I’ve just finished reading Vikram Seth’s memoir of his uncle and aunt, called Two Lives (Harper Collins 2005). The book itself was alternatively interesting and boring: too much detail perhaps on how Shanti Uncle carried out the techniques of his profession although handicapped by the loss of an arm; and likewise on how Aunt Henny distrusted all those who didn’t support her family during the Hitler years in Berlin. Yet a moving account nevertheless, the more so as it includes a strong element of autobiography and a taste of Indian culture reminiscent of the book Seth won’t be able to get away from, A Suitable Boy. Also fascinating because it includes an account on how Two Lives evolved and came to be written. It’s a book written with reverence and respect for its subjects, and that’s what limits Seth. He allows Shanti and Henny to represent themselves through their letters instead of bringing them to life through his imaginative gifts as a novelist.
What I found most fascinating, and horrifying, was the section of the book about the Nazi regime that Seth’s Aunt Henny and her family lived under, her mother and sister murdered in a concentration camp, and Henny escaping to England before regulations concerning Jews became too restrictive.
I’m used to the view that Hitler was a monster, that the genocide was a crime against humanity, that six million needlessly suffered and died to satisfy a sadistic obsession of Hitler’s. This view, while understandable, raises the question: but how did this happen? Why did nobody object at the time? If it was so wrong why wasn’t it stopped? Seth’s book explains how it happened, and his account is far more chilling, more horrifying than any lament for the six million dead. There is no revelation here, merely an account of the way the pogrom was implemented, but it’s new to me, and shocking.
In January 1939, Hitler said: “If the international Jewish financiers inside and outside Europe should again succeed in plunging the nations into a world war, the result will be not the bolshevisation of the earth and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race…” (A typical conspiracy theory still widely used today to stir up racial hatred – just substitute the appropriate word, terrorist/fundamentalist/Jew/Palestinian/Christian/Muslim/whoever you want to blame for your problems. There’s never been a shortage of Hitlers to apportion the blame. I saw a version of this speech in words almost identical to Hitler’s on an internet site only last week: the object of hate there was Zionism ie militant Israel).
These are the steps to genocide Seth documents (his book is thoroughly researched and documented with source citations), each step isolating Jewish people as well as depriving them, each for the ‘benefit’ of other Germans, each step made with the consent of the German people and with the acceptance of British, French and Swiss governments of the time (it was the Swiss who introduced the marked passports so as to keep Jews inside Germany). The conspiracy theory of Hitler was then popular all over the world with sectors of the population and of their governments.
Seth is talking about the genocide as it affected Jewish residents of Berlin, among which were his Aunt Henny’s family.
1939. Jews must carry an identity card, their passport stamped with a large red J, their papers now including a new middle name added by the government that was a traditional Jewish one.
1939. The government stigmatises Jews as ‘subhuman’.
1939. Jewish businesses were Aryanised (sold to non Jews for nothing).
1939 February. Jews had to surrender any silver and other valuables they owned.
1939. Jews not allowed to keep radios, nor to have private telephones (they could make public telephone calls but only to ‘Aryans’.
1939. Ration books marked with a J. Jews not allowed to buy meat, eggs, white bread.
1939. Curfew introduced. Jews not allowed to travel after 8.00 pm. Not allowed to use public transport during peak hours, and Jews must give up their seats on public transport to ‘Germans’.
1941 September. Jews must wear a large star on their clothing with the word Jew.
1941. Conversations between Jews and Aryans result in removal to ‘protective custody’ (concentration camps) for both parties.
1942. Jewish residencies in Berlin marked with a large star.
1942. Jews deported (’emigrated’) to ghettoes outside Berlin or to concentration camps. This was the job of the Gestapo (secret police), with help from the many other policing associations of ‘Aryans’: SS (Nazi elite corps); SA (storm troopers or militia); and regular police. With horrifying efficiency officers in these corps reserved a certain number of cars, made up a train, reserved a route and made a timetable, booked a requisite number of registered Jews to fill the trains, collected them (often arriving late at night or early morning), made a registered itemisation of their belongings, and later ‘confiscated’ these belongings for the State, as the ’emigrants’ had abandoned them.
