The Illustrated Insectopedia - Hugh Raffles (2010)


Antisemitism is exactly the same as delousing. Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology. It is a matter of cleanliness. In just the same way, antisemitism, for us, has not been a question of ideology, but a matter of cleanliness, which now will soon have been dealt with. We shall soon be deloused. We have only 20,000 lice left, and then the matter is finished within the whole of Germany.

HEINRICH HIMMLER, April 24, 1943


Traveling alone through a ravaged and hostile postwar central Europe, the narrator of Aharon Appelfeld’s searing novel The Iron Tracks encounters a man on an empty train who unhesitatingly identifies him as a Jew.1 But how could you tell? Siegelbaum asks, bewildered. It’s nothing physical, the man replies matter-of-factly. It’s your anxiety. You have the anxiety of the Jew. The anxiety of the guilty and the hunted. The anxiety of the degenerate. He might have added, You have the scuttling neurosis of the cockroach, the parasitic temerity of the louse. However many we killed, there were always some left. Now, wherever we see one, we know there are many more.


“Antisemitism is exactly the same as delousing,” said Heinrich Himmler.2 And although at times he would strain for the apposite euphemism, the SS Reichsführer was famous for choosing his words with precision. Antisemitism is not like delousing, nor is it merely a form of delousing. It is exactly the same as delousing. Did he mean that Jews actually are lice? Or only that the same measures should be taken to eradicate both evils?

Himmler is a constant presence at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Controlled and confident among his famous colleagues—Göring, Goebbels, the führer himself. The calm within the storm. Downstairs, when I visited in the summer of 2002, the museum had hung an exhibition by the painter and propagandist Arthur Szyk, student of medieval illumination, savage caricaturist, and activist for the Revisionists, the ascendant militarist wing of the Zionist movement.3 Szyk captured the SS commander’s clinical impassivity well.

In summer 1943, soon after the U.S. State Department had for the first time officially confirmed conservative reports of 2 million Jews killed by the Nazis, Szyk, exiled in New York and aggressively campaigning for an interventionist rescue policy, produced a drawing of characteristic clarity.4 Himmler, Göring, Goebbels, and Hitler complain: “We’re Running Short of Jews!” On the table, the Gestapo report: “2,000,000 Jews Executed.” In the upper-right-hand corner: “To the memory of my darling mother, murdered by the Germans, somewhere in the Ghetto of Poland … Arthur Szyk.” He was only guessing this last part, but he was right: his mother had already been herded onto the transport from Lodz to Chelmno.

A year later, at the end of 1944, with Majdanek already liberated, Szyk again drew his Nazi gang, this time for the cover of the Revisionist journal The Answer. The dead are present in skulls, bones, and tombstones etched with the names of the camps. The Nazi leaders, towering over the ruined landscape, are tattered and facing defeat; Goebbels, at the front, throws up his hands in disbelief and a kind of surrender as Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, passes through, grimly grasping the Torah, the emblem of collective survival. Where we see one, many lurk in the shadows. “An eternal people,” as the magazine’s caption says.

The Answer was the house journal of the Bergsonites, Revisionist militants in the United States who had thrown themselves into the task of publicizing the destruction of the European Jews. Szyk’s drawing, used prominently in the group’s materials, displays his gift for distilling programmatic politics into complex yet visceral imagery. The Wandering Jew—that enduring and ambivalent icon of antisemitism, who mocked Christ on his progress to the cross and was condemned to roam the earth until the Second Coming—had been reclaimed by Jewish artists, and Szyk drew from at least two prominent versions. One—a late-nineteenth-century image by Shmuel Hirszenberg in which a stripped and panic-stricken Ahasuerus, victimized to the point of derangement, flees the grisly horrors of the 1881 pogroms—circulated throughout Jewish Europe on postcards and posters. The second, a sculpture, is by Alfred Nossig.

