Terror’s Atomization of Man: Leo Löwenthal

Horror and fears contain us in a world that we do not want, and impede us from acceding to interruptive encounters that regenerate our existence.  To participate in the exercise of clearing obstructions means first to not offer up our fear to those who produce and administer the horror – they do not merit our fear.  Then, it is useful to map the sites where the impossible can come to meet us, to trace the geopolitical and the geopsychic map of the impossible.  Lastly, let us imagine collectively situations in which we could say “The wonder!  The wonder!”, as if these were our first words.

Frédéric Neyrat, Échapper à l’horreur

An illusion may haunt anti-fascism, the belief that fascism is a distinctive form of political organisation mobilised to attack “liberal democracy”.

The illusion is sustained by the false assumption that modern “democracy” and fascism are qualitatively distinct regimes of power, when they are but modulations of one and the same type of power; a power with plural, overlapping and mutually-sustaining centres, that discipline and mould subjectivities, manage life and apportion death.

Leo Löwenthal, a perhaps lesser known figure of the Frankfurt School, engages with the issue directly in an excellent 1946 essay entitled “Terror’s Atomization of Man”.  As one reads the essay, passing through the analysis of the destruction of the “individual” to its social consequences, it is impossible not to read from it insights into our present, to then be taken to the essay’s central thesis, the horror that Löwenthal called “Terror”:

Mankind today has so tremendously improved its technology as to render itself largely superfluous. Modern machinery and methods of organization have made it possible for a relatively small minority of managers, technicians and skilled workers to keep the whole industrial apparatus going. Society has reached the stage of potential mass unemployment; and mass employment is increasingly a manipulated product of the state and state-like powers which channelize surplus mankind into public works, including armies and official or semi-official political organizations, in order to keep it at once alive and under control.

This is to say that large masses of workers have lost all creative relation to the productive process. They live in a social and economic vacuum. Their dilemma is the pre-condition of terror. It provides the totalitarian forces with a road to power and an object for its exercise. For them, terror is the institutionalized administration of large strata of mankind as surplus.*

We are sceptical with regards to Löwenthal’s faith in reason as sufficient to respond to terror.  (“It is only by applying the efforts of reason—in its theory and practice—to the phenomena of terror, their roots and their consequences, that mankind can hope to wrest itself from the most sinister threat and ultimately pathetic fate in which it has ever become involved.”)  And while we do not defend a politics of the “irrational”, his analysis of the loss of “individuality” – the arbitrariness of political power leaving the individual exposed to unpredictable authority, the loss of personal history and time with the accompanying loss of memory and imagination, the disappearance of any morally self-regulating personality before which all experience is reduced to disconnected moments and shocks, all goals are subsumed to the single goal of survival, everyone becomes but a resource, energy, to be exploited or discarded, when desire is inseparable from wanting what already is, terror – calls for far more than a rehabilitating of reason.  We might here say with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari that “is not the slumber of reason that engenders monsters, but vigilant and insomniac rationality”. (Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia)

And though we are not always convinced by post-colonial theory, it is equally difficult to embrace uncritically Löwenthal’s hope that the “dreams of Western civilization may still become reality if mankind can free itself from its use of human beings as surplus or commodities or means.”

In sum, are not “reason” and “Western civilisation” part of the problem, somehow one of the sources of modern totalitarianism?  In raising the question, we are not dismissing either one or the other, or both, for as concepts, they are far from clear, and what is to replace them, is even less so.  But there is a story that can be told here where “reason” and the “West” are far from innocent concepts, at least ideologically.  And therefore they cannot be simply assumed as the bases for a critique and a political practice opposed to contemporary forms of domination.

Perhaps an even greater uncertainty clouds the notion of the individual.  The latter is very much a creature of modernity.  If however the notion is not conceived abstractly, as referring somehow to an unchanging nature in each human being, which distinguishes one person from another, but concretely as an ensemble of changing, social relations, held together by a multiplicity of agencies (“internal” and “external” to the person), then what exactly is being destroyed by terror becomes a real question.  For perhaps, then, what is in fact being destroyed is not the individual as such, but a kind of individual that is being more or less quickly substituted by a new type.  And thus instead of calling for the preservation or defence of the individual, what is needed is something altogether different, beyond the “individual”.

