Exorcising HitlerBy Frederick Taylor
THIS engrossing account of the occupation and denazification of Germany tries to navigate the ruins of the deadliest conflict in human history, and discover the extent to which its perpetrators became victims. Hitler's genocidal war of expansion, especially in the East, undoubtedly reaped a terrible harvest: the Red Army inflicted mass rape, murder and pillage on the defeated Germans. The French punished their former occupier with gang rape and the forced labour of prisoners of war; while the British and Americans were not averse to torture and blackmail.
In every Allied Zone of the humiliated Reich, sexually transmitted diseases skyrocketed, but the struggle against the "bacillus" of Nazism proved to be much more complicated and ineffective. After all, the Allies were torn between neutralising the defeated enemy and feeding a starving and resentful population. Although resolutely anti-Nazi, often Jewish, US representatives such as the "Morgenthau boys" and the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse wanted a "Nuremburg of the common man" to exorcise Germany's innate aggression, there were others who were all too willing to soft-pedal on denazification through pragmatism, but also admiration for their erstwhile foe.
While the British interrogation of a troupe of circus midgets rather discredited the denazification of the entertainment industry in Berlin, the brilliant and unbalanced General Patton called for war on the "Mongol savages" and described the Jews as "lower than animals".
Patton would not live to see his wishes granted. With the onset of the Cold War, companies like Krupp and IG Farben could prosper again, this time in a West Germany pump-primed by the Marshall Plan. The population outside the Soviet Zone could indulge in a "hyper-capitalist orgy of forgetting" - though, in 1949, an opinion survey showed 60% still thought Nazism was a "good idea".
At the end of a balanced and thought-provoking story, Taylor's epilogue is rather complacent: the German Democratic Republic is described, incredibly, as "marginally less brutal" than the regime responsible for Auschwitz and Belsen, while the sadly familiar lack of research in archives in the East inevitably skews the account of communist rule. The presence of neo-Nazis in Dresden also shows that for many Germans Hitler's "malevolent ghost", as Taylor says, is still not "somewhere very, very far away".
The LampshadeBy Mark Jacobson
Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the 20th century's most influential philosophers, famously remarked: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Pirke Avot, the only Talmudic tractate to deal exclusively with ethical and moral questions, records this saying of Simeon, son of Rabbi Gamaliel: "I was raised among the sages and from them learned that nothing is to be preferred to silence."
Had Mark Jacobson taken counsel from such wisdom ancient and modern, readers might have been spared his repellant new book, The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story From Buchenwald to New Orleans. If you were a bookstore clerk directed to shelve this volume, you'd have to create a new category - Holocaust porn.
Jacobson is a prolific magazine writer - nowadays mainly for New York magazine - whose previous pieces have provided the basis for the film "American Gangster" and the television series "Taxi". Like most successful freelancers, his inclination is to slice experience like salami. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, one of Jacobson's old friends, who lives in New Orleans, paid $35 for a curiously textured lampshade at a rummage sale. When he asked the seller what it was made of, he answered, "That's made from the skin of Jews." Days later, the friend sent the lampshade to Jacobson in New York, urging him to "find out what it is." Mitochondrial DNA testing by a Virginia laboratory established that the shade, in fact, was human skin. The sample, however, was too degraded to say anything more about whether the person from whom it had come was of European origin. Subsequent tests by Israeli and German forensic scientists reached the same conclusions.
Jacobson is all but convinced that the shade is one of those allegedly made at the behest of Ilse Koch, the sadistic wife of Buchenwald's commandant, who - according to some accounts - had the skin of murdered inmates with unusual tattoos fashioned into domestic objects, including lampshades. Though Ilse Koch was sentenced to life imprisonment after the war, no such objects were introduced in evidence. Two segments of tattooed skin from Buchenwald currently are kept at two Washington, D.C., museums - though not at the national Holocaust Memorial Museum. The lampshade in Jacobson's possession is not tattooed. Whatever its origins, the fragment of human tragedy in Jacobson's possession would seem to cry out for a decent end to the affront and indignity it has suffered. If he, in fact, believes it is the remains of a murdered Jew, then there are Orthodox rituals for the burial of partial remains. If uncertainty prevents that, nothing prevents the author from having the shade cremated and put to rest with whatever nonsectarian gestures of respect seem appropriate. No matter what Jacobson may speculate, that's surely the reason the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem declined any discussion of receiving the lampshade as a donation.
What decency ought to preclude in any case is turning this macabre relic into material - which is exactly what Jacobson does in this book. Hence, the "detective story," which is a publisher's marketing trope for "let's make this exciting and entertaining." Simon & Schuster has something to answer for when it comes to the book's cover, a pornographic photograph of the shade lighted from within wrapped in a barely transparent dust jacket that resembles a layer of skin. Bad taste doesn't begin to describe the revulsion it evokes when you first hold it in your hands. All that is shabby enough, but Jacobson makes things worse with a series of pseudo-hip authorial tics that trivialize his subject and turn the serious reader's stomach. The book begins, for example, with the author and the lampshade in the Union City, N.J., rooms of a Dominican "spiritualist" - from the description she's a Santeria practitioner. She tells the author that the lampshade contains a human spirit who trusts Jacobson and wants to remain in his keeping because, "You're the only one he has now."