With its assertive response to suffering, Nossig’s statue transforms Hirszenberg’s traumatized vision. It is an image of Jewishness that—in an awkward irony that will soon become clear—fit well with Szyk’s taste for the heroic.5


Lice are parasites (as are Jews). They suck our blood (as do Jews). They carry disease (as do Jews). They enter our most intimate parts (as do Jews). They cause us harm without our knowing it (as do Jews). They signify filth (as do Jews). They are everywhere (as are Jews). They are disgusting. There is no reason they should live.


Although the Nazis imposed the borders with unprecedented ferocity, they did not initiate the expulsion of the Jews from the kingdom of humanity. In early-modern France, for example, “since coition with a Jewess is precisely the same as if a man should copulate with a dog,” Christians who had heterosexual sex with Jews could be prosecuted for the capital crime of sodomy and burned alive with their partners—“such persons in the eye of the law and our holy faith differ[ing] in no wise from beasts” (who were also subject to trial and execution).6 In a minor key, long-standing German identifications of Jews with dogs (mongrels) and, sometimes, pigs, persisted through the Nazi era.7

More destructive—and more insinuating—was the association of the Jew with the shadowy figure of the parasite, a figure that infests the individual body, the population, and of course, the body politic, that does so in both obvious and unexpected ways, and that invites innovative interventions and controls.

Three streams converged in the Jewish parasite—modern antisemitism, populist anti-capitalism, and the new social sciences (eugenics was one example)—streams that made sense of the world through the concepts and metaphors of biology. The historian Alex Bein tracked the figure of the parasite prior to its modern connection to race.8 He found it in Greek comedy as a destitute person, a stock character who sparred wittily with host and guests intent on extracting humiliation in return for a meal. Bein then followed its entry into the European vernacular along with the early-modern humanist return to the classical texts. In this later incarnation, its comedic qualities flattened by the centuries, “parasite” reappeared as an expression of contempt for people who fawn on the rich and for people who profit without labor at the expense of those who sweat. It was in this moralistic form that the word was taken up by the eighteenth-century sciences: first botany, then zoology, and finally, fatally, by the sciences of man.

Bein argued that it was the physiocrats, liberal political economists of the mid-eighteenth century, who brought the parasite into European political philosophy. They sliced society neatly into three: the classe productive of agriculturalists, the propertied class of landowners, and the unproductive classe stérile, made up primarily of merchants and manufacturers. It was, Bein argued, the introduction of the “parasitic” classe stérile into political discourse that would give antisemitism its populist base in anti-capitalism.

Parasites drain the lifeblood from the body politic. But in order for this commonplace to sustain violence, a decisive metamorphosis has to take place: a people must become vermin in fact as well as in metaphor.9 “Every living being except Man can be killed but not murdered,” writes Donna Haraway.10 And indeed, somehow, people must be made as killable as animals. Drawing parallels between the genocides in Nazi Germany and Rwanda, the anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani talks about race branding (“whereby it [becomes] possible not only to set a group apart as an enemy, but also to exterminate it with an easy conscience”).11 “Ordinary” dehumanization of this type—“the Tutsi ‘cockroaches’ should know what will happen, they will disappear”12—requires two associations: the identification of a targeted group with a particular type of nonhuman life-form and the association of the being in question with adequately negative traits.

There is no doubt that this happened in the Holocaust. But something more happened, too. Explaining it is at the heart of understanding the fate of the Jews, who, after all, would be killed like insects—like lice, in fact. Literally like lice. Like Himmler’s lice. With the same routinized indifference and, in vast numbers, with the same technologies.


Alfred Nossig, the sculptor of that assertive Wandering Jew, was seventy-nine when he was arrested in the Warsaw Ghetto by the ZOB, the Jewish Fighting Organization, the underground group that would lead the iconic uprising. It was February 1943, one of those dead days of terror between the Gestapo’s January incursion and the April revolt, and the details are confused. There was a secret trial, a conviction for treason, and a summary execution. After Nossig’s death, an incriminating document, a report he had prepared for the Germans on the impact of their routed action, was found in his pocket, or perhaps in the desk drawer of his apartment, or perhaps not at all. No one could say for sure, and by that point it didn’t really matter.

