Fascism and the sacred - History and culture

The future of trauma theory - Edited by Gert Buelens, Sam Durrant and Robert Eaglestone 2008

Fascism and the sacred
History and culture

Sites of inquiry after (or along with) trauma

Dominick LaCapra

Where does one go after the recent surge in trauma studies? I think that the study of trauma is not a passing fad or trend. The problems posed by trauma, both individual and collective, are real problems, and the study of trauma has begun to take differentiated and self-critical forms. Such study has provided newer ways of seeing both older and recent problems. But instead of rehearsing what has already been extensively discussed with respect to trauma and the debates surrounding it, or applying trauma studies to another text (although there may still be much to accomplish in the latter respect), we may have reached a point where problems can be addressed without always ringing the trauma bell. Instead one may choose to indicate the role of trauma when suitable, but often leave its pertinence implicit, especially when that pertinence would seem obvious. In my recent book, History and Its Limits: Human, Animal, Violence, I have extensively discussed the relevance of trauma in a variety of areas, including the study of the Nazi genocide or ’final solution’. Here I would like to pursue that inquiry, touching especially on the way the potentially shattering experience of trauma may either be averted or transfigured through a form of sacralization or sublimation (in the sense of rendering sublime), specifically in the case of certain perpetrators.

I would, however, note that I am not an expert in comparative fascism. And, despite a few allusions, I shall not discuss all versions of fascism or fascist tendencies. As will be evident in the approach I shall take, the focus of some of my own work has been representations of the Holocaust, memory, trauma, and the understanding of Nazism. I would also note that my approach is exploratory and that my title is almost an equation with two unknowns. I shall come to fascism and the problem of its relationship to Nazism,1 but it is important to keep in mind throughout my discussion that the sacred and religion are contested concepts, including their relation to presumably secular phenomena, such as politics, aesthetics, ideology, and trauma.

One dimension of the ’final solution’, and perhaps of certain forms of anti-Semitism and racial prejudice more generally, is an acting-out in practice of ideologically reinforced, anxiety-producing, indeed potentially traumatizing phantasms about the radically other, prominently including the Jew as phobic, quasi-ritual threat, source of pollution or contamination, world-historical power, and abject victim or pest. Such phantasms might be all the more disconcerting to the extent one sensed their self-contradictoriness or absurdity, yet tried nonetheless, through a self-fulfilling performativity, to reduce the other to the state of degradation and threat they impute to that other. Moreover, anti-Semitism, while having distinctive features, is best seen in a larger framework of racism and victimization that may also have ritual or quasi-sacrificial aspects (notably a desire for purification and regeneration through violence) that may apply to other groups, such as Slavs, ’Gypsies’, people of colour, and those judged to be unacceptable or unintegratable components of the community (for example, the mentally ill, the disabled, or ’asocials’) who may be swept up into a dynamic of violence and victimization.

I would like to explore this complex set of contentions or hypotheses in relation to a much-debated question: whether fascism (or at least Nazism) can, at least in certain ways, be seen as a civil or secular religion, in one formulation, a political religion, and in another, a postsecular phenomenon — to invoke a term with some currency in recent thought. This issue is typically addressed on the basis of the very questionable assumption that we understand and know what we mean by religion and secularity along with other concepts often invoked in discussions of them (such as the aesthetic or even the literary, for example, the ’aestheticization of violence’ or ’literary polities’). Despite the dubiousness of any clear-cut definitions of these concepts, I would nonetheless like to inquire into the role of the religious or the sacred in fascism, and especially Nazism, without pretending to offer definitive answers or an inclusive and exhaustive account of the complex phenomena in question. I am addressing only one complex strand or network of factors in a more complicated process.

Of interest here is a late essay by Jacques Derrida, a typically intricate, difficult, questioning, and self-questioning essay entitled ’Faith and Knowledge: the Two Sources of “Religion” at the Limits of Reason Alone’ (in Derrida and Vattimo 1998: 1—78). I shall say a few words about this essay and perforce simplify and make a selective use of Derrida’s analysis without dwelling on aspects of it with which I would take issue.2

What I find pertinent for my purposes is how Derrida worries, works, and unsettles the concepts of religion and secularity, along with related concepts, to indicate how little we can say we know or understand with any degree of confidence, much less certainty (a not unfamiliar strategy in Derrida). He does not simply introduce a necessary degree of hesitancy and self-critical doubt that may be missing, or at least not taken beyond a certain point, in the work of some if not many historians and social scientists. He also tries to sketch out the meanings given to religion and more or less related phenomena that deserve serious critical attention. The title of his essay involves a dual reference to works of Kant and Bergson — initiators of two discursive practices or traditions that have interacted in complex ways in French and, more generally, modern thought. And in discussing the problem of religion Derrida stresses the importance of the pragmatic question of recent uses and abuses of the term, including how it is invoked in the confused idea of the return of religion (did it ever go away?). He also raises doubts about a presumably disenchanted or secular modernity as well as the way religion is sometimes linked ideologically to fascism, as in the ideologically charged, dubious concept of Islamo-fascism.

Derrida also emphasizes the duality — what unsurprisingly emerges in the course of the essay as the multiplicity — of the meanings attributed to religion. Still, he elaborates the idea of two senses or ’sources’ of religion. One is the sense that relates it to faith — ’the fiduciary (trustworthiness, fidelity, credit, belief or faith, “good faith” implied in the worst “bad faith”)’ (Derrida 1998: 63). He also treats the relation of faith to the ’totally other’ (63). Thus in his first sense or somewhat heterogeneous set of senses of religion, Derrida stresses faith as well as the totally other.

