Existential Threat and Wars of Extermination

19 October 2013


eastern front

The question of existential risk is intentionally formulated as a very large conception that is concerned with risks to humanity on the largest scale — the possible extinction, stagnation, flawed realization, or ruination of Earth-originating intelligence. An existential threat (as the term is commonly employed, and in contradistinction to an existential risk) may be considered a relative existential risk, that is to say, an existential threat that constitutes a risk to concerns less comprehensive that the whole of humanity and humanity’s future. Individual human beings face existential threats, as do particular business enterprises, cities, nation-states, and social movements, inter alia. In short, any existing object that faces a threat to is continued existence may be said to face an existential threat.

When nation-states (or, before the advent of nation-states, their predecessor political institutions) that view each other as existential threats become engaged in a war, these wars typically escalate to become wars of extermination. A war of extermination is a particular species of the genus of warfare, uniquely characterized by systematic effort to not merely defeat the enemy, but to annihilate the enemy. Thus wars of extermination are also called wars of annihilation.

Another way to formulate the idea of a war of extermination is to think of it as a genocidal war. Genocides can be carried out in the context of war or in isolation (presumably, in the context of “peace,” but any peace that provides the context for genocide is not a peace worthy of the name). In sense, then, the ideas of war and of genocide can be understood in isolation from each other — war without genocide, and genocide without war — though there is another sense in which genocide is a war against a particular people, i.e., a war of extermination.

It is worthwhile, I think, to distinguish between the Clausewitzean conception of absolute war or the more recent conception of total war and wars of extermination, although this distinction is not always made. Absolute or total wars refer to means, whereas war of extermination refers to ends. Means and ends cannot be cleanly separated in the unkempt reality of the world, and the means of total war is one way to bring about the aim of a war of extermination, but a war of extermination can also be pursued by less than total means.

In several posts I have written about what Daniel Goldhagen calls “human eliminationism,” of which he distinguishes five varieties:

transformation: “the destruction of a group’s essential and defining political, social, or cultural identities, in order to neuter its members’ alleged noxious qualities.” (this is very similar to what I have called The Stalin Doctrine)

oppression: “keeping the hated, deprecated, or feared people within territorial reach and reducing, with violent domination, their ability to inflict real or imagined harm upon others.”

expulsion: “Expulsion, often called deportation… removes unwanted people more thoroughly, by driving them beyond a country’s borders, or from one region of a country to another, or compelling them en masse into camps.” (I wrote about this in The Threshold of Atrocity)

prevention of reproduction: “those wishing to eliminate a group in whole or in part can seek to diminish its numbers by interrupting normal biological reproduction.”

extermination: for Goldhagen, extermination seems to be equivalent to genocide simpliciter, in the narrow and strict sense: “killing often logically follows beliefs deeming others to be a great, even mortal threat. It promises not an interim, not a piecemeal, not only a probable, but a ‘final solution’.”

If we take Daniel Goldhagen’s distinctions within this scheme of human eliminationism, we see that many means can be employed to the ultimate aim of genocide. Indeed, what are sometimes called “military operations other than war” (MOOTW) may in some cases be sufficient to bring about some level of human eliminationism, and therefore prosecute (an undeclared) war of extermination.

The above considerations give us six categories of war that overlap and intersect to present an horrific exemplification of Wittgensteinian family resemblances:

● war simpliciter

● war of extermination

● war of annihilation

● genocidal war

● absolute war

● total war

A recent book on wars of annihilation and wars of extermination, War of Extermination: The German Military in World War II, employ several of these concepts of war without trying to make fine distinctions of the sort one would like to see in a comprehensive theory of war:

“The war of annihilation is a cultural phenomenon. It does not exist merely because war exists. A war of annihilation — that is to say, a war which is waged, in the worse case, in order to exterminate or merely to decimate a population, but likewise a war aimed at exterminating the enemy population capable of bearing arms, the opposing armies, and indeed also a battle of annihilation in which the aim is not merely to defeat or beat back the opposing army but to kill the enemy in the greatest possible numbers — all these forms of the war of annihilation, however widespread they may be in geographical space and historical time, are not historical inevitabilities.”

Heer and Naumann, editors, War of Extermination: The German Military in World War II, Berghahn Books, 2004, “The Concept of the War of Annihilation: Clausewitz, Ludendorff, Hitler,” Jan Philipp Reemtsma, p. 13

…and further…

“Clausewitz had been wrong: the war of extermination was structured not only by grammatical rule, but also by a particular kind of logic. Whereas the grammar — as Schenckendorff and Kluge both correctly assumed — could be controlled, the logic behind the war of extermination — as Hitler knew full well — was utterly dominant and tolerated no half-measures. At the end of the second year of the war in the East this principle was nowhere so clearly in evidence as on the partisan front.”