Nossig was not only a sculptor. He was also a well-known writer of philosophical and political treatises, a poet, playwright, and literary critic, the author of an opera libretto, a journalist, a diplomat, a polymath trained in law and economics (in Lvov), philosophy (in Zürich), and medicine (in Vienna), and as the historian of Zionism Shmuel Almog puts it, “a conceiver of great schemes.”13 He was a mysterious figure, and a tireless one, always organizing, always arguing, and somehow always on the losing side. For decades, he reveled in the furious center of early Zionism as Jewish intellectuals and activists wrestled bitterly to make sense of their situation in the midst of new ideologies, new possibilities, and unprecedented dangers. Other Jews—though not many—were executed by the ZOB, but none were as prominent as Nossig.14The untidy death of the elderly man at this moment of enduring redemption is still a moral, political, and historical problem.

Nossig’s vigorous statue of the Wandering Jew was premature in aligning the Torah with resistance and “fell quickly into oblivion.”15 It was Hirszenberg’s image of suffering that captured the mood of a Jewish world undone by the vicious pogroms that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, a world soon to experience the explosions of 1903 and thereafter, cataclysms that sent 2.75 million Jews from the Pale of Settlement pouring west across Europe between 1881 and 1914. Still, as we know, the traces of Nossig’s vision would reappear in Szyk’s rendering of the theme some forty-three years later, a vision that found in suffering a wellspring of defiance.

But defiance can take strange forms. At the time of the pogroms, Nossig was arguing that emancipation and assimilation had directly provoked antisemitism by fomenting insecurity among Christians. Like Hirszenberg, he believed that Jews and Christians were fundamentally incompatible. Among Jews, historical “exile” had led to degeneration. “The average Jewish type,” he wrote in 1887, “exhibits strength in the struggle for survival but is morally on a lower level than the non-Jew; he possesses more shrewdness and endurance, but at the same time more ambition, vanity, and a lack of conscience.”16

Nossig’s writings caused a sensation. But not through offense. Instead, his explicit call for the rededication of a Jewish homeland in Palestine as the only solution to the problem of the European Jews thrust him to the forefront of Zionist polemicists—a prominent rival to Theodor Herzl, whose famous manifesto, Der Judenstaat, would be published in 1896. Yet it is sentences like the one above, overlooked at the time, that now reveal the latent symptom.


It’s all so cinematic. Nossig’s arrest, the hurried trial, the secret execution, and—jump-cut—across the Soviet border, the Einsatzgruppen, the SS paramilitaries, unleashed, systematically butchering the frozen Ukrainians. The bleached-white landscape, the cabins engulfed in flame, black smoke pluming into an empty sky, red blood soaking out across the crisp snow. It is February when Nossig dies in Warsaw. The uprising begins on April 19, and the fighters are still holding out five days later as Himmler lectures on lice to his SS officers in Kharkov.

This is a difficult history, a story shadowed by the disaster about to fall. There are others, but the late-nineteenth-century words that matter most here are the following: degeneracy, science, nation, and race.There are Jews, Poles, and Germans. Soon, Europe and its colonies will burn in war upon war. The Judenfrage, the Jewish Question, is also the Jewish problem, and new solutions are beginning to appear. Nossig will travel. Before he comes back to die in the filth of the ghetto, he will crisscross the continent, studying; sculpting; writing books and plays; editing journals; organizing museums, exhibits, and research institutes; founding a Jewish publishing house and attempting to establish a Jewish university; addressing meetings and conferences in Paris, Vienna, London, Berlin, and many other cities; building a reputation as a social liberal and committed pacifist; doing anything he can to further the cause of Jewish emigration.

He channels his immense energy into the new cultural and political activism of Gegenwartsarbeit, the practical work of transforming the present. By his late thirties, he is one of the best-known Jews of his generation. But he will end up barely a footnote, his name tied always to that worst of all words: collaborator. Could there be a more terrible fate?

Nossig will fall foul first of Herzl and the political Zionists, then of the Zionist Organization itself. But none of that stops him. He negotiates with the Ottomans, the British, the Germans, the Poles. He cultivates around himself the kind of mystery no one likes or trusts, something malign maybe; no one can say for sure. People know he’s driven. They’re no longer sure by what. It’s as if he sensed the disaster about to fall. (But did anyone really sense the disaster about to fall?)