The second set of senses relates religion to the sacred and the holy, between which there are also divergences and tensions. (The German ’heilig’ is translated as either ’holy’ or ’sacred’, whereas the French has two terms: ’saint’ — as in le Saint Esprit — and ’sacré’.) I would note that the definition or conception of religion in terms of the sacred, rather than, say, a belief in immortality or in God (as well as the totally other), has been very important in a French tradition of thought to which Derrida is to some degree indebted or by which he is himself hailed or interpellated — the Durkheimian tradition, including such important figures as Marcel Mauss, Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, René Girard, Julia Kristeva in certain ways (at least via Mary Douglas), and many others, including to some extent Henri Bergson. Derrida also indicates the importance of the holy and the problem of the relation between the sacred and the holy. I would simply suggest in passing that the holy is often related to notions of the radical transcendence of divinity (as is the totally other and perhaps even faith or at least the ’leap of faith’). The sacred relates to more immanent, this-worldly, at times carnivalesque forces such as ritual, including (but not reducible to) sacrifice, which Derrida discusses in many places, including his Gift of Death. (Yet it is interesting that one refers to the ’holy’ rather than the ’sacred’ fool — as well as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit — but to the ’sacred’ monster — le monstre sacré — such as Derrida himself.) The holy as the heilig is very important in German thought, including Heidegger’s thought, in a sense privileged for Derrida for an interesting reason, because of ’its extreme character and of what it tells us, in these times, about a certain “extremity”’ (59), from which Derrida himself is not immune. One may also mention Rudolf Otto, whom Derrida does not discuss.

Derrida sees the holy or heilig as related to hailing and the way one is hailed by an address to which one must respond. One thinks, say, of Abraham or Moses as well as the hailing of Mary. Derrida refers to a possible division

in the alternative between sacredness without belief (index of this algebra: ’Heidegger’) and faith in a holiness without sacredness, in a desacralizing truth, even making of a certain disenchantment the condition of authentic holiness (index: ’Levinas’ — notably the author of From the Sacred to the Holy).


With respect to the reference to Levinas and disenchanted holiness, one might add Karl Barth or Rudolf Bultmann — indicating a meeting of a certain Judaism and a certain Protestantism, both of which tend to desacralize or ’disenchant’ the world through a notion of the radical transcendence of a totally other, hidden God who may be both the ultimate object of desire and the most extreme, dangerously traumatizing force — arguably similar in certain ways to the ’real’ in Lacan. Derrida does not mention what is pertinent to problems I shall discuss shortly: the role of address or hailing in the fascist salute and forms of address such as Heil Hitler or Sieg Heil. He nonetheless emphasizes how the heilig conveys notions of the unscathed, the pure, the undefiled, the uncontaminated, the immune that is safe and sound, in one sense the avoidance or voiding of the traumatizing or anxiety-producing, and, in Nazi Germany, the quest to be Judenfrei.

This notion of the unscathed, pure, and uncontaminated has been a crucial object of critical inquiry throughout Derrida’s thought. It is related to his deconstruction of pure binary oppositions through which one attains purity in a concept or a phenomenon by concentrating and projecting onto the other all internal alterity, or difference from oneself, to arrive at the pure, integral, unscathed, presumably self-identical entity or concept. This procedure is crucial both to a logic of pure identity and difference and to a sacrificial scapegoat mechanism. For Derrida such a logic undermines itself by repressing or disavowing internal alterity (the female in the male, the animal in the human, the heteronomous in the autonomous, or the Jew in the German, say, as well as the sacred in the holy). This process of generating what radically questions pure identity and pure difference is what he designates by various terms over time: perhaps most famously, différance, related to the intertwined processes of temporalization and spacing. And the issue of more or less flexible limits and of the problematic but necessary role of non-absolute distinctions in the wake of the deconstruction of binary oppositions is crucial in the bearing of deconstruction on historical, ethical, and political analysis.

I have intimated that Derrida has joined others in referring, perhaps at times in an extreme, questionable fashion, to auto-immunity in the sense of the way a system generates its own antibodies that unsettle its pure identity and, at a certain threshold, its very being or life. I would also note that the process of différance, which takes a particular swerve in auto-immunity and which I would relate to internal dialogization, self-questioning, and self-contestation, also helps one to understand Derrida’s oft-repeated and rather bewilderingly paradoxical assertion that a condition of possibility is a condition of impossibility. I would gloss this assertion as meaning that something’s condition of possibility is the very condition of its impossibility ’as such’ — as a pure, undivided, integral, autonomous, ’uncontaminated’ entity or essence — hence implying the impossibility of the ’as such’ as such. (Conversely, something’s condition of impossibility as such is its very condition of possibility as what it is with its internal alterity, marking, trace-structure, or difference from itself, in a sense, its originary hybridity that threatens any simple opposition between a pure, integral inside and an outside.) In his essay on ’Faith and Knowledge’, Derrida also makes observations indicating that the waters of the two sources of religion are themselves typically mingled in a veiled and even muddied, impure, or secret manner.

Towards the end of the essay, he asserts that ’the experience of witnessing situates a convergence of these two sources: the unscathed and the fiduciary’ (65) — a thought that resonates with the widespread turn to experience, trauma, witnessing, and testimony in the recent past. Perhaps surprisingly for some readers, Derrida also argues that an elementary testimonial trust precedes all questioning, indeed that the slightest testimony ’must still appeal to faith as would a miracle’. And he makes the provocative, in certain ways problematic, assertions that the experience of disenchantment itself ’is only one modality of this “miraculous” experience’ (64), that disenchantment is ’the very resource of the religious,’ and that ’the possibility of radical evil both destroys and institutes the religious’ (65) — views that I think apply more to the ’faith’ side of the ’sources’ of religion. In the present context I cannot inquire further into these assertions. I would simply observe that attempts to separate and oppose the ’two sources’ or their analogues are contestable and may be conjoined with conflict and even with wars, as in the wars of religion and the Reformation.

Derrida also discusses two putative etymological sources of the term religion that in a sense cut across, or form tributaries to, his two main sources. One is relegere, important in the Ciceronian tradition and meaning harvest or gather. The other and perhaps more prevalent is religare, to bind, link, obligate — related to having scruples that hold one back from doing or thinking possibly transgressive things. I have intimated that I think that the more prominent concepts, at least in Christian theology, that are related to the two main sources specified by Derrida — to simplify, the sacred-holy-pure and faith-radical alterity — are immanence and transcendence. The relation or nonrelation between transcendence and immanence has, I think, a claim to being the paradigmatic aporia or paradox of Christianity (notably with respect to what, for Kierkegaard, was the ’scandal’ of the incarnation — a ’scandal’ that messianism tries to defer — the ’scandal’ of the transcendent becoming immanent or God, man). The transcendence/immanence aporia or paradox (or its displacements and allegories) may even have this paradigmatic status in the so-called Western tradition more generally — something intimated in what was for some time, at least in the English-speaking world, Derrida’s signature essay, ’Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’ (in Derrida 1978: chapter 10), specifically his analysis of the problem of the centre as both inside and outside (immanent and transcendent to) the circle it determines. One may also refer to dimensions of Derrida’s early and later thought that are not explicitly brought together and thematized as a problem — the famous assertions that there is no ’outside-the-text’ (a notion more on the side of immanence) and that every other is totally other (tout autre est tout autre), a generalization of radical transcendence. The transcendence/immanence aporia or paradox is also operative in a displaced manner in theories of meaning as immanent to its vehicles or signs or, on the contrary, arbitrary and, in a sense, transcendent with respect to them. One might even ask whether ’meaning’ has become a ’god-term’ in studies of history, culture, and society that see their goal as the determination or recovery of meaning.

