Grappling with Genocide

Source: Religion News

A few years ago my dean at Seton Hill University called together a few colleagues in the School of Humanities to develop a proposal for an institute that would provide teachers in grades 6 to 12 more tools for teaching about genocide, and also for fostering empathy in their students. While Holocaust education has become well established in many districts across the country, we felt that we could provide means for teachers to expand their repertoire of Holocaust materials and also translate insights from the Holocaust to understanding state and communal violence in both the past and present.

The resulting institute, supported by a NEH grant, will take place in summer 2022. Beyond offering frameworks for analyzing genocidal actions, the institute seeks to approach the issues of genocide in distinctive ways. First, while it is easy to identify genocides around the world, we wanted to begin by rejecting the temptation of “othering” genocide. Timothy Petete, a distinguished scholar from the University of Central Oklahoma, will help participants understand the slow genocide of Native American erasure.

Also, this institute provides students the opportunity to engage in, and even become certified in, the storytelling process known as Narrative 4. This gives students a means of recognizing and experiencing the power of empathy. One of our colleagues, English professor Christine Cusick, has participated in and led Narrative 4 workshops across the country. She will provide trainings as part of the institute curriculum.

During the two weeks of the institute, students will engage with materials dealing with the Holocaust and other genocides. These will include readings, of course, like Nobel laureate Nadia Murad’s memoir of the Yazidi genocide in The Last Girl and Jan Gross’ startling account of the village of Jedwabne in Neighbors. But we plan to help institute scholars incorporate cinema, photography, and other visual arts in their teaching. Master teacher Jennifer Goss, who has led workshops at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, will join our Education professor, Dan Casebeer, in helping students develop their own lesson and unit plans for genocide education using personal accounts as well as cutting edge scholarship.

This overview only provides a flavor of what Grappling with Genocide has in store for participants. You can visit our website to see the daily activities and to learn more.

Call Me American

Abdi Nor Iftin from The New York Times

Call Me American by Abdi Nor Iftin

    Poised on the Horn of Africa, Somalia participated in the lively trade from the Indian Ocean into the Persian Gulf. With the arrival of Islam in the 7th century C.E. Somalia was organized into competing sultanates. But its links to trade made Mogadishu both a cosmopolitan and wealthy city. The 14th century traveller Ibn Battuta described it as “a town of enormous size. Its inhabitants are merchants possessed of vast resources.” Even into the early 20th century Muslim scholars there made it a center for Islamic learning. Like most of Africa, the region became a target of European imperialism in the 19th century, divided between Italian and British spheres of control. In 1960 both regions became independent and united into the modern state of Somalia. 

    Many Somalis, perhaps a majority of the rural population, engage in herding cattle and transhumance. Less than 2% of Somali land is arable, but nearly 70% is devoted to pasture. The rural population has little access to schooling, even less to medical care. At the opening of Abdi Iftin’s memoir Call Me American, he tells us the story of his parents, whose families are herders and, within their social sphere, wealthy in the number of cattle they own. But drought will rob his parents of their cattle and force them to make lives for themselves in Mogadishu. Abdi and his brother grew up here. His entire family will feel the tides of national and global developments as they wash through the capital city.

    From 1969 until he was deposed in 1991, Siad Barre ruled Somalia through a military dictatorship. Abdi recognizes the military adventurism and corruption of the Barre regime. But once Barre is deposed, the country has no central authority to impose order, and the functions of society and the state either devolve to armed bands or disappear altogether. Abdi’s description of this time is both lively and harrowing. He talks of the disappearance of his father, of the death of an infant sister, of carrying water cans through streets claimed by trigger-happy gunmen. But he also becomes aware of the wider world through movies and, eventually, other American media. He learns English from the movies – his first words are, “I’ll be back.” And soon he receives his nickname, American.

    A UN force in the early 1990s attempted to restore order to Somalia, and succeeded at first. But the American setback in the Black Hawk Down incident leads to the withdrawal of US support and the removal of US troops. The clan gangs, never fully under control, return. Ultimately, the one opponent capable of taming much of the country and wresting control from the clans is the Islamic Union and later (2006) Al-Shabab. Where the clan warlords competed for territory and lucre, the Islamist movements imposed tight strictures on personal behavior. Abdi’s attraction to global culture, and particularly his nickname, drew the attention of the young gunmen of Al-Shabab. In the Abdi is driven to flee, becoming a refugee in Kenya where the presence of so many Somalis soon becomes a source of conflict. 

