Security Studies Program Seminar
Nazi State Terror and Contemporary Global Terrorism
John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History
Wednesday, October 20, 2004
- This is a historical talk with political implications. My goal is to examine
contemporary terrorism with respect to the mass violence committed by totalitarian
regimes, specifically the Third Reich and to a lesser extent the USSR.
- Terrorism is a very old phenomenon. Even its modern global variety has been
with us for some time. Nevertheless, the number of recent victims has drawn
a lot more attention to it.
- In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, two basic arguments were offered
with regard to the nature of contemporary terrorism.
- First, that Islamic fundamentalism was a continuation of totalitarianism.
The implication here was clear: the only way to deal with these in the
20th century was through military means.
- The second argument focused on distinguishing between good and bad terrorism,
and focusing on the roots of terrorism. This approach goes back to the
terrorism of the French Revolution, and terrorism in late 19th and early
20th century. The debate is between those who think all terrorism should
be condemned, and those who think some types of terrorism are justifiable
because of their goals and targets. Some worried about the liberal state
using too much power to crush terrorists. In the U.S., and even more so
in Europe, liberals debated which types of terrorism were legitimate:
freedom fighters vs. people with less noble motivations? This was the
debate in the 1970s.
- Now there are 2 arguments that support or condone terrorism. First, terrorism
is acceptable if it is a tool to fight occupation or oppression. Such violence
is legitimate. This is similar to the just/unjust wars debate, and makes distinctions
between means and ends. Only mindless, purely destructive violence should
be condemned. But who decides what is mindless and purely destructive?
- Both those who condemn terrorism as totalitarianism by other means and those
who condone it as a struggle of liberation are having a hard time distinguishing
Sept. 11 from the suicide bombings in Israel. Both of these arguments refer
to past controversies about violence perpetrated by and against tyranny and
- There are fundamental distinctions between totalitarian state terror and
global terrorism. When we speak of totalitarianism, we think of the Nazis
and the USSR. When we speak of fascism, we think of Italy. For the present
discussion, I will speak about totalitarianism, a type of regime that has
been produced both by the right and by the left.
Some Comparisons between Totalitarianism and Terrorism
- Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism were based on a boundless definition of
the state, whose borders could expand almost without limits. By contrast,
terrorism has no state (though it may be harbored by a state, as in Afghanistan).
- Both the USSR and Nazi Germany were highly organized, with great bureaucracies
for persecution, and major secret police apparatuses. While they rendered
a variety of services to their citizens, and were therefore at times popular,
the most characteristic feature of these regimes was the mass production of
- By contrast, terrorism is by its very nature decentralized. This makes it
much harder to crush. Also, it relies on primitive technology and techniques.
It is an effort to return to a traditional social and religious order, and
it is a rebellion against transition from old patriarchal hierarchy to modernity.
It is a defender of the old order, or of a mythical version of it.
- A distinction can also be made regarding motivation. Totalitarianism seeks
to mobilize the atomized individuals produced by the industrialization and
urbanization of society that causes the erosion of family and religion. It
thus emerges from mass society.
- Conversely, the new global terrorism originates in non-industrialized societies
that feel they were left behind or perceive themselves as going backwards.
This terrorism is elitist and individualistic. It is not trying to mobilize
the masses. It is about individual martyrdom.
- Totalitarianism seeks to control society's resources, fate, production,
and reproduction. Conversely, terrorism seeks to tear down the existing order.
It hopes to undermine the perceived hegemony of the west, especially the United
States and Israel.
- There are also certain striking similarities between totalitarianism and
global terrorism. This is largely because of the inner contradictions in each.
- Totalitarianism is forward-looking, but it also contains an idealized view
of the past. Nazism rejected the borders and historical narrative of the Weimar
Republic. It relied on a fabricated myth of ancient empire that Hitler was
supposed to resurrect. Communism urged its followers to destroy the old world
and create a new one, but it modeled its vision on a primitive socialist utopia
of the Middle Ages.
- Despite its rhetoric of returning to a traditional order, terrorism is in
fact an effort to create an entirely new social and political order. Conversely,
the Nazi and Soviet regimes turned against modernism. A dialectical relationship
between the old and new, the modern and the mythical, is part of the totalitarian
state. Totalitarianism set itself up as against religion, but promoted leader
worship and sacralized the party, blood, land, or class. It's therefore a
form of political religion.
- Contemporary fundamentalist terrorism embraces modern means of destruction
despite professions of anti-modernism. It is, in fact, an attempt to continuously
create something new. Fundamentalism is as much a rebellion against traditional
religious authority as an attempt at restoration. Fundamentalist terrorism
stresses individual action, but refers to the masses. The suicide of the individual
is in this sense an appeal to the multitude. Heroic, beautiful, meaningful
death is seen as the expression of faith and a triumph over fate.
- Totalitarianism is obsessed with control, yet this is largely motivated
by phobias of disintegration through racial disunity or foreign infiltration.
It is such phobias that give rise to mass murder, concentration camps, and
genocide. The urge to control eventually loses its meaning and leads to destruction.
Hence Hitler ordered the destruction of Germany on the eve of defeat, following
in the footsteps of Stalin's scorched earth policy of 1941. The Communist
fear of decentralization destroyed the very edifice its controlling measures
were supposed to hold together by eroding initiative and innovation.
- When specifically comparing Nazism and contemporary terrorism, it is important
to note that while the Nazis used terror against their own people and perpetrated
genocide on other peoples, Nazi terror was a state phenomenon. Conversely,
while contemporary terrorism may become genocidal, there is no evidence yet
that it has reached that point.
- The main exception to this rule, which indicates a troubling link between
Nazism and contemporary terrorism, is the blatantly antisemitic rhetoric of
radical Islamic groups that is as genocidal as Hitler's. The danger of mass
murder cannot be discounted.
- Contemporary terrorism has become increasingly focused on the figure of
the Jew. Anti-Semitism has become more and more integrated into a radical
discourse on the enemy. The belief is that the Jews are in charge of the world,
running the United States and using Israel as its proxy. We lack the will
to recognize and combat this rhetoric, and it is time to speak up.
- This debate has not yet taken place. I think some basic structural changes
can be introduced. The most basic change in policy would be to transform the
economic policies of the United States and Europe in those parts of the world
that are producing these kinds of discourses. Without changing the notion
in these parts of the world that their people are being exploited, one cannot
make any progress.
- Second, the United States should become truly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian
peace process. This is a focus point for much of the violent fanatic discourse
in the Islamic world today.
- Propaganda alone is not a policy, nor is military action without policy
likely to succeed. Only a combination of military action against terrorists
and positive political and economic incentives to the regions that breed violence
and fanaticism and give people a hope of a better life in the future may have
a fair chance of success in the long run.
Rapporteur: Caitlan Talmadge
back to seminar schedule, Fall 2004