Monday, November 25, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“TRAGEDY AT PIKE RIVER MINE” by Rebecca Macfie (Awa Press $NZ40)
People often talk about where they were at the time some tragedy broke. Where were you when JFK was assassinated? Where were you when the Erebus flight went missing? That sort of thing.
As it happens, I can remember exactly where I was when the Pike River mining disaster happened, on 19 November 2010. I am not a journalist, but I happened to be in a bar in Auckland with a bunch of journos who were celebrating a sort of very early pre-Christmas party. Being journos they were jocular and jokey and getting a little raucous. But halfway through the fun, one of their colleagues came in and said he’d just heard a radio report that about 30 miners had died in a mine explosion in the South Island. The conversation slowed down. The jokes died. There was incredulity. The journalists knew a big story when they heard it. There were questions about where the hell this Pike River place was anyway.
The mood became very sombre.
Somebody ran off to get more information. When he came back, the story was confirmed. The party broke up early as the news people rushed off to find out more, to get their marching orders from editors and to file stories. Only a few of us were left, shaking our heads and wondering how this sort of thing could happen in this day and age when Health and Safety was supposed to be over everything.
And that, really, is what much of the country has been wondering for the last three years.
How could a modern coalmine, monitored by the best modern equipment, subject to laws about safety, and touted as the economic salvation of the West Coast, kill 29 miners in one single day?
Listener journalist Rebecca Macfie’s Tragedy at Pike River Mine answers all these questions and raises some more. In her Prologue, Macfie gives a vignette of the miners Russell Smith and Dan Rockhouse staggering out of the blighted mine, having been able to make it the surface only because they were nearest to the sole exit. They waited for some sign of miners following them, but there were none. Their 29 colleagues were dead and burnt, although it took days for families and relatives to understand this, especially as company spokespeople kept holding out false hopes.
Macfie lays her cards on the table in her opening Author’s Note:
“Pike had understated its most critical risk – methane gas – and had repeatedly failed to meet its own grandiose forecasts. Far from being the showcase of modern mining it had branded itself as, the project had lurched from one major setback to the next throughout its short history. It seemed that virtually everything that could have gone wrong in the development of the mine had gone wrong; and then, with coal extraction barely started, it exploded. I formed the view that the disaster was not an ‘accident’, but rather a corporate failure of the worst order.” (p.2)
In effect, Tragedy at Pike River Mine tells us that the disaster was the outcome of very bad decisions by management, of wilful ignoring of safety precautions, and of a rush to put profits over people.
The mine was constructed on the basis of insufficient geological surveys. Repeatedly, responsible geologists (like Canterbury’s Jane Newman) had said the project was not viable, that too few boreholes had been drilled to sample terrain, and that the coal seam under the Paparoa Mountains was gassy and dangerous. But the project was “talked up” by its promoters in a rush to cash in on the maximum world prices that were then being paid for coking coal. Once actual work began on the site, it was clear that the terrain was far more perilous than the Pike River Company’s own selective and superficial geological reports had suggested:
“It was obvious from the moment that the first round of explosives was detonated in September 2006 that the ground conditions were terrible. Rather than the hard, self-supporting rock that had been anticipated, it was, as [a contractor] describes it, ‘rotten’ – broken, crumbly and wet…” (p.66)
Setbacks in developing the mine meant more loans and borrowing, to the tune of many millions of dollars. This is turn promoted a mentality, which said that the project couldn’t be allowed to fail, even though the prospect of mining coal successfully was repeatedly postponed:
“The mishaps and misadventures of Pike River Coal Ltd were pushing the price tag on the project higher and higher, and shunting the prospect of revenue from coal sales further and further into the future.” (p.83)
It took two years of work, from 2006 to 2008, before coal was actually struck. There were frequent gas ignitions sparked by drilling equipment and not adequately reported by a company eager to present itself as a model of ‘best practice”. Warnings of inadequate safety features were routinely ignored. Among other things, the mine was constructed as a single-entry mine, meaning there was no alternative exit for miners in case of cave-in, explosion or other accident. There was never sufficient ventilation for the dispersal of methane gas. The first (and only) ventilation shaft collapsed before the mine was in production. It was rebuilt, but was a cause for concern expressed by Trevor Watts (manager of the Mines Rescue Service) who noted that, in the event of a major gas ignition:
“any smoke and fumes in the mine would travel straight up the ventilation shaft, the very route the workers would be trying to use to escape. It would be like trying to escape a house fire by climbing out the chimney. And in any case the ladder could take only eight people at a time, yet there might be as many as sixty people underground on any given day.” (p.113)
Elsewhere Rebecca Macfie reports:
“Everyone at the mine knew the 111-metre shaft was an exhausting and demanding climb – exceptionally difficult for a fit man, and almost certainly impossible for any worker wearing breathing apparatus while fleeing an emergency.” (p.158)
One conscientious shift supervisor, Dene Murphy:
“worried constantly about gas, and about the fact Pike had never appointed a manager whose sole duty was overseeing the mine’s ventilation. In Queensland and New South Wales, mines were legally obliged to have a dedicated ventilation engineer, but in New Zealand the law was silent on the matter. Even though Pike’s own internal documents stipulated that it would have a permanent ventilation engineer, such a person was never appointed.” (p.124)
Hanging over many of these gross breaches of good safety standards is the shadow of a general deregulation of workplaces, when successive New Zealand governments rushed to build a monetarist economy in which profits and business success came before the welfare of the workforce.