    Abdi eventually manages to win a visa lottery and emigrate to the United States. But this bare summary does no justice at all to the difficulties of that process. And his book continues after he arrives in the U.S., showing his continued need to confront economic hardship, culture shock, and racism.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Fauvelle, Francois-Xavier. The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages. Princeton University Press, 2018.

Hogg, Annabel Lee. “Timeline: Somalia, 1991-2008.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 22 Dec. 2008,

Hornak, Leo. “Abdi and the Golden Ticket.” This American Life, 7 June 2021,

Iftin, Abdi Nor, and Max Alexander. Call Me American: A Memoir. First edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

Iftin, Abdi Nor. “The Lives of Muslim Terror Victims Matter Too.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 Aug. 2016,

“Somalia: Events of 2020.” (2020). Human Rights Watch. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from

“Somalia Country Profile.” BBC News, BBC, 4 Jan. 2018,

Walsh, Declan, et al. “A C.I.A. Fighter, a Somali Bomb Maker, and a Faltering Shadow War.” The New York Times, 24 Oct. 2021,

Williams, John. “Tell US 5 Things about Your Book: A Refugee Says, ‘Call Me American’.” The New York Times, 15 July 2018,

The locality of good

Children sheltered in Le Chambon. This image is part of a media essay provided by the USHMM.

One of the most inspirational stories of resistance to the nationalized hatred and state murders of World War II comes from a small town in southern France, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. The town, and surrounding communities on the plateau of Vivarais-Lignon, provided help and hiding places for refugees from Vichy and then German authorities. Many Jews as well as other opponents of the fascists made their way to and through Le Chambon. In The Plateau, Maggie Paxson tells many of the stories of the work in Le Chambon, especially how children who were victims of the race hatred of the Germans were sheltered and even schooled there.

Early in her book Paxson, an anthropologist and writer, says that she had come often enough shoulder to shoulder with state violence, or its threat. She wanted to find what a place of peace would be like: “What if we began by regarding peace not as timeless, but as dynamic; not located in the beginning of the end, but in the unfolding; something not of the ether, but of lived grounds and interactions; something not perfect but flawed and rough-grained?” (5) Le Chambon seemed an obvious place to go for such a quest, and even more so when it turned out she had a family connection to Le Chambon. So she goes one spring in the mid 2000s to study and live and to perhaps find answers.

Or, at least, I had thought we might have some answers to her central question. How does peace become so vital a part of the fabric of a place that even violence from the outside does not snuff it out? In her book, Paxson follows the career of her distant cousin, Daniel Trocmé (himself the cousin of the Protestant Pastor André Trocmé, who is the central figure in Le Chambon’s reception of refugees). She follows his early life in northern France, then in the Near East, Italy, and finally his return to France about the time WWII begins. He cannot serve because of a medical condition, but is soon asked to come to Le Chambon to oversee a school for children. He embraces this work with his whole heart, and cannot be separated from his charges even when the Gestapo come for him. Transferred from one camp to another, he ends at Majdanek.

We also read a great deal about Maggie Paxson’s life, her earlier work in Russia, and even more about her work with the local refugee agency in Le Chambon where her language skills become a mainstay of the work Russian and Caucasian refugees. There are reflections here on the insights of social science, on the place of religion in social life and in personal commitments, and even on the mind / body problem. We learn about the Baha’i faith, and we learn about her own family’s history.

But what I don’t find here is much clarity on what seems to me the obvious question about peace. Why here? Why did these people make a commitment to outsiders that could have ended in even more widespread incarceration than what the town experienced, and even more profligate judicial murder. At one point, in an interesting passage on religion, she says that the injunction to love one’s neighbor and also to love strangers comes from every religion. But she also turns aside the idea that religion per se, the Protestant faith of so many of the villagers, was the key to understanding Le Chambon’s role during WWII.

I experienced a similar frustration with Philip Hallie’s book on Le Chambon, Lest Innocent Blood be Shed. Hallie places at the center of his exploration the Huguenot Pastor, André Trocmé. Early in his book he recounts the story of Trocmé’s arrest by the Gestapo, being taken under arrest at the parsonage and transferred to a car to be take to prison. Word spread through the village and his parishioners gathered as witness as he was taken away. They began spontaneously to sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God” as their pastor was driven away. Andre, unlike Daniel, would return from imprisonment, and continue his work, though later in the war he would have to flee again.

