On the mundanity of evil: British slavery, William Stuckart, and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
Last night I watched The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas for the first time. It shocked and surprised me, particularly for its ending, which I had not known about before.
It is an uncomfortable film on a number of levels, particularly so because it does not help you deal easily with the distinction between the ‘normal’ German boy with the English Home Counties accent and the seemingly lost souls of the Jewish men and boys herded into the death chambers.
On what level is the tragedy of the film? The one or the many?
I think there is enough in the film to make you realise that the heart of the story is in the simplistic, overwhelming denials of ‘living with’ a death camp on your doorstep.
But the discomfort is lingering. The industrial production of death was the most mundane of evils. And once it has been done it cannot be undone.
It made me think about a quite different film account of the holocaust. That is Conspiracy, the 2001 BBC/HBO dramatic version of the 1942 Wannsee conference on what the Nazis called the ‘final solution to the “Jewish question”’.
Conspiracy shows how Nazi Germany came to the decision to attempt to exterminate the Jewish people from history. In a short business meeting, the impossible evil became possible, required, and implementable.
What is most memorable for me about Conspiracy is the character of Wilhelm Stuckart (played by Colin Firth), a high ranking lawyer for the Interior Ministry, who was responsible for framing many of the ‘racial laws’ that implemented the persecution and exclusion of Jewish and other minorities (that is, those born outside of the community of the German Volk).
Stuckart clearly held strongly antisemitic views, and put in place a legal structure that institutionalised those abhorrent views in a rationalist manner.
But his idea of the ‘final solution’ was not based on death camps. Instead he argued for legal structures of anti-miscegenation (mixed marriages) and compulsory sterilisation of non-Volk.
In Conspiracy, Stuckart is shown to have argued against mass murder as the means to ‘purify’ Germany from what it saw as its Jewish ‘problem’. In defence of his argument, he asks the question of how history would judge Germany for their actions.
In his view, if they ‘solved the problem’ through sterilisation, then they would be ‘applauded’ for enabling the ‘problem’ to die out in a human manner. But if they chose instead illegal killings, then Nazi Germany would be condemned for taking inhuman and unethical action.
Of course, Stuckart lost the argument. The decision was made by the Third Reich for the SS to execute a plan of industrial-scale genocide through the death camps such as Auschwitz, Dachau, and Buchenwald.
Following the war, Stuckart was imprisoned by the Allies in the Nuremberg (Ministries) Trials, but escaped execution. His role as a lawmaker, his proposed programme of sterilisation, and his extreme antisemitism earned him a prison sentence of only four years.
On one level, the views attributed to Stuckart in Conspiracy are obviously correct in part. The world did condemn the Nazis for their unfathomably monstrous ‘final solution’.
It is very hard, with hindsight, to understand how those who made — and then implemented — this decision felt that they could do it, and get away with it. Whether or not Stuckart’s alternative was less monstrous is a hypothetical question. It would have involved a similarly industrial-scale medical intervention to ‘sterilise’ a population of millions, most likely targeted at children in particular. It would have been a different kind of holocaust.
I had this much in mind when I wrote a recent discussion of the British history of slavery.
As I said in that piece, the mundanity of the evil of the system that relied on the violent exploitation of men and women as property is in many ways comparable with the industrialisation of the Nazis’ death camps and final solution.
Both relied on the systematic dehumanisation and destruction of millions of people on the basis of ideas of race that were used to justify the unjustifiable.
And I asked the same question that we can ask of Stuckart and Wansee: what the hell were they thinking? How did they (or we) think they could get away with it?
Reading through some of the online responses to my discussion has been an education in itself. As I mentioned in the piece, there is a widespread sense that we have been given permission to feel alright about the inhumanity of two hundred and fifty years of barbaric slavery. Or perhaps more simply, we have given ourselves permission to feel that there has been sufficient redress to bury it.
And the cruelty, violence, and barbarity of the British slave system is not mitigated in any way by the fact that the British were not the only nation or society to practice slavery. Or that the British did not necessarily kidnap the people that they traded, abused, and raped as their so-called property. The fact that others initially enslaved the slaves of the British empire does not make anything ‘alright’.
And the main point of what I was saying is that we should not only feel shame, we should feel anger. A hard, focused anger at those who made the decisions to develop and perpetuate a system that was so evil.
For some people, they may feel their ancestors did not profit directly from the barbarity of slavery. Their ancestors were too poor, perhaps, to make fortunes from slave exploitation. Even so, the British industrial revolution, British international power and continuing wealth and privilege, along with their bastard child the welfare state, have all come about from the ‘wealth creation’ of slavery (or what might otherwise be called robbery).
In short, the brutal economy of slavery is what made Britain ‘great’.
The point is that there were significant choices made during the long history of slavery in Britain and its colonies. Perhaps sometimes the choices were less worse than others, such as Stuckart’s ‘natural’ selection rather than mass slaughter. But until the time of the abolition of slavery, the decisions were to create and maintain a system that violently dehumanised for the sake of economic gain.
And we should remember those choices and feel angry about them.
Because, in sum, the slave plantations of the Caribbean and north America were their own forms of death camps.
And without the systematisation of the idea of race into the violent structures of slavery, the systematic twentieth-century genocide of the Jewish people would have been less likely. Both fed off the intersections of a racial political anthropology based on white supremacy and highly organised social administration.
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