Wednesday, July 2, 2014

All Our Yesterdays by Manes Sperber

It is astonishing how little has been written about the 15th of July 1927*, and how few eyewitness reports have recorded it for future generations, for there were thousands of us who directly experienced it and have preserved it in our memory like a frequently recurring nightmare. People shrink from the difficultly of describing events that became intimate, confusing experiences and took a course that was as simple as a scenario by an untalented, unimaginative author who seeks his effects only in an incessant repetition of the same dramatic incidents. This event which was at once absurd and monotonous, led everyone to surmise that it might have a hidden meaning and carelessly ignored causes. It was a a symbol-laden injustice, as inflammatory as the judicial murder of Sacco and Vanzetti that had been prepared for years and was actually carried out but thirty-eight days after the fifteenth of July. It has not been forgotten that the fate of these Italian-American anarchists had stirred millions of people throughout the world to action –not for political reasons, though the organizers of the countless marches in the big cities had a political agendas, but out of uncontrollable anger at an injustice that convulsed everyone as if he were, or could be a victim of it.

I am surely not the only person whom this experience has never ceased to affect. In vital situations it has shaped my conduct almost as strongly as the happenings at the Zablotow cemetery in the winter of 1915. Of both events I have retained something that only appears to be harmless: a negative astonishment at events and at those who were involved in them as actors, victims, and witnesses – including myself. This astonishment is unending. And it diminishes my ability to cope with the natural things and situations without which everyday life would be inconceivable.

In all essential points I agreed with Marxism, which I studied seriously; I embraced historical materialism and the necessity to create a classless society in our lifetime – that is, without delay. Yes all this seemed demonstrable to me and yet not self-evident. The negative astonishment that had awakened my doubts about God’s power and justice and finally his very existence later fed my doubts about the rationality of human beings as shapers of their own history, their collective and individual fate. The rationality of the irrational, the methodical nature of madness, the conclusiveness of a chain of errors that remains unassailable as long as the initial error is allowed to stand as an unimpeachable truth –all this I encountered in my psychological work every day, disappointed but also ironically amused as I critically examined my own actions.

When I was asked to review Emil Ludwig’s once widely read biography of Wilhelm II, I began an in-depth study of the history of the world war, its premises, indirect and direct causes, and finally its course. Countless memoirs had already appeared in which statesmen, generals, politicians, diplomats, and agents of every kind “told all”. There, too, I never ceased to be astonished, for those sensible presentations left the young reader who spent whole nights reading them with only one certainty: never before had such murderous madness been prepared so logically and so calculatingly to the misfortune of all mankind and kept going so methodically day in and day out for four-and-a-half years. Reasonable errors reveal themselves like barking dogs, and a forgery betrays itself by being so much more genuine than the original, which is allowed to be flawed.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Christmas at the Gandersheim Kommando by Robert Antelme

“The naked humanity that marks a famished face can appear in only a few, barely differentiated forms.”- Manes Sperber

In our little room there’s a crowd around the stove. Those who got there first sat themselves right down on the benches. Everyone holds his bread in his hand. Somebody says, “With this we are in great shape. One hell of a Christmas dinner, right?”

They were glancing intermittently at the bread, and appeared to be thinking. The benches were all taken, and I wasn’t able to sit down. I crowded in close up behind a bench and got the stove’s heat directly in the face. I cut a slice of bread, spread some ground meat on top of it, and reached my arm out over the shoulder of the guy in front of me, who leaned forward without complaining. I set the slice on the stove; others were doing the same thing. The stove was very hot. The fat from the meat melted quickly, and the red meat turned brown. The stove was covered with slices, and some guys had to scrap to find a little room for theirs. If he allowed it they would move a guy’s bread aside; but as soon as they pushed his slice a little too far and made it hang over the edge, he would complain, turn around and look at whoever it was, who would seem to apologize, although would leave their slices where they were. Then the guy who was complaining would push somebody else’s slice, in order to get his back on the stove, and so there would be complaints from another guy too, and voices would rise.