André Trocmé was committed to pacifism, and he called upon his parishioners to open their arms to the strangers and the victims of Vichy and Nazi violence. I’m sure that Pastor Trocmé was central and key to the whole movement to resist and to save. Yet he was at the center of a network of families, individuals, and even institutions in the plateau that worked toward the same ends. Paxson is an accomplished social scientist, so she has the ability and the background to identify the key elements of the network and to begin to recognize the ideologies expressed in them. But, while we learn about many of the present day refugees on the plateau, we learn very little about the web of relationships and commitments that set a rural village against the Gestapo.

I have to admit that my frustration with Hallie and Paxson alike is that they will not do history. Paxson, at least, has no excuse. She spends time in archives, she interviews knowledgable contemporaries and even some of those who lived as children during the war. Anthropology has the same eye for relationships as social history (because where else did social history go for those questions and methods?). In the end, we don’t see that dynamic, that unfolding that Paxson seemed to promise in the beginning. The work of the people of Le Chambon remains ineluctable, like the sacraments.

Hallie, Philip Paul. Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There. 1st HarperPerennial ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

Paxson, Margaret. The Plateau. New York: Riverhead Books, 2019.

Hitler’s Monsters

Eric Kurlander, Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich (New Haven: Yale University, 2017).

An iconic scene from Murnau’s Nosferatu. Source: Wikipedia

A little more than half way through Hitler’s Monsters, Eric Kurlander opens a new section this way:

After World Ice Theory, no area of border science was deemed more valuable in the Third Rich than radiesthesia. We will recall that many Nazi leaders, most notably Himmler and Hess, believed in the existence of cosmic forces or earth rays (radiation) that could be detected and harnessed with the proper training. Hitler had ordered one of Germany’s most famous diviner’s to check the Reich Chancellery for malignant forms of the latter. Goebbels also hired dowsers like Kritzinger to assist with Nostradamus propaganda. (220)

You could be forgiven if reading the passage tempted to you into some “WTFs.” As Kurlander makes clear, the NSDAP was awash with border science and shards of occult systems alongside folktales, mythology, and Aryan-centric anthropology. The kind of magical thinking that historians have seen as moving Hitler and his acolytes to believe in victory after spring of 1944 was informed and sustained by actual thinking about magic.

Eric Kurlander does a yeoman’s labor in understanding and then explaining the varieties of occult beliefs that circulated in late 19th century Germany and continued into the Weimar period. I cannot even begin to do justice to these ideas here. But, anyone familiar with the Nazi movement and with Hitler’s beliefs on racial issues and German destiny already knows the movement exploited contemporary social science (the U.S. was a powerhouse in producing eugenic thinking and, sadly, legislation) and also fringe ideas on race and mythology, and of course picked up the well established traditions of European anti-Semitism. Kurlander shows that the Imperial and Weimar occult movements were filled with völkisch claims about Aryan descent from an Asian race of heroes. Northern Indian warrior-conquerors and Japanese samurai shared roots with the Aryan warriors who arrived in Europe. A putative deep connection to Tibet led to a German “anthropological” mission there during the Third Reich. And in case you wondered, forget Darwin and descent from lower and ape-like forms—that was only for the lesser races. The Aryan people emerged from the Hyperborean civilization of Atlantis.

The original NSDAP founders developed their own Thule society to promote Aryan exceptionalism with a heady mix of occultisms. Hitler broke with the group only because it proved so politically inept. For Hitler himself, border science and occult ideas offered gaudy systems to sustain his beliefs and prejudices. Other Nazi leaders, particularly Himmler, took some strands of occult belief much more seriously. He made concentration camps available for border scientists to work out their insane theories about survival in high altitudes or freezing temperatures, or even if the dead could be brought back to life. By late in the war Himmler ordered that every SS division have a unit trained in radiesthesia, best known for water dowsing, to use cosmic rays to detect enemy movements. For a decade the SS sponsored a Witch Division to collect (steal) documents regarding material on Central European folklore and mythology. And Himmler would push border science as a path to discovering miracle weapons as the war moved toward its inevitable Götterdammerung.

