How one deports
Let us begin with a story of Ciom Schönhaus, Jewish forger of passports, who survived the “Third Reich” in underground Berlin1 . On 1 June 1942, in the factory where Schönhaus is working, two men turn up: “Schönhaus! Get changed. You’re coming with us!” They bring him to Levetzowstraße, to a deportation point arranged in a former synagogue – he is to be taken away in the next transport. Schönhaus leaves the factory with the men: “To all appearances everything was quite normal. The two men calmly discussed their schedule. There was someone else to be picked up at the Spittelmarkt. We went up to the second floor there, just as though I was one of them. A Star of David had been stuck to the wall next to a nameplate saying «Levi.» One of the men rang the bell. Nothing happened. He tried again. Nobody opened. «Come on, let’s go. We’ll pick him up later.» We went back to the tram.
We stood on the platform at the rear. I looked at the two of them. What sort of people were these? One looked as though he might have been a bookkeeper in a bank. Somebody, who had the job of working through the accounts beginning with «J». The other might have been a print compositor who had to give up his job because of an allergy to lead type. The bookkeeper’s face was the more humane-looking of the two. I spoke to him: «Look, I didn’t expect to be deported. I haven’t even got a warm coat with me. Couldn’t we collect it from my place? The tram goes right past the flat.» He turned to his colleague. «What do you think?» «It’s all the same to me. Why shouldn’t he fetch his overcoat?» […] While I got my coat from the wardrobe, the typesetter sat down at my desk as if it were his own. He rummaged in the drawer, found a box containing my father’s gold wedding ring, and tucked the ring away in his waistcoat pocket just as though he’d left it somewhere and finally found it again.
It was warm on the tram. We stood on the rear platform once more. My overcoat was hanging over my arm. «But young man, you haven’t got a star on it,» said the bookkeeper. «Without a star they’ll take it off you again straight away.» «Well, I’ve got a spare star in my pocket, but I can’t sew it on. I haven’t got needle and thread.» «Hold on a second. Let’s see what we can do». He produced a little packet of needles and thread from his wallet. «Mind you, you’ll have to do the sewing yourself.»
While I was sewing, stitch by stitch, a woman got on. Almond-eyed, petite, with a huge rucksack on her back, and a yellow star in front, on the left. Hardly had she stepped on board when a soldier jumped up and offered her his seat. Now the bookkeeper showed a different face. He went up to the soldier: «How dare you, a German soldier, sully the honour of your uniform? How can you be so shameless as to publicly offer your seat to a Jewish woman? You’re going to pay dearly for this, my friend. What? Answering back as well? You could see perfectly well she’s a Jewess. The star looks big enough to me. Name? Number? Regiment? Where are you stationed? And don’t make it worse by getting impudent with me!» He came back to me snorting. I returned his sewing kit. «Many thanks».«You’re welcome». He put the packet back in his wallet. «There’s got to be order!»”2
So this is the executor of the State’s authority during National Socialism. A rather sympathetic mister, who calmly goes about his task. The attitude of a sensitive man may swiftly morph into bureaucratic severity, but the “accountant” has more than just these two faces. He does not intervene, when his companion, the “typesetter,” while waiting for Schönhaus in the flat, mater-of-factly slips the gold wedding ring in his pocket. Most probably, the two Gestapo officials do not at all consider the wedding ring to be the property of the Schönhaus family; whoever is a Jew and has no citizen’s rights, as a result has no right to property, either. The ring belongs to whoever takes it.
Both Gestapo officers therefore present completely contradictory behaviours: they are greedy and authoritarian, but at the same time, jovial and composed. This clashes with the popular image – seen everywhere from feature films to the historical construct of perpetrator. In all these, an image of one-dimensional personality prevails – someone, who participates in crime, must have the characteristics of a criminal, what is more, a convinced criminal. In psychology, this phenomenon is called the “fundamental attribution error”: while we habitually justify our own wrong behaviour with external factors, we tend to explain the behaviour of others with their internal characteristics.
