classmate, Lou de Jong, and his wife Liesbeth Cost Budde (my mother’s old roommate) succeeded in commandeering a taxi that would bring them to the shore. De Jong had to leave his parents behind. My father, Meik de Swaan, and my mother Hennie jumped on the footboard and held on to the car all the way to IJmuiden, but had to let go in the chaotic bustle in the streets near the harbor.[5] De Jong became the voice (and the pen) of Radio Free Netherlands in London throughout the war years and afterwards was the author commissioned to write what became the 29 volume official History of the Kingdom of the Netherlands during the Second World War.   
My father and mother that same day returned home from Ijmuiden and two years later, when the persecution of the Dutch Jews intensified and the deportations had begun, they were hidden by faithful political friends, just in time. They stayed in a house on the Amsterdam canals, two blocks from Anne Frank’s secret annex. My parents were not betrayed and survived the war, and, obviously, so did I, somewhere else. In hiding, my father collaborated on an underground review, De Vrije Katheder,which in the aftermath of the war under his directorship was to become a leading journal on the left.

            What does this all lead up to?

Norbert Elias, Lou de Jong, or Meik de Swaan and their wives Liesbeth and Hennie were all well informed and alert followers of the politics of their day, especially of course, of the ever growing menace of the Third Reich. My parents belonged to the generation that as little children lived in neutral Holland during the First World War. Events followed one another, if not chaotic, then full of dark menace: the German hyperinflation, the Freikorpse in the Weimar Republic, the Great Depression of 1929, mass unemployment, and the rise of Adolf Hitler and his NSDAP. No sensible citizen could have remained entirely a-political during those times. They all understood the signs of their time. But the signs of the time tell one the direction events may take, not the moment in time, if ever, that the worst will happen.

  1. Forebodings of catastrophe

           Students of international macroeconomics are fond of quoting “Dornbusch’s law” (named after the German American economist Rüdiger Dornbusch): “Crises take much longer to arrive than you think, but when they do come, they happen much faster than you would have thought.”[6]  This also applies to those political crises that end in large scale annihilation of human life. Episodes of mass murder are long in the offing and strike by surprise.

      Since each episode follows a different course, no risks or odds can be calculated. And yet there are signs of danger, warnings, foreboding tokens of disaster. Most of the time the catastrophe does not materialize. Sometimes it does. No one can tell for sure in advance.

And yet, the process that may lead to murderous violence on a mass scale is understood in great part. It may be summed up by a single expression: compartmentalization.[7] But this one term must do a lot of work. It covers a wide range of phenomena that usually go together but rarely are discussed in one breath.

            In the course of this compartmentalizing process, people come to be separated on four levels at once: macrosociological, mesosociological, microsociological, and ‘psychosociological’.

First of all, in a macrosociological perspective, developments in society at large over a longer period of time shape the collective memories and the shared mentality of a nation. The wounds of war, the humiliations of defeat, the pervasive fear under tyranny, the pain of mass unemployment, and the penury of economic crisis constitute such formative experiences that shape similar dispositions among contemporaries (which still will differ considerably from one person to the next). These may be considered the macrosociological processes that may make for a turn toward mass violence

            Over a long period of time certain dividing lines within the population are formed and may then remain dormant again for many, many years. But they remain part of the mentalité, the shared consciousness of people living in that society. At their most innocent, they are just the stuff for joking relationships, as between Dutchmen and Belgians, or Limburgers and Hollanders. At their very worst they may evolve in fierce and murderous hatred, as among the Hutu’s against the Tutsi’s in Rwanda in the second half of the last century.

            At the next level, in a mesosociological  perspective, the regime may put in place the institutions it needs to realize its discriminatory policies. It will try and actualize the mostly latent lines of division, defining the regime’s own people on the one hand and a target group on the other had.  All the while it will actively try to shape people’s mentality and dispositions through education and propaganda. It may well decide to assign the target people to separate schools, to exclude them from some hospitals and health services, to designate specific areas for them to live, or even to set fixed times for them to be in the streets or visit shops.