Pike River Coal Ltd was very good at making its operation look, to uninformed outsiders, like a state-of-the-art operation, including the best safety features:
“In the control room, which was elaborately decked out with computer screens, workers were adrift in a sea of poorly performing technology. Barry McIntosh, the experienced Southland miner who had been entranced with Pike’s pristine environment and modern equipment when he first arrived in 2008, was one of those deployed to the control room, but he and his colleagues were not trained in the monitoring system they were employed to oversee. No standard operating procedures setting out the response to gas alarms had been developed. By October 2010 a document had been drafted, but it relied on controls – such as a ventilation officer, an underground text messaging service, and a gas alarm logbook – that either didn’t exist or hadn’t yet been put into effect.” (p.155)
Many left the Pike River Company before the project went into production either because of safety issues or because they knew the mine would never yield much usable coal anyway. In the weeks just before the lethal explosion:
“Pike River was awash with information foretelling catastrophe, but all those who had the power to act on the warning signs were deaf and blind to them. Vital information lay fallow on desks and in files, and pleas from men at the coalface for action and improvements went unheard and unanswered.” (p.178)
The company’s own declared policy on safety standards was not enforced, and when work crews showed their anxiety about frequent methane ignitions, they were either ignored or their written reports were (literally) thrown away.
Macfie’s book is primarily concerned with explaining why a disaster happened. Her narrative account of the explosion and its aftermath begins three-quarters of the way through her text - on Page 183 of 244 pages. She makes good on her prefatory statement that this “was not an ‘accident’, but rather a corporate failure of the worst order.” There is no conspiracy theory here. This is a story of wilful negligence by people in pursuit of profits. It is well documented. Whenever Macfie mentions a report that was filed but ignored, a warning that was shrugged off by management, she is able to source and cite it. Tragedy at Pike River Mine is the result of extensive interviews Macfie held and of her covering the various trials that have taken place since the disaster.
Some of her pen portraits are damning. The image of Gordon Ward, the accountant who pushed the project of mining at Pike River, is not a flattering one. But the book’s most nuanced portrait is of Peter Whittall, the operations manager of Pike River Coal who became the company’s most visible representative after the explosion happened. He is introduced into the book as:
“a rotund and charming Australian named Peter Whittall….[ those who chose him for the job] judged him to be a ‘stand-up guy. His experience was excellent. His understanding and approach to safety was an important part of why he got the job.’ ” (p.35)
Later he is presented thus:
“Whittall … was the undisputed boss of the project. Some… admired his decisiveness, organisation and intelligence, and found him compassionate and thoughtful towards any office staff faced with personal difficulties. Others, such as safety and training manager Neville Rockhouse, thought him a micro-manager who failed to support Rockhouse’s efforts to implement the health and safety documentation he was creating.” (p.93)
Later still, there is a strong sense of his having misled grieving relatives and the press about the scale of the tragedy, and allowing false hopes to develop in the five days when it was still thought possible to mount a rescue mission. (Pike River Mine exploded three more times after the fatal explosion of 19 November 2010).
This book is the best sort of journalism – methodical, well-researched and dispassionate. But you can feel its cold anger and by the end you’re shocked to be reminded that the company, now bankrupt, has managed to dodge paying out any compensation to the families of the lost miners.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE TRAGEDY OF TRAGEDIES, OR THE LIFE AND DEATH OF TOM THUMB THE GREAT” by Henry Fielding (published anonymously, 1731); and “A VOYAGE TO PURILIA” by Elmer Rice (first published in book form 1930)
Simply because I can, I have chosen to bore you this week in my “Something Old” by presenting, side-by-side, two in-jokes which doubtless caused much mirth at the time they were written, but which are now so time-and-place specific that they cannot help being of historical interest only. You would have to be a specialist or desperate PhD student to wish to read either in its entirety. They were written almost exactly two centuries apart, but they both show the short shelf-life of parody when the thing being parodied itself had a short shelf-life.
