Life Unworthy of Life: Racial Phobia and Mass Murder in Hitler's Germany

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In this path-breaking work of intellectual and cultural history, James M. Glass provides a provocative new answer to the questions about the Holocaust that bedevil us to this day: How and why did so many ordinary Germans participate in the Final Solution? And how did they come to regard Jews as less than human and “deserving” of extermination? Glass argues that the answers lie in the rise of a particular ethos of public health and sanitation that emerged from the German medical establishment and filtered down to the common people. Building his argument on a trove of documentary evidence, including the records of the German medical community and of other professional groups, he traces the development in the years following World War I of theories of racial hygiene that singled out the Jews as an infectious disease, and that determined them as “life unworthy of life” in the words of Nazi propogandists and German scientists.Looked at from a broader perspective, Glass writes, the actions and beliefs of the German people show what today would be regarded as insane, became, for World War II German society, normal politics. Murdering millions of innocent people was not seen as a vicious criminal conspiracy, but as a therapy essential to the culture’s well-being.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Recent Holocaust studies have set out to measure the participation of German society at large in crimes against the Jews and other groups (e.g., Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners). In this vein, Glass, a professor of politics and government at the Univ. of Maryland, refutes the common response of Germans after the war"we did not know"by citing the willing and enthusiastic participation of much of German society in anti-Jewish actions. The author posits that theories of racial hygiene in the pre-Nazi era were exploited by political, scientific and medical elites under Hitler to demonize the Jews as contaminated and unfit to live. This gave rise to a mass psychosis in which all levels of society acquiesced in the extermination of the Jews. Glass argues that the bureaucracy of the Holocaustthe countless workers and clerks who maintained train schedules, manufactured the gas chambers and crematoria, kept medical records, redistributed confiscated Jewish propertywas so extensive that German citizens could not possibly have been unaware of the fate of their fellow citizens marked for annihilation. Demonstrating the pervasive collaboration of the medical establishment with extermination centers to make use of human corpses, Glass quotes a pathologist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research in Berlin: "There was wonderful material among these brains.... I accepted [them], of course. Where they came from and how they came to me was really none of my business." This is compelling scholarship that enlarges our understanding of one of history's worst crimes. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
Glass, an expert in the interplay of politics and the psychology of illusion, takes on the darkest example of that phenomenon, the Holocaust.

Like Daniel Goldhagen in his controversial Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996), Glass (Government/Univ. of Maryland) eschews the conventional wisdom that the majority of Germans under Hitler were merely indifferent to the fate of the Jews. Rather, he argues fairly convincingly, Nazi Germany, including the world of medicine, was permeated by "a culture-wide phobia against touching Jewish flesh . . . [and] a firm belief in the absolute necessity of maintaining racial purity." Within German medical science, there was a shift from a paradigm based on objective use of evidence to one in which the paramount value was a desire to preserve this racial purity. This underlay a pseudoscientific discourse in which the Jews were depicted as disease carriers and, along with the Gypsies, as "life unworthy of life." Glass outlines in considerable detail the ways in which the pre-Nazi German medical profession was implicated in eugenic theories that contained a considerable body of anti-Semitic propaganda, and the post-1933 medical and scientific establishment's close and enthusiastic support of the Nazis. Glass draws effectively on previous researchers' work on the infamous T-4 euthanasia program, which extended racial purity to the extermination even of German children, and later adults, who were handicapped, and the writings of such previous students of Nazi medical "science" as Robert Jay Lifton and Gotz Aly. For much of the book, he is engaged in a spirited polemic against other theorizers of the Holocaust (particularly Lifton, Zygmunt Bauman, Hans Mommsen, and Hannah Arendt) that may leave nonspecialists feeling they have wandered into a private argument.

Despite that shortcoming and an occasional loss of focus, Glass makes a compelling case, a bit more understated than Goldhagen's and more effective as a result.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465098460
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/1999
  • Edition description: REV
  • Pages: 272
  • Lexile: 1410L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.58 (w) x 8.54 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

James M. Glass is professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. The author of several other books, including Psychosis and Power, Private Terror/Public Life, and Delusion: Internal Dimensions of Political Life, Glass is well-respected for his knowledge on the interplay of politics and psychology. He lives in Silver Springs, Maryland.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Ground of Killing
1 The Enthusiasts of Death 3
2 The Indifference Thesis and Science as Power 23
3 Scientific Practice and the Assault on the Jewish Body 47
4 Psychotic Preconditions to Mass Murder 67
5 Documentary Evidence Against Indifference 85
6 The Phobic Group and the Constructed Enemy 109
7 The Uniqueness of the Holocaust 123
8 Taboo, Blood, and Purification Ritual 137
9 Murderous Groups as Normal Groups 147
10 Psychosis and the Moral Position of Enthusiasm 161
11 The Politics and Process of Hate 171
Epilogue: The Site of Killing 189
Notes 197
References 227
Index 241
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