“Words change their meanings over time, and this is natural. But when the baser policies of intentional, malicious political manipulation intervene in the process… language becomes propaganda and its function shifts from elucidation to deceit.”
The Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño published his novel, Nazi Literature in the Americas, in 1996; it appeared twelve years later in English translation. It takes the form of a bio-bibliographical gazetteer: before the advent of laptops, search engines, and other memory-numbing household appliances, such compilations were useful resources for scholarly research. In those remote and fabulous times, when life was not virtual but real, one often had occasion to consult the Russian Jewish scholar Sofia Miliband’s monumental bio-bibliographical dictionary of Russian Orientalists.
Orientalists?! But isn’t that a bad word? With your permission, gentle reader, may I digress for a moment on the word “Orientalist”? I promise it’s relevant.
About half a century ago, before the late Edward Said’s book Orientalism made it a term of opprobrium useful to the inmates who have taken over the lunatic asylum that is American academia, the word Orientalist merely described a scholar of the Middle, Near, and Far East. An Orientalist took the trouble to master extremely difficult languages such as Arabic, Akkadian, Armenian, or Amharic and to dedicate his professional life to the meticulous edition and study of primary sources and to research on the religion, culture, politics, and economics of those regions. Said redefined “Orientalist” to mean a white westerner who studies Arabs, in particular— Akkadian, Armenian, Amharic, and the rest of the alphabet did not seem to interest him— in the service of a colonialist, racist, anti-Islamic agenda. The fact that one is a white westerner makes his bias, and consequent compliance with a nefarious project, all but inevitable. Nascent white privilege. Ideally, only Arabs should study Arabs. (It is less clear who should study Sumerians.) But if a non-Arab does apply to be hired for a teaching job in the field, he should be vetted less for his scholarship than for his politics; and students should likewise be suitably indoctrinated, before initiation into the mysteries of the parley voo.
I witnessed a case of this at an institution where I once worked. An Iraqi immigrant and paterfamilias who taught modern Arabic language had just received a teaching award by the university; but the head of the Arabic language division of our department insisted that the man’s teaching was poor and he should not be re-hired. When the department met to vote on his reappointment, another colleague whispered to me that the real reason for the bad review was that the Iraqi had written an op-ed condemning suicide bombing, and had been censured for letting the side down: writing publicly against terrorism, that is, meant one was a traitor to the Arab nation and the Muslim faith. I think rather better of both Arabs and Islam, and cast what was, alas, the sole vote in the gentleman’s favor.
The ideology Said advanced in Orientalism undermined the integrity of scholarship and academic due process in the field of Middle East studies. But far worse, it helped to lay the foundations of identity politics and the concomitant racism of the left— the only “systemic racism”, indeed, in American society today. By racism I mean the conviction that it is the color of a man’s skin, or some other “racial” criterion, that is paramount in defining his identity, character, employability, and so on. Not his professional competence, probity, or morality. Said was a scholar of comparative literature and was not a specialist on the Middle East. Much in his book is superficial if not spurious, but then very little of Said’s life was authentic. Since it was his self-generated hagiography that he used polemically to support his crusade, of which the book Orientalism was the opening salvo, it is not inappropriately ad hominem to address that life.
Said, a Christian, purported to be a champion of Islam. That is perhaps understandable: the zealous founders of 20th-century Arab nationalism were Christians whose position in the Islamic world was precarious and who consequently felt at pains to prove themselves more royalist that the king. More troubling is the way Said presented himself as a downtrodden “Palestinian” refugee. His wealthy Jerusalem family decamped in a timely and leisurely fashion during the war that devastated both Arabs and Jews in the Land of Israel in the years leading up to Israel’s independence in 1948. Young Edward grew up in cosseted luxury, attending the best Anglo boarding schools. (“No more buttered scones for me, mater. I’m off to play the grand piano!”) He enjoyed all the trappings of “white privilege” while parading as a Third World waif. Said purported to loathe Zionism and Israel but to be a broadminded humanist with no animus towards Jews as such. (“Some of my best friends are [fill in the blank]…”)
As a well-paid senior professor at Columbia commanding enormous lecture fees as a celebrity of the left, he lived in a palatial apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and indeed could boast a stable of appropriately politically correct, brilliant, celebrity Jewish friends. Yet a colleague of mine, a Persian Jewish scholar from Israel named David who used to work as a tutor at the Said manse, used to tell me back in the 1980s about how the great man would saunter in, insist on tauntingly calling him Daud (David, in Arabic) and then imitate the moving barrel and rat-tat-tat sound of a machine gun in describing what should be done to “all of you”. All that was missing from the illustrious humanist’s pantomime was the line-up of terrified men, women, and children with yellow stars stitched to their clothes, tumbling into a freshly-dug mass grave somewhere in Eastern Europe. But we’ll get to them presently. David detested Said for the scoundrel he was. But he held onto the tutoring gig. He was but a humble, underpaid lecturer at the same institution, with no job security, and he needed the money.