What has led “the bank clerk” and the “typesetter” to work in Gestapo – we do not know. Also Schönhaus, who meets them in person, only speculates upon the matter. We do not know whether they needed a motive in order to become Gestapo officials. Perhaps the perspective of a pension was enough of a reason; perhaps this was about power, or perhaps, the love of the “order.” Or simply, they could have
One of my relatives, working in the German Border Guard (now the Federal Police) for some time had a task of escorting persons, who were refused asylum, on the way back to their country of origin. He enjoyed the work, particularly when the would-be asylum seekers were calm, and caused no trouble on the plane. To fly to Istanbul every now and again – it was a welcome diversion in his daily work routine; a few days away from the family, some bonuses besides, and finally – stories to tell. My question, as to who – in his opinion – did he escort to Turkey, left him flustered: “Turks, I suppose.”
This official was performing his tasks for many different reasons, none of which had anything to do with the very act of expulsion from the country of the persons who had not been granted asylum. However, if thirty years on, historians in a fully liberalised and tolerant immigrant society in Germany were to research deportation procedures of 1990s, they would surely attribute my relative with ideological motivation. He did not have such motives, and if he did, they would have been quite indirect. He was driven by purely non-political considerations, mostly practical ones. And at the same time, he was a good person.
With the functional diversification of societies, the organisation of which is based on the division of work, a very flexible type of subject has developed, possessing the ability to assume different, even contradictory roles within the family, workplace, associations, relationships with friends, etc. Erving Goffman devoted all his work to explaining that people in modern societies perceive, interpret and act in very different ways, depending on the situation and they do not find it problematic – in one role, to distance themselves from the same norms they follow in another role. (“Are you asking me as a politician, or as a man?”) Goffman deciphered the social choreography, which organises stage versions, as well as relationships and roles of the actors. All the while, in studies on the Holocaust, we continue to search for the perpetrator, who follows motives, thus presupposing the image of a man that could have been posited perhaps in the archaic societies with their one-dimensional roles and expectations. From the sociology point of view it is nonsensical – barring particular, pathological cases – to justify a person’s action with motives existing independently of the given situation. These pathological cases, on the other hand, are misunderstood by modern societies. Someone, who regardless of circumstances always reacts in the same way to changing expectations, ends up in a psychiatric ward.
A flexible person, however, is not a pathological variation of a person inflexible in essence, but instead he is shaped by all socialising and educational institutions: he is this way, because they require such a person for their proper functioning. This is why a flexible Gestapo official works better than an inflexible one: because he can swiftly react to changing situations and requirements, and by doing so, he most effectively strives towards the goal, which he should achieve and he wants to achieve. The Nazi violence apparatus is fundamentally different from a movie script. Its actors do not charge, but they act.
Who one deports
Let us return, for a while, to Cioma Schönhaus: on that same day, 1 June 1942, he arrives with his parents at the main point of deportation, with many people waiting, their names called one by one. Finally, it is the Schönhaus family’s turn: „«Fanja Sara Schönhaus and her son Samson Cioma Israel Schönhaus are ordered to go with the transport for the east tomorrow morning, 2 June 1942. On behalf of the son there is a request from the firm of Gustav Genschow. He is a good worker and therefore indispensable. They request that his evacuation be deferred to a later date.»
While this was being read out, the uniformed Gestapo official was looking right through me with his watery blue eyes. He had turned his chair round and was leaning vacantly on the seat back. «Should the young man go with the transport, or should he stay?» the steward asked. «Okay, yeah,» the Gestapo man replied, too bored to open his mouth properly. It was as if he was counting off the decision on his buttons: «Stay here – go – stay here – go – stay here. I don’t care. OK, yeah. He’s going.»
