Propagandizing Students

When I was in 9th grade, I was propagandized, and I don’t mind.

I was attending an all boys high school (the Gilman School) in Baltimore, and it was a pretty liberal establishment with a thoughtful and generally excellent management and curriculum, with some great teachers who genuinely loved what they were doing. There were a few things about it I did not like but even at the time I realized it was performative bullshit intended to help us fit in for a future of being cogs in the bullshit machinery of the US. At the time I was the founder/president of the computer club, and the “military history club” (AKA: the wargaming club) and life was generally excellent. My school had 2 requirements I did not particularly like: one was mandatory athletics, the other was “Chapel” The mandatory athletics bothered me more; I wanted to spend that time programming computers and playing Squad Leader. [Squad Leader was produced by Avalon Hill, a Baltimore company, and I used to bicycle down to their HQ on Read St near Charles on saturdays and play-test] I got around the athletics requirement by taking karate classes 3 nights a week at a local dojo, and bicycling everywhere.

Chapel was not really a religious thing – it was just when the whole grade-set would get together at once for whatever reason, or the whole school could be pulled together for a discussion or news. This was not a huge school. The assembly hall was pretty big but not cavernous. Every week there was usually something special – someone demonstrating something, or discussing something important, or whatever. It was the usual stuff: try to socialize the little bastards so they don’t grow up to be a bunch of sociopathic capitalists. I don’t know about the other kids but I had a vague feeling that was what was going on: they brought in the chorus from one of the other area schools and they got a gig and we got a chance to discover that black people can sing., etc. These were important experiences and I gave the example of the Polytechnic vocal squad because we got a good chance to rub shoulders in the cafeteria and maybe a bit of culture rubbed off and the wealthier kids in the school got to notice that some people have to take the public buses to get around town. Writing that down like that, it sounds awful, but you have to understand that 2 years before, I was in the public school system when they integrated it, and suddenly our whitey white local school had a large black population and some of the parents flipped their shit. That was memorable: I got to see how embarrassing racists are. I was switched from the public schools because I was acting up out of boredom; I was running a pretty profitable poker game and hanging out with bicycle thieves, teaching them how to pick locks. High school boredom. So when I wound up at Gilman, I realized it was a place full of great opportunity and I discovered quickly that good teachers are not there to torture you for some weird, unexplained reason: they actually want to share their knowledge because seeing young people have “aha!” moments is what gets them off.

I was not particularly interested in politics because my earlier experience with parents getting racist at my then-friends had left a bad taste in my mouth. But there was a lingering sensation that something important needed to be taught about this stuff. Third Reich was a staple of our gaming library and we all knew that the Holocaust was connected to WWII and the Third Reich and the USSR. I was, what, 16? I was not going to go grab a copy of The Theory and Practice of Hell [Eugene Kogon] My understanding of all this stuff was sketchy, except inasmuch as the Holocaust seemed to me to be a pointless digression from the military functions of the war.

Then, we had one chapel session that was announced as being special; it was going to extend before and after the normal time and we were going to watch a movie and there was going to be a speaker who was a Nobel Prize winner: Elie Wiesel. I think it’s safe to say that I didn’t care much. So, when the time came we all shuffled in and sat down and they spooled up Night and Fog. Looking back at it, I think that might have been a bit inappropriate for kids our age. Remember: this was back in the day where you had to own a movie projector or viewer and film if you wanted to see live-action stuff. Of course there were documentaries about WWII and I had seen a few of them, but you didn’t just pop open some app and watch The World at War – you had to wait until some theater showed it, and mostly the theaters were showing crap like Hellraiser. I did not own a TV because I was growing up under a mandate that my parents weren’t going to waste their money on a TV and if I wanted a TV I had to waste my own. Books were better, so I grew up without a TV, mostly. Anyhow, I had seen the usual stuff you might see at a friends’ house – the Cebra boys and I used to watch Star Trek when the new episodes came out, on their TV. But I hadn’t grown up seeing people, actual people, shot to death on film. I hadn’t seen piles of bodies being moved with heavy machinery. Such piles of bodies. What the fuck? I don’t have any idea what my classmates thought, but I was glued into my chair with horror that people would waste their time being so mean to eachother. I could understand how you’d have great piles of bodies after a battle like Cannae, but it was all intellectualized.