People don’t know what to make of him. He has the kind of mystery no one likes or trusts. (Adam Czerniakow, chairman of the Judenrat, the Jewish administrative council in the Warsaw Ghetto, calls him the tausend Künstler, the conjurer, the man of a thousand parts.)17 When he appears in the ghetto, he is taciturn and haughty. (“A word from him was rare indeed.”)18

Whatever else he may be, Nossig is a modern man of social science. He is a man who grasps the solidity of facts. As if the reality of facts could hold back whatever disaster may befall. He forms the Verein für jüdische Statistik, the Association for Jewish Statistics, and enlists many of the most dynamic Jewish intellectuals of central Europe. They want Jews to know who Jews are and how they live; they want to reveal the corrupting effects of assimilation and the new antisemitism; they want to organize and regenerate.

So they publish surveys of Diaspora life and they produce statistics. It’s Gegenwartsarbeit. And Nossig (like others who are not Jews) realizes at once that survival will be a question of social hygiene. That the words that matter most are degeneracy, science, nation, and race.


From Berlin, the center of German Jewish intellectual life, Nossig used his substantial organizational talents to found, in 1902, the Association for Jewish Statistics; to edit, in 1903, its initial publication, Jüdische Statistik; and to launch, in the following year, the Büro für Statistik der Juden. The bureau stood at the center of Jewish political and intellectual life in the pre-Nazi period, “the focal point of Jewish social scientific activity in Europe … until the mid-1920s.”19

Jewish social science was a direct response to the Jewish question. The historian John Efron described this succinctly: “The question revolved around accounting for the physical, cultural, and social differences between Jews and Germans. The central issue was why, after their initial emancipation in 1812 in Prussia, their subsequent integration into German society, and their adoption of German culture, the Jews remained a distinct, visible, and easily identifiable group. Why had they failed to shed themselves of their Jewishness—that rarely described, but often observed, essence?”20

That this was also a preoccupying question for non-Jewish Germans can be seen in the scale and intensity of the research it provoked. Most famous, perhaps, were the comparative craniometric studies of almost 7 million German and Jewish schoolchildren carried out by Rudolf Virchow in the 1870s, which demonstrated the impracticality of distinguishing phenotypically between Aryans and Jews and, accordingly, of claiming that race and nation were one and the same.21

Nossig argued that the loss of cultural distinctiveness through assimilation was destroying the individual Jewish body and the body of the Jewish race. People in exile were subject to diseases of the flesh and the psyche and in need of physical and spiritual regeneration.22 Because both Jewish social scientists and antisemitic intellectuals were committed to the new logics of physical anthropology, evolutionary theory, and medicine, this was a crisis about which all could agree. Yet there were, obviously, crucial distinctions. In particular, Jewish scholars followed the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in emphasizing the role of the environment in evolution and argued for the social and historical rather than biological and racial determinants of national pathologies.23 For assimilationists, Lamarck provided a wedge between themselves and antisemitic attempts to roll back the gains of emancipation; for Zionists, he promised that a new land would produce a new Jew.

As did modern antisemitism, eugenics, and what Germans were beginning to call Rassenhygiene—race hygiene, rather than social hygiene—captivated thinkers across the political spectrum.24 It can be difficult now to recognize the idealism tied up in this form of social engineering. And it can be hard also to appreciate the extent to which even the most catastrophic of outcomes was contingent. Darwinism did not have to devolve to a crude sociology of competition; eugenics required commitment to neither nation nor a hierarchy of races, only to the scientific improvement of a given population.25 But what is so stunning about this moment is how the confluence of these ideologies—and the associated transformation of politics into a form of biological science—proved so irresistible and how it took so many people to such unnerving places.


