Painted in 1912. If not for the Great War, Hitler might have spent his life painting houses and selling nice little watercolors like this in the park on Sundays. It would have been a comfortable living, and no one would ever have known who he was but his friends, family and the people who paid him a few kroner for his pretty paintings. He’d be as lost to history as the rest of us, and the world on its even arc would be absolutely unrecognizable to us now.
Watching RT, it’s obvious that today’s protests scared the hell out of Russia’s political elite. Hence the reporting that the US was torn apart by violence and rage today, and the vile mainstream media is conspiring to attack Trump and insult his voters. It’s been said that Putin is absolutely terrified of revolution, and the thought of vast street protests in Moscow is his personal nightmare. You can only imagine what he imagined watching the news from America (not to mention across Europe) today. Should the same virus emerge in Russia, who knows what could happen. Putin was stationed in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell, and he saw that regime dissolve around him, and once powerful people jailed, and illicit wealth seized. And he remembers what happened that year in Romania, too, when they shot down Ceaușescu and Mrs. Ceaușescu like dogs. It was on Christmas day. The officer in charge roughly tied their hands behind their backs as Mrs. Ceaușescu screamed you motherfuckers in Romanian and Ceaușescu attempted the Internationale. The firing squad shot them to pieces, 120 bullets were found in the bodies. There’s video, Mr. and Mrs Ceaușescu in the dirt riddled with bullets, twitching lifelessly as the final volley hit home. The footage was played and replayed endlessly on the news in 1989. You have to wonder how many times Putin saw it. No one really knows just how solid Putin’s political position is right now, but when change does come in Russia it’s like an avalanche.
Here’s a fact about Australia that many Australians are loathe to admit–it is a monarchy. It really is, hip, modern, swinging Australia. It is officially The Monarchy of Australia and Queen Elizabeth is the head of state. The Queen of Australia, even. Indeed, when we deign to visit, she might say, one addresses us as The Queen of Australia, and does not address us the Queen of the United Kingdom. Then she’d wave her little queen wave and, if Australian, you’d feel honored. Honoured.
Officially she is “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth”, but not as defender of the Faith which Australians, in a fit of ecumenical pique, lopped off. (If she pops over to Auckland afterward she is both Queen of New Zealand and Defender of the Faith, while in grammatically tortured Canada she is “of the United Kingdom, Canada and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen” and Defender of the Faith. That last line must go over big in Montreal.) Her royal presence permeates much of Australian officialdom. In court cases where in this country we say the People vs so and so, in Australia they say the Queen vs so and so (and the prosecutors are “the Crown”, though I don’t believe they wear those ridiculous wigs, if the court scene in The Last Wave was accurate.) Government controlled lands–governmental buildings, military bases, national parks, aboriginal reservations–are crown properties. Oaths of allegiance for, say, parliament, are typically to the queen. When you became an Australian citizen you used to swear allegiance to the queen, but they changed that some time ago, and now you swear allegiance to Australia…but the Australian High Court has since ruled that as Australia is a monarchy, swearing allegiance to Australia means swearing allegiance to the queen. It’s complicated.
The queen is physically and constitutionally represented in Australia by her own appointed Governor-General, who officially is the head of state (seriously, he is), meets foreign heads of state as the head of state of Australia, and actually has some constitutional powers, most of which can prevent democratic measures–elections, appointments, bills, the parliament itself–when the monarchy finds them distasteful. There are also queen appointed governors in each of Australia’s six state governments, with even more constitutional powers under the separate state constitutions than the governor-general has under the federal constitution. The queen is represented in Australia’s territories by the Governor-General himself, which even includes the Australian Capital Territory (with the capital city Canberra) itself. Even territories as small as Norfolk Island (thirteen square miles, two thousand or so people) are governed in conjunction with the crown. One wonders just where Australian independence and sovereignty begins and that of England ends, or if such a distinction is even possible. Because is in theory each of Australia’s elected parliaments serves at the pleasure of the queen, and can, in theory, be dismissed by the queen. Democracy in Australia is, in theory at least, a quite limited concept. It’s not like the queen is some vague, titular figure far away. She is, in name and by the constitution, present in virtually everything governmental in Australia. You pay the queen’s taxes (though not for her upkeep in England). You vote for the queen’s representatives in parliament. You pet the queen’s baby kangaroos in the queen’s wildlife preserves. By definition, everything public is the domain of the queen. In day to day reality, no. No one thinks that is the queen’s baby kangaroo. And the taxes to straight to Canberra, not London. But in constitutional theory, though, as a monarchy, everything is the queen’s domain. Her website lists Australia as one of her realms.
The Australian voters share power with the monarchy, and while the monarchy can’t vote on anything, it does have veto power. It can (and does) also appoint officials and ambassadors, and create governmental departments. It can (but isn’t likely to) control Australia’s military and declare war. The monarchy uses its powers sparingly, but not always. Indeed, in 1975, the Governor-General removed the democratically elected Labour prime minister and his government and replaced him with the losing conservative candidate more to the Crown’s liking. Talk about a stink. The Australians, though, loyally consented. Irishmen they are not. Then in 1999, a referendum to dispose of the monarchy and declare Australia a parliamentary republic was decisively defeated. The Australians love their queen.
