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Posts tagged “Holocaust

The Strain (TV Series 2014- )

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Nothing is more alluring for both audiences and writers than dusting off old tropes. This is true. There is no argument against this statement. Resistance is futile. Boom. Done. Let’s pack it away, boys. No? Okay, I guess we could talk a little more about this very general statement I just made. And if I’m going to be talking about housekeeping motifs and tropes, do me the favor and humor me by nodding your head or something and when passersby asks why you’re nodding your head, you tell them about this brilliant piece you’re reading, as I delve into this odd analogy to FX’s dark horror show, The Strain. Let it be known now, while I may make mention of some of the newer seasons, my focus will mostly be with the first season, as it is the best and has one of my top ten TV/movies favorite openings/pilots. The only big let down with the second season is the new kid they got to play Zack Goodweather, as he plays a larger role in the second season, he became downright annoying and I’m secretly hoping something really bad happens to him. If that was the point then bravo to the writers cause I really do loathe that little bastard. Anyway, that’s not really why we’re here, is it? Tropes. That’s the term I used before and that is precisely what I want to talk to you about. Dusting off aged tropes is, in my humble opinion, an excellent method of storytelling. The classics for horror being Dracula, Wolf Man, Mummy, and Frankenstein, etc. etc, and how can we use these today? In this endeavor, The Strain is an excellent example we can learn from.

Before we scourge the graveyard any deeper, here’s a quick synopsis from our favorite source, IMDb:

A mysterious viral outbreak with hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism ravages the city of New York.

Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause, if you please, for another stunning synopsis from IMDb. Well, they’re not wrong. There is a virus going around, and it certainly creates hosts that act very vampiric. A very fresh take, I think, on the classic vampire trope. No. This isn’t Lestat. These are monsters, as well they should be. And I love this reimaging of the vampire. The Strain uses invokes classic myths, such as The Master, or “patient zero,” as one of the characters refers to him as, in a way of explaining the legend to a couple of non-beliving doctors. Silver and sunlight are also here too. But no longer crosses and garlic, both of which are hardly ever mentioned. So, despite that the fangs are gone and they have a “stinger,” a worm like tentacle, that the vamps use to “latch on” to their prey, it’s still very much in tune with the aged trope. Better, in my opinion. While we all love Bela, the dashing vampire is too tired nowadays, and  xenophobia is more rapid and in your face for such subtlety. We need monsters. Vampires are not lonely outsider boyfriends that sparkle. They are killers, and worse. They are a virus, a scourge, a blight. Some films get it right. 30 Days of Night was good. And Let the Right One In was an instant classic.

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What really sets The Strain apart is the use of some of the more classic character types that are largely ignored in modern vampire storytelling. Sure, you cannot have a vampire movie without the preverbal “Dracula,” and in The Strain, we get The Master, who is without question truly terrifying and oddly alluring. But besides the “Dracula” character, what else is offered. I’m going to start off with my favorite. Instead of Abraham Van Helsing, we get Abraham Setrakian, an aged, very aged professor now turned pawn shop proprietor. His history within the context of the show is very rich. Setrakain is a Holocaust survivor who was taught by his grandmother regarding certain “creatures of the night.” As a young man, Setrakian believed her stories to be just that, stories. For a young Setrakian, the Holocaust proved to have enough horrors of its own without the need of mythical monsters. However, as it would seem, the concentration camp, Treblinka, in which Setrakian is incurred is besieged by, not just from war and death and human injustice, but also by a physical parasite that moves about during the night. Witnessing the creature with his own eyes, his grandmother’s stories flood back and he works quickly at finding a way to dispatch this monster. He fails at this but survives the encounter and the war. He then dedicates his entire life at tracking down The Master and his creations and riding the world of the Strain. 

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The Van Helsing motif in Setrakian was very well thought out, taking the old trope and making it more, giving it more life and substance. For me, Abraham really makes the show enjoyable, especially during flashback episodes that show Setrakian’s evolution.

Another interesting twist with tropes is the Renfield motif found in not just one character, but two, each with their own set of motives that feel very parallel to each other. The first is a human named Eldritch Palmer. While Renfield in the film and Bram Stroker book feels both pathetic and sympathetic, Palmer takes that notion to a different level. Due to his disabling sickness, whatever condition he seems to suffer from physically does not hinder the power of his will, his sheer determination to get whatever it is he wants. And what he wants most of all is to live. This desire seduces him in aligning with The Master and helping the Strain spread over New York. We feel bad for him, as we do with Renfield, for the kind of life he must have had, never knowing which breath would be his last, while at the same time we are appalled by his greed for life and uncaringness towards others. The second Renfield character is  in the person of Thomas Eichhorst, played wonderfully by Richard Sammel. Eichhorst is, for lack of a better word, the Master’s right-hand man, but in reality, he’s more of a puppet than anything else and is in fact used quite literally as a puppet whenever the Master feels like “speaking” through him. But his character is more alluring for me than Palmer is. Palmer is just pathetic, especially in season 2. An old groveling to maintain his authority. Eichhorst has an interesting history that is connected with Setrakian, making the motivations for their rivalry very believable, and solidifying Eichhorst as a fan favorite baddy.

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There are other characters in the show, a lot of hunters and community leaders, most do not necessarily correlate to classic Dracula trope. We could say that Dr. Ephraim Goodweather could be a close match to a Jonathan Harker motif. But Harker wasn’t really a well thought out character in the movie, perhaps more so in the book. There is one character though that needs mention. The part of Kelly Goodweather as a trope for Mina Harker. While the Master’s fascination with her still begs the question, her role is without a doubt very much Mina-like. When she is turned, she is used, more or less, as a tool to find her son, Zack Goodweather, and in turn to stop Eph and the merry band of vampire hunters. The Master’s interest in Kelly seems to only relate to his interest in stopping the good doctor, perhaps using Kelly and keeping her around just to taunt him.

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Have you ever heard the statement, “There is nothing new under the sun?” It’s a saying from Hebrew scripture, Ecclesiastes 1:9I’m often fond of saying it, especially when fellow writers pitch me their book or story idea and ask if it’s too much like another story. I’ve done the same as well, wondering if this “new idea” is too much like something else. Recently I published a short story with Matt Shaw is his release of Bah Humbug! An Anthology of Christmas Horror Stories. My story is called “Happiness U.S.A.,” and is “inspired” by a classic Twilight Zone episode titled “Garrity and the Graves.” The basic concept is a con artist that travels through an old west town and cons the town into thinking he can resurrect the dead. The catch is that the people in this old west town do not want their dearly departed returned to them, and so to put them “back in the grave” they have to pay Garrity more money. This is one of my favorite shows and one of my top favorite episodes. It’s both cheeky and disturbing, as many Twilight Zone episodes are. And I wanted to do my own take on Mr. Garrity and this old west town. But my version, my dusting off of the classic trope/motif was asking myself, what if Garrity wasn’t really a “con” artist per say, what if he could really bring back the dead. What kind of person or being could do something like that? An angel…or devil? So I took that concept and made my town of Happiness a small Texas oil town back in the mid-1970s. And the price the people of Happiness will have to pay will be much steeper than gold or silver.

This feels like a long way around to basically say, it’s okay to resurrect old trope, give them a good dusting, and retell the story in a new and exciting way. The Strain just so happens to be my favorite example and I wanted an excuse to talk about the show. I’ve started in on the novel the show is based on. There are some differences, but the meat and potatoes are pretty much the same. So if you need a recommendation, you’ve got it. Give this show and book a go. You will not be disappointed.

AND if you happen to be curious about that Christmas anthology I mentioned, follow the image below.

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And if perhaps I can tempt you with one more book. I’ve got a new novel that released this week. Conceiving (Subdue Book 3). “…an evil [is] biding its time…waiting for them all,” Conceiving can be read as both a standalone or as part of the series. You can find out more about the book here. Or you can check it out on Amazon. Currently, the book is marked down to $0.99, but only for a limited time. Available for both kindle (or kindle apps) and on paperback.

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The Masquerade of Death: A Progression of Chaos in Europe (1925-40)

"Hand to Hand Fighting," Otto Dix

“Hand to Hand Fighting,” Otto Dix

There is a popular concept to interpret cataclysmic events as harbingers for Last Judgment. Understandably, looking to the galloping Four Horsemen is a popular motif when events in the world seem out of control. Consider the sketch by Otto Dix in 1917 simply titled, Hand to Hand Fighting, where in orphic cubism soldiers are mangled together in an orgy of violence. Dix had presented this work as a depiction of the cycle of life during the Great War, which had erupted in central Europe during the summer months of 1914. In 1917, as a German solider, Dix would have been deep in the mud and death, surrounded by “lice, rats, barbed wire, fleas, shells, bombs, fire, [and] steel” (Brose, pg. 81), elements characterized by trench warfare. According to historian Eric Brose, in just 1915, “Well over two million men fell on the western front” (Brose, pg. 81); this is the world in which Dix makes deep and often chaotic brush strokes, mockingly showing us a world of ghastly maiming machines of war (Brose, pg. 77).  From this foundational nightmare a chaotic history unfolds, the history of a post Great War Europe, of Russian Revolution, of Weimar Germany and the road to WWII and ultimately, the Holocaust. And in films as well, such as: Battleship Potemkin (1925), M (1931), and Jud Süss (1940), and post Great War novels, like: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), we can see the hoof prints of an apocalypse that has already happened.

The most interesting notion of the apocalypse are the prophets who foretell impending doom.

In March 1899, composer Richard Strauss was considered to be rather ordinary “elegant-looking man whose odd style matched the polyphony of [his] strange [performance in] A Hero’s Life” (Brose, pg. 38).  Strauss conducted A Hero’s Life in Frankfurt’s Municipal Museum to an audience made up of European aristocracy who sat uncomfortably in their chairs, clinching against a melody that reflected a mood anguished by the birth pains of modernity. According to historian Brose, Richard Strauss’ performance pulsated, not just with disdain for the new social transformation, but also with the rapid growth of industrialization and technological change occurring within a “political structure poorly [suited] to withstand such [a] challenge” (Brose, pg. 51). One of the most curious moments during Strauss’ A Hero’s Life was when, while crouching, he would suddenly stand upright and point toward the brass players hidden on either side of the orchestra, as if with a wave of his baton, Strauss orders a battalion of conjured soldiers in a “forward march.”

But how did the end begin? What was it that set the fuse burning out the colonial world, exploding into a world at war?

"Self Portrait," Otto Dix, 1913.

“Self Portrait,” Otto Dix, 1913.

Richard Strauss, along with his other contemporaries dealing in moral artistic relativism, whose work became obsessed on the fragmented and fractured foundation of the world, seem to have been oddly sensitive to apocalyptic visions (Brose, pgs. 64-65). Modernity was on the move, marching to the trumpet call and the inevitability of war in Europe. According to Brose, several developments had increased this inevitability. Consider, Europe and her long history of discontent and conflict among a growing population squeezed within smaller and smaller country states – each with an unquenchable desire for independence. Or consider the booming industrial and technological revolutions pitted against a system of multiple colonial rivalries, each maneuvering into either alliances or opposing armed encampments. Or perhaps, the escalating urge from these colonial states to purge discontent brought on by dynamism through acts of war. Or even perhaps, heightened anxiety weighed on the shoulders of finite leaders pointing an accusing finger between each other (Brose, pgs. 74-75). Obviously, we can estimate that there was no single factor that ushered Europe into the Great War; but rather was each a deadly mixture in an already boiling pot. There is some debate on the initial spark that set the fuse. Brose among other historians point toward the June 28, 1914 assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand. According to Brose, “six Serbian terrorists united in a convoluted and still shadowy conspiracy to…destabilize the Austro-Hungarian Empire and make way for a South Slav state” (Brose, pg.75).

Looking to the ethnic grievances of these six Order of the Black Hand assassins as the ignition that set Europe into a horrifying four year conflict seems plausible, even with its conspiratorial flare. As news of the Archdukes assignation spread, Bosnian Muslims and Croats distanced themselves by firebombing Serb businesses, Vienna threated ultimatums to set loose the “anti-Serb zealots in the army like Hötzendorff” (Brose, pg.75) and sought backing with Germany, while Russian Tsar Nicholas II weighed defending the “honorable” relationship with their fellow Slavic and Christian Orthodox ally Serbia (pg.75) against internal unrest. As established allies, France backed Russia. Armies mobilized. Warning given. Mediation floundered. On August 4, 1914, with German carvery thundering into natural Belgium, London decided on the side of France. The Great War had officially begun (Brose, pg.76).

The Storm of Steel, coined by German solider, writer, philosopher Ernst Jünger, the Great War is considered to be the first in mechanized warfare. According to historian Brose:

“[The] ghastly maiming machines of modern war had changed…the street [of Europe] of 1914, [that were] so full of life and youthful vigor, [into monstrous] defacements, [men with] their lips and jaws blown away, feeding tubes inserted where mouths had been, wads of gauze stuffed in nose holes bigger than silver dollars…and piles of amputated body parts. [The] survivors among these half-men would somehow have to adjust to civilian life” (Brose, pg. 77).

"The Trench," Otto Dix, 1923.

“The Trench,” Otto Dix, 1923.

As the armies mobilized and marched during those late summer months of 1914, the Great War quickly became a war of attrition with each faction burrowing deep within the blood soaked earth (Brose, pg. 78) in an nightmarish zigzag pattern of endless trenches, feebly protected by a mash entanglement of barbed wire. Machine-gun nests and heavy artillery became hellish bloodhounds guarding the killing zones between enemy trenches. In 1915, a “greater horror” was unleashed: “a thick yellowish-green, ground-hugging cloud of poison gas that caught gagging, chocking, dying allied soldiers completely by surprise” (Brose, pg.81). The Great War was the world in which Otto Dix would capture in his paintings and drawings throughout the remaining years of his life, a world where “butchers (artillery) smash the person next to [you] into pieces with one blow and mockingly cover [you] with blood and flesh and guts” (Brose, pg.81). Sacrifices increased throughout 1916 on both fronts with an estimated eighteen million lost by years end (pg. 84).

