Thursday, January 13, 2011

A lesson from the past

For me, the most fascinating--and appalling--"result" of the Tucson massacre is the right’s almost total lack of self-examination, the extreme-right media’s promise not to be “cowed” by criticism of its hate-filled harangues, and the political left’s apparent desire to avoid the appearance of “partisanship” by declining to discuss the implication that citizens must arm themselves against a government that seems only to be identified with Democrats. For at least a year we have been talking about the increasing stridency of the right’s anti-government, anti-immigrant rhetoric with its suggestion that violent action was needed; it was only a matter of time before some “nut” took the bait. Now that the inevitable has occurred in Tucson, as we all knew, deep down, would eventually happen, the victimizers and the victims have joined hands in “unity,” as if nothing really happened at all. While DHS and the FBI are busy setting-up minorities as “terrorists,” ignored is the fact that an unknown number of white “crazies” are lurking about, ready to respond like “patriotic” minutemen to the call to arms against the "enemy."

The ambiguous response to the meaning of the Tucson massacre, especially by the media that in large part contributed to the atmosphere of hate that permitted it, is instructive to the “natural” response of people most guilty to hide behind the conceit of “plausible deniability,” and their neighbors turning a blind eye to their crimes, because they know that in their silence they were equally as culpable. Only the man who pulled the trigger is guilty; those who propelled him forward in his evil design with their hate propaganda hypocritically join in his denouncement. Having done so, the act is soon to be forgotten. We have seen this kind of denial before: By the Germans and particularly the Japanese following World War II. In France, a scene in the film “Night and Fog” that showed Frenchmen guarding a Jewish deportation camp was forced by censors to be partially disguised so that France would not be embarrassed by the suggestion of collaboration. The 1988 Oscar-winning documentary “Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie” was recently released on DVD—detailing the long and winding road that eventually led to the arrest and trial of the “Butcher of Lyon”—and showed that there were many hands in the denial of criminal acts phase.

As an SS officer and head of the Gestapo office in Lyon, Barbie was accused of personally engaging in torture, and was responsible for the deaths of 4,000 people, including French resistance leader Jean Moulin and 44 Jewish children from an orphanage in the town of Izlieu. The film is over-long and sometimes ponderous, but this is more the fault of the complexity of the case and the effort it took to unravel the truth from some witnesses. Director and chief interviewer Marcel Ophul at times seems like Michael Moore without the showmanship, but he doesn’t allow personal politics to intrude on the proceedings: There seems to be more interviewees sympathetic to Barbie or who simply wanted to let the past die than there were those who wanted to see him pay for his crimes--mainly his victims. 40 years after the end of World War II, the French were ambiguous about Barbie’s arrest and trial. One man in a Lyon pool hall said he didn’t see the point after all these years; besides, he didn’t know anyone who was a victim of Barbie. In Germany, old farmers whose children attended the school where Barbie’s father taught fondly remembered him as “Sonny.” Others remembered him as “intelligent,” “popular” and a “devout Catholic.” Some thought he would become a teacher like his father; others thought he wanted to become a priest. An American officer in the Counter Intelligence Corps who handled Barbie after the war judged him a “professional” who did his job without resorting violence.

But others had a different opinion. Those who had personal contact with Barbie in Lyon testified that far from being the calm professional, he could erupt in screaming fits, beat and kick prisoners in his charge at any moment. One Jewish victim testified that as a girl, Barbie wrapped her hair in his hand and tried to yank it out when she could not tell him where her brother and sister could be found. Another reported that Barbie had constructed a torture chamber which he showed to prisoners in order to convince them to “cooperate”; when they didn’t, they would be placed in spiked manacles and lifted in a harness, or subjected to water torture. A French policeman admitted that screams could be frequently heard from one of Barbie’s prisons that had not been sound-proofed, but he otherwise had no opinion on what was going on there. One woman testified that her father died after his skin was tore off, and dunked in boiling water. Barbie was also said to wander around prison basements where prisoners were lying on the floor; if he saw someone he thought was a Jew, he would try to crush his face with his boot.

