Monday 21 October 2013

Book Note: A Small Town Near Auschwitz

Book Note: A Small Town Near Auschwitz
Mary Fulbrook is the daughter of a German Christian woman “of Jewish descent” who fled to the United States shortly after the Nazis took power. One of her mother’s closest girlhood friends was Alexandra, who married Udo Klausa. Klausa was the Landrat, or administrator, of a small city in occupied Upper Silesia named Bedzin. After WWII, Mary’s mother and Alexandra resumed their friendship and Alexandra became Mary’s godmother. Thus, Mary was acquainted with Udo Klausa, who is the central figure of A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust (published in 2012 by Oxford University Press).
A Small Town Near Auschwitz- Wiki Commons
From A Small Town we learn a fair amount about Udo Klausa’s job and his interactions with his superiors who were in charge of formulating regional anti-Jewish policies—including stripping Jews of their property and employment, banishing them from public spaces (except when a few Jews were executed and thousands others forced to watch), concentrating them into ghettoes, deporting them to labor camps and eventually to the conveniently close extermination camp of Auschwitz. We also learn how Udo Klausa interacted with his subordinates, including the local gendarmerie that helped the actual Nazi Storm Troopers. Klausa faithfully participated in the anti-Jewish policies, which he seemed to regard as ordinary administrative matters. He appeared completely oblivious to the roundups, executions, murders, and tortures that were frequent and highly visible actions against the town’s Jewish population.     
Fulbrook also shows us how “innocent” bystander Germans were collaborators. Alexandra Klausa held no official position: she was merely the wife of the Landrat, happy to have found reasonable accommodation for herself, her husband and their baby in the villa of a deported Jew. Alexandra’s letters show that she witnessed roundups of Jews, which occurred just across the street from where she lived. She wrote to her mother about some of the inconveniences of the roundups: she couldn’t get her shoes repaired any more, and the vegetable market had closed down.  She and Udo tried unsuccessfully to protect “their” Jew—their gardener and janitor—and his family. Granted, letters were censored and it would have been difficult for her to write her mother about the horrors she witnessed. Yet she seemed indifferent to them, as long as they did not affect her day-to-day life as a wife and mother. She did worry a lot about Udo’s “nerves” which in a charitable interpretation of his reactions to the persecution of the Jews might have indicated that he was uneasy about certain activities in which he was implicated. After the war, Klausa evaded punishment—eventually becoming a Landrat again in democratic West Germany—and wrote a memoir in which he claimed that he was not present in Bedzin for some of the worst “actions” against the Jews. But Fulbrook shows that he was.
Eichmann in Jerusalem- Wiki Commons
The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963 after she had witnessed the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel. Eichmann was one of the bureaucrats who organized the train system that took Jews to the extermination camps. Film footage of the trial shows him as a fairly ordinary, unprepossessing man, not a raving lunatic such as one might have imagined senior Nazi officials were (and as Hitler appears, to modern eyes, in footage of his speeches). To describe Eichmann’s role, Arendt coined the term, “banality of evil:” Eichmann was an evil, yet banal, person. Other works have also shown how “ordinary” were members of the Nazi killing machine. For example, Christopher R. Browning in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (HarperCollins, 1992) shows how ordinary German men, too old for the military, were converted into killers of Jews.
Ordinary Men- Wiki Commons
Mary Fulbrook shows us the others side of this ordinariness. She personalizes the Jews of Bedzin. She uses diaries and memories of survivors. She recounts the day to day fear of every Jew in Bedzin, not knowing when she or he might be picked up and deported. She relates in detail the malnourishment each Jew endures. She tells us exactly what it feels like to be a fearful hidden child. She details the murders of women and children. She refuses to let her readers distance themselves from Udo Klausa’s victims.
In some senses, we are all collaborators. Most of us go about our daily lives perhaps conscious of injustices and suffering, both at home and abroad, but unwilling to devote more than a few hours a week or a small percentage of our resources to trying to alleviate it. Fulbrook writes of Alexandra and Udo Klausa that they “acted in ways that were predicated on ‘not seeing’ how people were affected, ‘not knowing’ what the outcomes of their actions really were” (p. 8). But even if we do see and we do know, it is usually easier to put what we see and know aside. This is what the Klausas did, and what almost all of us do.  