The immanent sacred is related to a multiplicity of phenomena — notably sacraments and rituals, including sacrifice but not reducible to it. The transcendent sacred (possibly construed as the holy) may be figured as the unrepresentable, the ineffable, the totally other, the hidden God. It may serve as a bar to mediations, including sacraments and rituals, including sacrifice. I would note in passing, and later return to the point, that to the extent fascism and especially Nazism arguably have a significant relation to the religious and the sacred, it is, I think, more to a specific form of the immanent sacred, especially when the latter is absolutized and bound up with a quest for total purity that may generate anxiety about contamination and prompt a turn to rituals, including purifying and sacrificial rituals that get rid of phobic, anxiety-producing, typically scapegoated others. From a transcendent perspective, Nazism may be seen as a diabolical, immanent, political religion, as it was by Eric Voegelin and others (see Ustorf; Vondung).

Allow me to mention another distinction, at times taken to binary, oppositional, or separatist extremes: that between faith and works or actions. Faith (like certain transhistorical, universalizing approaches to theory) is more on the side of the radically transcendent, and works are more on the side of the immanent, this-worldly, and mediated. (Yet a this-worldly figure such as Hitler may be the object of a certain kind of faith.) The problem of faith and works was, of course, an issue in the Reformation. I would suggest that there are analogous concepts and concerns in historiography and social science, especially with respect to the relation between ideology or belief, even theory, and practice. Recently in history there have been attempts to stress the importance of practice, often correlated with Bourdieu’s notion of habitus as what is embedded, goes without saying or is simply assumed. I would refer you, for example, to a recent book, Practicing History: New Directions in the Writing of History after the Linguistic Turn, edited by Gabrielle Spiegel. Bourdieu was himself within the Durkheimian tradition, and for Durkheim sacred practices, including rituals, constituted, at least in traditional societies, a habitus.

Most historians would see fascism and Nazism as somehow combining practice and ideology. Of course much depends on what one means by ideology, whose senses are also multiple, which is not to say that the concepts of practice and habitus are transparent. (Spiegel acknowledges that conceptions of practice along with practice theory are, for example, far from clear and, to the best of my knowledge, fascism and Nazism have not been explicit topics in practice theory.) I shall simply touch on the two extremes or at least two sources or currents of ideology that are often opposed or separated from one another. One is the systematically articulated networks of concepts or beliefs. You find at least an approximation of this in highly self-conscious intellectuals, say, Kant, Hegel, or Marx. Whether any modern movement or regime has an ideology in this sense is very problematic. A regime may have a doctrinal or dogmatic basis, but it may be a stretch to compare this with an articulated system. Very few historians would see Nazism as having a systematic ideology, although many would see it as having a doctrinal or dogmatic basis in racism, especially racially oriented anti-Semitism and the desire for a racially pure, unscathed, Judenfrei, utopian Volksgemeinschaft — a racial utopia.

The second, and I think more historically pertinent, notion of ideology is formulated by Althusser and taken up by many others. It has curious resonances with aspects of ’religion’. This is ideology that addresses, hails, or interpellates one and calls for a response. In more secular terms, it says ’hey you’. In more ’religious’, or at least affectively charged and even visceral terms, it may say ’Hail Adolf’ or even ’Heil Hitler’. It is related to subject formation, and it need not appeal to systematic thought. Indeed a systematic ideology that is explicit and well-articulated opens itself to scrutiny and may invite criticism. An ideology that hails or interpellates can be more vague, even confused, and linked more compellingly, more bindingly, and more unreflectively to practices, even rituals and more or less structured forms, of acting out phantasms.

I shall also invoke another concept that has become prominent recently — the postsecular (for example, in the work of Eric Santner and Jane Bennett, among others). The postsecular is neither the secular nor the religious or sacred but somehow both — or betwixt and between. It comes into its own in the attempt to re-enchant the world, even to evoke a sense of the uncanny, the epiphanous, the extraordinariness of the ordinary, indeed the miraculous or the endowed with grace, charisma, the gift of grace. And the postsecular has very labile, often rather confused relations to the aesthetic, including notably the performative, the uncanny, and the sublime. My own appeal to the concept of the postsecular involves both use and mention, indicating a desire to leave open certain questions I raise.

I would note what deserves more inquiry: the possible relations of the sacred and the sublime as seemingly religious and secular, or perhaps postsecular, correlates — the sublime as a displacement or at least analogue of the transcendent sacred (or perhaps the holy), indeed what is out of this world — in a phrase often used with reference to works of art. (Beauty is more immanent and mediated — less excessive or extreme. The uncanny disorients beauty but, insofar as it may be seen as a returning repressed, it is closer to the immanent (for Freud, ultimately the mother’s genitals or womb), with the return of the sacred in the secular, including the sublime, as a somewhat paradoxical, particularly disorienting mode of the uncanny.) One may also mention what I term ’traumatropisms’ — different attempts to transfigure trauma into the sublime or the sacred, for example, in the sacralization or sublimation of founding traumas such as the Crucifixion, the French Revolution, the Holocaust, and possibly the First World War for Hitler and others (for example, Ernst Jünger with respect to the Fronterlebnis). For Hitler the devastating disappointment of loss of the war was exacerbated by the evangelical promise of its outbreak. (In Germany, this sense of devastation was further aggravated by developments in the interwar period, including runaway inflation followed by the great depression.) As Hitler put it in Mein Kampf:

For me, as for every other German, the most memorable period of my life now began. Face to face with that mighty struggle all the past fell away into oblivion. For me these hours came as a deliverance from the distress that had weighed upon me during the days of my youth. I am not ashamed to acknowledge today that I was carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment and that I sank down upon my knees and thanked Heaven out of the fullness of my heart for the favour of having been permitted to live in such a time.