After the movie, Elie Weisel spoke. He was really good and very passionate. Looking back at the whole thing, I suspect that nowadays we’d say Weisel was suffering from extreme PTSD. He was “driven.” I mean, there were demons behind his eyes, haunting him every moment of his life. He was there to teach us snotty privileged kids what “never again” means. I was OK with that. I got that point nearly instantly. But Weisel hammered on for a bit and then made a few assertions that surprised me. He said that the allies bore some responsibility for the Jews being killed, because they didn’t expend any resources to try to rescue anyone; they stood around pretending not to see, then were “shocked” when the camps were discovered. Now, even as a kid, I interpreted that as bullshit. But now as an adult I realize that Weisel was somewhat right, but was working at the wrong level: the problem was the allied powers that stood around and negotiated with Hitler to try to keep from having another big war like WWI, because they were frankly tired of fighting Germans. That allowed Hitler and Stalin to partition Poland and that allowed Hitler and Stalin and the people of Poland to enact their anti-semitism and go full-bore genocide in order to free up land for christians. I didn’t realize most of that until I read Bloodlands [wc] because most of my life I was more interested in the grand strategies of warfare than the details of massacres. Especially after watching Night and Fog and seeing what a lot of dead people look like. Anyhow, when Weisel said that the allies bore responsibility for not interfering with the Holocaust, the example he used was “they could have bombed the railways that were being used to ship Jews to the camps.” That? Really?

Things wound down with a Q&A period and nobody had any questions. I think everyone was in shock. But, since I hate silence, I raised my hand, was recognized, stood up, and said something like, “I don’t think it’s fair to accuse the allies of inaction; bombing the railways would have just resulted in the nazis machine-gunning people by the side of the tracks. Maybe it would have been possible to to commit troops with an air assault like operation Market/Garden but that didn’t work very well – the Germans were still very powerful…” or something like that. I got partway into it and was trying to figure out how to turn it into a question when Weisel flipped his shit. Suddenly he was yelling, “this is the kind of anti-semitism I am here to fight!” and pointing a rage-shaking finger at me. The Dean of Students, Mr Gamper (we were all scared of him but he was really a sweet guy) stood up like a turret machine-gun, locked his eyes on me, and pointed to the back door of the room and mouthed, “NOW.” So I walked. Dead silence. I was thinking “that did not go well.”

So I found myself in the dean’s office and dad was called. I was sent home for the day. I was branded an anti-semite. But, really, I was just talking about military strategy, damn it. I didn’t say “it would have been good for the Germans to…” it was just simply obvious that anyone who was willing to get as down and dirty as the Germans and Poles would not have been concerned with the niceities. Apparently, though I only heard bits of the story, my dad went in to talk and soothe ruffled feathers and found that actually, it was Mr Gamper’s thought that getting me out of the situation was doing me a big favor and he wasn’t mad and nobody except Elie Weisel thought I was anti-semitic. Well, a couple football players who rustled me back in the locker room called me “fucking nazi” and gave me a bloody lip (size matters) but that was about all the fallout from that. Apparently my dad had said, “Marcus is interested in military history and probably was dealing with Weisel’s comment in terms of whether his strategic advice was valuable.” Exactly, thanks dad. Then apparently he asked, “do you think Marcus was correct?” Dad has a way of dropping the flummox on people that I have never managed to learn.

That was the end of that. I came out of the experience with complicated mixed feelings. For one thing, I saw the incredible psychological damage that something like the Holocaust causes, and I understood why. When Elie Weisel said “never again” he fucking meant it. Weisel was a propagandist and he was deliberately being so, but I’m not sure what he taught me. Some of the things that came out of that experience stayed with me until, let’s say, about a decade ago: I made the oft-propagandized connection between Zionism and WWII. As I have mentioned in this blog before [stderr], Zionism and the Euro-colonial project in Palestine started in the 1890s and was triggered by French anti-semitism more than German (at the time) – the flood of Jews to Palestine had more to do with the things documented in Bloodlands than the Holocaust. But the Holocaust had become a convenient propaganda-point for Zionism. So, about 10 years ago I started looking back at Weisel as an impassioned but poor propagandist. Although, another way of looking at it is that he made his point in a manner that was absolutely unforgettable. I am sure that, after what happened, none of my high school class wanted to be denounced as anti-semitic. I still think it’s vicious and immoral to attempt to silence political criticism (or criticism about military strategy) by calling someone anti-semitic: it’s a powerful accusation and making it lightly too often pulls its teeth.