1943 19th May. Berlin officially declared ‘Jew free’.
1945. Women of part Jewish descent must be sterilised.
1945. Survivors of all this bombed by Americans, British and Russian forces.
Aunt Henny’s mother Ella was sent to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. This was not an extermination camp, though the death rate was high because of brutal treatment, overcrowding, starvation, disease, and lack of medical attention. Jews deported to Theresienstadt were sent in passenger cars, not goods cars, to give semblance to the official story that they were ’emigrating’, in this case to idyllic country surroundings. In the camp there were no bathrooms, inmates slept on the floor, and rations were reserved for the workers (Ella was elderly and in poor health). Ella died in Theresienstadt, most probably of dysentry. Survivors were eventually shipped to Auschwitz to be exterminated, in order to make more room for further ’emigrants’.
Aunt Henny’s sister Lola was sent from Berlin straight to Auschwitz, in Poland, in a cattle car with no sanitation facilities, no food and not much air. Many died on such journeys, and Lola would have been squeezed against dead bodies. One thousand Jews were in the shipment, far more than could be accommodated, and 800 were sent straight to the gas chamber. Lola was among those assigned to Birkenau, a pre-extermination camp. Here she would have had her head shaved, been tattooed, and issued prison clothing. Birkenau was located in a swamp, and there were epidemics of malaria, typhus and dysentry. No drinking water was provided, yet the swamp water was contaminated and infectious. Survivors were eventually examined by the camp doctors, whose job it was to select victims for the gas chamber. Once selected, prisoners were left for days without food or water. Then they were marched to the ‘disinfection chamber’, 2000 of them at a time. Here they were crowded in, naked, one on top of the other. The gas took between five and 20 minutes to work, and death was agonizing. Later the bodies, including Lola’s, would have been loaded on trolleys and taken to ovens where they were rendered into ash, any gold in the teeth first being removed. The ash was then dumped in a nearby river.
Seth documents it all, including his own hysteric reaction after reading accounts of the genocide. He then quotes a long selection from Aunt Henny’s correspondence which details her mistrust of those friends who equivocated and failed to help her family. Understandable, but her reaction I found hard to read about.
So I found out how it happened. It happened in steps. First, the Jews were separated from other Germans, and labelled. Then they were forced to live in identified buildings and sectors of the city. Then they were stripped of their valuables to help the war effort. Then their rations were restricted, to help feed their fellow Germans. Only then, demoralised, frightened, starving and ill, were they forced to ’emigrate’. Each step was a legitimate, legal act passed by the German parliament with the consent of the German people, who had consented to Hitler as Fuhrer taking supreme power. None of it sounds like genocide, given the emergency war time conditions that prevailed. All of it was done with the soulless bureaucratic procedure that prevails in all governments at all times and which all of us have experienced some time in our lives. To the executors of the pogrom these were not people who were being victimised. These were official procedures they were bound by law to carry out. The majority of German people would have seen the measures as justified war time emergency measures. The actual executioners at the camps were the ones who knew about the genocide and they must have been sociopaths, or fanatics who believed in the insane racial ‘purification’ creed Hitler was promulgating. The victims were starving, diseased people who had lost their dignity as human beings. Throughout the implementation of the pogrom Hitler was the most successful political leader in the world, and it must have seemed likely to most he would soon be the master of Europe, and then, once America was conquered, of the world. How could any one individual oppose him? Many must have stifled their doubts.
“This is the way the world ends
this is the way the world ends
not with a bang but a whimper”.
It’s the legality, the efficiency, the rationale of the atrocities that make them horrifying to me, not the deaths, nor the number of deaths, nor the emotive word ‘genocide’. That just makes me sad. Each step of the way no one individual was killed or overtly harmed until the final step. Yet each step of the way a human being was treated with cruelty, made to suffer, degraded and deprived. Always with reason, always with legality. Officials who deny an entry visa to refugees from a terrorist state and deport them to a certain death; politicians who legislate a small support pension for unemployed people that renders them homeless; immigration laws that separate couples and deny citizenship to one based on outmoded ancestry regulations; all are doing exactly the same thing as officials under the Nazi regime.
