Wednesday, July 18, 2007

On the banality of evil - Part 2

Gandhi's suggestions for dealing with the menace of Nazism are infamous - collective suicide, give up and be slaughtered type solutions. Yes, it would be funny if it wasn't so tragic etc. but here's the question - it was far from collective suicide, but for the most part, didn't hundreds of thousands of Jews unknowingly follow his suggestion anyway? They filled out numerous forms, turned up at the transportation points on time, walked to the places of execution, dug their own graves, folded their clothes neatly, and lay down side by side to be shot. They walked to their own funeral knowingly. Why? Why board the train? In most cases, until the actual time of the shooting, no gun was pointed at them. Even if it were, why didn't twenty thousand people revolt and charge back at a few hundred guards? These were the kind of questions that were asked again and again during the trial by the prosecution, to every witness. Arendt says nobody came out and answered it though it was obvious. No other group had behaved differently, and most people just didn't want to die a thousand times before they actually died. But the prosecution raised the question anyway perhaps to bring out the contrast between "Israeli heroism and the meekness with which Jews went to their death".

Yes, perhaps if there had been a country for the Jews, a territory to call their own, a government, an army, the numbers might have been different. But, and this is the But that got Arendt into a lot of trouble and its worth quoting, so here - "But the whole truth was that there existed Jewish community organizations and Jewish party and welfare organizations on both the local and international level. Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis. The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people".

Note that she is not talking of the Jewish commandos in the extermination centers, Jewish workers in the gas chambers and crematoriums, or the Jewish technicians who built gas chambers in some of the concentration camps. She is also not talking of the Zionists in the mid-1930s who happily worked with the SS, and were free to come in and out of Germany - their motive was to select the best and get them out of Germany - legally or illegally - into Palestine. She is talking of the Jewish Council of Elders and the judenrate which in almost every country consisted of local community leaders. Their cooperation in every country was assured. They would distribute the yellow badges, compile list of persons to be deported, make sure the forms were filled correctly, secure money for the deportation, supply police forces to seize any Jews who didn't turn up and make sure they are put on the right trains, and before they themselves are transported to (usually) Theresienstadt, hand over all assets of the community. In Poland (where the situation was the most desperate), for instance, the nearly 3 million Jews who were killed saw maybe a handful of Germans on the way to their deaths. [A prominent member of the Hungarian judenrate was a witness during the trial and people screamed when he made his appearance - his point was that about fifty percent of the people who went underground were caught and tortured and murdered, and that's why the people were asked not to escape. The obvious question is (and Arendt is quick to ask), as opposed to what? 99% of those who didn't try to escape? ]

So without out the cooperation of the victims, would the numbers have been smaller? Possibly. From what we know today, we can even safely say Yes. But was it clear at that time? Probably not. There were some ghettos in which the judenrate were working with the resistance but these were the exceptions. Raul Hilberg (of the seminal The Destruction of the European Jews which of course I have not read in its entirety) goes beyond the judenrate and the community organizations when talking about the complicity of the victims - he puts it down (partly) to a very Jewish outlook - in trusting laws and contracts, in the essentially "Jewish calculation that the persecutor would not destroy what he could economically exploit" - it is perhaps because of this attitude, this strategy that we do not hear of many resistance stories.

Finally, for some proper history - the history of deportations outside the Reich and the Protectorate. The case of Denmark is well-known but its interesting to see what other countries did. Each country reacted differently to the German order to deport Jews within their territories and more than anything else, it was these reactions - of the government and the people of the country regardless of whether the country was German-occupied, independent or puppet - that decided the fate of the Jews in the specific country. Yes, despite the German might.

Lets start with Scandinavia:

- Finland: Finland joined the War on the side of the Axis powers. However the Finns were never asked to deport anyone, so the few hundred Jews of Finland survived the war.

- Sweden: Sweden was fully independent and was never occupied by Germany though for a while, they had signed a treaty allowing free passage of German troops through the country. Sweden was never asked to deport her Jews, and they all survived the war. Sweden also played an important role in ensuring the safety of the Jews living in Denmark and Norway by offering them asylum in their time of need.

- Norway: Most of the ~2000 Jews in Norway were stateless (Stateless Jews were the first ones to be deported first from the countries; Germany revoked citizenship for any Jew living outside Germany so they were all stateless) and were seized to be deported. Norway, unlike the other Nordic countries, had enthusiastic pro-Nazi supporters with a party and an anti-semitic leader (Remember Quisling?) However, when Eichmann's office demanded these Jews be deported to Auschwitz, some of the party's own men resigned their government posts. Sweden immediately offered asylum to the Jews. Germans didn't agree of course but more than half the Jews were smuggled out to Sweden and they survived the war.

- Denmark: I know. Everyone knows about Denmark but I never tire of speaking about it, so here. The only non-violent resistance to Nazi policy in history and guess what? It worked![1]

When the Danes were told to issue yellow badges to the Jews, they replied that their King would be the first to wear it. Also that any anti-Jewish measures would cause mass resignations. The Danes refused to distinguish between the Danish Jews and the stateless German Jewish refugees. (even though the refugees weren't allowed to work in Denmark) The German military commander ordered a state of emergency but the Germans soon discovered that even their plenipotentiary Dr Best could not be trusted. Eichmann sent some of his best men to Denmark but nothing seemed to work. Finally Dr Best went to Berlin and obtained a promise that all Jews from Denmark would be sent only to Theresienstadt and not to any of the death camps. Immediate seizure was the plan - since no one was available, German police units arrived for a door-to-door search. Just before the search started, Dr Best informed them that they were not permitted to break into apartments as the Danish police would intervene then. Out of the 7,800 Jews at home, about 500 opened their apartment doors and were seized (as news didn't reach them soon enough. The Danish government was tipped off before and they made sure that all Jewish community leaders knew about this who openly communicated this in synagogues during services) The Jews went into hiding which was not a huge issue as they were welcome in almost every Danish home. And no, they didn't live out the war in hiding. Thanks to Sweden. Who immediately offered asylum. Most of the Jews were smuggled across in ferries and the cost of transportation was taken care of by wealthy Danish citizens. Yes, in a time when the Jews had to pay for their own deportation, here the transportation costs for smuggling them to safety were paid by Danish citizens!

These Scandinavians! They always do things differently, eh? No, not really. How do you explain the fact that in two of the most important non-Reich countries in the continent, in Vichy France and in Mussolini's Italy (which included Italian-occupied South of France), a majority of Jews survived the war?

(To be continued. The original intention was to write two sentences on each country but obviously that ain't working out and I still have to get to France, Italy, Holland and the countries of the East. So. And yes, I know there's nothing new. Its just history that I want to put in one place for me to refer back)

[1]Agreed, Denmark wasn't directly under the Germans - Germany had overrun Denmark, and there was a Reich plenipotentiary in Copenhagen[2] but they had their King and government. Plus there weren't that many Jews there in the first place. And a host of other reasons. So yes, just because it worked in Denmark doesn't mean it would have worked in other places but well, it could have been tried, no?

[2] one Dr Werner Best who might have played one of the most dangerous double roles by a German in Holocaust history. Remember we talked about how when Nazi criminals were tried in the country where the crimes were committed, they always got the death penalty? Dr Best was the one of the few (if not the only) exception - his death sentence was reversed on appeal and considering the history, it wasn't very surprising

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