The stories of Europe’s animal trials are ever worth retelling, but missing from Edward Payson Evans’s compendium of criminal prosecutions against both animals and objects is perhaps the strangest case of all, and the only case I know of from Great Britain: the trial for murder of a statue of the Virgin Mary, which took place in the Welsh village of Hawarden in the year 946 (LRB, 5 December). According to a Saxon manuscript, the story goes that the statue, in the rood loft of the church, fell on the head of the Lady of the Castle when she was at prayer and killed her. It was arrested, charged with murder, brought before a jury, convicted and condemned to death. However, seeing as it was the Virgin, the villagers decided not to hang her but instead to lay her on the shores of the River Dee ‘from whence they might see what became of her, which was accordingly done; soon after which, the tide of the sea came and carried the said image to some low land … where it was found the next day, drowned and dead.’ Despite their circumspection, the villagers of Hawarden earned themselves the title of the ‘Hawarden Jews’, which remained with them into the 18th century.
‘In a short period of time,’ Mahmood Mamdani writes of Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, ‘the Allies had carried out the most far-reaching ethnic cleansing in the history of Europe … the overriding principle here was that there must be a safe home for survivors’ (LRB, 7 November). This gives a wholly false impression. The major population flows the Allies countenanced were of people fleeing of their own accord from Eastern Europe to the West or, in the case which clearly irks him most, of Jews fleeing to Israel. None of these flows was the result of Allied policy. It is true that the Allies handed as many as fifty thousand Cossacks and other ethnic Russians over to Stalin to be butchered, but this was done because the Soviets demanded it at Yalta. With hindsight one is amazed at how liberal Western attitudes to this vast inward migration were. It is also misleading to suggest that the Israeli state ‘governs in the name of the [Holocaust] victims’. Up until the Eichmann trial Israel had almost nothing to say about Holocaust victims, as if embarrassed that they had not offered more resistance to the Nazis.
I share Mamdani’s disappointment with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but my reasons are very different. The TRC was a deeply flawed exercise, dominated by clerics, so there were many theatrical displays and much praying and weeping. It made highly selective choices as to what it would cover. Many friends of mine had been tortured by the apartheid security police but I never heard either their or their torturers’ names mentioned. The Commission revealed nothing. Helen Suzman, whom I saw about once a week during the process, said to me: ‘I have learned absolutely nothing new from the TRC. Anyone who says they have learned anything new was simply not paying attention under apartheid.’
Anthea Jeffery’s The Truth about the Truth Commission (1999) shows how the TRC evaded all legal norms, falsified accounts of many events that had been exhaustively covered by other, far more detailed judicial inquiries, and made countless mistakes, for example citing three or four different estimates of the number of victims in a given incident without ever reconciling the contradictions. It was quite apparent, when the five-volume report was finally presented, that the commissioners hadn’t read it. It was intended to be the TRC’s interim report but after its release the commissioners walked away and no final report was ever presented.
Mamdani says that Codesa II got underway in May 1992, ‘but was thrown into disarray by the Boipatong massacre the following month: Mandela accused the government of complicity’. In fact Codesa II had already broken up when Boipatong occurred but the ANC seized on it to justify its own stand. All accusations of government complicity were completely defused when Inkatha attackers admitted responsibility for the massacre and, despite virtual pleading by the state prosecutor, insisted that they had had no help from anyone else. This did not prevent the TRC from repeating the accusations as established fact.
The only torturers and killers who testified before the Commission were men already facing long sentences, hoping to get them reduced. The other 99 per cent of the guilty men of the apartheid regime simply laid low and waited it out. South Africans look back on the TRC not as an opportunity for apartheid victims to tell their stories – a deeply therapeutic exercise – but mainly as a sort of ritual which had to be performed so that it could be publicly claimed that the crimes of apartheid had been dealt with and society could now move on.
All such exercises are partial and ineffectual. Nazi war criminals have been turning up ever since Nuremberg. In France, many of the worst collaborators – the Milice, for instance – got away scot-free while high-profile media types were prosecuted. Nowhere was a thorough job done and imprisoned collaborators were most often released after serving only a small fraction of their terms. Resistance groups all over Europe, infuriated by the failure of the state to deal with collaborators, carried out their own assassinations in secret.
Such attempts at social cleansing are rituals that societies feel they must go through at the end of horrible eras, but none of them does what they purport to do and none of them really works. Stuck in my mind is the attitude of Steve Biko’s family, who resolutely refused to collaborate with the TRC, saying that they did not wish to meet the men who had tortured Biko to death (who were anyway all dead or missing), and certainly didn’t wish to be reconciled with them. This should be considered a normal human response. It is the TRC, and any initiative that attempts to clean away what cannot be cleaned away, that is abnormal.
