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Spirit and flesh: toward a post-shoah, post-modern incarnational ethic
Just as a study of our age’s culture could not be performed without a treatment of psychoanalysis, I would argue that twentieth century history becomes unintelligible when abstracted from the erotic field. I do not, however, hold that it is reducible to that domain. I will look at an ethical practice in which National Socialism forged a regime of erotic danger and sexual pleasure and a manner of relating to sexual life which was less indebted to biology than it was to an inherited sphere of spirituality, the struggle of spirit with flesh. Within that field, Nazism presented itself as achieving erotic pleasure by overcoming dualisms: a Christian alienation of the soul from the body and a Jewish alienation of the carnal from the spiritual. It successfully exploited Christianity’s estrangement from its own incarnational ethic. An ethics that is really after Auschwitz must take into account this history by establishing a spiritual-moral formation for Christians which does justice to their faith’s affirmation of the worth of the human body and which integrates the teaching about sexuality with the Church’s discourse on human dignity.
The following excerpts from and precis of Dr. Bernauer’s presentation identify major elements of this history.
At the end of the war Karl Jaspers differentiated German guilt according to various levels: political, criminal, moral and metaphysical. (1)1 I believe there is a fifth level of ethical-spiritual responsibility which explores how our most foundational religious images, concepts and practices for intimate and public lives may contain those seeds of hate and violence which could come to flourish almost automatically in certain cultural crises.
National Socialism appropriated a ready-made set of national virtues - honesty, diligence, cleanliness, dependability, obedience to authority, mistrust of excess. (2)2 The beginning of the Hitler regime coincided with a passionate desire among many Germans for a spiritual renewal, a politics of spirit which National Socialism attempted to define. The year 1933, regarded by many as a moment of crisis, was marked by an intense atmosphere of spiritual transformation.
To speak of spirit in the context of a culture which still possessed deep roots in Christianity was also to discuss flesh; cravings for spirit inevitably connect to a discourse of sin, sensuality and sexuality. If spirit expressed vitality and creative force, flesh possessed many satanic features, assaulting reason and proclaiming human weakness. In this dualistic reading of the spirit-flesh struggle we have perhaps the source of Christianity’s own greatest weakness in its encounter with Nazism. Having selected sexuality as the privileged route to moral status, the Churches at the time did not create a very sophisticated palette of insight into it. The broodings of moral theology were too frequently isolated from the traditions of Christian spiritual theology. Christian determination to exorcise eroticism all too often encouraged a fierce self-hatred. Christian moral formation conferred a pivotal role upon disciplining sexuality - with two major consequences.
First, it exposed Christians to a Nazism that could be thought of as allied with Christianity, or as a liberation from religion’s inadequacy to the richness of human life. For National Socialism the religious preoccupation with sexuality in moral formation sustained the emphasis on those secondary virtues which made people so compliant, educating them into a moral pessimism about themselves and what they might be able to achieve, issuing in a paralysis of the inner self. (3)3 This religious subversion of self-confidence lies behind the primacy given to obedience as a virtue and the extraordinary insensitivity to the demands of conscience. Many religious and moral practices established a profound alienation from one’s self and one’s desires, as well as from the public space. On the other hand, Nazism put forward the bold project of overcoming the dualisms - body versus soul, flesh versus spirit - fostered by religion. It spoke to the German tradition of and pride in inwardness, the Innerlichkeit which advocated a strenuous self-cultivation. It bound together this celebration of the German spirit with a profound affirmation of one’s historical moment, of one’s own German body, social and personal. It was to be praised for its health, its beauty, its utility and, most of all, as the temple for the transmission of biological life.
