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Sunday, 2 December 2012

Belarus, Herta Muller and Come and See

These images are from an album that is not a family album, but Franz Krieger's War Album, with pictures from various locations including Belarus. It's interesting to see the images and then to question how you can have compassion for German soldiers (as with the shell-shocked soldiers featured in the top image) who were operating in Belarus, where some of the most  horrific atrocities of the Second World War took place - horrific both in terms of scale and cruelty.

Can we divide the German perpetrators into Nazis and non-Nazis, into monsters and humans. Is this useful? How exactly does it work? And how about when we measure the contemporary aftershocks of the War - how do we measure and judge and forgive? Do we forgive? Do we remember? Do we forget?

While we can all recognise Naziism as an almost unique murder machine, where does that leave our judgement of our own behaviour both during and after the war? What of British war crimes and torture, of sending home eastern European refugees to certain deaths in the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia.What of the firebombing of German cities such as Dresden or the post-war justice meted out to civilians and soldiers from the defeated sides..

It's not on the same scale as the Nazis ( or Stalin, or Mao or whoever ) but does that matter.In Cruel Britannia, Ian Cobain links the justification of torture in Afghanistan to that in the Second World War

During and just after the second world war, we hated and feared Germans, so we tortured them. Interrogators were told that "mental pressure but not physical torture is officially allowed." While murder was forbidden, interrogators were told they "were permitted to threaten to kill prisoners' wives and children", techniques that were deemed "quite proper". The interrogators read between the official lines, just as their counterparts did later in Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. They employed stress positions (standing up for eight days on end), strappado (hanging from the wrists, originally devised by the Spanish inquisition) and denial of food, combined with the "standard sleep deprivation and isolation regime". In a precise parallel with Bagram air base, two prisoners died in the custody of one Captain John Smith.

What did this systematic abuse of Germans achieve? These "interrogations … proved, beyond doubt, that Hitler was dead." When the political mandarins were faced with the horror of what had been done to the prisoners, the truth was too embarrassing to bear, so the British authorities made sure there were no public prosecutions where inconvenient truths might seep out. One witness was advised to "escape" (by walking out of the open gate) after being told that if he testified against the British officers he would be the one spending the rest of his life in prison.

The narrative of the Second World War gets simplified into an after-the-fact Good versus Evil, black and white affair - which isn't surprising really when you consider just how crazy bad the Nazis were. 

However,  the story is a bit more complex thatn that, especially for the people who were multiple victims and were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, something that could be said of Herta Muller, the Nobel Prize winning novelist from Romania.

This is from a Herta Muller interview in last weekend's Guardian

In January 1945, after the Nazi-supporting regime of Ion Antonescu had surrendered to the Red Army, all Romania's ethnic Germans aged 17-45 were deported to forced labour camps to rebuild the shattered Soviet economy. Those who survived spent five years shovelling coal and hefting bricks in a corner of the gulag.Müller's mother was among the shaven-headed deportees, who returned home three years before she was born: "As a child I perceived my mother as an old woman." All the villagers "knew of everyone who had been deported, but nobody was allowed to speak about it."

 Her father, a field labourer and alcoholic, was among many local volunteers for Hitler's Waffen-SS. "It was terrible to find my father on the murderers' side. He was a simple man, and obstinate. When I spoke about the Nazis' crimes, he always said, 'Well, look at what the Russians did.' When he spat on his shoes to shine them, I'd say, 'Ah, that's what a Nazi does.' I didn't make life easy for him." Her father was in the same tank division as Günter Grass. When Grass's teenage SS membership came to light in 2006, Müller berated him for keeping quiet about it. "If I charge my father with this, I must charge Grass, an intellectual, too" she says. "He took the moral high ground for decades. His silence was a lie."

Oh, and back to Belarus in the Second World War is the setting for Come and See, perhaps the most traumatising and relentless war movie ever.

Here's the Come and See trailer.

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