I’m only pointing this out because an Australian was up on his high horse and trashing me for being a stupid fucking American from a from a stupid, fucked up country. I didn’t disagree on the merits of his arguments–he certainly had some–all I did was point out that he, like all Her loyal Australian subjects, has to constitutionally kiss Queen Elizabeth’s ass. It was a cheap shot, sure, but I was in a corner. What does that have to do with anything, he demanded. Well, when you grow up and become a republic like the rest of us, I said, then we’ll talk. Fuck off, he said, and unfriended me.
This works with Canadians, too. With French Canadians, not so much.
(I’m not so sure about this one…Held onto it a few months. Then figured what the hell. So here it is….)
I’ve just been reading one sad article after another about Israel and Gaza and Palestine and murders and retaliation and things blowing up. And I’m thinking again how none of this would be happening if it hadn’t been for Gavrilo Princip and his little gun. It was a warm summer day in Sarajevo a century ago. He came out of nowhere, fired twice, killed the heir to the Hapsburg Empire and his loving wife died too. They died in each others arms.
The police grabbed Princip. He was tried, found guilty and sentenced to the maximum sentence of twenty years. There was no death penalty in Austria-Hungary for those under twenty one. Not even for regicide. He died of tuberculosis in his cell within a couple years. No matter, he was no longer any importance, none whatsoever. He never did get to see how his war came out. He just rotted his life away (literally, his tubercular bones were disintegrating) completely forgotten as the world came down all around him. He had some regrets. There are interview transcripts. He said if he’d known all this would happen he never would have shot the Archduke. Never at all. He would have stayed home deep in books–he was quite the reader–and just let the royal procession pass by. He had always wanted to be a poet anyway. A great Serbian poet.
I think when English and Americans condemn France for its collaboration in World War 2–and I am not justifying the craven Vichy government–they forget one key point about themselves. And that is that unlike Britain and the USA, France was conquered, occupied, and then left in part a puppet state, a succession of events which they had no control over once the Germans had flanked their armies and left Paris, and France itself, essentially defenseless. A simple miscalculation by the French high command–they had placed the left wing of their army, with most of their armored forces, too far forward to respond to the German blitz through the Ardennes–brought about military collapse. It was sudden and complete, even more sudden and complete than the defeat in 1871, and completely opposite the brutal slog of 1914-18. War like this didn’t even seem possible. The French–the government, the press, the labor leaders, the armed forces, the population–were stunned into cowed acquiescence. Cleverly, their Nazi conquerors offered employment and a future to all kinds of French citizens. The French were now subjects with a stake in the future of the Third Reich, a status not granted to the citizens of Poland, etc., who faced extermination by murder or starvation or endless chattel slavery.
The German occupation was helped along immeasurably by the presence of a very large pre-war fascist and extreme rightist movement in France. This was true across large parts of Europe (even the neutral Swiss arrested their own Nazi sympathizers just in case). These homegrown fascists were more than willing to take up leadership, administrative and policing roles in both Vichy France and German occupied France, as well as throughout the French colonial empire. It’s hard not to think of these French collaborators with a visceral disgust, even seventy five years later. Yet we’ve almost forgotten that there were fascist elements–and Stalinist elements–in Britain as well ready to take their place in their own Nazi occupation government should it come to be. Had Hitler’s planned Operation Sea Lion somehow succeeded in crossing the English Channel there can be little doubt that the virtually disarmed Britain (with nearly all the Royal Army’s equipment–cannon, tanks, machine guns, etc.–abandoned at Dunkirk) would have been conquered as easily as France. And that there would have been some degree of collaboration with Nazi occupation authorities in England (remember the film It Happened Here?) Would there have been the same degree of collaboration as in France? Hard to tell. The fascist movement was smaller in England, but it was not insignificant. Indeed, it included the former King Edward, then living in France as the Duke of Windsor, and who was quite chummy with Adolf Hitler as late as 1939. (The Nazis had big plans for Edward, but the British spirited him away to the Bahamas before the panzers reached him.) In France the suddenness of defeat made fascism seem irresistible, inevitable. It’s hard to see why England would have reacted any differently. And it’s not like the English would have had much choice. To refuse to collaborate was often the last decision one ever made.
For argument’s sake, and strictly theoretically speaking, let’s also assume that had Britain or France somehow been occupied by the Soviet Union, as were the Baltic States and eastern Poland in 1939, there would have been no shortage of collaborators either. The NKVD (Stalin’s vast secret police organization) had no problem finding local Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians to work for the Soviet occupation–even as the same NKVD was arresting, torturing, imprisoning, exiling or executing hundreds of thousands of the collaborators’ countrymen. Hitler or Stalin, it did not matter, there were quite literally millions of civilians, police and military the breadth of occupied Europe willing to join up (there were half a million “Germanic non-Germans” in the Waffen SS alone, though many of those were conscripts, and perhaps a million Russians assisted the Wehrmacht as soldiers or auxiliaries, if only to avoid starvation as prisoners of war). Had the US somehow been conquered by Hitler or Stalin there would have been no shortage of collaborators here either. It might seem immoral, ludicrous and inconceivable now, but in the 1930’s both fascism and Stalinist communism were seen as legitimate ideologies by a remarkable number of people. That became clear when the Spanish Civil War erupted and the intelligentsia and artistic communities across the western world began splitting into two camps. I am not sure now which side had more supporters, even in the U.S. In Hollywood there were rallies and star studded fundraisers on behalf of the fascists. Though it wasn’t so much fascism that drew these people, but anti-communism. By this point communism–then still more widely known as bolshevism–had terrified many. Remember that this was during Stalin’s purges and show trials, and after the appallingly brutal famine in the Ukraine (the Holodomor.) Bolshevism was not revolution like our own genteel (or so we remember it) American Revolution. This was a French Revolution gone utterly mad and evil. Thus Franco, wrapping himself in the anti-communist banner, received a surprising amount of support even among western intellectuals and bohemians, far more than we care to remember now. I mean Gertrude Stein? J.R.R. Tolkien?
