The Dangers of Being a “Good Citizen”

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reading of mirror of the west by Jean-Louis Vullierme contributes to understanding and informing the bases of monstrosity in societies, and how what seems distant is not impossible to reappear, leading us to think about how much some beliefs and dangerous worldviews are closer than we are willing to admit

By José Costa Júnior*

When we follow narratives about events linked to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the period prior to World War II, some explanatory difficulties may arise. In general, this difficulty in understanding may involve the following questions: Chow was it possible? How did one of Europe's most advanced societies do what it did? How did people accept the succession of violence and absurdities? Such questions find answers of varying complexity in the various means in which they are posed – history, philosophy, cinema, literature, among others. However, curiously, a trend is that analyzes often distance normality and ourselves from those events, highlighting the unique and differentiated character of those actions and circumstances. Whether due to an “insidious madness” or “an evil element” present at that time, this curious perception also appears in most attempts to reconstruct events linked to the period. That society, at that moment, accepted what it accepted and did what it did due to specific circumstances, which temporarily alienated it from civilization and humanism. In a certain space of time, something strange dominated consciences, minimized the humanity of some, from strange ideas of superiority and annihilation that were accepted in the name of promises and hopes. Evil and suffering became “banal”, given that the subjects did not think well enough and/or were seduced by charismas and discourses. Thus, making those people responsible was and is necessary, but there is always the drawback of the specific and structural character of time, place and context.

Such considerations, which remove Nazism, its causes and effects from civilizing normality, are approached and questioned in several aspects by the French philosopher Jean-Louis Vullierme in Mirror of the West: Nazism and Western Civilization, a book originally released in 2014 in France and translated in Brazil in 2019. It is a well-founded and structured historical-philosophical essay that, despite some possible criticism, offers stimulating and informative analyzes and reflections so that one can understand better understand the roots and specificities of Nazism. Vullierme bases his analyzes on vast erudition and documentation (more than 100 pages of explanatory notes and bibliography), together with a great capacity for reflection on the foundations of the traditional ways in which the West understands the world, bringing them closer to Nazism. It is not a case of “we are all Nazis”, but of understanding that that society and those people are not that different from us and were not devastated by a sudden “irrationalist plague” that spurred them on to brutality and extermination. More than that, the ideological bases that guided their practices are available in the same tradition of thought that guides us in our deepest conceptions about reality and society here in the West. The analysis scares us and seems excessive at first, but as we follow his arguments, we see how dangerous being “a good citizen” can be. In his words:

“Nazism is often presented as something that defies reason; therefore strange to us, who consider ourselves rational. Nazism is analyzed as a non-democratic phenomenon; therefore strange to us who consider ourselves democrats; racist, therefore, strange to us, who supposedly would be less so than our ancestors; and produced by its age; therefore strange to us, who live in a more enlightened world. […] I fear that it is necessary to do away with this pretense if we really want to start behaving a little better.” (p. 242)

To highlight his hypothesis, Vullierme begins the essay by presenting Nuremberg, a “City of the West”, which, in a curious way, saw the birth or saw the death of the combination of proposals and hypotheses that shaped what we understand as “Nazism”. However, the assumptions of such a set were already available and shared by many western, contemporary or ancient communities and institutions. Vullierme lists such elements that, together, will shape what he calls the “ideology of extermination”:

– racial supremacy;
– eugenics;
– nationalism;
– antisemitism;
– propaganda;
– militarism;
– bureaucratism;
– authoritarianism;
– anti-parliamentaryism;
– legal positivism;
– political messianism;
– colonialism;
– state terrorism;
– populism;
– youthism;
– historicism;
– slavery;
– anempathism;
– acivilism;

All of these elements were, in some way, present in Western circumstances at some point in history. Whether in the militaristic and colonialist practices typical of the European powers, or in the attempts at a bureaucratic and rationalizing organization of life, production and consumption, typical of American culture that will define the contours of Western life throughout the XNUMXth century, such characteristics were together and operating in the construction of a violent and totalitarian position, which scared and still scares. Even with the end of the maximum expression of German Nazism, such ideas are still available in contemporary Western societies, which makes the risk of “ideological mutations” emerging again and threatening politics and life.

Throughout the text, Vullierme deals with each of these elements, in order to understand their origin and specificity. It evaluates the mystery of “Judeophobia”, which shapes anti-Semitism throughout history (the book addresses the work and influence on Germans of American Henry Ford's anti-Semitism), racial supremacy, which, combined with eugenic and bureaucratic practices, will be central to the realization of social and economic organizations in the West. He cites the construction of allegedly scientific justifications for racial segregation and the implementation of eugenic practices in the early XNUMXth century, in several countries (he does not mention Brazil, but attempts to whiten the Brazilian population during this period are known). Vullierme, keeping due proportions, compares the justifications and practices involved in the “conquest of the West” in the United States with the “conquest of the East” in Europe by the Germans under the command of Adolf Hitler, pointing out the common elements between such circumstances: superiority , colonialism and slavery.