And so it began. The Storm of Steel, as Jünger had called it, recalling from his own experiences in the trenches, witnessing the old stag of colonialism come crashing down, its legs broken by the sheer weight of mechanization. But how did we enter the war? In an era of progressive-ism, how could the isolated United States ever get involved with something so far away? Well… perhaps the reasons are too convoluted, too precarious, much like that of the countries of Europe, to narrow a definitive answer for why?

Nevertheless, in the early morning hours of April 1917, the U.S. declared war with Germany. Our staunch isolationism broke apart after relations were aggravated with German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann’s “ridiculous ploy to entice Mexico and Japan into a war against the United States” (Brose, pg.97). Leadership within Germany crumbled as her labor force began to strike. Troops would not follow the monarchy into last-ditch battles. “Workers’ and soldier’ councils, formed in emulation of revolutionary Russia the previous year, [spreading] quickly” (Brose, pg.99). In 1918, Russia fallen apart due to civil war and revolution throughout 1917, spreading across Central and Eastern Europe. Austria-Hungary dissolved. The war was coming to an end. On November 11, 1918, the Armistice was signed, ceasing the usually thundering boom of artillery fire and ushering unto the land a strange silence among the thirty-seven million dead, wounded, or missing. Upon this queer scene, one can imagine the surviving forces climbing carefully out of the trenches, gazing at the mutilated landscape and asking themselves, “What do we do now?”

Indeed…what do we do now? What happens to the world after she tears herself apart?

As the drum beat of the Great War faded, the galloping march of Pestilence and Famine spread across the postwar landscape. According to historian Brose, “five years after [the Great War] started, almost three million civilians in Germany and Austria-Hungary…[who were] succumbing in great numbers to tuberculosis, pneumonia, typhus, and a deadly new mutated strain of influenza” (Brose, pgs. 100-101). The End Times would have most certainly been a popular motif among the hungry and diseased ravaged villages and cities of 1919. And to make matters worse, the Treaty of Versailles, with its harsh provisions of War Guilt placed upon Germany, gave Europe no real chance for economic recovery – guaranteeing “a war of revenge” (Brose, pg. 103) down the already bloodied path. Further bolstering this season of discontent, on the eastern front, the Red Army forces that grew from the Bolshevik revolutions of 1917 and 1918 had swelled to five million by 1920, spreading communist rule across Byelorussia, the Ukraine, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and finally Georgia in 1921 (Brose, pg. 107). Reflecting on the words of President Woodrow Wilson, that the Great War would be a “war to end all wars” (Brose, pg. 107), and in light of the apocalyptic developments throughout Europe, one has to wonder if the end hadn’t already come.

The Battleship Potemkin (1928) is considered to be a masterpiece of silent cinema (Bordwell, pg. 61). According to film historian David Bordwell, “Potemkin seeks to arouse emotion and partisanship [while] aiming at [a] revolutionary pathos” (Bordwell, pgs. 61-62). Commissioned by the Soviet government to commemorate the uprising of 1905, director Sergei Eisenstein created within Potemkin a film filled with metaphorical motifs and analogies resembling, what he considered the natural process of rebellion (Bordwell, pg. 99). One needs only to look to the scene with the boiling soup followed by the shot of angry sailors, or the scene with the rotting meat filled with maggots and the ship doctor claiming, “These are not worms” (Bordwell, pg. 71), a humorless comparison, or even more blood curdling montage bounded of the Odessa Steps, the massacre, where women and children are mowed down against an unstoppable unreasonable Tsar military force. This, of course, further exacerbates the widening gulf between bourgeoisie and what represents for working class why the Bolshevik revolution happened in the first place.

Though The Battleship Potemkin is based on events that occurred in 1905, the film was made in 1925, serving as an historical record for the time in which it was made. So what does Potemkin say about 1925? Consider historian Brose and his comments on the history of Europe in the Twentieth Century, when he states:

“It was not just that communism had survived, a victory that shaped the next seventy years. Of significance were also the ways that people – party officials, workers and peasants, parents and children – changed. For many years subsequent historians concurred that war and civil war brutalized the population and coarsened public life to the point where much worse atrocities – the mass executions – became all but inevitable” (Brose, pg.166).

Potemkin tells us that The Great War did not win the day for democracy, it further exacerbated it; whilst simultaneously promoting, as Stalin states in his work, The theory of the Proletarian Revolution, “a great popular revolution…which had such an important ally as the vast mass of the peasantry who were oppressed and exploited by the landlords” (Goldstein, pg. 236).  Potemkin used images with the cowardly priest, dominating ship captain, and the relentless firing squad on the Odessa Steps, to remind the people of the corruption of religion, the corruption of the aristocracy, and to remind the people of the unifying revolutionary cause.

"The Skat Players," Otto Dix, 1920.

“The Skat Players,” Otto Dix, 1920.

The masquerade of death was in full swing during Germany’s Weimar era. Recognizable developments were taking place.  According to historian Konrad Heiden, “inflation [had] plagued Germany throughout the first years of the republic, brought on by financing [a] war through bonds…” (Heiden, pg.144) and with the steep reparations demanded from the Treaty of Versailles, beginning in 1923, the republic’s currency was valued roughly 4.2 billion marks to the America dollar (144)! This hyperinflation infiltrated every aspect of life, especially for the working class German, where store food lines took an eternity to move forward and when “you reached the store, a pound of sugar might have obtained for two millions; but, by the time you came to the counter, all you could get for two millions was half a pound, and the saleswoman [would say] the dollar had just gone up again” (144).  By November 1929, Chancellor Gustav Stresemann launched a season of reconciliation with France, Britain, and the United States, finally ending the crippling hyperinflation (though, keep in mind that most of everyone’s savings had been wiped out and the U.S. Stock Market Crash that happened back in October 1929 was on the verge of pulling Europe into another depression); however, despite this period of increased economic stability, those who were effected most would not forget and would effectively blame the Weimar Republic.

Fritz Lang’s cult film M, though seemingly simple, is suspect. Consider how, according to film historian Anton Kaes, “M was not among Germany’s top ten features of 1931 [and] the film received mixed reviews [with] only modest box-office returns” (Kaes, pg.138), yet despite being overshadowed by the eventual collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism, M is not only a rich source for historic symbolism in the midst of a chaotic 1931, but also because it represents the emergence of National Socialism.  The history surrounding M, the political and social crisis of the Weimar Republic, cannot help but have some kind of impact on the film. In a way, M captures the surrounding worldwide recession and apocalyptic dreariness during the 1930’s, the mass unemployment and rise of criminality and political discontent that eventually lead to the rise of the Nazi Party (Kaes, pg.140). According to historian Kaes, “the original title [of M] was Mörder unter uns (meaning…Murderer among Us),” which, in a strange way, combines the “explosive atmosphere of Germany two years before Hitler’s assumption of power” (Kaes, pg. 141) and the infamous murder trial involving SA (Hitler’s “Storm Troopers) hit men who had murdered a member of the communist party in the late fall of 1930. Besides using M as an interpretation for one of the notorious Four Horsemen, historian Kaes reflects on the films own history as it represents itself in 1931 and asks if indeed, “were the Nazis ‘murderers among us’” (Kaes, pg.141)?

"Self Portrait," Otto Dix, 1926.

“Self Portrait,” Otto Dix, 1926.

Consider the final scene in M and the row of weeping mothers who plead: “This [trial] will not bring our children back to life. People should… take better care… of their children” (M, 1931) as a literal foreshadowing of the up and coming far right (Nazi party), of the youth being swept up in the momentum of National Socialist revolution. According to Kaes:

“M presents a society at war with itself. Serial murder recalled wartime slaughter, and the heightened state of mobilization of an entire community echoed experiences from the home front…[focusing] on the downtrodden lumpenproletariat, [including] washerwomen and fatherless children, criminals and beggars, haggard prostitutes and slovenly policemen” (pgs. 143-144).

M is a representation of the public’s strange fascination with murder in 1931 Germany, suggestive in imitation murder, which “displaces and shields us from real murder” (Kaes, pg.146), thus, in an ironic twist of things, “murder and its mass marketed representations feed on each other” (Kaes, pg. 146). Basically, murders are covered by the media in noir-esk fashion, thus inspiring future killers to commit asks of violence, which in turn is reported by the media, and so on and so forth; all the while, sitting on the backdrop of current events relating to culture and social n(m)ormality. According to historian Kaes, the Great War was still a “living memory [of] national shame of defeat and [resentment of] the financial and moral burden” (Kaes, pg. 151) embodied in the Treaty of Versailles and the failures of the Weimar Republic.

All Quite on the Western Front, released a year prior in 1929, alongside M, acts as a companion view into the Weimar era. According to historian Modris Eksteins, in his work, Rites of Spring, “All Quite can be seen not as an explanation but as a symptom of the confusion and disorientation of the postwar world” (Eksteins, pg.283). The story of All Quite is about Paul Bäumer and his gang of school friends turned German soldiers sent to the trenches to fight an inescapable futile war, in which the world beyond no longer knows them (Eksteins, pg. 281). As Paul states:

“I stand up. I am very quiet. Let the months and years come, they can take nothing from me, they can take nothing more. I am so alone, and so without hope that I can confront them without fear. The life that has borne me through these years is still in my hands and my eyes. Whether I have subdued it, I know not. But so long as it is there it will seek its own way out, heedless of the will that is within me” (All Quite, pg. 295).

"Skull," Otto Dix, 1924.

“Skull,” Otto Dix, 1924.

According to historian Eksteins, in the final scene of the book, when Paul dies “yet strangely [is] at peace with his destiny” (pg. 281), certain axioms “lose their meaning [when people] die violent deaths – patriotism, national duty, honor, glory, heroism, valor…” (pg. 281-282) all become meaningless in the hallows of the destructive nature of war. All Quite was written in 1929 about life in the trenches somewhere between 1914 and 1918; however, this book, according to Eksteins, is not a memoir, All Quite is an “angry declaration about the effects of war” (pg. 282). Alongside M, All Quite had warned of the coming of the pale horse. All Quite wanted its readership in 1929 to journey within themselves and face the realities of the effects of war; however, in 1933, after Hitler’s rise to power, All Quite found itself on top of the pyre, burnt at the University of Berlin for being “politically and morally un-German, [and a] betrayal of the soldiers of the world war” (Eksteins, pgs. 298-299). But despite the warnings in M and All Quite for internal reflection instead of external othering, the pale rider had arrived, and his name that sat on him was Death.

According to historian Susan Tegel, the notoriety of Jud Süss (1940) derived “solely from being an antisemitic film which was [also] a box-office success” (Holocaust and the Moving Image, pg.76).  After the fall of the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich produced nearly 1,100 featured films, of those, only 229 were credited as being propaganda. Of these, according to Tegel, “only 96 were Staatsauftragsfilme (or state-commissioned films), and of them Jew Süss was one of the most important” (pg.76). Why? The early periods during Third Reich cinema, as far back as 1933, featured few Jewish tropes; in retrospect, they were the thundering backdrop to a growing storm. It wasn’t until 1940 when Germany was introduced provocative characters, such as, Joseph Süss Oppenheimer. According to film historian Eric Rentschler, in his work, The Elective Other, Jew Süss was:

“Nazi cinema’s most controversial and contested film, just as its director, Veit Harlan, is (next to Leni Riefenstahl) the Third Reich’s most controversial and contended filmmaker [that held the ability to] ignite fierce passions [among the people, insomuch as] it [also] became the central exhibit in [the directors] postwar trial for crimes against humanity” (pg.149-150).

On one hand, the focus is forced at one target, a target that doesn’t, according to Hitler, belong in Germany, and preparing “the German populace for the ‘final solution,’ the deportation and mass murder of European Jewry” (Rentschler, pg.149); while on the other hand, this fabrication of “the enemy” becomes a necessity in creating a complete Gemeinschaft (or gemülichkeit) reality, in other words, the Nazi could not exist without the Jew (pg. 154).

Till the very end, Jew Süss remained Joseph Goebbels’ most effect piece of propaganda manifested in the guise of provocative “historic” entertainment; suggestive in research as it was in the portrayal of, so-called, “accurate” caricatures of the other, “latterday [Dracula’s] who…infect the German corpus” (Rentschler, pg. 156). According the Rentschler, Jew Süss is a monstrous entity in the history of cinematography (pg.150), but for the German people of the Third Reich, Jew Süss was something much more sinister. The film claims historic accuracy, though generic at best, for Germany. The tale of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer was something familiar, though perhaps not easily recognizable. Jew Süss played off pre-established notions of anti-Semitism, which gave historic evidence “that penetrated surface appearances and promised to show the Jew’s ‘real face’” (Rentschler, pg.155), and the fate of a country who allowed Jewry to exist among its population. According to film historian Rentschler, if we can “read this film as a Nazi fantasy, it can tell us how Germans in the Third Reich saw the other and how they defined themselves in relation to that other” (pg.154). It’s interesting to note that there are few German heroes or sympathetic characters in Nazi cinematography; however, apparently the characture Süss (Ferdinand Marian) “received fan mail from [smitten] female spectators” (pg.158).

"Fritz Perls," Otto Dix, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

“Fritz Perls,” Otto Dix, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

The nightmarish fantasy of Jewish “machinations [sucking] the Swabian state dry” (Rentschler, pg.156) can be clearly seen in the dialogue between characters Karl Alexander, Duke of Württemberg, and Süss Oppenheimer, the shifty nomad “whose preferred countenance is the masquerade” (pg.155). Towards the end of the film, during an evening of fireworks and entertainment prepared by Oppenheimer, the Duke, in a cathartic moment, asks for Süss to reveal his inner face, pleading, “Ha, what does he really look like, what does he really look like?” (154). Süss replies sarcastically, “How am I really supposed to look?” According to Rentschler, film maker Viet Harlan, in his Nazi propaganda film Jew Süss invites the audience to beg the question: who or what is the Jew? And the above scene illustrates a inferred response: according to Harlan, Jews are sadistic and cruel creatures, masters of disguise and manipulators of image, beastly and equally cunning (pg.155) who offer the German corpus an alternative self, a conjured attractiveness derived from a long “tradition of anti-Semitic projections that accompanied the rise of the German bourgeoisie” (pg.164). Basically, they are to blame for the woes of post Versailles Germany.