First comes The Tragedy or Tragedies, or The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great, from the early eighteenth century. It was written as a joke by Henry Fielding when he was in his early twenties and before he had yet become the great novelist. Then it was called simply Tom Thumb. Some years later, he revised it for the published version as The Tragedy of Tragedies. It is a burlesque on bombastic tragedies that were still current on the English stage in 1731.
In the days of King Arthur and Queen Dollalolla, Tom Thumb is the renowned hero of the realm, despite his small size. Tom is in love with the king’s daughter, the buxom Princess Huncamunca. She is in love with both Tom and the conspiring villain Lord Grizzle. Meanwhile the queen is also in love with Tom Thumb but the king is in love with the captured giantess Glumdalca – who is also in love with Tom.
The play’s absurd speeches include the appearance of a ghost (Tom’s father) and a prophecy by Merlin. The climax comes when Tom fights and kills the rebellious Lord Grizzle but then (as is reported by a courtier) he is himself eaten by an oversized cow (and presumably pooed out the other end). The final scene has all the other main characters killing one other in quick succession, so that the stage is covered with the requisite tragic pile of corpses.
It is hard to believe that this was ever actually acted on stage, but apparently it was – and with considerable success. In fact, it is still occasionally revived as a piece of spectacular silliness. Every speech is deliberate nonsense, every situation an overblown theatrical cliché. It is as much pantomime as burlesque, and I assume the opportunities for slapstick would have worked a treat if the leading character were performed by somebody appropriately diminutive. The perennial dwarf-in-giant’s-armour joke.
The plays that Fielding ridicules are the tragedies written between John Dryden’s time and his own – everything from Dryden’s Aurungzebe to Richard Steele’s Cato. Maybe we too would buckle over with laughter if we actually knew these plays as well as Fielding’s audience presumably did. Adding to the joke is the published version of the play in which every page is filled with the annotations of “H.Scriblerus Secundus” pointing out the excellencies of the tragedy. Having ridiculed the serious drama of his day, here Fielding ridicules the pedantic scholarship of the likes of Theobald and Dennis with their overlong and redundant notes on Shakespeare. However, the notes also allow Fielding to quote at length from the plays he is parodying, showing just how absurd their bombast is and how little his parody has exaggerated them.
Having said all this, it is of course yesterday’s laughter and quite unrecoverable.
My puerile and schoolboyish sense of humour found at least two moments of excellent fun. In the first, Lord Grizzle apostrophises the buxom Huncamunca, ridiculing Tom Thumb and giving Fielding the opportunity to play with every little boy’s chief obsession – women’s boobs:
“Oh let him seek some Dwarf, some fairy Miss
Where no Joint-stool must lift him to the Kiss.
But by the Stars and Glory you appear
Much fitter for a Prussian Grenadier.
One Globe alone on Atlas’ Shoulders rests,
Two Globes are less than Huncamunca’s Breasts:
The Milky-way is not so white, that’s flat,
And sure thy Breasts are full as large as that.” (Act II, Scene V)
In the second jolly moment, a parson speaks of Tom’s possible progeny, using a conceit that is at least as pompous as an heroic simile, but somehow not quite a propos:
“Long may they live, and love and propagate
Till the whole Land be peopled with Tom Thumbs.
So when the Chesire Cheese a Maggot breeds,
Another and another still succeeds.
By thousands and ten thousands they increase,
Till one continued Maggot fills the rotten Cheese.” (Act II, Scene IX)
Ho ho ho, and back on the shelf it goes, whence I took it in the first place only because, at the time, I was doggedly reading my way through all of Fielding’s readily-accessible works.
Flashing forward two centuries, we come to Elmer Rice.
Elmer Rice (1892-1967)? Now there’s a name not to conjure with. In the 1920s and early 1930s his expressionist plays (especially The Adding Machine and Street Scene) were the last word in experimentalism and drew some critics’ gasps. But (despite one of them having been made into an opera and a film), they are little performed now and seem fairly passé. Indeed Rice himself, who turned out many plays, gradually became something of a Broadway bore. A back number who hasn’t been revived.
My business here is with his novel A Voyage to Purilia, which, like Fielding’s Tom Thumb, is really criticism in the guise of parody. I am not surprised to discover that A Voyage to Purilia was first published in serial parts in the New Yorker magazine in 1929 before it appeared in book form in 1930. It reads like the type of thing that could be enjoyable in small bites, but it is downright tedious and overlong even as a book of modest length (180 pages in my battered old Penguin copy).
Briefly, this is a satire of, and commentary upon, the clichés of Hollywood films. The first-person narrator and a friend fly to the land of Purilia, which is permanently wrapped in pink clouds. The name Purilia is never explained, but it seems to be a combination of “pure” and “puerile”, which is Elmer Rice’s view of the movies.
