To sit down for a full nine and a half hour showing of the Holocaust documentary ‘Shoah’ is to embark on a long-haul flight into terrible, dark skies. It may be a little glib to suggest that it would be of an ideal length to show on transcontinental journeys to and from Germany and Poland (and perhaps also Israel, of which more later), but in the face of the testimonies presented in the film, all aspects of life and all commentaries take on shades of glibness. It is oddly salutary to note that the same cinema that presented the film is also currently showing one by the noted Holocaust affirmer Mel Gibson (affirmer in the sense that those who would deny the Nazi genocide took place know full well that it did, they just thought it was a good thing).
The interviews are conducted in German, English, French, Polish, Hebrew and Italian. The consecutive translation from Polish meant that I was always trying to make sense of what could not be understood, which seems apt. Another curious thing is that a lot of the language used can be called Business German, given that people are describing, in the words of one former SS commander, ‘an efficient production line of death’. The talk is of Ware (merchandise), Verschiffungen (shipments), Verarbeite (processing) and technische Änderungen (technical changes). The purpose of the enterprise was partly to appropriate Jewish goods, a wealth accumulated over centuries during which repeated attempts were made throughout Europe to seize it; hence the Nazi’s Endlösung (final solution).
Now as I mentioned it is practically impossible to talk about the events described in the film without sounding trivial or as if one is revelling in the morbidity of it all. If Adorno famously found it impossible to conceive of how poetry could be written and art created after Auschwitz, a blog post written by me is certainly not going to add anything of meaning. The instrumental use of the Holocaust as a moral yardstick with which to draw comparisons is something explicitly rejected by, for example, the director of the film. However; it is hard to watch this scene without hearing future echoes in one’s brain of what happened in and after 1948, indeed is very much still going on, in another part of the world. I do not want to focus on this explosively contentious analogy here, nor is this the place to explore the uncanny resonances when the historian Raul Hilberg talks about what happened when the Greeks were unable to acquire enough Deutschmarks in order to exchange their stolen Jewish drachmas so they could pay for the selfsame Jews’ journey to death: they were forced to default.
One word that crops up repeatedly in Shoah is Gold. The Jews were the victims, Polish villagers tell us, not only because they were rich and lazy and their women were like sirens to the local men, but ‘because they were the richest’ and ‘they controlled the capital’. Primitive accumulation is clearly one of many reasons for the Nazi genocide.
We may be about to enter very deep waters of glibness, to coin a somewhat ungainly phrase. But still.
We are in a period in which what is most of value in this society is being converted into money. From the Cash for Gold ads on TV to the impending attempts to sell off our future health to the highest bidder, it is a process which David Harvey has characterised as ’accumulation by dispossession’. Everything must go, we are told: islands in Greece, pensions in Spain, social welfare here in the the UK, the sentimental objects you have accumulated in your attic. There is no alternative; everything, as Mark Fisher has pointed out, must be evaluated in terms of its immediate or potential exchange value, including ourselves. News has become Business News, philosophy has become Business Philosophy, and all this business is conducted in the new global language of Business English.
About this time last year I was at a music festival and I got chatting to a young woman who had just graduated in a health-related discipline. I mentioned that this was possibly not a great time to be doing so what with the impending destruction of the NHS, but she corrected me, saying that in her field of private health consultancy things were about to boom and opportunities abounded.
Now, I think in the broadest possible sense we as humans today tend to avoid reflecting too much on the broader consequences of the things we do all day at work, especially when jobs and careers are very difficult to obtain and easy to lose. Few people would be happy to fully accept that what they do for eight hours or more in their jobs makes the world a worse place. In any case, we are not for the most part the ones pulling the switches and deciding where the particular train on which we are riding is going to go. The same is true in the film; four Nazis are interviewed and they all have excuses and explanations – inevitably they did not know, or ‘they saw’ prisoners being beaten to death, by others doing the same job, and it was terrible, terrible for me…or literally in this case, I was so very busy working I never got round to asking where the trains I was coordinating were going, nor why there so very many of them, over such a long period, and anyway it wasn’t the done thing to ask…
To return for the final time this week to Zizek, he writes in ‘Violence’:
‘Hannah Arendt was right: these figures (the Nazis) were not personifications of sublime Byronesque demonic evil: the gap between their intimate experience and the horror of their acts was immense.’
No-one sees themselves as a personification of evil; we all have interior rationalisations of what we do. The horror of capitalism is not only that in commodifying our time and our mental and physical energies it also forces us to sell off our ethical consciousness; it is that it does the same to those around us, and our sense of what we should do is largely based on copying what others seem to think they should do. Zizek goes on to remind us:
‘The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie — the truth lies outside, in what we do.’
Much was written a number of years ago rightfully castigating the Sinead O’Connor line on the Hitlers and Stalins of history, that they were probably abused as children or something. But we were all abused as children. We simply cannot use it as an excuse to abuse others. And if we know that abuses are going on elsewhere in our name or for our cause, or as a result of our daily enterprises, whether for financial gain or out of some vicious inexplicable cruelty, we have an absolute moral imperative to stop them.