I had another interesting and thought-provoking experience regarding the Holocaust back in the 80s. My dad was the chair of the History Department at JHU and for some research thingie or other, we wound up hosting Axel Von Dem Bussche, who stayed at my parents house for a week or so while being interviewed about something or other. [wik] I remember a lot about Axel, who laughed long and hard when I told him I was majoring in Psychology, then got serious and said dismissively (of Psychology, not me) “if they ever figure anything out, let me know.” He had a way of smoking and waving his cigarette. He had a wry smile. I didn’t really know who he was but I knew he was a WWII veteran on the German side. I asked him about his war experience and he said “I’ll only tell you one war story.” And he did: he said he was at a big battle and they shot at Russians all day until their guns were failing and they were running out of ammunition. Axel was an officer and he said he had “a useless little Walther PPK” which he emptied at a human wave attack. Then, he and the Russians ducked when some artillery came in. He stood up and there was a huge Russian standing looking at him. Axel picked up a small rock and threw it, and it pinged off the Russian’s helmet. Then the Russian laughed. Then Axel and the Russian were both sitting in the churned mud of this great big shell-hole laughing at each other, whooping for air, and laughing some more. Then the Russian saluted him and walked off. Axel was the antithesis, for me, of Weisel: he was thoughtful, clearly regretful, and seemed to be trying to see everything from many angles. He was not a propagandist. I mentioned to one of my classmates that we had this interesting house-guest and their eyes got big, “A nazi? Your parents have nazis as house-guests?” I said “I don’t think he was exactly a nazi.” Remember: when that happened, I did not know who Axel was; you can read the wikipedia page about him if you like. I remember his wry smile and how he spoke respectfully to a snot-nosed kid who was trying to transform into an adult.

When we took him to the airport, the security checkpoint had a problem. The metal detector went apeshit when Axel tried to go through it. The security guys asked if he was carrying any metal and Axel suddenly straightened to the height of a full colonel in the panzergrenadiers and said loudly, “American machine gun bullets installed in a German leg by Russians at Kursk.” He rolled up the bottom of his trousers and his leg looked like it had been mauled by a tiger. The security guards waved him through. I never saw him again. He had always been living on borrowed time.

I guess that what I’m saying with these stories is that I learned to hate in detail. You know the expression “don’t hate the player, hate the game”? I modified that: “hate the game and hate the hateful players.” I don’t hate Elie Weisel; you watch his movie and you can totally understand how traumatized one can be, to ream out a high school kid like that. Or maybe Weisel was acting cooly and deliberately and it was all an act. Shit, for that matter, Axel could have been, too. So it was that I decided to judge people by their actions and to separate a person’s public persona from their inner self, if they even actually have one. I guess I stopped assuming the latter point, until I’d get to know a person better. Is Joe Rogan saying what he says because he’s a racist, or not? Who gives a shit? He is saying what he says in order to amuse racists. I’d rather know what Elie Weisel thinks. But years forward there have been times I have been critical of the political actions of Israel, and I never think to criticize Israel without thinking of that angry old man yelling and pointing his finger at me. I wish I could have sat down in friendship with him, and explained that I understand the difference between Israel and Israelis, and that Israelis are not a unified thing that all believe and act the same, any more than nazis are. Judge Israel for its political actions, and judge Germany for its. To the extent that a nation’s political actions are an emergent property of its people, then we can talk about the morality of the decisions its people are making. The attempt to conflate the two is the essence of totalitarianism: you must agree with the state. Fuck, no.

------ divider ------

Shorter me: Fuck Maus and show kids Night and Fog. Maybe then they won’t grow up to be authoritarian jackboot-wishing thugs. I think the reason adults don’t want their kids exposed to that sort of thing is because it shows what bastards adults can be. You can’t grow up respecting your parents if you think there’s any chance they’ve been involved with or supporters of heavy machinery moving around piles of starved corpses. Hey, maybe that’s why some white people don’t like CRT? CRT me a river, parents.

John Dewey was a very influential philosopher who had a lot of interesting thoughts about how public education should be done. Gilman, the school I attended from 8th->senior high school, was built along the lines Dewey suggested. I think it was a great school, though I had the pro forma high schooler’s hatred for school in general. Dewey’s eminently sensible ideas went rapidly out of style because he was … a socialist. Can’t have that. I’m mentioning this because I think that reactionary politics’ effect on education has been consistently bad for a long time, now. It’s sad because the US actually had a great educational system for a while there, thanks to Huxley, Hopkins, Dewey, and others – but ultimately the country’s adults would rather raise generations of racist, imperialist chucklefucks than educated and interesting human beings.


  1. says

    all boys high school… it was a pretty liberal

    The whole idea of sorting school children based on the shape of their genitals is rather far from liberal.

    Anyway, my most vivid memory from school history lessons about the Holocaust is getting taught that “Nazis used the dead bodies of Jews to make soap from their body fat.” That was somehow supposed to convince us that Nazis were utterly evil.

