Meditations on Honor-Shame: Were the Nazis to Take Over Again, They Wouldn’t Change a Thing at Wannsee

I recently visited the site of the Wannsee conference in the outskirts of Berlin where third and fourth-level bureaucrats worked out the details of the “final solution”: how to make the extermination of 11 million Jews as profitable as possible. It contains, among other things, the Protocols of the conference, preserved by the Undersecretary of State, Martin Luther, living proof of the deliberate, carefully-planned, and astonishingly lucre-mongering project of genocide. In addition, the exhibition has a review of the history of racist anti-Semitism, profiles of the various participants, and maps of the Jewish population of Europe and the damage done by the Nazis.

As I walked through I realized that in some sense, the exhibit was understated. It worked from the assumption that everyone coming here thinks that the Nazi genocide was a shameful, disgusting event that must  never again occur – Nie wieder. But, it occurred to me, if the Nazis were  to take over Germany again, they probably would change little about this exhibit, including its history of racism. What was presented as obviously bad would, by an alchemy of honor-shame dynamics, become a celebration of the heros who began an as-yet unfinished task.

Reflecting a spurious “shame” that Nazis acknowledged in their attempt to cover the tracks of the Holocaust, even as they held it to be a great deed, Himmler commented in a speech given in Posen, October 6, 1943:

This is a page of glory in our history, which has never been written and is never to be written.

Today’s neo-Nazis express the same ambivalence in their combined efforts to at once deny and resume the genocide. Ahmadinejad’s delight in denying that the Holocaust goes hand in hand with his desire to reproduce it, even if nuking six million Israelis means killing millions of fellow Muslims (even some Shiites). 

In a seminal book, Anthony Kwame Appiah, wrote about these dramatic shifts in terms of what the “honor group” considers honorable. The Honor Code and Moral Revolutions addresses three such reversals in which what had previously been considered honorable came to be seen as shameful – slavery in the USA, dueling in England, footbinding in China – and one so-far failed revolution – honor killings in Pakistan.

These reversals in values can be so complete that they become invisible. It’s hard for we moderns, raised in a civil polity, to even imagine what it’s like to think that slavery is an honorable thing (for the slave-owners). Liberal cognitive egocentrism has difficulty conceiving of the zero-sum mentality in which the slave’s degradation brings honor to he who enslaves and degrades him.

Take for example the following comments from Irving Berlin’s essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty” rejecting what Eli Sagan would call the normative political principle of virtually all pre-democratic societies, the dominating imperative of “rule or be ruled.”

This maxim claims respect, not as a consequence of some a priori rule, whereby the respect for the liberty of one man logically entails respect for the liberty of others like him ; but simply because respect for the principles of justice, or shame at gross inequality of treatment, is as basic in men as the desire for liberty.

Berlin assumes that gross inequality of treatment is shameful, that such a sentiment is as “basic in men as the desire for liberty.” But for people who live in the zero-sum universe of “rule or be ruled,” the very point of achieving honor is in subjecting the weaker. I make myself bigger by making you smaller.

The inability to understand this gap in what some historians call mentalité, explains why our journalists hailed the Arab protests as a “Spring,” assuming, like Berlin, that anyone who thirsted for freedom would feel shame at inequality of treatment for others.

And yet today, we view people throughout the Arab world who clamor for liberties, like freedom of speech,without necessarily believing that those liberties be extended to those they don’t like. Thus the freedom of Islamists to protest their (too) secular government (like Mubarak’s, which supported women’s rights), does not translate into a concern for protecting the rights of those who would criticize Islam. The honor of Islam demands (at least for Islamists) the repression of freedom of speech.

This radical disjuncture of pre-modern and modern mentalités, between a modern “honor group” and a pre-modern “honor group” can produce startling splits. One can see the contrast quite clearly in the story of the lynching of two Israeli reservists in Ramallah on October 12, 2000. A savage crowd literally pummeled the two to death and dismembered their bodies, dragging the parts through the streets of Ramallah shouting “revenge for the blood of Muhammad al Durah.” Western journalists present shot footage of the events, only to find their film either confiscated by Palestinian police, or have their cameras smashed by unruly mobs. Instinctively, Palestinians understood that such pictures would damage their cause in the eyes of the West, and feared a loss of favor in the global public arena. Intimidation had long been, and in this case quickly became the method of dealing with a Western press capable of embarrassing them.

But this hardly meant that, within their own “honor group” they were ashamed. On the contrary, they turned these savage murderers into heros, and had kindergarten graduation ceremonies in which little girls dipped their hands in red paint and raised them up to mimic the gesture of one of the lynchers.