The general question of the labile, often confused relations between the sacred or the religious and the aesthetic are, I think, very important in certain currents in modernity, including but in no sense restricted to fascism. I would recall in passing T. E. Hulme’s definition of Romanticism as spilt religion — something quoted by M. H. Abrams in Natural Supernaturalism in the course of tracing the complex relations of Romanticism to religion, its structures, and motifs — a problem, of course, discussed by many others, including Northrop Frye and Hans Blumenberg. And the religion of art or the role of art as a surrogate or competitor with respect to religion has played an important role in ’modern times’, including Freud’s role-reversing reference in Civilization and Its Discontents to those who may need religion because they do not have art or Kultur. Of course this is not the only thing of interest in Freud concerning the complex relations between religion and seemingly secular formations, including psychoanalysis (for example, as involving attempts at exorcism of haunting, possessive forces).

Allowing for the very problematic meaning or meanings of religion, the sacred, and the aesthetic, let us cautiously move on to fascism and especially Nazism and ask whether they can be seen in any significant way — not entirely or even essentially — but in any significant way as related to the religious and the sacred, including their contested and often confused relations to the aesthetic. I will not go into the more delimited and more readily researchable question of the actual, empirical relations between fascist regimes and religious institutions such as the Catholic Church or the related question of clerico-fascism (see Finchelstein). These relations are intricate and run from compromise to active collaboration; Christian Wiese argues that ’Christian theology and the policy of the Churches, as well as a widespread social mentality determined by demonizing stereotypes of the “alien”, dangerous Jew actively and often consciously prepared the ground for the National Socialist policy of disenfranchisement and — a few exceptions apart — contributed to the fate of the Jewish minority through consistent desolidarization and quiet surrender’ (Wiese 166).

I have mentioned the conception of ideology that has displaced religious aspects, notably in its role in forming subjects through hailing or (in Althusser’s term) interpellation — subjects who may well engage in practices bound up with ideological phantasms, beliefs, or convictions. What is, I think, of general significance during the interwar period is the widespread appeal of fascism, including its appeal for intellectuals, and the extreme lability of ideologies in terms of shifts in position of individuals across the spectrum and of ’borrowings’ from ideology to ideology, even when they were militantly opposed to one another — including a tendency to valorize violence in intrinsic or regenerative, even sacrificial, and not limited strategic terms. In the sacrificially oriented Georges Bataille, this led for a while to a defence of what was termed surfascisme or taking from fascism its methods presumably in order to oppose fascism — a kind of homeopathic strategy that could well lead to overdosing on the antidote, especially when that antidote involved the typically escalating appeal to violence.

I have been using the problematic term ’fascism’. Allow me to give a list of what have often been taken as its prominent characteristics — what might perhaps be taken as a fascist constellation, if not a fascist minimum.

1. An affirmation of violence often seen not simply instrumentally as a means but as an intrinsic, valorized aspect of action, practice, or policy, at times bringing a so-called cult of violence involving traumatizing terrorism and even sublime elation.

2. A vision or figuration of violence both as originary or generative and as a heroic, typically masculine or virile vehicle of regeneration and purification in a world condemned as degenerate, fallen, mediocre, feminized, bourgeois — a despicable world that had to be radically uprooted and transformed with an apocalyptic sense of urgency.

3. A charismatic notion of leadership — an exciting leader who was chosen to lift up and lead the people out of mediocrity, degeneration, or even bondage. This is something even Bataille stressed in his essay on fascism and saw as a source of its appeal (see Bataille).

4. An enthusiastic, even elated, re-enchanted, mass public that followed the leader. The mass was also to be infused with charisma (not inert or passive). Here one may think of the ecstatic faces in the crowd greeting Hitler at Nuremberg, as seen in Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will.

5. Extreme nationalism, militarism, and ethnocentrism that might, however, be combined with an idea of fascism as a transnational movement. There was also an idea of a new Europe, even a new world order that might include special affinities among given peoples or nations. Mussolini saw a privileged link between Italy and Argentina with its large percentage of Italian immigrants. Nazis looked to Nordic and ’Aryan’ groups.

6. A long series of ’antis’ — anti-Marxist, anti-parliamentary, anti-Enlightenment, anti-liberal, anti-bourgeois, anti-intellectual, and with some variation anti-Semitic.

7. A more positive notion of fascism as a third way, neither right nor left, neither capitalistic nor Marxist.

8. A notion of fascism as more spiritual than competing modern ideologies such as Marxism or capitalistic liberalism — more spiritual but also involving thinking with the blood, experientially, even viscerally, not intellectually, critically, or analytically.

9. The importance of movement and the movement (in German Bewegung), which is related to the importance of the will and direct action. This was perhaps most prominent in the Nazis. In Italy, where fascists did affirm direct action and will, there was also a pronounced valorization of the state and a top-down corporatist organization of the economy.

One may perhaps add other characteristics (for example, the breakdown of at least a ’liberal’ sense of the rule of law), and not all those labelled or self-identifying as fascist accepted all of the above. One problem, however, is the relation of fascism and Nazism. This question involves the broader issue of totalitarianism, which has been used, with certain qualifications, to include fascism, Nazism, and Soviet communism. The concept, of course, had a pronounced ideological role in the Cold War, almost analogous to that of terrorism and the war on terror today. (One might almost say, paraphrasing Freud, where ideologically totalitarianism once was, there terrorism has come to be.) This ideological role jeopardized the more analytic uses of the concept of totalitarianism. And the question with respect to the latter is whether the concept, even as a model or ideal type that one acknowledges was never fully realized in empirical reality, obscures too many differences. Mussolini and certain of his ideologues did affirm a totalitarian state as a goal. And the concept of totality was prevalent. Stanley Payne and others see political religion (PR) in partial contrast to civil religion (CR) as centred on the state and totalitarian in incentive (see Payne; Sternhell; Paxton; Gentile; Griffin 1993, 2008). But whether totalitarianism is a way to highlight the similarities between Nazism and fascism or fascisms is questionable. Arendt herself, with whom Payne agrees in his book of 1995 (206), argued that the concept of totalitarianism did not apply to Italian fascism and perhaps not even to Nazism, although it might have, had the Nazis won the war. So that leaves the Soviet Union and the problem of the Cold War.