I have criticized Orientalism for its ideological bias; and its author, for his hypocrisy. But so what? Many books express strong opinions and are reasonably entitled to do so. Nor do a man’s personal traits, however odious, matter if there is integrity to his work. Free speech should protect the first; freedom of the press, the second. The Constitution is supposed to safeguard such things. Such liberties are the bedrock of civilized society. But if an author selectively omits or otherwise distorts data in support of his thesis and then presents his findings as scientific evidence, then whatever freedoms he is exercising, both he and his book are worthless.
The book Orientalism paints a distressing picture of how Western powers, beginning in the period of 19th-century colonial expansion, exploited and dehumanized the technologically backward and relatively defenseless Muslim world, Arabs in particular. But that scenario is disingenuous, for Said omits to mention the small matter that most Arabs were not in fact subjects of the colonial empires of Britain or France at all, for much of that time. They were ruled by the vast and powerful Ottoman Turkish Empire, whose capital Constantinople was also the seat of the Sunni Muslim Caliphate. The Ottoman Sultan ruled not only the greater part of the Middle East, including today’s Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey, but also large parts of majority-Christian southeastern Europe: Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Romania. The Ottomans legally categorized their Christian subjects— Serbs, Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, etc.— as dhimmis, infidels who could be second-class citizens at best. Greeks preserve the noxious and fearful memory of tourkokratía, “Turkocracy”, with its janissaries and harems. Many Arab Muslims, too, hated Turkish rule, and flocked to the ranks of Lawrence of Arabia and General Allenby during World War I. For the Armenians, who ancient homeland was mostly within Turkey itself, it was to be very much worse still.
The Armenian Genocide, Hitler’s blueprint for the Holocaust of a generation later, began with massacres all over Turkey in 1894-96 and in Adana in 1909. It reached its height in 1915 and can be said to have ended with the final enormity: the destruction of the Christian communities of Smyrna in 1922. The Smyrna atrocity alone took nearly a million Christian lives. The word “genocide” did not yet exist: the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin was to coin it twenty years after the burning of Smyrna, during the Second World War. He intended the word to be a definition in law of what had been done to the Armenians in the last war and was now being done to the Jews in this one. In 1915 the perpetrators of the massacres of Armenians and other Christians called what they were doing a jihad, a Muslim holy war, though many Muslims rejected this. Most Europeans in those bygone days were believing Christians and were sincerely outraged at the treatment of their co-religionists in the Near East. Yes, they shared the odious prejudices of the time, and the racist stereotypes of some of their publications make one wince today. Their efforts to help Armenian orphans and other survivors of the death marches were, however, sincere. It wasn’t imperialism but humanitarianism that the motivated the American missionaries who built schools and hospitals in Anatolia.
Russia, Turkey’s perennial foe, was an expansionist empire, to be sure, and was to impose an increasingly draconian policy of Russification on the sliver of Armenia it conquered in 1828, suppressing national movements and confiscating church properties. But Christian Armenians then, and Bulgarians in the 1870s, still welcomed the Tsar’s soldiers as liberators from far worse oppression. That is missing from Orientalism. It is not precisely denial: you will not find a statement in Said’s book that the Genocide didn’t happen. It is a crime, rather, of omission— and not of a little mouse scurrying across the rug, but of the elephant in the drawing room. The omission, that is, is so enormous that the result is a grand falsification of history invalidating the entire thesis of Orientalism, rendering the book a big lie.
Prof. Bernard Lewis of Princeton University, a scholar of Islam and no friend of the Armenians, eviscerated the book soon after its appearance, exposing its other (and numerous) fallacies, distortions, and mendacious illogic— but not this one— in an essay in The New York Review of Books. Such a critique could not appear in the mainstream print media today. For Orientalism is now a “classic”, the bedrock of the whole profession of Middle East studies, and its author, to pursue metaphors of mice and elephants, is the discipline’s baleful sacred cow, enthroned between rodent and pachyderm. The only consolation is that like most classics it will at least sit on many shelves unread, though it has already done its damage.