In Purilia, narrator and friend have endless adventures, all of which involve the stock situations and characters of Hollywood films. The running thread is their attempt to rescue a beautiful, innocent and virginal girl from the clutches of a designing villain. This is the cue for scenes in a Chinese opium den, on South Sea islands, among prospectors in the Frozen North, with cowboys in the Wild West, complete with much emoting, last-minute rescues, last-minute stays of execution and so forth; and plenty of slapstick comedy provided by the “low” characters. In Purilia, people divide into Pudencians (helpless and virginal white women), Paragonians (heroic and athletic white men) and Vauriens (sinister or comic dark-skinned people). It is all written in a fastidious, deadpan voice as the narrator describes the customs of Purilians, and thus displays ironically how unlike real life the movies are.
Apart from skewering the improbabilities of melodrama, and the casual racism of old Hollywood films, Rice is most concerned to satirize the unreality of the social perspective of films (who ever sees people working for a living at a real job in the movies?) and their sexlessness. “Love” is presented dishonestly and real sexuality never displayed.
At which point we understand that this is a satire on movies written over eighty years ago. What satirist of cinema would now accuse films of being sexless?
I wonder, too, if Rice’s parody isn’t really proof that parody becomes easier when its objects are already fading? It seems to me that, while some of them persisted into the talkie era of Hollywood films, the clichés that Rice attacks were already passing out of existence even as he was writing. They belong to the silent cinema, which was on its last legs in 1930. This is also true of the device Elmer Rice uses in the novel of “the Presence”, an omniscient voice, which butts in every so often to set up new scenes. It is clearly a reference to the explanatory inter-titles, which set up scenes in silent movies. As I read A Voyage to Purilia, I saw in my mind’s eye the slapstick and pantomimed melodrama of silent movies of the 1920s. A whole new set of clichés was already emerging in the spoken-dialogue-driven cinema of 1930 (hard-bitten tough guys, wise-cracking hard-boiled dames etc.). This proves only that each age has its clichés.
Rice has nailed down a limited era of American movies. He has not nailed down movies per se any more than Fielding has nailed down tragedy. A Voyage to Purilia continued to be re-printed for a number of years (my old Penguin copy is dated 1954 – by which time movies were quite different from those of 1930). But, like Tom Thumb, most of its laughter is so topical as to be unrecoverable.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
“MORAL PANIC” – AND OTHER PRETEXTS
Even as the story first broke, I knew how it would play out in the press and social media.
A bunch of teenage boys, calling themselves “Roast Busters”, got younger girls drunk, raped them, then boasted about it on Facebook.
Here was a confluence of modern themes – rape and teenage sex in general; boastful young machismo; the culture that promotes these things; the misuse of the electronic media by teenagers, as a means of humiliating people; and the teenage boys’ stupidity in imagining that there would be no consequences from their broadcasts.
The first media response was simply shocked reporting of the boys’ actions.
Then came the editorialising.
Then came the comments on the editorialising and it was game on, with the teams taking their predictable sides.
Two talkback hosts implied that the matter was all the fault of the young girls for allowing themselves to be raped. When one of the mistreated girls rang their station, they bullied her with questions along the lines of – Why were you out with these boys anyway? Had you been drinking? Did your parents know where you were? The implication was that the rape was her fault for being in the company of the wrong males; that she was “asking for it”.
In no time, this blokey accusatory attitude was receiving more attention than the original events. The two talkback hosts were taken off the air. Editorials appeared saying that their questions and comments were themselves part of “rape culture”. Many people noted that police were often as unsympathetic to rape victims as the talkback jocks had been, and that they subjected girls and women to grillings about their own motives, rather than taking their complaints seriously.
A long article in a Sunday newspaper said that we should have a “conversation” about sex with teenagers, and about what was, and what was not, appropriate behaviour. On certain on-line websites, women wrote (anonymously) of their own experiences of sexual harassment or assault, and the responses they had met with when they made a complaint. A petition was circulated.
Then we hit rock bottom. An editorial in a national magazine invoked the cliché phrase “moral panic”, and compared concern about “Roast Busters” with the Mazengarb Report of the 1950s.
At this point, I knew that absolutely nothing would change and nothing would come of the uproar.
My reasons for this view?