And is not the latter both the child and the anthropological ground of capitaloparliamentary democracy?  If the modern “individual” is indeed being destroyed in a transition towards a society of control of global vigilance and registration of a now fragmented individual, what is now a dividual, with different powers exercising control over each fragment, an opposition to Löwenthal’s terror cannot originate in individual reason, but only in semi-clandestine forms of collective life that move away from the powerful fictions of both the individual and the present day dividual.

Leo Löwenthal’s essay remains though an alarm; and in these our somber times, one may ask whether anyone, or ones, are there to hear it.

(Leo Löwenthal’s essay was recently posted on the excellent greek website voidnetwork, but it was originally published in Comentary Magazine in 1946.)

Terror’s Atomization of Man

Leo Löwenthal

There is a widely held opinion that the fascist terror was just an ephemeral episode in modern history, now happily behind us. That opinion I cannot share. I believe that it is deeply rooted in the trends of modem civilization, and especially in the pattern of modem economy.

Indeed the reluctance to face squarely and explore fully the phenomena of terror and their implications is itself a lingering phenomenon of the terror.

Those who live with terror are under powerful compulsion not to speculate about it or to increase their knowledge of it. But this does not explain the remarkable reserve and resignation displayed in the face of totalitarian terror by the fact-loving Western world. The West shrank from the facts of the fascist terror, though they were available from reliable sources, until they were forced upon it in the unmasked horrors of Buchenwald, Oswiecim, Belsen, and Dachau. It shrinks today from the facts of the terror which is succeeding the end of the military war. The self-preserving numbness of the terror-ridden countries seems to be matched by a psychological mass-repression, an unconscious flight from truth, in the countries where civilization survives.

Essentially, the modern system of terror amounts to the atomization of the individual. We shudder at the tortures inflicted on the physical bodies of men; we should not be less appalled by its menace to the spirit of man. Terror accomplishes its work of dehumanization through the total integration of the population into collectivities, then depriving them of the psychological means of direct communication in spite of—rather because of—the tremendous communications apparatus to which they are exposed. The individual under terrorist conditions is never alone and always alone. He becomes numb and rigid not only in relation to his neighbor, but also in relation to himself; fear robs him of the power of spontaneous emotional or mental reaction. Thinking becomes a stupid crime; it endangers his life. The inevitable consequence is that stupidity spreads as a contagious disease among the terrorized population. Human beings live in a state of stupor—in a moral coma.

Let us examine more closely the main phenomena of terror in action.

1. Directness And Omnipotence. One of the basic functions of terror is to wipe out the rational connection between’ government decisions and individual fate. The wholesale arrest of people during the first stages of totalitarian terror, the mixing in the concentration camps of the most diverse elements of the population for the most diverse reasons, fulfills precisely this function of elimination of individual differences and claims before the apparatus of power. The qualitative difference between the imprisoned lawbreaker and the rest of the population does not exist between the victims of terror within the concentration camps and those outside. The principle of selection of the forced workers of the camps is direct terroristic calculation. They are in the majority trapped in mass arrests, with no question of individual guilt involved and no hope of limited punishment.

That the concentration camps are far more representative of the population at large than the traditional penal institution is made ominously clear by the fact that they are supervised not by a specialized body of civil servants but by units of that same secret police which oppresses the population at large.

This interruption of the causal relation between what a person does and what happens to him fulfills one of the chief aims of modern terror, namely:

2. The Breakdown of the Continuum of Experience. With the breakdown of legal rationality and its clear relation to the individual fate, this fate itself becomes so enigmatic as to lose all meaning. The individual does not know what he may experience; and what he has already experienced is no longer important for his person or his future. The normal rhythm of youth, manhood, old age, of education, career, success or failure, is completely disrupted. The creative faculties of fantasy, imagination, memory, become meaningless and tend to atrophy where they can no longer bring about any desired change in the individual’s fate.

