A Word to the Wise

by Theodore Dalrymple (December 2012)

Recently I read a slim volume that makes you tremble for humanity as you read it, and this is so even if it presents only a one-sided account of its subject matter as some critics allege: for that one side is more than terrible enough to induce the said trembling.

The book is Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust by Jan Tomasz Gross, written with the help of his wife Irena. Gross is a professor of history at Princeton, specialising in the social history of Poland during the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust; he is no stranger to controversy, to the point of being the object of threats. His main theme is the co-operation of ordinary Poles in the extermination of the Jews in Poland, and the controversy is not whether such co-operation took place, everyone admitting that it did, but over how extensive it was.

Golden Harvest is an historical meditation on a single photograph that acts as the book’s frontispiece. It is of Polish peasants, together with a few militiamen, standing behind a row of human skulls with a pair of crossbones in the middle. Two of the women have shovels or spades. The ground looks bleached, like a desert; the sun is shining brightly. The ground is bleached because the topsoil consists of human ashes. The photograph was taken at Treblinka, the extermination camp, a year after the end of the war; and, according to the author, the peasants have sifted, or are about to sift, through the ashes for items of value such as gold teeth missed by the Nazis.

Personally I think the author over-interprets the photograph. He says that the people in it stare at the camera in an unembarrassed way, as if they are just going about business as usual; but actually quite a few of the people in the photograph (which is of very bad quality, and very badly reproduced by the Oxford University Press) seem to me not to be facing the camera. Perhaps they are ashamed or frightened to show their full faces, perhaps the photographer was not very good at co-ordinating his human subjects. Perhaps the group photo was coerced rather than voluntary. It is impossible to say.

Nevertheless, no one could read this book without being, yet again, horrified by man’s inhumanity to man. Indeed, the term inhumanity seems almost an odd one in the circumstances, assuming as it does that Man’s default setting is to decency and kindness, whereas the evidence presented in this book is that, once legal and social restraints are removed, Man becomes an utter savage.

According to Gross, people of all social strata in Poland gladly, even joyfully, plundered their Jewish neighbours; if so, they were not unique in having done so, for it happened across Europe during Nazi occupation, while in Rwanda, in 1994, ordinary Hutus happily and without conscience appropriated the property of their erstwhile but now massacred Tutsi neighbours.

The question of what proportion of the population behaved like this is obviously an important one, for upon the answer will depend one’s subsequent view of average human nature. Was the behaviour statistically normal or deviant in the circumstances, or something in between the two?

Gross’s answer is uncompromising: he thinks it was statistically normal. He does not make any claims of statistical exactitude, which would clearly be impossible; but he present evidence which, in his opinion, shows that what he says is so.

He uses a method that, in a very different context (thank goodness) I have used myself. He quotes the testimony of several survivors of those times, the very language in which it is couched being very, one might say horrifically, instructive. I quote at some length just one of the cases:

The takeover of Jewish property was so widespread in occupied Poland that it called for the emergence of rules determining distribution. Thus when in August 1941 a certain Helena Klimaszewska went from the hamlet of Goni?dz to Radzi?ów “to get an apartment for her husband’s parents because she knew that after the liquidation of the Jews there are empty apartments,” she was told on arrival that a certain “Godlewski decides what to do with ‘post-Jewish’ apartments.” She presented her request to him but, she later testified in court, “Godlewski replied, ‘don’t even think about it.’ When I said that Mr Godlewski has four houses at his disposal and I don’t even have one he replied ‘this is none of your business, I am awaiting a brother returning from Russia where the Soviets deported him and he has to have a house.’ When I insisted that I need an apartment, he replied, ‘when people were needed to kill the Jews, you weren’t here, and now you want an apartment,’" an argument that met with a strong rebuttal from Klimaszewska’s mother-in-law: “They don’t want to give an apartment, but they sent my grandson to douse the house with gasoline…” And so, we are witnessing a conversation between an older woman and other adults that is premised on the assumption that one gains a right to valuable goods by taking part in murder of their owners.

Assuming that this story is not wholly false and is substantially true (there are inconsistencies in it, for surely Klimaszewska, if she was as presented here, would have replied that the returning brother needed only one house, not four, and that therefore his return could not be a reason for not giving her one), it points to a moral attitude that could not possibly have been that of one person or a few persons alone: it must have been shared by a substantial number and proportion of the population, though it would be impossible to be dogmatic about how large that number or proportion must have been. In effect, the grossest criminal behaviour was now deemed normal, acceptable and as conferring rights on those who indulge in it. Here indeed was a transvaluation of all values.

Gross insists that such anecdotal evidence, assuming it is not made up of whole cloth, is of as of great importance as more abstract statistical evidence would be, and I too have taken this view in my own work.