(a.) The use of the term “moral panic”. This term is always used as a means of stopping dead and shutting down any concerned comment on moral issues, especially moral issues relating to sex. Those who use the phrase “moral panic” are always implying that people who are upset over sexual matters are uninformed, puritanical, narrow-minded, out-of-date, suggestible, gullible, hysterical, prone to knee-jerk reactions etc. etc. etc. and do not know or understand as much as the sophisticated and informed person who is writing. Worried about the frequency of teenage pregnancy? It’s sheer moral panic. Don’t think it’s a good idea for kids’ programmes to be over-sexualised? You’re suffering from moral panic. Think teenage prostitution is something society shouldn’t tolerate? Clearly you have contracted moral panic. Now just take this little dose of Sociology 101 and you’ll calm down. And then we can all go back to sleep.
Saying “moral panic” is a way of brushing issues aside, especially issues that don’t immediately affect us middle-class literati. Like middle-class liberalism, it is a way of saying that other people don’t really matter, so there’s no point in getting upset about them.
(b.)The use of the term “conversation”. Whenever I hear this term used in the context of a social debate, I know something dodgy is being sold. As when the propagandist for euthanasia lies through his/her teeth and says “We’re not promoting euthanasia – we’re just starting a conversation.” That sort of thing. The opinionated columnist who said that we needed a “conversation” with teenagers about sex was promoting the erroneous ideas (i) that public debate would miraculously clear the air; and (ii) that a one-off course of intensive propaganda aimed at teenagers (which, stripped of euphemisms, was what she was really talking about) would change teenagers’ sexual behaviour. Both these assumptions are wrong. Neither debate nor propagandising will change unacceptable teenage behaviour.
(c.) The petition. Unless a petition has ideas that can be translated into enforceable laws, it serves no purpose other than to make its framers and signers feel they are doing something constructive.
I do not mean to be depressing in saying all of this. I understand the outrage that the “Roast Busters” incident has caused. I endorse the comments of those who say that rape victims should not be made to feel guilty for being raped. Sternly, I have been given the crude analogy that, if I leave my house unlocked and it is burgled, it is still the burglar who is morally as fault, and not me. Similarly, even if girls have behaved imprudently before they are raped, it is the rapist who is still morally guilty of the rape and who should be duly prosecuted. No question.
But a quick display of moral outrage, patronising talk of “moral panic”, a petition or a “conversation” will change nothing.
So what will?
I’ve got myself so far into editorialising mode here that I might as well own up and give you a punchline.
The only (repeat – only) thing that will modify bad teenage behaviour is better parenting, better child-rearing.
I do not believe that a group of young men could form the idea that it is okay to sexually abuse girls without a lot of parental negligence, poor parental example and perhaps even tacit parental approval. I open a huge can of worms in saying this. I know that teenagers and young adults are morally responsible for their own actions, and a point comes when parents can no longer reasonably be held to account for what their offspring do. I also know that middle-class people (like you and me) have the habit of blaming poorer people for their children’s behaviour, often not taking into account the stresses of poorly-paid working-class parents who have to work such long hours that they are forced to leave their children poorly supervised. I am not glibly blaming the “homes”. But I am saying that if you want no “Roast Busters”, then it is a more long-term project than the short-term outrage of editorials and petitions. It is the life-long project of raising children well.
Also – probably another unpopular opinion – I think prudence should walk in step with morality. I do not believe that victims of rape are responsible for being raped. But surely it is prudent to warn girls that alcohol is likely to make you more vulnerable; that some older teenage boys are likely to exploit some younger teenage girls; that it’s not very advisable to hang out with people you don’t know very well – and a number of other prudential maxims.
Am I being old-fashioned and succumbing to “moral panic” in saying this?
I hope not.
At this point I could say a few choice words on sexualised teenage pop culture – none of which exonerates the teenage rapists. But comment on this tends to be verboten by media opinion-makers. Hands are wrung over boys who respond to a bombardment of images of girls behaving sluttishly. But suggest that there is a correlation between the images and the behaviour, and you are clearly out of touch and not hip to the jive.
Subject for a later editorial from me, perhaps.
Monday, November 18, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“HANNS AND RUDOLF – The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz” by Thomas Harding (Random House – William Heinemann, $NZ37: 99)
Hanns was Hanns Alexander, German-born Jew, refugee from Hitler, officer in the British Army. Rudolf was Rudolf Hoss, Kommandant of Auschwitz, the man most directly responsible for the murder of about one-and-a-half million human beings. After the British liberated Belsen, they set about bringing to book those important Nazi war criminals whom they could find in that northern part of Germany that they were occupying. Hanns was assigned to the unit hunting the biggest offenders. He had to give up on tracking down one, as the leads went cold. He was determined not to give up on his second case. Diligently following every clue, he managed to locate the isolated barn where Hoss had hidden since the war’s end. With a hand-picked unit, he took the man in.
Hoss was tried three times – first by the British at Belsen. Then by the international war crimes court led by the Americans in Nuremburg. Finally by the Poles in Warsaw. The Poles hanged him in 1947.
