Murder in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Capitalism, Refugees and the Holocaust

/ by Vladimir Arsenić

On the 27th of January, the whole of Europe was remembering the Holocaust, the most elaborate crime ever conducted in history. And that is the way things should be, because there are still people who think that it is just a product of collective imagination, and not an actual attempt to annihilate every Jew on European soil, resulting in the murder of no fewer than six million people. By remembering this crucial event in their history, the people of Europe are saying this cannot happen again. It is an obligation to remember, but is it true that it belongs to history? Do we really believe that a crime of that scale cannot be repeated, or is it just a matter of perspective? This is the very gap I would like to turn our attention to, the difference between what happened and how it happened, and our belief that simply by remembering, by the process of memorialization, we make certain it will not be repeated. Unfortunately, I have to argue, it is being prepared again, and the preparations are taking place right here, right now, before our eyes that refuse to see, and our ears that refuse to hear. And if we decide only to stand and watch, it will occur, again. But let’s start at the beginning.

Poet of the Week
Athena Farrokhzad
(Untitled)

My mother said: A woman dug out her mother’s eyes with her fingers

so the mother would be spared the sight of the daughter’s decline

The history of antisemitism, which resulted in the Holocaust, is very well documented by its survivors, as well as perpetrators, and this word, documented, is the main reason why we can still remember the Holocaust, but not other crimes. Indeed, there have not been any similar crimes in Europe’s history, although there have been many atrocities. Still, the hatred is always the same. And there are, in most cases, two sources for its appearance: fear and greed. The former is something that is imposed upon us in everyday life, through great narratives (one of them being “the European way of life”) which are not to be questioned, and it is connected to what in social theory is called "moral panic:” a feeling of fear spread among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society. Greed, which lies behind, hidden and often invisible, is where these narratives come from.

I am well aware that this is an over-simplification, but I would like to prove a point. If you take any propaganda material from Nazi Germany, you will find manipulation and dissemination of fear in every poster, movie, or book that was canonized by Hitler’s power apparatus. Take, for example, the famous poster Der ewige Jude on which a bearded man, with what is conceived as a typical Jewish nose, is depicted. He is wearing a long black overcoat and kippah and is holding a few coins or pieces of gold, as if offering them to the viewer, while in his other hand he is hiding a long whip. By his side, we can see a piece of parchment on which hammer and sickle are presented as the symbols of communism. The people in Germany in those times, and throughout Europe, for that matter, knew very well what it meant. The simplified concept was that the Jews possess wealth and with it they were bribing the pure Germans, thus they were a threat to society. However, at the same time, they were more than ready to exploit them and take them over to communism. In other words, they were the danger, the pest that had to be eliminated in order for society to maintain its peaceful existence. The poster was meant to instill fear, but behind it there was nothing more than a plain desire to rob the wealth of the Jews, which started with Kristallnacht and ended in concentration camps. The imminent war had to be funded somehow.

The luck, if it is possible to talk about such a notion when discussing the Holocaust, was that Jews had written down everything: before, at the time of the happening, and in the aftermath. Needless to say, there is a great tradition of written culture among Jews, besides the Torah, the Talmud and other sacred books. In every community, in every shtetl, every city throughout the world, there is a thing called Sefer Yizkhor (Hebrew for The Book of Remembering), which is basically an archive in which everything that has happened in that community is carefully penned down. Among other things, thanks to these books, we can now get a very clear picture of what was going on during the Holocaust, how many people were murdered, and the ways in which they suffered. Along with these Sifrei Yizkhor (for instance, The Chronicle of Lodz ghetto, which was the basis for an excellent novel by Steve Sam Sandberg, The Emperor of Lies), one must not forget the work of Yad Vashem museum, Yale Holocaust Survivors Film Archives and other institutions and persons.

Another thing worth mentioning is the fact that, from the second half of 19th century, after 1848, and up until 1933 Jews, were a well-integrated part of German and European society and culture. They were present long before that, but the integration, and coming out of the ghettos, came as a result of industrialization and growth in city populations, although they were constantly perceived as Others. Along with the rise of the Jewish population in Europe, antisemitism rose too, and it is common knowledge that its peak, the Holocaust, could not have happened, were it not for capitalism. Such a kind of massive destruction was only possible in the age of mechanical reproduction, as presented in Charlie Chaplin's classic Modern Times, in which Little Tramp is sucked up in the machine while trying to keep up with the production on the assembly line. But in the concentration camps, the people-swallowing and death-producing machines simply could not have been stopped. Their production was always at the highest level, till it had reached six million that were fried in ovens, as Bob Dylan puts it in his song “With God on Our Side.” So here we arrive at another problem: justification. For the perpetrators, the Holocaust was not a crime, it had been done in God's name, it was his will, and you may, of course, change ideologies or religions, but the justification is equally important, if you want to produce such a crime, well-organized and massive in numbers. In other words, you need the state. The testimony of Adolf Eichmann, as presented in Hannah Arendt's famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem, is a straightforward proof of that.

So we now have a list of several ingredients which are needed in order to conceive another Holocaust, here in Europe, or in the States, or in any other country designed upon the western model: fear (that helps create moral panic), greed, justification. And we only have to look around and find them as present as ever, and the scene for the catastrophe is laid bare.