R.W. Johnson seeks to naturalise forced movements – specifically, ethnic cleansing in Europe, and later in Israel – as if they were in the main a result of spontaneous flight, obscuring the role of conscious decisions by those in power. I will focus on postwar Europe. First, the figure of those forcibly moved was in the millions – they were mainly Germans. Only the opening phase, triggered by the advance of the Red Army, from mid-1944 to early 1945, involved spontaneous flight as well as evacuation. There were periodic expulsions as the Wehrmacht was progressively defeated, and organised expulsions after the German surrender. Expulsions were part of a larger geopolitical reconfiguration of Europe along ethnic lines: the Allies, not just the Soviets, wanted to create ethnically homogeneous states in East-Central Europe. As Central European borders were redrawn at Potsdam, both prewar German provinces and areas annexed by Nazi Germany during the war were transferred to Poland and the Soviet Union. The Allies decided to deport German minorities from East-Central Europe. Organised expulsions followed, mainly from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, but generally from all over Central and Eastern Europe. By 1950, between 12 and 14 million Germans had fled or were expelled from East-Central Europe. Historians consider this the largest forcible movement of any population in modern European history.
All this was part of a larger forced transfer of populations from Central and Eastern Europe, estimated at more than 20 million people. German federal agencies and the German Red Cross estimate that more than two million civilians died in the process. Some writers have described this forced movement of populations as ‘population transfer’, others as ‘ethnic cleansing’, and others as ‘genocide’. Johnson’s contribution is to suggest that these movements were mainly voluntary.
It is true that the Israeli state ignored Holocaust victims until the Eichmann trial. That, however, does not refute my point that the Israeli state now ‘governs in the name of the victims’ and not of all its citizens.
Johnson is right that we have very different reasons for being disappointed with the TRC. But I am not sure he understands the reasons. He is upset that the TRC was selective in the choice of perpetrators it hauled into the limelight and that as a result the public learned nothing new. The basis of my critique is different. Because the TRC focused on perpetrators and overlooked the beneficiaries of mass violations of rights abuses – such as the pass laws and forced expulsions – it allowed the vast majority of white South Africans to go away thinking that they had little to do with these atrocities. Indeed, most did learn nothing new. The alternative would have been for the TRC to show white South Africans that no matter what their political views – whether they were for, against or indifferent to apartheid – they were all its beneficiaries, whether it was a matter of the residential areas where they lived, the jobs they held, the schools they went to, the taxes they did or did not pay, or the cheap labour they employed. Because the TRC was not a legislative organ, because its decisions – except on amnesty – did not have the force of law, it did not face the same political restrictions as the negotiators at Kempton Park. At the same time, the TRC had access to state resources and was beamed into South African living rooms in prime time. It should have educated ordinary citizens, black and white, about everyday apartheid and its impact on the life chances and circumstances of generations of South Africans. This would have brought home to one and all the rightness and necessity of social justice.
In the end, the TRC addressed itself to a tiny minority of South Africans, perpetrators and their victims, the former state operatives and the latter political activists. It ignored the experience of the vast majority of South Africans. R.W. Johnson voices elite disaffection with the TRC. Like the TRC, however, he too has little to say of reconciliation as it would affect the vast majority of South Africans.
Tony Simpson is right in the general point he makes about the German Penal Code and its attitude to homosexuals, but wrong in some of the details (Letters, 5 December). The Weimar Republic did not repeal Paragraph 175, which continued to outlaw homosexual acts between men involving penetration. The Nazis amended it in 1935 to cover any kind of ‘lewd’ homosexual act. Under this law, offenders were not sent to the camps but to state prisons. The number of offenders sent to prison was not ten thousand but well over thirty thousand. A minority (between five thousand and 15,000) were rearrested by the SS at the prison gates on completing their sentence, and sent to a concentration camp. It is not the case that ‘very few survived’; their survival rate, though far lower than for most other categories of inmate, except of course the Jews, was about 50 per cent. The Nazi amendment to the law did not remain in force, but was repealed along with all other Nazi laws by the Allied occupation authorities. Paragraph 175 was amended in 1959 and 1965 but not fully repealed until 1994, not 1973 as Simpson claims. He does not mention the two thousand or so castrations of homosexuals that took place in the camps, another gross violation of human rights. The fundamental obstacle to surviving gay men victimised by the Nazi regime obtaining compensation after the war was the fact that they had been condemned under the Reich Criminal Code and were thus deemed to have been properly sentenced; the fact that many were sentenced under the Nazi amendment or incarcerated or castrated in the camps was not taken into account, reflecting prejudices in German politics and society widely shared in other countries until recently, including the UK.