Another passage from Eliot’s Hollow Men:
“Between the idea
and the reality
between the motion
and the act
falls the Shadow”
The Hollow Men was written in 1925, but seems eerily relevant to Hitler, his ideas and his implementation of them.
Mere cruelty towards and destruction of other human beings is so common, so much the norm, that accounts of the pogrom that tell of six million Jewish deaths seem almost ordinary.
The slave trade. Twelve million Africans were traded into slavery in the American plantations in the period 1650-1850. Explorer David Livingstone believed that nine out of ten slaves were murdered in transit through Africa. Another two million died as a result of insanitary shipping conditions on the voyages and were dumped overboard. The remainder were decimated by disease, infections and mistreatment in America. Up to five million died in Caribbean slave camps before being shipped to plantations. The ideology was ‘manifest destiny’, the driving force was emerging capitalism.
Destruction of the nations of native Americans. Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) details the massacres perpetrated on American native peoples as part of a policy carried out by the United States government, which also involved forced re-location of native Americans to concentration camps or ‘reservations’. Traders sold alcohol the native people couldn’t tolerate. Death from disease devastated the native people, and there was little attempt to contain it by medical treatment. Estimates (and they must be estimates because no records were kept) can be as high as 98 million deaths or as low as 12 million from these causes in the period 1600 – 1900. ‘Manifest destiny’ again, and greed for land was the cause, the native populations being unfortunately in the way of westward expansion.
The Great Hunger. In Ireland between 1840 and 1850 Ireland lost half its population, which might have exceeded 12 million (no reliable records are available) to death from disease and starvation, and to emigration. Many emigrants died on board ship or in their new country as a result of these causes. The British government of the day did nothing to avert the disaster, in fact their policies were the major cause of it. Debate as to whether the British were attempting to exterminate the Irish (a foreign enemy uncomfortably close to British shores) or were acting in incompetent stupidity are current to this day. The details can be found in Woodham-Smith’s book The Great Hunger (1962).
The Greek resettlement. In 1923 the Turkish government forcibly resettled a million and a half Greeks resident in Turkey in the Greek mainland, and moved half a million Turks living in Greece back to Turkey. Before this, Greeks and Turks had lived as part of a unified culture for centuries. Greeks had lived in Anatolia since ancient times. The resettlement followed discriminatory action by the Turkish government against Greeks living in Turkey: Greeks were barred from certain professions and forced to live in ghettoes, imprisoned in concentration camps and were rounded up and massacred. Violence escalated into the Graeco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. It is estimated that up to half the refugees died during and before the forced emigration, either from acts of violence or as a result of disease and starvation. The cause was the outbreak of religious intolerance between Muslim and Greek Orthodox believers, and the emergent nationalism of the new Turkey.
The partition of India. In 1947 religious differences between Hindu and Muslim led to the creation of the states of Pakistan and India following the granting of Independence and the withdrawal of the British. Twelve million people moved their residence from one new country to the other, and during transit, over one million of these were murdered, victims of religious bigotry or plain greed. Government resources were completely inadequate to deal with the migration they had ordered. Many elderly people and children died of exhaustion or disease. A vivid account of the migration (and much more) is contained in Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games (2008). The partition, against the express wishes of Mahatma Gandhi (“Hinduism and Islam [do not] represent two antagonistic cultures and doctrines. To assent to such a doctrine is for me a denial of God”), has resulted in two nuclear powers who have been in a stand off position ever since.
The list goes on (this is a small selection of outrages against humanity perpetrated by other human beings).
• The First World War of 1914-1918 killed directly or indirectly 65 million people.
• Joseph Stalin’s policies were directly responsible for a famine in the Ukraine that killed 8 million people in 1932.
