Saturday, November 9, 2013

Remember, remember, the ninth of November

It is very possible to get post-traumatic stress disorder from reading European history. The kind where you simply break down and withdraw from the world for a while, due to the sheer despair of it all.

The utter, total and brutal despair of it all. Made all the worse for also being utterly, totally and brutally meaningless.

One point to illustrate this is the beginning of the First World War. The Great War. At the start in 1914, the militaries looked pretty much as they did in 1814 - think cavalry, brightly colored uniforms, drill formations marching into battle. The prevailing notion was that of the glorious charge - the way to go about things military was to attack, and then to attack some more until there was nothing left to attack. It was simple, it was glorious, and it was a great honor to fight and die for your country.

War was a thing of glory, where boys were turned into heroes.

And then the Great War happened. And they attacked. And they died. And attacked. And died. And attacked. And died.

Human beings have a keen sense of situational awareness. No matter how glorious it is to die for your country in a heroic charge, the glorious heroism fades away rather quickly when hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands have died in a charge against an enemy line. One enemy line, unmoving, unchanging, remaining as intact after the first five thousand casualties as it was before it all started. With the one difference that you can now hide from enemy fire behind the fresh mounds of corpses of those who came before.

Heroism died in the trenches. Only to be replaced with the bureaucratic coldness that would send millions more to their deaths, written off as the expected quota of dead maintenance necessary in order to keep the status quo going a little longer.

There was no glory or honor in it. There was only death.

In the millions.

When the war ended, it left Europe with a generation scarred from the war. Literally and figuratively. Crippled war veterans lined the city streets, and the despair from the futility of the war left many demoralized. Or radicalized, as the case might be - those who were still able to fight had the idea that a communist revolution might be just the thing to move things along.

There was no glory to be found. But no peace, either. Demoralized by despair or rallied by revolution, life agonized forward. All under the now very modern bureaucratic administrations of the new governments put in place. The old monarchies were gone - no more Kaiser, no more Czar, no more Sultan. No more of the old world. The new order painted everything grey.

Those who planned the Great War thought it would be over in a couple of months, at the most. After that, things would go back to normality - the various nations would resume their scheming and plotting and political backstabbing and all the rest of it. As they had for centuries.

Needless to say, they didn't.

Instead, something else grew out of this. Where the old monarchies relied on glory and nationalism to legitimate their doings, the new bureaucracies relied on centralization, planning and efficiency. After the madness, there were to be method to things - central planning, coordinated policies, scientific management. From the ashes of the old world, something new would be built. And it would be built on time, within budget and according to plan.

This last part is the most horrific. If there is any one part that causes the most despair, that is it. We will get to that.

The title of this post mentions the ninth of November. The date this alludes to happened in 1938, twenty years after the end of the Great War. But in order to put the Kristallnacht and what followed it into perspective, the backdrop of the First World War is necessary. The pointless war, the demoralized populace, the increased bureaucratization of state power - they all coalesce into the horrors that were the Second World War and the Holocaust.

The Holocaust had administrators. There were bureaucrats working with tireless German efficiency to work out the most efficient ways to organize everything - in detail. From compiling census data on how many Jews there were, to calculating how many Jews could be fitted into a cargo train, to organizing the trains so that they could get from where they were to the concentration camps, to formulating the most efficient guidelines for how to kill them once they were there. It was all to be made on time, within budget and according to plan.

The Holocaust had a budget. It had a plan. It was all legal.

It was all legal.

And since it was all organized, it was divided up into different parts. Any one part was not important in and of itself, but taken together, they grinded the gears forward toward the end result. The division of labor was such that everyone did what they did as if they had ordinary jobs. Because that's what they had. It was all so organized that the totality of the operation fell outside the scope of everyday activity, and it became all the more efficient for it. Those who repaired trains repaired trains, those who pushed papers pushed papers, and so on. Honest people with honest jobs, getting paid for doing a good job - not knowing what they were contributing to.

The Holocaust was not just a couple of madmen who one day got an idea to kill all the Jews. It was the result of millions of people working in organized synergy toward that end goal, each one of them doing their small part to contribute to the whole. Whatever they did. As long as they followed the laws and kept the system operating at a stable pace, they helped keep the routine execution of the plan going. The very fact that they were law-abiding, ordinary and decent citizens gave legitimacy to what was going on.

To put it brutally: you either helped the Holocaust in some way, or you were out of a job.

The true horror was the scale of it. The inertia of it. Take out any one part of the system, and honest people would respond by sending job applications to the new openings. Honest people would do honest work, and millions would die as a result.

There was glory in war once. It died with the First World war.

There was glory in doing a decent day's labor once. It died in the Holocaust.

Alongside this, the Second World War raged. And contrary to what Hollywood movies likes to tell you, the brunt of the raging went on on the east front. Germany and the Soviet Union sent their armies clashing, the latter more so than the former. It is famous how the Soviets sent wave after wave of barely armed people at the Germans, pointing machine guns at their backs. The thought was simple: send enough cannon fodder, and the Germans would eventually run out of cannons. It didn't matter what this cannon fodder did or how it got there - as long as it soaked up bullets, it served its purpose. It didn't even matter who they were - a common practice was to empty the mental institutions and send the inmates toward the awaiting Germans. Sanity was not required in order to die for the cause.

There was method to the madness. It was cold, ruthless method, but method nonetheless.

The Germans advanced. As they did, the Russians retreated, and scorched the earth behind them, leaving nothing to eat. Those who happened to live along the way soon found that they didn't - if the Russians didn't recruit them, the lack of food didn't starve them, or the Germans outright killed them, the oncoming winter would.

The Russians have a traditional ally, commonly called General Winter. He stopped Napoleon when he tried to take Moscow, and he slowed down the Germans when they tried to do the same. He didn't stop them, though. But when they reached Moscow they discovered something: there was no food to be had there, either. Neither for them or the non-relocated locals. And it was cold. As in minus forty centigrade cold.

Cold enough that people died along the way. At night a soldier would fall asleep, and next morning he would be a frozen corpse. Another casualty of war. Another calculated loss.

And if the terrain turned out to be uncooperative, these corpses could be used to create paths for the supply train. Smooth out the terrain, make the going easier.

Between all these cold, ruthless methods, millions died. As the saying goes, it's statistics at this point.

Eventually the war ended. But the history of Europe didn't end, and neither did the despair. As meaningless as the First World War was, nothing broke the back of optimism as much as the fact that it happened again.

Adorno said it was impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz. He had reason to say so.

What followed was the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, and the DDR. Where the bureaucratic survivors of the war took the lessons learned to heart, and applied even more bureaucratic and administrative oversight in order to secure that the new world was built properly. On time, within budget and according to plan.

The result was the soul-crushing dystopia of applied modernity. On the east side of the Iron Curtain we got the communist version, and on the west side we got the capitalist version. Both of them equally capable and willing to trample corpses in order to achieve results. Especially when they tried to outdo each other in their respective capabilities to kill each and every human being alive.

Twice, thrice. Should it come to that.

The Cold War ended. The Soviet Union ceased, the Iron Curtain fell, the Berlin Wall did likewise. Yet the despair continues, as it is clear that the bastion of freedom in the west has taken upon itself the role of making extra sure that the modern project is built on time, within budget and according to plan. No matter how many new, noncold wars they'll have to fight to make it so.

And at home, there are those who say that the ideas that so many millions died so needlessly because of - are actually the way forward. And every year, there are ever more people that listen and nod in agreement. As if no one had learned anything.

There is no end to history. It just continues.

Call it despair. Call it post-traumatic stress. It's European.

Remember, remember, the ninth of November.

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