            On a third level, in the microsociological perspective, people function within the context of these institutions, such as schools and hospitals, offices or shops, prisons or camps, in situations that strongly influence their actions and experiences. This is where they interact directly with their peers. As the regime continues to compartmentalize society, direct encounters between the regime’s people and the target people will become increasingly rare. People may decide to avoid contacts with the others, so as not to embarrass or be embarrassed by their presence. Relations become awkward even before they become hostile.

            And last, in a psychosociological perspective, individual people act with and against other people according to their particular dispositions and their specific “definition of the situation.” As social compartimentalization intensifies, the regime’s people come to experience feelings of disgust, contempt, hatred towards the target people, and they experience those feelings as their own authentic emotions. There is mutual suspicion and fear. The target people must resist so as not to let their self-esteem be eroded by the regime’s propaganda and by the rejection from the regime’s people. Feelings of self-doubt and vulnerability are compensated with sentiments of pride in one’s own group, even though, or rather precisely because it is being discriminated against. The point here is that regime-initiated campaigns of compartimentalization may actually transform the most intimate thoughts and feelings of the people who live through such times.

What follows is a checklist of danger signs, each of them an aspect of the compartment­alizing process, which indicates an increased probability of large scale annihilation.

First of all, there are macrosociological conditions, the outcome of large-scale societal processes in the long term:

  • Most important are major upheavals in the remembered past, such as war, civil war, revolution, economic crisis, hyperinflation, or mass unemployment.
  • Over time, large groups in society (“the regime’s people”) have come to share a disidentification from a particular group of people, who are singled out as the target group.
  • The regime and the regime’s people have gained control of the resources—the personnel, information, organization, and equipment—needed to kill members of the target group without running a similar risk themselves. A considerable inequality of power prevails between the regime with its people and their target group.

These macrosociological conditions strongly determine the “opportunity structure” for the regime.[8] Under these circumstances the regime can act to bring about a series of mesosociological conditions:

  • The regime encourages further compartmentalization of society at all levels, creating an ever sharper separation between the regime’s people and the target people.
  • The regime’s propaganda insistently dehumanizes and demonizes the target group.
  • The target group is depicted as the (potential) aggressor: the regime’s people are the ones being threatened, and they risk becoming the victim of the target group and its foreign patrons.
  • According to the regime, the present moment is a decisive turning point in history. From now on everything will be different, if only the regime’s people seize their chance to act together resolutely.
  • The regime takes a long series of institutional and legal measures to further separate the people of the regime and the people of the target group and drive them even further apart: inequality before the law, separate schools, hospitals, and neighborhoods, and all the other forms of legal and institutional compartmentalization that have a psychological impact by further exacerbating the separation of minds.
  • The regime increasingly controls the media and other means of communication. It attempts to close all other channels of information, especially oppositional ort foreign sources.
  • Militias, gangs and small bands of thugs attack members of the target people and the regime condones it, allowing the perpetrators to get off with a slap on the wrist or with impunity (if not openly or covertly encouraging them).
  • Personnel of the police and armed forces, customs officials treat members of the target group rudely and even violently, and, again, the regime condones or encourages such behavior by its own personnel.

These are some mesosociological conditions that in turn help shape the microsociological level of direct interaction among the regime’s people, among the target people and between these groups.

  • People in both groups tend to limit their interactions to their own kind; the regime’s people because they increasingly shun contact with people deemed inferior, or at least pictured as such by the regime in power; the target people want to avoid rejection and offense. Mutual encounters become increasingly embarrassing: the regime’s people do not want to be seen with someone from the target group and the people from the target group fear humiliation from such an encounter.

Microsociological conditions gradually alter the psychosociological make up of people, their personal opinions and intimate sentiments.