    Yet it just puzzled me. What to do with dead bodies should indeed depend on what the deceased person wanted. Therefore, unless the dead person liked the idea of their body fat being used for soap making, it is a really bad idea. Nonetheless, lack of proper burial is trivial compared to, you know, murdering people. The main issue is that countless people got killed. How their bodies were treated after death is secondary.

  2. says

    The whole idea of sorting school children based on the shape of their genitals is rather far from liberal.

    When the testosterone hits, high school boys are almost completely stupid. Sorting school children based on their behavior makes sense. I don’t think any approach works. There was a private girl’s school a mile away and some events were held together, so there was an opportunity to try to teach the boys how not to be little monsters.

    I actually think it worked pretty well. Political ideology melts pretty quickly in a blast of testosterone.

    Hmmm … or is the current belief that testosterone does not have an effect? I don’t know. This was my lived experience.

  3. says

    How their bodies were treated after death is secondary.

    As you say: making soap from bodies is pretty silly. Olive oil or beef tallow are much better. So, why did the nazis go to the trouble? To show their contempt and hatred and to show what brutal barbarians they could be. Thus, it matters that they made soap from corpses, because they did it so the world could see how hateful and brutal they were. Thus, the nazis did elevate soap-making into a moral issue.

  4. says

    When the testosterone hits, high school boys are almost completely stupid. Sorting school children based on their behavior makes sense.

    So you just enforce gender norm expectations and the idea that boys and girls/men and women are fundamentally different due to their junk, pardon, hormones?

    It is impossible to actually sort children “based on their behavior,” and sorting them based on their junk is not the same.

    Also, have you noticed that boy schools somehow are more prestigious or even have different curricula than girl schools? Which, you know, later influences life opportunities of people who graduated from these schools. Just like somehow, miraculously, USA schools for white children were not the same as schools for black children.

    I am angry at my school for daring to have girl-only classes in which they taught us sewing and knitting while boys were simultaneously sent to lessons where they got taught woodworking. How dare schools perpetuate outdated stereotypes about gender roles and domestic duties! Nobody have a right to sort kids by their gender and enforce social expectations upon them. It sucks to be a tomboy in an all-girl class in which you cannot even make friends with like-minded boys while everybody around you hammers on you the idea that you must behave like all the other girls. It is ever worse being transgender and getting sent to a concentration camp with nothing but people who were assigned the same sex at birth as you did.

    Unnecessarily gender-segregated spaces are the worst idea imaginable. But, yes, “behavior” somehow excuses this. Behavior which is largely the result of nurture and different social expectations placed upon children since early age.

  5. says

    Olive oil or beef tallow are much better. So, why did the nazis go to the trouble?… Thus, the nazis did elevate soap-making into a moral issue.

    I think my history teacher talked about wartime shortages.

    During wars, hungry people have literally eaten human corpses. In comparison, using dead bodies for other purposes, like soap making, never sounded that weird for me. I was also always quite pragmatic. Using live people for painful “medical” experiments seemed utterly horrible for my younger self. Doing practically useful stuff with dead bodies during times of resource shortages—far from ideal and problematic for various reasons, but ultimately no big deal compared to all the other horrors that happened in Europe during WWII.

    But there is also another question: how much of all these claims about human fat soap are true and how much of it are just fake rumors? There’s even a Wiki page about this

  6. brucegee1962 says

    This post crystalized part of my reaction to the anti-CRT movement: the argument that schools should somehow not propagandize students.

    OF COURSE schools propandize students. That has always been one of the main functions of an education. There will be instructor bias, curriculum bias, assembly bias, even bias from the librarians as to what books they put on the shelves.

    So what the anti-CRT people really mean is that they don’t approve of the specific bias that is being taught. They can’t admit that out loud, though, because that would mean they would have to say out loud that they think racism isn’t a long-running historical and continuing aspect of American life, which is obviously false. So intend they try to pretend that an unbiased education is an achievable goal — an even more ridiculous assertion, really.

  7. marner says

    I am picturing you playing “Have you Ever” and asking if anyone has ever had Ellie Wiesel loudly denounce them as an anti-Semite during school assembly.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    Andreas Avester @1:

    my most vivid memory from school history lessons about the Holocaust is getting taught that “Nazis used the dead bodies of Jews to make soap from their body fat.” That was somehow supposed to convince us that Nazis were utterly evil.

    Surely they didn’t leave out how they became dead bodies? Before the soap came the murder, on a massive genocidal scale. You’d think that would be enough to demonstrate evil.

  9. says

    In my posting I should have mentioned that Weisel’s high school (he was 15) was Auschwitz.

