Thursday, July 23, 2009

Biopower & State of Exception: Lessons from the Nuremberg Trial

The first casualty of war is no one but humanity. The twentieth century had witnessed what might be called the ‘dark side of modernity’ that can destroy humanity as a whole. The event of First and Second World Wars had proved it beyond doubt. The Second World War is more important not only for its destructive military technology, showing the dark side of humanity’s scientific knowledge, but also for the holocaust and crimes committed against humanity. Mass murder of nearly six million Jews and million others, deemed undesirable and declared as ‘collectively guilt’ by the German National Socialist Party (Nazi) and allied atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are testimony to the above fact. Today, the symbol of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, stand to remind us the depravity of human mind and the fact that both the totalitarian and democratic regimes exercised ultimate violence and power over life and death. Peace, right, liberty and rule of law become irrelevant under the ‘state of exception’.
The shattering blow to the pride of human being as the master species (rational being), occurred at the Nuremberg trial. The trial exposed the hollowness of the idea of racial purity/superiority, notion of Hitler’s greater breathing space for the German nation. In short, the ‘dark side of modernity’ and extreme barbarity of human being was exposed in the trial. Nuremberg trial holds great lesson for the future of human civilization. Trial at Nuremberg, which began in November 1945, expand into 403 sessions, ended in October 1946, was the first of its kind in the history of the nation-states, which hitherto remained an unquestioned power to dictate life and death over its subjects. It also paved the way for establishment for the first time an international court and statute to deal with such heinous crimes against humanity, even if their nation had approved or required those actions. The accused could not plead obedience to their superiors. They would be held personally responsible for the act. Thus, 21 Nazi captives were held individually responsible for the crime committed against the Jews and million others.
American prosecutor Robert H. Jackson opened what he called ‘the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world’. Giving rational of the trial, Jackson said ‘the wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated’. Thus, gave the impression that humanity cannot afford to lose sight of such magnitude of crime as done against a particular community under any pretext.
The genealogy of the trial was evolved when in April 1944, two Jews who escaped the Auschwitz death camp narrated its horrors to the world detailing Germany’s technology of genocide, such as the camp’s four new gas-and-burn machines, each designed to kill 2,000 prisoners at a time. They recounted operation of huge slave-labor camp at nearby Birkenau, run by Germany’s reputed industrial units such as I.G. Farben and Siemens among others, where Allied prisoners and kidnapped foreign laborers were fed so little and worked so hard that as many as one-third died every week (Robert Shnayerson, Judgement at Nuremburg, Oct 1996).
Trial at Nuremberg also revealed the modus operandi of Nazi’s technology of torture and conspiracy to drive out Jews from Germany and other occupied European countries. The turning point of Hitler’s ‘final solution’ or Holocaust against Jews came on November 9, 1938 when Nazis unleashed Kristallnacht, (Night of Broken Glass), a nation wide campaign of anti-Semitic violence backed by legal instruments. The systematic execution of Jews occurred along with the systematic Aryanization of Jewish wealth; German economy and carefully crafted anti-Semitic propaganda that conditioned millions of Germans to turn a blind eye to the growing epidemic evils of death camps and ghastly medical experiment conducted upon the living human body. The form of tortures reflected what French prosecutor termed, ‘all the instincts of barbarism’. The Jewish prisoners were used as guinea pigs in military medical experiments. A Czech doctor, who was prisoner, performed some 12,000 autopsies and told investigators that he was ordered to strip the skin off the bodies. ‘It was cut into various sizes for use as saddles, riding breeches, gloves, house slippers, and ladies handbags’. Such was the madness of Nazi supremo Hitler and it was simply beyond human imagination but that did happen. What drove one of the most advanced nations to commit such heinous crime, is a lesson that holds vital lesson for the future.
Rise of Nazi Party
