Monday 23 September 2013

The Hitler Routine, by Leslie Wilson

Source: Bundesarchiv no 102-13376
I read it first in the Metro newspaper, which I picked up on the tube. 'Brand's Hitler routine leaves a Nazi taste' the headline proclaimed. I sighed, then read it, wondering why I bothered. On Saturday, the affair appeared on the front page of the Guardian. For anyone not now privy to this story, Brand used his acceptance speech at the GQ Men of the Year Awards to remind Hugo Boss, who sponsored the award, of their Nazi past. The original Hugo Boss, who died in 1948, was a Nazi party member, and supplied uniforms to the Brownshirts, the SS, etc. The firm employed slave labour during the war, and was finally forced to cough up reparations to their victims in 1999. They did, however, set up the Hugo Boss Prize for art in conjunction with the Guggenheim Foundation, who seem not to have felt queasy about this association.

I am not writing this to attack Russell Brand, or to defend Hugo Boss or GQ magazine (especially not since the awards host apparently made his own deeply offensive 'jokes' about Stephen Fry's recent attempted suicide.)

It will always be a source of deep pain to me that the Holocaust happened; at the same time, the fact that I am half German, and therefore know that the horror was perpetrated by ordinary people, has made me think long and hard about the human condition and the way people can be brought to do evil. This has not been comfortable, but it has given me some insight.

As the author of two novels about the time, I can hardly complain about the interest people show in that period; but I do deeply dislike the facility with which Nazi Germany is too often trotted out, and cheap 'jokes', snap judgements, etc, are made. The 'jokes', like Rob Brydon's intrusive crack about Stephen Fry, are no joke if you are at the receiving end. If you then fail to laugh, you are, of course, accused of being lacking in a sense of humour. I've been in this situation myself, when people have said this kind of thing - and I do not exaggerate: 'You're half German? So do you keep a pair of jackboots in the cupboard?' (ha, ha).

picture by Brian Solis www.brian
via wikimedia Commons
What I have also had said to me is that the things done in Nazi Germany are 'different' from, and should not be compared to any human rights abuses carried out by governments or commercial corporations nowadays. Yet I think this shows one of the dangers of history. It has been said that the past is another country: Nazi Germany, and the Germans, can doubly become that other country, that place whose evils are so much worse than our own are perceived to be, that one can make onesself feel righteous by condemning them.

Actually, there are immediate and dreadful concerns in today's clothing industry - not only the horrific conditions in the garment factories where our clothes are largely made up. Consider the production of cotton. Adults and children are employed for long hours at derisory wages, often as bonded (or slave) labour, kept hungry, working with dangerous machinery and exposed to chemical pesticides, nearly half of which are considered toxic enough to be classified as hazardous by the World Health Organisation (source: Enviromental Justice Foundation). This idea of 'difference' can mean that we can in on the one hand condemn (rightly, of course) Hugo Boss's use of slave labour in Nazi Germany and the fact that ordinary people at that time failed to prevent that horror, to say nothing of the murder of Jews - but on the other hand consider it inconsequential that the people who supply the cotton we wear impose similar conditions on their unfortunate workers. And to come back to Russell Brand - maybe not all the cotton he wears is solely fairtrade or organic.

Picture courtesy of Environmental Justice Foundation;
see link below.

Not only can we sleep at night; we can sleep comfortably on cotton produced at the cost of human suffering. Egypt is one of the countries who employ child labour. What price the lovely Egyptian cotton towels you can get in John Lewis? I keep meaning to write to them about it, and keep forgetting. I am too busy. I guess people in Nazi Germany were too busy, especially once the war got started. And they were in danger if they asked the wrong questions about what was going on. The worst thing that will happen to me is that John Lewis ignore me, as they did when I asked about human rights issues and pineapple juice.

Bundesarchiv picture no 183-R99542 : the Jewish
Michael Siegel forced to walk barefoot carrying
a poster that says: I will never again complain to
the police
As the robber Macheath puts it in Brecht's Threepenny Opera, 'How does a human live? Just by hourly/Tormenting, stripping, attacking, throttling and devouring humankind.*' This was the condition of life in Nazi Germany (my grandmother went mad thinking about it; was haunted by it, and the accompanying sense of guilt, to her life's end.)Alas, Macheath's observation still holds good nowadays - however true it is that the horror of the Holocaust has not as yet  been paralleled. We are frequently told that it is squeamish to complain; we need arms exports, low-cost labour, environmental destruction etc etc as a necessary prerequisite to economic success (and imprisonment without trial, torture and mass surveillance are 'unfortunately essential if we are to defeat terrorism).

Now as then, human beings ignore the horrors that are perpetrated in their names, or only give them a fleeting glance, and get on with their lives; some don't care, some feel powerless (or too busy), some are intimidated or made to feel uncool. But every time they focus, without reflection, on the evil committed out there in Germany, back in history, and believe its perpetrators to have been utterly and satisfactorily different from themselves, what they come away with is a set of blinkers, not any useful insight.

*Brecht's words do, of course, sound much better in his original lyric, 'Denn wovon lebt der Mensch? Indem er stündlich/ Den Menschen peinigt, auszieht, anfällt, abwürgt und frisst.' Better still to Weill's music.)

For information about cotton and human rights, try
Uzbekistan Forces over a Million into Cotton Fields – Watchdog:


Petrea Burchard said...

Your essay is superb.

I feel powerless. In many ways we all are. But one doesn't have to be part of the problem--at least, if one is aware of the problem in the first place.

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, but I didn't want to counsel despair; that is the worst thing. Better to light a candle than curse a darkness, you know. Consider: in the UK, Tate and Lyle, a major sugar producer, and Cadbury's chocolate have all of their retail products Fairtrade now, which would have seemed inconceivable a few years ago. Writing that letter to John Lewis is a good thing to do - also to use suppliers who do supply Fairtrade or organic cotton - I have got several lovely, fashionable items that way, this summer. They cost a bit more, though, that's the trouble, but if those of us who can afford a bit more lead the way, perhaps, as with Tate and Lyle and Cadburys, the mass-market will follow. I am afraid, however, that with really cheap clothing, the person who pays is usually the worker involved in production.

Leslie Wilson said...

Curse THE darkness, I meant!

H.M. Castor said...

This is an absolutely superb post, and a hugely important one - thank you so much, Leslie. I will be telling lots of people about it - I hope it is as widely read as possible.

Sue Purkiss said...

A really thought-provoking post. Thank you, Leslie.

Ann Turnbull said...

This is so important, and needed to be said. Thank you, Leslie.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Brilliant post, Leslie. Thank you.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Brilliant post, Leslie. Thank you.

adele said...

Very good post, Leslie...thank you!

alberridge said...

Superb post - and such an important one. I think a lot of us use Nazism (and the German people) as a kind of Jungian 'shadow' on which we can project our own moral failures. As long as we're attacking Nazism, that means we must be Good People and needn't think too much about the Primark dress in the back of the wardrobe that was made by slave labour.

I have Egyptian towels, God forgive me. I'm going to write that letter right now.

Leslie Wilson said...

Me too!

Penny Dolan said...

Wise post, Leslie. The past often seems simpler to deal with than the present.

Clare Mulley said...

Great blog, thank you. I am writing about WWII now, and will keep this post in mind.