Nazism’s ethics was a strategy of sabotage against alternative relations to sexuality - such as those of the Weimar Republic, the Soviet Union, the French. The Third Reich mounted a widespread campaign of sexual purifications which was terribly attractive for German Christians and made Hitler appear as a force for moral renewal to Christians in the United States as well. (4)4 However, this campaign for decency was by no means an acceptance of Christian codes. It constructed a post-Christian erotic in which it celebrated the beauty of the nude body and the benefits of exhibiting it. The Nazis were very successful in portraying Church views as hopelessly prudish, the Church’s sexual teaching as unrelentingly hostile to the joys of sexual life and in encouraging young people to look elsewhere for a wise understanding of their erotic desires. (5)5
The inadequacy of this moral formation had a second face. It also gives an essential answer to the endless searching after the reasons why the Jews were so victimized by the Nazis and why so many collaborated in their murder. Before the Jews were murdered and turned away from as not being one’s concern, they had already been defined as spiritless, on the one hand, and sexually possessed, erotically charged on the other. In contrast to that special German inwardness, the Jew was portrayed not only as empty of spirit but as an enemy of it. German philosophers worried about what was called a Verjudung of deutsches Geistesleben, a “Jewification” of German spiritual life. In Nazi propaganda the Jew was defined as essentially carnal, as excessively sexual, indeed as boundlessly erotic, whose conduct was not under the control of the moral conscience. (6)6
Some roots of this Nazi portrayal are in Christianity. Christian anti-Judaism and modern anti-Semitism coexisted in the Nazi period and blended in ways that have yet to be adequately mapped. Nevertheless, the extreme victimization of the Jews by the Nazis comes from the position into which they were placed on the erotic field of modern sexuality. This sexual depiction was not static but functioned dynamically within an ethical field defined as a life and death struggle taking place between the healthy life force of Aryan blood and the disease laden Semitic death substance. (7)7 This final element in modern sexual culture may certainly be described as racist, but it also relates to the Christian sexual discourse in at least once specific way. This life and death struggle paradigm shows the legacy of that spirit-flesh struggle in which all sexual sin was grave or mortal, that is, condemning the sinner’s soul to the death of eternal damnation.
If we look for reasons why so few people were troubled about standing on the sidelines, why so many failed to get involved with the victimized Jew, I claim that this is a major source of that moral indifference.
For the Germans who were proud of that spiritual inwardness which was the legacy of their culture and who were humiliated by the sexual war which was waged in their bodies, the carnal Jew represented a contamination, the destruction of the spiritual sense and the eruption of the uncontrollable erotic body. In the light of the predominant Christian style of moral formation, one could have predicted that, even while protests mounted on behalf of the crippled and the insane, the Jew would be abandoned. At best.
* Dr. James W. Bernauer, SJ is Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA.
1 - Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt (New York: Dial Press, 1947).
2 - See Carl Amery, Capitulation (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967): 29-34.
3 - Cf. Alfred Delp, The Prison Meditations of Father Delp (New York: Macmillan, 1963): 118, 146-147.
4 - See Frederick Ira Murphy, The American Christian Press and Pre-War Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1939, a Ph.D. dissertation for the University of Florida in 1970.
5 - Wilhelm Arp, Das Bildungsideal der Ehre (Munich: Deutscher Volksverlag, 1990; Langer, Katholische Sexualpädagogik im 20. Jahrhundert, 115.
6 - For a Jewish defense against these charges, see Chajim Bloch’s Blut und Eros im jüdischen Schrifttum und Leben: Von Eisenmenger über Rohling zu Bishoff (Wien: Sensen-Verlag, 1935). On the charges, see Sander Gilman, The Jew’s Body (New York: Routledge, 1991): 258.
7 - Werner Dittrich, Erziehung zum Judengegner: Hinweise zur Behandlung der Judenfrage im rassenpolitischen Unterricht (Munich: Deutscher Volksverlag, 1937); Barbara Hyams and Nancy Harrowitz, “A Critical Introduction to the History of Weininger Reception” in Jews and Gender: Responses to Otto Weininger: 4; and Jay Geller, “Blood Sin: Syphilis and the Construction of Jewish Identity” in Faultline 1 (1992): 21-48.