Saturday, April 11, 2009

On Holidays

Holidays are good. Not only do they refresh the body but a new place, a new routine also shuffle the synapses. We were in the South Downs, by the sea. I did a few long, hard eight-mile runs on the compacted sand of Bracklesham Bay. I did 24/7 parenthood. And, as always, I was glad to get back to home turf.

Although I've got better in recent years, holidays have been a challenge for most of my living memory. As a kid, I seldom enjoyed the forced proximity of all four of us in some caravan or guest house. As an adult, I either can't fully switch off or feel a bit more anxious than usual, free from the usual preoccupations.

Yes, holidays remind me of how, at the end of the day, I am a bit of a worrier for whom work is a kind of balm. A place where I can make lists and ticks them off. Where I can be in control. Where I am on top of things and myself. Take me out of this and I feel a less solid proposition altogether.

We liked the South Coast. It was warm and gentle. Palm trees fringed the garden. The people were less impressive. There is a self-satisfied air to many of them. This is the place where the wealthy retire. For this reason, I am not sure I would go back. But we enjoyed it overall.

I got to read. Jonathan Littell is a US writer, raised in France. Two years ago he published `The Kindly Ones' in French. 5000 copies were printed. He has now sold a million and has just come out in English. Its a fictional first hand account of Max Aue, an SS Intelligence officer. Aue is a bureaucrat who doesn't know how to fire a gun properly. His job is to help the SS to organise its grisly work. The central thesis of the book is that the Holocaust wasn't the work of `monsters' or sadists but ordinary men. People like Max Aue. Intellectual. Aesthete. Killer.

Littell's intention is to make you ask yourself if you would have stepped back from following orders to kill defenseless people, as troops could do, if they chose, without fear of punishment. In reality few did. They just got used to it, saw it as work. Unpleasant work, but for the greater good. Sure, there were both sadists and people who cracked up with guilt but, on the whole, you just got on with it.

I would advise anybody to read this book. While very upsetting and graphic at times, it is also provides a fresh voice in this much written about area. The voice of the SS officer. Not an `ordinary' man but not necessarily someone who would normally kill or oversee killing. At 900 pages it is rather vast but you will not be disappointed.


Rob Fountain said...

I think the "what would you have done" questions are an interesting way of using history. I remember meeting a man who at the age of 19 in 1936 made his way to Spain to join in the fight against Franco's nationalists. He was a regular working class lad with a mature political consciousness. He saw violence trampling over democracy, the frightening march of fascism and saw it as a fight he had a duty to join. After teling me his story he asked if I would go if something similar happened in the world. I couldn't deny I probably wouldn't - warfare is different now, being 19 is different now. But are the causes that different? I fear not, they are just not identified with as strongly away from where they are playing out. Strange that, though, as global media should mean we understand far more about what is happening around the world than a Mancunian in thirties Britain. That would require society to be less preoccupied with self-interest, though...

(Alas, I wonder if the moral questions history will pose from our contemporary society are: If you were given a £700k a year pension after bringing a bank to its knees, would you give any of it back? If you were able to claim a second allowance for a property because of your job, would you claim even if you didn't really need it?)

Craig Dearden-Phillips said...

Yes Rob, I think every generation has its massive blind spots: slavery, women not having the vote, imperialism, consumerism. I suspect we will look as guilty in our toleration of global inequalit and wanton destruction of our environment as the Conquistadores and Settlers do now to modern eyes.