30 September 2008

A collective enterprise

Hitler’s hatred for Jews was hinted at and later communicated freely in his speeches. He blamed them for Germany losing WW1 and for draining his country economically, which he believed led to the suffering of the German people. For these reasons, in 1939, Hitler had been contemplating expulsion of Jews from Germany. Then, why did he, by mid-1941, change his mind to order the extermination of Jews? Wouldn’t a simple expulsion of the Jews from Germany have been enough? Why death?

Some people suggest, and some even insist that there is proof to show, that Hitler and the Nazis were greatly influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. That, Darwin’s theories of ‘natural selection’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ were behind the Nazi ideal of a master race – a pure(r) ‘Aryan’ race. That, Hitler and the Nazis had used Darwin’s theory to brainwash millions of Germans into believing that they were radically superior to other human beings in the world.

Apparently, though speaking against slavery, Darwin himself believed that some races like the blacks from Africa were genetically inferior to the white Caucasians. Hitler had built upon this theory to attack the Jews as a genetically inferior race. And, the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews during WW2 was a direct derivative of the German ideal of a superior race based upon Darwin’s theory. But the interesting thing is that, this belief was so widespread and so deep in the minds of the German people, the Jews simply had no chance.

And, that’s what’s so shocking about the extermination of the Jews!

British TV producer and author Laurence Rees brings this fact out in the open in his book and his BBC TV series, Auschwitz: The Nazis & ‘The Final Solution’. Rees’ book and films reinforce the fact that, although it’s true Hitler had given the order to exterminate the Jews, the actual killings were carried out by ordinary men (and women) collectively, without any remorse.

Here’s an excerpt from the ‘Introduction’ of Laurence Rees’ book:

“Tracing how Hitler, [his Chief of SS, Heinrich] Himmler, [Himmler’s deputy, Reinhard] Heydrich and other leading Nazis created both their ‘Final Solution’ and Auschwitz offers us the chance to see in action a dynamic and radical decision-making process of great complexity. There was no blueprint for the crime imposed from above, nor one devised from below and simply acknowledged from the top. Individual Nazis were not coerced by crude threats to commit murders themselves. No, this was a collective enterprise owned by thousands of people, who made the decision themselves not just to take part but to contribute initiatives in order to solve the problem of how to kill human beings and dispose of their bodies on a scale never attempted before.”

[Citation: Auschwitz: The Nazis & ‘The Final Solution’ by Laurence Rees, a BBC Book, 2005.]

25 September 2008

The Jewish Problem

The Holocaust or mass slaughter of Jewish people by the Nazis is a subject that cannot be ignored when we think of WW2 and its aftermath. At least from the European experience – i.e. keeping Asia and the Pacific aside. Although no one seems to know the facts exactly, historical records suggest that Adolf Hitler had given the order to annihilate the Jews himself, sometime towards the end of 1941. Perhaps a few months earlier.

Historical records also suggest that Hitler was working on an ideology of a pure race – a Nordic race, a master race of Scandanavians and Germans who were believed to be the fittest and most capable of leadership. Hence, it is believed, he ‘had it in’ for the Jews, the Gypsies, the Slavs, the homosexuals and a few other minor ethnic groups. The reason stated for the Holocaust was ethnic cleansing. In other words, it was a racial issue.

However, when we read about Germany during Hitler’s time, we learn that the country – and most of Europe – was in an economic recession. The context of films such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (see my previous post) or more recent ones from Hollywood such as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Steven Soderberg’s The Good German are, by no means, untrue. And worth noting, if we wish to understand what may (also) have led to the Holocaust.

During the recession, when much of Europe was recovering after WW1, a polarisation had taken place dividing the rich and the poor, and the German people ‘believed’ that the Jews had cornered all the money in their country. The entire commerce of Germany was in the hands of the Jews and, therefore, the Jews were responsible for their poor economic state and well-being. These sentiments were so strong that, when Hitler and the Nazis had proposed getting rid of the Jews, very few Germans had protested.

While surfing the internet recently, I found a document titled The Jewish Problem from Calvin College in Michigan, USA, which gives a pretty clear picture of the Jewish Problem in pre-Nazi Germany through the words of one Max Eichler from the German Propaganda Archive. Here are some excerpts:

“Background: The book from which this section is taken was intended to provide a citizen's handbook to the Third Reich, with many pictures illustrating the way Nazi Germany worked. This section presents the "Jewish Question" from a Nazi viewpoint. Citizens are told that Nazis measures against the Jews are reasonable and defensive — but there are also hints of what was to come.