Of course this transformation of a human being from an individual, whose essence is continuity of experience and memory, into a unit of atomized reactions is carried further among the trapped victims than among the population at large. But the difference is only in degree, and if we only cite examples from reports from the detention camps, it must always be remembered that the population at large was aware of both mass arrests and the terror within the concentration camps. Thus the terror actually visited upon the bodies of Jews, “radicals,” Poles, etc., terrorized the minds of all, which was indeed its primary function.

The breakdown of memory and experience has been described by a German psychologist, Kurt Bondy, who was himself in a concentration camp for a time:

This uncertainty about the duration of the imprisonment is probably what unnerves the men most. . . . They try to forget. The past becomes uncertain and nebulous, the picture of their family and friends indistinct. . . . Here are the roots of hopelessness, apathy, indifference, despair, distrust, and egocentricity. (“Problems of Internment Camps, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1943.)

Thus life becomes a chain of expected, avoided or materialized shocks, and thus the atomized experiences heighten the atomization of the individual. Paradoxically, in a terrorist society, in which everything is most carefully planned, the plan for the individual is—to have none; to become and to remain a mere object, a bundle of conditioned reflexes which amply respond to a series of manipulated and calculated shocks.

3. The Breakdown of Personality. In a system which reduces life to a chain of disconnected reactions to shock, personal communication tends to lose all meaning. The super-ego—the agency of conscience—in which people have stored the mechanism of moral decency, is repressed by what I may call a Hitler-ego, meaning that the inhibitions produced by conscience yield to inhibitions or drives produced by mechanical reactions and imitations. Neither the terrorized nor the terrorist is any longer a personality in the traditional sense. They are mere material conforming to situations created by a power utterly independent of themselves. An underground report by a prisoner escaped from Oswiecim tells how the camp system “destroyed every social tie in a victim and reduced his spiritual life to a fear-driven desire to prolong existence, be it only for a day or an hour.” And a keen observer with personal experience in two camps, Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, now with the University of Chicago, has studied this deterioration to its end in loss of the vital passions:

This outside world which continued to live as if nothing had happened was in the minds of the new prisoners represented by those whom they used to know, namely: by their relatives and friends. But even this hatred was very subdued in the old prisoners. It seemed that, as much as they had forgotten to love their kin, they had lost the ability to hate them . . . they were unable to feel strongly about anybody. (“Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1943.)

A similar shrinking of the personality to a cluster of conditioned reflexes has been observed among the guards. In his report, A Year in Tremblinka, Yankel Wiernik describes the practitioners of terror as automata devoid of passion or remorse, who performed their given tasks as soon as some higher-up pressed a button. Bettelheim describes their dehumanization in these words:

Having been educated in a world which rejected brutality, they felt uneasy about what they were doing. It seemed that they, too, had an emotional attitude toward their acts of brutality which might be described as a feeling of unreality. After having been guards in the camp for some time, they got accustomed to inhuman behavior, they became ‘conditioned’ to it; it then became part of their ‘real’ life.

And there is, above all, the corroborating evidence provided by these automata themselves in the trials currently being held in Germany. They admit the most atrocious crimes but show not the slightest sense of guilt. Their inhuman conduct was justified, they maintain, because it was ordered by their superiors.

4. The Struggle for Survival. The old system of culture, from abstract philosophical metaphysics to the institutions of religion and education, had the result of permeating mankind with the idea that only rational behavior which included respect for the rights, claims and needs of others could guarantee one’s own survival. Under terror such behavior may be equivalent to self-annihilation. Terrorism wipes out the causal relation between social conduct and survival, and confronts the individual with the naked force of nature—that is, of denatured nature—in the form of the all-powerful terrorist machine. What the terror aims to bring about, and enforces through its tortures, is that people shall come to act in harmony with the law of terror, namely: that their whole calculation shall have but one aim: self-perpetuation. The more people become ruthless seekers after their own survival, the more they become psychological pawns and puppets of a system which knows no other purpose than to keep itself in power.

