Elias on Germany, Nazism and the Holocaust: On the Balance between 'Civilizing' and 'Decivilizing' Trends in the Social Development of Western Europe


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Elias on Germany, Nazism and the Holocaust: On the Balance between 'Civilizing' and 'Decivilizing' Trends in the Social Development of Western Europe
  Elias on Germany, Nazism and the Holocaust: On the Balance between 'Civilizing' and'Decivilizing' Trends in the Social Development of Western EuropeAuthor(s): Eric Dunning and Stephen MennellSource: The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Sep., 1998), pp. 339-357Published by: Blackwell Publishing  on behalf of The London School of Economics and Political Science Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/591387 Accessed: 21/09/2010 15:03 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available athttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unlessyou have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and youmay use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained athttp://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=black .Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printedpage of such transmission.JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.  Blackwell Publishing  and The London School of Economics and Political Science  are collaborating withJSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The British Journal of Sociology. http://www.jstor.org  Eric Dunning and Stephen Mennell Elias on Germany, Nazism and the Holocaust: on the balance between 'civilizing' and 'decivilizing' trends in the social development of Western Europet ABSTRACT This paper deals with aspects of the work of Elias: how he dealt with the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, and how they fit into the general context of his theory of 'civilizing rocesses'. n response o critics uch as Bauman and Burkitt, we seek to clarify what Elias argued n his theory; and to show how, particularly n his book on The Germans 1996), Elias was able, using this theory, to shed light on the srcins and growth of Nazism and its consequences or Germany nd the world at large. KEYWORDS: ulture; ivilization; ivilizing process; decivilizing; Holocaust; Nazism INTRODUCTION This paper treats aspects of the work of Norbert Elias, more particularly ow he dealt with the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, endeavouring o theo- rize these monstrous events using the theory of 'civilizing processes' (Elias 1994(a), srcinally 1939).1 The discussion has two principal aims. Firstly, o clarify what Elias did and did not argue; secondly, o show how, particularly in his book on The Germans 1996), Elias was able to use this theory to shed light on the srcins and growth of Nazism. We shall start by examining two critical reactions. Brit.Jnl. of SociologyVolume no. 49 Issue no. 3 Septemler 1998 ISSN 0007-1315 03 London School of Economics 1998  340 Eric Dunning and Stephen Mennell CRITICAL AND COUNTER-CRITICAL COMMENTS ON THE THEORY OF 'CIVILIZING PROCESSES' (i) Zygmunt Bauman In Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), Bauman mounts an attack on soci- ology for its failure to deal with events like the Holocaust. Bauman thus shares with Elias a critical stance towards currently dominant paradigms. Nevertheless, he reads the theory of civilizing processes as little more than an outdated 'modernization' theory, a form of 'Western triumphalism' which masquerades as 'science'. He writes The . . . myth deeply imprinted in the self-consciousness of our Western society is the morally elevating story of humanity emerging from pre- social barbarity. This myth lent stimulus and popularity to, and in turn was given learned and sophisticated support by, quite a few influential sociological theories and historical narratives; the link most recently illus- trated by the burst of prominence and overnight success of Elias's presen- tation of the 'civilizing process'. (1989: 12; cf 224) According to Bauman, genocide is endemic in the modern world. The core of his case is that 'modern' societies involve power-concentrations which are not under effective control and can be used for good or evil.2 They also produce conditions under which the effects of individual action are removed beyond the limits of morality. According to Bauman, when making choices social actors in complex nation-states are seldom able to foresee their ramifications. One result is that moral responsibility for taking part in acts such as mass extermination can be attenuated through the div- ision of functions employed to carry them out: none of the individual persons involved along the chain of tasks are - or see themselves as - indi- vidually responsible. Bauman's argument is underpinned by philosophical ather than socio- logical premises. They derive from the work of phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas (1982) . The argument is that moral behaviour identification with, and feeling for, other humans - is 'natural', deriving from the ontological conditions of life rather than processes of socializa- tion. If people could see the outcomes of their actions - that is the nub of Bauman's case - they would act 'morally' towards one another. This thesis of innateness is one of the presuppositions which Elias's study of civilizing processes was designed to refute. That is, according to Elias, what we have come to call 'morality' is not 'innate' but socially produced andvariable through time and space. One of the most srcinal aspects of Elias's theory is the connection he makes between state-formation processes on the 'macro' level, and changes in the habitus of individuals on the 'micro' level. (By 'habitus' - a word which he used before its popularization by Bourdieu (1979) - Elias meant  Elias on Germany, Nazism and the Holocaust 341 'second nature' or 