    I was worried about football jocks, Weisel grew up worried about joining the piles of bodies. I think we should all cut him a lot of slack and I tried to do that in this posting.

  10. says

    So what the anti-CRT people really mean is that they don’t approve of the specific bias that is being taught.

    Wrong. They’re not objecting to any particular bias, they’re objecting to the teaching of DOCUMENTED FACTS AND REAL EVENTS. Don’t let anyone fool you with any blithering about “bias.” What they’re screaming about as a “theory” with “bias,” is nothing of the sort; it’s actual known history that certain people are trying to literally erase.

  11. says

    Also: everyone should see the moment in The Ascent of Man when Dr Brownowski walks into the pond full of people-ash. I saw that as a kid and I can still see it without having seen it since.

  12. says

    Weisel had PTSD from traumatic events we can’t even imagine; so he has some excuse for his reaction to your question. Not a get-out-of-responsibility-free card, mind you, but some excuse. You were just a kid and hadn’t learned how to deal tactfully with traumatized people; so you definitely have a excuse for less-than-perfect behavior — possibly more excuse than Weisel, since he was still an adult. Your dean, however, had neither excuse for treating you like a potentially dangerous Nazi fifth-columnist/stooge whose parents had to be called in and admonished. Seriously, all he had to do was quietly tell you that you’d said something inappropriate, why it was inappropriate, accept your apology, and then remind you to try to choose your words better in the future.

    Weisel’s cause was obviously good; but reactions like your dean’s have been making it look bad, both then and for a long time after.

  13. says

    I have not seen the movie in question, but we were shown reels from WW2 as children, one of them sticks to mind – a bulldozer rolling a mass of dead people into a ditch. We were also shown reels from the Vietnam war, showing some of the results of what the USA did there.

    I think young Marcus was wrong but a PTSD suffering Holocaust survivor was not exactly in a position and state of mind to explain things to him.

    From a strategic POV, disrupting the railway would probably reduce the number of dead people significantly. One of the reasons why Nazis tried to industrialize the process of exterminating the Jews was that simply gunning them down was expensive and inefficient, as they found out when doing exactly that in Russia. Also, it was harder and harder to find soldiers willing to do it, and those who were forced to do it were traumatized and that too was bad for the Nazi war machine. Although Wehrmacht was unquestioningly a part of the Nazi killing machine, ordinary soldiers did not have the zeal of SS Waffen and found it rather hard to shoot elderly people and children who were crying and begging for life. At the death camps, the killing could be overseen by fanatics and was “neatly” tucked away from people who could object to doing it.

    However, the allies were complacent in the Holocaust mainly because they staunchly refused to give asylum to refugees fleeing Germany. Antisemitism was everywhere at that time and loads of refugees were refused by both the USA and the UK.

  14. kestrel says

    Although the Nazis were certainly horrible and did the most ghastly things, they did not make soap out of people (although they may have told people they did to terrorize them). Wiki article about it:

    @Marcus you have had some amazing experiences in life. How incredible to see these two people IRL. You’ve been fortunate in your teachers.

  15. says

    From a strategic POV, disrupting the railway would probably reduce the number of dead people significantly.

    Allied bombers struggled to put bombs in the general vicinity of entire cities. Do you try to hit a ball-bearing plant or a railway siding?

    Now: here is the razor blade hidden in the apple. Why didn’t the allies engage in diplomacy? They could easily have told the nazis: “surveillance photos indicate that you guys are bringing a whole new level of fucked up to the human experience. We suspect you have already figured out that you will lose the war, so let is assure you that you need to shut down the death camps and release those people or you will hang and everything you work for and believe in will be destroyed.” There was no diplomatic effort against the Holocaust, at all. I have trouble wrapping my brain around how the “good guys” did not give a fuck.

    After the war the allies tried a bit of “we had no idea what was happening…” in spite of photoreconnaissance reports and intelligence from sources on the ground. Weisel could have righteously thrashed the allies for that. Or for the absolutely shameful anti-semitism of the French.

    Liberating the camps with an air/land operation was not an option until it was already just a matter of time before Germany collapsed. By then it didn’t wven have propaganda value.

    Weisel could have observed that the allies washed their hands of Poland. Or turned away boats of refugees. Or many other perfectly defensible things? But bomb the railways? Just after talking about Babi Yar? No. High school Marcus did not handle the situation right. But I was right about the railways.

    Basically, my lesson from the experience was something about the danger of being a pedant. It turns out that some people don’t appreciate the subtlety of the point that the pedant is being right about.

  16. says

    @Marcus, my bad, I should have written “…disrupting the railway, if possible and successful, would probably reduce the number of dead people significantly…”

  17. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 16: Allied bombers struggled to put bombs in the general vicinity of entire cities.