The steward repeated in a matter-of-fact tone: «It has just been decided that you will go with the transport tomorrow.»”3
Also this kind of situation we have imagined differently until now. The fact that matters of life and death are decided in the presence of the victim, in the same manner as decisions are made by a bored sorter of vegetables at the supermarket, seems strange. We are so very accustomed to an image, permeated with ideology and carefully cultivated mostly by the media: the image of anti-Semitic and authoritarian instrument of extermination. Instead, here we see randomness, resulting not from being methodical, but simply, utterly, uninterested. In reality, the process of extermination at all its stages – from a gradual development of logistics, continuation of activities, division of work, and finally, arriving from direct killings to mass annihilation using industrial methods – has more in common with conventional work performance than conventional use of force. And performing the work at hand does not require motivation stronger than any other task. Sometimes, as in the case of the bored Gestapo official, motivation is not at all needed. This is reinforced by the fact that Schönhaus survives only because, a moment later, a young clerk checks his letter with a request for release, and runs up with it to the bored official: “In the distance I hear the young woman’s animated tones. And then I heard her supervisor: «But, my girl, if everybody who turns up here with a letter like this…» What followed was lost in the general hubbub of the waiting crowd. They’ve made a decision, I though. And then she returned. With a smile: «You can go.» «Where to?» I asked. «Home. You’ve been deferred.»”4
After this extraordinary experience, Schönhaus goes underground. His parents are deported and murdered.
How one kills
In 2007, the whole world has seen the photographs taken by the SS Sturmbannführer Karl Höcker in 1944 at Auschwitz. They did not depict either the selection on the ramp, or the sorting of valuables belonging to the victims of the experiments by Josef Mengele and other doctors active in death camps. They did show Mengele, among others, albeit in his free time, smoking a cigarette. They showed Rudolf Höß, relaxed, and they showed camp guards merrily passing their free time – during excursions to a nearby resort of Solahütte, singing to the accompaniment of an accordion, and eating blueberries.
The reaction to the photographs – both in the German, and international press – was that of general condemnation. “Laughing at Auschwitz” – this was a title in the English- -language Internet edition of “Der Spiegel” weekly, while the “Bild” paper wrote about the “unbelievable cynicism” of the photographs. Everyone was shocked to see that the camp personnel played in their free time, celebrated Christmas, and smoked cigarettes, while the action of extermination was in progress.
At the website of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., which was the first to publish the photograph album, we find comments on the series of six photographs (Here there are blueberries): one “shows Höcker passing out bowls of fresh blueberries to the young women sitting on a fence. When the girls finish theatrically eating their blueberries for the camera, one girl poses with fake tears and an inverted bowl. Only miles away on the very same day, 150 prisoners (Jews and non-Jews) arrived on a transport to Auschwitz. The SS selected 21 men and 12 women for work, and killed the remaining members of the transport in the gas chambers.”
“Welt-online” writes on 27 September 2007: “The faces seem strangely familiar. Here we see the type of a quick, hot-blooded bully, there a mediocre loser with expressionless lips and nervously blinking eyes, and over there, the type of a merciless devil with no conscience, who, due to his manic overzealousness meets with barely concealed antipathy. The images of the perpetrators at Auschwitz are disturbingly real.”
Actually, what the photographs depict is most certainly something different from what the author of the “Welt-online” article has seen. In fact they depict mostly young people, behaving in a wholly civilised manner, and having fun. The viewers’ outrage has nothing to do with the photographs themselves, but with the expectations, which they hold towards the perpetrators of the Holocaust. These expectations answer the popular notion of a “Nazi thug” and the oppressor of the Jews, who, out of his own conviction, and for pleasure, 24 hours a day, occupies himself with mocking, tormenting, robbing, and finally, killing of the Jews. This caricature of a Nazi criminal is a rather strange amalgam, composed of the theory of psychoanalysis, perpetrators’ wish to absolve themselves from responsibility, and the Hollywood frisson. Profound desire for the perpetrators to be in some way pathological, and therefore different from ourselves, coincides with the attractiveness emblematic of a monster-criminal as a protagonist of the Hollywood genre.
In his work titled Naziści [The Nazis], Polish artist Piotr Uklański compiled 164 photos of Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck and other famous film actors, who had played the roles of the Nazis, thus taking to pieces the cinematic iconology of the “Nazi” as a perpetrator type. Funny enough, this has also prompted Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski, accompanied by journalists, to step into the Warsaw Zachęta Gallery where the work was being exhibited, and cut up his own cinematic image in a Nazi uniform as well as portraits of several other Polish artists with a sabre. He explained that his actions were caused by concern that the exhibition might confuse people, mostly the young (“Die Welt”, 9 December 2000). From Olbrychski’s point of view, clearly it would have been confusing to identify Nazis as quite ordinary men.