On the other hand, the Spanish Republic’s supporters splintered immediately into liberals and socialists on the one hand and an ardent Stalinist bloc that in Spain actually purged the non-Stalinist Republicans, executing hundreds, sometimes right in the front lines. Stalin’s paranoia had an incredibly long reach. It is forgotten now that George Orwell himself, the voice in English of the anti-fascist Republican cause, barely escaped such an execution in Barcelona. Agents came to his hotel looking for he and his wife. They escaped to France, but just barely. (The film Land and Freedom vividly shows some of this madness.) Fascism, on the other hand, had an almost universal solidarity, it was a mailed fist. Meanwhile, and tragically, anti-fascism was splintering into every faction imaginable, and the hard line Stalinists saw everyone else on the left as an enemy to be subverted or destroyed before Stalin got around to defeating fascism. (In fact, Stalin’s plans to launch a surprise assault on Nazi Germany were sidelined by his decision to purge, torture and execute nearly all his generals instead.) Spain became a microcosm of what the rest of Europe would be in the 1940’s, with Nazis and locals willing to serve them, and Stalin’s agents and those willing to serve them. Somehow, though, both Hitler and Stalin failed to make permanent inroads in Spain. Although a division of Spanish volunteers served on the Russian Front–and after Franco withdrew them, a core of 3000 Spanish fascist fanatics refused to leave, fighting till the war’s end– Franco retained his independence and his nation’s neutrality, and the Spanish communists, once Franco was gone, became genuine democratic socialists. Unfortunately you can’t say the same for the rest of Europe. Fascism was ended only by Germany’s military defeat, otherwise it might still in charge now. And Stalinism–though somewhat mellowed with age– fell only when the Soviet Union imploded through economic failure. Neither showed any sign of ever going away on its own. There was a limitless supply of people in every occupied state willing to do their German or Russian master’s bidding, even if it meant shooting down their own kind in cold blood.
It’s as if the raw material of collaboration was there throughout the Western world just waiting for its moment. My father remembered being taken to beer halls when he was a boy by his father. The rooms were draped with Nazi flags and people listened to Hitler’s speeches on the shortwave and cheered lustily–and this was in Detroit, Michigan in 1940. In Europe of course it was far worse. Switzerland had to arrest politicians and military men who actively supported Hitler (though the head of the Nazi Party in Switzerland was assassinated by a Croatian Jew in Davos in 1936 in a rare and prescient act of resistance), while both Hungary and Romania were spared conquest by the Nazis because homegrown fascist movements had taken over the government. The cost of the more honorable alternative of resisting the Third Reich was all too vividly shown by Yugoslavia, which suffered through four years of appalling warfare and murderous oppression that killed nearly ten per cent of the pre-war population.
Collaboration made far too much sense for most people at the time. It would today as well. The Polish resistance–the Home Army–was 400,000 strong in 1944. The French resistance (before the Allies landed) had one quarter of that. France had a larger population than Poland and had one twelfth of the civilian losses of Poland. But the Germans had forbad Polish collaboration. The Poles were left with no alternative but resistance. If they were caught they were almost invariably killed, but they were going to starve or be worked to death anyway. But the French could choose to collaborate actively (by assisting the regime) or passively (by not assisting the resistance). In not resisting you would survive, perhaps even thrive. Your family would eat. Joining the resistance meant a strong likelihood of torture and/or death, perhaps extended to your family members and friends and neighbors. So most passively collaborated. It was the logical choice, collaboration. They had to think about their families. I am not being sarcastic here. Passive collaboration was the genuine logical choice for most Frenchmen. In terms of taking care of their own, it was the correct thing to do.
Unlike Britain, the USA or Switzerland, France had the misfortune to be conquered, and then the fortune to be handled fairly lightly by the Reich. The Danes, good Aryans that they were even if they despised the Germans, were occupied with even a lighter touch (while spiriting almost 100% of their Jews into Sweden and out of the reach of the Holocaust), but the French (the non-Jewish French, anyway) still did extremely well compared with the genocide against the Slavic Poles. It was the relatively mellow German occupation in France made collaboration possible. Even had a Polish fascist (and there were plenty of them pre-war) wanted to join the Nazis as so many French citizens did after the surrender in May of 1940, he wouldn’t have been accepted. (Recall Sophie’s Choice where Sophie’s father was a Polish fascist, yet she still was sent to a death camp.) Besides, the Nazis went through and slaughtered the Polish intelligentsia early in the occupation, thus in one stroke sparing Poland discussions like those about French collaborationist guilt. (As for their guilt in the Holocaust, that is another matter). But any Célines there may have been in the literary salons of Warsaw were quickly executed by the Nazi occupation authorities along side the patriots.
