Mass Killing: a Higher Calling?

In Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2010) Timothy Snyder writes of the years 1933 and 1945, during which the “bloodlands” — Poland, the Ukraine, Belarus, and the Balkan states — were alternately occupied by Russia and Germany.

Fourteen million [yes, 14 – RW] is the approximate number of people killed by purposeful policies of mass murder implemented by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the bloodlands.

The difficulty contemplating barbarity of that magnitude prompts us to simply write Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union off as pure evil. However, writes Snyder

To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them. Heinrich Himmler said that it was good to see a hundred, or five hundred, or a thousand corpses lying side by side. [Emphasis added.]

In what world does Himmler’s declaration make a shred of sense? Snyder suspects that what Himmler meant was

… that to kill another person is a sacrifice of the purity of one’s own soul, and that making this sacrifice elevated the killer to a higher moral level. This was an expression of a certain kind of devotion.

Paralleling this, heads of state also relinquish control of the fate of their own souls. When they make the decision to take their countries to war, they’re well aware that atrocities will ensue on both sides. In keeping with what Himmler called for, they’re jeopardizing their own salvations for the good of the state. Still, unless the leaders are pathological (many, of course, are), they no doubt hold out hope, however unconsciously, that their higher power will understand and cut them some slack.

At Foreign Policy in Focus, John Feffer writes:

We make a bargain with our governments. … we delegate the responsibility to declare and prosecute war to our legislative and executive branches. … Governments, in other words, kill on our behalf. This arrangement is a form of social contract, which means that governments are basically contract killers.

Contract killers, of course, don’t go to heaven. But this may help explain why much of the public is loath to bring the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to justice for prosecuting an illegal war. Again, however unconsciously, they’re forever in debt to their leaders for shouldering the karmic debt, if you will, accrued by killing.