• The Second World War of 1939-1945 killed 72 million people (and counting).
• The Korean War 1950-53 killed 4 million people.
• The Vietnam War of 1955-75 killed 6 million people.
• Mao Zedong’s policies in China led directly to the great Chinese famine of 1959-61, which killed 43 million people.
• The war in Bangladesh in 1971 killed 3 million people.
• The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the period 1975-79 killed 3 million people.
• The second Congo war of 1998-2003 resulted in 6 million deaths.
How religious leaders can assert “man is made in the image of god” without committing blasphemy I fail to see. If there is a distinguishing mark that identifies the human race, it is surely that of cruelty towards other human beings. No other animal species acts in this way, only a few insect species and a comparatively few forms of bacteria. The cancer like individuals who spread death and destruction among their own people are obviously a disease, an abnormality. What is more remarkable than their occasional occurrence is their acceptance by, and great popularity with, large groups of people. They are a focus for the human emotion of hate, something that sits brooding in each human being, fuelled by frustration and lack of self fulfillment and unless addressed by a positive philosophy, eventually demands an outlet.
The steps are always the same in these matters. First you de-personalise the group. The Jews were ‘subhuman’ in Nazi ideology. The immigrants who threaten your job ‘live like animals’. Foreigners have a funny smell, and speak gibberish. People commonly feel fear towards others with differing religious beliefs.
Then they are made the cause of your problem. Immigrants are taking your job and making it hard to earn a living. They work for low wages and force the basic wage down. The financiers who control the economy are Jews. Anarchists (or Muslims, Christians or Sikhs) are fanatics at the heart of senseless acts of violence. Drug takers perpetrate and increase the crime rate.
Strangely, the cause of your problem, the real cause of your problem, are never mentioned. Corrupt, or worse, incompetent politicians who ignore problems, profit minded and socially irresponsible corporations who manipulate the economy for their own benefit. For example in Germany throughout the 30s the armament firm of Krupp helped create the German Army and made the Second World War possible. Alfred Krupp was sentenced at Nuremberg as a war criminal, but was later released and resumed control of his company. Banks offer high rates of interest for loans that individuals who offer the same rates are prosecuted for. So called “madmen” like Hitler or Pol Pot deflect attention from these groups, whose motives are mere self interest, but who operate irresponsibly and indifferently to the consequences of their actions on people’s lives.
I don’t believe in monsters. I don’t believe in devils. I believe that every human being suffers from the emotion of frustration, when their wishes are not fulfilled, and do so from childhood. This is so even when wishes are frustrated by the person’s own incompetence, perhaps mainly so for this reason. Accumulated frustration eventually finds release in a wave of hatred that can involve personal manipulation in social groups, small groups such as gangs, religious followers or whole populations. It becomes a matter of “them or us”. I believe that certain opportunistic people make themselves leaders by directing this hatred. This is a constant technique in politics around the world. Then you have a pogrom, genocide, a war, the killing of other people, the abandonment of any attempt to deal with the original problem, which can only be done by admitting your own imperfections instead of being angry about them.
The Death of a Thousand Cuts, or lingchi, abolished in 1905, was a form of Chinese capital punishment aptly described in its title. Victims were literally sliced to death (to see it in context, remember that hanging, drawing and quartering, capital punishment in Britain for traitors, was only abolished in 1866). The Jews in Germany suffered a form of lingchi, a thousand deprivations before being executed. I don’t believe in maniacal monsters who impose reigns of terror. I believe we create such figures out of some horrific need within ourselves. I do believe in acts of unkindness, from persecution of outsiders at boarding schools, unfriendliness to neighbours of another culture, heartless implementation of government regulations to others’ disadvantage. I think these acts can accumulate and escalate to a pogrom if we give way to the Hitler within us all. The Holocaust happened in Germany between 1939 and 1945. It is happening now whenever we give way to rage and look for someone else to blame.
An act of kindness is an urgent necessity. Turn the other cheek. Love yourself, you’re a lot better than you think you are.
©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.