I’ve been thinking lately about what must be one of George Bernard Shaw’s final literary productions, the preface to his play Geneva. The news is full of reports of degrading, unsanitary, overcrowded conditions at concentration camps for Central American migrants in the southwestern US. Apologists attack those like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have reported on the suffering in the camps, for using terms that for many with limited historical perspective will evoke inappropriate analogies to Nazi death camps like Auschwitz, rather than appropriate analogies to Nazi concentration camps of the 1930s like Sachsenhausen, or the US concentration camps for Filipinos in the early 20th century. Some reports have her being rude camp guards — which, I am willing to bet, history will not record as one of the more significant atrocities of this era.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum has taken what is a brave stance for a historical museum, in denying any possible relevance of history to anything else:
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary,
I think we can all agree that if the slogan “Never Again” has any meaning it can only be that we should oppose any attempts to compare anything at all to the Holocaust, unless they explicitly involve mass gassing of civilians in underground chambers. (And even then, you have to be sure that they are innocent civilians.)
The president (and many of his partisans) have defended the camps as an imperfect response to an overwhelming logistic challenge, brought on by the actions of the migrants themselves. (Trump also wrote “Many of these illegals (sic) aliens are living far better now than where they … came from, and in far safer conditions.”) And this reminded me of Shaw’s defense of the actual Nazi death camps, in similar terms.
The play itself, written in 1936-1938, is a thinly dramatised political polemic, wherein three dictators — Herr Battler, Signor Bombardone, and General Flanco (similarity to any real persons living or dead being purely a consequence of the mind’s tendency to impose order) — are summoned to appear before an international tribunal, charged with various crimes of oppression and political violence. They all appear — voluntarily, as they emphasise — to defend themselves. Successfully. They get the better of every argument. For example, there is this exchange between Battler and his Jewish accuser (designated only as THE JEW):
BATTLER. Do I stand accused? Of what, pray?
THE JEW [springing up] Of murder. Of an attempt to exterminate the flower of the human race.
BATTLER. What do you mean?
THE JEW. I am a Jew.
BATTLER. Then what right have you in my country? I exclude you as the British exclude the Chinese in Australia, as the Americans exclude the Japanese in California.
JEW. Why do the British exclude the Chinese? Because the Chinaman is so industrious, so frugal, so trustworthy, that nobody will employ a white British workman or caretaker if there is a yellow one within reach. Why do you exclude the Jew? Because you cannot compete with his intelligence, his persistence, his foresight, his grasp of finance. It is our talents, our virtues, that you fear, not our vices.
BATTLER. And am I not excluded for my virtues? I may not set foot in England until I declare that I will do no work there and that I will return to my own country in a few weeks. In every country the foreigner is a trespasser. On every coast he is confronted by officers who say you shall not land without your passport, your visa. If you are of a certain race or color you shall not land at all. Sooner than let German soldiers march through Belgium England plunged Europe into war. Every State chooses its population and selects its blood. We say that ours shall be Nordic, not Hittite: that is all.
JEW. A Jew is a human being. Has he not a right of way and settlement everywhere upon the earth?
BATTLER. Nowhere without a passport. That is the law of nations.
JEW. I have been beaten and robbed. Is that the law of nations?
BATTLER. I am sorry. I cannot be everywhere; and all my agents are not angels.
[Purely as an aside, I find ironically relevant to today this exchange, between Bombardone and a British participant in the trial, described as an obstinate-looking middle-aged man of respectable but not aristocratic appearance, speaking English like a shopkeeper from the provinces, or perhaps, by emigration, the dominions, and who is referred to throughout as The Newcomer. (The descriptor [who has no sense of humor] is appended to his name at one point.)
BBDE. When there is no leader, no king, no priest, nor any body of law established by dead kings and priests, you have mob law, lynching law, gangster law: in short, American democracy. Thank your stars you have never known democracy in England. I have rescued my country from all that by my leadership. I am a democratic institution.
NEWCOMER. Gosh. You democratic! Youve abolished democracy, you have.
BBDE. Put my leadership to the vote. Take a plebiscite. If I poll less than 95 per cent of the adult nation I will resign. If that is not democracy what is democracy?
NEWCOMER. It isnt British democracy.
BATTLER. British democracy is a lie. I have said it.
NEWCOMER. Oh, dont talk nonsense, you ignorant foreigner. Plebiscites are unEnglish, thoroughly unEnglish.
A decade later, after the war had ended, and the Nazi atrocities laid bare, the 90-year-old Shaw wrote a new preface to the play. Confronting the horror of the death camps a less doughty intellect might have trimmed his support or tergiversated. Not Shaw. Continuing the line on which Battler concluded the defense of the violent attacks on Jews, as unintended excesses and failure of political control, Shaw defended the death camps as unfortunate logistical breakdowns. Under the rubric “Incompetent governments are the cruellest” Shaw writes:
The need for confining authority to the instructed and capable has been demonstrated by terrible lessons daily for years past. As I write, dockfulls of German prisoners of war, male and female, are being tried on charges of hideous cruelties perpetrated by them at concentration camps. The witnesses describe the horrors of life and death in them; and the newspapers class the accused as fiends and monsters. But they also publish photographs of them in which they appear as ordinary human beings who could be paralleled from any crowd or army.
These Germans had to live in the camps with their prisoners. It must have been very uncomfortable and dangerous for them. But they had been placed in authority and management, and had to organize the feeding, lodging, and sanitation of more and more thousands of prisoners and refugees thrust upon them by the central government. And as they were responsible for the custody of their prisoners they had to be armed to the teeth and their prisoners completely disarmed. Only eminent leadership, experience, and organizing talent could deal with such a situation.
Well, they simply lacked these qualities. They were not fiends in human form; but they did not know what to do with the thousands thrown on their care. There was some food; but they could not distribute it except as rations among themselves. They could do nothing with their prisoners but overcrowd them within any four walls that were left standing, lock them in, and leave them almost starving to die of typhus. When further overcrowding became physically impossible they could do nothing with their unwalled prisoners but kill them and burn the corpses they could not bury. And even this they could not organize frankly and competently: they had to make their victims die of illusage instead of by military law. Under such circumstances any miscellaneous collection of irresistibly armed men would be demoralized; and the natural percentage of callous toughs among them would wallow in cruelty and in the exercise of irresponsible authority for its own sake. Man beating is better sport than bear baiting or cock fighting or even child beating, of which some sensational English cases were in the papers at home at the time. Had there been efficient handling of the situation by the authorities (assuming this to have been possible) none of these atrocities would have occurred. They occur in every war when the troops get out of hand.