Heer and Naumann, editors, War of Extermination: The German Military in World War II, Berghahn Books, 2004, “The Logic of the War of Extermination: The Wehrmacht and the Anti-Partisan War,” Hannes Heer, p. 117

It is widely acknowledged by scholars of the Second World War that the Nazi-Soviet war on the Eastern Front came to constitute a war of extermination. Casualties were heavier on the eastern front than casualties on the western front. Perhaps most tellingly, when the German war machine began collapsing, German soldiers made an effort not to be captured by Soviet troops, as they knew that they could expect the worst in this case.

When Hitler violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and invaded the Soviet Union in the massive Operation Barbarossa, it was the beginning of an existential struggle between ideological enemies — fascism and communism — in which each side explicitly framed the other as an existential threat. Thus the eastern front was, from the outset, expected to be a war of extermination, and the above-quoted book takes the Nazi-Soviet conflict as paradigmatic of a war of extermination.

It was partially in response to the experience of the eastern front and its war of extermination within the larger framework of the Second World War (which also included the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews) that the Nuremberg principles were formulated. The Nuremburg Principles include as principle VI(c) a list of crimes against humanity:

“These consist of murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhuman acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds, when such acts are done or such persecutions are carried out in execution of or done in connection with any crimes against the peace or any war crime.”

All of these war crimes were realized in the course of the Second World War with shocking clarity — the kind of clarity that comes from an ideological war in which a war of extermination was expected to follow from explicitly stated positions of the combatants. History has not always been so clear in its demonstrations of philosophy teaching by examples, but even if earlier history was not as explicit in its prosecution of wars of extermination, less obvious forms have always been with us.

Wars of extermination did not begin in the twentieth century, and even Kant mentioned the possibility of such conflict in his Perpetual Peace. Kant states his sixth article as follows:

6. “No State Shall, during War, Permit Such Acts of Hostility Which Would Make Mutual Confidence in the Subsequent Peace Impossible: Such Are the Employment of Assassins (percussores), Poisoners (venefici), Breach of Capitulation, and Incitement to Treason (perduellio) in the Opposing State”

And in light of this he says of wars of extermination:

“These are dishonorable stratagems. For some confidence in the character of the enemy must remain even in the midst of war, as otherwise no peace could be concluded and the hostilities would degenerate into a war of extermination (bellum internecinum).”

The Latin tag employed by Kant points to the antiquity of the idea. Kant continues:

“…a war of extermination, in which the destruction of both parties and of all justice can result, would permit perpetual peace only in the vast burial ground of the human race. Therefore, such a war and the use of all means leading to it must be absolutely forbidden. But that the means cited do inevitably lead to it is clear from the fact that these infernal arts, vile in themselves, when once used would not long be confined to the sphere of war.”

One of the factors that made wars of extermination explicit in the twentieth century was the emergence of the nation-state as an actor on the international stage. The nation-state was conceived as a political representative of a particular people, and as representative of the aspirations and ambitions of a particular ethnic group, nation-states also frequently have exhibited the worst kind of ethnocentric politics.

I began my book Political Economy of Globalization with the assertion that we must begin with the fact of the nation-state as the central political institution of our time. Whatever we may think of the nation-state — whether one believes that it is a permanent feature of human political organization or that will soon join empires and kingdoms on the ash-heap of history — it is the central fact of the international system as it exists in our time.

The existential viability of a nation-state is predicated upon the ability of that nation-state to meet existential threats and overcome them. Few would dispute the right of a nation-state to defend itself in an existential struggle, but many would dispute the legitimacy of the grounds for such a struggle. When a political entity claims to be threatened on ideological grounds — when the mere existence of another ethnic group or ideological movement is construed as an existential threat — then we move beyond a defensive struggle to continue to exist and into the realm of ideological conflict that is the natural ground from which wars of extermination grow.

I have already written about the role of nation-states in genocide in Genocide and the Nation-State. I see a strong connection between the two. No war of such magnitude can be waged without the implicit consent of the peoples from whom the troops are drawn, and who continue to make it possible for the state to prosecute such a war. This is one sense in which total war and war of extermination coincide.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “Existential Threat and Wars of Extermination”

  1. Wonderboy said

    Wow. I loved this article. I stumbled upon it completely by accident when researching for something and this was exactly what I was looking for.

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