Degeneracy, science, nation, and race. Nossig stayed within the Zionist Organization for a decade following its first congress in 1897. He threw himself into activism but was more and more at odds with a leadership he considered elitist and anti-democratic. He vied constantly for the diplomatic ear of anyone who might hold a key to the gates of Palestine. He negotiated with British, Polish, and American officials. But his most persistent contacts were with the Ottoman Empire, which at the time controlled the territory of Palestine. His ceaseless travel to clandestine meetings produced anxiety, even among his allies, and a sense of unreliability and danger around his person that would precede him all the way to Warsaw. Even worse perhaps, he failed to disguise his distaste for his Zionist rivals and so created enemies, powerful ones, through displays like the public showdown in Basel in 1903, when he denounced Herzl for his “jüdische Chuzpeh.

“All nations got their countries thanks to conquest or labor,” he wrote that year in language that could only deepen his isolation; “only the Jews, who buy and sell everything, bought themselves a homeland too.”26

Nossig’s most consuming project at this time was the statistics enterprise. The first task—a task never completed—was to demographically identify the Jewish people; the second was to diagnose their condition. The people were sick: life in the primitive East (or, for later writers, the degenerate West) made this plain.27 Here again, Jews and antisemites found common ground, even if, for Jews, sickness demanded regeneration and transformation, not extermination.28

In 1908, Nossig finally left the Zionist Organization, increasingly uncomfortable with what he thought was its extreme and indistinctively non-Jewish nationalism and its counterproductive and unethical “cult of power” in relation to Palestinian Arabs.29 Believing also that the organization was neglecting settlement, he established a new broad-based colonization body, the Allgemeine Jüdische Kolonisations Organisation (AJKO), which he hoped would become an institutional rival to the Jewish Agency, the official organization. At that point, many Zionists envisaged a “home for the Jews” within the framework of the Ottoman Empire and were encouraged by the sultanate’s developing policy of limited territorial autonomy based on religion and ethnicity.30

In the years leading up to the First World War, Nossig maneuvered aggressively to get the Ottomans to recognize the AJKO, not foreseeing the empire’s collapse and the British capture of Palestine. Even though German Jews overwhelmingly allied as patriots with the Central Powers in the First World War, Nossig’s agitation was sufficiently high profile to mark him as a German agent—a whisper circulated by British and American diplomats in the region, as well as by the Zionist Organization itself, and a rumor that would have an altogether more sinister resonance when it resurfaced twenty years later.

As conditions deteriorated during the 1930s, Nossig threw himself into peace activism, even organizing a peace movement for young Jews. But eventually he felt forced to leave Berlin for Prague, where he devoted himself once more to his sculpture. Europe was becoming increasingly precarious for Jews, but he somehow succeeded in publicly exhibiting in Nazi Berlin a scale model of a monument he planned to erect on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. It was called The Holy Mountain and consisted of more than twenty outsize statues of biblical characters, a symbolic landscape of Judaism, now lost, which I imagine was peopled by figures as vigorous and resolute as his Wandering Jew.

Nossig is in his seventies by this point, and as Almog tells it, is offered asylum in Palestine “as a veteran Zionist.”31 But he doesn’t go. The old man who has spent so much of his life working for Jewish emigration refuses to leave without his sculptures. The next we hear he has arrived in Warsaw as a refugee.


To Marek Edelman, a ZOB commander in the Warsaw Ghetto, the execution of “the notorious Gestapo agent, Dr. Alfred Nossig,” was a necessary action in “a programme designed to rid the Jewish population of hostile elements.”32 I like to think the contrast between Edelman’s military language and his retention of Nossig’s title signals unease. But it could just as easily be the voice of bureaucracy.

Remarkably, Edelman survived the uprising. Days after emerging from the sewers of the razed ghetto with a few battered comrades, he took a tram through the bustling streets of Aryan Warsaw and found himself staring at his own image. It was a poster that had appeared immediately following the uprising, and on seeing it, Edelman was instantly “seized by the wish not to have a face.”33

“Jews—lice—typhus”—the poster that confronted Edelman shows a monstrous louse crawling into a hideously deformed “Jewish” face. It was part of a concentrated campaign that accompanied the liquidation of the ghetto.34 Edelman’s panicked reaction testifies to the potency of the image. He drags himself out through the bowels of the ghetto to find that his racialized self, the parasitic louse, has been forced into daylight too. It truly is a shock of recognition.