Even without invoking the problematic concept of totalitarianism, one may note that there were obvious overlaps and actual alliances between Nazis and fascists. Interestingly, both claimed to be spiritual — more spiritual than materialistic Marxism and materialistic capitalism. Both appealed to violence in furthering supposedly spiritual ends and valorized violence itself in ways that might even be seen as aestheticizing and sacralizing, notably as regenerative if not redemptive, elevating, exhilarating, and perhaps even sublime. And both were expansionist, with the Nazis seeking Lebensraum and colonies in Eastern Europe. It has even been argued that the Nazi quest for Lebensraum had a causal role or at least was a very significant factor in the Holocaust. Once they invaded the east, the Nazis had to deal with an enormous number of Jews — notably in Russia, Poland, and Hungary. And they had to clear space for ethnic Germans. So the Holocaust could be seen as caused, or at least strongly influenced, by problems in population control. This view fits in with the major tendency in the historiographical literature — that stressing bureaucratic processes and the machinery of destruction, more recently, at least in certain quarters, biopower. I think this approach points to one important set of factors. But I don’t think it is sufficient. And it is noteworthy that killing actions began before Nazis controlled large land masses and peoples, and genocidal practices were part and parcel of the conquest of those areas. Dan Michman has even argued that the development of ghettos was not instrumentally rational in motivation but stemmed from deeply internalized fear and repulsion in encountering ’radically other’ Ostjuden (see Michman 2009, especially 75n; Michman 2008). Some historians have insistently argued that what differentiated Nazism from other fascisms was as important, if not more important, than what they shared, especially the Nazi role in the ’final solution’ or the genocidal treatment of Jews as well as the widespread, violent abuse of other victims and victim groups. Genocide has generally not been seen as a necessary dimension of fascism. Saul Friedländer tries to make this argument. But Friedländer, like other historians, recognizes that other nationalities and countries were active collaborators in the genocide, at times even outdoing Nazis or going beyond what was required or even requested of them. It is well known, after Robert Paxton’s research, that Vichy France deported children to the camps when this was not required by the Nazis. And Jan T. Gross has told the story of how Poles abused and massacred Jewish neighbours and took over their property without being coerced by Nazis, during the pogrom of July 10, 1941 at Jedwabne (Gross 2002). The book, touching on sensitive issues, provoked a heated controversy (see Polonsky and Michlic; Forum) He has also recounted how, even after ninety per cent of Poland’s three-and-a-half million Jews had been eliminated during the Nazi occupation, the deadliest pogrom of twentieth-century Europe took place in the Polish town of Kielce on July 4, 1946, a year after the war ended, as Poles once again killed Jews, this time because they feared Jews would reclaim expropriated property, a fear that may have been reinforced by a sense of guilt or unease about what they themselves had earlier done to Jews and might do again (Gross 2007). For Gross the long-standing accusation of Jewish involvement in ritual murder remained prevalent in Polish society or at least was invoked on numerous occasions. And Polish Gentiles, recognized at Yad Vashem, were afraid to reveal that, at the risk of their own lives, they had helped Jews during the war, because of the expected hostile reaction of their own anti-Semitic neighbours (see, for example, Gross 2002: 82—4).

Another important point that has recently become more prominent is that the Holocaust seems less unique if not seen in a purely Eurocentric context but related to practices and policies with respect to people of colour in the colonies. The French in Africa, the Belgians in the Congo, and the white South Africans were at times quite extreme in their violence against enemies. There has been debate about the occurrence of genocide against native peoples in the Western hemisphere. The practices of Australia with respect to aborigines were assimilative and often quite violent, including killings in the colonial period and, in the twentieth century, the forcible removal of some 20,000 to 50,000 children of mixed parentage from aboriginal families and their placement in institutions or in white foster homes (Levi). All of these important cases and controversies would require extensive discussion sensitive to issues of time, place, and context, for example, with respect to comparisons or analogies with the Holocaust or Nazi genocide, including the treatment of animals in factory farming and experimentation, as in Charles Patterson’s Eternal Treblinka (the title comes from a phrase of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was deeply affected by the genocide in which his mother and younger brother were killed) or, in a more qualified way, in Boria Sax’s Animals in the Third Reich.

It is important to recall what is at times obscured, especially in the insistence on the machinery of destruction. There were two, partially overlapping phases of the Nazi genocide. The first involved the Einsatzgruppen (special task forces) and auxiliary groups that accompanied the army in the invasion of the east, the so-called Operation Barbarossa. This was the phase of hands-on killing — not simply desk murder or arranging train schedules. Here the killers were at first often inexperienced and were spattered with blood and brain as they shot victims in the back of the head. This phase involved the killing of some million and a half Jews and other victims — not an insignificant number. For the most part, Nazis and their affiliates, especially those in the elite SS, did not begin as hardened criminals, and a problem in Nazi ideology and practice was how to become hard and also how to find alternatives to the hands-on killing that might shatter or traumatize the insufficiently hardened. It is well known that a primary reason for the turn to gas was not from concern for the victims but the demoralization of German troops in direct killing actions that included the murder of women and children.

The second, partially overlapping phase was that of the concentration and death camps. The death camps, where the goal was killing and not work or extraction of surplus value, included Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka, with Majdanek also involving much killing. Yet conditions in other camps were also dire and often led to death due to overwork, abuse, and rampant disease.

I intimated that probably the most prevalent explanation of the Holocaust is in terms of the machinery of destruction, the role of bureaucratic mechanisms, and largely ’modernizing’ practices that more or less rolled along under their own quasi-mechanistic momentum, without clear attribution of responsibility and in conjunction with modern technologies of war and the stress of battle conditions as well as peer pressure. This view is often correlated with the notion of the banality of evil. One finds problematic resonances of this view in novels such as Bernhard Schlink’s Der Vorleser (The Reader) and Jonathan Littell’s much more ambitious Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), where, despite Littell’s narrator’s explicit distance-taking with respect to the notion of the banality of evil, there is inter alia a stress on the force of circumstance and at best diminished agency. Hanna, in The Reader, is described as ’falling’ into her job as a guard with the SS, similar to the way she and her young paramour, the narrator, fall into one another’s arms as a towel falls to the ground (the thirty-six-year-old Hanna initially embraces and fondles the fifteen-year-old Michael Berg from behind) (Schlink 1998: 25, 133), and Aue, the narrating officer in The Kindly Ones, is, as a putative result of an incestuous relation with his sister, a ’passive’ homosexual who, like his fellow SS officers, is swept along by the course of events and ground up by the machinery of destruction as he finds himself involved in an incredible number of atrocities and ’perversities’ in an amazing variety of places. Both novels are pervaded by a rather indiscriminately empathic, ’it-could-happen-to-anyone’ (or ’mon-semblable-mon-frère’) feel to events.