The author also assesses the nature of nationalism, often connected to militarism, authoritarianism, messianism and populism, situations that do not fail to point to some degree of superiority of the subjects involved. When analyzing the origins of national states from the crisis of absolutism, Vullierme highlights the risks involved at the heart of the construction of “national identities”, mainly in relation to the antagonisms necessary for feelings of belonging and exclusion to flourish. The “German spirit”, a romantic construction that would unite that people and differentiate them from others, is an example of this tension. It is a central element in the realization of Nazism in Germany, and together with ideals of superiority and rational organization, it will be central to the production of the extermination of everything that is inferior (not only Jews, but also the physically disabled, gypsies, blacks , homosexuals, among other groups).

However, two concepts addressed by Vullierme are central to understanding the relationship between Nazism and Western civilization. The first of these is what the author calls “anempathism”. It is an elaborate and constructed reality, which causes suffering and any manifestations of human emotions to be duly disregarded. Here, Vullierme makes references to the psychological elements involved in circumstances in which we follow the extreme suffering of human beings, and which naturally impact us. However, effected from certain speeches and ideological constructions, anempathy emerges as a crucial element for the realization of projects of domination and extermination throughout human history. The violence and brutality observed in colonialist dominations, enslavements, exterminations that would be at first sight incomprehensible in a civilized world, can be explained from manifestations of anempathism. It is not about savagery or an “innate” evil of human beings, but about constructions carried out from discourses of inferiority and dehumanization, which contribute to the normalization of extreme and unthinkable practices in other circumstances, such as annihilation and the production of death:

“This will to have nothing to do with the suffering of the targets, despite the contrary reflexes, is subject to a gradation that goes from the simple desire not to know to the capacity to personally perform disgusting acts. It is induced by a habit or an education that is all the more effective insofar as it is collective, as in the case of doctors who harden themselves in dissection by making jokes. Among the general population, the demonization or dehumanization of the groups targeted by propaganda represents, alongside denial, the most common method.” (p. 126)

Directly connected to anempathy is “acivilism”, the lack of concern with ideals and visions of civility, especially in conflict contexts. Consideration of civilian populations is minimized, without considering classical views, such as the notion of person, or Enlightenment views, as in the case of human rights. In Europe (religious wars and various invasions) and abroad (colonialism in Africa and America) manifestations of acivilism are common throughout history and raised to the nth power during the Nazi occupation in several European countries. However, once again, this attitude is not a creation or an “off point” typical of Nazism, but rather a paradoxical attitude observable in various moments of the self-styled Western civilization.        

An example of the junction between anempathism and acivilism involves the context of an economic crisis in Victorian England in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1851, in the chapter entitled “The Law of the Poor”, the philosopher Herbert Spencer, then editor of the traditional magazine The Economist,, presents some of his expectations about the ideal society, based on an interpretation of natural processes, with the aim of attacking a bill that defended the possibility of an income for people without basic subsistence conditions:

There are many kind people who don't have the courage to look into this rather obvious question. Motivated as they are by their sympathies with present suffering, particularly in regard to ultimate consequences, they avoid taking a course which is too reckless, and in the end even cruel. We do not consider true the kindness of a mother who indulges her child with sweets that are sure to make him sick. We must think of the kind of benevolence that led a foolish surgeon to let his patient's disease progress to a fatal problem, instead of inflicting pain by an operation. We must call philanthropists spurious, for, by avoiding present misery, they imply greater misery on future generations. All advocates of the Poor Law must, however, be classified among such. […] Blind to the fact that, under the natural order of things, society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members, these men do not think, though they mean well, and advocate an interference that not only interrupts the purification process, but at the same time increases the vice - absolutely encouraging the multiplication of the reckless and the incompetent, by unfailingly offering them provisions, and discouraging the multiplication of the competent and provident, by increasing the prospective difficulty of maintaining a family . And so, in their eagerness to avoid the really salutary sufferings that surround us, these would-be wise men and foolish people bequeath to posterity a continual and ever-increasing curse. (p. 323-4)

Spencer supports the allegedly scientific arguments of social Darwinism, which find no support in the study of Charles Darwin's scientific hypothesis or in the subsequent technical-scientific development of the biological sciences. However, the liberal and civilized theorists of the Victorian period believed they were informed by the best “science” and “evidence”, which also supported the colonial practices and domains of the empire “that did not see the sunset” given its extension. In the terms analyzed here, Spencer's vision is built from a strong anempathism in relation to the harsh social conditions and misery in which those people found themselves, and also from a harsh acivilism, proposing their "natural" elimination, in a position that it will be the basis of the eugenic practices so characteristic of Nazism. The greater concern with economic results, without consideration for the social and human impact, evidences the manifestation of common anempathetic practices. 

