Thursday, 3 July 2014

Don't Mention the War

Last night, for once, I did not turn off that most annoying of BBC Radio 4 programmes, The Moral Maze, because I knew there was to be a discussion of the morality or otherwise of publishing Hitler's Mein Kampf when it comes out of copyright next year.  I wanted to hear the opinions of any German "witnesses" (should they manage to get a word in edgeways), as it might be that the era of German self-censorship over the Nazi period is drawing to a natural close.  As a professional believer in freedom of information, although I can understand the need to make symbolic gestures of atonement (which is what the Mein Kampf ban amounts to), I find it hard to accept the argument that the poisonous ravings of deluded people should be permanently (and enticingly) locked out of harm's way.  It's all too reminiscent of the patrician arguments advanced in the Lady Chatterley trial --  would you wish your wife or servants to read this book?

In the process of doing a little research before setting out on my recent Martian expedition into Austria, I was surprised to learn that the USAF and RAF had bombed Innsbruck 22 times towards the end of WW2.  If this seems surprising, the city's position at an important strategic crossroads, particularly for rail traffic, needs to be remembered.  Once the Allies had a foothold in Italy, Innsbruck came within reach, and the flow of rail traffic between Germany and Italy could be disrupted.  Bombing is an indiscriminate business, however.  As well as the all-important rail marshalling-yards, over 60% of Innsbruck's buildings suffered bomb damage, including the destruction of historic buildings like the 13th century Bartholom√§uskapelle; 461 people were killed.

It would be nice to say this destruction was aimed, even in part, at disrupting the transport of Jews, gypsies and forced labourers out of southern Europe, but this was not the case.  It has been well established that the Allied leadership chose either to ignore, or not to believe, or to give a low military priority to the stories of systematized atrocity coming out of Nazi-occupied Europe.  The Holocaust is a tragic story with very few heroes.

In Germany and Austria, the subject of the War and the preceding Nazi period is not a comfortable topic of conversation, even today.  It's a problem with a very German word to describe it: Vergangenheitsbew√§ltigung ("a struggle to come to terms with the past").  It is often said that Austria was declared after 1945 to have been one of the first "victims" of Nazi aggression, following the Anschluss of 1938, and thus was not required to undergo the same rigorous denazification process imposed on German public life.  This is not true, strictly speaking, though the reluctance to return confiscated Jewish property (read The Hare with Amber Eyes) plus the fact that the likes of Adolf Eichmann escaped justice using "ratlines" set up by the Austrian bishop Alois Hudal might paint a different picture.

It's an interesting question, though -- and one I am not qualified to answer -- whether the extreme racist right has been discouraged in either Austria or Germany by the imposition of denazification laws that make the open expression of Nazi sympathies or the displaying of Nazi flags and insignia a criminal offence.  As with Mein Kampf, I suspect this is essentially a symbolic ban, one that may serve a more useful purpose in the national psyche than in practical politics.  Though one does have to wonder about the need.  Kurt Waldheim may have drawn a veil over his military service in WW2 -- ill-advised, perhaps, but who wouldn't? -- but could never be accused of fascist tendencies when Secretary-General of the United Nations, and I strongly doubt that this was merely because he was prevented from wearing a nostalgic swastika in his lapel.  Careerists are rarely ideologues.  After all, if things had gone differently, British members of Bomber Command might easily have found themselves in a similarly compromised position in a post-war world.*

In fact, the most noticeable effect of this blanket ban on symbols may not be political at all, but seen in the absence in the museums and galleries that I visited of any art or objects from that "unspeakable" episode in the past, which I assume is not entirely due to aesthetic judgements.  In the excellent State Museum, or Ferdinandeum, for example, some pretty awful but representative art is on display from most periods, but I could find only a single example of art from the Nazi period: a tiny, graphical piece showing a portrait of Hitler, intended as a poster for a Nuremberg rally.  This is to be regretted, I think, and is a real distortion of historical reality. If nothing else, Nazi propagandists, like those in Soviet Russia, had a real flair for modernist graphic design that deserves to be seen, even if heavily-insulated by suitable "interpretation"; and let's not forget that the VW beetle and the Leica camera are examples of Nazi-inspired industrial design.

But, at this point in history, it is we Britons who need to take serious stock. We have become too used to casting ourselves as history's Good Guys.  Europeans used, grudgingly, to agree.  But it was instructive to hear from my new Austrian friends how Iraq and Aghanistan have changed all that: we are in grave danger of being seen as -- no, becoming -- the biddable attack-dog of an overweening American Empire.

It is ridiculous to imagine that "we" have essential qualities that inoculate us, on our crowded little island, against outbreaks of totalitarian folly, whereas "they" over the Channel are flawed in ways that make them eternally susceptible, to the extent that merely to have permission to read Hitler's anti-semitic ravings might well set them off down that dismal road again.  The "Little Englander" anti-European mentality as typified by UKIP is, at bottom, a delusional attempt to recover and hold on to the purity of this flattering distinction between "us" and "them", primarily by refusing further contamination of "our" culture by foreigners, and by assigning our economic decline to their baleful influence.  Sound familiar?  May history preserve us from such advocates of imaginary purity.

In the words of the blog-poem by Michael Rosen I quoted a few weeks ago:

"I sometimes fear that
people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress
worn by grotesques and monsters
as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.

Fascism arrives as your friend.
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you...

It doesn't walk in saying,
"Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution."

UPDATE 7/7/2014:    I've just seen this Rolling Stone article linked on Arts & Letters Daily.  Interesting, if worrying, confirmation, or just straws in the wind?

* The protestation that "I was only obeying orders" is often mocked as a typically authoritarian response, and no excuse at all for one's actions.  I wonder what alternative line of defense the bomber crews that destroyed Dresden would have taken, if brought to trial?  Obeying orders is what the military is all about.

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