We can condemn the French–and all the other nationalities too–for collaborating. And we should. But we should also keep in mind that our own compatriots would have acted no better in the same circumstances. With a breath of fascism in the breeze today, it’ll be interesting to watch how people collaborate these next couple months of 2016 in the United States. We will be surprised, I suspect, at who switches sides, and how fast, and without blinking an eye.
In 1943, in their last successful offensive operation of the war, the Germans seized the Dodecanese Islands (off the coast of Turkey) from the surrendering Italians. There was a marginal military value in the islands, perhaps, if only to drive off the British who attempted to beat them to it (the Guns of Navarone is about this campaign). But one of the primary reasons the Germans were so determined to take the Dodecanese was that the Italians had refused to deport the several thousand Jews–Ladino speakers, originally from medieval Spain–to German death camps. The SS came in right behind the troops the troops and as soon as fighting was completed (the Brits were licked, their last complete fiasco of the war), preparations were made to collect all the Jews, seize their valuables, and transport them to Auschwitz. Upon arrival nearly all were immediately gassed. One of the oldest Jewish communities in existence was exterminated in the time it takes to take a shower.
The Germans left a force of five thousand soldiers on the strategically useless (but Judenrein) islands where they remained till the end of the war, doing nothing. But they were an afterthought anyway. Basically the Nazis launched an offensive at high risk in an area they didn’t need just so they could exterminate its Jews. Keep in mind that the Allies were already landing in nearby Italy and the Wehrmacht was desperately in need of help there, but killing the Jews came first. The Nazi regime was committed to the annihilation of all eleven million European Jews, and none, not even a few thousand on some islands in the remotest corner of the Reich, would escape if Himmler’s bureaucrats could get there to arrange the logistics.
I think you need to read some of the recent scholarship on the Nazi state to appreciate the uniqueness of it as a genocide machine. It’s primary function once the Holocaust began was the annihilation of the Jews. That was virtually the Nazi raison d’etre, and was such an obsession that it trumped more existential needs, such as defending the nation from the Russian army. Obviously the Nazis were human, and humans can do terrible things, but were not talking about the Nazis as people, those sad frail things in the docket at Nuremberg. We’re talking about them organized into a vast killing machine. There are some states that go far, far beyond being merely human to the point where they are an actual threat to humanity itself.
The Nazis are like the Mongols, another state that engaged in deliberate genocide on a scale unfathomable now. Western civilization as we know it, built upon the structure of the Roman Empire, only survived the Mongols because the Mongols had never updated their leadership succession process from the days of the small tribe. When Genghis’ heir Ögedei died suddenly in 1241, his general Subutai–perhaps the most brilliantly successful military leader in all history–had to ride from Germany to Karakoram deep in Mongolia. He called off the planned offensive that would have annihilated all the armies and leadership in his way all the way to the Atlantic. Spain would have followed soon afterward. Italy too. England would have been an easy catch. Scandinavia? The Mediterranean? Had Ögedei lived another ten years all Europe would have been under a similar yoke as Russia. As it was another brilliant Mongol leader, Batu Khan was set to conquer Europe in 1255 when he died. After that the Mongols turned to China, the Middle East and India, all of them vastly more wealthy than Western Europe. Europe was spared and western civilization as we know it survived. It’s little realized now just how close it came to destruction, and how it was sheer luck that saved us. Had either Ögedei or Batu Khan lived a decade longer, the flowering of medieval civilization, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment would never have happened. The west was actually already terribly weakened by that time, pushed into a corner of Europe, impoverished, stalled, its economy shrinking, its intellectual output meager, one more Mongol push could have finished it off. There was nothing inevitable in our rise to world domination.
And the west faced nothing even remotely like that again until the Third Reich. And while the Nazis never came that close, were never on the verge of snuffing out western civilization (though they dreamed of it) world conquest was only their secondary aim–annihilating Jews was their first goal. They stated this over and over, even on Hitler’s last day he spoke of it, as did Goebbels as Hitler’s corpse burned. And The Nazis were remarkably successful at it, virtually destroying one of the world’s oldest civilizations, that of the European Jews. And remember what it took to stop the incredibly efficient Nazi killing machine–their own outright annihilation as an entity. It had to be completely destroyed. The genocide machine was so automated that is kept operating right up until the end. Even as Soviet armies advanced to the walls of Chelmno in January, 1945, the SS methodically executed every single Jew on the grounds, dispensed with the bodies–a bone crushing machine, the Knochenmühle, helped speed along the process–and destroyed all the records because the SS was fully aware that the genocide of the Jews was a crime. Indeed, they’d known that all along, so that only within the legal system of Germany was killing Jews legal. It was a genocide of extraordinary efficiency, even banality. It was automated, bureaucratized. The killers had sick leave and benefits, they took vacations and got together for company dinners. Corruption was looked down upon–Auschwitz’s first commandant was tried and executed for pilfering–and there are mountains of memos. The SS, and in particular the RSHA, contained the best and the brightest, and it used all of the most modern organizational, technological and “best practices” of its day to carry out its mission.