These barbarities did not prevent collaboration between some French and the German occupiers in Lyon, and remains a sore spot for the memory of many. French police did cooperate with the Gestapo, and ordinary citizens did inform on each other, especially on Jews. Even the resistance movement was rife with betrayal, often because some members were accused of being communists. Resistance member Rene Hardy, who has been fingered as the man who betrayed Jean Moulin to the Germans, was interviewed in the film and denied the charge, blaming in turn communists or resistance members who liked to brag out loud about what their activities. But Barbie would later implicate Hardy, confessing that he had indeed been “turned.” A Frenchman nicknamed “Rubberface”—because of his misshapen face—took out his frustrations on fellow French by joining the collaborators, aiding the Germans in torturing prisoners. At his trial in 1987, Barbie’s lawyer made much of the fact that French hands were far from clean.

Few Germans interviewed for the film seemed willing to talk (particularly on camera) about Barbie, or when they did, they denied they suspected anything amiss either in his character, or that they knew of any atrocities he had committed. When a woman was asked if she knew that her neighbor, a certain Herr Bartelmus, was Barbie’s deputy and had been sentenced to prison for crimes against humanity, she professed no interest: Old people should be left in peace—let the past die. This seemed to be the attitude of many Germans who were adults in that period. In fact both French and Germans repeatedly asked the filmmakers why after 40 years, people were still harping on this “Barbie business.” A German journalist pointed out that it was easier to get Germans angry about the destruction of 6 million trees than six million Jews. In the early 1970s, a German court refused to bring charges against Barbie in absentia, for the reason that he could not have known that the Jews he was gathering-up and sending to the Drancy holding station would soon be on their way to places like Auschwitz; papers that were introduced into evidence at Barbie's trial would suggest otherwise.

After the war, Barbie was number three on the American’s list for wanted SS men. “Operation Selection Board” was supposed to uncover Nazis like Barbie hiding underground, but somehow he escaped; the operation was so transparent and incompetent that one American agent interviewed likened it to the Keystone Cops. Barbie also managed to slip through “Operation Paper Clip,” which was supposed to arrest former Gestapo agents. Barbie, in fact, was wanted by the Americans—but to employ him, not to arrest him. Barbie’s successes in Lyon against the French resistance would seem to come in handy against communist agitators, and the Americans believed Barbie’s story that he had undercover contacts from Lisbon to Moscow. The paranoia about communists pouring into the West should not be underestimated; Gen. George Patton was reprimanded for suggesting openly that instead of imprisoning Nazis, they should be re-armed and join American forces to drive the Russians out of Eastern Europe. Many right-wing Germans and Nazis expressed surprise that the Americans did not want to help them “finish the job” against the Russians. One SS officer claimed the West owed them a debt because the Russians would have reached the English Channel if not for SS army units; regular German army commanders, however, saw them as incompetent and uncooperative.

American agents in the Counter Intelligence Corps who employed Barbie in Germany did not seem to show much interest in his crimes in France; he seemed to be a “professional” as well as anti-Communist, which was sufficient for to judge him “useful.” At the first trial of Rene Hardy for treason in the arrest and murder of Moulin, the French requested Barbie’s extradition, but the Americans couldn’t “find” him, because they thought that French intelligence was shot-through with communist sympathizers, and they would attempt to extract information from Barbie about their moles and spies. As the Allied occupation was winding down, something had to be done to show gratitude to Nazis in their employ, and Barbie thus was permitted to make his escape via the “ratline,” such as that run by a German Catholic bishop named Alois Hudal, who helped many Nazis like Barbie to escape to Argentina using the communist-fearing Vatican’s influence with the International Red Cross--and, of course, supplying forged documentation; another “ratline” aided Croatian fascist Ustashe war criminals—whose barbarities sometimes exceeded that of the Nazis. Argentine president Juan Peron actively aided in this operation, apparently because of a self-conscious attitude about his own dictatorship while seeing Nazis being tried and in some cases executed for various crimes. From Argentina, Barbie landed in Bolivia, where he was found useful by that country’s military dictators; Barbie was said to use his various expertise in torture and undermining resistance movements to aid the government. It was also claimed that Barbie helped CIA operatives to devise the assassination of Che Guevara.