Himmler serves here as synecdoche for the Nazi movement and leadership. As Kurlander shows, no other political movement of the 20th century relied so wholly and enthusiastically on the occult, as inspiration but also as a theoretical grounding. The “superman” beliefs came not just from Hitler’s racial fever dreams but from the well established occultist beliefs of the era. This was not a metaphor for German superiority but a specious “fact” of the völkisch belief system. That it resonated for so many Germans had to do with the special circumstance of the Weimar period, but also with what were already widely held ideas from the societies and publications dedicated to the occult. So, too, the equation of “the Jew” with an evil, disease-carrying parasite, the exact equivalent of the vampire. Vampire beliefs would flourish in the Nazi period, with the propaganda ministry taking advantage of the vampire craze to portray Jews with vampiristic features in posters and film.

This review can only suggest the rich tapestry of alternative belief that Kurlander explores and analyzes. But his work will convincingly show that if you dowse any Nazi belief or policy the cosmic rays will lead you to World Ice Theory or Atlantis or the search for anti-gravity. Or, worse.

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps

Wachsmann, Nikolaus. KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-374-53592-6

Sometime in early 1944 children in the Brikenau family camp performed a musical  based on Disney’s Snow White. This special camp was primarily Czech Jews deported from the Theresienstadt ghetto. The children’s teachers, led by inmate Fredy Hirsch, managed to provide a school curriculum that included songs, stories, German lessons and even their own newspaper. Nikolaus Wachsmann includes this story in his history of the Nazi concentration camp system not to lighten our understanding of the murderous work of Brikenau. Rather, Wachsmann’s project demonstrates the complexity of the camps, which even so was embedded in a  brutal system.  By March the SS sent most of the family camp residents to the gas chambers. Two brothers, now orphans, who looked over the living quarters after the operation, remembered that “it seemed eerily empty; all they saw were  ‘flames flickering from the chimney of the crematorium.’”

In KL we learn about the full sweep of the history of the camp system. In the early months of Nazi rule SA thugs rounded up political enemies for “protective custody” (Schutzhaft), removing them from active opposition to HItler’s power grab. But this also gave Nazi activists opportunities for brutalizing their enemies. These camps were often small, sometimes in SA bars, and at other times “camps” were set up in regular prisons. By late 1933, however, Heinrich Himmler moved to assert control, soon making the SS the organizational basis for the entire camp system. In the course of the 1930s SS recruits and officers developed their self-understanding as “political soldiers” who were defending the Nazi state against its political and social enemies. 

The identity of those enemies shifted over time, becoming more inclusive. Socialist and Communists activists were the primary target in the early years of the regime. But any known opposition to Nazi rule could qualify someone for incarceration. The largest religious group until at least 1938 was the Jehovah’s Witness, who rejected nation-worship. Later in the decade the camps received large numbers of “asocials,” generally common criminals or the “work shy” who threatened to undermine the Nazi ideal of racial solidarity. Brutality was intrinsic to the camp ethos. The SS expected toughness of their camp guards and staff. Himmler frequently referred to inmates as scum, worthy of harsh living conditions and harsh treatment. 

Nazi rule depended on the camps to intimidate its enemies and prop up its utopian claims. Even so, prisoner numbers remained low for most of the 1930s. In 1937 fewer than 8,000 inmates were spread over a few major camps. That population grew by 200%  in early 1938 as the military mobilized for actions in Austria and Czechoslovakia, and then quickly doubled to about 50,000 right after Kristallnacht. By 1939, though, the numbers had dropped again, lower even than early 1938. Throughout the 1930s, the only time that Jews were more than a small part of the camp system related to the Kristallnacht imprisonments. Even with the beginning of war in the East and the establishment of Auschwitz in 1940, the camps played only a small role in Nazi Jewish policies. In early 1942, when Himmler’s protege Reinhard Heydrich chaired the Wannsee conference that laid general plans for the annihilation of Jews currently or propsectively under Nazi control, no one saw the camps playing a major role.

And yet they would. Although most of what we now know as the Holocaust took place in other places, the camps–with Auschwitz at the center–were ready instruments for genocide. By 1942 the systematic murder of Soviet POWs provided camp commandants and SS planners opportunities for building and assessing every feature of the industrial mass murder that would characterize their share of the Holocaust. Gas chambers, with the use of Zyklon B. Gas vans. Crematoria. All of this technology had been developed and deployed at Auschwitz and other camps. By the end of 1942 German and western European Jews were being deported East, primarily to Auschwitz, destined for selection and immediate murder or for registration and slave labor. Of 1.7 million who were murdered in the camps, 1.1 million were victims of the Auschwitz-Birkenau compound.