I’ve commented on this particular film several times already, but I must continue to press that upon the film’s release to the public, subsequent responses echoed “sentiment [that] Jew Süss was horrible and authentic, fantastic yet…frighteningly real” (Rentschler, pg.155). For the German people of the Third Reich, Jew Süss presented for them a real and lasting image of the “Jewish problem,” a problem that would need to be resolved through action set in reality, the deportation and extermination of European Jewry. According to European historian Jackson Spielvogel, Hitler was determined to carry his Nazi ideology across Europe, establishing his own brand of New Order. For Germans on the home front, “Nazi domestic policies…were influenced by war conditions, [and] also by Hitler’s perception that Germany had collapsed in World War I because of the home front” (pg. 220). The once revered savior of Germany was becoming more and more tyrannical in his determination in not repeating, so-called, past mistakes of 1918. In September of 1939, there was a notable contrast in how the German people identified with, once again, going to war. According to Spielvogel, “in August 1914, there had been crowds cheering in the streets, a profusion of waving flags, processions, and flowers to accompany German troops marching off to war” (pg.230). But as Hitler reignited the machines of war, the people remained silent. The only sign of enthusiasm was from “devout Nazis who believed the Führer was always right and who were eager” (pg.230) for vengeance.  In the face of lacking total enthusiasm and support, Hitler was even more determined to maintain morale on the home front, than, one could say, winning the war itself. It would seem, according to historian Brose, that the Nazis only had eyes for the Jew (Brose, pg.227).

"Der Triumph des Todes," Otto Dix, 1934.

“Der Triumph des Todes,” Otto Dix, 1934.

Interpreting cataclysmic events as harbingers for the End Times is an understandably popular motif, especially when events in the world seem to be spinning out of control. When we consider life in Europe during the Great War, which had erupted during the summer months of 1914, and the world of “ghastly maiming machines of war” (Brose, pg. 77) the war ushered in, a deeper history unfolds. Much like Richard Strauss, along with his contemporaries dealing in moral relativism, when we obsess on the fragmented and fractured foundation of the world, we can begin to see apocalyptic signs when there are none (Brose, pgs. 64-65). Don’t get me wrong, modernity was certainly moving Europe into an inevitable war. What followed was terrible and frighteningly real. And from here, another history begins to tell the story of a battered society who refused to focus on the internal outcomes of a devastating war and instead on the external excuses and outlets. From here we witness Russian Revolution, the disenchantment of Weimar Germany and her road to National Socialism, and ultimately the Holocaust, the greatest, tragic form of othering. The history, achieved in films, such as: Battleship Potemkin (1925), M (1931), and Jud Süss (1940), along with novels like, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), the progression of chaos in Europe becomes clear in the muddied hoof prints of the notorious Horsemen.The only question that remains: “Where does the story go from here?”

 

 

 


The Fall of the House of Hitler: Nazi Cinema and the Third Reich 1939-45

The fall of the Third Reich possesses certain quintessential features of a gothic tale: a haunted house (state), dreary landscape (total war), sickness (anti-Semitism), a duel personality (Nazism & European Jewry), and madness (Holocaust). For all its identifiable historic events, part of the terror in the Reich’s final years (1939-45) is in its vagueness. We can say for certain is that the majority did, on some level, eaten from the völk laced cake of Hitler’s ideology. What we cannot say for certain is when the German populace started to doubt their Führer. Nazi ideology had worked to bring Germany together through propaganda and popular fascist motifs. But in the end, we begin to see through cinematographic evidence that the people of the Third Reich had witnessed the true intentions behind the mask of their Führer. The spring months of communal spirituality (gemülichkeit) had passed; the cold bitter months of disillusionment and discontent were blooming. Attempts in maintaining national cohesion is what drove Nazi propaganda, through films, such as: Jew Süss (1940), Münchhausen (1943), and Kolberg (1945); however, the blur between ideology and actuality was beginning to become more clear. If we can say anything with some certainty, it is that a majority of the German people had revered Hitler and ate his völk laced cake of Nazi ideology, but when did the façade diminish? When did the German people begin to regurgitate the poisonous consummation of belief? Through the course of this discussion, we will walk the dreary landscape of Hitler’s crumbling house, depicted in the above mentioned films and their history, with the hope of revealing the cataclysmic cliff between a charismatic leader and a disillusioned people.

The deliberate genocide of countless human lives is something that cannot be discussed dispassionately (Spielvogel, pg. 255). However, in the pursuit of accountable history, we can, at least, discuss among the various aspects concerning the Holocaust, albeit we must do so with empathy, sincerity, and the upmost respect for each individual life. The burden we are left with in studying and writing about these dark days in history is answering the question of what. What moved Hitler to enforce his “final solution?” What or how did the Germany people react to such a thing? Was the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe planned from the beginning, or was it simply an (de)evolution of popular thought? According to historian Jackson Spielvogel, author of Hitler and Nazi Germany, “Hitler’s ideological stance [in his manifesto, Mein Kampf, clearly] called for the elimination of the ‘evil’ Jews if the Aryan race were to survive” (pg. 256). To begin with, we can say from what we know regarding historiography, that Hitler manipulated an emotional response, an already predisposed suspension for the causes of Germany’s failure in WWI, among a post Treaty of Versailles population. That somehow, the fall of Germany was the fault of the Jew. What we cannot say is if he actually believed that Jews needed to be eliminated. However, in the end, Hitler did use “popular sentiment in Germany” (pg. 256), in essence, to eventually carry himself to power, because to some extent, the people agreed with the rhetoric that spued from the Führer’s sermonized rants. Had the people not agreed, perhaps Hitler would have never had the support to infiltrate the Weimar Republic.

This begs the question of how widespread anti-Semitism was among the German people. It could be said that there was, at least, two traditions of anti-Semitism in Germany: the religious and the political. Consider the medieval Christian opinion that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ. Though attempts were made to convert Jews to Christianity, gradually the two became even more divided, festering a sense of fear and hatred for Jewry among thirteenth century Germany. Consider the final works of Martin Luther, who had advocated peace and love and patience, because Luther had believed that after “Christianity had been corrected by the Reformation” (Spielvogel, pg. 258), the Jews would naturally move toward conversion. When Luther became aware that the Jewish community simply did not wish to convert, regardless of Christian creed, he became indignant, increasingly impatient, angry, advocating violence and malcontent towards Jews in Germany. According to Spielvogel,  “in 1543, [Luther] published a bitter tract against [the Jews] entitled The Jews and Their Lies, in which he characterized the Jews as criminals desiring world rule…and a plague to Germany” (Spielvogel, pg. 258). During the rise and continuation of the Third Reich, Luther’s poisonous words against the Jews were constantly publicized during Nazi party rallies as an “historic account” from a legendary national hero.

Secondly, consider anti-Semitism as a political beast. The power of anti-Semitism can be found in an historic account of German nationalism. From the old empirical state of 1871, Germany, even then, had a sense of misfortune to have Jews within their nation, implying that even when a Jew was to be born in Germany that does not make them a German; she is still a Jew (Spielvogel, pg. 258).  According to Spielvogel, prior to WWI, political anti-Semitism did begin to decline, losing its appeal among the German people; however, during and after WWI, anti-Semitism found new soil in the hearts and minds of the German people through discontent with of the Weimar Republic, the depression, and especially among of the angry right-winged voices of the conservative German Nationals Peoples Party (Nazis). In the two areas of human rational thought, the political and the religious, anti-Semitism was equally strong and fervent; however, history also teaches us that this was not a symptom unique to Germany. So we are left to postulate the nagging question of how widespread and embedded hatred and fear of “the Jew” really was in Germany. Anti-Semitism seems to have been enough to get Hitler in power, but was it enough to follow the Führer’s “final solution,” and total war, to the very end?

Regardless of the debate between developed or naturalistic racism, the fact of the matter is, it exists in all forms and classes of society. There seems to be on some baser level a natural instinct of suspension for “the other,” those that look or act or talk different then ourselves. Here in America, we have had our own sordid tales of fear of “the other.” Consider our long history with slavery, Civil Rights, the Red Scare and McCarthyism, to name a few examples of our own brands of intolerance. However, it seems rather absurd to compare America with Nazi Germany, for obvious reasons. So, what really makes the difference between the expected levels of racism in society and the extreme, such as the case with Germany’s Third Reich, Hitler’s “final solution,” the Holocaust, and total war? Enduring a major war whilst maintaining control of the hearts and minds on the home front was the challenge, according to historian Jeremy Noakes, author of Nazism: 1919-1945 Volume 4, German Home Front in World War II, “for which [the Nazi regime] had been preparing [for] since its takeover of power in 1933” (pg.465), namely, against what Hitler and the Nazi party declared as “Jewish-Marxist agitators.” The responsibility of ensuring the people that Germany would “never again [be stabbed in the back],” fell upon the shoulders of Hitler’s minister of Propaganda, Dr. Joseph Goebbels.

Speaking to a group of radio officials soon after his appointment as Minster of Propaganda, Goebbels related that “the mobilization of the mind is as necessary, perhaps even more necessary than the material mobilization of the nation…We did not lose [WWI] because our artillery gave out but because the weapons of our minds did not fire” (Noakes, pg. 465). Here, Goebbels is insinuating that Germany did not lose the first war because of German military efforts, but because the hearts and minds of the people had been compromised. In the early years of the Third Reich, Goebbels’ propaganda machine remained rather vague and focused primarily on instilling “military spirit” and a nationalistic pride in films such as: Triumph of the Will and Hitler Youth Quex; however, as the Second World War progressed, the function of propaganda shifted to “mobilize[ing] the energy [of] commitment of the population for the war effort and to sustain [German] moral” (Noakes, pg.466). At first, propaganda was generated to convince the population that the German aggressions carried out from 1939-41 were actually a measure of pre-emptive defense. However, even as early as 1940, and continuing through 1945, Goebbels’ propaganda effort “turned up the heat,” becoming less vague, and began to focus on, what Hitler deemed, the internal threat. In the face of probable defeat, propaganda emphasized, through literally works and cinematography, a “conspiracy orchestrated by the Jews who dominated both [war fronts]” (Noakes, pg.466). In works such as, Sozialparasitismus im Völkerleben (Social Parasitism in the Life of the Nations) and Jew Süss, the “naturalistic application of the word parasite to the Jews [blended] with the mythical images of a vampire…[as a] purely ‘scientific’ argument” (The Jewish Parasite, pg. 20-21). For Nazi instigators and propagandist, such as Alfred Rosenberg and Goebbels, the issue with the Jew was not a moral judgment, but a “biological reality” (pg. 22).  For Goebbels, the goal was to convince through media, in characters such as Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, that the Jew was no more than a tentacled parasite that would gradually invade society “through the open wounds of the people, consuming their creative forces and hastening the doom of [the German population]” (pg. 22).

Jud Süss, also known as Jew Süss, was more than a racist film.  According to historian Susan Tegel, the notoriety of Jud Süss derived “solely from being an antisemitic film which was [also] a box-office success” (Holocaust and the Moving Image, pg.76).  The Third Reich produced nearly 1,100 featured films, of those, only 229 were credited as being propaganda. Of these, according to Tegel, “only 96 were Staatsauftragsfilme (state-commissioned films), and of them Jew Süss was one of the most important” (pg.76). Why? The early periods of Third Reich cinema, as far back as 1933, featured few Jewish tropes; in retrospect, they were the thundering backdrop to a growing storm. It wasn’t until 1940 when Germany was introduced to provocative characters, such as: Joseph Süss Oppenheimer. According to film historian Eric Rentschler, in his work, The Elective Other, Jew Süss was, “Nazi cinema’s most controversial and contested film, just as its director, Veit Harlan, is (next to Leni Riefenstahl) the Third Reich’s most controversial and contended filmmaker [that held the ability to] ignite fierce passions [among the people, insomuch as] it [also] became the central exhibit in [the directors] postwar trial for crimes against humanity” (pg.149-150). Jew Süss performs as Hitler’s existential partner. On one hand, the focus is forced at one target, a target that doesn’t, according to Hitler, belong in Germany, and preparing “the German populace for the ‘final solution,’ the deportation and mass murder of European Jewry” (pg.149); while on the other hand, this fabrication of “the enemy” becomes a necessity in creating a complete gemeinschaft (or gemülichkeit) reality, in other words, the Nazi could not exist without the Jew (pg. 154).

Till the very end, Jew Süss remained Joseph Goebbels’ most effect piece of propaganda manifested in the guise of provocative “historic” entertainment; suggestive in research as it was in the portrayal of, so-called, “accurate” caricatures of the other, “latterday [Dracula’s] who…infect the German corpus” (pg. 156). According the Rentschler, Jew Süss is a monstrous entity in the history of cinematography (pg.150), but for the German people of the Third Reich, Jew Süss was something much more sinister. The film claims historic accuracy, though generic at best, for Germany. The tale of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer was something familiar, though perhaps not easily recognizable. Jew Süss played off pre-established notions of anti-Semitism, which gave historic evidence “that penetrated surface appearances and promised to show the Jew’s ‘real face’” (pg.155), and the fate of a country who allowed Jewry to exist among its population. According to Rentschler, if we can “read this film as a Nazi fantasy, it can tell us how Germans in the Third Reich saw the other and how they defined themselves in relation to that other” (pg.154). It’s interesting to note that there are few German heroes or sympathetic characters in Nazi cinematography; however, apparently the characture Süss (Ferdinand Marian) “received fan mail from [smitten] female spectators” (pg.158).

