While I caused a stir among some readers with my earlier post Cross cultural rhetoric: Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while I am not in favour of military “solutions” to Iran, while I believe that America should engage with Iran more in pursuit of an Iraq solution, while the hypocrisy of the Israelis almost certainly having nuclear weapons (but allowing no inspections) is obvious, while nationalistic Zionism has driven Israel down a bad path, and while the injustices towards the Palestinians and Arab Israelis are manifest, the recent charade in Tehran was despicable. Any conference featuring the likes of David Duke and an assorted gaggle of crackpots and fanatics is a joke, and its agenda was sickening.
The ultra-religious Jews who were there are indeed an interesting group; for them the only proper State of Israel is that ushered in by the future Messiah, so the current one is illegitimate. But you don’t have to go there to find Israelis and Jews who question what is going on. I have recently been reading The Tragedy of Zionism by Bernard Avishai, writing from a Labor Zionist perspective, and highly critical of the way Israel has gone. See also his article A roadmap without a driver (2003), and one only has to read Tikkun to find more voices for peace and reason. See too the documentary The Other Zionists, recently shown on ABC-TV’s Compass. There were no such voices on any side in this conference.
So I am recycling a post I originally put on Angelfire in October last year.
Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’
Have you ever thought that racism has proven far more lethal in the past century than terrorism has? Explore Anup Shah’s site for an overview and links.
I constantly wonder why, for want of a better term, mental illnesses like racism and extreme fundamentalism are on the rise, and why so many are turning to one kind of simplistic authoritarianism or another. There are some clues in this book: The Millennium Matrix (2004) by M Rex Miller. He speaks of “vertigo” in the postmodern world we inhabit, whether we choose to or not. There’s a lot in that. Vertigo can do weird things to the perception.
I had to steel myself to watch this on ABC in 2005. But it is I think a must see. If you doubt my assertion a that racism has been even more lethal than terrorism, watch this series. As the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer points out, it is the first time that a thorough documentary has appeared which includes those who actually carried out the “Final Solution”; the disturbing thing is that many of these people are “just folks”, that the policy was much more ad hoc than some earlier accounts have led us to believe, and that the engine driving it really was racism. Ordinary folks’ racism, not just the crazy ideology of Hitler and his entourage.
Did you watch it? It certainly lived up to the prepublicity, and rather than comment I refer you to a close study of the related BBC site.
The Nazi regime attempted, in an unprecedented manner, to establish a system of rule based upon race. The National Socialists saw themselves as a revolutionary movement and their goal was a radical reshaping of existing society into a racially homogenous, ‘Aryan’ national community (Volksgemeinschaft).
But this goal remained an unrealisable utopian ideal, not least because the ‘races’ existed only in the fantasy world of the Nazis. The racial homogeneity they desired could only be created negatively, through discrimination, exclusion and eradication – and ultimately by killing those who did not fit into their perfect ‘Aryan’ society.
These included, on the one hand, members of their own ‘Aryan race’ who they considered weak or wayward (such as the ‘congenitally sick’, the ‘asocial’, and homosexuals), and on the other those who were defined as belonging to ‘foreign races’…
Thinking about it seriously, even though I deplore the charge led by people like Keith Windschuttle to whitewash Australia’s past, I also think there is no comparison between what happened here in Australia and what happened in Europe during those dreadful years, even if, as is true, some in late 19th and 20th century Australia, at least up to the 1950s, shared in the delusions of racial purity and eugenics, and theorised Aboriginal policy along such lines. That conjunction is uncomfortable enough, and demonstrably true, but in no way was there the systematic madness that the Nazis embraced, and there were also other views and other elements working in the area of Australia and Aboriginal relations.
I also reflect that I at least, and perhaps many in my generation, have been indelibly marked by the Holocaust. I did not (consciously at least) meet a Jew until I went to Sydney High in 1955, but then through my friendships I gained some insight, just a little, into what had happened, as it had happened to my friends’ parents or uncles or aunts or grandparents. Think about it: my school friends were born, some not in Australia, in 1942 and 1943. I also saw some of the pictures from Belsen and elsewhere for the first time around 1955 to 1956. In my case, along with much else, such as reading George Orwell for example, it drove me ineluctably to the conclusion that behind the horror lay thought and language. This is why today I am so proudly, but not I hope excessively, “politically correct”, because the cost of being “politically incorrect” is just too high, in the long run. It is a moral choice, and one of the most important moral choices one can make.
Literary criticism and literary studies could never be the same again, as George Steiner demonstrated. It took a while to filter through to us. But the inexorable conclusion of this and much else is the “critical literacy” so derided by the Right today. (Similarly, revelations about the horrors wrought by Communists shook our faith in that great illusion too.) Consider German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer on the Occasion of the Awarding of the Ludwig Boerne Prize to George Steiner in St. Paul’s Church in Frankfurt am Main on 25 May 2003:
Language takes centre stage in this endeavour. His most important research and thoughts are devoted to it.
George Steiner believes that language is a living organism; he believes in its creative energy. It is the essence of human awareness. It conveys morality and humanism, which he deems absolutely necessary. At the same time, however, language can be destructive; it can, when uncoupled from morality and feeling, be “dehumanized”.
George Steiner cites the use of language in National Socialist Germany as a compelling case in point. Wholly conscripted into the service of the dictatorship and its horrific crimes, it was de-individualized and brutalized. The meticulous chronicling of all the horrors by the Nazis and the semblance of objectivity created by written records and orders degraded the language. Cruelty and falsehood became embedded in it. The language became so depraved and stifling, Steiner states, that silence was the only honest alternative. “The word should have no natural life, no neutral sanctuary, in the places and season of bestiality,” as he put it in his collection of essays, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman…
…In retrospect we have to admit that there was much truth to this analysis of discourse in the Federal Republic during those years. The pattern of repression and silence with regard to the Nazi crimes and the Holocaust was then permanently broken at the latest upon the commencement of the great Auschwitz trials here in Frankfurt in the mid-1960s.
Steiner’s observations should give us pause today, just as they did then. When the subject of our most recent and not so distant past is raised, we still tend to revert to clichés. Through the constant repetition of ritualized phrases, the words themselves ultimately lose all real meaning, dimming rather than bringing alive to a younger generation the memories of this terrible past.
We dare not become careless with our language; we dare not permit any trivialization or simplification of horror. Precisely in the case of this – for us Germans so critical – subject of National Socialist crimes, we must forever search anew for the right words. Steiner has made us keenly aware of the manipulative and destructive power inherent in language. His words must be an admonition to us, an admonition that we must take to heart…
Read HUMANITY: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover.
Read “After Auschwitz”, a poem by Anne Sexton.
as black as a hook,
took, at 8:00 A.M., a baby
and sauteed him for breakfast
in his frying pan.
And death looks on with a casual eye
and picks at the dirt under his fingernail.
Man is evil,
I say aloud.
Man is a flower
that should be burnt,
I say aloud.
is a bird full of mud,
I say aloud.
And death looks on with a casual eye
and scratches his anus.
Man with his small pink toes,
with his miraculous fingers
is not a temple
but an outhouse,
I say aloud.
Let man never again raise his teacup.
Let man never again write a book.
Let man never again put on his shoe.
Let man never again raise his eyes,
on a soft July night.
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
I say those things aloud.
Explore Twentieth Century Atlas – Worldwide Statistics of Casualties, Massacres, Disasters and Atrocities: chilling stuff there, and you may draw your own conclusions.
I learned today (20 October 2005) that my colleague Betsy B’s mother-in-law and one sister survived Mengele in Auschwitz. Six degrees of separation… Less in Betsy B’s case.
Back to 2006