Books: Visions Before Midnight — The hard taskmasters |
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The hard taskmasters

Apportioned between two successive Tuesday evenings, The Final Solution: Auschwitz (Thames) had more time than its parent episode in The World at War to make sense of its material. Within certain limits the pro-gramme did a good job. It looked inadequate only when attempting the impossible.

Further efforts were made towards presenting some of the mountain of original footage which research had gathered in for The World at War. A black-and-white phantasmagoria, the stuff made hideous viewing, even though it had been edited for contemplation rather than for shock. The programme wound its chronological way through the Thousand Year Reich from the first SS torch-light rallies to the ultimate paroxysms of the Nazis’ self-imposed ‘task’. There were clips or stills from most of the staging posts along their demented path. Where visual documentation ended — within the camps — there were interviews with participants.

Spokesmen for those who had suffered were well chosen. As the Eichmann trial demonstrated, witnesses who, usually for good reason, can’t achieve some kind of emotional distance, however small, from an extreme experience can in the end do little to revivify it. The few interviewed by the programme were mainly either dispassionate or epigrammatic. One of them was outright funny. There was a solitary woman, out of the thousands still alive, who showed how she felt when her child was taken away. That was enough, or rather all that was useful, since if we couldn’t draw the proper conclusions from her grief then multiplying it by any number — even by the number of similar mothers dead — would not help us.

Irony was kept well at bay. There is so much irony lying around this particular stretch of history that it would take a fool not to detect it, and a bigger fool to think it needed bringing out. Considering that the victims, when they arrived at the extermination camps, were ordered into showers which turned out to be gas-chambers, it was a cosmic irony to discover that a propaganda film of 1944, snappily entitled Hitler Has Given the Jews a City and aimed at tempting the helpless unprotestingly to their doom, featured a sequence in which happy people took showers. This was literally beyond a joke — a point which the commentary mercifully saw no necessity for making. There was more of Himmler’s boy assistant Hans Wolff, the unintentional comic turn of the World at War episode. Perhaps it isn’t enough to thank our lucky stars that we weren’t victims. We ought to thank them that we weren’t Wolff, who is the walking embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s much-misunderstood thesis that evil is banal — by which she meant that we ought to ask ourselves about the ordinary people who get mixed up in perpetrating it, rather than about the obvious monsters. Wolff is so ordinary he’s phenomenal, still full of the ‘difficulties’ of the ‘task’.

In Part Two Wolff told the story of Himmler’s famous trip to Minsk. Himmler made Wolff watch a mass execution by shooting. Himmler got a spurt of blood on his uniform, turned green and waxed eloquent about the ‘hard task’. It is difficult to know what to make of Himmler and the programme sensibly didn’t preoccupy itself with sorting him out. He was terrifically mad, but then so are a lot of the people in mad-houses. Madness is quite ordinary, so the banality-of-evil theory remains unshaken. What was slightly unusual was to find an utter maniac running the police apparatus of a modern State.

Such questions were the responsibility of the commentary. The World at War was generally greeted by the critics as a distinguished series. Despite the sheer brilliance of its research I thought it rather less than that, principally because the commentary fudged points. There is a way of being simple while keeping faith with the complexity of events. Terse writing can do it. But The World at War commentary usually achieved only elision when it strove for compression, was too often simplistic rather than simple, and paradoxically sounded long-winded even at its most taciturn. The thing just wasn’t written very well.

The commentary of The Final Solution was much nearer the mark. The necessary minimum of information was readily forthcoming. There is an inherent distortion in reducing twelve years of grief to a couple of hours of tele-vision, but granted that it’s worth trying, this was the way to do it, although certain consequences followed inexorably. Chief among these was that the word ‘Auschwitz’ was further reinforced as a Duckspeak tag for the whole multiform experience.

Only once did a map appear showing the full extent of what has usefully been called the Concentrated Universe. Auschwitz was a big piece of it but not by any means all, and to encourage the use of that one name as an emblem is to engage in the mental equivalent of haplography. Since a poet as serious as Robert Lowell has done the same thing in his poetry, I suppose the process is inevitable, but there’s no reason to be happy about it.

Still, with all that said, the commentary did well, even with the awkward question of why the Jewish councils co-operated. When the voice-over started talking about ‘too little concerted opposition’ I thought for a giddy moment that the day was lost, but the point was soon amplified into ‘people either didn’t care enough, or were intimidated’, and after that the crucial datum was made more and more clear — i.e., that the intimidation was unanswerable. The place to resist was in the ghetto, before the journey to oblivion began: but the S.S. had a way with ghettos that resisted.

The central moment of the programme came after an interview with an S.S. man called Richard Böck. A caption stating that he had refused to engage in the killing despite all threats of punishment was screened in silence long enough for us to make of the information what we could. My own conclusion was that Böck was a hero and that it is useless to expect the mass of men to behave like heroes. We should do our best to guard free institutions and not expect people to improve.

Regarded in this light, the commentary’s more sententious statements were pious rhetoric. ‘Auschwitz is history. Racial intolerance still persists.’ Of course it does, and always will. ‘We all have a responsibility to see that no one builds another Auschwitz.’ On the contrary, we should devote ourselves to preserving more immediate freedoms, resisting in the ghetto. Responsibility begins and ends with what one can hope to achieve. But on the whole the programme was a lot less self-confidently minatory than that. It was written and directed by Michael Darlow.

24 August, 1975