Words change their meanings over time, and this is natural. But when the baser policies of intentional, malicious political manipulation intervene in the process, as in the above example of “Orientalist” and “Orientalism”, it is generally not for the better: language becomes propaganda and its function shifts from elucidation to deceit. This isn’t news: Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War discussed how Greek words denoting traditional virtues were debased to partisan jargon during the plague in wartime Athens, around 400 BC: cowardly sycophancy was described as loyalty; craven betrayal, as courage; and so on. At this point you have doubtless recalled George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 with its official jargon, Newspeak, and the Ingsoc party’s slogan “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” In the novel, a member of the Inner Party elite explains to the hero that the purpose of Newspeak is not only to control what people say, but to limit their ability to think.
The ideologues of the era of Said have subverted words like “Nazi” and “Genocide”, too— to control what we say and to curtail our ability to inquire and to think critically. The British Jewish novelist Howard Jacobson in the course of a recent interview at a Moscow book shop illustrated the strategy of the anti-Semites of the Western left by citing a position paper published by the union of laborers in British Polytechnic colleges. (These are the equivalent of American “community colleges”.) The paper defines the Nazi Holocaust as a crime against humanity that was committed against a list of ethnic and other minorities, such as homosexuals and the Roma (Gypsies). The Jews, who were the main victims of the Holocaust and its raison d’etre, are missing from the list. You can watch the full interview here. What the Polytechnic union’s ideologues are promoting is, again, a racialist distortion of history by means of the perversion of historical terminology, not through crass denial, but through deft omission. It is quintessentially Saidic, and exemplifies the new cancel-culture Nazism in literature that I will explore.
Oriental studies departments (or whatever one wishes to call them) at most universities, notoriously at Said’s Columbia, have become brainwashing centers for the promotion of an anti-Semitism that specifically equates the State of Israel (and no other country) with Nazi Germany and accuses it of the crime of genocide against the Arabs there. The obvious next step, which has already been taken in Britain, is to remove all possibility of cognitive dissonance by omittingthe discordant actuality. The actuality is this: Jews, not the Arabs, were the victims of genocide, and the Arab leadership during the Second World War was enthusiastically pro-Nazi. The ancient Jewish communities of Islamic countries were driven out of their homes even before 1948. Fewer Arabs left the new State of Israel, and, far from committing genocide, the Israeli Declaration of Independence begs them to stay. Many did: they constitute 20% of the country’s population today and are represented in the Knesset (parliament). Some of them, especially Christian Arabs, serve in the Israel Defense Forces and in the Israeli diplomatic corps. That is a far cry from death marches and gas chambers.
The words “Nazi” and “genocide” are now used to justify killing the very victims of the Nazi genocide. They have been shorn of both their historical meaning and their sense. They are content-free terms of abuse, like “Orientalist”, that the left has appropriated and perverted in order to dehumanize those it would then destroy. This is important: the actual, genuine Nazis of today: Antifa, BLM, the British Polytechnic union, and their racialist ilk— brand as fascists precisely those who are just the opposite and are the true anti-Nazis and fighters for human liberty and dignity. Canceling history— distorting it by omission— helps them to do this. Arsonists and murderers are “mainly peaceful demonstrators”. Looters are “redistributing wealth”. A Korean immigrant in Los Angeles who killed someone stealing in her little convenience store is a “white supremacist”. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.
Let’s return, then, to Bolaño’s novel, which provided the title of this essay. It is actually a delightful book, structured in the form of a series of chapters resembling articles in an encyclopedia, with dates, places, works, and important events in the lives of a variety of nonexistent literary mediocrities and social misfits from South and North America whose comically awful books are imbued with the authors’ sympathetic feelings towards Adolf Hitler, his racial policies, and so on. Some chapters are extremely brief, while others are bafflingly, disconcertingly long. The book is Borgesian in its imaginative evocation of surreal and absurd phenomena dovetailed into the everyday reality of Buenos Aires (most often) or New York (a few times, and less convincingly). I find the sardonic humor of the novel utterly hilarious: it reminds me that way of Machado de Assis, the 19th-century Brazilian writer who ought to be read much more. An example of his brilliance is the novella “The Alienist” (which I confess I read in Esperanto, which made it funny all by itself), in which a man decides to improve his little Brazilian town by building the one thing it lacks: a well-staffed and populous lunatic asylum. (Were one to rewrite the story today, one might simply relocate a large American university there.)
