Posts Tagged ‘Nazism’

Geraldine Schwarz: Those Who Forget

July 15, 2020

61udheakoXL._AC_UY218_    71n8k53ll6L._AC_UY218_     I read this book in French, having come across it on a French website, and found myself cynically thinking, ‘here’s another really important book that will never make it into English’. But I’m pleased to admit I’m wrong as it’s due to be published here in September, as the illustration shows.

Géraldine Schwarz is of French and German parentage, and she explores and documents the amnesia that overtook entire nations after the Second World War: the French blotted out the shame of their collaboration with the Germans and their eager assistance with the deportation of the Jews, pretending that their Resistance was far greater than it actually had been. Germans, only too glad to have the war finally over, ‘forgot’ how they had almost all aided and abetted the Nazis’ insane and evil plans by remaining silent, becoming what Schwarz calls ‘Mitläufer’ – those who go along with… Her origins allow her to anchor a good deal of her investigations in her own family’s history on both sides, and much of what she explains illuminated for me things I had been vaguely aware of in my younger years.

Nazi leaders were judged and condemned at Nuremberg, but collective guilt and fellow-travelling was swept under the carpet of ignorance: Hitler and his top henchmen could thus be seen as a ‘criminal gang’ who had managed to ‘take over’ Germany, and lesser fry could be exculpated. Of all the Allies, the Americans were the most vigorous in their pursuit of war crimes but ultimately they all allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by the scope of the task of de-Nazification and overtaken by the needs of the Cold War. Because their own situation was so dire in the immediate post-War years, it was harder for ordinary Germans to feel any guilt about what they had allowed to happen to Jews. It was shocking to learn of the wholesale whitewashing of everyone’s Nazi past – including the Wehrmacht and many of its military ‘heroes’ – under the Adenauer government, and the acceptance of all this by the Western Allies.

Coming to terms with the evil had to be done if a healthier society was to develop, and the way this happened in Germany was most interesting. Ordinary Germans had to have known and been implicated in what happened to Jews if only because there were many public auctions of Jewish property after the owners had fled abroad or been deported, and the origins of the goods were obvious, auctions often taking place in the recently vacated apartments themselves.

French anti-semitism was cultural rather than racial, the anti-semitism that had resulted in the scandalous Dreyfus affair at the turn of the 20th century; there was also the more silent anti-semitism of the US and Britain who did not use the knowledge they had of the ongoing extermination programme to make any effort to disrupt or halt it. It’s also important to note that there are no recorded instances of Germans being executed for refusing to carry out orders connected with the extermination programme: they may have been demoted, received a military punishment, had promotions blocked, but that was as far as it went.

The breadth and scope of the book impresses as Schwarz shows how German attitudes were shaped and developed in the 1970s and 1980s, with the coming to maturity of a new generation of citizens: it was these generations who had grown up after the war who started asking the necessary questions of and about their forebears. Schwarz is very good on how subsequent generations challenged the willed amnesia, and revealed the truth and reality of Nazi times in the country. According to Schwarz it was the fact that the challenge of facing the past, and changing attitudes came from within German society and not from without, that ultimately made it so powerful and effective. She also addresses the issue of relativism, in comparison with Stalin’s crimes, a favourite trope of apologists for German warcrimes and Holocaust deniers. It took the French even longer to come to terms with their shameful Vichy past but eventually they did. Schwarz’ dual nationality allows both trenchant analysis and also sensitivity to the human factor in people’s actions and denials, without excusing any of this.

I was not aware of the deliberate obfuscation by Austrians of their Nazi past, enthusiasm and collaboration; it took far longer for them even to admit that they had been Nazis, sheltering as they did behind the idea that they had been occupied by, rather than welcomed the Nazis. The situation, although a little more complex, was similar in Italy, where there are even now extreme right-wing and openly fascist groups and parties in power. Schwarz’ concluding analysis is right up-to-date and a serious warning to us all, with the growth in power and influence of the far right across the entire EU. Truly, we are living in dangerous times, and in danger of forgetting the past.

Yuri Slezkine: The House of Government

May 30, 2020

    A1agjFDAp9L._AC_UY218_Russians often go in for doorstops, in terms of book length, and this is no exception: almost a thousand pages, and not easy going, but very thought-provoking. The House of Government was the name of a specially-constructed block of apartments for the Bolshevik elite after the October Revolution, and Slezkine uses the building, its construction and its inhabitants for an unusual and sometimes enlightening take on the Communist era. He begins well before the Revolution and takes us almost up to the present day.

There are real insights into pre-Revolutionary consciousness and how this developed, explored through extracts from the memoirs of many key persons, and we see genuine fervour, commitment and idealism in those men and women; we probably think now, with benefit of hindsight that they were young and naive, but the atmosphere of the end days of Tsarism shines through in an extraordinary way, and our very hindsight at the same time possibly prevents us fully comprehending those times… There was very real belief in the possibility of constructing a better society.