“You’re a pain in the ass. You ought to have gotten here sooner. The same ones always drag their ass and then want to be first.”

“All right, all right, don’t get excited. Hey, we aren’t going to yell at each other tonight.”
“I’m not yelling at you. Just don’t go too far.”

And it didn’t go any farther than that. An odor arose, the odor of bakeries and grilled meat and rich people’s breakfasts. But those back home, if they were eating bacon, if they were eating toast, they weren’t aware of how it had transformed, how it had started to change color, to roast, above all to smell, to give off this powerful odor; but we’d been given gray bread and we’d cut our slices and we’d put them on the stove ourselves, And now we were watching the bread turn into cake. Nothing escaped us. The meat was oozing, glowing, giving off the terrific odor of something to eat. For us, bread or potatoes that you bite into still had taste; but the something to eat that from a far fills mouth and throat and stomach with its odor –what that could be like, that odor, that was something we had forgotten.

I retrieved my slice. It was burning hot, it was like brioche; it was more than a jewel, it was something alive, a source of joy. It was slightly puffy, and the fat had permeated the soft part of the bread and made it glow. I bit off the first mouthful; as they sank into the bread, my teeth made a noise that filled my ears. It was a paradise of perfume, of juice and food. Everything was to eat. My tongue, my palate were overcome; I was afraid of losing some of it. I chewed it, and it was everywhere, on my lips, on my tongue, between my teeth; the inside of my mouth was a cave, and the food was parading around insider. Finally I swallowed it; it was gone. Once I had nothing more in my mouth the emptiness was intolerable. More. More. The word had been devised for tongue and palate. One more mouthful. One more mouthful. It mustn’t end. The crunching and tasting and licking machine was turned on. Never, as it did then, had my mouth felt itself to be something that couldn’t be fulfilled, that nothing could satisfy once and for all, that would be forever in need of something more.

Everyone ate solemnly. Some wanted to take no chances and were eating the bread cold, the way it had been given to them. They didn’t want to try a different world, they didn’t want to tempt themselves. Around here you mustn’t play about awakening too many demands, resurrecting too many buried tastes; eating something like that – something that couldn’t be any better- was dangerous.  Those guys seemed more detached. Instead of cutting their bread carefully into slices, they tore it into pieces, haphazardly; and they kept the pieces in their hands, as they would have done at home; their elbows on their knees, looking grave and austere.

I finished up the last mouthfuls. I’d found a seat on the bench.  Now the only thing to do was to warm myself, my head leaning forward, my hands stretched out towards the stove.  .  .


It’s an SS fantasy to believe that we have an historical mission to change species, and as this mutation is occurring too slowly, they kill. No, this extraordinary sickness is nothing other than a culminating moment in man’s history. And that means two things. First, that the solidity and stability of the species is being put to the test. Next, that the variety of relationships between men, their color, their customs, the classes they form into mask the truth that here, at the boundary of nature, at the point where we approach our limits, appears with absolute clarity: namely, that there are not several human races, there is only one human race. It’s because we’re men like them that the SS will finally prove powerless before us, It’s because they shall have sought to call the unity of this human race into question that they’ll finally be crushed.

Yet their behavior, and our situation, are only a magnification, an extreme caricature – in which nobody wants or is perhaps able to recognize himself – of forms of behavior and of situations that exist in the world, that even make up the existence of that older “real world” we dream about. For in fact everything happens in the world as though there were a number of human species, or, rather, as though belonging to a single human species wasn’t certain, as though you could join the species or leave it, could be halfway in it or belong to it fully, or never belong to it, try though you might for generations, division into races or classes being the canon of the species and sustaining the axiom we’re always prepared to use, the ultimate line of defense: “They aren’t people like us.”