One wants to encourage the reader to read and enjoy the Brazilian master, so it’s best not to burden him with the mantle of a classic, even though he is. Here is a taste of Nazi Literature of the Americas: one of Bolaño’s characters, a graphomaniac recluse, decides to write a sequel to Philip K. Dick’s famous alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, which really does exist and is about an alternative world in which the Axis have defeated America. Bolaño’s hero decides to address the burning question of how the Germans will run the day-to-day life of occupied America, and churns out an unreadable, endless tome about the nuts and bolts of monetary policy, transport regulations, the production of edible oils, highways, grain elevators, paperclips, you name it— a numbing mountain of bureaucratic and economic minutiae. When he runs out of his own fictional names for the staff of various soporific bureaus and ministries, he simply raids other books, movies, anything, for them, and one finds such curiosities as Bambi planning fuel allocations, Bullwinkle calculating grain harvests, and the like. I did not expect to enjoy Nazi Literature in the Americas but after a few incredulous pages I was laughing hysterically. A good book can do that. It is too bad one must presently discuss a readable but bad book that isn’t amusing at all.
And in one respect Bolaño’s book is not convincing: it is too optimistic. His literary avatars of National Socialism in the New World are all losers, ignored by a sane society and doomed to quiet, condign obscurity. In reality, alas, that is not the case at all. There is a genuine Nazi literature in the United States today, and it includes bestselling authors who receive prestigious awards, are promoted by big bookstore chains, and enjoy rapturous praise in the mainstream media. I will discuss one such book here, and in order to understand it, we have to review its background.
In 1936, a year after Germany passed its infamous Nuremberg laws, which defined everybody in the country by “race”, a German Jewish medical student named David Frankfurter killed the founder and leader of the Swiss Nazi party, a thoroughly odious individual named Wilhelm Gustloff: David had escaped from Germany after the Nazis came to power, and the killing was a symbolic act he made no effort to conceal. He was apprehended, duly convicted, spent the war in the comparative comfort of a Swiss jail, and died many years later in Israel. His parents, who had remained in Germany, were not so lucky.
Frankfurter is nearly forgotten; but Gustloff’s name was to be immortalized in a peculiarly appropriate way. Upon securing control of the state Hitler had banned trade unions. To assure the loyalty of workers, the Nazis promoted various bread-and-circus projects including a program of cut-rate package vacations called Kraft durch Freude— Strength through Joy. At the time Gustloff was shot, a titanic (yes, I mean that) cruise liner for Strength through Joy had just been built and was about to be christened the Adolf Hitler. In the wake of the assassination, the Führer with typical modesty suggested it be called the Wilhelm Gustloff instead, and, mirabile dictu, his thoughtful proposal was accepted.
Imagine you (if you are not a Jew, a homosexual, a Black person, a confessional Christian, a Communist, etc.) and a thousand of your fellow happy workers from some big factory. It could be IG Farben, which in those days manufactured Zyklon B, the insecticide shortly to be used to murder mental patients and crippled children in gas chambers; and soon thereafter, to eliminate Europe’s Jews. (The company’s postwar incarnation makes Bayer aspirin.) Or perhaps you smelt Krupp steel, producing munitions for the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe. Or Thyssen. Or Siemens. (They are all still in business.) Maybe you’re a laborer on the Volkswagen assembly line, assembling Hitler’s affordable little car for the whole (Aryan) family: Mom, Pop, Hansel, Gretel, and their woof-woof dachshund. It’s vacation time, and you’re booked for a pleasure cruise on the good ship Gustloff! Sun and fun! Morning calisthenics, group singalongs, swimming, lectures on race, an oompah band, pig-tailed Frauleins in dirndls, steins of beer, ample dinners of sauerkraut and sausage! Yum! And all the staterooms are equal, except for the Führer’s.
In 1936, while the Gustloff is welcoming its first Sieg-heil-ing holiday makers on board and tourists are pouring into Berlin for the Olympic Games, Hitler writes to his second-in-command, Hermann Göring, outlining the four-year plan for war. It is to be a Social Darwinist war for the survival of the Herrenvolk against the Untermenschen, a racial war. There is already a useful practice war going on, in Spain: Franco’s Fascists, with German and Italian military help, are trying to overthrow the Republic. The Western democracies announce an arms embargo against the Republicans; but the Soviet Union comes to their aid. Stalin begs the West to join the Russians in a collective defense pact against the common menace, Hitler. But to the West, the Bolsheviks are a greater menace still: Britain and France respond in 1938 by signing over Czechoslovakia to the Germans without firing a shot, warning the Czechs not to defend themselves.
In 1939, with Germany poised to attack Poland, Stalin decides on a masterstroke of cynical Realpolitik— to buy time and strategic depth, he rebuffs Johnny-come-lately suitors from Britain and France and accepts Hitler’s overtures. The Ribbentrop-Molotov pact is signed. A secret protocol of the pact gives the USSR a free hand to march in after the German invasion and annex part of eastern Poland as well as the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia— all of which had been part of the Russian Empire for centuries until twenty years before.
