Strakon Lights Up, No.
Evil in and out of context:
The Mutiny vs. the Holocaust
Like Chance the Gardener in the Peter Sellers movie "Being There," I like ... to watch ... teeveeee. Unlike Chance, however, I try to keep in mind the difference between what I see there and what I know of logic and the real world.
On Monday (the 18th) I caught the first episode of the new four-hour PBS documentary "Queen Victoria's Empire." The opening two-hour segment covers the period from Victoria's accession to the throne in 1837 through the death of Prince Albert in 1861, and it is an elaborately produced and well-crafted look at Victoria's life and times. Since it comes to us via the national socialist network, the program naturally is somewhat anti-capitalist but not virulently so.
True, the Industrial Revolution and the factory system are blamed for shortening the life span and worsening the living conditions of workers once they migrated to the city. Apparently we are to imagine that as farm laborers they luxuriated in a bucolic idyll, enjoying Methuselan longevity and lolling about in marble palaces, before making the inscrutable decision to come to town and descend into poverty and back-breaking toil. But the documentarians permit some good things to be said about free trade, and they properly indict the mercantilist Corn Laws for precipitating the Irish famine of the 1840s. Nowadays "free trade" is a misleading shibboleth of fascist globaloney and doesn't necessarily have a lot to do with actual capitalism the great Victorian free-traders Bright and Cobden might not even recognize it but, all in all, the program's ideological sermonizing is less offensive than I'd expected.
Its treatment of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 is even better balanced, albeit in an awkward way. You could say that the program's creators come within binocular sight of that distant goal, ideological neutrality, though they do have to walk through the valley of political correctness in order to do so. The documentarians and their on-camera historians survey the humiliation and exploitation of Indians both high and humble by the British East India Company and then lay out in blood-curdling detail some of the atrocities committed by the vengeful sepoys once they'd had quite enough. The worst of the mutineers' crimes described in the program is the massacre at Bibighar, where captured British men, women, and children were shot and butchered some by actual butchers. The remains of the women and children, who were the last to be slaughtered, were contemptuously thrown down a well.
Compared to that outrage alone, the aforementioned humiliation and exploitation of the Indians by the British, as recounted by the documentary, comes off looking awfully mild. But to restore neutrality, the documentarians produce a modern-day descendant of one of the rebel leaders who defends the massacre as just one of those things that happens in the struggle against oppression; and no interviewer interrupts his statement with indignant outbursts, hysterical demands for a self-abasing apology, or didactic, self-righteous non-question questions.
In addition, the talking-head historians carefully explain that the British Victorians were a strange old-fashioned sort of folk called "Christians," who, oddly enough, viewed the murder of helpless women and children as an unimaginable horror. They imply that progressive modern people wouldn't get nearly that upset over it. They are right, in a way: it has been many decades since we moderns have found unimaginable the kind of horror perpetrated at Bibighar.
The historians' spiel is followed by an unflinching account of the retributive atrocities the British inflicted on the Indians those of them who were mutineers, at least after suppressing the mutiny. Everyone has heard of one less-than-humane sanction the British sometimes employed: the strapping of a mutineer across the muzzle of a cannon, which was then fired. According to the program, Victoria herself, conscience-stricken, pressed for an end to the military terror.
As I suggest, the program reflects an odd sort of neutrality; the creators bend over backward in their determination to tell both sides of the story, and sometimes they almost fall over in doing so. However clumsily, though, they do establish a context for the Indian Mutiny, and they don't shrink from showing the revolt's revolting aftermath. They neither idolize nor demonize either side, despite each side's grievous sufferings and pitiless crimes.
Unlike Chance the Gardener, I had the benefits of a conventional education, and I was a conscientious little pupil, so even in adult life I can't help comparing and contrasting. And that's what I found myself doing the following night, Tuesday, while watching Part 3 of the new History Channel series "Hitler's Holocaust." Tuesday's episode dealt in part with the beginnings of the German occupation of Poland and the concentration of Polish Jews in ghettoes. Events in Hungary also received mention.
In the program on Victoria's empire, the history of India doesn't begin with the mutiny in 1857. But things are different in "Hitler's Holocaust." I can't say what Parts 1 and 2 have to say about the antecedents of German anti-Semitism, but in Part 3, so far as the Poles are concerned, history begins in 1939. Holocaust survivors tell of Christian Poles cheering as German soldiers shaved the beards of Orthodox Jews and joking as cattle cars full of Jews rolled past, but no attempt is made to place those nasty attitudes in historical context. In Hungary, history seems to have begun with the German occupation in 1944, as one survivor describes assaults against Jews in that country by "Hungarian Nazis," with no explanation of where those homegrown thugs might have come from. Those crimes occurred in a historical vacuum, so far as the documentarians are concerned.
