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Intentional Inevitability

An Observation on the Relationship Between Ideology, Structure, and Action

In the area of Holocaust studies, the enigma of normative politics arises in the intentionalist/structuralist debate. Intentionalism refers to the notion that the Holocaust progressed directly from ideas to actions, having originated within the mind of Hitler, and having flowed from him to become a well-understood and specific goal of subsequent Nazi policy. Structuralism, being a rival interpretation, claims the Holocaust evolved not in a linear fashion, but through a process of progressive improvisation, in which successive decisions were based on antisemitic but not necessarily Holocaustic principles, leading ultimately but indirectly to the Shoah. The normative question regarding intentionalism and structuralism is determining which, if either, of these two schools of interpretation offers a predominant explanation for the Holocaust.

While reading and reflecting on Richard Breitman's overview of the intentionalist/structuralist debate, as found in chapter ten of the anthology Modern Germany Reconsidered, 1870-1945, I was reminded of a statement made by Ludwig von Bertalanffy in his book General Systems Theory, regarding intention, structure, and function; "In the last resort, structure (i.e., order of parts) and function (order of processes) may be the very same thing: in the physical world matter dissolves into a play of energies, and in the biological world structures are the expression of a flow of processes."

Although von Bertalanffy was speaking about non-human physical systems, and in particular organic structures, his statement applies just as well to systems designed by humans, and -- I hope I won't be stretching this analogy too far, but -- paraphrasing von Bertalanffy's statement, and applying it to the intentionalist/structuralist Holocaust debate, we arrive at a statement along the following lines: in the political world bureaucracies and hierarchies dissolve into a play of ideals and ideologies, and sociopolitical structures are the expression of a flow of intentions. In other words, political structures follow from political functions, which in turn follow from political ideals. Also, ideals and structures grow together, endlessly influencing the shape the other takes. Stated more briefly: intentions drive structures, which in turn drive intentions, ad infinitum.

This observation gives credence to a sort of intentional inevitability regarding the functional nature of the Nazi system: the Nazis may not have planned the specific details of the Holocaust as it came to pass, but the ideals and ideology that gave rise to the Nazi system (along with other conditions of the time) held within them the seeds of some future Holocaust-type activity.

This idea, intentional inevitability, dovetails with the popular historical practice of defining boundary interpretations for some context, in this case extreme intentionalism and extreme structuralism regarding the primary cause(s) of Holocaust, and then working towards a perhaps more reasonable interpretation, being some middle-ground between the two extremes.

Staying with the historical practice of defining boundary interpretations for some context in order to locate some more reasonable interpretation between the two extremes, let's remain within the context of World War Two, and consider an intentionalist/structuralist analysis of the opponents of the Nazis, the Allies, so that we might obtain a broader understanding of the general principles that are at work in this debate. Because intentionalism/structuralism addresses the technologically enhanced mass murders of the Holocaust, for an Allied example let's take a look at the technologically enhanced mass murders committed in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Just as the Nazis did not plan the specific details of the Holocaust as it eventually came to pass, the Allies certainly did not plan the specific details of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki prior to the end of the war. However, with respect to intentionalism and structuralism, the question we must ask is: what intentional inevitability lay within the Allied system and the Allied Manhattan project? Did the ideals and ideology that gave rise to the Allied system and its Manhattan project (along with other conditions of the time) hold within them the seeds of some future Hiroshima-and-Nagasaki-type activity? Could the atomic bomb have been built, but not dropped? Alternatively, could the atomic bomb have been built, but not dropped on non-military targets?

As suggested by the formulation of these last two questions, the issue is the nature of the sociopolitical system that devoted an unprecedented amount of resources towards building atomic weaponry, and then chose to apply that weaponry towards the destruction of non-military targets. (Here it is of course instructive to remember the non-military nature of the targets of the Holocaust.) To begin answering the question of Allied intentional inevitability, let us recall the above paraphrasing of von Bertalanffy, that "sociopolitical structures are the expression of a flow of intentions," and turn to a commentary on the intentions and inevitability of the Manhattan project from a project insider, Robert Oppenheimer's brother, Frank;

"Amazing how the technology tools trap one, they're so powerful. I was impressed because most of the sort of fervour for developing the [atomic] bomb came as a kind of anti-Fascist fervour against Germany. But when VE Day came along, nobody slowed up one little bit. No one said, "Ah well, the main thing -- it doesn't matter now." We all kept working, and it wasn't because we understood the significance against Japan. It was because the machinery had caught us in its trap and we were anxious to get this thing to go."

Considering the historical events that came to pass as a result of the Nazi and Allied political systems, the important conclusion here is that the intentionalist/structuralist debate is not just a question about the Holocaust (or Hiroshima and Nagasaki) specifically, but about the normative relationship between political systems and historical events in general. Accordingly, if intentionalism and structuralism exist as boundary interpretations of the causal relationship between political systems and historical events, then if we accept Oppenheimer's description of the intentional-structural trap inherent in the Allied system circa 1945, and we also accept, for example, Eisenhower's warning about the disastrous potentials inherent in that same system -- which was the basis for the system we have today -- then what reasonable interpretation regarding the structural intentions of today's systems should we glean from the historical comments made here?

When contemplating any answer to this question, be sure to reflect on the structurally guided intentional inevitabilities inherent in your own activities, and make sure to recall the comments of a particularly notable intentional man who participated in the structurally reinforced atrocities of a world war; "We all kept working, and it wasn't because we understood the significance ... It was because the machinery had caught us in its trap."


[ commentary :: history, politics, the human condition, violence ]

Last updated May 30, 2011