The source: Max Eichler, Du bist sofort im Bilde (Erfurt: J. G. Cramer's Verlag, 1939) pp. 139-142…

…Yet after six years of a National Socialist government, the 700,000 Jews in Germany were worth 8 billion marks, while the nearly 80 million German citizens were worth only 200 billion marks. Each Jew on average had 4.57, or four-and-a-half times, as much as the average German. Jewish net worth, which had been 4 billion marks in 1918, had doubled, at the expense of the German people. Jews also owned substantial property (for example, more than half — about 60% — of Berlin belonged to the Jews, although they were only 3.8% of the population). That proves the extent to which Jewish parasites had exploited the German people.”

These facts could be true. For, not too long ago, I had heard similar sentiments expressed by an elderly Parsi lady I had met in Mumbai who (passed away several years ago but) had grown up in Germany prior to WW2. She was categorical in stating that the Jews had controlled all the businesses, had made huge sums of money charging astronomical amounts for the products and services they delivered (even the basic necessities), and had made the lives of ordinary German people (including her) miserable.

In her view – and, so it seems, in the views of millions of Germans ‘suffering’ at that time – Adolf Hitler may have come as their saviour.

[Citation: The Jewish Problem, a document from the German Propaganda Archive, Calvin College, Michigan, USA. And, in remembrance of TS – may her soul rest in peace.]

20 September 2008


Rachel Seiffert and Bernhard Schlink (see my previous post) aren’t the only ones to embed their sentiments of post-WW2 Germany in my mind. Long before I read Seiffert and Schlink, I remember seeing an outstanding film on the same subject by German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder called The Marriage of Maria Braun.

The Marriage of Maria Braun centres on a woman in Germany in the final years of WW2 and during its reconstruction. It’s about a young woman, Maria, who finds her country and her life in ruins, but still tries to make something of it single-handedly, using her brains and her charm (sexuality). Through various turns of fate and determination, she succeeds and prospers, only to lose everything in the end.

The film begins in a bleak winter Germany during WW2 where men are stealing planks of wood to build fires to stay warm, and women are selling themselves to earn a few marks to provide food for the family. In this desperation, Maria marries the love of her life, a soldier, Hermann Braun, only to lose him to the Russian Front.

Not long after, while she’s working in a bar for American soldiers to earn her keep, Maria receives word that Hermann is reported missing in action. Lonely and out of her mind, she takes up a kind Black American soldier as her lover. One night, while they are together, Hermann lands up unexpectedly and, in a heated struggle between them, the American soldier is killed. Hermann takes the blame and is jailed.

Finding her true love again, Maria vows to create a life for both of them when Hermann returns from jail. With the English she has learnt from the American soldier, Maria takes up a job as the secretary to the owner of a textile mill. Using her intelligence, hard work, perseverance and her sexuality to charm the owner, she rises from the rank of a secretary to become a prosperous businesswoman, accumulating wealth and power.

Just when she feels she has succeeded in reconstructing her life from its ruins and is ready to start a new life with Hermann, director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who had drawn out the story for screenplay) brings in a twist in the tale. And, in classic Fassbinder style, everything comes crashing down.

The Marriage of Maria Braun is Fassbinder’s parable of reconstruction… of life, love and the soul of not just Maria Braun in the film, but also of his beloved country Germany after WW2. What Fassbinder tries to say in the film is that, in life and love, as it is in war and economics, reconstruction and prosperity come at a huge price.

17 September 2008

Trials of the ordinary

I feel ashamed that I know so little about the aftermath of the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. No other nation has experienced such tragedy. No other people have experienced the agonies of living with their dead, their injured and their sick for so many years until reconstruction.

Yet, I’ve read so little about it – even in fiction. Tales of post-WW2 Japan, at least in English, seem hard to come by. Most of what I’ve read about WW2 and its after-effects has been British or American – narrating, decidedly, a victor’s point of view of war, suffering and reconstruction. This has made me wonder about the vanquished! Surely, they have tales of their own!

