This war can’t end soon enough

26 05 2011

I’m not quite halfway through Evans’s The Third Reich at War, and by now all of the theoretical contradictions of Naziism come crashing into one another in practice:

1. Hitler sets out a goal of a racially pure Germany, but the need for labor means that hundreds of thousands of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, and other racial inferiors are imported into Germany.

2. The belief that the conquest of the east would provide sufficient resources for Germans to wage war in both east and west—that war was necessary for Germany’s very survival—is turned upside down as the need and/or difficulty of holding these areas becomes a drain on the Old Reich’s (Germany proper) own resources.

3. The National Socialist’s disdain for, well, socialism, means that the rationalization and coordination of the war effort is fatally delayed. When Albert Speer does finally take over armaments production, he succeeds only insofar as he’s able to shutter small producers in favor of efficient larger producers; in doing so, he reneges on the 1930s promise to protect the petit bourgeoisie.

4. Hitler’s preference for his deputies to fight amongst themselves for position means he never imposes the discipline necessary to march them all in the same direction.

5. The Nazis are offended when the people in countries they overrun fight back; they consider such resistance to be so out of bounds as to provide justification for the initial invasion.

6. The Nazis claim to be acting according to the highest ideals in exterminating Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs, but go to great lengths to hide evidence of such extermination. (SS and Police Leader Odilo Globocnik did protest such subterfuge: he argued that instead of digging up the bodies of the dead to be burned, they should “bury bronze tablets stating that it was we who had the courage to carry out this gigantic task.”)

7. The most glaring contradiction, of course, is the contention that the German is the pinnacle of human being, a superbeing who is nonetheless threatened by the very existence of the weak and parasitic Jew.

Sure, you could spin this last point with reference to Jews as vermin or viruses or whatever, but it is nonetheless striking how much power Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Goring, et. al., give to Jews, so much power that they in effect put the onus for the war on Jews themselves. The great and noble German will always be vulnerable as long as Jews exist.

(It is this last point, of course, which makes the Nazis nothing like Nietzsche’s Overman: the Overman is not only not threatened by the weak, he pays them no mind. And, of course, Nietzsche thought anti-Semitism was stupid.)

I should also mention one last, well, not contradiction, exactly, but avoidable tragedy: that in so many cases Communist and Zionist prisoners could not overcome their conflicts to coordinate resistance to camp guards and administrators. Even amidst the great gnashing of teeth of the Nazi death maw their antipathy was more important than death itself.

Anyway, by this point I’m reading less out of intrinsic interest than in a kind of savage anticipation of the end.

I cannot wait for the Nazis to end.


If I had a rocket launcher

22 05 2011

The invasion of Poland was almost unbearable.

I knew it was awful, but awful only in a general way; the opening didn’t linger on the atrocities, but the details—the killing of 55 Polish prisoners here, the burning of village after village there, the many smug justifications for murder—knit the details of death into the whole cloth of invasion and mass murder.

If I didn’t know how it all ended, I told a friend, I don’t think I could read it.

I’m on the last book of Richard Evans’s trilogy of the Third Reich, finally cracking it open after it sat on my desk for a few weeks.

I raced through The Coming of the Third Reich (useful for its doleful portrayal of the Weimar Republic) and read with fascination The Third Reich in Power, but The Third Reich at War, well, the premonitions of the first two books are borne out in the last. It will get worse, much worse, before it ends; it cannot be said to get better.

Reading about genocide and slaughter has never been fun, but I used to be able to do so without flinching. I remember reading in high school  Anne Nelson’s dispatches in Mother Jones about the Salvadoran death squads; I close my eyes, and I can still conjure up the accompanying photo of bloody heads on bench. College was apartheid and nuclear war, and grad school, human rights abuses generally.

The University of Minnesota maintained an archive of human rights material in its law school library. I’d trudge over there from my West Bank (yes, that’s what it was called) office and read reports of the massacre at the finca San Francisco, of soldiers smashing babies’ heads and slicing up their mothers. Reports of torture in Nicaragua and disappearances in Argentina and killing after killing after killing in Guatemala.

It was awful, but I could take it, and since I could take it, I felt a kind of duty to do so. There was nothing I could do, hunched over these documents in the back corner of the library, but to read them, to read as many of them as I could.

I no longer have the compulsion, or the arrogance, or frankly, even the stomach, any more to do so. I still think the reading matters, the knowledge matters, even if I can’t precisely say why, but it is so hard, almost too hard, to keep reading. To read is to conjure these lives, these men and women and children, and watch them murdered all over again.

It was like that with the footage of the airplanes hitting the World Trade Center, and of the two towers collapsing into themselves. It seemed important to watch, to see, to know what I could, but after that, it just seemed obscene, as if the replays were killing people all over again.

I know that’s not how it works—I am aware of at least a few laws of physics—but the necessity of witness is found precisely in the knowledge of what is witnessed, that is, in the knowledge of the killing of over 2500 people. I don’t want that knowledge dulled or forgotten.

Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult now to read of atrocity: the outrage has been so stretched and worn that in too many places the bare horror is all that remains. The outrage is still there—reading (again) of the T4 extermination program, I raged against the ideology of rassenhygiene and “lives not worth living”—but it no longer protects as it once did. Its use as a buffer is gone; the horror gets  close.

Still, the knowledge matters, so I read what I can when I can. It is the least, the very least, I can do.