Vullierme also analyzes how the intense use of propaganda, the denial of political and legal debate, and certain convictions in relation to the development of history end up contributing to the realization of anempathism and acivilism, building political and social control. Together with militarism and authoritarianism, such elements contribute to an idea of ​​ordering and extreme rationalization that prevent questioning and reflection. Also observed in Soviet and fascist totalitarianisms, and also in the nationalist structures of the Western world, this totalizing ideological conjunction that denies and excludes what is different is common in the socio-political organization of the West. Here, again, varied forms of antagonism involve a common ideological structure, which configures, according to Vullierme's argument, the central link between Nazism and Western civilization.

But if Nazism and the West have common ways of thinking and organizing reality, which at that moment were together and maintained mentalities linked to certain ideological constructs, what would be the responsibility of the leaders of that political and military movement and of that people, which formed the basis for your rise? Here Vullierme argues that, even within ideological structures that seek to impact our ways of thinking and understanding reality, it is possible to remain attentive to our acts and actions, as well as to the ways in which we impact other people's lives, making use of our possibilities of a more understanding of reality. It is a contextualized conception of freedom, which recognizes the impact of previous thought structures on the subject, but also points out possibilities of escape. Proof of this are the various historical examples of questioning and subsequent changes in practices and actions observed in the West, such as the end of Atlantic enslavement or the reassessment of the condition and dignity of women in our societies.

It is from such possibilities that Vullierme will explore possible questions to the Western tradition, mainly in relation to politics. Constructed in the face of the maintenance of antagonisms, which can always lead to civilizing tensions and contradictions, the sociopolitical structures to which we are subject end up limiting possibilities for dialogue and joint construction. Here, encouraging such practices is a fundamental element and it can be recognized that they have produced results, even with the difficulties observed in the effectiveness and maintenance of contemporary democracies. Vullierme's proposal thus involves the fact that we "face the West" recognizing the limitations of the imposition attempts involved in our projects, including those that propose to be "liberating" and "emancipatory". The central point involves recognizing that anempathy and acivilism are always possible and being aware of this is fundamental. Being a “good citizen” is always dangerous, since our definitions of good and good are always involved in sets of ideas that can dominate ways of understanding reality, but are extremely questionable. At some point in our history, a human enslaver followed all the moral rules and laws of his time, as did the member of the German army who killed Jewish children in the name of "the greater good". Both considered “good men.”  

Vullierme's essay stimulates several reflections and makes us think about the common structures and practices in which we are inserted. Unfortunately, it has little dialogue with psychological investigations about the processes of dehumanization and violence that are available and already widely discussed. However, the descriptions and analyzes of the ideological elements involved in such processes are rich and informative. This is a fundamental work for current times, where, in the face of different tensions and civilizing challenges, we seek security and expectations, often at any price. In this context, it is currently possible to observe traces of some of the elements mentioned by Vullierme in mirror of the west, such as (i) the antagonisms proposed by the “politically incorrect” discourse, which attacks and criticizes minorities and social and historical recognitions, (ii) the defense of militarization and authoritarianism in politics, (iii) the paradoxical denial of philosophy and science and (iv) populism centered on messianic figures, critical of democratic procedures, increasingly encouraging nationalism, supremacism and authoritarianism.

In a lecture held in 1965, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) described his tension in relation to the fact that the acts committed by Nazis in the various concentration camps spread across Europe can be repeated. With the title “Education after Auschwitz”, Adorno defended that the formative processes must always involve concerns with the minimization of the possibilities of the murderous repetition of the concentration camps, keeping us always attentive to what has already been done in certain conditions. Adorno's analysis involves expectations that critical and emancipatory educational processes can broaden the understanding of events and the importance of human life and dignity: 

“The demand that Auschwitz not be repeated is the first of all for education. It precedes any others in such a way that I believe it is neither possible nor necessary to justify it. I cannot understand how it has received so little attention until today. Justifying it would be something monstrous in view of all the monstrosity that has occurred. But the little awareness that exists in relation to this requirement and the questions it raises prove that the monstrosity has not sunk deeply in people, a symptom of the persistence of the possibility that it will be repeated, depending on the state of consciousness and unconsciousness of the people”. (p. 119)

the reading of mirror of the west by Jean-Louis Vullierme contributes a lot to understanding and informing our societies about the bases of the monstrosity cited by Adorno. It also encourages us to realize that all that is not completely distant from us, or that similar events are not impossible. In fact, it makes us wonder how much closer some dangerous beliefs and worldviews are than we're willing to admit.

*Jose Costa Junior Professor of Philosophy and Social Sciences at IFMG Campus new bridge


ADORNO, Theodor. “Education after Auschwitz”. In: Education and Emancipation. Translated by Wolfgang Leo Maar. Rio de Janeiro: Peace and Land, 1995.

SCHWARCZ, Lilia Moritz. The Spectacle of Races: Scientists, institutions and the racial issue in Brazil 1870-1930🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1993.

SPENCER, Herbert. Social Statics: The Essential Conditions to Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed. London: John Chapman, 1851.

VULLIERME, Jean-Louis. Mirror of the West: Nazism and Western Civilization. Translation by Clóvis Marques. Rio de Janeiro: Difel, 2019.

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