The fantasy of Jewish “machinations [sucking] the Swabian state dry” (pg.156) can be clearly seen in the dialogue between characters Karl Alexander, Duke of Württemberg, and Süss Oppenheimer, the shifty nomad “whose preferred countenance is the masquerade” (pg.155). Towards the end of the film, during an evening of fireworks and entertainment prepared by Oppenheimer, the Duke, in a cathartic moment, asks for Süss to reveal his inner face, pleading, “Ha, what does he really look like, what does he really look like?” (154). Süss replies sarcastically, “How am I really supposed to look?” According to Rentschler, film maker Viet Harlan, in his Nazi propaganda film Jew Süss invites the audience to beg the question: who or what is the Jew? And the above scene illustrates a provoked response: according to Harlan, Jews are sadistic and cruel creatures, masters of disguise and manipulators of image, beastly and equally cunning (pg.155) who offer the German corpus an alternative self, a conjured attractiveness derived from a long “tradition of anti-Semitic projections that accompanied the rise of the German bourgeoisie” (pg.164). Upon the film’s release to the public, subsequent responses echoed “sentiment [that] Jew Süss was horrible and authentic, fantastic yet…frighteningly real” (pg.155). For the German people of the Third Reich, Jew Süss presented for them a real and lasting image of the “Jewish problem,” a problem that would need to be resolved through action set in reality, the deportation and extermination of European Jewry.            According to Spielvogel, Hitler was determined to carry his Nazi ideology across Europe, establishing his own brand of New Order. For Germans on the home front, “Nazi domestic policies…were influenced by war conditions, [and] also by Hitler’s perception that Germany had collapsed in World War I because of the home front” (pg. 220). The once revered savior of Germany was becoming more and more tyrannical in his determination in not repeating the past mistakes of 1918. In September of 1939, there was a notable contrast in how the German people identified with, once again, going to war. According to Spielvogel, “in August 1914, there had been crowds cheering in the streets, a profusion of waving flags, processions, and flowers to accompany German troops marching off to war” (pg.230). But as Hitler reignited the machines of war, the people remained silent. The only sign of enthusiasm was from “devout Nazis who believed the Führer was always right and who were eager” (pg.230) for vengeance.  In the face of lacking total enthusiasm and support, Hitler was even more determined to maintain morale on the home front, than, one could say, winning the war itself.

During the first years of the war (1939-41), the Nazi Blitzkrieg (rapid conquests) won many victories for Germany, and from these conquered enemies came a mass procurement of materials for war. On the home front, armament product was unnecessary, and so, the maintained production of consumer products, and the importation of grain, silk, champagne, lace, chocolate, and “other goods from occupied Europe kept the German people relatively content” (Spielvogel, pg.231). However, near the end of 1941, in the face of fighting a two front war, a change in priorities could no longer be avoidable. The cost of ultimate victory began to weigh heavily on the minds of the German people. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, was keenly aware of the growing problem. But each message of Hitler’s genius was becoming increasingly rejected in the face of continued defeat in battle. According to Spielvogel, by 1942, “Goebbels had come to believe it was time to be brutally frank with the German people about the real military situation Germany faced” (Hitler and Nazi Germany, pg.239); however, Hitler, still fearing losing control on the home front, refused Goebbles’ suggestion. The mood and morale of the German people deteriorated as rapidly as British bombs had begun to fall on German cities; war had come home to rouse discontent and disillusionment against the fracturing ideology of the Nazi regime.

In the face of Hitler’s crumbling house, Goebbels sought to transform military defeat into spiritual renewal. According to film historian Eric Rentschler, the Minster of Propaganda “painstakingly choreographed and [in] electrifying performance, he let out all the stops, rousing his listeners with a call for ‘total war,’ a comprehensive remobilization” (The Ministry of Illusion, pg.193) of both mind and spirit. The film Münchhausen premiered on Ufa’s twenty-fifth anniversary as an form of psychological escape from the 900 tons of bombs, thousands of destroyed buildings, 600 fires, 711 civilian casualties, and more than 35,000 homeless, for a shell-shocked Berlin still living in the Third Reich (Rentschler, pgs. 193-194). Münchhausen acted as a placebo, a German fantasy of sensuality, decadence, and eroticism, all the things Germany had been denied in Nazi containment and control polices, because the realities of life in the Third Reich were beginning to become unbearable; discontentment was becoming more difficult to muzzle, and the bark of the German voice desired escape.

Baron von Münchhausen, another historic transfiguration of late eighteenth and ninetieth centuries, was an “improbable first-person [narrative, sustaining] …a bizarre humor and an immodest staccato, commingling hyperbole and tongue-in-cheek” (pg.194). The Baron is always “a background player in history [parading] in the age of memorable monarchs. He becomes the lover of Catherine the Great and he is a captive at the court of the Ottoman Emperor Abdul Hamid I. Reference is [also] made to Maria Theresa of Austria and to Stanislaus II of Poland” (Peter Christensen, Baron Münchhausen and the Third Reich, pg.14). Pursued by the Inquisition, the baron commandeers a balloon, traveling upward, to the moon in what could only be described as a “Nazi Wizard of Oz, [constituting] undoubtedly…the grand exception [of traditional propaganda], so it would seem, among the feature films of the Third Reich” (Rentschler, pg.201).

According to Rentschler, “for its original audience, [Münchhausen] offered therapeutic relief, a tale about a man who masters his own destiny and marshals the march of time” (pg.195); a story about Germany eternal, a Germany in which, as the film states, “Everybody knows about…but no one really knows” (Münchhausen, 1943). With state-of-the-art wizardry, Goebbels “sought to reanimate a paralyzed nation” (pg.196) and heroize absentee fathers in the face of Baron von Münchhausen as the state, and his faithful companion, Christian Kuchenreutter, as the German fighting man.

The iconic central image of Münchhausen straddling a cannonball as it zooms through the air, turning toward the audience and tipping his hat, will forever immortalize the baron as a human projectile; Germany as a human projectile in the efforts of total war. Despite its wide and celebrated reception, Münchhausen is still a fabricated world with a “sham hero [inviting] its audiences to share the fantasy;” a desperate attempt at resuscitating the hearts and minds of the German people. According to Rentschler, the baron could be interpreted as the Third Reich’s last action hero, a ditch effort in transforming the mythic image of the Aryan race into a living reality; however, dissolving before the viewer, Münchhausen reveals the machinations of Nazi propaganda and the “hollowness of special effects…whose ultimate extension could be but one thing: the end” (pg.213).

In The Shadow of Death in Germany at the End of the Second World War, author Richard Bessel notes that “during the last year of the Second World War, more Germans died than in any other year before or since. [Essentially, by] …1945, Germany became a land of the dead” (pg.51). The most significant contributor of death for Germans was in military action, “which claimed the lives of [a] astronomical numbers of soldiers in the final stages of the war.” To say the least, death was at the very center of daily life in Germany. However, this loss of life came not in the first years of the war, but in the waning and bitter months between January, and lasting till Germany’s eventual surrender in May, of 1945. During these months, the Soviet offensive crushed the Wehrmacht from East Prussia and into southern Poland. The Allied bombing campaign against Germany was at its highest peak, cities across Germany were bombed day and night, and a few were even utterly destroyed. Of the Germans that did not die, 12 million were homeless. According to Spielvogel, out of the 21,000 antiaircraft guns and German fighter planes located throughout western Germany, none “were sufficient to stop the Allied planes. [The majority of] antiaircraft guns were manned by teenage boys and girls as more men were drained off into the army” (pg.242). In contrast to the end of WWI, when German troops still stood well beyond the borders of the Reich as they surrendered, in the last battles of WWII, both solider and civilian were still fighting and dying within Germany; according to Bessel, “the dead fell not in France or Russia, but in Berlin and Breslau” (pg.52). In a radio message from a Heinrich Himmler, the acting Supreme Commander of the Replacement Army, to the Governor of Lower Bavaria, the following orders were given:

“The Reichsführer SS issues the following instructions… [you are to] maintain a stubborn, uncompromising determination to carry on [and] where there is a white flag…all the male persons of the house concerned are to be shot. There must be no hesitation in carrying our these measures” (Noakes, Vol. 4, pg.658).

And, according to Bessel, in the final months, “the Nazi regime made a point of displaying the corpses of ‘cowards’ so that all could see” (pg.53).  Günter Grass, recalling some sixty years after the fall of the house of Hitler, as a seventeen year old boy in the Waffen-SS, that “The first dead that I saw were not Russians, but Germans. They were hanging from the trees; many of them were my age” (Bessel, pg.53).  Such public death was not the only method the Third Reich used to manipulate the German population. An entry in Joseph Goebbels’ diary articulates the spawn of total war, in a confession of sorts, just a few weeks before his own suicide, that “we must always lead the German people back to the basic thesis of how we wage war and make it clear to them that they have no other choice but to fight or to die” (Bessel, pg.54).

As German civilians began becoming accustomed to living in bombed out building and air-raid shelters, propaganda films, such as Jew Süss and Münchhausen, effectively lost their appeal, especially as more and more theaters were being destroyed by Allied bombs, and as the Allied forces, on both fronts, began to become closer and closer to Berlin. Goebbles’ propaganda films in 1945, including Kolberg, were only effective insomuch as in their actual predictions of the coming horrors that awaited Germany, especially German women. According to author Atina Grossmann, in her article, A Question of Silence: The Rape of German Women by Occupation Soldiers, “Goebbels’ propaganda – for once – turned out to be correct… [In later accounts] many women reported feeling that they were reenacting a scene in a film they had already seen when the drama they were expecting actually unfolded: soldiers with heavy boots, unfamiliar faces, and shining flashlights entered a darkened cellar, searched for weapons and watches, and then revolver in hand, commanded the proverbial, ‘Frau, Komm’” (pg.52). By 1945, in the wake of the encroaching Red Army, such depictions as above, and other sordid accounts of rape, were becoming widely publicized; a shared collective experience during an event of general crisis, both horrific in nature and frightful in execution (pg. 53).

Released on the anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power, January 30, 1945, Kolberg came at a time when all of Germany knew “the war was long-since lost” (Culbert, pg.449). Kolberg was one of the last propaganda films to come from the desperate mind of Joseph Goebbels: a cinematic justification for complete and utter total war. Goebbels spared no expense, pulling out all the stops, in what would obviously be one of the last propaganda films in his ministry. The actors’ performance was as superbly as if it were their last, as was the case for Heinrich George, who performed in such films as: Metropolis (1927), Hitlerjunge Quex (Hitler Youth Quex), and Jew Süss, who would later die in a Soviet concentration camp in September of 1946. Thousands of soldiers were pulled from the front lines as extras to give aid to Veit Harlan’s vision of exaggeration, an artistic depiction of the courage and strength and unity of the German population in the face of such desperate situations (Culbert, pg.451), carrying the message to never surrender. In a speech made by the passionate character Nettelbeck to a despondent Gneisenau, he pleads, “We know every stone, every corner, every house. We won’t surrender even if we have to claw the ground with our nails. In Kolberg we don’t give up. They’ll have to cut off our hands or slay us one by one” (Kolberg, 1945). Yet even Kolberg could not turn the tide. Hitler’s house had fallen. The once revered leader of the Third Reich, on January 16, 1945, hid in what would be known as simply, the Bunker: his final wartime headquarters, which would later become his tomb. In his last testament, Hitler continued with the same arguments, that “international Jewry would eventually be seen as the culprit” (Spielvogel, pg.217). And on April 30, he and Eva Brown, his recently wed wife, committed suicide, their bodies were quickly burned, per Hitler’s request, and one week later, on May 7, the remaining forces of Germany surrendered unconditionally.

We know how the story ends. Through such films as: Triumph of the Will (1934), Hitler Youth Quex (1933), La Habanera (1937), Jew Süss (1940), Münchhausen (1943), and finally, Kolberg (1945), (to name a few) we are given a sneak peek behind the curtain of how effective Nazi propaganda played in the hearts and minds of the German people. Arguably, we can assume that there was indeed widespread support and acceptance of Hitler’s Nazi ideology and anti-Semitism among the lives of the common Völk. The first three films mentioned above illustrate the acceptance of aesthetic fascism, the indoctrination of youth, and the importance of obedient mothers within the development of the Third Reich, in the guise of “genuine” entertainment. However, beginning with Jew Süss, Hitler’s Iron Gate had begun to close ever so tightly. Jew Süss gave the German people a collective and singular enemy to focus their discontent and anger. Münchhausen was the first of many attempts in distracting the Germany population to the realities of war.

However, as we reach the dawning months of 1945, films like Kolberg depicted Goebbles’ last attempt to provoke mass suicide in fighting to the last man, woman, and child; all the horrors of total war. It was during these moments during the war in which the German people, the once exalted and mighty Völk, regurgitate the poisonous conception of belief in their Führer’s ideology nightmare. As Allied forces marched through the streets of Berlin, most Germans welcomed them with a sigh of relief, but as they began to look around them, I’d imagine they probably recalled the promises the Führer had made: that he would win the heart of the world, but to do so, he would need Germany to play their part. Mass death was no doubt traumatic for Germany. However, in a way, it was also opportune excuse; creating on one hand deep imprints of brutality and death that lingered in a postwar culture, and on the other hand, the trauma was, one could say, an easy space goat in avoiding the memories of their overall involvement in the criminality of the Third Reich. Either way, Germany paid the high price of Hitler’s Third Reich in the coming years of the Cold War. The German people had given Hitler everything, and they likewise enjoyed, for a time, the sweet depravity of the völk laced cake, for if anything, Hitler’s ideology did create a seemingly unified gemeinschaft, but at what cost? Upon the ashes of Hitler’s fallen house, and the stink of millions lost, within the second half of the twentieth century, somehow the German people were able to rebuild themselves from the wreckage, something resembling a “normal” peaceful society.


My Brother’s Keeper: Understanding the Holocaust Series part 2 (Perpetrators, Bystanders, and Deniers)

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Knowing when or if to act is a convoluted and complicated matter. There is a interesting proverb that steams from the biblical account of Cain and Abel when God had asked Cain the whereabouts of his younger brother. Cain, in his jealousy, had secretly murdered his brother and when confronted he gives a cruel retort with, “am I my brother’s keeper?” Today, this turn-a-phrase is more commonly associated with the notion of individual responsibility for another person’s actions. Basically, are we responsible for the actions of our brothers and sisters. In the broader sense, are we responsible for the actions in our home, our village, our town, our state, or even our country? The Holocaust is a peculiar moment in history in which when looking into the actions of perpetrators, bystanders, and deniers, said question begs an answer. Hitherto, in part one in this series, we’ve sought a deeper understanding of the Holocaust by understanding Hitler and Nazi ideology, and though the two play a significant part, we must now also consider how the people reacted or didn’t if we are to discover some underlying answers to the most problematic questions we have regarding the Holocaust. The hardest answer we can attempt to infer is in understanding who these villains were. Were the perpetrators, the “ordinary Germans” living in the Third Reich, banal, that is, ordinary? And likewise, were the abysmally silent bystanders also banal? And, even more provocative, were their actions, or in most instances, indifference, toward mass persecution and ultimately mass annihilation of European Jewry just as ordinary?

