Timothy Snyder (2015) Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

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We think we know the bare bones of the history of the holocaust. Hitler as bogey man and the German nation following him to the abyss, where around six million Jews perished and many more minorities. That was my take on it. Not bad, around a D grade. But Snyder does more than root in the history of the past. He drags us into the present and the lessons are illuminating.

For the German nation the war was portrayed as necessary, a colonial war to maintain food supplies, a war against the inferior Slavic nations, or ‘shitty countries’ are our friend President Trump termed them.  But when Lebensraum came unstuck at Leningrad and the Red Army began to roll back German colonial gains the genocidal war against Jews continued and grew even more intense.

‘The Auschwitz Paradox’ the complex of Treblinka, Belzac, Sobibor and Chelmno was a factory in which people were murdered for being the wrong type of people. The gas chambers also stood as a metonym for the evil of a racial policy of mass murder and genocide, but most of the killing had already taken place further East,

‘where tens of thousands of Germans shot millions of Jews over hundreds of death pits over the course of three years, most people knew what was happening. Hundreds of thousands of Germans witnessed the killings, and millions of Germans on the eastern front knew about them…German homes were enriched, millions of times over, by plunder from the murdered Jews, sent by post or brought back by soldiers and policemen on leave’.

Auschwitz processed a lie of left and right, separating the living and dead effectively, and more importantly it allowed a generation of Germans to say they didn’t know. It also allowed the Russians to act as liberators when earlier they had played a large part in the murder of Jews and other Slavic nationals.

The key to survival, then as now was citizenship. Jews in Denmark, for example, retained their citizenship and almost all survived.  In contrast, all 963 Jew in Estonia were murdered, not by the Germans, but Estonian citizens. And from the Baltic to the Black Sea people who killed Jews killed others such as psychiatric patients and gypsies. Lithuanian policemen who took part in the killing of 150 000 Jews in 1941, also starved to death the same number of Soviet prisoners.

Similar elements are at work in the Syrian conflict. Putin’s genocidal onslaught in the second Chechnya war helped set the template for what was to follow.  Russian troops that committed atrocities were fighting terrorism.

When Russian invaded Ukraine its citizens were deemed to be terrorists. Snyder draws explicit parallels with Hitler’s ideology:

In 2013 Russian leaders and propagandists imagined neighbouring Ukraine out of existence, or presented them as sub-Russians…an artificial entity with no history, culture, and language, backed by some global agglomeration of Jews, gays, Europeans, and Americans…In the Russian war against Ukraine, the first gains were the natural gas fields in the Black Sea…annexed in 2014…The fertile soil of mainland Ukraine, its black earth, makes it a very important exporter of food, which Russia is not.

Bashar al-Assad, Syrian’s dictator, whom Putin brought back from the brink of military defeat, using high-tech Russian jets, chemical weapons that put them outside the Geneva Convention, old-fashioned barrel bombs, artillery strikes on hospitals and schools while classifying these murders as fighting against terrorists. There is no such thing as non-combatants.  Women and children are also terrorists.

Three million people in Idib. Three million non-citizens and terrorists. On the Turkish border civilian forces offer a sense of humanity and prepare for a million refugees. Perhaps an overestimate when the Russian fleet offshore are engaged in ‘exercises’. Non-citizens can expect no mercy in a kill-box that would have been all too familiar to Eastern European Jews. Ironically, those fleeing towards Israel in the hope that proximity to another nation state will provide a safe haven of sorts are simply classified as terrorist by another nation state.

Snyder’s template of taking away citizenship as the first step in genocidal murder applies equally to Myanmar’s Rakhine state. In scenes reminiscent of Nazi occupied Poland, on 27th August 2017 Myanmar’s army attacked unarmed civilians and forced more than 700 000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Ian Figel and Benedict Rogers in The Observer report thousands were killed, thousands of women raped. Children were snatched from their parents’ arms and thrown into their burning homes or drowned. Villagers lined up and shot.

Britain’s response to refugees mirrors that of the Americans during the Holocaust – no entry. The United States and richest nation in the world patted itself on the back for allowing around 5000 Jewish refugees, around the same number that were gassed in Treblinka in a morning’s work. Remember David Cameron talking about ‘swarms’ of them waiting to cross the English Channel. Swarms of children, who we agreed to take, then reneged on the deal. Without the sovereign protection of citizenship those without passports have no rights and can be disposed of.