Without making misleading amalgamations or suggesting a simplistic solution to the complex relation between process or practice and agency, I think one also finds variations of Raul Hilberg’s ’machinery-of-destruction’ view in Hannah Arendt, Omer Bartov, Christopher Browning, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, the deconstructive theorist Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (in Heideggerian terms pointing to the supposed modern culmination of the Western technological Gestell or framework), Giorgio Agamben (in terms of biopower and the modern reduction of life to mere life in a state of exception), and many others. Different inflections among these analysts, as well as curious connections in lines of argument in their texts, are worth extensive analysis, some of which I have attempted elsewhere (LaCapra 1994, 1998, 2001, 2004, 2009; the last two books contain extensive critical analyses of Agamben).

The extreme, indeed visceral reaction to the Hilberg orientation is that of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book that has been criticized by historians but has also found a large popular following, both in the United States and abroad, notably in Germany. Goldhagen also, bizarrely enough, insists on an embedded habitus or culture on the level of what goes without saying, but he applies it to a putative generations-long eliminationist anti-Semitism in Germany that, with the Nazis, metastasized (in his term) into exterminationist anti-Semitism or genocide. This habitus rather mysteriously disappeared because of institutional changes after the war in a way that seems to credit denazification with rather amazing powers of success. Goldhagen also feels free to feel his way into, read, and render the subjective experience of perpetrators, actually, I think, the experience of perpetrators as fantasized by someone identifying with victims — most questionably perpetrators as they proceeded to escort and kill Jewish girls around the age of puberty. What I would like to argue in conclusion is different from Goldhagen’s perspective.

What I would like to argue, or at least suggest, is that what is ignored in both the machinery-of-destruction and the generations-old eliminationist-habitus approaches is the way the Nazi genocide may have involved ’religious’, purifying, apocalyptic, regenerative, even redemptive dimensions — one might conceivably call them postsecular — that were in some confused and confusing way at times bound up with numerous other factors, including aesthetic concerns, perhaps even an accentuatedly negative yet possibly exhilarating aesthetic of the sublime (with a role for the beautiful as well, which the ’ugly’, anti-aesthetic Jews impaired or destroyed). I think these dimensions are especially applicable to the actions and motivations of certain elite Nazis and perhaps some others as well, including such figures as Hitler and Himmler, who were bound together by a strongly cathected nexus, with Hitler becoming for Himmler a kind of anxiety-inducing, indeed traumatizing, godlike figure who issued sacred orders. Obedience to Hitler’s sacred orders, based on a faith, a fidelity, and a trust, uncontested by criticism and allowing for no critical distance in relation to their objects, was proclaimed as a Nazi, and especially an SS, cardinal virtue. In the words of Hermann Göring, ’there is something mystical, unsayable, almost incomprehensible about this man … we love Adolf Hitler, because we believe, with a faith that is deep and unshakable, that he was sent to us by God to save Germany’. In the analysis of Joachim Remak: ’For reason, [National Socialism] substituted faith — faith in “the movement”, faith, to an even greater extent, in Hitler’ (Remak 41; the affirmation from Göring’s Aufbau einer Nation is quoted on 69). The object of faith was more the movement (die Bewegung) and, of course, Hitler, than the party or the state, although there might be a metaphoric identification between Hitler, the party, and the nation or the Volk (as in Rudolf Hess’s speech filmed in Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will).

The broader suggestion I would make is that, to the extent they were operative, Nazism’s postsecular dimensions do not represent some regression to barbarism, much less ’brutishness’, but instead make up an intricate dimension of ’modernity’ — what might in its most perplexing form be termed a constitutive outside: what is inside modernity as its uncanny repressed or disavowed other. This ’extimate’ other (to use Lacan’s term) may emerge, possibly with a virulence related to its repressed or disavowed status, but at times it also comes to be articulated in a more or less explicit way. One place this articulation arguably occurs is, I think, in Himmler’s Posen speech (or speeches) of October 1943, which I have discussed in other places and to which I shall allude later. One might even speculate that the seemingly uncanny return of ritual murder charges against Jews in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe itself resulted from a projection of phobic, ritualistic attitudes towards them (Spector). What I am pointing to in particular is a symbolically, even quasi-ritually ’purifying’ and not simply hygienic response to Jews and possibly other victims who were projective objects of anxiety, allowing Nazis — and not only Nazis — to deny sources of disquiet in themselves by construing alienated others as causes of pollution or contamination, as well as ugliness, in the Volksgemeinschaft. These phobic, toxic, contaminating presences had to be gotten rid of — entfernen — in order for the sacred community to achieve quasi-ritual purity, integrity, and regeneration — a new beauty and even sublimity, indeed redemption or salvation in a racial utopia — Endlösung as Auslösung and Erlösung — ’final solution’ as release and redemption or salvation. The sense of regeneration, or being born again and possibly redeemed, was fuelled in ecstatic collective rituals, celebrations, rallies, parades, and related events that were not simply aesthetic or dramatic performances, although they were that as well.