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In part one of “Understanding the Holocaust,” we looked at how pseudospeciation can turn “outsiders” into monsters and the disastrous effects of such a worldview, now we’ll look even deeper at the perpetrators, bystanders, and deniers and discuss, to some extent, why it is just as dangerous to view them with the same monstrous perspective.

But, before we can understand the minds of perpetrators, bystanders, and deniers, we, as Christopher Browning, author and historian, has often mentioned, must be aware that when we look into “the behavior of any human being, [which] is, of course, a very complex phenomenon, the historian who attempts to ‘explain’ it [indulges] in a certain arrogance.” Nonetheless, we will attempt this “arrogant” feat regardless. Why? If we do not talk about these issues and histories, even the more dark and mutilated moments of the human experience, general explanations and over-encompassing assumptions will end up blurring the context of memory. Instead our goal should be what is most important, the things we can walk away with, the lessons we can infer, while avoiding presentism at all costs.

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With that said, the two contentions regarding the banality of evil is best understood between the two more prominent historians who have done considerable work in this fieldHannah Arendt and Jay Lifton. Arendt shows us how these killers are not otherworldly monsters or caricatures, but “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Her conclusion to this sense of banal evil developed during her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial during the spring months between April 1961 and May 1962. Eichmann had been captured in Argentina for his part in the mass annihilation of European Jewry as Judenreferat, head of the Gestapo office for Jewish Affairs. Eichmann, from the comfort of his desk, had organized the transport systems which facilitated the mass deportations of millions of European Jews to extermination camps and for drafting Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich’s letter ushering the final steps toward making Nazi occupied Europe utterly judenfrei.

Eichmann was seemingly indifferent throughout his trial. He often claimed that “of Jews I had nothing to do. I never killed a Jew, or a non-Jew, for that matter. I never killed any human being.” However, according to Arendt, “the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands.” Basically, Eichmann cannot claim noninvolvement in aiding and abetting the mass annihilation of European Jewry just because he sat behind a desk and didn’t physically “with his own hands” kill anyone. In Eichmann s case, the pen was more deadly than the sword. With a single signature or memorandum, millions went to their deaths. Nevertheless, Eichmann continually pressed that he was “not the monster I am made out to be,” and when he seemed to be contemplating the historiography of the Holocaust, Eichmann, near the end of his trial, declared it to have been “one of the greatest crimes in the history of Humanity.” Adolf Eichmann was sentenced to death for crimes against the Jewish people on a total of four counts: causality of murder, creating conditions in which Jews would be destroyed, indirectly promoting physical and mental anguish, and creating a memorandum to abort the pregnancies of Jewish women against their will in Theresienstadt (a transit/labor camp). In light of the charges, Eichmann proposed to his judges “to hang me in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites.” Though, this was in no way a sincere statement of regret or remorse for his actions, because according to Eichmann, “repentance [was] for little children.” Adolf Eichmann was hanged on May 31, 1962, just before midnight. During his trial, Arendt was continually surprised by this seemingly frail and banal man. Given Eichmann’s reputation amongst survivors and former SS staff who knew him, she had expected a monster, a beast shouting from his lock box some defiant Nazi eulogy. But he did either of those things. He was quite. He was an aging man with no real remorse. He could have been anyone’s neighbor in a quite little suburb. Invisible.

 

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Psychologist Jay Lifton, on the other hand, offers a differing interpretation regarding Hannah Arendt’s view on the banality of evil. From his research on mostly Nazi doctors, Lifton has concluded that the phrase “banality of evil” has been overly used as a pseudo-characterization for the entire regime of Nazi perpetrators, bystanders, and deniers. Lifton accepts that “Nazi doctors were banal, but what they did was not.” Basically, Lifton is insinuating that when these ordinary men carried out demonic acts, they, in the process of those actions, changed. Lifton uses physicians in his study because of our shared qualia in seeing inherently trusted practitioners who are supposed to be healers take part in something as grotesque as the sanction and participation of mass extermination.  In his article, “This World is Not This World,” Lifton mentions several conversations he had with survivors of the Holocaust, especially focusing on survivors of Auschwitz. During one such discussion, the survivor had asked “Were they [Nazis] beasts when they did what they did? Or were they human beings?” Lifton responds to the survivor agreeing that most Nazi doctors were “neither brilliant nor stupid, neither inherently evil nor particularly ethically sensitive, they were by no means the demonic figures – sadistic, fanatic, lusting to kill – people have often thought them to be.” Lifton moves away from the mad dog interpretation in which most people would associate with Nazi perpetrators, a direction most historians would agree, including Hannah Arendt; however, while Lifton shows us that these Nazi doctors were not “faceless bureaucratic cogs or automatons,” but actual human beings, he is also moving us toward a notion that is dangerously unrealistic. According to Lifton, the”doctors” participation with the euthanasia programs, the extermination of the mentality handicapped and the development of the Nazi medical ideological theory (based on the current worldwide phenomena regarding eugenics or racial purity), these perpetrators transformed entirely by “conditions conductive to evil.” Essentially, Lifton wants you to believe that ordinary people through extraordinary means can become something unordinary and unbanal. Evil that is “not of this world” is something we intuitively want to believe.

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Jay Lifton’s work is both massive and impressive in dealing with the psychology of Nazi doctors and perpetrators, but in his contention with Ardent’s view on the “terribly and terrifyingly” ordinariness of evil, he seems to be ignoring our natural inclination that evil is something which resides out there, in the beyond, in the forest amongst the number of faceless Einsatzgruppen waiting and willing to aim the final killing shot aided with the cold steel of the bayonet. He refuses to look up into the faces of men and women we call perpetrators and bystanders, the faces someone else in the world might call brother or sister, father or mother. Lifton does make some rather extraordinary deductions regarding the humanistic qualities these perpetrators of die endlösung (the physical extermination of European Jewry) share, but he is also dangerously teetering the natural human tug toward dismissiveness, that their actions were somehow not their own. But, as Yehuda Bauer, professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Jerusalem has stated:

“[We] must remember that the Nazis were no inhuman beasts, but were perfectly human. That indeed is the problem. If they were inhuman, not like the rest of us [or as Lifton has stated, ‘not of this world’], we could just dismiss the whole issue – we are essentially different from them. But that is not true. There were unusual circumstances, to be sure, and an unusual coincidence of factors that led to Nazi atrocities. But the capability of all humans to behave like they did exists, at least potentially… the Holocaust must be seen as an extreme point on a line that may lead humanity to self-destruction unless…prevented.”

The issue with the dismissive qualia in Lifton’s view on Ardent’s banality of evil is in its denial of free will, free action. Lifton seems to paint with a broad brush that all seemingly ordinary perpetrators, in their actions, became inhuman and likewise through their inhumanity could no longer change or alter their destiny. While certainly our environment, culture, and other external factors can shape our perspective, we cannot so easily discount the abundance of historical evidence that continues to say otherwise. If Lifton is correct, then why, despite being immersed in racist and anti-Semitic propaganda, did only 80-90 percent of the men from Reserve Police Battalion 101 (Einsatzgruppen, or “killer troops,” who followed behind the regular German Army through Poland and cleared out Ghettos) instead of 100 percent actually take an active role in any killing? Or even among the ones that did, why were they issued alcohol after each Ghetto clearing. Why was, as noted by one of the policemen, “the shooting of infants and small children was avoided by almost all the men involved,” as they were clearly ordered to do so? Or why, when giving the order to clear out the Polish Ghetto in Józefów, did Major Trapp (also known as Papa Trapp) break down into tears when he gave the “frightfully unpleasant task to his men?” Did they simply not transform enough, as Lifton seems to suggest? Or were they just regular guys who could only go so far?

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In a way, it would be much easier to agree with Lifton and assume that these killers were “not of this world,” and were likewise not us. This gives us the opportunity to avoid responsibility in taking action against such unordinary men. However, to the contrary, these evil doers were in fact just as ordinary as us. But its easier to sidestep than it is to take responsibility. Yet with each sidestep, someone else seems to pay the price. Consider the testimony of one survivor as they are reported to have said some thirty-five years after the death camps, how “one of the most painful aspects of being in the camp was the sensation of being totally abandoned.” If we allow evil deeds to become unbanal, we are, as Bauer has concluded, simultaneously dismissing our own involvement, dismissing “our task…to fortify elements in us that will oppose…utter immorality.” This denial that we are indeed our brother’s keeper can be seen throughout the historical account of the bystanders of die endlösung. Historian Ronnie Landau, in his encompassing and ingenious work, The Nazi Holocaust, considers the role of bystanders as:

“passive accomplices to Nazi brutality…[and that] the savage destruction of European Jewry was aided and abetted by the inaction and indifference of [these] various peoples of Nazi-dominated Europe, [including] churches, neutral countries, the international Red Cross and even those countries fighting against the Nazis.”

Simon Sibelman, the Leon Levine Distinguished Professor of Judaic, Holocaust, and Peace Studies expresses even stronger discontent concerning bystanders, that in their “utter indifference to what they saw [are] somehow [appearing to be] less human…” and in the face of indignities suffered by the Jews, “to remain perfectly indifferent [and] adopt total passivity is a denial of human responsibility.”

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The way we skirt responsibility as keepers and simply stand idly by while others are being persecuted feeds into Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil. Were bystanders otherworldly evil or simply “terrible and terrifyingly” human? Consider the banal actions of Father Coughlin, an American Catholic priest who could fill stadiums with folks craning to hear his thoughts regarding the Jewish Question, fascism, and Communism. In a radio broadcast on the night of December 11, 1938, (one month after Kristallnacht, widespread vandalism and murders of Jews in Germany) Father Coughlin avidly dismissed the persecution of European Jewry whilst simultaneously endorsing Nazi ideology concerning the fight against Bolshevism and how it was a worldwide Jewish trait to support Bolshevism. Strange by today’s standards, but perhaps not as much in Father Coughlin’s day. Yet even in its context, stereotypes abound and are just as damaging. Consider also the story of a young polish woman, who in a rare instance hid a group of armed Jewish refugees in her farmhouse in the small town of Kock, Poland. After being discovered by a company of men from Reserve Police Battalion 101 during the month of Judenjagd, or “Jew Hunt,” which lasted throughout October of 1942, the young polish rescuer was somehow miraculously able to escape the ensuing battle. However, the German police unit, after “interrogating” and then executing the survivors, was able to track the woman down to her father’s estate in a nearby village. There, “Lieutenant Brand presented the father with a stark choice – his life or his daughter’s. The man surrendered his daughter, who was shot on the spot.” Despite the cold reality this story represents, we must be careful not to make rash judgement’s or assumptions. However, we can say regarding the fathers actions was that it was indeed terrible and wrong. Why? Because it is our natural inclination to protect our children, both as a moral imperative and also a biological imperative. But can we call this seemingly uncaring father a monster? We most certainly want to. He did act monstrously, but in the end he is simply terrifyingly human. Some people listen to their moral intuition, no matter what. And some people are simply cowards, banal in every sense of the term.

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However, not every bystander became a perpetrator in their indifference, some made the stark choice to act. We must remember, though, that the rescuer was not absent of fear or rationality. They knew what was at stake. Rescuers did not simply ignore the topsy-turvy moral reality in which Germany had found herself during the 20th century; these indifferent banal bystanders choice freely to act, and thus became rescuers and likewise were going against several apposing external and internal factors, including: against the grain of social and political normalcy, against legislation of the Nazi government (Nuremberg Laws), and also the internal fear of being discovered. Not just from the government, the SS, or from prying neighbors loyal to the Führer, but also from within, those the rescuers were attempting to rescue in the first place. And how rescuers dealt with those fears are as diverse as the rescuers themselves. Some, mostly the adolescent teens or young twenty-somethings, were able to ignore their fears with the “naiveté of their youth.” And according to Eva Fogelman, Holocaust historian and author of Conscience and Courage, others were able to assume stage roles (play acting) as a way to cope with the constant fear of discovery. Some were involved with underground movements or part of some other network with other rescuers; albeit, the more who knew, the more dangerous the situation became. If one was to fall, the other risked being discovered through “interrogation.”

Forms of spiritual transcendence helped as well, and, also, there were those whose rescue actions in themselves became therapy for anger and resentment harbored against the tyranny and brutality of the Third Reich. The most interesting notion of being a rescuer is in its banality. The banality of good is an interesting testament to the reality that the role of rescuer doesn’t require feats or acts of superhumanism, or perhaps as Jay Lifton might say inhuman acts “not of this world.” The banality of good is the innate ability to see others, not in terms of “us” and “them,” but simply “us,” the shared human experience. This story of the banality of good can even been seen in the agonized and analyzed actions of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat, and member of the Axis powers mind you, who feverishly issued as many as 10,000 visas to a large clamoring desperate group of Lithuania Jews “pushing against the gate of the consulate,” in the city of Kaunas on the hot summer morning of July 1940, before being forced by Soviet troops to leave the country.

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Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil can even be understood within the phenomenon of modern day Holocaust deniers. According to Deborah Lipstadt, Holocaust historian and author of, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, the denial of the Holocaust has become one of the most disturbing notions of indifference and dismissiveness in history.  The rhetoric of Holocaust deniers that she describes, in detail, is sinisterly reminiscent of Germany’s modus operandi concerning anti-Semitism inherit in Nazi ideology. At base, the commonalities of deniers are linked with classic stereotypes regarding Jewry: that there is a worldwide Jewish conspiracy for economic and media control. The denial seems to be, for those in the Third Reich, similar to the reports Joseph Goebbels had given about the deportation of European Jewry to concentration camps, which as stated by the Minister of Propaganda, not about annihilation, but rehabilitation. For modern deniers, doubt has been cast over many different facets of the Holocaust itself, such as: rejecting that there were six million Jews in Europe, the gas chambers, purpose of creating the Holocaust “myth” (a so-called Zionist conspiracy), and perspective (Germany was taking state actions against enemies within the state) and so on. However, both for all deniers, the Third Reich and modern “revisionists,” the denial itself is simply, at root, anti-Semitism masked behind the clever guise of pseudohistorical interpretation. Both those living under the weight of the Third Reich and the “revisionists” blur the annihilation of six-million Jews simply because of an inherently human predisposition to deny our own capacity for horrendous acts, the same capacity to which Lifton bases his view regarding the banality of evil, that when ordinary people do sinister things, they become something entirely unordinary.