Hitler invades and conquers Poland after a brief, devastating Blitzkrieg beginning on 1 September 1939. Britain and France formally declare war on Hitler but do not lift a finger to assist Poland and indeed barely fire a shot till the Führer turns his attentions to Western Europe the following year. During the ensuing Battle of Britain, Polish and Czech airmen who have escaped to Britain fight in the RAF, helping to save the island kingdom. (By way of thanks, the UK deports most of the Poles as soon as the war is over.) The Stalinist terror, which has already decimated the Red Army and ravaged every nationality of the Soviet Union, including the newly-incorporated Baltic peoples, is extended to the newly-conquered territories: thousands of Polish officers are massacred at Katyn. It is a murderous, insane repression, affecting everyone including the best and the brightest of the 1917 Revolution. It will cripple Russia’s own ability to defend itself. But there is no plan, desire, thought, or attempt to exterminate a people as such. Far from promoting a “Master Race”, Soviet Communism rejects the very idea that there is such a thing as “race” at all. It is a different brand of totalitarianism than Hitler’s, and all who fall victim to it suffer alike, not least sincere and dedicated Communists themselves— the “Old Bolsheviks”. It is not genocide. This is not hairsplitting. Without the Russians, the Allies could not have won the war. We did, and there is a world, however damaged. If Hitler won the war, there would be no world at all.
Soviet diplomats and secret agents have been warning Stalin in the interim that Hitler will attack the USSR in the spring or summer of 1941. Crippled by paranoia, he dismisses these reports as provocations planted by the Germans. The attack comes as reported, on the first day of summer, when in the northern latitudes the sun doesn’t set. Russian boys and girls are dancing through the milky radiance of the White Nights at their graduation proms, when the bombs begin raining from the sky, and Operation Barbarossa, the largest invasion in human history, begins. Einsatzgruppen— special killing squads— accompany the German army and during that summer kill over a million Soviet Jews. There are no gas chambers yet: this is the exploratory stage, if you please, of the Final Solution. Historians call it the Holocaust of bullets. Men, women, and children by the hundreds and thousands are taken to the edges of ravines or to freshly-dug pits in the woods just outside their home towns and villages and machine-gunned (rat-tat-tat, just as Edward Said mimed delightedly to my friend David).
Men from local populations, especially the Ukraine and Lithuania, volunteer in droves for the Einsatzgruppen, and units from these countries later provide the manpower for the Warsaw Ghetto and the later death factories of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec. The Lithuanians prove to be particularly enthusiastic, and often take the initiative and carry out mass killings of Jews without German orders or sanction, as at Kovno (Kaunas)— there not even with guns, just iron bars. The Jewish population of every town and village in Lithuania is almost completely wiped out, mostly by the locals, with the encouragement of the prewar government. The sadism is universal, grotesque, unimaginable. As the months pass and the unprecedented scale and totality of the murder becomes apparent, a Hasidic mystic in Warsaw has a vision of God Himself retreating to cry in an inner room of Heaven, lest the angels perish at the sight of His tears and the universe itself be blotted out if even one of them fall on earth.
Nazi war plans call for the total destruction of Moscow and Leningrad; and about fifty million Russians are to be starved or killed outright to provide German settlers with Lebensraum. The rest are to be slaves in the New Order. Leningrad is blockaded for nine hundred days: half the population of Russia’s cultural capital and second largest city die of starvation, cold, disease, and bombardment by some 144,000 artillery shells. The city of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky, of Akhmatova and Mandelstam, of Shostakovich, does not surrender. At a time when cultural events in Moscow are being called off, the director of the Hermitage, the Armenian scholar Iosif Orbeli, scion of an ancient dynastic family, orders that a scheduled conference on the medieval Uzbek poet Ali Sher Navo’i go ahead. Some participants live just long enough to present their papers, and then collapse dead at the podium. When there is nobody left to speak on Radio Leningrad, the station broadcasts the sound of a metronome. The diary of a young girl, Tanya Savicheva, records the deaths of every member of her family from starvation. Today Grandma died. Today Mama died. There is no one left, all the Savichevs are dead, she writes.