This was not blood lust, this Holocaust. It was not even race hate as we think of it here–these men often expressed pity for the Jews–it was the very essence of modern civilization repurposed for the annihilation of Jews. You can find comments in the reports of Ensatzkommandos that the SS were often appalled at the Lithuanians and Ukrainians and others who pitched in to help round up and slaughter Jews. They were so unscientific, so full of hate. So murderous. But for the Nazis this wasn’t about murder. This was about removing what they considered a dangerous parasite from humanity, the Jew. It was a duty to be performed methodically, without emotion. There was no need for human feelings on the matter. The SS knew it was not easy for a civilized German to engage in such mass murder. Himmler gave pep talks to that effect. It is something that had to be done. It was race science, not lynching. It’s procedure. You can see that in the bored looks on the faces of SS men watching the Last Jew at Vinnitsa being murdered. 28,000 is a lot of Jews, not bad for a day’s work, let’s write up our status reports and call it a day. And that’s what they did.
To me that is what singles the Holocaust out. It was not people killing people, it was the processes of modern civilization exterminating people. It was best practices. It was some of the most intelligent people in one of the most intellectually advanced states on Earth, committing mass murder on a deliberate scale not seen since the Mongols in volume, organization, logic and efficiency. Indeed, the members of the Einsatzgruppen were for the most ardent Nazis what members of the Peace Corps were in our time, idealists out to improve humanity. That is how they saw themselves.
When you downplay that, downplay this genocide, comparing it to just another horrendous human tragedy, I think you lose sight of the truly awful nature of the Holocaust. That is wasn’t hate that drove it, it was logic. And that goes to the very core of western civilization. We are a civilization that prides itself on our science and logic. We make fun of superstitions, we increasingly condemn religion. Logic, we think, separates us from barbarism. And yet logic was behind the Holocaust. Just as logic was behind the eugenics movement that was quite the rage in pre-war intellectual circles through Europe and the US. George Bernard Shaw was an advocate of eugenics. George Bernard Shaw. Think of that. There is a direct logical connection between the eugenics movement on the 1930’s and the Nazi genocide of the Jews. The same principle is involved. The same thinking. It was all so perfectly logical. Only the means and ends were different. To me, that is what makes it so singularly terrifying. We are not talking about the Ku Klux Klan here. None of those lowbrow small town racist goons. We’re talking the best and the brightest and scientific theory. The Holocaust began as an intellectual movement. The division of the SS in charge, the RSHA, was like the MIT of mass murder. The elite.
Incidentally, it’s been pointed out that you could not have had the Holocaust without the industrial level mass slaughter of World War One. All that automated killing on such an enormous scale is what allowed the Nazi mind to imagine using automated methods–whether Einsatzgruppen and their methodical mass killing methods, or the ovens working on factory time tables, and those bone crushing machines producing high grade fertilizer–to kill people by the hundreds of thousands. We have an image of the First World War as mud and corpses and useless slaughter, which was true. That’s what it was for the soldiers. But not for the planners. The battles were immense set piece things, with carefully calculated artillery barrages (which became a science in itself), complex chemical warfare, tremendous logistical issues, organization on an incredible scale. All this to kill more of them than they could of you. Acceptable casualty rates that grew into the hundreds of thousand per battle. Even if a force took 90% casualties running through machine gun fire, it could be acceptable if the surviving ten percent managed to take their objective. You wound up with millions of men living in environments surrounded by the dead, bodies everywhere, till the dead became just everyday things. Everyone had seen piles of bodies and grew quite used to everything but their smell. Thus, amid the slaughter of the First World War, was the civilization of the Enlightenment exposed to the concept of economies of scale and mass production techniques, even to the use of railways to ships large number of humans in record time–first used to mobilize armies in 1914, and then a generation later to send entire populations to extermination camps. The annihilation of the Jews of Hungary in Austerlitz is a truly impressive accomplishment, in strictly logistical terms. Eichmann was rightly proud of it from his Nazi point of view. It was a marvel of German efficiency. And imagine, then, had the Third Reich not lost the war how the Holocaust would become standard operating procedure. It’s not the killing that makes the Holocaust special. It’s best practices learned in World War One. You can kill huge numbers of people if you do it right, without even getting your hands dirty, and it’s just a job like any other job. Some people manage milk bottling plants. Some people managed extermination camps. Take that forward a generation and some people were managing ICBM complexes with procedures to be followed that would wipe out hundreds of millions of people. As with the Holocaust, it was also carefully planned out, with documents documenting the step by step processes. Nothing was off the cuff. There was no improvisation. It was best practices. Killing is easy, if done big enough.
I’m not trying to say that other horrors, African slavery among them, weren’t horrors. Indeed, I compare the slaveocracy in the south to the Third Reich. Not that it compared in methods and aims, but there was a lot of the same sort of thinking, but 19th century style, pre-industrial. To read the writings of the thinking class in the American slave states in the 1850’s is eye opening. There’s a comforting illusion developed in the past 150 years that slavery would have disappeared even if the Civil War not been fought, but it is nonsense. Slavery was in better shape in the 1850’s than it had ever been, and indeed was ceaselessly trying to expand out of the South, which is what so much of American politics had been about since the War of 1812. And slavery would not have disappeared but expanded as the south industrialized (this is the current academic thinking), as slavery is just as suited to industry as it is to agriculture, and what industry did exist in the ante-bellum south was quite dependent on slave labor. Slavery would have been proven a viable economic system into the 20th century. Had the Confederacy decisively won the Civil War it would have begun expanding south into the Caribbean and west to California. Southern California would have had a slave economy. (The climate here is perfect for year round agriculture, which maximizes a slave’s profit making potential.) Had Britain and France entered the war on the side of the Confederacy–a real possibility in 1862–slavery could have regained some of the acceptability (or tolerance, anyway) it had lost to the Abolitionist movement over the previous hundred years. Slavery now is as wrong a means of production as we can imagine. That is, at least in America, because the North won the Civil War and criminalized slavery. Until then not everyone thought it was bad, not even outside the United States. Until then it was just another way of making a living. Maybe people didn’t like it, but they could live with it. There had always been slavery, they figured. It was older than capitalism. It was a natural way of doing things. The slave owning class in the American South saw themselves as the direct descendants of a natural social order that had existed since the Old Testament. It was the industries of the North, said southerners, that were new and alien and unnatural.