Let me give an example of what I mean. I was asked by the courts to examine a young woman who, under the influence of both cannabis and alcohol, had an argument with her aged great grandmother, with whom she was living, pushed her over and broke her thigh. Fortunately the old lady survived, but the young woman was charged with causing her injury.

In the course of my interview with the young woman, I asked whether her own mother had ever been in trouble with the police. She replied that she had, and I asked what for.

‘She was on the social,’ she said [being ‘on the social’ is local argot for receiving money from social security], ‘and she was working at the same time.’

‘And what happened?’ I asked.

‘She had to give up working.’

This was said with no hint of irony, indeed as if it were so perfectly obvious that no other answer was possible and the question was almost a foolish one.

The answer did answer a quite specific question, but it also had a hinterland of meaning. It meant that money obtained by working was not considered the natural prime source of income, but rather as a top-up of the basic source of income which was social security. Work, if any, was for pocket money. And while, from this case alone, it would have been impossible to conclude anything very much about the state of society (for the young woman might have been a totally exceptional person, though this was not likely), what she said was consonant with a revealing locution that I heard many times.

In the late 1970s, people in Britain who received money from social security would say ‘I get my giro on Friday.’ (The giro was in effect a cheque.) Nowadays, however, they almost always say ‘I get paid on Friday.’

This new form of words is very revealing, and signifies (to adapt slightly a Gramscian formulation) the long march of dependence through the mentalities: for to get paid, in normal parlance, is to receive money in return for something that one has done for another person or entity. What is it, then, that they are paid for having done? The answer is and can only be: for having continued to exist since the receipt of the last money.

Let me add, lest I should be misunderstood, that I do not consider the position of people who are in this position of dependence to be enviable. Often not of the highest intelligence, they have been badly educated by the state and then supplied with, one might almost say contemptuously tossed, a bare material sufficiency; if they work they are scarcely better off than if they do not, for their labour is worth hardly more to any possible employer than the subventions they already receive. Their only luxury is time, oceans of it. It is not to be wondered at that they lack self-respect, that they self-destruct, that their choices are often of a fantastically unwise nature, for nothing much hangs on them except the most immediate consequences. They have seen the future, and it is more of the same.    

My point, however, is that the language that they use is an important clue, or entry, into their mentality. In the 1970s, the term ‘I get my giro’ was a neutral description of a fact; it did not imply that the receipt of the giro was in return for anything. Thirty years later, continuing to exist, that is to say not having died, had become existentially equivalent (for people in this state of dependence) or even superior to going out to work and earning a living. Such a state of mind is not conducive to individual effort: the man who goes out to work five or six days a week and is no better off than such a person, but does so in the mere hope of bettering himself or even just to retain his self-respect, is more likely to be seen as a fool rather than a hero or someone worthy of imitation.

Perhaps it is inevitable that large-scale, de-industrialising societies will result in a class of people such as I have described, essentially paupers whose pauperisation is at a much higher standard of living than that of Victorian paupers because of the vast increase in our overall productivity and wealth; perhaps any alternative, for example a nearly complete absence of any form of subvention to the unemployed, would be worse (more than one opinion is possible on this subject, and it is almost always possible for situations to get worse as well as better).

What I think it illegitimate to doubt, however, is that there is a mentality of dependence brought about by the current system, at least in Britain; and that the things that they say – such as ‘I get paid on Friday,’ and I could cite other locutions – virtually proves it. Words and phrases have hinterlands.

I have heard the locutions of passivity first hand, with my own ears, and many times, not just once; I am not in a position, though, to say what proportion of the population thinks and speaks like this, but any candid person would admit that it is unlikely that the numbers are small. It is equally within my experience that many people of higher social and intellectual class are not candid, perhaps for two reasons: to admit the phenomena would threaten their world-view (and nothing is defended as tenaciously as a worldview); and second because the solution, if there is one, is not easy to devise and could not be other than painful, requiring courage to implement. Better and easier, then, just to deny the phenomena. (Incidentally, the old-style left that was more interested in economics than in cultural symbolism, as is the new-style left, and that was often culturally conservative, is much better at recognising the phenomena than many modern conservatives who prefer to believe that all is nearly for the best in our highly corporatist state. The problem with the old left was their economics rather than with their ability to see what is before their eyes; but that is a lesser sin, at least in our situation, than wilfully failing to see it or even to look.)

The problem I have described is, of course, trivial by comparison with the Holocaust. Professor Gross’ evidence is not first-hand, but its veracity is not what his critics deny; it is the degree to which it is representative of the whole. But even if it were only a small part of the whole, it is enough to cause us to tremble for ourselves.    

Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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