Books: The Crystal Bucket : Not the chief |
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Not the chief

Quis custodiet custodes? It is a good idea for writers to monitor the broadcasters, who tend not only to abuse the English language, but to encourage the notion that it is all right for everybody else to abuse it too. But who will monitor the monitors? Reviewing a play in the Evening Standard on Thursday, Milton Shulman wound up in fine style. ‘Gracefully played and beautifully directed by Peter Wood, I was impressed rather than moved by these chatty, elusive, insubstantial people.’ Here, I think, Milty does himself a disservice. He is neither played by an actor, nor told what to do by a director. The role of Milton Shulman is taken, incomparably, by Milty himself.

Meanwhile Leonid Brezhnev was making what must surely be one of his last appearances. Still made up for a bit part in Planet of the Apes, Brezhnev was to be seen shambling around Vienna, whither he had come to make his mark on the SALT agreement. The cameras could tell you little about him. Either he was barely alive or else he was already dead and being operated by remote control from the Kremlin.

According to his official biography, which it took the whole of the Central Committee’s Marxist-Leninist Institute to write, Brezhnev spent the late 1930s doing ‘party work’ in the Ukraine. He was, in other words, engaged in the task of killing people by the thousands. But in that ugly mug of his there is no trace of any experience more haunting than acute boredom.

The human face can tell you quite a lot about transient emotions, a little about character, and almost nothing about what the person wearing it has been doing with his life. I would be surprised if anyone could have told what Gustav Franz Wagner had been up to from just looking at his rather distinguished features. Interviewed on Panorama (BBC1), he gave the impression, to look at him, of being a man of some intelligence who had unfortunately been overtaken by senility. He is, however, or at any rate was, the man who did his best to make Sobibor extermination camp even more hellish than it was supposed to be.

Luckily we had more to go on than the way he looked. There was the way he sounded. It instantly became apparent that Wagner had the intellectual complexity of a turnip. ‘I was not the chief,’ he mumbled. ‘I was the sub-chief.’ Lest we had missed the point, he went on to explain that the chain of command stretched all the way up to the Führer himself. By the time the orders got down as far as Wagner there was no possibility of argument. ‘I didn’t have much responsibility.’

Wagner denied that he had ever looted the belongings of those who had been killed. ‘It is against my deepest convictions.’ Leaving aside the fact that the SS trafficked in loot as a matter of official policy, here was an instructive example of the universal truth that nobody believes himself to be without ethics. Clearly Wagner still credits himself with a highly developed sense of duty. Yet he made sure that the inhabitants of his camp died a thousand deaths instead of just one.

He made the other officers seem kind by comparison, so that one survivor still remembers them fondly as being, not sadists like Wagner, but reasonable men who imposed no unnecessary suffering as they got on with the job of gassing people on an industrial basis.

All the evidence suggests that Wagner enjoyed murdering people. He thus presents a less taxing moral problem than those of his colleagues who didn’t particularly enjoy it, but went ahead and did it anyway. When he calls himself ‘an ordinary man like anybody else’ he misstates the case. Nevertheless he is worrying enough. At the moment it looks as if the impact in Germany of the American TV series Holocaust will ensure that a statute of limitation on Nazi atrocities will not be imposed. There is, then, still a slim but heartening possibility that men like Wagner will be called to account.

Just because revenge is pointless — how can one man’s eye pay for the eyes of thousands? — does not mean that there should be no reckoning, if only to clear the air of the euphemisms that insult the dead. ‘We were engaged in top secret Reich work,’ drones Wagner. Like Brezhnev’s ‘party work’ in the Ukraine, this was the work of Satan and should be revealed for what it is to the generations who will have the dubious privilege of succeeding us.

Continuing its useful series of repeats, Yesterday’s Witness (BBC2) once again brought us Gergana Taneva, a quietly eloquent lady who survived Ravensbrück, perhaps for the specific purpose of giving us at least some idea of what life is like when people whose highest morality is to obey orders are controlling your fate. ‘They were absolutely normal people,’ she insisted.

She never even had the comfort of being able to blame her sufferings on a madman like Gustav Franz Wagner. The people doing these things were people like her. ‘We learned not to be vocal about things.’ Not to be vocal, that is, while your daughter or your mother, who had been worked to exhaustion before you had, was taken away in front of your eyes to be put to death.

In Nazi Germany there was no such thing as a miscarriage of justice, because there was no justice. The same has applied to the Soviet Union since the day of its inception. In a democracy like ours the law might be an ass but at least it exists. Not that to love the law necessarily means to love lawyers. On the whole one’s dealings with the legal profession are best confined to regular watching of Rumpole of the Bailey (ATV). In Rumpole, it is by now clear, John Mortimer has created one of the truly durable television figures. Leo McKern has only to put that frazzled wiglet on his head and your evening is a success.

In the latest episode of his adventures, Rumpole defended a home-grown racist fanatic and got him acquitted. The message was that freedom of speech is a right which means nothing if it is not extended to those who abuse it. The judge was a racist himself. Luckily the law was not. As usual, Featherstone and Erskine Browne provided the necessary contrast to Rumpole’s rumpole appearance. Already he is an adjective. He is also an idea.

‘Malaysia has now said it won’t be shooting boat people after all.’ Thus ran the encouraging message on the news programmes. It was reported that the responsible Malaysian Minister, who had previously been quoted as announcing the intention of ‘shooting them on sight’, was now saying that he had only recommended ‘shooing them on sight’.

Nobody in the boats was heard to laugh at this joke. In Thucydides, after the climactic battle, the winners put the losers in a hole without food or water, and wait. The only difference between then and now is that we can see it on television.

24 June, 1979