While the so-called final solution was the main product of the eastern camps, slave labor ultimately became the central pursuit of the camp system. Even as the slaughter of prisoners continued in the final two years of the war, the prisoner population grew. As the transition toward war production became the primary goal for the camps, the number of prisoners, including Jewish prisoners, increased rapidly. From August of 1943 to August of 1944, the camp population more than doubled, and grew again by almost half, to more than 700,000 by January 1945. By the end of the war there were more than two dozen main camps but hundreds more of satellite camps (Wachsmann estimates more than 500). As the Nazi regime collapsed from East and West, prisoners were moved in desperate death marches, to save slave laborers for what, by then, was a fantasy of Nazi resistance and survival. The brutality and murder continued to the end of the system.

KL provides extraordinary value in understanding both the Nazi state and the Holocaust, in revelatory details but even more in analysis of the camp system. Even though this work takes a deep look at the system, the writing never becomes dense. But the subject matter remains demanding. Waschsmann introduces us to individuals, both victims and perpetrators. Yet knowing the subjects of the camps better, just like knowing about the children’s musical in Birkenau, does not lighten the grim project that Wachsmann has taken on.

The Mirage Factory

The Hollywoodland sign, 1935

In The Mirage Factory, Gary Krist provides a lively history of Los Angeles in the early 20th century. In 1900 Los Angeles, then number 36 in order of American cities in population, was the whitest large city in the country. By the time he closes in the 1940s, Los Angeles is already number 5 and has become a diverse center of industry. While Krist nods to these trends, and to the booming economy that would make Los Angeles an urban presence on the world stage, his real theme is revealed in his title: Los Angeles as a product of the imagination.

Krist follows the life stories of three extraordinary characters. William Mulholland, Irish immigrant and self-taught engineer, arrived in Los Angeles in 1877. He had the vision of bringing water to Los Angeles, and as Superintendent of the Water Department, realized that vision with the 233 mile long aqueduct from Owens Valley. David Wark Griffith, already recognized as a creative genius of the movies, in the 1910s brought his production team to Los Angeles from New York. And Sister Aimee Semple McPherson arrived in 1918, bringing her work as an evangelist to the western city and soon establishing the Angelus Temple, hosting services for thousands every day of the week.

Conflict marked all of these lives. Mulholland’s aqueduct was the first of the Southern California water projects that allowed the desert city to grow into a metropolis. The resistance of people in Owens Valley to the Los Angeles system turned into a long-running conflict that included legal battles, peaceful occupations, and violent confrontations. Krist provides a fast paced narrative of the Water Wars of the 1920s. 

The movie industry had already become well-established by 1915 when Griffith released his impossible film, Birth of a Nation. The film prompted outrage and protest  over its racist depictions of African Americans and its glorification of the KKK and the violent overthrow of Reconstruction. But most Americans seemed ready for its story of northerners and southerners united. The film made its studio, and Griffith, wealthy, and gave him the freedom to follow other projects as he wished. 

Sister Aimee, went from triumph to triumph with her evangelical revivals, her growing church with daily services, her illustrated sermons, and her radio program. With time, though, Sister Aimee became a personality as much as a guide to Jesus. In the mid-1920s she became the star of her own scandal, a weeks-long disappearance that she claimed was a failed kidnapping. The papers could not stop following the story, and even today questions remain about what really happened.

For Griffith, Birth of a Nation marked the pinnacle of his career. He made other remarkable movies, known for their creative contributions to cinema. But he never had another big commercial success, and his failures mounted. Krist follows him to his end, living at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles and drinking heavily. He died in 1948. 

Mullholland’s end came in 1928, well before his death. The St. Francis Dam, built to store water in the San Francisquito Valley reservoir, collapsed on March 12 and flooded the valley and continued on through Santa Clara. The final death toll is estimated at 431, and flood damages soared into the millions. Mulholland freely admitted that if the dam’s failure were due to human causes, “I was that human.” He spent much of the rest of his life in relative seclusion, dying in 1935.