Fortunately, two books of fiction had caught my eye. Both were about Germany and, unquestionably, enlightening to read! Specifically, because they presented a perspective I’ve often overlooked: that the trials of the ordinary people, caught in war, are, inescapably, an integral part of the killings, the invasions, the espionage, the heroism, the sorrows and the romances.

The first book was Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room, and the second was Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader.

Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room was not really a novel, but three novellas distinct in their narratives. The first narrated the life of a handicapped boy who felt isolated as he was unable to take part in the action due to a physical deformity and, therefore, turned to photography and chronicled the war until his disillusionment when the Allies attacked Berlin.

The second narrated a journey by an adolescent girl who, stoically, took responsibility of travelling through war-torn Germany to reach her younger brothers and sister safely to her grandmother’s place. The third novella narrated the story of a schoolteacher in present-day Germany trying to absolve himself from the guilt of his grandfather’s war crimes.

Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader was different from Seiffert’s novellas. It was a unique story of a teenager’s relationship with an older woman who disappeared from his life one day, and then, many years later, when he was a law student, turned out to be a war criminal on trial. The story presented the young man’s confusion and, then, his slow understanding of the older woman’s need to keep secret a personal disability – even at the cost of punishment and personal grief, leading to a tragic end.

The Dark Room and The Reader were both sensitive and disturbing; and yet, two of the best books I’ve read on war.

12 September 2008

Evil for the sake of good

“The decision to use evil for the sake of good requires that the decision-maker be willing to bear the brunt of evil.”
[Quote from Bernhard Schlink’s novel Homecoming.]

Should the United States have dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Was it morally right to kill and injure hundreds of thousands of people with a single command? Was this wanton murder any different from Hitler’s Nazi Germany? After dropping the first one on Hiroshima to prove the point, was the second bomb on Nagasaki necessary?

These questions have been debated since August 1945 to no conclusive end. If we are to go by the fact that the United States has, till date, refused to apologise to the people of Japan for dropping the atom bombs, then we can be sure that the United States feels that they were justified in their action. It was, after all, to shorten the war and save thousands of lives!

It’s interesting to note that the atom bomb was actually intended for Hitler’s Germany. Hitler was evil and had to be stopped. Hitler’s own atomic programme had to be stopped. Even Albert Einstein – an advocate of peace – had urged the United States in their atomic-bomb research by writing to President Franklin D Roosevelt himself.

But Germany lost the war in Europe and surrendered to the Allied Forces in May 1945 – three months before the atom bomb was ready for use. So, Japan became the obvious target.

The United States still claims – as they did back in 1945 – that the dropping of the two atom bombs compelled Japan to surrender and bring World War 2 to its end. And so it did. On 15 August 1945, in his acceptance of surrender speech, Emperor Hirohito of Japan said, “The enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage.”

09 September 2008

On a clear day…

63 years ago, on a clear day, history was created. On that day, 6 August 1945, at 7:42 a.m., an atom bomb was dropped on a city called Hiroshima in Japan, killing more than 150,000 people – half of them on that day itself. All civilians. Thousands more died from injuries and radiation illnesses over the years.

The next day, US military officials had confirmed publicly that Hiroshima was devastated: at least 60% of the city was wiped off the map. An eyewitness account on Tokyo Radio had described the victim’s bodies as bloated and scorched, burned with huge blisters.

At least four Japanese cities were targeted by the United States: Kokura, Niigata, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The one chosen as target – ‘bomb primary’ – depended on weather conditions, as the pilot on the plane carrying the bomb needed clear visibility to drop its load. As Hiroshima was experiencing clear sunshine that morning, the luck of the draw went against its people. And, history was created.

On hearing the news of the attack on Hiroshima, US President Harry S Truman, returning home from Europe on board USS Augusta, had apparently announced that, “The experiment was an overwhelming success.” It is rumoured that President Truman had also said, “It is the greatest thing in history!” But this comment seems to have been deleted from most US records.

Japan had challenged that the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima was inhuman, an atrocity, a crime against God and man, a violation of international law, specifically Article 22 of the Hague Convention which outlawed attacks on defenseless civilians. President Truman, of course, defended himself, announcing on national radio that the bomb had been dropped on a “military base, not a large city.”