But there was a historical context for all of those things, just as there was in 1857 for the sepoys' disproportionate violence and their unjust, misdirected vengeance against helpless British civilians. That context is touched on by Jewish political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg in The Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State and explored more thoroughly by Jewish historian Norman Cantor in The Sacred Chain: The History of the Jews. (Dr. Stephen J. Sniegoski's review of Ginsberg's book, from the October 1995 issue of The Last Ditch, has now been posted to the TLD site.) In mediæval and early modern times, Jews served as middlemen, tax farmers, and estate agents for the exploitative princes of Eastern Europe, building up a treasury of acid resentment among the peasantry quite separable from the "Christ-killer" and "well-poisoner" libels that are the sum and total of classic anti-Semitism in the modern mind. Moreover, Cantor writes, "the Jews were given a monopoly on the liquor trade in rural Poland and the Ukraine"; that privilege, too, was exploitative, like all official monopolies. (P. 183)
Cantor goes on to say that the "repressed and exploited peasants" of the Ukraine "had a right to resent the Jews, if not to kill them. The Jews were the immediate instrument of the Ukrainians' subjection and degradation." And he writes that "perhaps the Jews were so moved by racist contempt for the Ukrainian and Polish peasantry as to regard them as subhuman and unworthy of consideration under biblical considerations of justice and humanity. There is a parallel with the recent attitude of the West Bank Orthodox and semi-Orthodox toward the Palestinians." (P. 184)
That's not all. In Europe, in the decades preceding the Nazi revolution and the Second World War, Jews were inextricably implicated in the rise, victories, and atrocities of Bolshevism. Most of the leading Bolsheviks were, in fact, Jews. Only two years after pulling away from the disintegrating Russian Empire, Poland suffered a major invasion by the Red Army, which was commanded by Leon Trotsky (born Bronstein) and peppered with Jewish commissars. Under Lenin and Stalin, Jewish secret-police officials were prominent in fashioning and executing what has been called the Christian Holocaust, accounting for millions of victims.
In his article for the June-July 1995 issue of The Last Ditch, "Punishing truth: the stoning of Sobran," historical writer Phil Collier refers to "a widely held political belief of the 1920s" that did much to fan the flames of anti-Jewish hatred in Germany. He writes:
Large numbers of refugees from Soviet Russia flooded Berlin in those days. Their message was that the "Jewish leaders of the revolutionary regime" in Russia ... were killing Christians, and on a huge scale. Germans were vividly aware of these massacres: the accounts of the ... Russian refugees had a great impact on German opinion. For example, Hitler himself repeated their exaggerated figure of 28 million victims.... R.J. Rummel, in Lethal Politics, provides a more sober scholarly estimate: 17 million people murdered by the Bolshevik regime before Joseph Stalin took over.
So, too, must Poles and Hungarians have been "vividly aware" of the mass killings, being even closer to the scene of the crime than the Germans. Hungarians, indeed, had endured a short-lived but oppressive Bolshevik regime of their own in 1919, created and led by Bela Kun, a Jew.
Being aware of the context of the anti-Jewish outrages committed by Poles, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Balts, and others after the Wehrmacht occupied their countries is not to excuse any indiscriminately vengeful crimes against the helpless any more than being aware of the context of the Indian Mutiny is to excuse the sepoys' indiscriminate crimes. Rather, it should bring us somewhat closer to understanding, or at least perceiving, history's tangled web of tribal hatreds and feuds. And that might take us somewhat farther away from intervening, willy nilly, in such hatreds and feuds in faraway countries. It's easy to tell when the whirlwind is being reaped; it's not so easy to tell when you're helping sow it.
If Hitler's Holocaust were treated like most historical horror stories which have not taken on the quality of religious texts the passing of 56 years since its end should have rendered its telling similar to the telling of the Indian Mutiny. The crimes of one side would not be described as originating in contextless evil or psychosis, and the crimes of the other side would not be omitted altogether. Conscientious documentarians would report the savage vengeance that both tribes exacted whenever they had the chance, just as the makers of "Queen Victoria's Empire" report the savage vengeance exacted by both the mutineers and the British forces.
The incidence of TV programs on the Holocaust has steadily risen over the past few years, and this year the flow has turned into a deluge on HBO, Showtime, the History Channel, and the broadcast networks. A resident of a sane planet might reasonably conclude that TV consumers are becoming ever better educated about events in Europe during the middle third of the 20th century. In fact, however, today's slew of Holocaust programs only serves to de-educate viewers, because the shows relentlessly avoid the context-setting that is indispensable for historical understanding. With each contextless account of the Holocaust, the epistemological black hole at its heart becomes bigger and more impenetrable.
The chief promotional tag for "Hitler's Holocaust" sufficiently illustrates the fact that the series is not a responsible historical enterprise. It also tells us that the series' promoters share the Nazis' stupid collectivism. For the first time ever, the viewer is told, "German producers confront the crimes of their fathers and grandfathers."
Who would ever have predicted that so many children and grandchildren of SS troopers and camp guards would go into television?
June 23, 2001
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