To the prosecution, the value of Hoss was that he was willing to confess all his crimes matter-of-factly. This was at a time when other leading Nazi criminals were still claiming not to have known about the attempted genocide. After Hoss wrote, in prison, his “autobiography”, parts of which were read aloud by the prosecution in court, some of the other defendants changed their stories and admitted that they did know what the death camps were about. They now tried to plead that either they were “only obeying orders”, or that their superiors were really responsible for what was happening.
The author of Hanns and Rudolf, Thomas Harding, is Hanns Alexander’s great-nephew (his grandmother was Hanns’ sister) and he is proud of his great-uncle. He writes his story as a double biography of the war criminal and the man who captured him. Inevitably, though, it is Hoss who dominates the story
What strikes you most about Hoss is his dogged unimaginativeness – his complete inability to see anything more important than currying favour with his boss Heinrich Himmler or with other powerful Nazi officials.
From the earliest age, he dived into extreme nationalism, readily abandoning the Catholicism in which he had been raised to serve the Reich. He was officially too young to serve in the First World War, but he lied about his age and served anyway with reasonable distinction. Because he was part of the German forces that were trying to prop up the Turkish Empire, he was in the Middle East when the war ended in 1918 – but typically he was one of the soldiers who avoided surrender by making their way in haste back to Germany. The Reich came first.
In the turmoil that following the collapse of the German Empire, he joined other extreme nationalists in the Freikorps, fighting the Poles in East Prussia and harassing Social Democrats in Germany. And when the Weimar Republic seemed to stabilise and extreme nationalists lost favour, he retreated into the Blut-und-Boden back-to-the-land Artamanen League, labouring as a farmer, marrying, raising a family. Like his comrade Martin Bormann, he had already joined the Nazi Party when it was just a small bunch of Bavarian cranks. Therefore, when Hitler came to power – and in spite of his lack of real achievement – Hoss was in a position to be regarded as an “Old Fighter” and to gain favour.
So to his career as a concentration camp commandant, first learning his trade at Dachau under the likes of Theodore Eicke, then moving on to greater responsibilities at Sachsenhausen, until Himmler put him in charge of a small camp in an obscure village in occupied Poland called Oswiecim – Auschwitz in German. Punctiliously, at Himmler’s request, Hoss expanded Auschwitz into a massive multi-site facility.
How messy mass-killings were by machine-gun or exhaust fumes! Hoss came up with the ingenious solution of gassing prisoners with canisters of granulated Zyklon B. He was also ingenious in arranging Lagerorchester – orchestras made up of prisoners whose soothing music would prevent people from getting too fearful or upset as they were marched to “showers”. (It had been so annoying when, on one occasion, a group of prisoners panicked and started fighting back.) And once the practicalities of mass-murder were worked out, and once Hoss had received a pat on the head from Himmler and other Nazi bigwigs, he had no further qualms about what he was doing. His only worry was that Himmler might change his mind and think he wasn’t doing his job efficiently enough.
Thomas Harding is fully aware that his chief source for Hoss’s feelings and reactions is the “autobiography” Hoss wrote when he was finally under arrest. Harding therefore knows that there could be streams of self-deception and self-justification in Hoss’s account of himself. Even so, his account rings true. Early in the Nazi regime, when he was working at Dachau, Hoss was genuinely upset by the cruelty and crass violence of the Nazi guards in their treatment of prisoners. What he wanted was a smooth, orderly, efficient means of murdering thousands of people, without the upsetting screams and blood. This was what he created at Auschwitz. It was so smooth and orderly that Hoss’s family, living in the villa attached to the death camp, could blithely ignore what was going on over their back garden wall. His children grew up remembering Auschwitz as a place of back-garden picnics, games and canoeing on the nearby river, only occasionally marred by an unpleasant smell.
Harding’s particular skill is his totally dispassionate style. He does not dwell on the methods of murder, the scale of the operation, the suffering, accounts of survivors or accounts of individuals who perished. He knows that readers will already be aware of these things. Instead, he focuses on this unimaginative, morally-dead technocrat and lets us judge how monstrous his actions were. It is more shocking to read of the quiet, fond papa routinely going off to this work each day than it would be if he were depicted as an eager sadist.
Of course I am tempted to use Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase about the “banality of evil” – or I would be if I had not heard [via Youtube] Dr Yaacov Lozowick, former director of Yad Vashem, object to the term and point out, correctly, that those who ran death camps were not mere order-signing bureaucrats, but were fully aware of what they were doing. Yet there still seems something to Hannah Arendt’s phrase. This man Hoss was totally undistinguished in appearance and bearing. There was nothing perversely glamorous about him. He was a human zero who murdered masses of people.