Former inmates of Nazi detention camps confirm this regression to sheer Darwinism—or perhaps one should say infantilism:

The urge of self-preservation, bestial fear, hunger and thirst led to a complete transformation of the majority of the prisoners. . . . In many cases the sense of responsibility towards others disappeared entirely, as well as the least feeling of consideration of their common lot. Many a prisoner carried on a wild, ruthless, and thoroughly senseless struggle for his individual survival. (Bondy, op cit.)

5. Reduction to Natural Material. What the terrorist masters fear most is that their victims may recover their awareness of belonging to a whole, to human history. The complete victory of totalitarianism would be identical with the complete forgetting of history; that is, with a mankind become void of reflection, or in other words with a mankind solely become natural material. To quote Hitler:

A violently active, dominating, intrepid, brutal youth—that is what I am after. Youth must be all those things. It must be indifferent to pain. There must be no weakness or tenderness in it. I want to see once more in its eyes the gleam of pride and independence of the beast of prey. . . . I intend to have an athletic youth—that is the first and chief thing. In this way I shall eradicate the thousands of years of human domestication. Then I shall have in front of me the pure and noble natural material. With that I can create the new order. (Hermann Raüschning, Hitler Speaks, 1939.)

Here, if we discard the flowery adjectives, is a classic admission of fascist aims and ends. Mankind, having become domesticated again, becomes part of the over-abundance of nature. It thus becomes material indeed, for exploitation where needed and for annihilation where not—in any case, mere material to be processed. Modem terror always looks at people with the eyes either of the big monopolist surveying raw materials or of the undertaker anticipating the disposal of the useless human corpse.

This attitude is perfectly illustrated in reports describing the initiation of inmates in the Nazi concentration camps of Eastern Europe:

At the one side we surrendered our baggage; at the other side we had to undress and to surrender our clothing and pieces of value. Naked then, we went into another barrack, where our heads and beards were shaved and disinfected with lysol. When we walked out of this barrack each of us was given a number. . . . With these numbers in our hands we were chased into a third barrack where the reception took place. This ‘reception’ consisted in that our numbers were tattooed on the left breast. Then they proceeded to take the data of each person and brought us, divided in groups of hundreds, into a cellar, later into another barrack, where we were given striped prisoners’ clothes and wooden shoes. (Die Judenausrottung in Polen. Augenzeugen-berichte. Dritte Serie. Geneva, 1944.)

There is a striking analogy between this treatment of human beings and that of merchandise shipped into the inventory rooms of a large department store or factory. It is a planful handling of materials for certain purposes. According to the witnesses, the system became so streamlined that only the really useful human merchandise was tagged. He who got no number was a reject; he was disposed of. And as in any oversized administrative unit, no one cared to take the blame for mistakes. Even if the merchandise had been rejected by mistake, it was destroyed:

Since the prisoners were checked according to numbers and not according to their names, an error could easily be made which would be disastrous. If the ‘block-writer’ had marked ‘dead’ a number which in reality was still alive—a thing which can happen in these extreme cases of great mortality—the mistake was corrected by putting to death the holder of the number.

Wiernik describes the reduction of the human being into nothing more significant or valuable than a potential cadaver:

It was a continuous coming and going, and death without end. I learned to look at every live person as a prospective corpse in the nearest future. I appraised him with my eyes and thought of his weight; who was going to carry him to his grave; how severe a beating would he get while doing it? It was terrible, but nonetheless true. Would you believe that a human being, living under such conditions, could at times smile and jest?

These are hard facts, and they justify one’s saying that within the logic of terror, man has himself become a fact of raw nature. And death gains the rationality of putting surplus human material to use:

The Germans carried out mass round-ups of Jews in the city. They spared neither men, women, nor children. The adults they simply murdered, while the children were given away to the Hitler Jugend squads as shooting targets. (Quoted in News Bulletin, Representation of Polish Jewry, American Division, 1945.)

6. Assimilation to the Terrorists. Terror reaches its peak of success when the victim loses his awareness of the gulf between himself and his tormentors. With the complete breakdown of the personality the most primitive historical force, imitation, becomes openly prevalent in the dehumanized atmosphere of totalitarianism. This ultimate stage in regression is described by Dr. Bettelheim:

A prisoner had reached the final stage of adjustment to the camp situation when he had changed his personality so as to accept as his own the values of the Gestapo . . .

