Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat
by robert jay lifton and eric markusen
basic books, 346 pages, $22.95

Some books—the detective novel is the most obvious genre—must be read as they are written, front to back. Peeking ahead spoils everything. Others, Hebrew texts and now Robert Jay Lifton and Eric Markusen’s The Genocidal Mentality are better approached (though for different reasons) back to front. In their concluding chapter, Lifton and Markusen argue the need for a “species mentality” to replace the pervasive “genocidal mentality” they find in the modern world. A species mentality arises from species consciousness, and these two entities will lead us to species self. Radical ecologists will no doubt soon inform us whether this proposal constitutes a perverse and pathological speciesism. In the meantime, the bemused reader must first grasp where the authors wish to lead him before he will fully understand their analysis of the past. 

For though the subtitle of this volume invokes the Nazi Holocaust and nuclear weapons, neither subject is essential to Lifton and Markusen’s conclusion. They trace, with some insight and skill, how scientists who work on modern nuclear projects may become “numb” to the consequences of their labors, just as doctors and scientists who worked for the Third Reich refused to see the human horror behind their professional tasks. (It should be noted that for all their emphasis on parallels, the authors do concede the uniqueness of the Holocaust and acknowledge the disanalogies of the two cases.) Oddly absent from the authors’ analysis is the central question of intentionality: in one case, participation in the crimes of a horrible regime; in the other, deterrence against aggression by a horrible regime. What counts, in the authors’ view, is that both groups of scientists promote genocide. And a genocidal mentality has gripped all the rest of us who place our trust in nuclear weapons. 

The gravamen of this volume is the presumed need for what Lifton and Markusen do not seem to recognize as an already tired, cliché-ridden, postmodern conception of self: “At issue is an expansion of collective awareness, an exalted sense of self, that embraces our reality as members of a single species and thereby opens up a new psychological, ethical, and political terrain.” The Holocaust and the nuclear threat putatively show the necessity for this “new” terrain. But one feels that the authors might just as readily have reached their desired end by appealing to any of a number of the usual leftist suspects: sexism, racism, crimes against the environment, technology, middleclass materialism, etc. In fact, if the Soviet Union continues its sharp decline as a nuclear power and in the unlikely event that this book ever goes into a second edition, Lifton and Markusen may be forced to shift precisely to these targets to keep support for the “species self” a live possibility. 

The authors try to refute in advance any objections to their theories by a kind of psychological ad hominem argument. Thus those of us who have supported, however conditionally, nuclear deterrence have not merely embraced error. We are “nuclear selves” suffering from the delusion that our security depends on nuclear weapons. In some extreme cases—Edward Teller is the prototype for the authors—a certain “constellation” of the nuclear self even identifies the bomb with a quasi-religious salvation. Naturally, we all resist when this delusion is pointed out to us: “Strong antagonism to species consciousness is likely to result from fear—fear of altering a world one has come to know, fear of change in general, or fear of being weakened if one gives up reliance on nuclear weapons.” In one of the world’s longest psychological carom shots, the authors offer as an example of such antagonism the Ayatollah Khomeini, whose violent reaction to Salman Rushdie masked his fear of adaptations that were moving Iran “mildly in the direction of species consciousness.” 

The persons and institutions claimed for species consciousness form an odd lot; Gandhi and Martin Luther King, of course, but also Mother Teresa, the American Catholic Bishops (in their anti-nuclear mode and only when they are not hedging by conceding that deterrence may be justified as an intermediate measure), the Methodist Bishops (no hedgers they), the late Reagan presidency, which ceased speaking of the Evil Empire (the authors do not seem to consider that changes in the Soviet Union might have had much to do with the change in Reagan). For Lifton and Markusen, all the aforementioned adhere to “universal principles,” the building blocks of an emerging and historically developing (end-of-history Hegelians, please take note) species consciousness. 

Lifton and Markusen are ever alert to pounce on the slightest suggestion of the use of impersonal technology for the indiscriminate destruction of innocent human life. But in their elaborate excavations of sinister “systematic symbolizations” and “analogous” intentions, they manage to overlook the most tangible and widespread type of technological murder in all modern societies: abortion. The authors seem unaware of a possible psychological numbing of their own on certain questions. 

Over a century ago, John Henry Newman recognized that all sorts of different developments in the modern world called for a corresponding “increment of soul.” Perhaps Lifton and Markusen mean something similar by their rather daffy concept of “species self.” The stylistic overtones of these two terms, however, say much about the difference between the two concepts, one firmly rooted in Western religion and philosophy, the other decidedly postmodern in its stargazing at “constellations” of the self. It will no doubt strike some as reactionary to suggest that it is in Newman’s counsel that the restless postmodern soul will the more likely find the calming oil upon the waters it so poignantly seeks.

Robert Royal is Vice President for Research at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift