Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Beautiful Tyranny

It was something [...] said about Bryan Ferry. A few months ago, Bryan Ferry was in the news, praising the aesthetic of the Nazi party. What he actually said was,
"My God, the Nazis knew how to put themselves in the limelight and present themselves. Leni Riefenstahl's movies and Albert Speer's buildings and the mass parades and the flags - just amazing. Really beautiful."
Ferry got into all sorts of trouble for this. These words were described as dangerous, although in fairness most of the coverage I saw about it was humorous in nature, mocking the aging popstar for his supposed Nazi Sympathies, Bryan Führerry etc.. In any case, this somehow came up in conversation and [...] said, “That’s why we’ve still learnt nothing from the Nazism. If we have to pretend that everything about the Nazis was abhorrent and they had no appeal to anyone with an ounce of goodness or sanity, then the Holocaust remains a random tragedy as opposed to something that ordinarily people were involved in, something we actually need to learn something from.”

And I had to agree with him.

I remember getting decidedly fed up with the Holocaust in high school. The thing I was most fed up with was the videos. We saw lots of videos. This was the spring of 1994 and we weren’t allowed to see Schindler’s List, which had just been released, it was 15 certificate and we were only twelve or thirteen. But Schindler’s List is a film, a play performed by actors, supported by all many of special effects and make-up artists. Schindler’s List is a walk in the park compared to the footage and photographs and witness accounts that we saw and heard. And it made me angry. Not because it was giving us nightmares, but because it was gradually getting easier, less real and therefore less horrific. It was getting almost boring.

But worse than this, we weren’t learning much. We could all write an essay on why the Holocaust was a Bad Thing, but you only need to know what the word refers to in order to make that argument. We didn’t understand why or how it had happened. Hitler and the Nazis were presented as so unhinged and their grip on the people so strong that they might as well have been aliens from outerspace with magic powers of mind-control. We were led to believe that Hitler had a personal grudge against Jews, that’s why they were killed. And as such, the Holocaust might as well have been a natural disaster, something from which we have nothing to learn except that shit happens.

And tragically, that’s the story we kept being told throughout that spring and summer, as the news came through from Rwanda and it became clear that any angry mob with machetes or cruder improvised weapons can kill much faster than the efficient Nazis with their train network and gas chambers. But then this was a tribal conflict, wasn’t it? All very primitive, wasn't it? Shit happens. American and European leaders struggled to use the word genocide until over half a million people had been hacked to death.

Madness. Evil. Chaos. We use words that seperate these events from ourselves.

Not that we're complacent; we keep talking about various genocides and how horrible they were. The suffering. The victims. All very horrible. Horrible borrible. But we do get upset if anyone touches on how people get around to doing such things. Kind of distasteful. Facts often are.

The Nazis were extraordinarily successful as a political party, at first. They changed an impoverished, deeply demoralised country into a prosperous superpower within a very short space of time. They also changed one of the most democratic countries in the world (all German women had the vote at this time) into a totalitarian state, almost overnight, without provoking civil war. So of course they knew what they were doing with aesthetics; check out the Crime & Thrillers section at the library; the spines are all black, red and white; it's exciting! They successfully monopolised the swastika, a symbol of ancient significance; it can be made quite pretty but to most Europeans it means one thing. And there's still a predominance of blue-eyed blonde-haired beauty on the covers of our magazines. This stuff works within a culture not entirely unlike our own.

Beautiful? Eye of the beholder. The associations are too strong for me, but I can see it.

Despite Hitler's heresy that "Anyone who sees and paints a sky green and fields blue ought to be sterilized", the Nazis even applied aesthetics to the persecution. I have written before about the great temptation to scapegoat those who are different from ourselves; the Nazis went a step further and colour-coded them. Yellow stars for the Jews, who were not the victims of a personal grudge but a historically disadvantaged minority; I don't know about Germany, but one of the chief reasons Vienna was such a hotbed of artistic and intellectual activity was that well educated Jews, unable to get very far in academia, held all their deep and meaningful discussions in the cafés. Institutionalised discrimination already existed; this was merely a progression.

There were black triangles for the Roma; they'd always had a hard time too (and still do in much of Europe). Then pink triangles for homosexual men (that was already a crime, just not a capital offence), purple triangles for the Jehovah's Witnesses (really) and red ones for anyone else who disagreed with what was going on. There were also special symbols for odd offences like if an "Aryan" who had sex with a Jew, breaching racial law. Disabled people didn't get a geometric shape or a colour that I know of; we went first, but thankfully, they were done with us sooner.

Pigeon-holing on this level has a tremendous appeal to people. Thankfully, the hated groups, the oft-mentioned scapegoats within our culture are currently rather vague, not specific, easily identifiable groups. But let's not pretend it's not out there. Let's not pretend it's not in here.

It took me ages to write this far as I'm currently short of a crucial finger, which got hideously burnt. I had a blister the same thickness of my finger and now... it's really the most gruesome thing I have ever seen on my own body - and that's saying something! It is also rather painful on account of the fact that there's a serious chunk of skin missing, but it is only my finger. The real loss is my life of crime; my fingerprint will be quite distinctive after this.

Anyhow, it is one of those posts where I think What am I going on about?, where I've failed to reach any conclusion and would be inclined to ditch, only it took too much effort.


fluttertongue said...

There is a video - I can't remember who by - called Five Steps to Tyranny, which explains how people can go from being totally reasonable one week, to tyrannical the next, using both psychological experiments and historical data. When I spoke to some friends about it they said: "yes but that could never happen here" implying that we are different - more enlightened or less prone to brainwashing. This made me incredibly angry. If we believe that such things only happen to "other" people or peoples we are only a short step away from it being OK for a group to be attacked or killed because they are biologically or sociologically "inferior". This explains why American soldiers being killed in Iraq is a lot more newsworthy than Iraqis being killed.
No one nation or ethnicity is predisposed to violence. However, they can very easily be persuaded of its necessity.

I have much more to say on the subject but I'm up far too late for no good reason. Good post, as always.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure we don't have scapegoats in the U.S. anyway. The hatred and prejudice being expressed towards people with psychiatric disabilities is getting to the point where it is quite scary. "Liberals" make fun of the idea that we have civil rights, Democrats throw us to the wolves when the going gets tough.
There is a push on to get rid of all of our confidentialty rights on top of the push to get rid of our civil rights on top of a smaller push to make it harder for us to vote.

I found Alice Miller somewhat helpful in understanding the rise of the Nazi's in Germany, but I do think it can happen here, it has happened here, just never to that extreme. We had eugenics for over 50 years, we put Japanese American citizens in camps and stole their land and property, we performed inhumane medical research on African-Americans, people with intellectual disabilities and people with psychiatric disabilities.

Mary said...

In Scott Adams' Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel, he makes a point by detailing how you can put a slur on anyone you want and make headway to winning a debate by comparisons to Hitler...

"This is a surprisingly flexible technique because Hitler was a busy guy. He did everything from eating to painting landscapes to attacking the world. So if someone argues that napping is good for you, point out that Hitler liked napping too."

Got to admit that in the course of my education, the bits I found most absolutely shocking and gut-wrenching were things like the Milgram experiment and its contemporaries. Probably because the focus was on the people (and as you say, the "average-Joe-ness" of the people) doling out the torture rather than those suffering because of it.

Anonymous said...

Nazi Germany is one of my interests, i've many books about the period, and there's a *lot* to be learned about that tumultous period that is still, even 60 years later, affecting the world (and will do for many many years to come, i believe).

When it comes to the idea that nazi germany was evil and mad and so on.. no, it wasn't. Sure, individuals may've been (some of the guards and concentration camp soldiers would've been locked up today as sociopaths, i'm sure), but the majority of people were trying to do their best for those around them. It really doesn't take much to foster the belief that certain groups are sub-human, especially when those groups are already discriminated against, and the sense of power can lead people to do truly terrible things. Mary mentioned the milgram experiment; you could also read up on The Third Wave and the Stanford Prison experiment. All of these, and other experiments pretty much prove that the people in Nazi germany weren't unique or suffering from some societal madness.

Until mankind gets to grip with the lesson that unlimited power can do terrible things to people, we'll never learn what should be learned from that time period.

Cusp said...

This is a really brave post that helps to open up a debate about a period in history that is terribly difficult to assess.

Within my own family there are people who were directly affected by the Nazi regime (i.e. were taken away and put in Labour Camps). However, despite actually knowing people who took the brunt of the Hitler years, I agree that there is a kind of hysteria about the whole period, where someone like Ferry cannot utter a word without being shotdown and labelled as something he is almost certainly not.

Mind you, I do also wonder if it isn't a little easier to assess that period of history from a country that wasn't invaded and which therefore doesn't have a population scarred by painful memories of the various atrocities that occured on their own soil.

Sage said...

Beyond the Nazi stuff, the post made me think of the whole separatist movement in which sine women believe that life would be peaceful without men.

While I understand that some women can only feel safe without men around, I think it's serious scapegoating to believe that men are the sole evil-doers in the world. I think the potential for evil is in us all, and comes out in times of trauma, and fear-mongering, and power development. Pretending it's over there, not in here, is typically our undoing.

Sage said...

Um... "sine women" isn't code for anything weird or offensive. It's means "some women." - and me with all my fingers operational!

BloggingMone said...

I strongly believe that education is playing a big role. When the Nazis came to power, the number of jobless people was extremely high. Higher education had to be payed for and was out of reach for most people. The Nazi world was plain and easy to understand. People got work, people got someone to adore (Hitler) and people got someone to hate (jews and everyone who is different). The top Nazis problably all had a good education, but it always needs some leading figures, no matter who weired they are.
The trouble is that in certain areas of Germany the educational level is lower than ever before. these are the breeding areas for new Neo-Nazis. Same structure as 60 years ago: very well educated leaders (lawyers and so on) and a growing mass of non-educated, hopeless folks who are talking their world easy, because of a total lack of understanding of anything more complex.

The Goldfish said...

Thank everyone, I'm glad it made some sense and there are some excellent points here.

Fluttertongue, yes, I think it's part of human nature for us to value some people over others - people we associate or empathise with. It doesn't take a gigantic psychological leap from such a value system to one were people outside our group aren't seen as people at all.

Alison, absolutely; we don't have to be living in a totalitarian state for echos of this kind of behaviour to be felt. And yeah, people with mental ill health are and always have been one of the most vulnerable groups of people to those who require scapegoats, as well as those who get their kicks out of the power they have.

Mary, yes, some people delight in the idea that Hitler was a vegetarian (in fact, he wasn't really) as if that proves that there must be something wrong with vegetarianism.

Kethry, the Stanford Prison Experiment is a particularly interesting example because - whilst not actually perfect as a scientific study for all sorts of reasons - the students who participated had been carefully selected on the grounds of psychological 'normality'. Prof. Zimbardo who conducted the experiment has spoken out about eerie parallels with the experiment and what happened at Abu Grave prison in Iraq; young people, too much power, not enough authority, feeling morally justified to do exactly as they wanted.

Cusp, I do think that the fact that Ferry was talking in an interview with a German magazine kind of gives his words a level of tactlessness above their face value...

Sage, absolutely. It is a big mistake in feminism that, when we're dealing with injustices against women - particularly violence and exploitation - we can wind up thinking that men are fundamentally bad and women are incapable of all that shit. If women were in charge they'd be no wars kind of thing.

The reason that men start wars is that the people in charge start wars that the people in charge are more often than not men.

Bloggingmone, you're quite right and it is rather frightening, isn't it? People, especially those experiencing hardship themselves, just love a scapegoat.

Philip. said...

I won't even think about getting into the subject of Naziism.

Brian Ferry however - cool live!