Sister Aimee’s life did not suffer from repeated loss, or from a catastrophic failure. After the scandal of her disappearance, she continued life much as before. But she would come into conflict with more and more of those around here, especially her Mother who had managed the Temple and much of the church’s organization. But the Temple under Sister Aimee’s leadership provided relief services in L.A. during the Depression, and helped bond offerings during the war years. Sister Aimee continued her revival work until her death in 1944.

Krist, Gary. The Mirage Factory Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles. Crown, 2019.

The Sound of Mass Murder

The Ratline by Philippe Sands

This is a love story. And it is one that most Americans will find familiar. During the interwar years a young and earnestly Catholic woman meets an older man, an Austrian baron. They meet cute, have their differences but inevitably fall into one another’s orbit. They marry and have a large family. The love story of Charlotte and Otto Wächter has many of the same threads as The Sound of Music, including conflict and confrontation with the authorities and a flight to escape arrest. But in The Ratline we don’t have to wait until after intermission for the Nazis to show up. The Nazis are there early. Both Otto and Charlotte are party members. They joined early, and in Otto’s case, more than once. The authorities Otto flees are Austrian police, seeking him in connection with the failed coup against the Austrian government in 1934 that resulted in the murder of the Austrian chancellor Dollfuss. Unlike the von Trapps, who had flee their homeland after the German incorporation of Austria into the German Reich, the Anschluss gave Otto his opportunity to return in triumph to celebrate Hitler’s victory and Nazism’s ascendancy.

Always ambitious, Otto had joined the SS during his stay in Germany and rose into the outer margins of Nazi leadership. Back in Austria his talents and loyalty were rewarded, and when the Reich moved east, so did Otto. He served as governor of Krakow, subordinate to Hans Frank who led the General Government in Poland. Later, Otto was made governor of Galicia, a region the German military seized from the Soviets in 1941. His administrative center was Lemberg, Lwow under the Poles and Lviv today, part of Ukraine.

Otto and Charlotte Wächter, with Horst and his older sister Traute, 1944.

All of this is well known. Raul Hilberg wrote of Wächter in Pepetrators Victims Bystanders, providing an overview of his career, including that he ”presided over the ghettoization of the Jews in Krakow and Galician districts, and over the deportations of Jews in Galicia and Italy.” (47) But details of Otto’s family life we know thanks to Philippe Sands, a British barrister and expert in international law. Sands’ family had lived in Lemberg for generations before the German occupation. He wrote an extraordinary account of the ways his family’s history overlapped and intertwined with that of Hersch Lauterpracht, the jurist who developed the legal theory behind “crimes against humanity” and actively supported the Nuremberg war crimes trial; and also of Rafael Lemkin, who developed the conceptual framework of genocide. In his research Sands met Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, and through Niklas Frank he met Horst Wächter, Otto and Charlotte’s son. Whereas Niklas had long recognized his father’s criminality, Horst maintained his father’s fundamental decency. The contrasts between the two men, and the wide ranging discussions they held with one another and Sands, led Sands to bring them together for a public discussion, and also to make them the basis for a documentary, What our Fathers Did.

Amazingly, Philippe Sands and Horst Wächter became friends, or at least friendly, to the point that Horst finally made available to the inquisitive lawyer his archive of material, mainly consisting of his mother’s diaries and letters, but also letters (and one diary) of his father. Through this Sands could write the love story of Charlotte and Otto and also give a three dimensional portrait of Otto’s life, loves and adventures.

If there is anyone we can see as a sympathetic character in this family saga, it is Horst, who consistently appears both as likable and frustratingly obtuse. He wants to believe in his father’s decency, and he continues to honor his memory and adore mother. He wants to love his parents. But they were horrible people. Charlotte joined the Nazi movement without hesitation, and she completely gave herself over to her husband’s ambitions and career. She takes her anti-semitism straight, and her papers reveal no tremor in her Catholic soul over the treatment of Jews in Krakow or Lemberg. At least one of her several abortions was in vengeance on Otto for one of his many infidelities. And after the war she supported the family in part from the sale of artwork she had stolen from Krakow and Lemberg. Otto, for his part, frequently ignored his family in service to his ambitions, and also no doubt sometimes preferred the company of a mistress to family events. But he has blood on his hands. In Krakow, he oversaw arrests and deportations of Polish intellectuals to concentration camps. He coordinated, and attended, the execution of 50 Poles in reprisal for assassinations of German soldiers. Those executed were not suspects, but chosen at random. His anti-semitism and Nazism flowed together seamlessly, and he never hesitated to use his authority to advance the racial beliefs of his movement.