'embodied social learning' (Elias 1939: xi)). Elias's key proposition s that . . . if in a particular egion, the power of central authority grows, f over a larger or smaller area the people are forced to live in peace with each other, the moulding of their affects and the standard of their drive- economy (Trzebhaushalt) are very gradually changed as well. (Elias 1994(a): 278: our translation) The habitus of people in Western Europe s held by Elias o have changed as part of a long-term process in parallel with the monopolization of vio- lence by the state. This, in turn, is held to have occurred nterdependently with the monopolization of taxation. Expressed imply, Elias contends that monopolies of violence and taxation are the major means of ruling and that, in their development n Western Europe since the Middle Ages, they have been mutually reinforcing. But pace Bauman (1989: 2), Elias did not argue that, in Europe as part of this process, violence has been 'eliminated from daily ife'; rather, t has been 'pushed ncreasingly ehind the scenes'. This means, for example that- and we are talking of intra-societal elations at the moment - except in times of violent emergencies such as revolutions or serious public disorder, states have tended to keep their armies confined to barracks, referring o rely on the less heavily armed police whose right to use violence is more restricted. t also means that, with the special excep- tion of sport where forms of physical violence are deemed legitimate (Elias and Dunning 1986), violence in general has become restricted ncreasingly to domestic as opposed to public social settings, and associated more with the arousal of feelings of repugnance, guilt and shame. Elias naer argued that all need for external constraint and force in making it possible for people to live peaceably together has been eliminated in what he specu- lated future historians may call the 'late-barbarian' ocieties of today (Elias 1991: 14S7). Ignoring differences between nations for the moment, the balance n the habitus of the 'late-barbarian' eoples of present-day Europe between internal constraints and external constraints has tilted, according to Elias, owards nternal constraints; ut such constraints have never come to be the sole influence in steering people's conduct. The need for external constraint, ncluding forcible constraint, also varies, nter alia, between the different stages of the socialization (civilizing) processes of individuals. Furthermore, ccording to Elias The armour of civilized conduct would crumble very rapidly f, through a change in society, the degree of insecurity hat existed earlier were to break n upon us again, and if danger became as incalculable as once it was. Corresponding ears would soon burst the limits set to them today. (Elias 1994(a): 253n) It is also important to recognize that Elias's theory, again pace Bauman (1989: 224), does not rest on assumptions such as 'pre-social barbarity', 'natural' or 'pre-social drives' which are held to 'burst out' under specific  342 Eric Dunning and Stephen Mennell conditions. Elias argued that Homo sapiens has been social from the begin- ning, that the species evolved biologically as such (Elias 1991). The nearest to a pre-social human would be a baby at the moment of birth but, from that point, its bodily processes undergo a process of social moulding which varies, of course, between societies, their constituent groupings and his- torical periods. In contrast, Bauman works from general propositions about 'human nature' and 'the nature of modernity', and from them derives the proposi- tion that episodes such as the Holocaust are inherent in the modern world. In Bauman's view, the Holocaust had nothing specifically to do with the peculiarities of German development. This is a view with which Elias would have profoundly disagreed: the Holocaust may not be the only instance of genocide, past or present, but neither, according to Elias, is the German historical experience irrelevant to explaining its occurrence or peculiar fea- tures. In The Germans, Elias agrees in part with Bauman when he writes Just like scientifically conducted mass wars, the highly organized and scientifically planned extermination of whole population groups in specially constructed death camps and sealed-off ghettos by starvation, gassing or shooting does not appear to be entirely out of place in highly technicized mass societies. (Elias 1996: 303) But in contradiction of Bauman, Elias also sought to show that the theory of civilizing processes can be used in explaining decivilizing processes of the kind which eventuated in Nazism. It does so by setting these processes in long-term perspective and suggesting, by means of comparative research, why they occurred in Germany rather than, for example, Britain or France. In short, it is wrong, according to Elias, to attribute them to some general 'epidemic disease' of the modern world at large. (ii) Ian Burkitt In his 'Civilization and Ambivalence' (1996), Burkitt seeks, by means of a synthesis of Elias's theory with aspects of Bauman's work (1989; 1991) to push the understanding of civilizing and decivilizing processes beyond the level bequeathed by Elias. Burkitt's arguments are insightful. However, his case is arguably marred, firstly, by too great a dependency on the philo- sophical arguments of Bauman, and secondly by a failure properly to under- stand Elias's theory in crucial respects. Burkitt summarizes his argument by saying that . . . because of the ambivalent nature of the 'civilizing' process, its central features can become mechanisms which actually suppress mutual identification and can lead to a form of 'civilized' violence and terror. To fully draw out the irony and ambivalence in Elias's account it needs to be shown how processes of modernization and 'civilization' have created a
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