Saturday, September 18, 2010

Of Fascists Then, and Fascists Now

Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, Karl Wolff, and an unidentified assistant at the Obersalzberg, May 1939
This piece originally started out as a reply to a post in the beta-test forums of a game company called Slitherine Strategies . We, meaning the various beta-testers, were discussing background issues of the Second World War. Somehow the talk turned to music, and what it evoked. Lili Marleen was mentioned. A member named jerseyjohn said he'd recently been listening to...

(quoted from jerseyjohn)

...Schubert's Quintet in C, D.956. At the moment the second movement, Adagio.

For those who have seen the movie, Conspiracy, this is the piece Reinhard Heydrich sees at Wansee after concluding the conference. This blood dripped violin playing murderer (son of a composer / music teacher who wrote an opera) sighs and says, "The adagio will tear your heart out."

After he leaves, his sidekick Adolf Eichmann puts that movement on the record player, looks at one of his assistants, and asks, "Well, does it tear your heart out?"

The man smiles and says, "Oh, yes, sir. Very beautiful."

Eichmann shakes his head. "I've never understood what anyone sees in Schubert's romantic Viennese shit!"

(quote ends here)

Being an amoral murderer does not require one to be entirely devoid of aesthetic appreciation of beauty. The danger of demonising the fascists is this - if we conceive of them as inhuman monsters, we make ourselves more vulnerable to the comforting lies that, "that can never happen again" or, worse yet, "that could never happen here in (insert name of your own country)".

They were not inhuman monsters. Some were men, in the beginning no different from you and I, who somewhere went badly wrong in their assessment of relative moral values. Some were willing dupes, some were truly psychopaths. But if you don't think good and decent people can be taken in, you need to take a long hard look at the life of Leni Riefenstahl. Whether you take the sympathetic view espoused by Das Blaue Licht, or the hard, unforgiving stance evident in Susan Sontag's "Fascinating Fascism", Leni Riefenstahl remains a textbook example.

Understand this clearly - in their own minds, in their own story as they saw it, those people were heroes, doing the hard, dirty, nasty work needed to safeguard the future of their own people. And if you miss this point, you will be less prepared to resist the resurgence of fascism when it rises again. And rise again it will.

This is not only an issue of historical interest. We know that President Bush had alleged terrorists interrogated under torture. We have every reason to believe that this is still occurring under the Obama administration, given that he has continued the policy of "extraordinary rendition", which is a cute way of saying that the torturing is done for us in various third-party nations.

How do we look at this? Well, we could say...

A) Torture is always morally wrong, and never justified. Period, full stop.

or we could say...

B) Terrorists are outside the law, not entitled to protection under the laws of war, thus such interrogation-by-torture is justified. Proponents of this policy are fond of claiming that such interrogations may well prevent further killings by terrorists, thus (allegedly) justifying the torture in the name of saving the (theoretical) victims.

The two arguments are mutually exclusive. One may credibly endorse either, but not both.

The problem with argument (B) lies in the definition of a terrorist. Obviously, if one is going to justify torture, one will be vitally concerned to carefully classify the persons upon whom such outrages may be legitimately practiced. Very well then, for the sake of argument, terrorists only.

So, who is a terrorist?

On July 22, 1946 Irgun, (in cooperation with Haganah, Histadrut, and other organisations), bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which was then the base of the British Secratariat in Palestine. The conventional story was that "about 200" british officers were killed. Today, Wikipedia says only 91 people died. The exact numbers are irrelevant.

Clearly this was a terrorist act, at least in the view of the British. Keep carefully in mind that the state of modern Israel did not exist at that time; it was still the "British mandate in Palestine", and would be for two more years. The sticky part is that the attack was ordered by Menachem Begin, (this is accepted fact, not accusation or conjecture), and David ben Gurion was also involved.

If we accept that this was a terrorist act, (and we'd look like major hypocrites denying it), then at that time Menachem Begin was a terrorist.

Menachem Begin in 1940 and in 1978. Top photo is an NKVD mugshot; the arrest was political, not criminal. Bottom is a speech at Andrews AFB, Maryland.

Now, in 1948 the modern state of Israel came into being. David ben Gurion was the first prime minister (henceforth PM) of Israel, and also the third. Menachem Begin was PM twice, starting in 1977. Menachem Begin negotiated the Camp David accords with Anwar Sadat, withdrawing the IDF from the Sinai, and laying an important foundation of peace with Egypt.

So was he still a terrorist then? What about ben Gurion?

If they were not terrorists then, precisely when did they stop being terrorists, and for what reason?

Did Begin and ben Gurion stop being terrorists when the modern state of Israel came into being? This is certainly a temptingly convenient dividing line. I can't think of another point in time one could convincingly rationalise.

But if so, let's think a bit further. Are we saying that if terrorism is successful, if it results in the formation of a new nation-state, then all is retroactively forgiven, and what were once despicable acts of murder are then transformed into patriotic acts of war? Yes, this is what actually happens in the real world in which we actually live. The process is going on before our eyes right now in Northern Ireland, but do we really want to endorse this? Do we wish to claim this as an essential part of our moral justification?

Because, you see, this encourages terrorism. Think about it. It says, "Hey, if you can pull it off, you win!".


  1. Hi Possum. aidbo from TYT here.

    Thanks for the history lesson. I didn't know anything about the King David Hotel. This is definitely thought provoking. It brings home the point of the phrase I've heard; 'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter'. And then there's the sticky problem we've gotten ourselves into by deeming Hamas a terrorist organization, which then means that when they are democratically elected by the people of their nation, we can't have anything to do with them because they're terrorists.

    Another more morose thought I had when reading your post was the bit about extraordinary renditions. My thought was 'Christ, must we out-source everything? Aren't there good American torturers who really want to get their torture on, but it's being out-sourced to other countries. They took our jobs!'

    Which got me around to thinking about you being a 99er. I wonder, have you considered putting Adsense ads on your blog here? I don't know what kind of traffic you get, but I'm sure anything helps. Just a suggestion.

  2. Hey, aidbo, good to see you here :)

    Adsense, huh? Well, that's a thought...