Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘holocaust’

“Up to 500”

I’ve just been reading Laurence Rees’s The Holocaust: A New History. I don’t think there’s much new in the overall picture, but there are certainly many details that I was not aware of. For example, Rees discusses Himmler’s May 1940 memo “Some Thoughts on the Treatment of the Alien Population in the East”.

A large section of the memo dealt with Himmler’s plans to conduct a search among the Polish population in order to find children that were ‘racially first class’ and who ‘came up to our requirements’. These children would then be transported to Germany and raised as German citizens. Himmler believed this policy would not just allow Nazis access to more German ‘blood’ but deprive the Poles of the potential for a leadership class. As for the rest of the Polish children, they would receive the most basic education — taught only to count ‘up to 500’ and to write their own names.

It’s easy to fall into thinking of leading Nazis as ruthlessly efficient master criminals. Reading things like this is a good reminder of the extent to which they were actually kind of erratic and bonkers. It’s a sort of dilettantish megalomania that one sees in certain leaders today as well, with grand ideas that come from manipulating a vague picture of reality, decked out with a few random, nonsensical details. Why “up to 500”? Why not just say, “teach them to count” and leave it at that? How could anyone think that it would be possible to teach people to count up to 500 without learning the general principle of counting further?

This is why historians have emphasised the role of the proverbial Schreibtischtäter, the “desk criminals”, who worked hard to interface the lunacy with the proverbial railway timetables, that can’t be cajoled with blather about national will to power and providence.

Electric guillotines

Just reading The Vanquished, Robert Gerwarth’s history of the violence that followed the ostensible end of the First World War. He has this to say about the atrocity rumours that circulated about the Bolsheviks:

Although the reality of the civil war was so terrible that it hardly needed any embellishment, fantastical stories about Lenin’s regime flourished and drifted westwards: of a social order turned upside down, of a never-ending cycle of atrocities and retribution amid moral collapse in what had previously been one of the Great Powers of Europe. Several American newspapers reported that the Bolsheviks had introduced an electrically operated guillotine in Petrograd designed to decapitate 500 prisoners an hour… The Bolsheviks, or so it was suggested [in the British press], had ‘nationalized middle- and upper-class women, who might now be raped at will by any member of the proletariat. Orthodox churches had been turned into brothels in which aristocratic women were forced to offer sexual services to ordinary workers. Chinese executioners had been recruited by the Bolsheviks for their knowledge of ancient oriental torture techniques, while inmates in the infamous Cheka prisons had their heads stuck into cages filled with hungry rats in order to extort information.

It seems that there are three things that escalate the ordinary horror of despotic violence into extraordinary horror, all of which are touched upon here:

  1. Violation of the natural order, particularly of a sexual nature.
  2. Upwelling of arcane, precivilised, non-European presumptively diabolic culture.
  3. Abuse of modern technological means toward barbaric ends.

I’m particularly fascinated by the last, represented by the “electrically operated guillotines”, which prefigure the genuine industrialised slaughter of the Holocaust. More than the scale of the killing — which could be achieved by other means — it is the industrial precision that unsettles people, and makes the Holocaust unique. Or, perhaps better said, makes us want to see it as unique.

It’s hard to disentangle these feelings about the Holocaust, which is what makes the electric guillotines so useful: It’s not that this would have been all that exceptional, to kill 500 prisoners in an hour, and you wouldn’t need anything as unusual as an electrically operated guillotine. (It’s not even clear to me how electricity would accelerate a guillotine significantly.) But the combination of electricity, then the prime symbol of modernisation, with mass execution, was shocking.

Racism and forgiveness

It reminded me of the aphorism, popularised by the journalist Henryk Broder, attributed by him to an Israeli (commonly understood to be the psychoanalyst Zvi Rex), but without an identifiable original source:

Auschwitz werden uns die Deutschen nie verzeihen.

The Germans will never forgive us for Auschwitz.

One interesting lesson of the past year’s politics, particularly in the US, was learning how angry many white people seem to be about the legacy of slavery and racism. For example, when Michelle Obama spoke at the DNC about living “in a house that was built by slaves”, I had tears in my eyes, even as I rationally found it slightly mawkish and oversimplifying the trajectory of progress. Other people reacted differently, first doubting that that was true, calling it slanderous to mention the fact, and then dismissing the significance of the implicit criticism by saying that the slaves  “were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”
One typical survey in June 2016 showed that most white Americans — and 59% of white Republicans — believe that “too much attention is paid to race and racial issues”, with 32% of white Americans saying that President Obama has made race relations worse. According to the 2015 American Values Survey, only 46% of Republicans say there is “a lot” of discrimination against Black people in the US, while 30% (and 45% of “Tea Party” supporters) say there is a lot of discrimination against White people. 64% of Republicans agreed with the statement “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”

Plaque assay

I was just in Paris for a few days. Walking past the Lycée Simone Weil, in the 3rd arrondissement, I noticed a plaque, such as one sees quite commonly on public institutions:

À la mémoire des jeunes filles, élèves de cet établissement, autrefois école de couture die la ville de Paris, déportées et assassinées de 1942 à 1944 parce qu’elles étaient nées juives, victimes innocentes de la barbarie nazie avec la complicité active du gouvernement de Vichy.

Plus de 11400 enfants furent déportés de France dont plus de 500 vivaient dans le 3ème art de Paris.

Ils furent exterminés dans les camps de la mort.

Les élèves du Lycée Simone Weil ne les oublieront jamais.

[To the memory of the girls, pupils of this establishment, which was then the Paris School of Dressmaking, deported and murdered from 1942 to 1944 because they were born Jewish, innocent victims of the Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the Vichy government.

More than 11400 children were deported from France, of whom more than 500 lived in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris.

They were exterminated in the death camps.

The pupils of the Lycée Simone Weil will never forget them.]

As I read it, the formulation seemed to me strikingly perfect. The text avoids all the pitfalls that similar texts have been criticised for, whereby they seemed to either be minimising the horror, or pushing away blame, or somehow alienating the victims. The victims were “jeunes filles”, “innocent victims”, “murdered because they were born Jewish” (thus emphasising that it was a purely racist crime. They were “exterminated”, they lived right here, and then this somewhat wishful phrase at the end, usually attached to heroic martyrs, “The pupils will never forget them.” Most striking was the attribution of responsibility to “Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the Vichy government.” They clearly were concerned to make absolutely unambiguous that they were not minimising French responsibility. Not just “complicity”, but “active complicity”. (Though it wasn’t the “French government”, but only the “Vichy government”.)

I was impressed first, then irritated. Precisely because they managed to tick every box and engrave such a perfect text on the plaque, it made it clear what a formulaic activity it is. (Perhaps the final sentence, unassailably high-minded just as it is clearly not true in any meaningful sense, also drove that point home.) It’s not that they did anything wrong, and I’m glad that they put all these plaques up. There’s just a limit to what you can achieve with a plaque, and perfecting the art of the memorial plaque in some ways undermines the spirit that it is meant to express.

“One bomb”

The efforts of the Israeli right wing to politicise the Holocaust are nothing new, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the recent parade of Israeli parliamentarians through Auschwitz. What particularly struck me in the report of the Jewish Chronicle was this quote from Israel’s economy minister Naftali Bennett:

The lesson is this: only Israel will defend Jews. We can never and we will never rely on anyone else.

One bomb [from the Allies] would have stopped the murder machine, and yet no one bombed.

I find it intensely disturbing that a man so obviously delusional about what could be accomplished with “one bomb” is near the top of a government in possession of a large nuclear arsenal.

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