One is inclined to mutter, "oh, please" and pass on, but some chapters later, Jacobson has "named" the tragic object Ziggy and places it on his bed for further "spiritualist" ritual. At that point, any reader of decent sensibility is bound to feel exasperation hardening into cold anger. Early on, Jacobson - acting on a suggestion from a New York police source - seeks out Shiya Ribowsky, an experienced forensic investigator with the city's medical examiner, who also happens to be a cantor. They meet in the social hall of a shul where Ribowsky has been leading Kaddish, Judaism's prayer of mourning. The cantor lifts the lampshade from the box in which Jacobson has transported it:
"It's parchment, that's for sure." Shiya has handled a lot of parchment in his life, parchment inside tefillin, mezuzahs and the Torah. The lampshade reminded him of all that. "But it is thinner, much thinner." He held the lampshade closer to his face and turned it around again. Then he took a deep breath and sat heavily into a chair, placing the lampshade on the table in front of him. "This is the saddest thing I've ever seen in my life," he said.
Empire's WorkshopBy Greg Grandin
"What is happening today in Latin America? To find out, read Empire's Workshop." This is what Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had to say about Grandin's book. Indeed, Empire's Workshop book provides a road map for understanding the roots of US-Latin American relations and their enduring legacy in Washington.
In Empire's Workshop, Grandin explores the ways in which foreign policy toward the Middle East during the Bush administration was based on the US policies toward Central America during the Cold War, particularly during the Ronald Reagan administration. With the central thrust of the book being this connection to the Bush administration, Empire's Workshop provides a brief history of US-Latin American relations from the end of the 1900s onward, then covering history of US interventions and meddling during the 1980s in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, how Washington's actions there were kept from the US public, and why these actions were commercially lucrative for US businesses. Grandin writes that Central America served as a kind of testing ground for the American empire following the Vietnam War, a testing ground which Reagan used to rally Christian evangelicals, paramilitaries and conservative politicians. This was rekindled by the imperial presidency of Bush.
Grandin's investigations yield a number of familiar names. Bush's Deputy National security Advisor, Elliot Abrams, was Reagan's Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs. In the Iran-Contra investigations, Abrams pleaded guilty but was later pardoned by G. W. Bush. Bush's Chief Intelligence Officer John Negroponte, was the US Ambassador to Honduras during the Contra War against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and was deeply involved in the Iran-Contra scandal as well. Otto Reich became Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere in 2002 under Bush, and had founded Reagan's Office of Public Diplomacy. John Poindexter and John Bolton were involved in the Iran-Contra during Reagan's terms as well, and later ended up in the Bush administration. These members of the Reagan administration got their diplomatic and foreign policy feet wet in the bloody conflicts in Central America where they "had near free rein to bring the full power of the United States against a much weaker enemy in order to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam" and made their case for US imperialism in a new era.
Some of the lessons these politicians learned in Central America that were used in the Bush administration included how to wage successful counterinsurgency wars, undermine international law and institutions, strong arm uncooperative local politicians and bureaucrats, and censure and pressure the press. Riech himself founded and ran the State Department Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean, which provided countless op-eds to the media, catered to reporters friendly to Washington's efforts in Central America while sidelining and intimidating critical journalists and their editors. All of these tactics proved to be useful during the War in Iraq under the Bush administration where many of the same politicians returned to Washington. Empire's Workshop was clearly informed by current events in the US. In an interview on Democracy Now!, Grandin discussed how in the time between September 11th, 2001 and the invasion of Iraq, historians, journalists and commentators found it fitting to compare the US to other empires in world history. They looked to Rome, France, Britain, and Germany and Japan following World War II. Grandin said, "they all seemed to ignore the one place where the United States had the most extensive imperial experience, and that was in Latin America. In Latin America was where the United States learned how to be an exceptional empire, extraterritorial-administer extraterritorial countries without actual direct colonialism."
One profound connection between the Reagan and G. W. Bush years was the rhetoric being used to drum up support for, and justify, the Bush administration's wars. In an interview with journalist Jeremy Bigwood, Grandin discusses this link. "It seemed to be unique for the Republican Party to justify militarism in such idealistic terms - "bringing democracy to the world." Then I realized that this wasn't actually unique for the Republicans - it was very familiar for anybody who had worked on Latin America, particularly Central America." Grandin spoke of Reagan elevating the paramilitary Contras fighting the Sandinistas to "the moral equivalents of the U.S. founding fathers and began to justify the patronage of these killers in terms of keeping faith with America's revolutionary heritage." In making such connections, Empire's Workshop helps us understand the machinations of the Bush administration, and the roots of the imperial policies that have continued into the Barack Obama presidency. This book works as both an accessible primer for those seeking to grasp the history of US-Latin American relations, and as an insightful resource for long-time observers of the region looking for a way to understand the twentieth century's bloody ties to today's news headlines.