It occurs to me that in this notice, I have neglected to say much about the book’s “hero”. Hanns Alexander and his twin bother Paul appear to have been a pair of cheerful rascals, often pulling practical jokes, sometimes telling smutty stories and very positive in temperament. Thomas Harding does not make them out to be saints. Hanns and Rudolf gives a full account of Hanns’ life as the son of a prosperous Berlin Jewish family, escape to Britain, eagerness both to fight and to gain British citizenship, and post D-Day military career. At first Hanns was assigned to the pioneer corps (clearing roads, building bridges etc. for the advancing British army). As a detective hunting down Rudolf Hoss, Hanns was strictly an amateur, as he had no police training. But he was extraordinarily clever and dogged at following clues.
There is one moment in the book where you find yourself totally on his side, even when he was doing something slightly dodgy. When Hanns set out to arrest Hoss, he took a group which contained some British soldiers who were, like him, Jews. They already knew what Auschwitz was and who Hoss was. Hanns knew that he had to get Hoss back to prison alive, so that he could testify in court. But at the point of arrest he told his men “In ten minutes I want Hoss in my car – undamaged”. Then he turned his back and walked away. Of course the men beat the crap out of Hoss, as Hanns knew they would
In the circumstances, it is hard to see how they would have wanted to do anything else.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE DEATH OF JEAN MOULIN – Biography of a Ghost” by Patrick Marnham (first published in 2000)
The legend of Jean Moulin is inspiring, heroic and easy to state. According to the legend, Moulin was the perfect French patriot, and one of the first to plan civilian resistance when the Nazis invaded in 1940.
After spending a year diligently cultivating underground networks, Moulin made it to London in 1941 and was given an important job in de Gaulle’s Free French. He was to coordinate the various competing resistance movements into one credible fighting force. Parachuted back into occupied France, Moulin proceeded to do just this. But he was captured by the local Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie at a clandestine “summit” meeting of resisters that he had set up just outside Lyon.
Moulin was tortured repeatedly by the Gestapo, gave nothing away and was eventually shot.
In 1964, twenty years after the Liberation, Moulin’s ashes were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris at a ceremony attended by de Gaulle. Andre Malraux gave a moving oration in which he described Moulin as an inspiration to democratic France. Many people have seen the ceremony as more of a canonisation than a memorial – de Gaulle and his government were honouring, and in a way creating, a single, unifying symbol of French Resistance. Moulin could be seen as a national figure above politics, and hence his canonisation could wipe out the controversies that continued to dog popular French memory of the wartime years.
Up until the time of the 1964 ceremony, Moulin was hardly remembered. Books on the war had only a few cursory references to him under his code name “Max”. Today there are a host of uncritically heroic biographies, literally hundreds of streets in France named after Moulin, postage stamps which feature him and no fewer than three museums in France dedicated to his memory. School textbooks devote adulatory chapters to him.
Unfortunately, this patriotic version leaves much unexplained.
British journalist Patrick Marnham knows that Moulin was far from an exemplary figure and that his real life and career are imperfectly known – hence his book’s subtitle “Biography of a Ghost”. In his private pre-war life Moulin, after a brief and unsuccessful marriage, was something of a philanderer. His pre-war political career seems to have been highly opportunistic. Famously, he became in the late 1930s the youngest prefect (district governor) in France, a feat achieved only by his carefully cultivating powerful figures in various French government ministries. Moulin’s own politics were never clear. He seems to have been left-wing, and the pre-war French government minister he most cultivated was the left-wing Pierre Cot. There have even been (implausible) attempts to interpret him as a covert Communist. But Moulin stayed at his post when the Germans invaded, continued to fulfil his function as prefect, and was commended for his diligence by the Vichy (collaborationist) regime.
Or was he simply biding his time and waiting for the right moment to act?
As prefect he did refuse to sign an order condemning black (Senegalese) French troops to death for rape, on what were clearly fabricated charges. When pressure was put on him because of this, he attempted suicide by cutting his own throat with a glass shard. Thereafter, he often wore a scarf (the most commonly reproduced image of him) to hide his neck wound.
Marnham takes nothing away from Moulin’s own courage once he clearly threw in his lot with the French Resistance. But by scrutinising carefully the nature of the Resistance, and especially by investigating the strong possibility that one set of resisters betrayed another set of resisters at the fatal clandestine meeting, Marnham comes up with an altogether more depressing tale.