    Mostly because of all those annoying anti-aircraft batteries. Knocking out rural railroad bridges came a lot easier – but the Germans had it all figured out to fix ’em by the next morning, so it wouldn’t have made much difference.

  18. says

    There was no diplomatic effort against the Holocaust, at all. I have trouble wrapping my brain around how the “good guys” did not give a fuck.

    “No diplomatic effort” isn’t really the same as “did not give a fuck.” The Allies had already given up on diplomacy long before they realized what was happening in those camps — because Hitler was insane and uncontrollable and had already broken treaty commitments with impunity. And what would the Allies have offered? “Close the death-camps and we’ll let you keep France and help you fight Stalin?”

  19. says

    Also, bombing either the gas-chambers or the railway lines into the camps would definitely have slowed down the genocide, and made it more costly and less efficient. And yes, the Americans, at least, did have the precision-bombing capability required, at least provided they could get an airbase close enough to the targets.

    OTOH, a lot of those camps were EAST of Germany, so Stalin might have had some objections if we’d wanted to bomb them; and we did need Stalin’s help to crush the Germans.

  20. says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 16: Allied bombers struggled to put bombs in the general vicinity of entire cities.

    That was because those bombers had to fly at night, to avoid German anti-aircraft fire. The US, at least, was able to bomb German military targets by day with much more precision.

  21. says

    I suspect that the anti-CRT people deep down realize that they are not a superior “race”, and even deeper down fear that they are inferior. And after all, don’t forget that snowflakes are white.

    Regarding whether bombing the railroad tracks would have been the right thing to do, shall we also discuss whether we really had to bomb Hiroshima? ;-)

  22. lanir says

    I’m sorry this is kind of long but it relates to the subject matter.

    My mother’s side of the family had been in the US for some time and were farmers. My dad’s side came from Germany while he was still in grade school. When dad’s family came, a whole lot of them made the trip and immigrated. My grandma on that side had several sisters and every single one of them came over along with their husbands and several children each. One of my aunts had a club foot from a childhood illness and was turned away 2 or 3 times. My grandma insisted that all of her children would go or they would stay in Germany and eventually she got her way.

    With all her sisters and their families it came to dozens of people in all. The whole thing showed just the sort of family values conservatives of today say they love but coupled with the kind of wholesale family immigration that seems to scare them shitless.

    When WWII started my German grandmother was pregnant with my father and they lived in Poland. I only really know a few things about the war from their perspective. I know a Polish man they worked for sold a pig on the spot so they could leave on one of the last trains heading west to Germany before the German army marched through where they’d been living. Taking a train directly towards the army was still far less dangerous than waiting for the army to come to them. My grandfather was drafted into the German army and later given a promotion to the SS that he could not refuse. I was told he wasn’t at any of the concentration camps noro was he an officer. When he was captured by the Allies and imprisoned at the end of the war, he nearly starved. He was being given maggot infested meat and could never stand to eat rice afterward. I don’t know the details but my grandmother moved all over Europe during the war. My dad was actually born in Russia, I think. And my grandfather finally saw my dad for the first time when my dad was 7 years old. Much later, my German grandfather died when I was 1 year old when shrapnel from an artillery shell that was left in his body came loose and began to move. No doctor was confident they could save him so they couldn’t find anyone to operate and he died.

    That is absolutely everything I was ever told about my family’s story during the WWII. I tried to ask but none of them wanted to tell me any more than that. Partly they thought it was best if the story simply died with them. And partly it was just bad enough they really didn’t want to ever revisit it, not even long enough to pass it on. And other than the part about the train and theh Polish man my family was forever grateful for at the beginning of the war? I heard all the rest from my mom who was just repeating what little they’d told her.

    I did learn some things from this, most of it as a child or an early teenager. Both the parts I was told and the stuff they didn’t want to tell me. Armies can be from your country but they aren’t on your side. The “good guys” are probably still terrible (hearing about Dresden later was not as much of a shock as it probably would have been otherwise). And the “bad guys” are still people. This didn’t make things like the Holocaust less tragic, it made it more tragic. My conception of how terrible things could happen had to involve real, flawed people even at a young age. I couldn’t just imagine the whole thing peopled by pulp fiction Nazis (basically monsters in human form). It was people doing really bad things. The film The Reader (trailer on youtube) probably does a better job of conveying this than I could. And probably one of the most important realizations for me personally, I noticed that the only thing the people who had been through the worst parts of the war wanted to tell me were stories of building something worthwhile. The Polish man who saved them. Coming to America afterward. There was a core strength to my grandmother I’ll probably never understand but she was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and not just to family. All of her sisters and brothers-in-law were nice people, too. Like going through those terrible experiences made them never want to treat anyone badly ever again.