I made a point of reading no other reviews of this book so as not cadge from from my betters. But I noticed a brief passage from another review that claimed the Sands work cast serious doubt on the idea of the banality of evil. Hannah Arendt’s theory, as I understand it, is that Holocaust perpetrators could ignore the horrors they instituted by seeing them as just part of their life, their own contributions merely implementing orders arising from far away and therefore not subject to one’s own ethical qualms. The reviewer apparently sees Wächter as a true believer who recognized his culpability. On my reading, on the other hand, Wächter’s career seems an almost ideal expression of quotidian evil. He was a true believer, no doubt about that, but he also saw himself as a career civil servant and an exemplar of good administration.

Consider: As governor of Krakow, Wächter ordered the construction of the ghetto where Jews would be concentrated and then denied many of the necessities of life, pending their removal to the camps. Otto’s father wrote to intercede on behalf of a friend whose daughter had married a Jew. Could something be done to help the woman’s child?

Otto responded promptly, with affection and firmness. “Dear Papa!,”Herr Schremmer’s case was “complicated and unpleasant,” so he passed it to the head of his Ministry of Interior, Herr Engler, who reviewed the matter and concluded, in a written report, that Herr Schremmer’s granddaughter was correctly to be “considered a Jew.” She was not entitled to a normal identity card. The law was the law, Otto told his father, and he hoped the clarification was helpful. Such cases of nationality and race had an “unpleasant” aspect, but he wanted to be clear: the laws may be “unfortunate” for the individuals concerned, but they were “necessary for the public benefit,” for the good of the group. (90)

The final third of the book provides the book’s title. The Ratline was the escape route for many Nazis, who crossed into Italy seeking shelter, new identities, and passage to safe havens in the Middle East or Latin America. Here Sands slows down, follows the trail of Otto Wächter and also shows us his own work to uncover the mysteries of Wächter’s disappearance and eventual death in Rome. Sands relies less on Charlotte’s archive and more on other sources, including an interview with David Cornwall (John Le Carré), who served as a second lieutenant in postwar Austria. “He was aware that there was an escape route, and mentioned a figure of 10,000 ex-Nazis making their way to South America, often with the help of the Vatican.” While that number may not be precise, the work of historian Gerald Steinacher (who Sands meets and interviews in the last section) has shown well established systems for the escape of Nazis, including high ranking ones. Eichmann, Barbie, Priebke all used the Ratline. David Cornwall also points out that “The commandants of Treblinka and Sobibór were successfully sent to South America.”

How Otto Wächter escaped, where he hid, and how he died makes a great story, as does Philippe Sands work in uncovering the truth. I won’t spoil any of it. I should note that most of the the remarkable incidents of this book were contained in Sands’ BBC podcast, also titled The Ratline. You can choose your own medium to spend time with Philippe Sands and Horst Wächter. I recommend both.

Sands, Philippe. The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive. First American edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. ISBN: 978-0-525-52097-9

Also cited here:

Hilberg, Raul. Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.
Sands, Philippe. East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes against Humanity.” First edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
Steinacher, Gerald, and Shaun Whiteside. Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Last Boat Out of Shanghai

The Shanghai Bund 外滩 during the 1930s. Source: China Smack

Helen Zia take her readers into the heart of the experience of those Chinese who fled Shanghai as the Communist forces advanced on the city in 1949. Readers familiar with the history of the Chinese civil war and the Liberation will not find startling new insights. Rather. Last Boat opens a window into the human and emotional crisis of the Communist takeover. Through the stories of four men and women (all children when we first meet them in 1937), Zia shows both the dizzying range of experiences for those living in Nationalist Shanghai, and also their convergence as each became a refugee from the Communist takeover. These are true stories, based on hundreds of hours of interview, and they almost qualify for a Borgesian Babylonian lottery. One girl was sold by her parents when she was a few years old, adopted by a childless widow, and then abandoned again. Another of Zia’s children grew up among the Chinese elite that collaborated with the Japanese occupation, only to find his family torn apart first by the Nationalist victory and then again by the Communist victory over the Kuomintang. These stories put a human face on the refugee crisis surging from Shanghai as the new era of Communist power prevailed over Nationalist China and the Paris of the East.