The destruction of slavery in America in the 1860’s is one of the most important revolutions of the modern era. But because it was so successful in completely destroying the institution of slavery, we can’t see just how dramatic a change it was. There are hundreds of thousands of neo Nazis today, and probably a couple million sympathizers. Even the absolute destruction of the Third Reich failed to eliminate Nazism. It remains a threat. But there is almost no one who advocates a return to the chattel slavery of pre-Civil War America. Not even the KKK calls for that. The very concept has been purged from western civilization. Abraham Lincoln did that. Had he bungled the war who knows where we’d be now. But it is because of the magnitude of Union’s victory that people don’t realize just how important to western civilization the American Civil War was. It made the Nazi slave labor system a crime against humanity. It made the Soviet gulag system the blemish that communism can’t seem to escape. (And it makes many people wonder what the hell is going on in Angola Penitentiary.)
People also don’t realize that slavery was not only a successful labor system, but was even more successful as a financial system. The slaveocrats had more wealth in their slaves than there was in all the other forms of wealth put together in the US–industry, banks, shipping, farming, railroads, everything–with the sole exception of the value of all the land in the US itself. Only all the real estate in the US was worth more than all the slaves, though of course real estate wealth was diffused, while much of slave wealth was concentrated and even more importantly could be turned immediately into cash. Land took longer to sell. If a slave, on average, was worth $800 in 1860, and there were four million slaves, that comes to over $3 billion in 1860 dollars (or nearly a hundred billion 2015 dollars). This system seems to be the result of the fact that so few slaves shipped from Africa–around 300,000 or so, about four per cent of the total–arrived in the United States. The vast majority of slaves were sent to Brazil and the Caribbean, where work was so brutal they rarely survived long. A steady supply made them cheap and disposable. The slave system in the United States was forced to raise their own slaves. That three hundred thousand were, with careful husbandry, grown into a workforce of four million or so. And as the supply from Africa was limited and eventually dried up altogether in the 1820’s, slaves became a very valuable commodity. Soon a banking and finance and insurance system evolved to meet the needs of both slave owners and slave traders. Slaves attained such a value that one’s wealth could be measured in the value of one’s slaves. Slavery attained a place in the pre-war South’s economy like that of real estate now.
Even if slaves themselves were of no use outside the South, the wealth in slaves extended the south’s reach far beyond its borders. The southern slave owners were a vastly rich and powerful class, and their financial power reached throughout the United States and across the globe. By banning slavery, an entire financial class and all its accoutrements was eliminated, their power and influence ended. Their kind was never to be seen again. Only in Brazil did slavery, much weakened by manumission and drought and popular resentment, linger on for another generation. Brazil ended it, finally, in 1888.
Much like the Germans’ race theory driven National Socialism, the American South believed that owning slaves made them morally and physically indomitable both as men and as a civilization. Just like Germans who saw strength and world domination in their genocide–killing the Jews went hand in hand with expanding German power in the Nazi mind–to the southern slaveocrat elite their Peculiar Institution was an institution that would make the South a world power and be the guiding light and future of all mankind. God intended the slave owners to rule. It’s the white man’s burden thing carried to the extreme degree. A degree not surpassed until the Third Reich.
Yet while slavery is an abomination, one of humanity’s great horrors, it never achieved its modern apogee because, unlike the Germans, the Confederates were hapless and mostly incompetent in matters of war and administration. And, also unlike the Germans, slavery benefitted mostly the large landowners and financiers. (The middle class slave owners, of which there were far more than realized now, were concentrated in the border states, states retaken by the North early in the war if they had seceded at all). So while National Socialism was bought by the entire population of Germany and almost all the European Ausländers (Germans living outside Germany), the townsmen and peasantry of the American South tired quickly of the war (remember secession was not universally popular to begin with) and the Confederate government had to deal with widespread internal rebellion (also forgotten today). And then there’s this–slavery disintegrated as soon as even a small party of Union soldiers showed up in the neighborhood. But German genocide had little economic purpose–killing is easy. It had no purpose other than killing Jews. Slavery is a much more difficult undertaking, and unlike the genocide of the Jews was extremely sensitive to outside interference. Slavery would have thrived had the South not declared independence, something they quickly became bitterly aware of. As soon as the Union’s armies or even a single gunboat approached, the plantations hemorrhaged slaves. The southern economy, indeed its very economic engine, dissolved.