Instead of facing reality in the banality of evil we call the Holocaust, despite how difficult it is, deniers consciously reject any and all historical truth that the crematoria did in fact exist as witnessed by survivors such as Helen Lewis, who in an interview with Carol Rittner, an historian and Sisters of Mercy nun, upon arrival at Auschwitz from Theresienstadt was told to “look up at the smoke. Can you smell it? Do you know what it is? It’s a crematorium but not a normal crematorium. It burns the bodies of people who were gassed a short time ago.” Instead, deniers believe the entire project as some far-fetched Zionist-tall-tale, because, for whatever reason, conspiracies are easier to accept then anything resembling what really happened and what people are really capable of, which was: the destruction of six million Jews, who suffered and died at hands of terrible and terrifyingly banal people, either by being rounded up and shot by the Einsatzgruppen or selection, worked to death or initially being ushered into the gas chambers, or by starvation and disease in the camps, or even by medical experimentation or hunted down in the forests and towns of Nazi occupied Europe. According to Lipstadt, underneath, the deniers are “invective about Jewish power and influence and… [are convinced] that Jews have the most sinister intentions.” We could, of course, simply dismiss the claims deniers are making, because their claims are so obviously ridiculous; however, we need to consider something “terrible and terrifyingly” ordinary they represent. Consider that we are now, as of 2013, two generations removed from the events of the Holocaust. The memory of survivors and first person accounts and testimonies are quickly falling into the realm of ancient history. General knowledge regarding the Holocaust has already stared to decline. According to Lipstadt, a Gallup poll conducted during the 1990’s, to ascertain the public’s level of general knowledge regarding the events during the Holocaust, a whopping 38% adults and 24% high school students “incorrectly [explained] what is meant by ‘the Holocaust.’”

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The Gallup poll was taken during the 90’s, nearly twenty years ago; there is little doubt that the percentages of Holocaust ignorance will continue to increase. The real danger than becomes, as Lipstadt has implied, a growing assault on memory. Unfortunately, unless something changes in the way we educate, the natural inclination people have to deny the most heinous acts of humanity because of a general lack of historical knowledge, will allow Holocaust denial to grow more influential in the years to come. Our responsibility as our brother’s keeper is emphasized by Sir Ian Kershaw, a British historian on 20th century Germany, in his memorable phrase that “the road to Auschwitz was built by hatred, but paved with indifference.” Deborah Lipstadt brings us back to the issue of responsibility as keepers, both in our communities and in keeping historical memory relevant and accurate, in her statement that:

“Those of us who make scholarship our vocation and avocation dream of spending our time charting new paths, opening new vistas, and offering new perspectives on some aspect of the truth. We seek to discover, not to defend. We did not train in our respective fields in order to stand like watchmen and women on the Rhine. Yet this is what we must do. We do so in order to expose falsehood and hate. We will remain ever vigilant so that the most precious tools of our trade and our society – truth and reason – can prevail. The still, small voices of millions cry out to us from the ground demanding that we do no less.”

Unfortunately, according to historian Christopher Browning, “in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, [a world] in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization…modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts to induce ‘ordinary men’ to become willing executioners,” and unless, as Anne Frank has stated in her famous diary, “unless humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start over again.”

Sources:
Christopher Browning, “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland,” New York,      reissued 1998.
Carol Rittner, “Anne Frank in the World: Essays and Reflections,” New York, 1998.
Deborah Lipstadt, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” New York, 1994.
Eva Fogelman, “Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust,” New York, 1994.
Hannah Ardent, “Eichmann in Jerusalem,”  New York, 1963.
Jay Lifton, “The Nazi Doctors, Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide: This World is not This World,” Da Capo    Press, 1988.
Ronnie Landau, “The Nazi Holocaust,” Chicago, 2006.
Robert Abzug, “America Views the Holocaust (1933-45): a brief documentary history,” Bedford, 1999.
 
tommy1
Thomas S. Flowers writes character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore feasts to paranormal thrillers. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His veteran focused paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC.  In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served three tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews horror and sci fi movies and books and hosts a gambit of guest contributors who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow Thomas at a safe distance by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
 
 

Anne Frank in the World: a short narrative on why we should study the Holocaust

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Anne Frank states: “I can only stand and watch while other people suffer and die.” Reading these words from her world renowned diary begs the question: how we can imagine an idealistic world, a better world in spite of everything that had happened during the Holocaust? Knowing parts of the Holocaust (only parts because there are stories that will never be told; they were silenced and buried in the graves of six million people) how can we hold out for any hope of goodness in the heart of humanity? Have we become to jaded by all our mutilated histories to ever cling to the thought of being idealistic? Perhaps, despite the dreadful weight of so much suffering and death, we can look at another passage from Anne Frank’s diary, when she also stated: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Despite having to go into hiding in the Secret Annex, being forced out of school, restricted in every sense of the word just because she was Jewish, Anne Frank still held out that people were generally good at heart.

Now, we could argue and question, as author Victoria Barnett suggested in her “Reflections on Anne Frank,” if young Anne would have remained so idealistic had she survived Bergen-Belsen, or would her idealism have been crushed by the dark force of anti-Semitic legislation, carried out by the perpetrators and bystanders of the Third Reich. Perhaps she would have, like so many others have, including Georgette Schuler, a colleague of Barnett’s father who committed suicide some twenty years after surviving Auschwitz. It’s completely reasonable and expectant that Anne’s idealism would have been defeated by such scarred memory, had she survived. But she didn’t, Anne Frank died of typhoid at Bergen-Belsen one month shy of British liberation.

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Yet, something is still left to be said of Otto Franks decision, after being the only survivor of the Frank family and member of those in the Secret Annex, to piece together and publish his murdered daughters diary, namely, to what purpose could he have done such a thing. As Victoria Barnett inferred from the death of the first person she knew connected to the Holocaust, the aim of studying and teaching history is to keep memory alive. In regards to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive is to not give the Nazis the last word, to not give hatred and depravity the last word, but to give the faces of individuals like Anne the last word, because they are “not [just] ashes in Bergen-Belsen,” but voices calling from our past, intruding on the present. These six million Jews, and an additional other five-million (the lives of undesirables, such as: political prisoners, POW’s, homosexuals, Marxists, Gypsy’s, and even Christians), were much more than numbers and statistics, but people with faces, connected to this world, a flickering candlelight during a period turned topsy-turvy.

And their shared experience guides our own fate. We must be brave enough to ask ourselves: Can we move, as a species, beyond the hate that perpetuated the Holocaust? Perhaps not, the potential for hate seems to be something intrinsic to the shared human experience just as much as suffering is. But in the process of learning, recalling, and telling the stories and histories in context with those who call out to us from the grave and of those who survived, and of those who did something, and of those who did nothing, and even those we call perpetrators, we are keeping memory alive and relevant, and if we can do this, then perhaps Anne Frank’s idealism will find a place to grow, in the hearts of our children, and their children’s children; all the while, allowing the essence of a young fifteen-year-old girl’s idealism alive, the girl who clung desperately to the hope that good shall always prevail in the end.

Sources:

Carol Rittner, “Anne Frank in the World: Essays and Reflections,” Armonk, New York, 1998.


Holocaust Denial: a short narrative on the growing assault on truth and memory.

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Dr. Deborah Lipstadt’s famous work, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” is one of the most disturbing pieces I’ve read thus far connected with the history of the Holocaust.  The rhetoric of Holocaust deniers that she describes, in detail, is sinisterly reminiscent of Germany’s modus operandi concerning anti-Semitism during the Third Reich. At base, the commonalties are linked with “classic” beliefs regarding Jewry: worldwide Jewish conspiracy for economic control and a cold denial of the rational obvious. The denial seems to be, for those in the Third Reich, similar to reporting’s Joseph Goebbles had given about the deportation of European Jewry to concentration camps, which as stated by the Minister of Propaganda, not about annihilation, but “rehabilitation.”

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For the more modern denier, doubt has been cast over many different facets, such as: rejecting that there were six million Jews in Europe, the gas chamber itself, purpose (Zionist conspiracy), and perspective (dealing with “enemies” of the state) and so on. However, both for the Third Reich and for modern deniers, the denial itself is simply, at root, anti-Semitism masked behind the clever guise of pseudohistorical interpretation. Both those of the Third Reich and modern-day deniers brush aside the annihilation of six-million Jews simply because of an inherently human predisposition to deny our own capacity for horrendous acts. Instead of facing the truth, despite how difficult the facts are, deniers consciously reject the account as some far-fetched Zionist-tall-tale, because somehow conspiracies are much easier to accept then anything resembling the truth, which is: the Holocaust was real and six million Jews really did suffer and die, either by being rounded up and shot by the Einsatzgruppen or through selection, ushered into the crematoria, or by starvation and disease in the camps. Underneath, the deniers are “invective about Jewish power and influence and… [are convinced] that Jews have the most sinister intentions.”

Deborah Lipstadt

We could, of course, simply laugh away the claims deniers are making, for as students and teachers of history, their claims are so obviously ridiculous; however, we need to consider that we are now, as of 2013, two generations removed from the events of the Holocaust. The memory of survivors and first person testimony will soon fall into the realm of ancient history. General knowledge regarding the Holocaust has already stared to decline. According to Lipstadt, the Gallup poll conducted during the 1990’s, to ascertain the public’s general knowledge of the events that happened during the Holocaust, 38% adults and 24% high school students “incorrectly [explained] what is meant by ‘the Holocaust.’” This poll was taken during the 90’s, nearly twenty years ago; no doubt that the percentages of Holocaust ignorance have increased. The real danger than becomes, as Lipstadt’s title has implied, a growing assault on memory. Unfortunately, unless something changes in our educational standards, the way we educate, the natural inclination we have to deny the most heinous acts of man and the general lack of historical knowledge will allow Holocaust denial to grow more influential in the years to come. Deborah Lipstadt sums the issue best in saying:

“Those of us who make scholarship our vocation and avocation dream of spending our time charting new paths, opening new vistas, and offering new perspectives on some aspect of the truth. We seek to discover, not to defend. We did not train in our respective fields in order to stand like watchmen and women on the Rhine. Yet this is what we must do. We do so in order to expose falsehood and hate. We will remain ever vigilant so that the most precious tools of our trade and our society – truth and reason – can prevail. The still, small voices of millions cry out to us from the ground demanding that we do no less.”

Sources:

Deborah Lipstadt, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” Penguin Books       Ltd. January 1994.

tommy1

Thomas S. Flowers writes character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore feasts to paranormal thrillers. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His veteran focused paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served three tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews horror and sci fi movies and books and hosts a gambit of guest contributors who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow Thomas at a safe distance by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.


Monster, by no other name: Understanding the Holocaust (Victims, Survivors, & Perpetrators)

kabala

Are monsters real? Or are monsters simple myths, the unfortunate result when groups separate into differing cultural and communal groupings? But why monsters? Imagined monsters crawl from the closet when one group begins to see the “other” group, those on the outside, as subhuman, when one group begins to believe they are biologically dominate, the better; while the others, subservient. Consider the story of Moishe the Beadle, a Jewish mystic from the flourishing town of Sighet, Transylvania, who one day was rounded up and deported, along with other foreign Jews, into crowded cattle cars destined for an unknown location across the Hungarian border. As the trained pulled away, an unknown bystander sighed, “What do you expect? That’s war.” Moishe survived his deportation and told the story of the ones who didn’t make it back, how they were rushed off the train and into waiting trucks and brought into a dark forest, forced to dig impossibly deep trenches and then systematically shot, their bodies falling into the labored graves (Wiesel, Night pg. 6). Why did this happen? Was Moishe really an enemy or was he the victim of an irrational biological belief of speciation? Pseudospeciation, as we’ll call it, can develop into acts of dehumanization, discrimination, and eventually genocide, for those who do not fit into a ascribed notion of racial identity. Those on the fringe become monsters to those on the inside looking out. Monsters quickly become the enemy. Here, we’ll look at the stories and histories of victims, survivors, and their perpetrators, who lived by the noose of pseudospeciation in the hopes of better understanding why an otherwise civilized German society could produce acts of dispassionate cold brutality.

elie-wiesel

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald death camp survivor, when giving his acceptance speech, said regarding the Holocaust, it “defies literature…we think we are describing an event, we transmit only its reflection… Still, the story [has] to be told;” (Landau, pg.3) insomuch, as we honor the memory of the dead. The Nazi Holocaust is without a doubt, a convoluted subject, wrought with oodles of information and perspectives; however, no one yet has ever discovered a definitive answer as to why it happened. And no one ever should. There are no definitive causalities for genocide. Besides, who could really answer the “big question,” as to why an otherwise civilized German society that could produce beautiful minds, such as: Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, and Schumann, on the one hand, and merciless brutality on the other? Could one voice unequivocally speak for so much death? The very notion of claiming an answer for causalities seems malignant to the mutilated memory of the people who suffered and died by the hands of Nazi perpetrators. Perhaps the most honest objective we could approach the subject with, is not through definitive answers, but discovering inferred lessons instead of looking for an all-encompassing cause (Landau, pg.4).