Helen Zia, Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Eric Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution (New York: Ballantine Books, 2019). ISBN: 978-0-345-52233-7

The Language of Thieves

The Language of Thieves

Who can resist this book’s subject, a language spoke by the rootless of Central Europe? A language damned by Martin Luther and other upholders of civil order into the 20th century. Rotwelsch was the jargon or sociolect of no ethnicity but of tramps and hoboes and thieves. Rotwelsch speakers wandered European roads from the Rhine to the Danube, probably speaking German, Yiddish, and other settled languages. But among themselves they could use the language of the road, makes their meanings impenetrable to outsiders. To avoid “shul” they could “an hasn machn” or make a rabbit (a quick getaway) to stay out of jail. And like American hoboes in the early 20th century they used signals (zinken) scratched onto fence posts or the sides of houses to let other wanderers know if they could expect a handout or a bad man or a religious zealot. (Or, maybe these zinken show the spread of Rotwelsch with international migration.)

But this story has other dimensions. Martin Puchner, who serves as a professor at Harvard University, learned many Rotwelsch words from his uncle while growing up in Nuremberg. As a doctoral student at Harvard, he began to uncover more of his family connection to the language, and he began a decades long exploration of the language and his family history. Every chapter opened a new door into the role of language and family and ideology in recent and distant European history. As the subtitle already tell you, there are Nazis involved.

Martin Puchner. The Language of Thieves: My Family’s Obession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate. New York: W. W. Norton, 2020. 978-0393868289

The Silk Road

Silk Road

Silk Road map from Wikipedia

Valerie Hansen, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, has written this history and archaeology of the Silk Road both to show what we can know about the Eurasian world’s most famous commercial route, but also how we can know it. The book is divided into chapters that look closely at individual Silk Road towns. Most of these are oases in Central Asia along the route, but she included the major metropolises of Chang’An, the capital of more than one Chinese empire, and Samarkand, the homeland of the Sogdian people. For each city, Hansen discusses the Silk Road documents and artifacts that have been uncovered and what these reveal about the role of the city in the Silk Road and the Silk Road generally.

Hansen’s general conclusions about the Silk Road may surprise. “The Silk Road was one of the least traveled routes in human history and possibly not worth studying,” she writes provocatively (262). Except, of course, it is very much worth studying. The road carried some commerce, though that was mainly local trade in locally produced goods. But it made possible the movement of emissaries and ambassadors, armies, refugees, and missionaries.

Around 200 CE Buddhism moved into the oases south of the Taklamakan desert from what is today Afghanistan, carried by small groups of Gandharan immigrants. They also gave the locals a script, making them literate for the first time. Buddhism would remain one of the dominant religions in what is now western China for many centuries. But the Sogdian people from the towns and cities of today’s Uzbekistan would slowly come to dominate the region. They practiced Zoroastrianism, embracing the same world view as their Iranian co-religionists but worshipping multiple gods. One Zoroastrian tomb painting includes depictions of the fire altar along with the Mesopotamian goddess Nana.

By the 8th century CE other central Asian people began to make their power felt, including the Uighur who remain the dominant group in western China today. One of the early Kaghans converted to Manichaeism, and encouraged his leading people to do the same. An example of the cultural syncretism of the region is evident in a document discovered in one archeological site that was a Manichaean hymn in Sogdian “but written phonetically in Chinese characters.” (268)

Yet the Manichaeans and Zoroastrians made room for one another, and also for Buddhists and even Christians from the Nestorian Church of the East. The earliest printed book, an illustrated Chinese version of the diamond sutra, was found on the Silk Road. And so too was a talisman of folded paper containing verses from the Hebrew Scriptures. (268)

The Silk Road did facilitate trade. But reports of communication between Rome and China seem overblown. Only a few Byzantine coins have been uncovered in more than a century of archaeology. The period of greatest commercial activity was the early Tang Dynasty, from he 600s until 755. Huge shipments of silk cloth left Chang’An for the Chinese military outposts in Central Asia. The cloth was used as payment to the soldiers, who could in turn use it to pay for their needs from local merchants. After the An Lushan rebellion the Tang removed their forces from the west and trade along the road reverted to local trade in local goods.