The rise of Nazism in German history is phenomenal; in a very short span it was able to capture power. The genealogy of National Socialist Party can be traced back to the capitalist economic crisis in the early 1920s of the 20th century. Period, which is commonly known as ‘the Great Depression’ brought German economy to the lowest ebb. Frustration and desperation reign high in German society. People were looking for a new alternative leader to lead German out of the crisis. It is true a great crisis produces a great leader or dictator. Nazi party was able to galvanize and exploit the situation coming out of Treaty of Versailles (1919) that imposed a collective guilt upon German nation and capitalist economic crisis of great depressions. However, Nazism was not a systematic set of ideas unlike liberalism or Marxism. Nazism in short is based on’ the Social Darwinism,’ ‘anti-intellectualism’, ‘leadership cult’ and ‘racial superiority/purity of Aryan race’. Nazi party holds firm belief in the submission of individual rights and aspirations to the necessity of State as organic body; no one is above the state. A logical corollary to the organic conception of State as Nazi holds is the constant requirement of body to grow and expand. Hence, Hitler’s idea of Lebensraum – a greater breathing space for Aryan race and colonization of other races under superior Aryan race became an essential component of Nazism. They also believed in the dictum that ‘war carries human energy to the highest extreme’. Hence, Hitler converts Nazi party into war machines and extreme sets of ideas paved the ideological background for the subsequent Holocaust. The concept of ‘banality of evil,’ which Hannah Arendt deliberated in her book Eichmann in Israel will throw more light on it.
Biopower and State of Exception
The concept of biopower and state of exception are implicit on what Nazism in German had done against its own population. Nazi party provoked state of exception (emergency power) and exercised biopower upon its citizen. Even the notion of citizen becomes contested while ‘state of exception’ is provoked. Under such context citizens become subjects. These concepts can be of useful tools in analyzing the present Manipur wherein killing has become normal rather than exceptional and present global order which Hard and Negri term as ‘imperial order’ (2004).
Biopower is a concept which Michael Foucault conceptualized in his book La volonte du savoir (1976). Foucault argues that wars are not waged in the name of sovereign, but in the name of the existence of everyone – ‘entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of the whole slaughter in the name of life necessity’. Power, Foucault argues, is now situated and exercised at the level of life. The massive destructive weapons concentrated in the hands of the sovereign is a form of ‘biopower in its most negative and horrible sense of the term, a power that rules directly over death — the death not simply of an individual or group but of humanity itself and perhaps indeed of all being’ (Hard and Negri 2004). For example, the present day intensive police action in Manipur against its own population and torture committed against body populace can be termed as biopower.
The state of exception confers upon the sovereign legal sanction to exercise biopower upon its citizen. To be precise, the ‘state of exception’ is a concept in the German legal tradition that refers to the temporary suspension of the constitution and rule of law, similar to the concept of state of siege and the notion of emergency powers in the French and English tradition. In fact, any draconian statute and actions like arming certain section of civilian to achieve certain desired goals, killing without impunity is possible under the ‘state of exception’. Such instances are vividly played out in the Manipuri society, today. Giorgio Agamben identifies holocaust as the ultimate exemplar of biopower; biopower is the hidden meaning of all forms of power from the ancient world to the present. For Agamben, all power rests ultimately on the ability of one to take the life of another, a phenomenon that he analyses through the metaphor of homo sacer.
Way Forward
Even after the trial at Nuremberg the world has experienced death and killings. Today, world is replete with more than thousands conflict. The form of technology has brought changes in the technique of warfare. And danger of war has not disappeared from our civilization. Huge State funding on research and development of lethal weapons, piling destructive weapons within the arsenal of state’s weaponry suggest that violence is rooted in the state and danger of another holocaust still persists. Judges at Nuremberg had bequeathed a legacy of rule of law, rejected group guilt and mass purges. Nuremberg had conveyed the legal message that suspects are assumed innocent until proved guilty. Therefore, suspects should not be executed without proper trial through ‘due process of law’ or ‘procedure established by law’.

Posted on The Sangai Express on Sunday, July 19, 2009

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