    Weisel proably would have called me an anti-semite and worse at the drop of a hat. But I think later those who carried on the same fight thought it was better not to write the Nazis off as simply monsters. The tiki torch fascists of Charlottesville were, from some perspectives, simply ridiculous. They weren’t monsters, they were just people willing to belive really lousy, self-serving stories about how some magic conspiracy was the only thing keeping them from greatness. When it was clear the only thing holding them back was an inability to confront their problems rather than just blame them on other people. But these are exactly the kind of people who would actually lead us into a new Holocaust. Not something born of monsters and nightmare fuel. But people. People willing to believe in self-serving nonsense and unwilling to have any self-awareness or look for the real causes of their problems. And despite the story above, I can’t tell you for certain no one in my family had any meaningful role in the Holocaust. I don’t think they did. But telling you I was certain of that would be a lie that was not particularly useful to anyone.

    I’m also in an odd position. I was adopted at a month old with no idea who my birth parents were or what their story was. I’ve known since I was a small child, I can’t actually remember a time when I didn’t know. So I have an extra layer of distance from these things and if they’re not good or useful, I don’t have to let them attach to me or get in my head. But this means if I let something wrong or bad in, even more than usual it’s all on me for doing that. So I don’t pretend to be much good at it but the core value I’ve tried to take up is the idea my grandmother chose to live by of trying to build the better world you want to live in.

    Oh and for what it’s worth, my religious highschool was an absolute shitshow of the usual authoritarian nonsense but dialed up to 11. I never caused them any problems but spent my entire senior year on probation because I dared to ignore one of the administrators when they fucked up and gave conflicting directions. Even my favorite educator got removed from teaching and assigned to the school library as punishment for not toeing the authoritarian party line closely enough. These were the people in my life who’d be willing to enable our current problems in the US while being perfectly happy to blame the Holocaust on monsters.

  23. uncategory says

    @Marcus #16 “It turns out that some people don’t appreciate the subtlety of the point that the pedant is being right about.”

    I wish I could have learned that in high school. Forty-five years later I still struggle with that concept.

  24. sonofrojblake says

    The lesson I take from this and many, many other similar examples is this: don’t mess with Jews.

    Which is to say: in the (in my experience) wildly unlikely event you’re required to interact with one, treat them as you would any other person… unless and until they mention:
    – Jewishness
    – Israel
    – the war
    – the Holocaust
    – conspiracy theories
    – anti-semitism
    – pretty much any politics

    At that point, SHUT UP. Listen respectfully. Say NOTHING. Anything you say may and likely will be turned into a weaponised accusation of anti-semitism, by far the most toxic thing one can be accused of apart, possibly, from paedophilia. When they stop talking about those subjects, move on. DO NOT under ANY circumstances attempt to engage. It really, really is not worth it.

    This goes about times a million if you’ve any public media profile. Whatever your public media profile, however “independent” your platform, it will not recover from an accusation of anti-semitism. The Jews and others who WILL line up to excoriate you have a bigger, louder platform. This is NOT a “Jews control the media” conspiracy theory, it’s an observation of regularly-demonstrated fact. If you evince even the slightest hint of anti-semitism, you’re done. Even if you know, 100%, that you are not an anti-semite – even if you know 100% that you don’t even HAVE an opinion, any more than you have a prejudice about people from Burkina Faso, as likely many people don’t, really – this will not protect you.

    Things wound down with a Q&A period and nobody had any questions. I think everyone was in shock.

    I think everyone knew what I’ve said above. Just let the man talk, and hope you get out of the room without being branded.

  25. lorn says

    Propaganda, like pornography, tries to elicit a strong feeling. Exactly what is the appropriate method of applause in a porno theater and why was Pee Wee Herman persecuted.

    I suspect that Elie Weisel wasn’t mad at you so much as, perhaps subconsciously, disappointed that the presentation hadn’t quite produced an emotional reaction strong enough to silence your logic and reason. The point of propaganda is to link facts and a target to emotions, in this case horror and disgust, so strong that reason no longer gets any traction.

    That was the point in trying to link Hillary Clinton to pedophilia, child sacrifice and cannibalism. Link the name to something truly outrageous and horrible and logic and reason no longer apply. Half the people hear the accusations and back away out of disgust. What’s to argue with? You can’t easily defend such behavior. Even if it is a lie. Just the accusation being made has an effect. Which is the point.

