19 August 2005

Holocausts, large and small

In a piece (Strange Dreams) loosely linked to my Foot's Trolley post of 27 July, Jim talks (amongst many other things) of a military cohort who are silent when one of their number harms another:

«I compared them to the German populace who did very little or nothing to stop what they knew was wrong during the Holocaust. ... ... ... Was my comparison accurate? Possibly not, but I believe it is.»

I have a lot of instinctive responses to that; they come in a blizzard from which it's hard to pick out detail. I'll content myself with two strands.

One strand: I do believe that the comparison is valid in its own terms.

To keep quiet, to look away, to allow evil to prevail, because we are in some way afraid, is something we all do – every day. And it is something which always, however large or small, compares to every other – including the holocaust. Yes, the comparison is valid.

There are also other comparisons though. Perhaps we should also think about other frightening aspects of the Nazi state. That state didn't only carry out the Holocaust. It also, for example, encouraged a denunciation culture in which child was encouraged to inform on parents, neighbour on neighbour, colleague on colleague, spouse on spouse. Many grudges were settled that way ... but we should remember that there were also countless examples of people who here, too, kept quiet – who knew that their colleague, neighbour, lover was a Jew, a Gypsy, a homosexual, a trade unionist, a draft evader, but kept quiet about it even at risk to themselves. Some kept silent and helped, which was more dangerous still.

We are taught the value of that second type of silence from birth. Nobody likes a sneak, we are told. A telltale is a pariah in the playground. The whistle blower faces a bleak future however much society benefits from the revelation of corporate wrongdoing. Do we avoid being a sneak or telltale from moral strength, or from fear of peer condemnation? For myself, I wouldn't like to try and disentangle that one. Under which category should we classify Jim's silent soldiers? Cowardly failure in the face of evil, or courageous refusal to denounce? Or, more morally grey and complicated, file it uneasily under a mixture of both? I am not suggesting that Jim's question should not be asked – only that I find myself waist deep in sticky mud when I try to answer it for myself. Perhaps that is why it has taken me more than three weeks to make this messy, inconclusive, ultimately useless attempt at a reply. This is one of those cases where, as so often, the question is much more important than the answers – and the moral exploration which it triggers is most important of all.

Second strand, leaving Jim's specifics behind: why, eighty years after it first raised its head and sixty after it finally fell, do we (and that includes me) still evoke the Nazi Holocaust as our standard model of evil?

What Hannah Arendt called "the bureaucratisation of homicide" and "the banality of evil" were not unique to Nazi Germany. They are with us still, all the time, in large canvas and small cameo.

Every day, we go about our lives and push to the back of our mind the fact that people are dying in other places at the hand of our governments, or their clients, or their allies. Or even at the hands of our enemies – remembering that conspiracy of silence over the treatment of minorities in Germany extended to Britain, the US, and the rest of the world, not just to the German populace.

Every day, we go about our lives and push to the back of our mind the fact that people are dying or living in misery closer to home as well – in our cities the homeless, the drug addicted, the lonely are for most of the time invisible to us.

Nor was the Holocaust as spectacularly visible at the time as it now is to us through the retrospective spectacles of everything from philosophy to Hollywood. We cannot say the same of modern holocausts in the age of radio, television and world wide web. Just over a decade ago, we saw the Rwandan genocide and we compared it to the German holocaust. Why is that we do not now feel the same reflex to compare things with Rwanda? Why is a genocide before most of us can remember so much more in our minds than one in our fairly recent past?

We are not strangers to the denunciation culture, either. This is a fairly recurrent historical phenomenon; we can find it over and over again, from the Persian Empire to Inquisition era Europe to take just two examples. Stalin's was hidden behind an iron curtain and Western propaganda, but it was bigger and more extensive than Hitler ever achieved. The west had its own homegrown example in McCarthyism. But it is alive and well in small mean ways as well. I have within the past few years seen a humane CEO brought down by his deputy. The deputy accumulated a dossier of small mistakes, small compassionate cases of bending the organisation's personnel rules, small allegations that could not be proved or disproved. The manager faced a prolonged inquiry, ending in simultaneous breakdown and dismissal; the deputy stepped temporarily into his shoes, used the new position to feather his own nest much more cynically, then disappeared to a more powerful position in another organisation; the organisation itself went into three years of crisis and decline from which it has yet to fully recover.

The usual reply to all of this is that a few thousand homeless drug addicts dying of cold on our streets, or workplace betrayals, or the silence of potential whistle blowers, cannot possibly be compared to the murder of millions, or a whole society spying on itself, or a whole society which keeps quiet about both. And yet ... even if we accept for the moment that is true (I'm not, myself, convinced; like Jim with his recruits, I do not see that scale in itself undermines equivalence) then ... shouldn't the courage required to confront these smaller situations also comparably less – and the failure to find it more reprehensible?

No comments: