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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.

Psalm 82/1: 

God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the “gods”

Psalm 82/2

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.


Deborah Parkin Photography said...

The first ever conference I went to when doing my MA was about challenging the concept of 'victims & perpetrator' - a very convenient way of looking at such a huge & challenging subject. For many years the Jewish Ghetto Police were overlooked - as were woman & as you say the work of the Einsatzgruppen & everyday people who helped them to shoot Jews into mass graves. I think the thing with death camps is that people survived them & could tell their story - they were discovered by Allied forces & there was evidence of the 'Nazi' atrocities for the world to see. With Stalin now on our side - what went on in places such as Balkan states were largely ignored as again, it would blur the lines of them & us (although not now). Not many survived (though some did) to tell their stories & mass graves were probably not as dramatic as the death camps - although the Nazi did photograph what went on quite methodically, the footage of the camps is what we have grown up with & therefore why as soon as we hear the word 'holocaust' we think 'camp'. I don't - I actually think some of the most terrifying & horrific things I have read are about the work of the Einsatzgruppen.
When I was at university, however, I did see a shift in research - I was researching women's holocaust writing & another student was looking at women as perpetrators - so things are being challenged.
I could go on but I will spare you :)
One book that may be of interest to you is Liana Millu's 'Smoke over Birkenau' - I used her in my dissertation - largely ignored because she does write about women as having specifically 'gendered' experiences in the camp - she talks of prostitution & birth & motherhood. She covers the grey areas that make people uncomfortable.
Anyway, will definitely look this book up- thanks again Colin.

colin pantall said...

Thanks for that - I'll look up the Millu book.

I think the point that Struk is making is that after the war the Holocaust was removed out of the war equation by the Allies and the Germans - it was a terrible Nazi thing (which of course it was) that was somehow removed from the wider atrocities - which were levelled against just about everyone, everywhere.

Supposedly, it was student activism in the 1970s that widened the debate to take in other soldiers and of course this was resisted.

But then you can widen it further - and really nobody comes out of it too well and the myth of the just war is challenged. And if you want a just war what could be better than fighting the Nazis.

Come and See features the Einsatzgruppen. Really horrific film.

Deborah Parkin Photography said...

Ah I see - It's such a huge subject isn't it? I'll be honest & say that i hadn't realised that it had been removed out of the war equation.
Sorry if I am not making much sense or if I am missing the point - but still good to discuss these things first thing in the morning ;)

Thought this might be of interest to you http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25843788

would be interested to hear your thoughts when you have time.

colin pantall said...

I'm going to have a read of it today!