    I suspect that bombing railways specifically to save those on the way to death camps would have had no significant effect. It wasn’t like we weren’t bombing railways, trains, locomotives, bridges, and any other transportation resources we could get to. We were pretty much using all the resources we had. Bombing those specific railways would have meant we don’t bomb something else.

    Also it isn’t as if the Germans were slackers in repairing railways. A direct hit with a 500 lbs bomb could be repaired in a few hours. Germans had pre-positioned rails and ties and pre-measured fill materials in carts for standard size bomb craters. Repair crews were mobile but only had to bring hand tools.

    I don’t think they would start machine gunning detainees if the train was delayed. These people are going to a death camp where the manpower and mechanism for handling them, and their bodies are plentiful. I also think those trains had few, if any, armed guards. If any were present they were simply there to discourage escapes, handle the occasional runner, and represent the SS. They were, as I see it, unprepared to exterminate hundreds.

    You would need to bring in troops. Ideally specially trained and prepared troops. That would be a significant logistical burden, with no benefit.

    That was one of the points of the death camps. Early experiments with troops shooting groups of people showed that it had a detrimental effect on the troop’s mental health and morale. That was the advantage of the camps. Inmate/ guards, disease, exposure, and starvation did all the dirty work. The SS, unless they were seeking sadistic thrills, didn’t need to get their hands dirty.

    Most likely any train delayed on the way to the camps would simply stop until the tracks were clear. If their cargo suffered more or died, that was an eventuality they were prepared to deal with. Fact is trains did sometimes arrive at the camps with all the passengers dead.

  26. lorn says

    For those who haven’t seen Night and Fog:

    I too think it is entirely suitable for most children but it is a gruesome and provoking subject and the the scenes are haunting. So, be prepared and chose your time appropriately.

  27. lanir says

    @26 sonofrojblake:

    Isn’t fear based on ethnicity or religion like what you’re proposing rather uncomfortably close to how racism can start? I’ve known people who thought they had reasoned their way to racism because they were held up at gunpoint or otherwise in some fear-inducing incident with a person of another race.

  28. brucegee1962 says

    In my experience, the beginning of racism is when you start making generalizations about the behaviors of groups of people based on the behavior of individual members.
    For instance, many Jewish people are (understandably) sensitive about the Holocaust. Some conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Some don’t. It’s a simple as that.
    If I’ve learned one thing in my almost sixty years, it’s that I should always make an effort to treat people as individuals first.

  29. says

    In my experience, the beginning of racism is when you start making generalizations about the behaviors of groups of people based on the behavior of individual members.
    For instance, many Jewish people are (understandably) sensitive about the Holocaust. Some conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Some don’t. It’s a simple as that.
    If I’ve learned one thing in my almost sixty years, it’s that I should always make an effort to treat people as individuals first.

    Agreed, 100%.

    Our minds are engines for creating generalizations and looking for patterns, so whether we want to or not, some part of us is always going, “are there ‘things about all Thaggists?’ that I can safely assume?” Some sociopaths use our generalization engines against us, to make us jump to assumptions.

  30. sonofrojblake says

    I’ve known people who thought they had reasoned their way to racism because they were held up at gunpoint or otherwise in some fear-inducing incident with a person of another race

    As have I. Assuming because one person of a given ethnicity caused you a problem that ALL people of that ethnicity will do so is likely racism (although I wouldn’t condemn it too hard until I was reasonably sure it wasn’t PTSD – I know at least one woman for whom that definitely applies).

    But that’s why I was very careful to be very specific and say, FIRST, this: treat them as you would any other person.

    Just as I would treat any (insert ethnicity) person equally… until they pull a gun out, at which point I think it’s reasonable to adjust my attitude.

    As far as I’m concerned, there’s that short list of topics you can bring up that are the conversational equivalent of pulling out a gun. So when the gun is pulled, I’m going to do the conversational equivalent of put up my hands, cooperate, and try to get the fuck out of the situation without getting shot. If there’s a Jewish person drawing breath who doesn’t know perfectly well that those topics are a loaded gun, I’d be very surprised.

    The incident in the original post is a case of someone pulling out a gun and waving it around and being angry that one person wasn’t sufficiently intimidated (possibly because they didn’t even see the gun… I wouldn’t have at that age.)

    What I won’t EVER do is allow such an incident to affect how I treat the next person I meet, whoever and whatever they are. In my whole life, meeting few or many of all sorts of people, there’s only one generalisation that holds without exception: I’ve never met a Sikh I didn’t actively like. Every single one without exception have been lovely people. Please don’t tell me about counter-examples, if you have any. Other than them, every group has been as diverse as you’d expect.

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