But Auschwitz continued operating right up until Himmler ordered all the death camps closed as the Russian armies moved in, and all the remaining inmates were to be killed on the spot or force marched to other camps. Whereas slavery was in its death throes by 1865, existing only in places that Union troops had not reached, in Germany the Holocaust was one of the few institutions in the Third Reich that existed right up until the very end of the war in Europe, surviving even the capture of the camps, becoming mobile, death camps turned into death marches, until in many places the only aspect of the Nazi state still existing were the SS involved in killing Jews. The SS remained even as the liberators moved in, as if convinced the Holocaust would survive even the end of the Reich itself.
As a genocide, the Holocaust had an extraordinary vitality, it seemed like nothing could kill it except it Allied armies. The only Holocaust I can think of that compares in tenacity was the Killing Fields of Cambodia, which only stopped when the Viet Namese army moved in and drove off Pol Pot. Like the Holocaust, the Killing Fields defied any logic but its own perfect logic. It’s that logic, the logical thought process which has been a cornerstone of western thinking since the Greeks, surviving even the Dark Ages, that makes certain Holocausts so terrifying. People massacre entire peoples because they hate–Rwanda is a perfect example of that, a St. Bartholomew’s Massacre across a whole country–and people exploit people to the point of annihilation if it makes them money (think of some tribes wiped out early in the Spanish Conquest). And people wipe out peoples all the time to gain their land (think just about anywhere).
But on rare occasions people wipe out people because a political philosophy decrees it necessary to do so, with impeccable logic. Marx somehow became the political basis of the Killing Fields. The Holocaust had elaborate ideological and legal writings justifying it. The implications of this are terrifying. It wasn’t just murder, it was the result of a well thought out doctrines. It made perfect sense. The ideology made the genocide necessary, justified and inevitable. Indeed, for a good Nazi or member of the Khmer Rouge, it would be morally wrong not to exterminate Jews or enemies of the Revolution. Their belief system required it, and they believed implicitly in the validity of those belief systems. The fanaticism of the members of the Islamic State we see now is nothing new. Indeed, it can trace its justifications back to the same logic that drove the Nazis and, via Marx by way of Mao, the government of Pol Pot. Islamic thought in its Golden Age (circa 750-1250 A.D.) was just as hip to logical thought processes of the Greeks as were the intellectuals and academics of the west. Its in our shared cultural genome.
Remember too, that both Islam and the West are rooted in Persian thought, the binary world view of Zoroaster a thousand or so years before Christ and well before the Greeks (indeed, well before the Persian Empire or even its predecessor the Median Empire, as if Christ or Confucius or Mohammed had lived before the Roman Empire or China or the Arabs existed.) We inherited the ancient Persian world of truth and lie, of good vs evil in eternal battle. There is probably nothing more fundamental to both the Islamic world and the west than our shared binary view. Everything is truth or lie or right or wrong and, by extension, good or bad. The internet has only exacerbated this. It’s our default position. It is so much a part of us, so fundamental to how we view, interpret and think, that we are not even aware of it. We like to think we are the inheritors of the Greek way of thinking but only in part, because we are far more inculcated in the thought of the ancient Persian Empire, in some fundamental ways the ur-civilization of the west. Our binary world view, good and evil in eternal battle, all that goes back to the first Holy Book, the Avesta, the word of Zoroaster. The seeds of western ideological fanaticism lie in the Persian Empire. Ironically we celebrate Alexander the Great, a pagan, as its conqueror, as if we are his descendants and the Persians utterly alien to all that we believe, yet Alexander couldn’t recognize our outlook at all today. He would be utterly at a loss to understand why we think like we do. Oh, he could tease out our Aristotelian antecedents. But good vs evil made no sense to him. And we are absolutely lost without our binary world view. Alexander, to us, would be a madman lunatic on Facebook, some nut with a reality show sacrificing to various gods and doing macho, dangerous things. But give Zoroaster a Facebook account and he’d have a zillion followers in no time at all, because he would recognize all our sturm and drang as the battle between truth and lie, and he would show us the Way.
Zoroaster was all about free will but I wonder just how much free will we have now after centuries of truth vs lie, right vs wrong, good vs evil. That world view is so ingrained into us. Our brains think like that now. We process information like that now. How much of it is innate? If there truly was free will would eighty million Germans have followed a lunatic like Hitler to absolute destruction? How could so many smart, even brilliant people be stupid enough to believe the Jews needed to be murdered en masse to save civilization? It’s not instinct, but the thinking can be so automatic it might as well be. The entire German Volk pitched in to save the world from the evil of world Jewry. It was inconceivable that they were wrong. The Truth of the Führer versus the lies of the Jew. They believed that till the bitter end. There was almost no rebellion against Hitler. They believed in him and his anti-Semitism till the country was conquered, leveled, broken, destroyed.
There’s a famous picture of German prisoners of war watching concentration camp footage. They looked stunned. They all knew Jews were being dealt with, but most had never seen the camps, the ovens. Probably everyone of these soldiers had known Jewish families before the War. Unlike in Poland, German Jews were fully integrated into German society. They were Germans. Germany, before the First World War, had been in many ways a model state, without caste and dangerous religious bigotry. You can see the looks on these soldier’s faces when they realize what happened to their Jewish neighbors. The Holocaust machine was broken, and suddenly the Jews are people again. These Nazis are people again. Hell, most of them weren’t even Nazis. They just went along. It wasn’t like a howling lynch mob. Kristalnacht had been one ugly night that left Germans very uncomfortable. The Holocaust was a smoothly running machine, quite neat and clean, very efficient, quite logical. It’s just they never saw the pictures before.
