Wednesday, 29 January 2014
Belarus, Nazis and Psalm 82/2
pictures above from 82, published by AMC
Martin Toft wrote about walking to war earlier this week which connected to Michal Iwanowski's recreating the walk his grandfather did at the end of the Second World War; a walk that went through Russia, Belarus and Lithuania before he reached his devastated homeland of Poland.
Mention Belarus and it automatically makes me think of the Greatest War Film Ever Made (GWFEM), Come and See. I wrote about Come and See here, it's a brutal tale of a young partisan's walk through the murder and devastation of a country where the policy of extermination went on beyond the camps.
Janina Struk writes about what happened in Belarus (and beyond) in her excellent book, Private Pictures, Soldiers' Inside View of War. She talks about the post-war erasing of memory, the simplification and shrinkage of events into the Holocaust and what happened in the camps and the way in which large parts of the Wehrmacht were absolved from all responsibility as though war crimes only happened in the camps and nowhere else.
This was a result of the Nuremberg war trials. Once the leading Nazis were imprisoned. writes Struk, '...a clear distinction was made between crimes committed by the Nazis and the millions of soldiers who had fought an 'honourable' war. Historian Omar Bartov wrote: 'If the initial purpose (of the tribunals) had been to punish and purge, the ultimate result was to acquit and cover up.''
Struk also writes about the War of Extermination exhibition that toured Germany in the late 1990s and challenged the myth of the honourable war fought by the regular Wehrmacht soldier and how this shook people out of their comfort zones.
Interestingly, Struk extends the argument and describes how these images could be seen as a wider narrative on war and the use of images, that abuse extends into different wars and conflicts and images such as the Abu Ghraib pictures of 2004 share a family resemblance to those of Jews being persecuted in Europe in the 1940s ( and here's a video of anti-semitism in contemporary France).
She also notes that the reaction of the American authorities to the Abu Ghraib pictures - to prosecute those who took and posed in the photographs, was not so different to the reaction of the Nazi authorities to those who took pictures of atrocities in the Second World War: she mentions the case of Max Täubner, an SS officer who was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in 1943 not for killing Jews, but for photographing their deaths.
The pictures that Täubner took could have appeared in the two volume set 82, published by AMC.
The book is in two parts, both of which feature the private pictures that Struk writes about, the pictures of people directly involved in the events portrayed. 82/1 looks at the material loss of the war; burned out houses and crashed planes. 82/2 looks at the human loss of the war, the humiliations and atrocities, the death, the imprisonment, the violence waiting to be unleashed. Sometimes, the people portrayed (most often Eastern Europeans, Russians or Jews) are shown smiling or giving Nazi salutes
The backs of the pictures are also included (as with Melinda Gibson's great book - it just keeps on getting better and better) so giving the pictures a sense of location.
82 is edited by David Thomson and presents the pictures as they are. The backs of the pictures aside, there is no text so you have to draw your own conclusions and make your own narrative. And as Struk shows, maybe that's not as simple as might first appear.
And the title of the book. There are a couple of psalms, the second of which in particular connects to both the images and the idea that the complexities of war cannot be reduced to polarities of Good and Evil, Wehrmacht and SS, Allies and Axis, West and East.
So maybe the message of the book, and it's volume titles, is not to isolate and demonise what is so obviously evil, but instead to look into our own hearts and question our own behaviour.
A few years back, you would always see banners at World Cup matches reading John 3:16 which refers to eternal life and Jesus. Which is a bit religious for my liking. 82/2 is good for anyone/anywhere. anywhere.
God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the “gods”
How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.