After the Fall of the Wall in Berlin, the most prominent symbolic event in recent European history, and the breakdown of the USSR and other socialist regimes across Eastern Europe, new national states emerged. In the 90s, they were enjoying the newly-discovered freedom. Well, all except the countries that once formed Yugoslavia, but the beginning of the new millennium brought a terrifying hangover. They, or should I say we, all just woke up one day, to find out that capitalism was not the solution we’d thought it was, and the instant search for the new enemy to blame for our headaches started. In other words, our regimes sought a new basis for the state of moral panic, as it is the most convenient tool for governing. When afraid, a person or a society does not have the strength to raise his/its head up and look around, and can simply not think clearly enough.

 

"This is a list of several ingredients which are needed in order to conceive another Holocaust, here in Europe, or in the States, or in any other country designed upon the western model: fear (that helps create moral panic), greed, justification."

 

Along came the refugees from the Middle East, and they became the convenient Others who started to pour over the borders of Europe and the western world. As long as they were coming in small numbers, and were used as the labor force, mostly in the black market, things were just fine. But last year, the whole affair started to get worse. Suddenly the Other, or the Others, took the shape of a flooding river, and the scenes from Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia and Austria became very unpleasant, because they could not be hidden from the media. The migration crisis struck us with full force, and we were taken aback. But it lasted only a few moments. As soon as we had recovered from the shock, we found ourselves in the shadow of the new walls, barbed-wire fences, police squadrons at the borders and fierce words from European and American politicians.

The social hysteria or the history is, as ever, playing with us. In the last two years, brutal attacks in Paris were another cause for the homogenization, as our (modern, civilized, western) values were struck upon. It all ended in calls to forbid Muslims from entering the United States of America, or calls to arms because refugees looked like an army, or cries to stop all immigration, legal or illegal, without even noticing that there is, to say the least, a drop of guilt from “our” side. As Zygmunt Bauman in his recent article pointed out: “...we now bear the consequences of the profound, and seemingly prospectless destabilization of the Middle-Eastern area, in the aftermath of miscalculated, foolishly myopic and admittedly abortive policies and military ventures of Western powers.”

If the modern times were the age of mechanical reproduction, then the postmodern times are the age of truth-in-media. I am not stating anything new, but nowadays nothing exists if it does not appear in the media. There is, of course, the other side to the coin: the great danger of being neglected by the media. Not only in that one cannot see the suffering of the refugees, since related news lost its position in the everyday order, but in that they are receiving our attention only when we are accusing them of something – of being thieves, rapists and terrorists, for instance. And the truth is that, every day, there are at least a thousand people entering Serbia alone, and since the foreign minister, with a typically threatening look and a raised finger, promised that no refugee will stay, the people are still trying to help them – in good faith that they will eventually leave. But in the so-called destination countries, they are not welcome, they are the main cause of moral panic, and they are treated accordingly.

There is another problem and one that is crucial, one that compelled me to make this bold comparison between the refugee crisis and the preparation of the Holocaust. The refugees are strangers. They are the ultimate Other, and we are not aware of their Sifrei Yizkhor. We are not aware of their contribution to our “beloved culture.” For the majority of Europeans, they are just colonized subjects who can barely speak. Thus the proposition by the British Prime Minister: “I think it’s quite right to say to people who come to our country that there are many rights that you have here — it’s a fantastic country to live in — but there are also obligations that we should put on people who come to our country, and chief amongst them should be obligations to learn English, because then you can integrate, you can take advantage of the opportunities here and you can help us to build the strong country that we want.” And if you do not learn our language, what then? Are we going to send you back where you belong, to the hell which we created for you by imposing our democracy and our prevalently economic values onto your soon-to-be-our land, rich in oil and ideal for global arms traders?

I would like to quote the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, whose surname in Hebrew means “my people live.” He was born in Würzburg, Germany in 1924, and emigrated to Israel in 1935:

Let the memorial hill remember instead of me,
that's what it's here for. Let the park in-memory-of remember,
let the street that's-named-for remember,
let the well-known building remember,
let the synagogue that's named after God remember
let the rolling Torah scroll remember, let the prayer
for the memory of the dead remember. Let the flags remember
those multicolored shrouds of history: the bodies they wrapped
have long since turned to dust. Let the dust remember.
Let the dung remember at the gate. Let the afterbirth remember.
Let the beasts of the field and birds of the heavens eat and remember.
Let all of them remember so that I can rest. 

But who will remember for the refugees? No park will be named after one of them, no street, no well-known building. We are going to stand in silence for the six million Jews killed in Europe, and for those who survived as well, like my grandmother, or Primo Levi, or Paul Celan, and then died or committed suicide. And we shall be proud when, at the end of the ceremony, comes a time to say: “Never to be forgotten.” But what about those nameless who are still living, and roaming our lands, roads and railroads and suffering around us, and who we only threaten and refuse to let into our “perfect” world, that is more and more fenced with barbed wire and armed forces? The rest of the similarities are too obvious to mention. Ask yourself if that is the world you would like to live in. And then start to work towards your chosen answer.

....
Vladimir Arsenić

graduated in comparative literature from the Tel Aviv University (master degree). He is a regular critic of the internet portal e-novine.com and booksa.hr. He published texts for the Think Tank, Beton, Quorum, pescanik.net, proletter.org. He was a mentor on the project Criticize this! with Srdjan Srdić, he teaches creative writing in Hila workshop. He is a regular contributor to literary festival Cum grano salis in Tuzla, BiH. His texts are translated into albanian and slovenian. He translates from English and Hebrew. With friends, he edits a literary magazine Ulaznica that is published in Zrenjanin. He supports Tottenham Hotspur FC. 


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