Myrmecologists, that is entomologists who specialize in ants, the E.O. Wilsons of biology, speak of certain species as being fascist, world domineering ants. Our own household pest the Argentine ant is one, as it automatically wars and eventually destroys any other species of ant it comes across. There are several species like these. Not too many–were they all like this there’d be only one remaining species, the victor in all the endless ant wars to the death, and then something would have happened, a disease or fungus or climate change, and that last remaining ant species would have died out and there’d be no more ants in the world. But there are a few of these fascist, world dominating species, and myrmecologists joke darkly that if one of those species had the nuclear bomb the world would end in a week. Destroying an enemy ant colony is worth destroying yourselves over. Ant colonies do this regularly. The reason is that they are genetically programmed to war to the death. They will immediately attempt to destroy whatever colony they come across that is different from them. It’s not logic, obviously–they have brains the size of a head of a pin–but the genes are perfectly logical. Annihilation makes perfect sense. The Holocaust has always struck me as the same thing, though instead of genetic programming, a philosophy developed into an ideology that contained within it the logic that requires the absolute total annihilation of perceived enemies. The Nazis used Einsatzgruppen and ovens because they had no nuclear weapons. If the Third Reich had nuclear weapons, the world would have been over in a week.
Because to Hitler the total destruction of Germany was worth it if the world could be rid of the Jews. In the Führerbunker at war’s end, he said just that. And that was the logic of the Holocaust. It was the logic of World War One, when empires destroyed themselves to destroy each other. And it might have been the logic of World War Three. Destroying the village in order to save it. Who knows how close we came during the Cold War? And do we still have within us the seeds of that logic? Or were circumstances just perfect between 1914 and 1945 for nihilism on such a vast scale? Maybe so, maybe we’re not like that anymore, and maybe that is why we are still here, and not radioactive cinders throwing shadows by the light of the moon.
I discuss the fate of indigenous Americans in The Spanish conquest hit the population of the Americas like a thermo-nuclear war.
I discuss the end of the Third Reich in Operation Bagration.
I discuss Zoroaster in Zoroaster.
I discuss fascist, world domineering ants in Two giant tiny civilizations trying to conquer the world beneath our feet.
“For Americans who do not compare their big, homegrown war enough with those on other continents, this can be instructive. After showing Ken Burns’ film series on the Civil War to a class of German undergraduates, I was once confronted by a student who wanted to know “why are there so many moon rises and sun sets in this film, and why do you Americans always think that everything that happens to you is the biggest thing in history? Do Americans understand the scale of bloodshed and social destruction of the Thirty Years’ War?” To which I could only reply, “No, most have never heard of it.”
David Blight, “America’s Armageddon Revisited” Slate (2009)
You have to feel for the German kid. I’ve been reading a great deal of pre-Great War European history lately (indeed, just finished the Vertigo Years last nite) and I must say that in those precious times between the French Revolution and 1914 Europeans too knew that everything that had ever happened to them was the greatest thing in history. It was certainly up there. It was Europe’s time, and when it’s your time in world history then everything you do is the greatest thing ever. But to paraphrase Gibbon, they done fucked up. And then everything falls into perspective from the ruins of empire. You look around the colossal ruins, see what you had, what you could have had, wipe away a tear and sigh. It all falls into place. Hell, the Thirty Years War wasn’t even a “good war”. It was just a huge awful endless slaughtering destructive mess for no good reason whatsoever. It ruined Germany, gutted it, stripped it bare. And for what? But then the Germans haven’t had a lot of good wars since they stopped the Turks. Wars had a bad tendency to work themselves across central Europe laying waste the land. And the Germans sure splattered a lot of Europe in bad wars. Three generations of European kids since then have to deal with that. And that their own grandfathers, great grandfathers back through their great great great great great grandfathers from one end of Europe to the other had taken the civilization of the Renaissance and Enlightenment and fought war after ghastly war, slaughtering and butchering and torturing and destroying. Spaniards and Russians, Swedes and Italians, and almost everyone between, they all pitched in at one time or another. The Germans, in the middle, took it for centuries. Then in 1914 they decided it was their turn. Three decades later it was all over but the cleaning up. Muscovy ruled one half, the Americans propped up the other. Empires frittered away to scattered islands. To think that fifty years earlier Europe ruled the world.
And then you go and show their progeny Ken Burn’s Civil War. They sigh. You Americans are so dumb. Can’t you see we did all that before, over and over. Can’t you see we failed? Had to fail? Can’t you starry eyed, moonstruck, smiling with the dawn Yanks get it through your head that you are as doomed as we were?
Well, no we can’t. Hell, even I can only accept that notion as an abstraction. When I watch The Civil War I too see the moonlit battlefields, the dawns of Juneteenth mornings, Abe Lincoln as a homespun Marcus Aurelius. It’s just innate. We can’t help ourselves. But we all know, us bookish types, that those world weary European kids are right, and we’ll be there someday sooner or later, looking at the world over the sad remains of American civilization. Some Chinese professor will be showing the 18 part epic poem of the Taiping Rebellion to a college class in far away Michigan and an outraged kid will splutter that you Chinese always think everything that happens to you is the most important thing ever. He’d say more, too, but his Mandarin fails him.