  • The regime’s people come to feel proud of their own kind and to feel superior to the target people (and some of the regime’s people actively resist such sentiments). They are buoyed by an increasing sense of solidarity. The target people feel increasingly powerless, weak, and intimidated. They may be overcome by a sense of isolation, personally and as a group. And some of the target people actively resist such sentiments. The regime’s people increasingly experience feelings of contempt and even intense disgust (‘vitale Abkehr) when confronted with the target people, or even at the very thought of them. The people in the target group feel a growing fear and hatred of the regime’s people and come to despise them more and more.
  • As time goes on, the regime’s people succeed in somehow ‘not thinking’ about the fate of the target people. They may be aware of the existence of prisons, camps, interrogation centers and they may well have heard about the atrocities going on there, but they manage to ‘put it out of their mind’ (one more form of compartimentalization). When directly confronted with the suffering of the target people, they feel less or no compassion for the victims, since they are another kind of beings, and, anyway, they deserve what is coming to them.

Such are the forebodings of catastrophe. The list is not complete, of course. There are opposite movements, too. There is criticism of the regime, rebellion, covert help of the victims, open shows of solidarity. But that is a different subject.

            None of these warning signs on its own announces the coming of a catastrophic massacre, but each one of them increases its probability. And no one can tell if, and when, catastrophe will strike.

The individuals discussed in the first part of this essay each tried to read the signs of the times and they were quite well aware of what might at some point come to pass, without ever grasping the dismal future in its gruesome reality. One of them, Norbert Elias, as a young men on his own, an academic who had just lost his job, was quick to leave his home country, but his life saving choice for England was a matter of luck more than insight. 
However, by 1939 he foresaw that catastrophe was in the offing, even though he had no idea of the final form it would take. He tried hard to keep his parents from returning to Germany and they, on their part, had no idea of the fate that might be in store for them.
De Jong and De Swaan sr were equally aware of the dire situation in Nazi Germany and the likelihood of a Nazi invasion of the Netherlands. But neither of them expected disaster to strike when it did. With hindsight, when the Nazi’s came for them, they turned out to be remarkably ill prepared, all the more so, since they were so deeply involved in anti-Nazi politics. But that may precisely provide a key to understanding: Maybe their very activism and the many ties and loyalties it entailed had restrained them from breaking all bonds, leaving their comrades behind, and fleeing when it was still time.

The above enumeration of warning signs may be used as a checklist to assess what may be ahead in the near future. It is useful to evaluate current regimes that are taking a turn towards compartmentalization with all that may entail. 

            ‘It can’t happen here and it can’t happen in our time.’

Do not be too sure.

            Maybe there is one decisive alarm signal: when the regime in power announces ‘it is now or never, it is all or nothing, it is them or us’, then the time has come for either fight or flight.


[1]Arend-Jan Heerma van Voss and  Bram van Stolk, Norbert Elias’s story of his life; An interview’ in: The Collected Works of Norbert Elias. Vol. 17: Interviews and Autobiographical Reflections. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2013,pp. 71-140, p. 107.

[2]Ibidem, p. 115-6.

[3]Ibidem, p. 116.

[4]The fact that domestic order was restored in Germany, as Elias noted, albeit under a regime of terror in a strongly compartmentalized society, resulted in an altered form of pacification: full monopolization of violence by the state, which might turn its institutionalized violence against its own citizens at the slightest provocation, by means of its police, militias and secret services. This did not result in a ‘collapse’ (Zusammenbruch)of civilization, as Elias has it, but rather in a different track for the civilizing process, a ‘dyscivilizing process’ for the regime’s people, interspersed with enclaves of barbarism for the target people and anyone considered deviant or dissident by the regime. Cf. my The Killing Compartments; On the mentality of mass murder.New Haven and London: Yale U.P., 2015, esp. pp. 125-8.

[5]De Jong has described this episode in his Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog, 1939-1945. Vol 3, Mei ’40.’s-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970, pp. 452-3. See also, Lou de Jong, Herinneringen, vol 1. ‘s- Gravenhage: SDU, 1993, p. 90.

[6]Quoted by Paul Krugman, New York Times, May 24, 2018.

[7]What follows paraphrases parts of my The Killing Compartments; especially Chapter 6: ’Genocidal Regimes and the Compartmentalization of Society’, pp. 115-142.

[8]The expression is used here in a somewhat different sense as in Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly, Dynamics of Contention. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2001, p. 84, where it refers to ‘incentives for people to undertake collective action.’