Looking back on the history of the Holocaust, it would be fair to say that in 1933, when Hitler came to power, there was no reason to believe, or for that matter, anticipate, the final outcome in the annihilation of six-million Jews. Only, as author Ronnie Landau has stated, through the “luxurious logic of hindsight” could we have seen, as the saying goes, the writing on the wall (Landau, pg. 116). For this reason, something becomes explicit: The Holocaust wasn’t predictable. No one saw it coming. The Holocaust began slowly, through Nazi policies directed at depersonalizing European Jewry. These polices were built around pre-established anti-Semitism and an inferred belief in separation, especially among German Christians (the Jew and Gentile relationship). Hitler and his Nazi Party policies tediously laced their Volksgemeinschaft cake with deliberate poison through subtle conditioning and indoctrination, masterminded by the infamous Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Propaganda played a significant role in bringing millions of Germans together through popular fascist motifs, in such films as: S.A. Mann Brand (1933), Triumph of the Will (1935), Jew Süss (1940), Münchhausen (1943), and Kolberg (1945). In accordance with Nazi ideology, the function of Nazi education also included particular racial components, namely what to do regarding “The Jewish Question,” in a way that emphasized a path towards resolution that would strengthen and regenerate Germany in a post-Treaty of Versailles country. Hitler was able to use his natural pseud-charismatic character to place blame for Germany’s inequality on a common enemy. What began as a war against undesirables (mentally handicap, Gypsies, Polish, and all other none-German) , soon found its way to Hitler’s central target, the Jews (Berenbaum, pg.102); his veritable monster in the closet, his scapegoat for every pseudo-ascribed sin commented against Germany.

Rede Adolf Hitlers zum Ermächtigungsgesetz

On March 23, 1933, Hitler succeeded in gaining legislative control through the passing of the Enabling Act. By sheer domination and intimidation of opposing parties within the Reichstag, Hitler could now “pass laws and decrees without the consent of parliament” (Landau, The Nazi Holocaust, pg. 121). It is interesting to note how despite having democracy and parliamentary authority thrown to the curb, the majority of German citizens applauded Hitler. It would seem, for the German citizen during the Weimar Republic, the preference in having a charismatic and steadfast leader was much greater than the constant debate and indecisiveness typical during this period in German history. In a way, Hitler was able to twist the general public’s natural disdain for bureaucracy, into an avenue for creating a totalitarian state. There are, of course, other factors one must consider, but one thing is for certain: without the Enabling Act, Hitler would not have been able to carry Germany down the path leading to The Final Solution.

anne

The greatest tragedy ever told could only really be appreciated through the mussing of a young teenaged girl. Anne Frank belonged to a middle class household, liberal in their Jewish faith, typical for most European Jewry living in Germany at the time. In 1933, during the fallout of the Enabling Act, Otto Frank, Anne’s father, moved his family to Amsterdam, Netherlands, far away from the dangers in the heartland of Nazi anti-Semitism, or so he thought. On May 10, 1940, the Netherlands surrendered to an invading German Army and soon after, several anti-Jewish laws were passed and carried out. By 1942, the Franks could see the proverbial writing on the wall, and went into hiding. Anne notes in her famous diary the particular day her family went into the “Secret Annex,”  how on July 8, 1942, beginning with Sunday afternoon and leading to their eventual hiding, “Father…[had] received a call-up notice from the SS… I was stunned. A call-up: everyone knows what that means. Visions of concentration camps and lonely cells raced through my head… Silence. We couldn’t speak” (Frank, pg. 19).

When reading through Anne Frank’s work, it’s hard not becoming emotionally attached. For a thirteen year old girl, she was very aware of the realities around her, considering one of her more popular quotes from her diary: “Sympathy, love, fortune…we all have these qualities but still tend to not use them.” Her constant optimism and willingness for hard honesty in everything she wrote instills a since of longing for humanity; however, her notions optimism also begs the question: was this teenaged girl really a monster? Was she the enemy? Was she something worth fearing? On the morning of August 4, 1944, a little over two years since the Franks first went into hiding, the SS and Dutch Security Police “discovered” the Secret Annex and arrested Anne and the rest who called the back of 263 Prinsengracht road home. By early September, they were shipped away to Auschwitz. There, Anne Frank succumbed to symptoms of typhus in the overcrowded barracks of the concentration camp and died in March 1945; another story among countless victims of pseudospeciation, and the horrible process of dehumanization, discrimination, and genocide. Yet the question we must face remains: was Anne Frank a monster? Giving a definitive answer for how the völk of the Third Reich came to this realization, seeing innocents, such as Anne Frank or Moishe the Beadle, or even Elie Wiesel as the monsters might seem too ambiguous; however, perhaps we could come to some understanding through Europe’s precondition for anti-Semitism. According to Raul Hilberg, as sited by historian Ronnie Landau in his work, The Nazi Holocaust, “Since the fourth century after Christ, there have been three anti-Jewish polices: conversion, expulsion, and annihilation” (pg. 118). For the Nazis, conversion was no longer on the table, as they had already established how their ideology was based on a biological belief that Germanic blood was separate from European Jewry. If we are to follow Nazi ideology down the  rabbit hole, as described by Hilberg, we are faced with a very complex and troubling question: why didn’t the Nazis simply deport the Jews and other non-desirable’s instead of inching toward the next precarious step, The Final Solution?

evianconference

In July 1938, at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, representatives of thirty-two governments, including: twenty Latin American republics, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, and most of the western European states, England, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and Denmark came together at Evian, France, for a conference regarding the issue of Jewish refugees fleeing the intensification of anti-Jewish measures during Nazi occupied Germany (Landau, The Nazi Holocaust, pg. 137). Hitler himself responded to news of the Evian conference during his speech at Königsberg, stating: “…on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships” (pg. 137). However, despite the “liberal” intentions of the Western democracies, the Evian Conference failed when both the United States and England washed their hands and refused to take on any substantial number of Jewish refugees, thus ushering an “unmistakable message to the other nations assembled at Evian” (pg. 138). Shortly thereafter, a memorandum was drafted by the Evian Committee and sent to the German Foreign Office, basically stating that the German government had the right to introduce measures affecting its own subjects. One month later, during a cold night in November, anti-Semitic thugs throughout Germany roamed and pillaged in an “orgy of violence” (pg. 141), destroying and setting ablaze synagogues and Jewish establishments belonging to those they used to call neighbors and friends. History would eventually call this event, The Night of Kristallnacht, the night of Shattered Glass. The failure with the Evian Conference not only helped to restrict persecuted Jews who wished to flee this mayhem, but also helped “trigger a change in Nazi policy” (Landau, pg. 139), escalating the Third Reich down the path toward annihilation of the Jews.

kristallnacht

The shattered glass emphasized from the night of Kristallnacht is an excellent, albeit tragic, metaphor for through a glass, darkly, the mirror reflection Elie Wiesel witnessed after being liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp, when “from the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me” (Wiesel, Night, pg. 115). When the Western democracies slammed their doors, this was not in itself an excuse or the root cause of the eventual annihilation of the Jews; however, even Joseph Goebbels noted how, “Nobody wants the scum!” We must consider the implications the Evian Conference had concerning not only Germany, but also the world. If we can say that this Western Democratic failure did in fact contribute to the final outcome of the Holocaust, then we should be able to understand that as it became increasingly apparent that the Third Reich could no longer “remove” Jews from Germanic life, considering their pseudospeciation fervent belief, the extermination and  construction of industrialized killing camps was inevitable.

Following the memories of the victims and survivors of the holocaust, an insidious and unfathomable path from the Enabling Act to the 1933 boycott of Jewish shops and businesses, picket lines and shouts of “don’t buy from the Jews,” to the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service Act, the dismissal of non-Aryan civil servants, scientists, doctors, to further forms of cultural segregation and burning of “un-German” literature, fully separating non-Aryans from artistic, literary, and cultural public life, and also, the Defense Law, excluding Jews from military service, and the more idiosyncratic Nuremberg Laws, ending Jewish emancipation, marriage and sexual relations between Jews and those of Germanic blood, fully institutionalizing Nazi racism, leading to the selection and deportation of Jews to Ghettos, and finally ushering to the greatest crime committed against humanity, The Final Solution, the mass extermination of the Jews, we’re left with many deeply-seated questions (Landau, The Nazi Holocaust, pgs. 122-133). Understandable, one naturally reverts to the big questions of why. However, that is not our goal. We need to focus on the hows, the historical accounts of villainy and somehow find inferred lessons amidst such brutality. We shouldn’t ask why the German people made such a leap from civility to cold calculated brutality, but how. Was it the simple “basic idea [that in] practically every war mythology…the enemy is a monster and that in killing him one is protecting the only truly valuable order of human life on earth, which is…of one’s own people” (Erikson, pg.56)? If we are to understand how the Nazis saw European Jewry as the monster, we’ll need to, in some small way, understand the perpetrators, who in themselves were not likewise mythical creatures, but men and women, mostly blue and pink collar, middle class citizens, with, at least, the basic belief in the tenets of morality, such as: Thou Shalt Not Kill.

reservepolice101

One of the best examples of understanding the perpetrator is from looking at the history of Reserve Battalion 101, which was, consequently, made up of simple ordinary men who ended up committing horrible acts of violence. Most of these “average guys” signed up for the Reserve Battalion in the hopes of avoiding active duty in the regular army, yet, still found themselves on the eastern front, operating from the rear of the forward line, becoming Einsatzgruppen, Nazi mobile killing squads tasked with “liquidating” potential partisan fighters, communist politicians, and “all Russian Jews” (Landau, The Nazi Holocaust, pgs. 165-166). Historian Christopher Browning notes one possible explanation for the cold brutality of the Einsatzgruppen, despite having typical moral understandings and being separated from the hub of Nazi and SS indoctrination, these men were not:

 “…immune to ‘the influence of the times,’ to the incessant proclamation of German superiority and incitement of contempt and hatred for the Jewish enemy… In wartime, when it was all too usual to exclude the enemy from the community of human obligation, it was also all too easy to subsume the Jews into the image of the enemy…” (Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, pg.186).

roundup

The wartime mentality could give us some insight into some of the behaviorisms of the killing squads, perhaps even something much deeper, and something much more intuitive than moral obligation. Psychologist Stanley Milgram noted how obedience is one of the most basic structures of social life and is a huge determinant on behavior, particularly between, as history has shown us, 1933-45, considering how on command, millions of innocent persons were murdered, gas chambers constructed, concentration camps were organized and guarded, all with sinister efficiency (Milgram, pg.1).  Milgram further studied the phenomenon of obedience through a controlled, albeit controversial, laboratory experiment during the 1960’s dubbed, the Milgram Experiment. During the experiment subjects were tested on their willingness to obey the authority of instruction by performing acts that conflicted with their own personal conscience, basically giving differing levels of shock to an unknown party for answering any series of question incorrectly. The result yielded that 26 out of 40 subjects would abandon moral tenets in favor of following the authority of instruction (pg. 32).

As it seems, even against “choking tears” (Browning, pg.200), perpetrators were still willing to perform the “unpleasant” task of the annihilation of their victims; just as major Trapp had commented to his men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, “’orders were orders,’ and had to be carried out” (pg. 201). Orders and obedience were not just a familiarity for the soldiers and police battalions. Josef Mengle, the Auschwitz angel of death, an SS doctor, also “believed orders had to be executed” (Lifton, pg.375) without hesitation or question. Yet, there was a strangeness about Mengle different from the others. Mengle, according to some of his colleagues, was affectionate and nurturing towards the children he experimented on and was also often pleasant and knowledgeable, which seems to contradict our caricature of mythic murderers and cold brutes. However, as Dr. Alexander O points out, Mengle “had all the sentimental motions, all the human feelings, pity, and so on. But there was in his psyche a…impenetrable, indestructible cell, which is obedience to the received order” (Lifton pg.375). Dr. O goes on to describe how Mengle would save the life of a drowning gypsy and then, just as quick, send them off to the crematoria.  Mengle was not only followed orders, being obedient, but he also fervently believed in the biocractic ideology of Nazi pseudospeciation. Perpetrators such as Mengle, Eichmann, and even Rudolph Höss, the SS Kommandant of Auschwitz, were true believers in the Final Solution, insomuch, as to even consider the gas chambers a “humane” end for the Jews (Arendt, pg.234).

final solutioon

There could be no possible or true way to explain, with any absolute certainty as to why or how the perpetrators of the Third Reich reached the cataclysmic and tragic conclusion with the end of so many lives during The Final Solution. Some form of how can be understood from the historical accounts, especially with the political environment, laws and separation of the Jews from Germanic life, and anti-Semitism left over from Weimar era; which was to say, rampant during the time. We could also see how Nazi pseudospeciation turned European Jewry into something hideous, monsters by no other name, for those on the inside looking out into a dreadful world of inequality, with few truths and plenty of subjective answers. But we’ll never find definitive legitimacy for why the Holocaust happened, why the Nazis did what they did, because it simply cannot exist. We can only find inferred lessons to bring with us into the modern world. Historian Neil Kressel notes in his work, Mass Hate, how “people everywhere tend to think in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and to prefer their own group…even the most tolerant people sometimes rely on simplistic stereotypes” (Kressel, pg.213). And, it is troubling how, just as Dr. Milgram proved with his experiments during the 1960’s, a majority of everyday people seem ready to obey authorities, conforming to the ideologies of their peer groups. What is even more alarming is how in “climates where decency prevails, haters often suppress their hatred; similarly, in hateful climates, relatively decent people sometimes participate in brutal and destructive acts of mass hatred” (Kressel, pg.183). Being aware of our social climate and being objective in what we hear around us could help keep the tide of pseudospeciation from suffocating our cultural identity, insomuch, as we remember, that even when we separate into natural social groupings, one group is no better than the other. Even more important, for future generations, is to keep memory alive and relevant, especially the mutilated memory of the Holocaust.

 


WWZ: DVD first screening review

Where does one begin with such a convoluted movie? Especially when said reviewer swore he’d never watch it, or at least refused to watch it in theaters. Be that as it may, I knew i’d eventually screen the DVD once it was released to Red-box or some other rental avenue; I wasn’t going to purchase the thing, and thank Valhalla for that. As it seems, the criticisms I had before watching the movie (only seeing the previews) were replaced with other criticisms. But not everything regarding World War Z is horrible, while watching this popcorn flick, there were moments of real enjoyment. So, lets get to the nitty-gritty and find what made WWZ good, and what made WWZ not so good.