Olbrychski’s action was a result of a highly functional misunderstanding: all kinds of Nazis do not differ in any respect – not with respect to social statistics, not psychologically – from the modern society. The largest crime in the history of mankind to date had been committed by quite ordinary people. What is more: ostentatious outrage at the SS assistant eating blueberries relates to the image of mass destruction that is closer to the fantasies of screenwriters than to performing tasks based on the division of work, consisting in the exploitation, in the workforce industry, of persons selected for the purpose, and then eliminating them. The very notions of “work” and “industry” indicate that the organisers and contractors of doom did not aspire to Brueghelian visions of hell or sadistic orgies. Their goal was the most efficient extermination of the largest possible group of people in the shortest possible time. Thus in the camp, as in any other company, there was free time, and blueberries, and cigarettes, and lunch breaks, and visits to the doctor. The extermination of Jews, at the time, was the company’s operational activity; therefore Höcker’s photographs illustrate the process of extermination, what’s more, they do so far more realistically than for instance the photos taken by the Allied Forces in the last days before the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, Dachau or Auschwitz. Already Hannah Arendt had noted that these photos document the state of the camps in their final stage, and not during their fully functional period. Höcker, on the other hand, photographs the process of extermination while it is being carried out, although the resulting image does not fit in with the popular notion of a Nazi criminal.
In all modern societies, work is a key category of social process. What we do is assigned to a whole universe of goals, which in most cases we do not set for ourselves, but they are set for us by another party: our superior, the by-laws of the institution, the firm, the department, and so forth. In the context of operations based on the division of work and responsibilities, individuals, by definition, hold only partial responsibility, namely precisely for the slice of the process in which they in some way participate. This is the very thing that makes it possible for relations based on the division of work to give rise to all sorts of operations and readiness thereto: this is how, in a genocidal war, the Lufthansa pilots, or reserve policemen become people who kill civilians; this is how the airlines, furnace producers, or chairs of pathology at medical universities become organisations which support mass murders. Social functions and institutions are a storeroom of potentials,5 and this is particularly true of the war. In case of mobilisation, particularly during a total war, the institutions, factories, and organizations, which had harmlessly pursued their varied tasks during peace, become strategically important,” because they can easily redirect their potentials.
History knows far fewer cases where swords were beaten into ploughshares, than those in which Volkswagens were turned into military jeeps. This only goes to show, that it is the modern contexts of operations, based on the division of work, on particular (limited) responsibility, and instrumental reason, which can serve any objective imaginable. Ute Daniel and Jürgen Reulecke, after reading the collection of German letters from the eastern front of World War II are reminded of Jens Eberta’s thesis, according to which it seems that “war is accepted as long as it can be articulated in terms of peacetime, workplace values (diligence, endurance, persistence, duty, obedience, voluntary subordination etc.). The only thing that changes on the frontline or as part of a special commando is the content of one’s work, not one’s attitudes toward work itself or the way it is organised. In this sense, a soldier is a «worker of war.»”6
Furthermore, wartime work in the process of violence does not remain the same – it is being improved, skills are developed, know-how appears, innovations are introduced. Also Alf Lüdtke reiterated the affinity of work in industry and at war, by demonstrating that particularly among the proletarian classes, tasks performed as a soldier were perceived as “work.” In wiretap protocols, letters sent by military mail, and memoirs from the time of World War II, we find numerous analogies between the war and work, manifesting themselves, among others, in discipline and monotony of activities, but also expressed in comments “in which military action, that is, resisting or destroying the enemy – in other words, killing people or destroying objects – is considered a job well done.” Lüdtke sums this up: “Therefore using violence, threatening with violence, killing, or inflicting pain could have been perceived as work, and therefore it could be considered something meaningful, or at least something necessary and inescapable.”7