We already know something of the darkening histories buried in this horror. We, too, recognize the louse and its biology. We remember that there was a moment, not long before, when Jews like Edelman and Nossig could imagine themselves as children of emancipation, as heirs to European science and letters. We know they saw that the old judeophobia had become a new antisemitism. We know that many reacted to this new antisemitism by abandoning their dreams of assimilation and grasping at the Zionist nation.

We didn’t know—though it’s surely no surprise—that in 1895 (the year after Nossig published his Social Hygiene of the Jews) the German physician Alfred Ploetz responded to the general fear of social and racial degeneration in the wake of industrialization by publishing Die Tüchtigkeit unsrer Rasse und der Schutz der Schwachen (The Fitness of Our Race and the Protection of the Weak), the founding statement of German Rassenhygiene, in which he warned that “traditional medical care helps the individual but endangers the race.”35 We also didn’t know that in 1904 and 1905—just after Nossig and his colleagues had launched the Association for Jewish Statistics and prepared its publications—Ploetz, also in Berlin, established the journal and institutional apparatus of the new racial-hygiene movement. It’s time to return to the problem we started with. How could the Reichsführer say those things? Do you remember? “Antisemitism is exactly the same as delousing. Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology. It is … a matter of cleanliness, which now will soon have been dealt with. We shall soon be deloused.”

Perhaps Himmler was indulging in an intimate irony with his men. As is well known, prisoners at Auschwitz were treated to an elaborate charade. Those selected for death were directed to “delousing facilities” equipped with false-headed showers. They were moved through changing rooms, allocated soap and towels. They were told they would be rewarded for disinfection with hot soup. Despite the fears of disease, the hunger for cleanliness, and the routine character of such hygienic procedures for migrants, there is evidence of considerable confusion and recalcitrance. The prisoners massed uncertainly in the shower room. Overhead, unseen, the disinfectors waited in their gas masks for the warmth of the naked bodies to bring the ambient temperature to the optimal 78 degrees Fahrenheit. They then poured crystals from the cans of Zyklon B—a hydrogen cyanide insecticide developed for delousing buildings and clothes—through the ceiling hatches. Finally, the bodies, contorted by the pain caused by the warning agent (a life-saving additive in other circumstances), were removed to the crematoria.36

In this grotesque pantomime, the victims—and we must remember they were not only Jews—move from objects of care to objects of annihilation. To diseased humans, delousing promises remediation, a return to community, a return to life; to lice, it offers only extermination. Too late, the prisoners discover they are merely lice.

The politics of life as the politics of death. Life stripped bare of its humanness. (Even if this work of turning humans into lice also makes lice human.) Such things were possible not because of the inferiority of the Jews—a fact never securely established: how could they be so powerful and so subhuman all at once?—but because of their unsettling alterity.37 This is the moment when sovereign power is vested in the medical professionals. Not the Jewish physicians like Nossig (and Edelman), of course, but others who had debated the science of national survival in ways that were at once similar and different.38

Himmler’s language contains metaphor, euphemism, and at some level, I suspect, a statement of belief. The word the Nürnberg lawyers translate as “getting rid of”—“getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology”—is entfernen, to remove or make distant, one more euphemistic ambiguity in the self-consciously legalistic series that has Himmler elsewhere evade naming the killing, talking instead of “mortality rates,” “special treatment,” “emigration,” and “known tasks.”39

Yet this alone cannot explain the literalization of Himmler’s speech that takes place in the gas chambers. As well as metaphor, euphemism, and belief, there is the most material of histories underlying his parasitic insects. It is a history that finally dissolves the distinction between those things that enter from outside (the individual body, the body politic, the foreign body) and those that are always present within (the parasitic animal inside). It is the final collapse of distinction between human and insect; the collapse that allows for extermination.