Richard J. Evans
Wolfson College, Cambridge
Joanna Biggs is right to ask that Lord Freud, the minister for welfare reform, read Mary Barton (LRB, 5 December). Since he seems to have a Gradgrindish desire for facts, he might also volunteer to help in a food bank. He would find that he’d be making up food packs of at least two kinds: not non-vegetarian and vegetarian, but food for those who have the means to cook the contents of the packs and those who do not. There is a subset too: those who do not have a can opener and so must have their cans with ring-pulls or keys. He might also like to read the chapter in Bleak House that ends: ‘Dead, your majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order.’
Appley Bridge, Lancashire
I was fascinated by Lynn Visson’s account of her time as an interpreter at the UN – my father, Richard Pinder, did the same job at Nato in the early 1960s (LRB, 7 November). As I recall, when the topic was very obscure or intense, the interpreters sometimes worked in 15-minute shifts. Because at that time much of the language of nuclear warfare was still being developed, my father had to invent some words in German and French.
As I recall, his heroine was a woman I know only as ‘Big Bertha’, who interpreted at Nuremberg and other war crimes trials. As he told it, she would sit looking as though she were fast asleep, then get up and translate an entire speech perfectly, having absorbed the whole thing.
Caroline Pinder Cracraft
Lynn Visson’s account of her work as a UN interpreter reminded me of a story (possibly apocryphal) from an EU agricultural conference many years ago. The French speaker had been droning on for ages, then came to a sentence ending ‘la sagesse normande’. While the rest of the hall was snoozing the English delegation suddenly burst out laughing. What they had heard in their headphones was: ‘We must all learn to model ourselves on Norman Wisdom.’
Richard J. Evans in his review of War and Town Planning refers to cities ‘built on virgin soil, like Patrick Geddes’s Tel Aviv’ (LRB, 5 December). Tel Aviv was in fact built around and over the top of Palestinian villages, largely destroyed in 1948. The villages are now areas in Tel Aviv – Abu Kabir, Summayl, Shaykh Muwannis and Salama – and can be seen on a map published online by the Israeli organisation Zochrot (Hebrew for ‘remembering’).
‘A swarm which has flown away from our hive is still considered ours,’ the Roman jurist Gaius wrote in the second century CE, ‘so long as it remains in sight and its pursuit is not difficult; otherwise it becomes the property of the first taker.’ This was repeated three centuries later by the Emperor Justinian in his Institutes, from which it entered the common currency of law in Europe. However Gaius also said: ‘someone entering another’s land may lawfully be prevented from entering by the owner of the land, if he sees him coming.’ I don’t think the practice of the English common law can be different despite Roger Gregory’s assumption that he could chase his bees without hindrance (Letters, 21 November).
Leland de la Durantaye brings us up to date with Walter Benjamin’s notion of the ‘now of knowability’ (or a ‘now of readability’), ‘a moment of fortuitous opportunity, a chance that can be seized to change the course of history’ (LRB, 21 November). Oh, were it so simple. Twelve pages further on there is the LRB Christmas gift subscription form, the beneficent sender of which must complete it and cut it out, before posting. By so doing it is necessary to cut clean through Julian Bell’s ‘At the RA’, lop off the upper regions of Daumier’s painting A Third-Class Carriage, and separate the ‘forlorn spirit’ of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza from their ‘squat flesh’. That, as any self-respecting reader knows, is the not now of knowability.
John Lanchester writes that ‘for the immediately foreseeable future, a good education in comp sci is one of the bedrock basics for anyone worried about post-graduate employability’ (LRB, 21 November). Really? According to the latest figures released by the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency, computer science graduates have the worst unemployment level of all 19 subject areas. This has been the case for some years.
King’s College London
Jenny Diski wrote: ‘Yarn costs a fortune if you get hooked on the nice stuff. And why would you knit with any other kind?’ (LRB, 21 November). First, some of us are hooked on knitting and can’t afford ‘the nice stuff’ so we make do with what we can afford. Second, thank you, Ms Diski: I too am left-handed and never knew why I couldn’t use a sewing machine. Third, old American ladies like shawls but can’t afford the lovely ones you knit. Send your excess overseas.
New Haven, Connecticut
I made my own ‘regret minimisation framework’ after reading Deborah Friedell’s piece on Jeff Bezos: when I’m eighty I won’t regret that I never bought a thing from him again (LRB, 5 December).
Silver Springs, Maryland
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