Why was Barbie allowed to live a free man in South America for over thirty years? Apparently because he was a “nice” man, according to practically every public official who was questioned. Although Barbie lived under the name “Kaltman,” it was no secret as to his true identity; French diplomats certainly knew who he was, but they were not given instructions to seek his extradition. He may never have been called to account had it not been for the Klarsfelds, the Nazi hunters who refused to let his crimes be forgotten. With the downfall of Bolivia’s military regime and civilian rule in place, Barbie was finally arrested. There was still some resistance to extradition in France, because people were afraid of what he would say about French collaboration, and the French had to find some reason to get sufficiently pumped about a trial against a man whose principle victims were Jews and Gypsies; however, the memory of Barbie’s role in the murder of Moulin and other resistance fighters allowed the French sufficient propaganda value to overshadow the collaborationist aspect.

Barbie’s lawyer, Verges, was a well-known leftist as well as a Eurasian. He at first tried to portray the French as equally guilty of crimes against humanity during the colonial period, but after Barbie’s conviction made an about-face and declared the trial an unfair indictment on the honor of France. One young Frenchman expressed surprise that a man of Asian extraction could defend a mass killer who would have had no qualms about having him killed merely because of his race.

The lesson here was lost on Ronald Reagan. On a state visit to West Germany, he refused to visit a concentration camp, because he didn’t want to “reawaken the passions of the times.” But he did visit the Bitburg military cemetery, which included members of the Waffen-SS. Reagan would excuse his blunder by claiming that the SS members were merely young lads duped by the Nazis. In the more recent past, terms and depictions are used to describe Latino immigrants that the Nazis would have appreciated. The atmosphere of manufactured hate allowed recent racially-motivated murders to occur in Baltimore, Long Island and in Arizona, where the Maricopa County Attorney’s office charged a man with a hate crime for killing a third-generation American of Mexican descent and shooting his brother—telling him to “hurry-up and go back to Mexico.” In Auburn, Washington, a man was charged with a hate crime after threatening to shoot three Latino neighbors after they asked him to turn down his music; they were “disrespecting him in his own country.” And then there is the Shenandoah, PA case, where local officials created an atmosphere of anti-Latino hate and the local police enforced an environment of fear among Latino residents. Three police officers—including the police chief—are currently facing federal civil rights charges for their part in the murder of a Latino immigrant; the killers themselves--convicted in the federal trial--had been acquitted in the local trial, apparently because they were "nice boys."

No one wants to admit that the constant barrage of anti-Latino propaganda and imagery by right-wing (and “populist”) politicians and media has anything to do with this; negative stereotypes are rationalized as “group” traits rather than individual traits--hence even acts most people would cringe at are "justified" and blotted-out from the collective conscious. One may recall an incident several years ago in a suburb of Houston; at a party, two neo-Nazi skinheads in attendance thought a Latino teenager--a special ed student--was trying to kiss a girl they thought was white. They dragged him outside, kicked him unconscious, stripped-off his clothes, burned his skin with cigarettes, used a knife to scrawl a racial slur on his chest, took a lawn umbrella pole and thrust it into his rectum--in the process mangling several of his internal organs--and to "hide" the evidence, poured bleach outside and inside his body. The teen was left outside in this condition for hours until discovered in the morning; he would survive, but with permanent internal damage. The Seattle Times published a brief paragraph of the crime, but the only "detail" they left in was that the victim tried to kiss a girl--making it appear that the attack was "justified." I wrote to an editor asking why they left out the gruesome parts; he responded by saying that the paper didn't want to "revolt" readers.

In the meantime, the Tucson massacre should not be forgotten, and should always be pointed to as an example of the consequences of irresponsible hate speech. It should be easy; after all, the principle target in this case was a white woman.

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