For Germans, the association of Jews with disease was a long one, encased in the memory of the Black Death as a Judenfieber, a Jewish sickness, penetrating from out there, beyond the eastern borders.40 Of the modern black deaths, it was the lice-borne typhus, with its sudden and catastrophic mortality rate, that was the most feared, and even though by 1900 it was “virtually dormant,” its menace was palpable—and also locatable: in Jews, Roma, Slavs, and other “degenerate” social groups associated with “the East.”41

The national fear of disease only intensified with the rise of the bacteriological sciences. Even though Robert Koch, the pioneer of German bacteriology and winner of a Nobel Prize in 1905 for his work on cholera and tuberculosis, refused to link pathogens with race (instead emphasizing transmission), his research was fully compatible with the new ideologies of racial hygiene, and introduced a logic of extermination that would resonate ever more strongly during succeeding decades.

Koch’s most significant legacy in this respect lay in the formalization of a set of authoritarian protocols, including compulsory testing, quarantine, and household disinfection, that he developed and put into practice in colonial Africa. In 1903 in German East Africa, for example, he established a “concentration camp” for the isolation of sleeping sickness. Though the authoritarian management of populations was only one lesson that could be drawn from his work, it was an influential one.42 Claus Schilling, an assistant of Koch’s who would go on to direct a department for tropical medicine at his mentor’s Koch Institute, was eventually executed for his malaria experiments at Dachau.43

Advances in the scientific control of all kinds of pests—bacteria, parasites, and insects—were by no means restricted to Germany. Medical science stimulated both rivalry and a degree of cooperative research among the imperial powers as shared concerns became evident. Hygiene was the rubric that invited investigation into the intertwined vectors of human, animal, and plant disease as researchers worked to safeguard the health of colonial settlers and their livestock and crops.

At the same time, concern about contamination in Europe and the United States led to restrictive border policies and punitive inspection procedures targeted at particular social groups, with quarantine laws enacted in the United States specifically to prevent the entry of Jews fleeing the Russian pogroms.44 Disease both necessitated and facilitated the isolation of particular groups as sites of medical intervention and social control. The apparent predisposition of Jews and certain others to infection was self-evidently a mark of cultural primitivism.45 We might therefore imagine that hygienic interventions expressed a kind of missionary modernity. But it seems instead that regimes of cleansing were dispensed and experienced as punitive, not redemptive. The implication was that disease, at least for these parasitic populations, was an inherent trait rather than a curable condition.

This is the period in which we see the development of those technologies of disease control that achieve a kind of fulfillment at Auschwitz: collective showers, bacteriological soaps, chemical gas, cremation … These technologies were already compulsory features of a network of border-control stations that fortified the German frontiers with Russia and Poland and encouraged migrants from the east to regard German territory as implacably foreign ground. Following a severe cholera outbreak in Hamburg in 1892, which was widely attributed to Russian Jews, Germany closed its eastern borders, relenting only to establish a hygienic transport corridor to the ports of embarkation for Ellis Island. For a while, the major shipping lines took over the financing and expansion of the border-control posts.46

The outbreak of war in 1914 soon produced mass epidemics among refugees, troops, and enemy captives. In a lightning typhus outbreak in Serbia, more than 150,000 civilian refugees and prisoners died in six months.47 Hygiene became an urgent political priority, and sanitary regimens became correspondingly more severe. It was Russian soldiers—rather than the atrocious conditions—who were blamed for the appalling mortality rates in the POW camps. “Eastern peoples” were characterized not as victims of disease but as its carriers. State efforts were directed toward protecting the civilian population from contamination (Russian prisoners were to be tended only by Russian doctors).