Old prisoners who seemed to have a tendency to identify themselves with the Gestapo did so not only in respect to aggressive behavior. They would try to arrogate to themselves old pieces of Gestapo uniforms. . . . This identification with their torturers went so far as copying their leisure-time activities. One of the games played by the guards was to find out who could stand to be hit longest without uttering a complaint. This game was copied by the old prisoners, as though they had not been hit often enough without needing to repeat this experience as a game.

Other problems in which most old prisoners made their peace with the values of the Gestapo included the race problem, although race discrimination had been alien to their scheme of values before they were brought into the camp.

Can one imagine a greater triumph for any system than this adoption of its values and behavior by its powerless victims? When we again recall that the difference between the effect of terror upon the population within and without the concentration camp is one of degree rather than kind, we have here an appalling index to the magnitude of the so-called problem of re-education in Central Europe.


So much for the atomization of the individual. What are some of the social consequences of a regime of terror?

It is characteristic of a terrorist regime that its tools and practices increase in efficiency, quantity and cruelty. Terror grows by what it feeds on—its excesses beget the need for ever greater terror. Under this increasing oppression the victims cease to anticipate an end of terror; they hope only for its alleviation.

Thus terror, by its own inner dynamics, perpetuates its sovereignty. Its victims lose the power to envisage a different order of life. They become absolutely dependent, materially and spiritually. They are receivers of doles, from such rewards as the “Strength through Joy” benefits all the way down to the spoiled food and contaminated water of the concentration camp.

This, I think, explains the behavior of a good many Germans toward the Allied armies. It is a continuity of frozen reactions. The aloofness of some and the abject toadying of others to the military powers are alike the result of their long alienation from genuinely experienced values and convictions.

Another result is the emergence of an infantile collectivity. Terrorist atomization has resulted in almost complete destruction of the old institutions of society. Most important, because the family was the basic unity of society, is the weakening of family ties. The complete dependence of parents on the whims of the terrorist hierarchy; the state policy of training children to inform on their parents; the regimentation of youth; the “social engineering” which shifts masses of people about with as little respect for family ties as in the worst phases of chattel slavery; the creation of millions of orphans through mass extermination of adults; all these are practices which the totalitarian governments have made horribly familiar. And all these practices inevitably and designedly disrupt family relationships and deprive the young of reliance upon the warmth and security of family life.

The result is an upsurge of a feeling of adolescent collectivity, rootless and ruthless, in which the concept of the family is supplanted by the image of a cynical, tough, destructive, joyfully cruel and extremely resentful community, frighteningly reminiscent of Hitler’s vision of brutally domesticated and therefore brutal natural material.

Finally, the pattern of terrorist oppression has had its influence on the behavior of liberated groups and individuals. Without moralizing about the legitimacy or appropriateness of revenge, it must be said that reprisals which betray a resort to the means of the totalitarian enemy have a deep significance for the tasks of peace. It has been truly said that the system of terror which Mussolini introduced into Western Europe enjoyed a sinister triumph in the orgy of vengeance over the dead bodies of the fascist dictator and his mistress. It triumphed when French girls were paraded with shaved heads before a vituperative populace in punishment for intimate relations with German soldiers. The “humane and orderly” transfer of Germans from liberated Poland was foreshadowed in the remark made to Jan Karski by a girl member of the Polish underground:

The moment the Germans are defeated, a ruthless mass terror must be organized. The imported Germans must be expelled from the vicinity by the same methods by which they were settled here—by force and ruthless extermination.


What is there in modem civilization that has set this terror loose among us?

I should like to venture this thesis:

Mankind today has so tremendously improved its technology as to render itself largely superfluous. Modern machinery and methods of organization have made it possible for a relatively small minority of managers, technicians and skilled workers to keep the whole industrial apparatus going. Society has reached the stage of potential mass unemployment; and mass employment is increasingly a manipulated product of the state and state-like powers which channelize surplus mankind into public works, including armies and official or semi-official political organizations, in order to keep it at once alive and under control.