The dominant historiographical stress on the ’machinery of destruction’ and bureaucracy, even when combined with a view of Hitler as a charismatic leader, may obscure the role of a postsecular dimension in the Nazi genocide related to scapegoating, the elimination of polluting presences, and the attendant quest for purification, regeneration, and even redemption that would ’restore’ the intact, putatively lost Volksgemeinschaft. There may even have been a quasi-sacrificialism that did not conform to a pristine model of sacrifice that at best might conceivably be found or at least approximated in a stabilized, formalized institution. Nazi quasi-sacrificialism, if such it may be termed, was unbalanced, extreme, even deranged. Yet it is significant that Jews, with respect to the Shoah, were in a crucial sense innocent of the ’crimes’ Nazis projected onto them, something certain Nazis and certainly other Germans may well have sensed. The metaphor of ’sheep to slaughter’ was often invoked both during and after the Holocaust, at times by Nazis, at times by demoralized and devastated Jews in the ghettos, and at times by Jewish resisters (such as Abba Kovner) who wanted to foster a sense of resistance by urging Jews not to be led like sheep to the slaughter. And, while they were perceived as abject by Nazis and anti-Semites, Jews were not simply taken to be abject pests or outlaws, for they were also figured as powerful, indeed hidden or secret manipulators of a world-wide conspiracy, even a Bolshevik revolutionary force, that threatened the Nazi regime with destruction. Moreover, the entire discourse of martyrdom that is often used with respect to Holocaust victims (as well as other victims of disasters, such as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) lends itself to a sacrificial frame of reference. In German, the dual meaning of the word Opfer as both victim and sacrifice almost invites a sacrificial understanding of victimization.

In any case, Jews were, at times along with other victim groups, localized and targeted as racially impure, threatening recipients of projective animosity and violence. Hence they could be ambivalent objects of phobic, quasi-ritualistic animus — not simply mere life or homo sacer (pace Agamben and Žižek). Jews were, in some non-trivial sense, neither one thing nor another — or, in however contradictory a fashion, both one thing and the other — both abject and powerful threats, both repulsive and compelling if not desired — betwixt and between, hence not fitting into a well-ordered yet ecstatic community of the people. It is, of course, also possible that, in one dimension of a complex Nazi reaction, a cynical reason of disavowal was at play which granted that Jews were not ’worthy’ objects of sacrifice but would be sacrificed nonetheless because, for whatever reason, this was the sacred order of the Führer and the destined path to renewed glory and salvation. Extremely important as well, and not incompatible with more ’religious’ conviction, is the sense that a sacred duty was being fulfilled in eliminating Jews, which had to be undertaken with something like purity of intention. As Himmler puts it at Posen:

A number of SS men have offended against this order [to take nothing of goods confiscated from Jews for oneself]. There are not many, and they will be dead men — WITHOUT MERCY [GNADENLOS — the one time Himmler emphatically raises his voice during the speech]. We have the moral right, we had the duty to our people to do it, to kill this people who want to kill us. But we do not have the right to enrich ourselves with even one fur, one Mark, with one cigarette, with one watch, with anything … We have carried out this most difficult task for the love of our people. And we have taken on no defect [or damage] within us, in our soul, in our character [keinen Schaden in unserem Innern, in unserer Seele, in unserem Charakter daran genommen].

(Dawidowicz 44—45; translation modified)

Moreover, the nature of the elation in extremely transgressive violence is problematic. Summarizing some of the scenes depicted in the documents collected in the book ’The Good Old Days’: The Holocaust as Seen by its Perpetrators and Bystanders, Hugh Trevor-Roper writes:

The most horrible photographs, and some of the most horrible narratives, in this book record the earlier stages in this [genocidal] process, for the first massacres, especially those in the Baltic states, were carried out in public. In Kaunas, Lithuania, where Einsatzkommando 3 operated, the Jews were clubbed to death with crowbars, before cheering crowds, mothers holding up their children to see the fun, and German soldiers clustered round like spectators at a football match. At the end, while the streets ran with blood, the chief murderer stood on the pile of corpses as a triumphant hero and played the Lithuanian national anthem on an accordion.

(Klee, Dressen and Riess xii)

What were the source and the nature of the elation or excitement that seems evident in such scenes? Was it uncanny, sublime, carnivalesque, sadistic, vengeful, an accompaniment to fanatical self-righteousness or to ’brutality’ (an anthropocentric misnomer that explains nothing), or some confused amalgam of tangled emotions and resentments? And how does one parse Himmler’s words to high-ranking SS insiders at Posen, with his references to the shudder caused by the Night of the Long Knives (es hat jeden geschauert), the experience shared by those who have been through it (durchgestanden) and know what it means to see ’a hundred corpses lie side by side, or five hundred, or a thousand’? How does one understand his formula for becoming hard and avoiding traumatic breakdown by enduring the aporia or combining in oneself the antinomies of decency or uprightness (anständig geblieben zu sein) and sticking out scenes of mass murder? Why do such events constitute, for Himmler, ’an unwritten, never-to-be-written page of glory’ in German history? And why does the speech end with apocalyptic apprehensions and then a prayerlike invocation that enjoins his listeners to ’direct [their] thoughts to the Führer, our Führer, Adolf Hitler, who will create the Germanic Reich and will lead us into the Germanic future’? And then a dedication: ’To our Führer Adolf Hitler: Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!’ Can an acceptable response to these questions be reduced to the contention that Nazis were simply hardened criminals, ignoring the process by which they became hard, and baldly asserting that any notion of a role for the negative sublime in their orientation or outlook is simply beside the point? Can Kant (or a certain selective, idealized version of Kant) — even in the dubious ideological aspect of his understanding of the sublime as attesting invidiously to the moral superiority and dignity of the ’upright’ human being, in contrast to the rest of nature, including other animals (apparently you cannot be dignified if you go on all fours) — be held up as fully authoritative and even kept unscathed as the good German whose sublime must in all ways be opposed to anything operative in the Nazis? Can Bataille’s sacred, despite its equivocations with respect to sacrificial violence, useless expenditure, mutilating torture, death, and ecstatic elation, be sharply separated from certain abyssal practices, even if it cannot simply be conflated with them? Without pretending that definitive answers are available, I raise these questions because I think the propensity to reduce the Nazis to hardened criminals, take Kant as incontestably authoritative, and dismiss any notion of a negative sublime as operative in Nazis and, in particular, in Himmler’s Posen speech, as well as to adopt an insufficiently nuanced and critical approach to Bataille, is at play in certain recent analyses (see Kligerman; Richman and Surya both offer ameliorative, participatory approaches; at the other extreme, Bataille is simply a ’left fascist’ in Wolin; see also my discussion of Bataille in LaCapra 2009).