Such understanding of war tasks is also revealed in a letter from Vietnam, in which a Marines captain justifies his decision to prolong his military service to his mother, by describing to her the attractive and responsible task of managing the work, which consists in killing: “Here there is a job to be done. There are moral decisions made almost every day. My experience is invaluable. This job requires a man of conscience. The group of men that do this job must have a leader with a conscience. In the last three weeks we killed more than 1,500 people in a single operation. That reflects a lot of responsibility. I am needed here, Mom.”8
This is why, when the war is on, no motives are necessary to use violence: merely a shift in the context happens, in which one does what is done anyway. The fact that war is also, and even, above all, work, and that it is interpreted as such, finds its expression not only in the sense of pride and in describing what one has done, but also in the appreciation one has for the good military work on the enemy side. For instance, it follows from wiretap protocols of conversations between Wehrmacht soldiers who were prisoners of war in Britain and America that Red Army soldiers, notwithstanding the propaganda image of “Bolshevik Untermensch,” are respected for their craft and considered to be good fighters. This is also the case with German militaries as perceived by their enemies.9
Violence of a group
Soldiers never work on their own; even when they are left to their own devices as marksmen or pilots of fighter planes during military operations, they are still a part of the group, which, before and after the battle, remains together. Already a team led by Samuel Stouffer10 in the most extensive research into the behaviour of soldiers to date, conducted in 1948, concluded that the role of the group has a decidedly higher impact on soldiers’ behaviour than any ideological, political, or personal motives.11
This statement did not concern the US army only – particularly in relation to the Wehrmacht, Edward A. Shils and Morris Janowitz12 had stressed that fighting force of soldiers chiefly stemmed not from their national- -socialist beliefs, but from satisfying individual needs within their relationship with the group. Furthermore, this aspect was particularly supported by the Wehrmacht organisational structure with its modern management and personnel administration techniques.13 The social environment of the soldier is decisive for the way he perceives the war, how he interprets it, and according to which values he moulds and evaluates his own actions. Each member of a community perceives himself as he thinks the others see him – and this, as Goffman noted in his work on the “stigma,” provides the strongest motive to conform, to behave like the group.14 At war, the soldier becomes – for an unforeseeable duration and in extreme conditions – part of a community, which he can neither select according to his preferences, nor leave; unlike in civilian life he cannot decide who he will be spending time with. Yet precisely this lack of alternative to the group, which he belongs to, and which he co-creates, particularly in combat conditions, makes that group the highest authority in both normative and practical terms. If American combat briefings in Vietnam reiterated: “I don’t know why I’m here. And you don’t know why you’re here. But as long as we’re both here, we can try to do a good job and do our best to stay alive,”15 then this means that brothers in arms are far more important for what you do, what you think, and what decisions you make than beliefs, ideologies, or even historical missions, which provide an external context that justifies the fight. The other side of war – the one from which the soldiers perceive it – is therefore the side of the group. Another Vietnam veteran would agree — Michael Bernhardt, who refused to take part in the My Lai massacre, which made him an outsider: “[The only thing that] matters is what people here and now think about what you’re doing. What matters is how the people around you are going to see you. […] This group of people […] was the whole world. What they thought was right was right. And what they thought was wrong was wrong.”16
German soldier Willy Peter Reese expressed it as follows: “Just as our winter gear ended up leaving only our eyes uncovered, so soldieriness left minimal room for the expression of human traits. We were in uniform. Not just unwashed, unshaven, lousy, and sick, but also spiritually ravaged–nothing but a sum of blood, guts, and bones. Our comradeship was made from mutual dependence, from living together in next to no space. Our humour was born out of the «schadenfreude», gallows humour, satire, obscenity, spite, rage, and pranks with corpses, squirted brains, lice, put and shit – the spiritual zero. […] We had no faith to sustain us, and philosophy served only to make our lot appear a little more bearable. The fact that we were soldiers was sufficient basis for criminality and degradation, for an existence in hell. […] We didn’t matter. Hunger, cold, spotted fever, diphtheria and frostbite, cripples and cadavers, bombed villages, looted cities, freedom and peace certainly didn’t matter. Least of all did the individual human being matter. We could die unconcerned.”17
Shining through the words of Willy Peter Reese, who indeed did die soon afterwards, is another universal characteristics of war: the insignificance of motives.