As he relates it, the Resistance was split into mutually hostile factions that bickered futilely during much of the occupation and that were not above dobbing in one another’s personnel to the Gestapo when they saw a tactical advantage for doing so. The Communists were among the most devious. Since the war, left-wing historians have assiduously cultivated the myth of universal French Communist resistance to the Nazis. Indeed, for some years after the war, the French Communist Party billed itself in electoral propaganda as “le parti des fusilles” (“the party of those who were shot [for their resistance work]”). In this version, Communists were the largest and most dedicated resistance forces, with other groups (the military “Combat” resistance network; the Gaullists; the more rural maquis and francs-tireurs) as mere adjuncts.
The reality was that for the first year of the Nazi occupation (when Hitler was still in what amounted to an alliance with Stalin), French Communists did no resisting at all. Their publications (still openly distributed in 1940-41) encouraged French workers to see the fight against Hitler as a mere irrelevant shindy between different sets of capitalists. The first effective resistance to the occupation came from French military, nationalist and even right-wing groups, despite the fact that most of the French Right sided with Petain and collaboration. After Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in mid-1941, and once the French communists got going as resisters, they were as keen to wipe out their French political opponents as to harass the Nazis. Their hope was for a post-war French Soviet. Their nightmare was a coordinated Resistance under Gaullist leadership.
A Jean Moulin, seeking to bring the competing arms of resistance under Gaullist command, was not on their agenda.
Marnham examines carefully all those who might have had an interest in betraying Moulin to the Nazis (extreme right-wingers as well as communists) and he examines Moulin’s own pre-war left-wing sympathies. But in the end, and always asking cui bono?, he comes as close as he can to fingering Communist members of the resistance as Moulin’s most likely betrayers. After the war, the Left led a well-coordinated campaign to condemn the right-wing resister Rene Hardy as Moulin’s Judas. Hardy was tried twice in post-war French courts, but acquitted both times. Part of the reason for this campaign was to divert attention from the more likely culprit, Raymond Aubrac. Aubrac was a resister known to the Gestapo as being both Jewish and a Communist – yet when he was captured by the Gestapo in 1943 (and at a time when Moulin was arranging the clandestine “summit” of resistance groups), he was allowed to walk free. The inference is that he did a deal – betraying the Gaullist Moulin’s meeting – with the promise that he himself and his family would be left unharmed. If Aubrac acted this way – and it is only a possibility, not a certainty – then it would take a very smug person indeed to condemn him. How many men could face the prospect of torture and the death of his family at the hands of the Gestapo? It still remains extraordinary that the Gestapo would let go unharmed a man whom they had captured and whom they knew to be Jewish, Communist and an active resister. When, years later, the war criminal Klaus Barbie was on trial, he named Aubrac as the man who told him about Moulin’s meeting.
But, of course, these circumstances provide only supposition, not proof.
Much of The Death of Jean Moulin reads like a careful detective story, with strong suspects, clues and a conclusion. Moulin’s personal heroism survives intact. So does a sense of what a superb tactician de Gaulle was. He outmanoeuvred the Communists and the British and the French to establish his own version of what post-war France should be.
But the book leaves a bitter aftertaste. Even the best causes have their informers, their cowards and their self-servers. The French Resistance was no exception. And we can never be absolutely certain of what actually happened to cause Moulin’s final arrest. Real history is a bugger that way. If we rely on verifiable proof, there are a lot of loose ends dangling about. Only in works of historical propaganda are all our questions neatly answered.
Who betrayed Jean Moulin? We really don’t know. We just have a strong inference.
Despairing footnote. As you will be aware, there are huge swathes of the population whose interpretation of history is based solely on what they have seen at the movies in historical dramatizations. Non-French audiences might assume that any French movie about the French Resistance has the stamp of authenticity. French audiences are more alert to the fact that any fictionalised account of the Resistance is likely to be inflected by the political preferences of its makers.
There have been some good dramatized movies about the resistance – I still think the best is Melville’s Army of Shadows (L’Armee des Ombres) made in 1969. The Left tend to hate it because it has a Gaullist slant; but it does show some of the grim necessities of Resistance work (such as a wrenching scene in which resisters have to kill a relatively harmless chap because he is a security risk).
But there is one popular French movie about the Resistance which I find very dodgy. This is Claude Berri’s Lucie Aubrac (1997). It is an admiring biopic of the heroic Frenchwoman, the wife of Raymond Aubrac, and her resistance work. Fair enough. The personable Daniel Auteuil plays Raymond Aubrac. But alert viewers will note that there is some highly improbable dialogue, which is designed to incriminate Rene Hardy and exonerate Raymond Aubrac over the matter of Jean Moulin’s betrayal. It even includes such lines as “After the war they will try to argue that….” etc.etc. Here you feel the thumb of a politicised scriptwriter weighing heavily upon the script, trying to convince uninformed viewers that this partisan interpretation is an historical fact.
French movies about the French Resistance are never “innocent” historical artefacts. They are always arguing a political case of some sort.