This is to say that large masses of workers have lost all creative relation to the productive process. They live in a social and economic vacuum. Their dilemma is the pre-condition of terror. It provides the totalitarian forces with a road to power and an object for its exercise. For them, terror is the institutionalized administration of large strata of mankind as surplus.

Certain cultural tendencies emerging from the crisis of the liberal era may be cited as contributing to the rise of terror.

Under the impact of mass production, people have learned to live in patterns, not only material but also spiritual. They tend to accept uncritically entire systems of opinions and attitudes, as if ideological tie-in sales were forced upon them. To be a progressive is ipso facto to be for democracy, for the New Deal, for the Negroes, for the Jews, for Soviet Russia, and many other things. To be an isolationist is, or was, to be ipso facto against Great Britain, against Soviet Russia, against the intellectuals, against the Jews, and many other things.

It is not so much that people believe in these configurations of stereotypes as that they themselves become stereotyped appendages of this or that big cultural or political monopoly. Reason, consistency, personal experience no longer matter. One might say, for example, that there are no true anti-Semites any more, because anti-Semitism is not so much a reaction to anything experienced as specifically Jewish as it is a behavior-pattern tied in with adherence to a certain cultural ticket. And this shrinking of genuine experience makes it all the more difficult to counteract distorted and fallacious stereotypes. The cultural monopoly, integrating a whole chain of attitudes, itself exercises a psychologically terroristic impact to which the individual yields.

The fearful discrepancy between the moral traditions of individualism and the mass crimes of modern collectivism has left modem man in a moral no-man’s land. He still holds to the moral concepts of middleclass society—conscience, decency, self-respect, the dignity of man. But the social foundations of these concepts are crumbling. The overwhelming scale of power, size, destruction, extermination in the modern world make individual moral scruples, problems and conflict seem puny and irrelevant.


To cite a drastic example, the ethical issue involved in Hamlet, which may be considered a classical document of morality after the dissolution of medieval culture, is the question whether or not a time “out of joint” can be righted if Hamlet becomes the judge and executioner of his father’s murderer. In the face of present-day physical and moral catastrophe this issue is almost ridiculous.

The individual today realizes, more or less consciously, that his moral values do not greatly matter, because not much depends any more, either materially or spiritually, upon his decisions. He feels alone, deprived of the material and moral heritage which was the basis of his existence in liberal society. He is exposed to tremendous fury and aggression. He has become a potential paranoiac. In this condition he is ready to accept the most insane ideologies and patterns of domination and persecution.

The fascists were the first to spot the connection between potential material poverty and real spiritual poverty, and to exploit it rationally and systematically on a mass scale. They realized that in order to subjugate and control the surplus population it was necessary to bum into their minds the awareness of physical and spiritual menace, and to extirpate the whole frame of moral and emotional reference within which men had traditionally attempted to survive personal calamity. Hitler himself, in a conversation with Rauschning, once expressed the fascist need of terror and brutality. According to Rauschning:

He had not the slightest liking for concentration camps and secret police and the like but these things were simply necessities from which there was no getting away. ‘Unless you are prepared to be pitiless, you will get nowhere. . . . Domination is never founded on humanity, but, regarded from the narrow civilian angle, on crime. Terrorism is absolutely indispensable in every case of the founding of a new power. . . . Even more important than terrorism is the systematic modification of the ideas and feelings of the masses. We have to control those’ (Hermann Rauschning, op cit.)

Hegel once said, “How fortunate the institution which has no history.” Our age of terror is history, and one of its blackest chapters. But the dreams of freedom and happiness which terror would destroy are also part of history.

It is only by applying the efforts of reason—in its theory and practice—to the phenomena of terror, their roots and their consequences, that mankind can hope to wrest itself from the most sinister threat and ultimately pathetic fate in which it has ever become involved.

The dreams of Western civilization may still become reality if mankind can free itself from its use of human beings as surplus or commodities or means. Otherwise we too may face the terror.

* Lowenthal’s thesis is echoed by other contemporary writers of the time, both inside the Frankfurt School and out.  Though through different argumentative paths, one thinks of Hannah Arendt or Günther Anders, to mention but these two authors.

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