Before concluding, I would like to be as explicit as possible about the nature of my argument. I am not trying to present a ’concept of the Nazi perpetrator’, even an ideal-typical one. I am even further from the idea of offering an overall account of motivation of the vast majority of Germans under the Nazi regime, even those who devotedly followed the leader. I am trying to explore what I think are aspects of the perpetration of genocide and perhaps extreme collective action in general that have not been adequately researched or conceptualized. The task for empirical research would be to see whether, and to what extent, archival sources substantiate or run counter to the notion of a quasi-ritual animus related to feelings of contamination or pollution by the other, notably the Jew, whose elimination was deemed necessary for liberation or even a kind of redemption of the Volksgemeinschaft. I think such an animus is rather clear in Hitler and in dimensions of others, including Himmler, at least in terms of his bond with, or even adulation of, Hitler. I also think it is there in certain elated participants in killing actions, perhaps less so in the more routinized activities in the camps. And while the Jews had a specific salience for certain key Nazis, including Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, and Eichmann, the ’redemptive’ dynamic, involving purification and regeneration through violence and victimization, might possibly apply to other groups as well, thus placing the concept of ’redemptive anti-Semitism’ in a somewhat larger context and opening it to careful, critical comparative study.

The question with respect to any individual perpetrator or even collaborator and bystander would be what role, if any, there was for a quasi-ritual, purifying, at times negatively ’sublime’, even more or less sacrificial impetus or motivation — in any case, for an intricate constellation of forces that cannot be reduced to deceptive catch-all terms such as ’brutality’. It is altogether possible and perhaps likely, that in certain cases or circumstances such a constellation was not in evidence. Here one has both a question of types of perpetrators and of dimensions of individual perpetrators that could be interrelated in complex and perhaps even contradictory fashion. My own argument tries to bring into greater prominence an aspect of the problem that I think has been underplayed, perhaps because it is difficult to substantiate convincingly in empirical terms. This difficulty is less pronounced with respect to the ’machinery of destruction’, including tactical and technocratic dimensions, which were indeed important and are more readily substantiated empirically, although the exact nature of their variable articulation with more ’ritualistic’ or quasi-religious concerns is a difficult problem that is often not even formulated as an explicit problem. Yet the combination of types of perpetration and of forces within the same individuals is a crucial issue for historical understanding.

Formulated in somewhat different terms, I have been trying to investigate the nature of the claim that might be made for ’redemptive anti-Semitism’, set in a larger framework of racism, victimization, and quasi-sacrificial purification and regeneration through violence, thereby exploring in certain ways the term that is central to Saul Friedländer’s Nazi Germany and the Jews but remains, I think, insufficiently elaborated on a conceptual or theoretical level in that very important work (Friedländer 1997, 2007; the term is most discussed in 1997, chapter 3). Here a crucial problem is to investigate the relations between ’ritual’ or quasi-religious considerations and other forces or factors active in the Nazi genocide by pointing out and critically analyzing, while resisting the tendency to elide or even repeat, the equivocations and confusions of Nazi discourse and practice themselves.

Acknowledging complications in any specific empirical analysis, I would nonetheless like to conclude with the question of the extent to which ’postsecular’, sacralizing forces are quite important in history, even in what we term ’modernity’, especially in the form of scapegoating and purifying, victimizing practices, along with their relation to ’aesthetic’ factors such as circumscribed, exclusionary conceptions of beauty and a desire for sublime exaltation as well as carnivalesque glee, notably through scenes of intrinsically valorized, regenerative violence. I would repeat that, with reference to the Nazi genocide, I am not presenting these forces as total explanations. But I think they are often not explicitly articulated as concerns, and their relations to other factors or forces may also remain unformulated as a problem or elided in an insufficiently examined manner. They may even be neglected or disavowed. Yet they are significant, especially on the level of motivation and lived ideology, which in its quasi-ritual or ’religious’ dimensions might best be understood not as a vestige of an old sacrificial order, as reversals, kinks, or feedback loops in a ’dialectic of enlightenment’, or as a regression to barbarism if not brutality, but as an often repressed or disavowed yet constitutive outside or extimate other of ’modernity’. I think they had this significance at least for a committed group of more or less elite Nazis and some others as well. And these forces may have been, in part, active recently with respect to the empire of evil, the enemy other, the haters of freedom, the elusive, omnipresent spectre of terror, and the ill-defined terrorist, which often seem to be very ’spiritual’ and mystified categories.

In any event, with respect to what I have been arguing, a crucial issue is how to assess the role and to elaborate a critical account of a victimizing, purifying frame of reference in ways that further at least two things:

1. An informed, critical, nonsacrificial understanding of problems on the levels of foreign policy, economic exploitation, and social structure, including gaps in wealth and income, both across and within societies.

2. An attempt to critically disengage scapegoating and victimization, as well as any notion of originary, regenerative, or divine violence, from the sacred and to raise the question of what in the sacred or the postsecular is defensible or of value, or at least what might be of value in a significantly transformed institutional context. (Here I would make special mention of oblation or gift-giving insofar as it may be disentangled from victimization, and rituals for transitional points in social and personal life, including non-invidious carnivalesque practices.)


1 After finishing what I thought was the final version of this essay, I came across a volume of essays addressing questions in a way pertinent to my discussion: Roger Griffin, Robert Mallett and John Tortorice’s The Sacred in Twentieth-Century Politics: Essays in Honour of Professor Stanley G. Payne. The pertinent essays largely support the argument I make.

2 For example, I do not agree with the notion of an originary coup de force or performative decision that precedes and founds all law, institution, or constitution (17—18), a theme familiar from Derrida’s ’Force of Law: The “Mystical” Foundation of Authority’ (esp. 941—43). See also my commentary on this essay as it was presented at a conference at Cardozo Law School, where it did not include the footnotes and ’post-scriptum’ on Nazism and the ’final solution’ (973—74 and 1040—45). My response is entitled ’Violence, Justice, and the Force of Law’. See as well my discussion in History and Its Limits: Human, Animal, Violence, 98—102. I would also question what seems at times to be a biomechanistic fatalism that construes in absolute and transcendental, rather than explicitly speculative and analogical, terms a notion of the auto-immune that not only must be self-defeating but also go to the extreme in the direction of excess, violence, and sacrifice — what Derrida at one point refers to as ’the terrifying but fatal logic of the auto-immunity of the unscathed’ (Derrida 1998: 44) and what might perhaps be seen as a variant of the death drive. But I would see as more suggestive the idea that anything seemingly immune or unscathed runs ’a risk of auto-immunity’ that ’haunts the community and its system of immunitary survival like the hyperbole of its own possibility’ (47).

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