Violence without a cause
An important theme in literature and films dealing with war, from Erich Maria Remarque, to Ernst Jünger, to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, is a lack of significance to the ideological aspect and the “grand” purpose of war. Indeed, with an exception of a steadily shrinking group of those who fight for ideological reasons, the main characteristic of a soldier is his calm and indifference towards the causes of his situation. Abstract slogans, such as “the conquest of eastern lands” or the defence against “the Bolshevik” or the “yellow menace,” lie behind the war and its operations, but they are rarely quoted as the motives for interpretation or for the behaviour of individual soldiers in situations in which they find themselves.18
It has been this way throughout the twentieth century. Experiences of World War I had a psychosocial effect consisting in people getting rid of illusions, and realising that, during positional warfare in the trenches, under the shower of bullets, there is nothing left of heroism and ideology. The sentiment of senselessness of war was experienced anew by American soldiers in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, German soldiers in Afghanistan, but it was additionally heightened by an increased abstraction of motives: Why, in some distant country, should we fight for the freedom of those who despise us; why should we defend the peoples and lands we never had anything to do with?
Today, a captain serving with the 373rd Paratroopers Battalion in Kunduz says: “At the beginning, we wanted to achieve something, for example, taking some territory from the enemy. But after the death of my men, we sometimes ask ourselves whether it’s worth it. Why risk our lives, if the Taliban will immediately reappear as soon as we’re gone? We’re fighting for our lives and our mission, if we even still have one. But in the end in Kunduz, we’re above all fighting for sheer survival.”19
Testimonies of war experiences are often similar to one another. Andrew Carroll20,
the founder of the “Legacy” project, which amassed a great number of war letters, compared messages from World War II, written by the Russians, the Italians, and the Germans, and what puzzled him was not
the differences, but the similarities of those to the letters of American soldiers.
There exists yet another form of violence, which – quite independently of the context in which it is used – is not subjected to the instrumental reason. Jan Philipp Reemtsma has called it “autotelic” violence: it is used for the sake of violence alone, and it does not serve any purpose. Reemtsma distinguishes three types of physical violence, for which he proposes the terms of: “locative”, “raptive” and the already mentioned “autotelic” violence21. The first two types – eliminating people because they stand in our way or because we covet something that belongs to them – are easy to comprehend. Instrumental motives are always convincing, even if they are morally unacceptable. What is incomprehensible, is the autotelic violence, which consists in killing for the sake of killing. It is radically conflicting with our self-image, created by modern societies and the members thereof – our faith in the stability of institutions and rules, and above all, in the monopolisation of violence. “Faith in modern age,” Reemtsma writes, “is unthinkable without the State monopoly on violence” – which will become plain, if we try to imagine that for one day only the right to the physical integrity of a person, which is always guaranteed by the modern state, had been revoked.
This is where the modern people’s seeming lack of contact with violence lies: we do not expect violence, we do not take it into account, and when it happens, we always, again look for an explanation – even when in strictly instrumental sense, there isn’t one. The person, who does not assume that his or her physical integrity is guaranteed, always takes into account the possibility of violence, and is not surprised when it occurs. Therefore maintaining balance between trust and violence is always very difficult, and everything, which appears to be “senseless,” “groundless,” or “brute” violence must immediately be qualified as an “aberration,” a “violation,” or “barbarity,” and therefore an antithesis of modernity. It is understandable that this mounts obstacles to sociological and historical research on violence, for instance, by tainting them with a not uncommon, non-scientific moralism.22
From historical perspective, it is only during the modernity that violence gains its counter-civilisation character, it becomes an element to be rejected, and in a crisis, even to be fought. Therefore violence for violence’s sake deserves to be condemned, while instrumental violence is clearly unavoidable, but it always requires justification – or, if it happens elsewhere, an explanation. Using violence to solve problems is something normal, while using violence for its own sake is pathological. In this respect, violence is being constructed as a deviation from the path of modernity, and therefore the opposite of modernity. Both the history of colonialism and the new wars23 demonstrate that violence has by no means disappeared. Yet paradoxically, trust in the civilizational level of modernity can be maintained only if violence is not included in the normal state, in the routine functioning. Therefore we continue to believe that we have nothing to do with violence, and we are ostentatiously shocked whenever it is being used.