And I, dear reader, know the house on Vasilevsky Island where Tanya and her family lived, then died one by one in dark, cold, and hunger. From childhood, I have known Leningraders who survived the siege. I know the park on the site of the brick factory near Moscow Prospect in Petersburg where hundreds of thousands of corpses were incinerated because the ground was frozen solid and mass graves of the siege victims could not be dug. Herbert Marcuse, a refugee from Hitler, famously opined that the personal is political. Indeed it is. This isn’t just politics. It’s personal.
Back to the wartime USSR. In the occupied part of the country, local Germans (Volksdeutsche) and Germans transplanted from the Reich settle in to lord it over the enslaved Slavs on stolen farms turned into latter-day nightmare plantations; and the SS, the paramilitary death squads, and innumerable civilian collaborators go about their murderous business. The Russians fight for their lives: by December 1941, forward scouts of the German army can see the walls of the Moscow Kremlin in their binoculars. The tide of war turns at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43, and the Red Army goes on the offensive. As they enter their own ruined home towns and many learn that their families are gone, the liberators also take revenge. By the beginning of 1945 the Nazi horde and its mixed multitude of Einsatzgruppen, Volksdeutsche plantation owners, Baltic collaborators, and the rest of the motley scum of the thousand-year Reich are on the run. The Wilhelm Gustloff is to evacuate them to the Reich proper, but the commander of a Soviet submarine spots and sinks the ship, and most of the 10,000 passengers on board are lost. It is by far the greatest maritime disaster in human history. The Moldavian commander of the sub is later to be named a Hero of the Soviet Union, and if he were here right now I would kiss him on both cheeks.
9 May 1945: Victory Day. Between 20 and 30 MILLION Soviet citizens perished in the Second Great Patriotic War of 1941-45, the first having been that of 1812 against the invader Napoleon. The machinery of Stalin’s paranoid terror grinds on, and among the new “rootless cosmopolitans”, chimerical “enemies of the people”, are the Soviet Jews themselves, especially physicians, along with Leningrad’s poets and composers— Akhmatova, Zoshchenko, Shostakovich. In 1953, Stalin dies. The Gulag begins to empty, books that were banned begin to be printed, Nikita Khrushchev condemns Stalin’s crimes, many of the slandered great men and women of the nation are rehabilitated. In 1957 the little Sputnik goes up into the sky, and shortly after that the world sees the beautiful grin of the first man in space, an ordinary Russian country boy named Yuri Gagarin. But the signs of dissolution are there: the Soviet economy groans under the combined weight of military expenditures in the Cold War and a cumbersome, centralized bureaucracy. People clamor for greater civil liberty and religious freedom, and members of national minorities, including the Baltics, chafe at KGB repression and cultural Russification.
In 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is dissolved. The result is instantaneous violence, penury, and chaos for much of the country, with a catastrophic drop in employment and life expectancy. The Baltic states recover their independence and despite American assurances to the Russians that it will never be allowed, they and other front-line Eastern European countries are welcomed into NATO. Communism is no more, so the purpose of NATO is no longer even ostensibly ideological. It is meant to confront a radically weakened, truncated Russia; Western anti-Soviet propaganda is repurposed as Russophobia. In the Ukraine and the Baltic states, the old nationalists are riding high on the tide. In the Baltic states and the Ukraine, notably in Lithuania, statues of Soviet heroes are toppled and replaced with monuments to Nazi collaborators and mass murderers of Jews.
Enter Ruta Sepetys. The Midwestern-born daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, Ms. Sepetys is a tremendously talented, versatile person, a successful music executive and philanthropist. She is also a writer, and has been awarded the Carnegie Medal and a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship. One of her books, Between Shades of Gray, has been adapted to film as “Ashes in the Snow”; the book I will discuss here, Salt to the Sea, has been a New York Times bestseller and has been optioned by Universal Pictures. The Wall Street Journal called it “a superlative novel”. Most of Ms. Sepetys’ writing, which is vivid and fluent, often brilliant, is geared to the Young Adult market but is popular also with adult readers.
Salt to the Sea is about the Gustloff disaster: each of its many brief chapters is the direct narrative of one of a set of characters. One is a very young, very courtly German soldier, Florian, smuggling a precious statuette made of amber, from the Amber Room of Petrodvorets near Leningrad. From the book you would never know the Germans not only robbed Russian treasures but vandalized or destroyed whole sites, like L.N. Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, in order to eradicate the memory of Russian civilization. The soldier, constantly described as an extremely handsome boy, a knight, has rescued a Polish girl, Emilia, whom a brutal Red Army soldier raped. The knight in shining armor killed the Russian monster, in fact. Florian also hates Hitler. So many Germans in the book hate Hitler that one wonders where the Führer got the crowds for his mass rallies. Maybe he used the same rent-a-mob service Antifa and BLM use now to move rioters, arsonists, and murderers from one American city to another.