And then, on 9 August 1945, at 11:02 a.m., the United States dropped the second atom bomb on Nagasaki, killing another 80,000 people – with, possibly, an equal number succumbing to injuries from “blistering blast winds, heat rays and radiation” over the years. On 9 August 1945, Nagasaki, too, was experiencing a clear day with sunshine and, therefore, became ‘bomb primary’ (apparently, Kokura was primary target, but a moderate cloud had covered and obscured the city).

[Citation: The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History by Erik Durschmied; 63 Years Ago: Media Distortions Set Tone for Nuclear Age by Greg Mitchell, Editor & Publisher, 6 August 2008; and various sources from the internet.]

NOTE: On further research I find that the bomb on Hiroshima was dropped at 8:15 a.m. Hiroshima time (not at 7:42 a.m. as indicated in Erik Durschmied's book The Hinge Factor. There is photographic evidence to show that several clocks in Hiroshima had stopped at 8:15 a.m. - presumably when the bomb was activated on ground.

06 September 2008

The Hinge Factor

We’ve grown up reading about wars in history books, with narratives of how great kings and great generals have been responsible for victories against all odds. We’ve read tales about their conquests, their courage and their heroism. We’ve accepted their courage, their commitment, their skill, their strategic decision-making capabilities and their leadership as the realities of battles they’ve fought and won. We’ve taken these factors for granted.

But, what really decides the outcome of a battle? What decides the fate and lives of thousands – sometimes millions – of people in a battle, during war, or even after?

In his book, The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History, Erik Durschmied presents an antithesis to the factors we often take for granted: that men with brilliance and courage and determination and leadership win battles. He suggests that, often, it is the unexpected and the unpredictable and the absurd in a battle that swings victory in favour of the opposition – changing the outcome of events and the course of history.

Durschmied suggests that the outcome of a battle and the fate of millions of people are not always determined by great men and their heroic qualities (as we tend to read in history books and believe), but more often, by improbable and unexpected happenings. In the prologue of The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History, he writes:

“Some chroniclers wish us to believe that battles are won by valor and the brilliance of war lords, on whom they bestow the accolade of ‘genius’ when they are triumphant. They record the victor as being brilliant and the loser as not. And yet, there is no secret formula to the victorious outcome of a battle – except that much depends on who commits the bigger blunder. Or, to put no finger point on it, many battles have been decided by the caprice of weather, bad (or good) intelligence, unexpected heroism or individual incompetence – in other words, the unpredictable. In military terms, this phenomenon is known as: The Hinge Factor.”

03 September 2008

Changing the course of history – by chance

In a film as recent and as mediocre as Wanted, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, actor Morgan Freeman’s character ‘Sloan’ talks of taking control and changing the course of history forever. For, the ability to do so is the ultimate show, and possession, of power.

If nothing else, history has been, and still is, about change. However, not all changes in history have been brought on by people – from their desires and their deeds. Much of it has happened by ‘existence’. Some of it has been accidental. Some of it has happened due to a combination of factors which were outside human control.

In his book Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, semiotics professor and author Umberto Eco mentions an instance in history when history has not been entirely in human control – that of Christopher Columbus ‘discovering’ the Americas – in the chapter ‘The Force of Falsity’ from which I’ve quoted in another blog:

“And so you see how complicated life is, and how fragile are the boundaries between truth and error, right and wrong. Though they were right, the sages of Salamanca were wrong; and Columbus, while he was wrong, pursued faithfully his error and proved to be right – thanks to serendipity.”

This fact, that Columbus discovered the Americas by chance, is not an isolated example but seems to be a common occurrence in history.

For instance, the Stone Age cave paintings in Altamira, Northern Spain – one of the greatest historical discoveries – were found accidentally when, in 1879, a 9-year-old girl crawled into a cave while exploring her father’s estate. The Stone Age cave paintings in Lascaux, Southern France, were found in 1940 by a teenager (and his friends) when he followed his dog into the cave.

Similar examples of chance discoveries are quoted by war journalist and author Erik Durschmied in his 1999 book The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Has Changed History, and by British mathematics professor Jacob Bronowski in his famous 1973 BBC TV series The Ascent of Man, which was later published as a book in 1974. They make interesting reading (or viewing), for both academics and laymen, about how history is shaped through the years.

If we are to believe great scholars like Eco, Durschmied and Bronowski, be it exploring the new world or war upon nations or man’s scientific and technological achievements, much of the course of history may have changed simply by chance, and not because of great strategies by powerful and ambitious men.