In the universe of intentional rationality, coupled with ubiquitous obligation and ability to justify social actions, autotelic violence seems strangely out of place, something different from anything else in the social area. But do we require justification, for instance, for the fact that people have sexual needs? Do people seek an explanation for why they want to eat, to drink, to breathe? In all these major areas of human existence, we may often question the ways in which people try to satisfy their needs, we may question forms these needs sometimes take, but never the very fact that they want to eat, drink, breathe, and have sex. Seeking explanations is therefore directed at the methods, but not at the basic motive. Perhaps the same should apply to violence. As Heinrich Popitz proposed, violence always is an option of social operation, and from phylogenetic perspective it cannot be otherwise: after all, mankind survived not thanks to control-free communication, but thanks to violence they used during hunt or against their competitors in getting food.
Even if Western societies introduced probably the greatest civilizational change in the history of mankind to date, namely the state monopoly on violence, which facilitates personal safety and freedom to the extent unknown before, it by no means signifies that violence as a social possibility has disappeared. As a result of its transfer to the state, it has changed its form, but it still exists and it can change back to direct violence at any time. Furthermore, although the monopoly of violence is governed by the core of the society, that is, the public affairs, it does not follow that violence disappeared from other areas of social life. There still exists family violence, directed at partners, children, and animals, as well as violence in isolated social spaces such as churches or boarding schools. In public spaces, such as sport stadiums, discos, pubs, the metro, or the street, fights, assaults, and rapes occur. Besides there are other regular forms of socially sanctioned violence outside state monopoly, for instance in martial arts or S&M clubs. A mere drive down a German highway convinces one of a chronic readiness for violence, and sometimes even for killing, revealed in quite ordinary people. One can no more imagine violence-free television, movies, or computer games; perhaps with the growing remoteness of violence from daily reality, there is also a growing need for violence to be used symbolically or as a replacement. Finally, on the inter-state level, it is still a long way to the monopoly on violence. In other words, violence most certainly has not disappeared even from those societies believing themselves to have nothing to do with it. It exists all the time – actually or potentially.
Time has come to demythologise violence. Group, technology, space, and time are points of reference, according to which people get their orientation. In the dominant, nearest environment, what soldiers, or guards, or Gestapo officers do, differs only in its existential dimension from what people in modern societies do always, when they try to complete the task they are faced with. Even if someone works for an energy company, an insurance society, or a chemical factory, “capitalism” makes no difference for him performing his tasks; if someone else, as a policeman, books the perpetrator of a motor traffic offense, or as a court bailiff rules that the TV-set must be taken, he is not concerned in the compliance with the “liberal, democratic constitutional order,” but he is performing the task he was assigned, which is a part of his job description. Soldiers perform their tasks at war, using violence, and this is the only feature that systematically distinguishes them from labourers, employees, and officials. Also the “products” of their work are different than in civilian context: they are the dead, and the damages. But the fact that they cause destruction is not equivalent with their actions being destructive.
Violence – if warranted by cultural and social situation – is used by virtually all groups: men and women, the educated and the uneducated, Catholics, Protestants and Muslims alike. Using violence is a constructive activity – allowing the perpetrator to achieve his or her goal, and creating facts: imposing their own will on the others, dividing people into their own and the outsiders, influencing power, appropriating the property of the defeated. No doubt violence is destructive to their victims, but not to themselves.
In trying to explain extreme acts of violence during the war, or within totalitarian institutions, it is useless to search for motives. That sort of search springs from a psychologically plausible, but wholly unscientific wish for perpetrators in the context of extreme violence to have other moral values than our own. The fact that someone kills without reason is surely much more alarming than the situation in which someone has personal reasons to murder – by the same token autotelic violence seems much more frightening than the instrumental one. To the observers of extreme processes of violence, who try to keep their distance, the fact that violence can be used out of sheer thoughtlessness seems equally menacing as the lesson from history, which says that violence, intimidation and robbery can constitute normal social behaviour. If indeed it is so, individual perpetrators do not need a reason for that. They simply do, what one does.
Translated from the Polish text by: Dorota Wąsik