Another character is a tall, stoic Lithuanian nurse, Joana, the very soul of kindness. Another is a kindly German shoemaker who cares for an orphaned little boy. There is a pompous German sailor with an ugly skin disease; and towards the end a suspicious, villainous SS officer gives Florian a hard time. But basically the dramatis personae seem to have been type-cast from all possible positive heroic types in literature. Sure, there are a few sorrowful references to the Holocaust, and one or two improbable, nostalgic flashbacks to Shabbos, challah bread, and nice Jewish friends in Lvov: “How would she know the truths from the untruths? Would she believe that Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Armenians, and Hungarians had all coexisted peacefully in Lwów before the war?” (p. 268) I guess it depends what you mean by peaceful. In prewar Poland the extreme right-wing Catholic Endecja party promoted the segregation of Jews from the rest of Polish society and their expulsion from the professions, Jews were exiled to benches at the back of university classrooms, and Jewish businesses, most of them pitifully small, were boycotted. On the eve of the Nazi invasion, Polish social and official anti-Semitism had already reduced much of the Jewish population— ten percent of Poland— to extreme poverty and desperation.
The epigraph of the book is itself lifted from Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish writer who survived Auschwitz. Levi would spin in his grave like a top if he knew the purpose to which his words have been put. For the novel’s plot line is the flight of all the abovementioned characters, as part of a vast crowd of refugees, ahead of the raping, pillaging, murdering, strafing horde of… no, not the Blitzkrieg, not the SS, not the Einsatzgruppen or Gestapo… but the Red Army. (The Red Army liberated Auschwitz during the same month the action of the novel takes place.) “I pictured my father’s maps. I could see swarms of Russians plowing into East Prussia toward the coast of the Baltic Sea, flattening Germany’s Wehrmacht, and all of us, in the process” (p. 279). Swarms, is it? One recalls the Nazi propaganda films that cut from crowds of Hasidim to swarms of rats. Ut pictura poesis.
Sepetys’ heroes and heroines are making for the Gustloff, in order to be evacuated “toward parts of Germany not yet occupied” (p. 22). Not yet occupied by whom? By the Allies. That is, Nazi Germany in Sepetys’ book is a refuge, albeit an uncertain one: “But who knows how long Berlin will hold” (p. 315). It was to “hold”, spoiler alert though it’s not in the book, till May, when Hitler shot himself in his bunker. To the characters and the author, Nazi Berlin is a good thing. A safe thing. And for whom is the Third Reich in the throes of its final months a refuge? For its own allies, of course, who in Sepetys’ looking-glass universe are the true victims of the war. Specifically, “Our poor Lietuva [Lithuania]” (p. 102). “Vilnius, Kaunas, my birthplace of Birzhai. What were the Lithuanian people experiencing?” (p. 223) I would imagine that some of the folks in poor Lietuva were not experiencing anything very nice at all in 1945. Part of the reason was that for the last four years they had subjected their Jewish neighbors, with very little encouragement needed from the Germans, to very much worse than anything the Russians could do to them.
Another Ruta, this one the Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite, worked with an Israeli scholar, Efraim Zuroff, to document the full extent of Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust, from the grassroots on up to the nationalist parties and prewar administration: their book is called Our People: Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust. It is hidden, not because present-day Lithuania denies the Holocaust happened, but because all commemorations, museum exhibits, and official publications about it carefully and intentionally omit any reference to Lithuanian complicity, which is the major and defining and overwhelming feature of the Holocaust in Lithuania. It is the elephant in the room. This is the omissiontactic that made Edward Said’s Orientalism both so successful and so disingenuous. The problem with such a strategy is the ever-present danger that an honest human being may come and fill in the blanks. When that happened, Lithuania (a NATO member, an ally of these United States, ostensibly a civil society) went to Plan B: the “cancel” culture.
Ruta Vanagaite has had to flee for her life from Vilnius to Jerusalem, where she now resides. Professor Dovid Katz, a world-renowned scholar who moved years ago from Brooklyn, New York to Vilnius University to do research and teach Yiddish, was fired from his academic job in Lithuania on some pretext or other. This happened right after he vocally protested the Lithuanian government’s legal prosecution for “war crimes” of Holocaust survivors who had fought as anti-Nazi partisans. (So not only did no Lithuanians hurt Jews, those who tried to rescue those Jews were war criminals. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.) Miguel Puertas, who taught Spanish culture at Kaunas University, was recently arrested and deported to Spain because he criticized the Lithuanian authorities for honoring wartime mass murderers of Jews including the degenerate criminal Jonas Noreika, who is nowadays the country’s number-one national hero. And Sepetys’ novel fits well into this wholesale project of distortion-by-omission, in the service of the Nazis’ willing accomplices in murder: modern Lithuania. That is why, in my view, it merits inclusion in Roberto Bolaño’s genre.