Where Slezkine is original – at least to this reader – is in the way he explores Marxism and Bolshevism as religious faiths: his third chapter at great length, and in a most enlightening manner, firstly analyses the origins and development of various religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, and then considers the revolutionaries’ beliefs and behaviours in the light of this template, finding many similarities. It’s a convincing parallel, and one that for me cast a different light on subsequent Russian (and world) history.

The enthusiasm, and the Revolution itself, were in many ways the easy part; the difficulty came, as always, with what to construct to replace the old, and how to do it well. From the outset the peasantry was the problem, and the Bolsheviks were happy to apply violence and repression from the start in pursuit of their goals… so in many ways it was downhill from there on. Anarchy and civil war did not help anyone; this is not an excuse for, but perhaps an explanation of the Red Terror which was institutionalised so quickly.

Slezkine also makes clear just how quickly there were made available serious privileges for an elite, the rulers and managers of the new world, justified by the immensity of the tasks they had committed themselves to undertaking. In a supposed world of equality, a large group emerged with a sense of their own specialness, importance and entitlements. I am reminded here of how a Polish friend clarified things for me once; he is a historian and grew up under the old, socialist regime. His point was that a different group of people (the Bolsheviks) worked out how to seize the power, control and privileges that the previous group (capitalists, landowners, aristocrats) had enjoyed, and arrogated all of those to themselves. And the revolutionary talk of a new society had been the method by with they had done this… an understandable if cynical view, maybe, but one that I found enlightening at the time and since. Was that avoidable?

There was much experimentation in the early years, trying out new ways of being, doing things, including relationships, marriage and child-rearing, but against the background of privileges for the elite.

One of the things I also found myself re-evaluating as I read was the comparisons and parallels that are often proposed, between Stalinism and Nazism, often as gross and deliberate oversimplifications of an issue that nevertheless merits serious consideration. To me, the Nazi approach has always seemed to be a more trenchant and clearcut one: certain clearly identifiable races, nationalities or groups were subhuman and to be discounted and eventually eliminated. Bolsheviks (or Stalinists, or whatever you choose to call the rulers of the Soviet Union) seem to have stumbled into similar behaviour in a rather more careless and disorganised way. Nevertheless, although this is impression I was forming, I admit that I am not enough of a historian to weigh evidence and make judgements.

Internal party squabbles, especially after the death of Lenin, and then the consolidation of Stalin’s power, were the next major developments; evolving and consolidating the ‘party line’ seems to have dissipated much otherwise useful energy; again, I felt that the Nazis, as totalitarians also, were much more united and single-minded in their approach. In the Soviet Union, those who ‘lost’ the arguments were then forced into increasingly impossible intellectual gymnastics that gradually came to imply the necessity of their physical elimination…

The purges and the show trials of the 1930s were the height of the collective insanity, leading to the executions of hundreds of thousands on utterly spurious grounds, which was to leave the country seriously underprepared to face the eventual confrontation with Germany, in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-5. The trials were pointless attempts at pseudo-legality, implying that there was a ‘rule of law’; again, the Nazis were more brazen and merely eliminated anyone who got in the way, without any fuss. Reading accounts of the trials, and the chilling coldness of the mass executions reminded me of accounts of similar atrocities in Nazi concentration camps, as well as of how all this was brought to life so effectively in Arthur Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon, which dealt especially with the show trial and execution of Bukharin.

If you are interested in the parallels between what the Russians and Germans did, and indeed how they collaborated in evil at various points, then I recommend to you the writings of American historian Timothy Snyder.

It’s a long book, and there’s more. You get a clear picture of the original dreams, as well as how things went wrong. Here was an entire social class that had never held power, suddenly seizing it and having the chance to carry out all sorts of experiments, with all kinds of lofty and often laudable aims, but because they had no experience, how were they suddenly to manage and to perfect their newly-acquired world? Again, the Nazis used those who had been running things before and who were mostly willing to collaborate with their plans; the Soviets eliminated or would not trust such people.

After the purges, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the next generation remained loyal to the regime and idealistic, making enormous sacrifices in their drive to defeat Nazism; the state apparatus switched from inward-looking paranoia and purges to defence of the revolution and the Soviet state…

It’s a very powerful and difficult book, and you need a good deal of background knowledge in order to make sense of it. The perspective is interesting, the broad sweep of Soviet history invaluable, and the questions it raises are worthy of serious reflection by any who would seek in some way to build a better world: how to learn from others’ past mistakes. I’m glad I read it, but it was too long and perhaps ought to have been edited; I can’t see ever having the time to come back to it. Reading the history through the memoirs of the history-makers was fascinating, though…

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