Review – Chapoutot, “The Law of Blood”

Johann Chapoutot, “The Law of Blood: Thinking and Acting as a Nazi” (2018) (translated from the French by Miranda Richmond Mouillot) – I’m behind on reviews. I finished this one at least a week ago. “‘It was a lot,’ the reviewer said with all the eloquence one has come to expect of millennials.” Johann Chapoutot brings the approach of the new cultural history (well, not that new anymore, but newer than the old cultural history ala Burckhardt) to Nazism. He combs over Nazi novels (acknowledging a major debt to Klaus Theweleit, who did something similar with a gendered reading of Freikorps literature), policy manuals, legal arguments, and so on to reconstruct “the mental universe in which Nazi crimes took place and held meaning.”

Chapoutot locates the source of meaning for Nazi ideology in a succession of bad biological metaphors popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The “struggle for existence” is a big one, as is stuff about nature’s balance, purity, the kind of stuff popular in contemporary pop evo-psych, etc. Unlike Enlightenment philosophers who used the concept of the “body politic” to argue for a rationally organized state, the Nazis understood the social body as answering to romantic imperatives of blood, with predictable results. Chapoutot isn’t an intellectual historian- he doesn’t trace these ideas back to a source (though others, like George Mosse, do). Instead he explores their development and application by people like Nazi lawyers, SS bureaucrats, SA memoirists, etc. They have the naivety one sees in the self-justification of doltish men with power. I think there’s a lot to this approach — call it the intellectual history of dullards — and would like to see it more broadly applied.

The worldview and the actions taken to sustain or instantiate it exist in a permanent feedback loop. Trying to suss out which came first is a chicken-egg question, the kind historians spend pointless decades on. Take Nazi legal theory. The Nazis believed in something like “natural law,” not in the sense Aquinas might have meant it but in an altogether dumber way. The law of nature is that which allows the best to thrive; Aryans are the best, the peak of creation; ergo, what is good for Aryans is the law. Thinking of law as an actual set of rules with meaning was just a Jewish mania for dead abstractions that the legal profession needed to guard against. This was both deeply felt and highly expedient for a dictatorship that didn’t want fetters on its behavior, both domestic and foreign. In the typical fashion of ambitious dolts making up rules as they go according to aesthetics, this tended to bite them in the ass. Their ideas about racial conflict dictated they had to be as cruel as possible to the Slavic inhabitants of the places they conquered in their war with the Soviets- by the time they realized they were only multiplying their problems with partisans, it was too late to do anything about it.

Over four hundred pages of this! There’s some interesting tid bits… arguing for the “ideology over function” side, did you know that the Nazis didn’t really pursue non-Germans for homosexuality? They considered it a problem for Germans because it took men away from their breeding responsibilities, but if French or Polish people or whoever did it, they didn’t care- let them weaken the rival races. Nazis also paid little attention to lesbianism, considering it a temporary expedient produced by the loss of men during the war(!) that they’d soon fix. Chapoutot enlivens the proceedings with a little sarcasm here and there, something of a relief- enough for at least one fashy goodreads reviewer I saw to get all huffy about it, worth a laugh on its own…

The picture that emerges here is not the sinister iron men of the Indiana Jones movies or whatever, or even the heel-clicking bureaucrats of popular comedic imagination. The picture of lockstep conformity and control that earlier depictions of Nazism stressed seems increasingly dated. Nazism according to Chapoutot and other recent historians isn’t any kind of fulfillment of western modernist bureaucratic rationality, but an attempt to re-enchant the world by marrying the means and methods of modernity with the (fraudulent, made-up) primeval values of blood and soil. That, in their view, implied giving ultimate power to the Fuhrer and through him his henchmen- that’s not the same thing as subjecting everything to rules, laws, procedures etc., which were specifically eschewed as unnatural and limiting. It was actually crazier than that: rule by vague concepts — blood, race, volk — that Chapoutot argues were meant less to guide and define than to act as incantations, mantras to guide one into a certain frame of mind that was the Nazi end goal. One gets the sneaking suspicion that many of the earlier drafts of interpretations of the Nazis had a lot more to do with what was expedient — for the Cold War, among other things — than what made sense.

Listen… I get that Nazi comparisons are lame and overdone. But I think that at least part of the problem with them is that we use them to distance unpleasant things from a supposedly good normative universe, because we’re using the Nazi as alien-monster-robot paradigm. Even arguments about the “banality of evil” and the “ordinary men” who committed the crimes can be used in this way- anyone can lose their humanity and become Nazis instead if they’re not careful.

But even if we and Chapoutot agree that Nazism was “inhuman” as in “extremely bad,” the picture that emerges from “The Law of Blood” is quite human, in the sense of being a muddle of contingency and misplaced sincerity, self-serving and fanatical by turns, the sort of thing we can easily imagine the sort of dopes who really go in for a certain kind of sentimental, chintzy conceptions of meaning buying into. We see similar arguments from nature all the time- think about the familiar cop spiels about them being “sheepdogs,” guarding us “sheep” from those evil “wolves.” Think about the sheer yearning, always there but which burbles to the surface at certain times, to violently dispense with everything — laws, norms, truth, science, history — that prevents a certain kind of people from living out some fatuous heroic narrative, articulated (if you want to call it that) in uncountable mutually-exclusive personal imaginings, but somehow all converging on the same sort of destruction… that’s where Nazism takes its place, in the long history of reactionary fantasy and efforts to make it reality. These fantasies share elements across modernity, and efforts to make them real share many elements too, regardless of how many people have abused comparison by doing it poorly. *****

Review – Chapoutot, “The Law of Blood”

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