Friday 11 October 2013

North Korea; Still One of the World's Most Awful Places to Live (and Die)

North Korea: Still One of the World’s Most Awful Places to Live (and Die)
On September 27-28, 2013 I attended a conference in Toronto organized by the non-governmental group, The Council for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK Canada). This is a group of Korean-Canadians and others who have been trying to bring the plight of people living in North Korea—both ordinary North Koreans and political prisoners—to the attention of the wider Canadian public. So far they have managed to get several members of Parliament interested in this problem, and indeed, received a statement by Minister for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney during the conference proclaiming September 28 “North Korean Human Rights Day.”
North Korean prison in Pyongyang- Wiki Commons
For me, the most powerful part of this conference was listening (in translation) to the testimony of Ahn Myong-Chol, a former prison guard who escaped from North Korea and has been working with other defectors to expose the terrible conditions in the gulag there. He has written a book which is unfortunately not yet in English. He did not apply for the job of prison guard: he was assigned to it because his father was a member of the Korean Workers’ Party, so Ahn himself was “entitled” to a Party job.
When Ahn first arrived at the camp, he was encouraged to kill prisoners if he felt like it. He was ashamed to tell us that he took part in a custom of using prisoners as human punching bags when practicing martial arts; prisoners would be tied to a post and guards would kick and punch them.  Once he heard prisoners crying and screaming, and rushed over to find prison dogs attacking small children, three of whom died. Children are sent to prison camps in North Korea along with their parents, when their parents are accused of crimes: some children are even born there (see Blaine Harden’s 2012 book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, about Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have been born in a prison camp and escaped).  Dogs are trained to recognize the distinctive smell of starving, maltreated prisoners, so that they can find anyone who tries to escape.
Ahn also witnessed several public executions, as one of his jobs was to drive the prisoners to the execution grounds. Prisoners were gagged so that they could not shout out any criticisms of the regime at the last moment. Family members were forced to witness the executions and were tortured or killed if they showed any emotion.
After eight years on the job Ahn was given his first vacation. When he arrived home, he discovered his family had disappeared. Asking around, he learned that his father had got drunk one night and blamed the North Korean leadership (probably Kim Jong-il, the second of the three Kims in the hereditary dynasty) for starving his people. The next day, knowing he would be arrested and imprisoned for criticizing Kim, he took his own life. But suicide in North Korea is a crime, so Ahn’s mother and two younger siblings were arrested and imprisoned: Ahn never saw them again.
The Tumen River at the Chinese-North Korean border- Wiki Commons
Some participants at the conference asked why someone--the UN, the West?—didn’t just invade North Korea and overturn the regime. There are all sort of geopolitical reasons why this won’t happen.  The route to changing North Korea’s horrible system is to put pressure on China. There are good reasons why China should no longer support North Korea: China’s prestige suffers when it supports such a brutal regime, and the North Koreans are a security threat to China, conducting nuclear tests close to the Chinese border. Also, so long as people continue to suffer from starvation and near-starvation in North Korea, they will flee to China. So it’s in China’s interests to stem that refugee flow by forcing North Korea to change the policies that permit it to starve its people to death.
Another way to change the North Korean political system is through information: it seems that the more North Koreans learn about the outside world, the better. A couple of years ago, through HRNK,  I listened to a defector who sent balloons from South to North Korea with DVDs in them: each balloon was also covered with writing explaining the real conditions of life in South Korea and the outside world. This defector had himself decided to leave North Korea when he read a pamphlet that had been dropped by activists; when I heard him, the North Koreans had already sent agents south to try to murder him.
Recently, activists have been able to put enough pressure on the United Nations and its member states that the UN Human Rights Council has now established a Commission of Inquiry into North Korea.  This is an important step in getting the UN as a whole to pay attention to the atrocities there. Departing from the usual practice of Commissions of Inquiry, this Commission is holding public hearings. Its report may pressure to UN to adopt further actions.  The best action would be to refer North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and some of his cronies to the International Criminal Court, where they could be tried for crimes against humanity including murder, slavery, and deprivation of food.  However, that would probably be blocked at the UN Security Council by China and Russia, although it appears China is getting increasing fed up with North Korea.
If you want to help North Koreans, I suggest (if you are Canadian) writing to your local Member of Parliament to show your support for measures to investigate North Korea’s appalling crimes and to indict its leaders for crimes against humanity. Also, whether you are Canadian or not, write to the Chinese Ambassador to your country, asking them to pressure North Korea to change and to stop supporting it with arms, money, or luxury goods for its leaders.  
And there’s one piece of good news in all this: international pressure does make a difference.  Ahn said that around 1992 he was told that he was no longer permitted to kill prisoners just because he felt like it. The reason was that Amnesty International had become interested in the prison camps, and the regime was afraid of an international inquiry. Ahn encouraged us all to keep up the pressure on this absolutely monstrous government.
For more on North Korea, see my blogs “Cannibalism in North Korea” March 20, 2013, and “North Korean Slave Labour, September 11, 2012, as well as my article *2012. “State-Induced Famine and Penal Starvation in North Korea,” Genocide Studies and Prevention, vol.7, no. 2/3, pp. 147-65.