Ignoring the traditional chronological review format, lets tackle this beast one issue at a time. First, the overwhelming reason I swore up and down i’d never spend my hard earned dough on seeing this “zombie” movie in theaters: Zombie Ants and CGI. CGI, as we’ve discussed on this site before, has its place in cinema. Sci-fi movies are a good place to put good moments of CGI action; not horror movies. Horror, in my humble opinion, should remain traditional, but then again, is WWZ a horror movie? The PG-13 rating bothers me. Granted, some really good horror can be done on a PG-13 MPAA rating, consider: InsidiousDrag Me to Hell, 1408The Sixth Sense, and The Possession as just a few examples. But this is a zombie movie. Can you name one zombie movie with a PG-13 rating?

The fact that no one else has made a PG-13 zombie movie isn’t the point. The point is that we’re talking about a zombie movie, plain and simple, and zombie movies require a certain quantity of gore. There were plenty of moment where I found myself expecting for something bloody to happen, such as: the entire movie…and also anytime someone was bitten or how about when Gerry chops (more like swipes, though) off Segen’s hand. Did you notice how she didn’t even bleed!! I’m sorry, you hack someones appendage with a bayonet, there will be blood…lots and lots of blood. Prime-time television has more blood and guts then this movie did. Consider the Walking Dead; granted, The Walking Dead is rated (somehow) PG-14, but still. The point is, couldn’t producers muster up a little more gore without tripping into a R-rating? And the even more pressing point: Zombie movies shouldn’t even be done on a PG-13 rating. All you get is disappointment. Sure, there might be something wrong with us zombie horror fans, but we’ve been messed up for a long time, no need in changing the formula now.

As for CGI, my opinion on the matter has changed somewhat. It would seem near impossible, budget wise, to have scenes showing the zombie apocalypse on a global scale without the use of some CGI clips. Notice the two highlighted words there? Some and clips are key components on keeping CGI from going King Kong. Not that i’m a huge fan of the whole zombie ants thing, but those moments could have been better if only they had cut the screen times short a little. And since we’re on the subject of zombie ants: what genius marketed this movie based solely on those moments from the movie? Igits! Had they shown some of the other scenes without the mindless rage monsters piling on top of each other and knocking over buses, then maybe (big maybe) I would have seen the movie in theaters. There is an actual chance I might see the sequel (whenever that comes out!) because WWZ wasn’t all that bad. Here are some of the parts that I found to be good:

  • When the movie cuts to the main protagonist, Gerry, there is a delay before his kids run into the bedroom. In my opinion, this was a nod to the Dawn of the Dead 2004 remake.
  • The doomed apartment rooftop escape reminded me of the Left 4 Dead level, Mercy.
  • The beginning of the film highlighted the essential element in zombie story telling: panicking people doing bad things.
  • Theme of ignorance until its too late. Pay attention to the conversation between Gerry and Jurgen Warmbrunn, the Director of Mossad. Warmbrunn mentions the Nazi Holocaust and how a majority of European Jewry refused to believe that concentration camps were possible, that there was no way Hitler would do such a thing; until by 1940 the SS began to round folks up on transports. I’m currently taking a Holocaust class and found this tidbit regarding human denial interesting.
  • And then there’s this guy, who so happens to be a doctor working for W.H.O. See what I did there? Was this some bizarre easter egg or just happenstance? WWZthedoctor

Bottom Line: The movie wasn’t as horrible as I originally thought. But, for a movie claiming to be a zombie flick, there was still a lot of let down. It’d be hard to pull off a good zombie movie on a PG-13 rating, though its not impossible. I’m not sure how the MPAA works, but i’m curious if they can up the ante by pushing for a PG-14 rating like The Walking Dead? Just saying, the whole severed hand and zero blood is still bugging me. And then again, the big issue with WWZ is that we cannot approach it with a Romero lens. WWZ is more akin to 28 Days Later and if looked at in that respect, it was a decent “zombie” plague movie, especially from a global perspective. If you missed WWZ in theaters, like me, go out and rent it; I still wouldn’t recommend buying it.


North Korean Death Camps…opps, did I say death camps? I meant happy labor camps…where nothing bad ever happens.

“Labor camps? We have no such thing,” claim North Korean officials. However, on March 21, 2013, U.N. Human Rights Council launched a one year inquiry that will collect evidence based on eye witness testimony from the estimated 278 defectors of North Korea now living in either South Korea, Japan, or the Philippians. Most of these testimonies have been collected from actual labor camp escapees. Sordid tales of gross human rights violations have been told from defectors since the 90’s, yet suddenly the world is taking notice? According to CNN, “the council’s decision to take action on [reports] comes amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula following the North’s latest underground nuclear test last month that prompted tougher U.N. sanctions on the regime of Kim Jong Un.” It would seem, there are many reasons we should be concerned about what kinds of actions young Un would take. According to So Se Pyong, the North Korean U.N. representative, the resolution on the issue of human rights violations are “no more than an instrument that serves the political purposes of the hostile forces [attempting] to discredit the image of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea,” and warned the U.N. that there will be “serious consequences” if the investigation went any further. (You can read the U.N. report here.) Yet, with an estimated 200,000 N. Korean gulag-esk prisoners, can we really afford to ignore the issue of human rights violations anymore, especially against such obscure threats?

Kim Jong Un

Gerard Corr, an Irish representative in the U.N., spoke on behalf of the European Union, stating that, “For too long, the population of the [North Korean] country has been subjected to widespread and systematic human rights violations and abuses,” yet we hardly ever hear about such violations. Labor camps never stay for long in mainstream media. Only recently has North Korea garnered enough widespread attention, with random threats of missile strikes, [UPDATE] or assassinated uncles of the Kim Jong dynasty (who so happened to also be second in command of DPRK forces), to bring the focus back on the people who actually live there. As more and more defectors come forward, the more information will be revealed about what Kim Jong Un is really doing behind his iron curtain. One such testimony is the story of Shin Dong-hyuk.

Shin Dong-hyuk

Consider Shin, now thirty, who is the only defector known to have been born inside a North Korean labor camp and escape. Until the age of twenty-two, the only world Shin knew, according to the Washington Post, was inside the “electrified fences, where inmates tended pigs, tanned leather, collected firewood and labored in mines until they died or were executed.” After escaping in 2005, Shin’s account puts a human face on the secretive horrors going on in North Korea’s labor camps; a brutal system that has been going on longer than any of Stalin’s or Hitler’s concentration camps ever did. In an interview, Shin laments that “the existence of prison camps in the North should be known to the people around the world. There are some people born and raised as an animal in North Korea. I have to explain that to everyone.”

Released back in 2012, journalist Blain Harden captured Shin’s story in the book, Escape from Camp 14. The most horrifying and heartbreaking account from Shin’s story comes from his account of his mother and brother. When Shin was thirteen years old, he overheard his mother planning an escape. Without hesitation, Shin reported to the guards everything his mother was planning to do and watched as she and his brother were dragged off. At the time, Shin believed they deserved to die for their treachery. Shin also thought he might be rewarded a full meal for his allegiance. Instead, after watching his mother hanged and brother shot by a firing squad, he reports “I was taken to a chamber full of torture instruments.” Inside the torture chamber, after being stripped of his clothing, Shin was restrained and hung by his hands and legs from the ceiling. A charcoal fire was brought in and placed underneath Shin’s back. Today, crisscrossing Shin’s body are terrible burn scars left from his “interrogation,” and from other wounds from a life inside a North Korean labor camp. The last scars Shin took were from his eventual escape, as he crawled over the burning body of another escapee who had died navigating an electrified fence.

labor camps

Shin’s betrayal of his own mother may seem extreme to those hearing his testimony, but in an interview with Anderson Cooper, Shin confessed that he never knew, still doesn’t, of what love is. Shin was born into a system of reward marriages given to prisoners who worked hard and were allowed, during certain periods, to have sex. Shin does not know if it was a consensual “reward” marriage. From Shin’s perspective, being born inside the camp, his family was not a real family, they were just prisoners. “You wear what you’re given, you eat what you’re given, and you do only what you’re told to do, so there is nothing the parents can do for their children, and there is nothing the children can do for their parents.” Shin’s mutilated “inheritance” is part of the three generations of punishment; a linage that began with the imprisonment of his grandfather and father, each sent to live and die inside camp 14. Kim Jong Sung, North Korea’s first dictator, instituted this “three-generations” of punishment back in the 1950’s in order to remove the revolutionist spirit that fought against the newly established Kim Jong regime. According to David Hawk, a leading human rights investigator, the largest number of people being held inside North Korea’s labor camps are children and grandchildren born from “wrong doers and wrong thinkers.” A majority of prisoners in labor camps are guilty of no crime, but are being kept simply because the policies of North Korea fervently believe that the  “sins of the father” are a justifiable reason to punish generations of the same linage…creating essentially a biocratic political system.

This, of course, stinks of a similar string in historical memory…

…and begs the question: how in a post WWII world, a post Khmer Rouge world, a post Darfur world, can North Korea have this kind of labor/death camp practice?

…but this line of questioning begs an even more problematic and convoluted question: should we take action?

staged production in Theresienstadt

Consider a lesser known story in history, called simply, “The Führer gives a city to the Jews.” In this story, as the world began to first hear tales and rumors of Nazi concentration camps, the Third Reich decided to put on a demonstration for Red Cross investigators. In the days before the U.N. existed, the Red Cross stood alone and Hitler gave them special permission to come and see how they were “really” treating the Jews. Lasting from 1941 through 1945, Theresienstadt, located in modern Czech, was a transit/labor camp for Czech, German, and Austrian Jews before heading to their final destination, Auschwitz. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum database:

Theresienstadt served an important propaganda function for the Germans. The publicly stated purpose for the deportation of the Jews from Germany was their ‘resettlement to the east,’ where they would be compelled to perform forced labor. Since it seemed implausible that elderly Jews could be used for forced labor, the Nazis used the Theresienstadt ghetto to hide the nature of the deportations. In Nazi propaganda, Theresienstadt was cynically described as a ‘spa town’ where elderly German Jews could ‘retire’ in safety. The deportations to Theresienstadt were, however, part of the Nazi strategy of deception. The ghetto was in reality a collection center for deportations to ghettos and killing centers in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe.”

detainees smile for the red cross

The Führer permitted the International Red Cross to visit Theresienstadt on June 1944. In an effort to mask the true propose of Theresienstadt, the Nazis intensified deportations from the ghetto shortly before the visit, and the ghetto itself was “beautified,” by the Jews living there. Gardens were planted, houses painted, and barracks renovated. Special events were also staged to give the impression that the rumors concerning the Nazi subjugation and annihilation of European Jewry were not true. Their efforts paid off. After a five-hour visit, the Red Cross inspectors gave Theresienstadt a glowing thumbs up and declared that they did not require to inspect any other concentration camps in Nazi occupied territory. They did note however that Theresienstadt seemed to be a bit overcrowded and the people had a certain look about them.

After the Red Cross visit, the S.S. and the Nazi propaganda machine (Joseph Goebbels) decided, fearing a return inspection, to use Theresienstadt as a stage for a mock-documentary in the hopes of tricking both to the Red Cross and the German mainstream. The film is known only today in bits and pieces as “The Führer gives a city to the Jews.” The S.S. forced renowned filmmaker Kurt Gerron into filming their documentary. During the months of August and September 1944, under heavy surveillance, Gerron filmed staged scenes of so-called “normal” life in the “Jewish settlement.” The movie was edited without the director, whom after finishing, was sent to Birkenau (death camp also known as Auschwitz II), where he was murdered in a gas chamber. Over 30,000 people died in Theresienstadt, and an untold number were sent off to killing camps. Of those who passed through Theresienstadt, are an estimated 15,000 children. Approximately 90 percent of these children later perished in death camps. Above the gates of Nazi labor/death camps were the words, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” work makes one free.

"work makes one free"

According to the Huffington Post, “North Korea [still] denies the existence of labor camps and activists do not expect [them] to cooperate with the investigation, [after] having denounced it during a U.N. Human Rights Council debate.” However, the U.N. team selected to investigate these horror testimonies of the labor camps, will not be deterred by the North’s refusal to cooperate. The investigation is set to begin in the early weeks of July and run throughout the year, methodologically consulting with as many witnesses and victims as possible. According to certain diplomats concerning the new inquiry into North Korea’s heinous practices with the labor camps and totalitarian state, that the Kim Jong dynasty has been given a clear message that the international community are not only just paying attention to the North’s actions with banned nuclear and ballistic missile programs, but now also with how they are treating their own people. This begs the question though: just what will actually come of their investigations? Will the U.N. take action against North Korea if enough evidence is considered viable? Will the U.S. take action?

Obviously, today we know now what really happened inside Nazi camps. Yet, somehow, the same darkness continues. Inside the borders of North Korea, right now, people are suffering and dying from the harsh and undignified realities of life in labor camps. And not just adults, criminals, or political dissenters, but also children. According to the Huffington Post, the recent U.N. inquiry “is due to file an interim report by September, with a final report due by March next year [2014].” Until then, we are left to ponder how many tales, like those of Shin Dong-hyuk’s, will surface. And when they do, what are we willing, if anything, to do about it?

Update: 7/16/17. According to the Washington Post, “Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean prison camp survivor who has become the symbol of human rights injustices suffered in that country, has changed key parts of the story of his ordeal.” Those “key parts” being of course dates and locations. The ordeal and torture Shin had endured remain fact, the evidence read from the road map of burn scars covering his lower back and legs, not to mention his bowed arms, evidence in itself of child labor. According to the Washington Post, “North Korea has already tried to dismiss Shin’s story and assassinate his character. Last fall, amid mounting calls to refer North Korea’s leaders to the International Criminal Court, the regime released a video titled ‘Lie and Truth,’ in which Shin’s father says that his son never lived in a political prison camp and that his testimony is false.” So who is telling the truth? I think History shows us the lengths political bodies will go to cover the truth of their sins.

tommy1

Thomas S. Flowers writes character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore feasts to paranormal thrillers. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His veteran focused paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served three tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews horror and sci fi movies and books and hosts a gambit of guest contributors who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow Thomas at a safe distance by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.