7 Responses to Meditations on Honor-Shame: Were the Nazis to Take Over Again, They Wouldn’t Change a Thing at Wannsee

  1. on-topic in a general sense – but, most importantly, crucial:

    Important Video

    Video description on the page of the video: “The head of the Iranian Green Movement opposition in an interview to Israeli channel 10 news on Iran after the IAEA report on its nuclear activity, on Ahmadinejad’s crazy messianic twelver ideology, the prospect of war and the Islamic winter, and the Iranian people.

    “Head or Iranian Opposition: Should Israel Attack Iran?” [sp. (“Head of Iranian Opposition: Should Israel Attack Iran?”)

    • w.w.wygart says:


      I thing we all somehow knew this at some level, Iran has been calling the shots [or at least keeping the fire stoked] in the Israel-Palestine conflict while our politicians spend decades deluding themselves into thinking they, with their greater intelligence and skill, can over come the fact that the Iranians don’t want there to be peace and are willing to pour out the blood as many Palestinians and Lebanese as necessary to accomplish their aims – at least as long as they still have oil to sell.

      Solved within twelve months after a change of regime in Iran? I hope so, that benefits everyone, the Palestinians most of all.

      This does beg the question to Richard though about how much of his theory of Palestinian intransigence is really a Palestinian phenomenon and how much is Iranian in origin and how much goes away once the money and weapons supplied by Iran dries up? Will Syria remain a factor, can it go it alone or will other external [or internal] factors spring up?

      I suppose we will have to continue to wait and see how much there is really left of the brilliance of Persian civilization and whether of not a true civil society can emerge in the aftermath. Ahmadinejad is of Turkish extraction I have heard, that could put an interesting cultural spin on things.


  2. nelson ascher says:

    If I say people in my culture are different from them, I’m guilty of racism. On the other hand, if I hold them to the same moral standards, then I’m guilty of ethnocentrism, which is another name for racism.

    Funny, however, that the guy above (and another thousand like him or worse), who was alive and healthy in an Israeli jail (because we obviously are much too civilized to execute terrorists, sadistic murderers and so on), though condemned for life, has recently been set free in exchange for a kidnapped soldier. Even funnier is the pride the Israelis (and, I think, most Jews) showed for the bad deal, because it “proved” the world how much more civilized “we” are than them. I imagine how proud a liberal Israeli physician must feel whenever he manages to save the life of the terrorist who had just killed his family, and who, thanks to him, will again be able to murder. Oh, the pleasures of self-righteousness!

    I remember that immediately after 911 a New York friend of mine wrote that if America went after the perpetrators and/or planners and if, even worse, it exacted revenge, then the dead would lose the most important thing they had, “their innocence”. Right: who minds losing his/her life when he/she can keep his/her innocence? (To say nothing about the implication that, if the murderer is punished, the murdered become retrospectively guilty.)

    But our culture is quite different from theirs alright: our culture went mad and is getting crazier by the minute. Is it possible that, after all, Western liberal democracy is a failed experiment because it leads innevitably no only to collective suicide, but also to some kind of absolute masochism? Can this Western love for civilizational martyrdom be reversed?

    The Nazis and potential Nazis have not changed, but the Jews did. In a generation or so they went from wanting to fight –and kill- for their lives to a kind of death wish: they almost seem to want to be murdered in order to prove how much more they value life…

    • [email protected] says:

      Not all Jews are willing to lie down and roll over. Please read Sarah Honig at the Jerusalem Post.

  3. nelson ascher says:

    Over 2/3, maybe even 3/4 of Israelis approved of the Gilad Shalit “deal” and the same numbers probably apply to the diaspora as well. That’s pure madness and I hope many of them are having second thoughts by now. Arabs seem to be constantly angry, Jews never. That’s a bad sign. But I really, really hope you & Sarah are right, because otherwise…

  4. Alcuin says:

    What Richard is saying is that it is possible to walk through a moral looking glass and see what would be considered a horrific crime in “normal” dynamics as an act of just retribution in honour-shame dynamics. This is a really scary idea, and Richard has developed it for some time. It requires people to take the view “my culture right or wrong”.

    As with all aspects of human nature, it is never quite as simple as that. However, some cultures are adept at inculcating the “us and them” narrative. The Nazis propaganda actually worked – otherwise decent people still supported Hitler’s ideas until well after the war. Islam starts with the “Dar ul Harb” versus “Dar ul Islam” dichotomy, and resists all attempts to view Kufrs as humans worthy of equal consideration. This can only work if opposing points of view are suppressed, hence the need for intimidation, censorship and violence.

    In our long past tribal times, such an attribute was useful to bond a tribe together, and to compete over scarce resources with neighbouring tribes. In our time of global interlinks, dependency on trade and technology, and terrible weapons, it is a flaw in our souls that could destroy us.

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