With global warming the numbers of refugees Snyder argues is bound to increase exponentially and the poorest nations in the world will be hit first and hit hardest. Already we are preparing our defences. The first defence being rhetoric, them-or-us fundamentalism. The warning from history is a lesson we have learned too well. Enough talk produces hate and murder, but no real people die. Only terrorists.  Believe that and you’ll believe anything. We often do and justify it to ourselves by saying we didn’t know. Read this book.

 

Michael Punke (2002) The Revenant

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Underneath the title on the cover, in brackets, is a dictionary definition of what The Revenant means (n. one who has returned from the dead). Every actor after every new release must also return from the dead. Leonardo Di Caprio banked another $20 million, and got the added bonus of an Oscar as Best Actor playing the part of frontiersman Hugh Glass, a man that just wouldn’t lie down and die. This is a novel of derring-do, with a lot of daring and a lot of do.

September 1, 1823

They were abandoning him. The wounded man knew it when he looked at the boy, who looked down, then away, unwilling to hold his gaze.

There are familiar names and locations. For example, The Rocky Mountains and Fort on the Bighorn. That’s a river, but most folk will be familiar with it as the place where General Custard and American Calvary honed the practice of genocide and were wiped out by massed Indian tribes. But this is long before this when there were no maps, but frontiers filled with Indians, with savages. Around six million buffalo still roamed the plains. Yellowstone wasn’t a park.  Punke provides a map on the first pages and time moves back and forward with Hugh Glass and where X marks the spot of the Grizzly attack that minces his body, crudely scalps him and almost tore his head off near the Grande River.

The path of Captain Henry of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company is mapped alongside the path of Glass. Both were frontiersmen. Henry’s title was an affectation (as most titles are) as he led a ragtag of men into the wilderness to trap plentiful game and bring valuable furs back to St Louis to sell. There was money in them there Black hills, but also Indian tribes warring with each other and the trickle of white men that moved through their territory. Punke leads us gently into their backstories. Winners and losers.

Hugh Glass, starts as first mate and gun running and rum running in the war of Independence with England. Captain of his own ship. Sunk, as he was prone to be. His fiancée and intended dies, but he doesn’t know this until later because he’s been forced to become a pirate sailing under the flag of the Pirate Jean Lafitte. When he escapes—in the nick of time—as is the case with most adventure stories, and finds himself wandering across vast stretches of Mexican Texas, Pawnee Indians plan to make a barbecue of his carcass, but he pulls a conjuring trick and survives. Hugh Glass always survives even though he might lose his hair now and again to passing Grizzlies. On the map is marked the First Arikara attack and then hundreds of miles North, on the North Platter River, the Second Arikara attack. Fling in the hundreds of miles Glass crawled, yomped, canoed, and covered by horseback and you’ve got a survival story worth telling.

But this isn’t just a survival story. This is a story of morality. Hugh Glass rages like a Grizzly and wants more than his pound of flesh from the boy and man that left him and been paid to stay with him until the end and bury his body. Instead they robbed him of his powder, rifle, flint and knife all the tools that could keep him alive in the wilderness and left him to his fate.

Hugh Glass began to crawl.

Jim Bridger, the boy had at least tried to make Glass comfortable before he left. He was the less culpable of the two. Glass follows Fitzgerald hundreds of miles to Fort Atkinson. He’s  a sociopathic figure, dragooned into the US army for stabbing a fellow gambler at Fort Atkinson, which was build the river for ease of access and a military presence trying to drive a wedge into the wilderness for commerce. None of these things interest Glass, he wants his rifle back and he intends to use it on Fitzgerald. It’s a hair-trigger denouement, but the book (and I imagine the film) is the righting of all wrongs (well, apart from genocide and millions of bison) and a story of human endurance.  But a word of warning, do not under any circumstances hang about with anybody called Hugh Glass or, friend or foe, there’s not a revenant of a chance, you’ll end badly.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lily-Poole-Jack-ODonnell/dp/1783522356