The critical scientific breakthrough just prior to the war—the identification of lice as the typhus vector—led to an industrialization of delousing and its expansion to civilians. The historian Paul Weindling describes what this meant:

The routine demanded total nudity, and special attention to the hair, skin folds, and the “Schamgegend” where the lice might lurk in pubic hair or between the bottom cheeks. If any person resisted the shaving of all their hair (and it was noted that women often protested), then a louse-killing substance like petroleum or eucalyptus oil was to be used on those parts of the body defended from more radical hygienic intervention.… Clothing, bed linen, and mattress covers had to be placed in ovens or steam chambers. For disinfestation of rooms either steam or canisters of sulphuric acid or sulphur dioxide were used. Items of low value were burned.48

Weindling describes the mass application of such procedures by German disinfectors throughout German-occupied Poland, Romania, and Lithuania in response to typhus outbreaks during the war. He documents an increasingly strident association of disease with Jews and others regarded as racial degenerates. Jewish-owned stores in Poland were closed until the owners had undergone delousing. Lodz, a city with a large Jewish population, was ringed by thirty-five detention centers for persons considered infested.49

But military defeat in 1918 radically changed the calculus. Rather than expanding into purified colonial living space, medical authorities now found themselves confined to a dramatically reduced national territory. They also found themselves confronting an unmanageable crisis of refugees—mostly ethnic Germans and Ostjuden—as well as sick and wounded military personnel returning from the front. In the years following the Treaty of Versailles, highly restrictive immigration controls and draconian inspection practices were imposed in an effort to protect the newly vulnerable Volk against contamination from the east.50

Nonetheless, and despite the terrible events of the Russian Civil War—25 million typhus cases and up to 3 million deaths from typhus between 1917 and 192351—it was becoming clear that the real danger was no longer external. As early as 1920, police in Berlin and other cities were invoking “hygienic control” as they rounded up Ostjuden and transported them to disease-infested camps along the national borders.

Not only the discourses of hygiene (themselves an amalgam of eugenics, social Darwinism, political geography, and pest biology) but also specific technologies, identifiable personnel, and particular institutions dedicated to the eradication of disease shifted rapidly and quite seamlessly to the eradication of people. The elimination of typhus would enable a simultaneous purification of race and polity—one and the same by the mid-1930s—and increasingly the disease’s human victims became functionally and perhaps ontologically indistinguishable from its insect vectors.

From 1918, this trajectory accelerated as a conservative political and medical consensus formed around the understanding that contagion was directly tied to degeneration, that a body politic whose health had been shattered by the humiliation of Versailles was now dangerously contaminated, that disease had reached the racial heartland, and that exorcising the phantasm of infection was the only solution. The interwar period is striking for the radical conflation of political philosophy and medicine, such that ghettos, for example, become places of confinement that protect the excluded German population from disease, and simultaneously—and inevitably, given the conditions inside them—diseased sites that generate a pathological anxiety around fears of contamination from escapees. The rest is too well known to bear further repetition.


An elderly Alfred Nossig appears repeatedly in the diary of Adam Czerniakow. The entries are cryptic and irritated, perhaps even condescending. Nossig runs to Czerniakow with prattle from the ghetto streets; he is short of money; he bombards the Germans with letters; on one occasion, they throw him out of their offices.52 It all raises the suspicion that the old man is senile.53 Czerniakow describes him as “pleading” and “babbling.” He talks about Nossig’s “antics.” At one point he “admonishes” him.54

It is clear that even though Czerniakow may not find Nossig directly threatening, he does not trust him. For a start, Nossig is too familiar with the Nazis. It is the Germans who introduce him to the Jewish administration, to whom he is already known, and it is the Germans who insist on a position for him. Appropriately enough, he is appointed the council’s emigration officer. But what kind of farcical task is that? Ghettos were soon to be liquidated all across the Reich, and Nossig is negotiating resettlement with the SS as if this is 1914, as if we are all still Germans! Nonetheless, the work seems to energize him, and for a while he appears to convince himself (if no one else) that there is real hope of relocating the Warsaw Jews to the French colony of Madagascar.

When the ghetto is sealed in November 1940, the Nazis appoint Nossig director of its Department of Art and Culture. It seems another absurd position. But opening the committee’s first meeting, the elderly Nossig speaks with characteristic force about the role of art in Jewish Warsaw, by now a place of acute desperation, advancing starvation, and disease. “Art means cleanliness,” he is reported to have said, momentarily bringing together those deeply tortured histories of social hygiene. “We have to introduce culture into the streets,” he insists. The ghetto must be made clean “so that we are not ashamed in front of our German visitors.”55