Monday 7 October 2013

Venezuela Update: Food Situation Worse under Maduro than Chavez

Venezuela Update: Food Situation Worse under Maduro than Chávez
On March 11, 2013, shortly after his death on March 5, I posted a blog about how Hugo Chávez had managed to create food shortages in Venezuela during his 14-year rule there. You can read that original blog at This is a short update on the food situation in Venezuela under Nicolás Maduro, who was Chávez’s designated successor and who was elected president in his own right on April 14, 2013.
 I’ve based this update on English-language newspaper reports I’ve been tracking since January 2013. It looks like things are getting a lot worse, not better, under Maduro. I realize it’s possible to argue that I’ve just been reading biased, anti-socialist press, but that argument doesn’t wash.  Neither Chávez nor Maduro understood/understands how markets work: they think that nationalizations and price controls will reduce food prices, but they don’t understand the costs to production and distribution of food of using those mechanisms.  
Nicolas Maduro- Wikipedia Commons
Maduro has been continuing—and exacerbating—all the policies I described in my March 11 blog, such as imposing price controls on more and more food and other items. The twelve-month inflation rate skyrocketed to 35 per cent per year by June 2013, partly as a result of continued devaluation of the bolivar, the Venezuelan currency, but also as a result of food scarcities. Food line-ups are becoming longer and longer as more and more food items become scarce, and Venezuelans have to spend more and more time going from shop to shop looking for goods. Many people who’ve been interviewed by the press complain about severe shortages of basics such as milk that they need to feed their children.
By June 2013 the price of basic commodities had risen by 44.6 per cent in one year: by August the figure was a rise of 60.8 per cent in one year. Rice, coffee, and beef, previously produced inside the country, now arrive from other countries. Maduro spends much of his time making deals with other Latin American countries to import food from them, but this food often rots as ships can’t unload at congested, inefficiently-run ports.
But this provides new opportunities for web entrepreneurs. Someone developed a mobile app to provide information about what goods are available where, so consumers can reduce the time they spend going from store to store looking for food. Some other people developed a website to provide information about the real (black-market), as opposed to the official exchange rate of the bolivar to the US dollar: Maduro responded by ordering their arrest.
When not blaming the shortages on an imperialist, CIA-led conspiracy, Maduro explains them away by focusing on “over-consumption” by Venezuelans, who have more purchasing power than in the years before the latest oil boom. He also blames shortages on a deliberate campaign of sabotage by food producers and distributors, ordering government agents to raid private companies’ warehouses for allegedly “hoarded” food. The private producers respond that much of the hoarded food is simply what is needed for production of finished products: for example, sugar for soft drinks. The largest food company in Venezuela, Empresas Polar, can’t import enough inputs for processed food such as the pre-cooked flour for arepas, Venezuela’s staple food because it can’t get government permission to buy dollars to finance its imports. Meantime, smugglers sell price-controlled food over the border in Colombia, thus exacerbating the food shortage.
Ironically, just as these food shortages have been worsening, in June 2013Maduro accepted an award from the FAO for Venezuela’s success in reducing malnutrition. While this success was real, as I discussed in my March 11 blog, it was due in large part to Venezuela’s high oil revenues and to general and unsustainable mismanagement of the economy. Other Latin American countries have achieved similar success to Venezuela’s in reducing malnutrition without huge oil revenues and without undermining the market economy.
If mothers in Venezuela cannot find milk for their children, then malnutrition might rise again in the not-so-distant future. Indeed, by early August 2013 forecasters were predicting a long-term decline in food consumption by 7.5 per cent by 2017. Maduro’s insistent continuation of Chávez’s economic policies does not bode well for Venezuelans’ future food security.