And so, seen from here, luxuriousness is the property of the animal, and divineness is the property of trees, and we are unable to become either animals or trees. We are not able to, and the SS cannot make us succeed in it. And it is just when it has taken on the most hideous shape, it is just when it is about to become our own face- that is when the mask falls. And if, at that moment, we believe what, here, is certainly that which requires the most considerable effort to believe, that “The SS are only men like ourselves”; if, at that moment when the distance between beings is at its greatest, at the moment when the subjugation of some and the power of others have attained its limits as to seem frozen into some supernatural distinction; if, facing nature, or facing death, we an perceive no substantial difference between the SS and ourselves, then we have to say there is only one human race.

And we have to say that everything which masks this unity, everything that places beings in situations of exploitation and subjugation and thereby implies the existence of various species of mankind, is false and mad; and we have the proof of this here, the most irrefutable proof, since the worst of victims cannot do otherwise than establish that, in its worst exercise, the executioner’s power cannot be other than one of the powers that men have, the power to murder. He can kill a man but he can’t change him into something else.

This Book by Werner Sollors

It is the task of this book to retrace stories and reexamine images of the end of the war and early years of military occupation in Germany, stories that were then believed to be plausible  attempts at capturing a strange and unfamiliar reality, but that have meanwhile been largely replaced by the mythic success story that seems to have swallowed up most others in public memory. These stories can be found in letters, often written in very small handwriting and up to the edge of each page so as to get the most words onto the precious sheets of paper, and at times marked by censors’ deletions; in diaries that may include strange pieces of evidence collected in apparent disbelief – diaries that were also at times altered and adjusted in later years; in official, mimeographed communications, reports, studies, and orders; in newsreel footage accompanied by blaring marchlike musical introductions and the then-so-popular agitated shouting voices of announcers; in “unabridged” or “uncensored abridged” mass media paperbacks with lurid covers and improbably exaggerated blurbs; in newspapers and illustrated magazines; and in many of the other media that were then available.

In many cases, these tales point to shared themes and experiences, to moments that seemed particularly noteworthy, aspects that were so haunting or enticing or amusing as to be present in many sources, even if viewed from rather different angles. I have made an effort to hover over such moments, describing the different reactions they provoked and the dialogues some of them inspired, or could have inspired. Some of the stories are fully told, others are often only implied; they may be verbal or visual; they may be romances or gothic horror tales, elegiac or defiant, sentimental plots or tough stories of revenge; they may be religious or secular in orientation, reactionary, conservative, liberal, or left-wing dramas. Yet they would seem to add up to a chorus of voices that articulated tales of the postwar 1940s in which people then recognized themselves.

This book does not aim for a comprehensive account of the period but for an inward understanding of a cultural moment through a close focus on a few particularly striking examples. When I use the term inward, I did not mean to refer to an inner private sphere, as distinguished from the public realm of politics, something that the German word Innerlichkeit has suggested at times. I also did not mean to imply that a Swedish report on post-war Germany or a British photograph taken there were somehow “outward”. Instead, what I was after in the works I studied was what might get lost in quick generalizations, bullet-point summaries, or abstract debates. In all parts of this book I have therefore attempted to stay close to the sources, quote extensively from texts, and examine exemplary photographs and films at very close range, not as thematic exhibits and illustrations of conclusions I arrived at earlier, but as aesthetic objects that make a moment or an issue come to life in such a way that it stays with the reader and viewer beyond any single maxim or conclusion that could be drawn from them.

This meant engaging with the writers and artists together with their metaphors and images, with the contemporary reception, and sometimes even with plot-lines that seemed implied but were aborted in a given work. I can only hope that showing the struggles and hesitations at the a stages of composition of a film script, the cropping and captioning of a photograph, or the revisions of the text of a diary   come across to the reader as an effort  to respect the dynamic quality of the forms I examined and to understand aesthetic modes of expression themselves as an active part in the historical process and not just a reflection of it. A famous quip has it that poetry is what gets lost in translation. My attempt in this book has been to hover on what would get lost in summary.