Sepetys’ book is intended to be taught in schools: it is not enough to read it, it is a tool for indoctrination. There are ten thoughtful “discussion questions” on pages 395-396. These are followed by interviews. Cathryn J. Prince, author of a previous book on the sinking of the Gustloff, observes, “Knowing the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff allows us to understand that nothing is black and white” (p. 404). That’s not true: the German flag had a completely black swastika in a completely white disc. Around them, the banner is all red: the blood of tens of millions. Edward Petruskevich, curator of the Gustloff on-line museum, comments that the ship “emphasized what was going to mirror the very best of Germany in the 1930s and the very worst in the 1940s” (p. 408). If I understand his tortured syntax correctly, Strength through Joy, fascism, the Nuremberg laws, Leni Riefenstahl’s movies, Anschluss, etc. were all just hunky-dory but doggone it, things went south when the war somehow started, whatever. Oh, the hell with it.
When Sepetys’ book came out, NPR gave it the sycophantic, glowing review indicated. One wrote to them, without response. Last year, before the pandemic hit, Barnes & Noble— the only large bookstore in our fair town— featured the book for a discount price, near the café’s cash register. (“May I interest you in a cover-up of mass murder and apologia for Nazi Germany with your coffee, sir?”) When I asked the store manager whether Barnes & Noble was preparing to showcase Mein Kampf and The Turner Diaries also in due course, she objected that America has freedom of the press. I agreed that such books have a right to a place on the shelves, say in a part of the Young Adults section with the subtitle “Nazi Literature”. But need one offer them special publicity? That, she averred, was a “corporate decision”. When I asked how I might contact the corporate executive who had handed down the decision to her, to be executed with unbedingte Gehörsamkeit (Unconditional Obedience!), she didn’t know. Your reporter persevered and wrote to the address of the company’s corporate headquarters and after some weeks received a stonewalling letter that parroted the disingenuous line about freedom of the press.
Cui bono? Who benefits from it? If I were the sort of fellow who believes in conspiracies, I’d suggest that Sepetys’ book is convenient to people pushing an anti-Russian agenda. Sure, Lithuanian Nazis get off scot free, but that’s a small price to pay for a jab at the big bad Russian bear, who, we keep being told over and over, messed with our general elections four years ago and is preparing to put his paw in them again. The evidence? Well, there’s the Mueller report, which deserves a place on the fiction shelf next to the report of the Warren Commission. You remember that one. It says Lee Harvey Oswald fired off perfect shots in rapid succession from his slow-loading old rifle, and one of the bullets made a U-turn at several hundred miles per hour to hit its target. But I don’t know nothin’ about no conspiracies, Miss Scarlett. And I suspect the reason for the rapturous reception of Sepetys’ horrible book is worse than Russophobia.
This, I suspect, is the reason, in moral-relativistic America today: indifference. Thanks to the fascist-Left, the term genocide has lost it meaning and history is competing narratives, not was eigentlich gewesen war, that is, what actually happened. The late Daniel Quinn, a good writer and a decent man, published a little-known alternative history novel, After Dachau. It is set here in America, a few thousand years after Nazi victory and the successful, worldwide Final Solution. There are not just no Jews, there are no Blacks either, in fact, nobody who isn’t purely and completely lily white, and there haven’t been for two millennia. In this year of ca. 2000 A.D. (“After Dachau”, not Anno Domini, get it?), children are taught there was, not a concentration camp but a Battle of Dachau from which the whites emerged victorious against malevolent sub-humans. But the hero, a lazy, rich young man-about-town in New York with a penchant for books on time travel, meets a blond, blue-eyed girl in whom the unquiet spirit of a woman of antiquity has settled, and he falls in love with her. The old soul in the new body is that of a Black woman who was an abstract expressionist painter in Manhattan before American Nazis hunted her down around Anno Domini 1950. Together, the couple dig through the dust of centuries and discover solid evidence of the gigantic crime. They are determined to broadcast the hideous revelation to the world. At that point the secret police arrest our hero and elicit from him his admission about it all: “No one cares” (p. 217). No one cares.
Those three words, indeed, stand fair to be the epitaph of American liberty.
Categories: Chronicle of Current Events