The Jewish Holocaust is not just a key narrative of the 20th century, it also continues to reveal itself as the West’s most dangerous metaphor.
The Holocaust tests not just the limits of humanity and of language, but the worthiness of those who invoke it. In public life, to speak of the Holocaust to speak too lightly of it, or, at certain moments, to neglect to speak of it is to leave all safe harbour, as Dr Peter Phelps discovered recently.
Phelps, Chief of Staff to the Federal Special Minister of State, Gary Nairn, was tested sorely when a couple of weeks ago while presenting himself as a (mere) citizen at a public meeting in Queanbeyan he entered into the following exchange with ALP candidate for Eden-Monaro, former Army Colonel, Mike Kelly:
Mike Kelly: (Speaking against Australian involvement in Iraq) I told you that it was a total failure of diplomacy to establish that mission on a sound footing of legitimacy.
Peter Phelps: (Responding from the floor) And you took part in it willingly because you weren’t sent over there. You volunteered, didn’t you?
Mike Kelly: No, I was a soldier, and I did what I was ordered to do.
Peter Phelps: Oh, like the guards at Belsen, perhaps? Are you using the Nuremberg Defence? No, no, come on.
And with that, Phelps left port without any view of his destination.
Interestingly, Phelps does have form as a political apparatchik masquerading as an ordinary Australian, so his past may have encouraged him upon such a risky course. In July 2004, while Chief of Staff to then Special Minister of State, Eric Abetz, Phelps wrote a letter to the Editor of The Canberra Times implying he spoke with the authority of ‘the real world’ on the issue of the voting rights of prison inmates:
It may only be a ‘pub view’, but we who have to live in the real world (unlike academics) consider that if you’re not fit to walk the streets, then you’re not fit to vote for people who make the laws of our nation for the next three years.
At the time, Phelps’s petty elision of his political role raised David Marr’s eyebrow on ABC TV’s Media Watch, but there was no real fallout.
But for the good Doctor to drag Belsen into local Party politics was to step into a linguistic and metaphorical briar patch that has a thornier history.
While even the most funereal events inspire art marches, requiems, obituaries, eulogies, memorial websites the Holocaust left many demanding a grave silence.
In a 1963 essay entitled ‘Language and Silence,’ the critic George Steiner went so far as to say that language itself could not survive the Holocaust:
The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason. To speak of the unspeakable is to risk the survivance of language as creator and bearer of humane, rational truth. Words that are saturated with lies or atrocity do not easily resume life.
The irony of Steiner speaking of the unspeakableness of the Holocaust is not lost. But he was not alone in 1949 the German philosopher Theodor Ardorno, famously declared that, ‘writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ Language was in, but poetry was out.
In an uncommonly graceful act of intellectual apostasy, Adorno later reversed his position, saying that: ‘Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream … hence it may have been wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz.’
And so it eventually proved: silent shock gave way to generations of writers, historians, artists, and polemicists reflecting on the Holocaust experience sometimes, from increasingly strange and oblique angles like Polish artist Zbigniew Libera’s LEGO concentration camp or New Jersey architect Stephen Schwartz’s LEGO ‘ghetto project’. Correspondingly, the cultural policing effort shifted from a consideration of whether or not the Holocaust could be the subject of art to a consideration of how it should be depicted, and by whom.
In Australia, Helen Demidenko/Darville/Dale’s faux history of the Holocaust in Bukovinian Ukraine (the 1995 Miles Franklin Award-winning The Hand That Signed the Paper) was, at first, welcomed by the Australian cultural commentariat as a counter history of the Holocaust one where the Jews might just be to blame for the their own fate.
Demidenko/Darville/Dale’s book earned every condemnation it eventually received, but the effort to shout down Phelps’s malicious comparison of Mike Kelly to the guards at Belsen came much more quickly and emphatically propelled, as it was, by the reliable divisions of Party politics. Gary Nairn was forced to apologise for Phelps’s remarks, condemn them, and disassociate himself from them all in a single, very uncomfortable parliamentary sitting day.
In one sense, it was strange that Phelps invoked Belsen rather than the main extermination camps: Auschwitz , Belzec, Chelmno, Jasenovac, Majdanek, SobibÃ³r, and Treblinka. (Belsen was different because no one was gassed there. It was a starvation camp.)
But in another sense, Belsen has long been primed as a metaphor for use in public life. It came into the public mind more than 60 years ago when the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby encountered 13,000 dead bodies and 60,000 starving survivors as the camp was liberated by the Brits in April 1945:
Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which … The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live … A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
The resulting phrase, ‘Belsen victim,’ used by everyone from the tabloid press to maiden aunts surveying
skinny nieces and nephews, has entered wide public circulation as a description for anyone underweight. I must confess that I too have used the phrase.
Phelps by carelessly summoning up the image of Belsen’s starving and dead may in fact have been doing his best, yet again, to impersonate an ordinary Australian.
But he served his political office poorly. And he fell victim to his own gratuitousness.
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