Wednesday, October 13, 2010

He walked away

When Herman Goering, one of Hitler's inner circle, was being put on trial for crimes against humanity, he heard that a young Jewish reporter was covering the story for a newspaper in Berlin. He wrote of Goering's dispassionate reaction to a horrific film of images from a concentration camp. Some other Nazis wept, or expressed their remorse after viewing the film. The court was stunned. If it wasn't clear that these men were going to be found guilty, it was abundenty clear afterwards. Any shadows of lingering doubt dissipated.

But Goering called it allied propaganda, dismissed it, and reportedly showed no sign of remorse or guilt. So wrote a young reporter, one who had witnessed the atrocities first hand. Goering heard of the young man and requested to see him. The young man accepted. What followed was, in my opinion, an act of enormous symbolism. Put plainly, Goering stretched out his hand for it to be shaken by the other man. But the young reporter, frozen on the spot by his own account, fled Goering's cell.

He didn't even entertain the notion of this meeting between himself, who had survived the camps, and one who was so instrumental in their arcitecture. He dismissed it with his own silence, deciding not to engage in the discourse that would have surely followed. Would it have been a conversation fuelled by remorse, quasi or otherwise? Would this then have been coupled with an anger so deep? Or would Goering have maintained his intrial demeanour of a lack of remorse, an infinite arrogance, itself coupled with a hurt so deep, a psychic scar that would seem never to heal? Is that the form the discourse would have taken?

What would a record of this conversation have been, between victim and perpetrator? What would Goering have said had he been allowed to speak? In my opinion, pondering this is both a product of, but also takes away from, the genius and symbolism of the young man's action.

Goering's outstretched hand issued an expectation of a response from the young man, who survived Auswitz but whose family was not so fortunate, namely that he shake Goering's hand. And, in doing this act, Goering would have been allowed a measure of respect, an authority that comes with an equal footing. This, belying his current position as a prisoner awaiting near certain execution for the attempted extermination of apeople who the man opposite him belonged. As such, it would have been an act of infinite ambiguity, and in that moment, and the doubt it would have caused, Goering would have won.

The incident would not have the same impact if an interview or exchange had occurred, I believe. I suspect that the story would not hold the relevance that it does, if this carefully coreographed meeting - coreographed on Goering's part - were allowed to occur.

The reason that this would have been a victory for Goering was that he would have been given a voice, and whatever he was about to say would have been recorded. No doubt that people today would still despise him, but there would exist that statement, the last testimony of Herman Goering, in private with a Jew. It would exist, and with it the shadow of doubt, one that whispered sorrow perhaps, or innocence, or non-compliance, or a lack of knowledge of the true extent of the Holocaust.

That shadow would be small, and light, barely there at all. It is the sort of thing that would not be taken seriously. But it would still exist. And with it a kernal of doubt.

Instead, the young reporter froze. He fled Goering's cell, leaving Goering's empty gesture of a handshake even emptier, forever uninterpretible, made so by the reporter. To this day he maintains he did the right thing. I would say that the act of symbolism that the young man who had seen such horrors had engaged in on that day cannot be underestimated. He allowed Goering nothing - this, Goering's last chance at a kind of redemption through the doubt of testmony, however slight that redemption may be. But the young man didn't allow that to happen and, if i may be so bold, exterminated Goering's chance at a quasi-redemption in the shadows.

That is, at least, what I imagine Goering's intention to be when he requested the meeting. Perhaps it was not. We will never know. In the end silence won out, a silence which signifies the act of the Holocaust itself. The unspeakability of the event is perfectly encapsulated by this act of symbolism. The young reporter controlled the encounter entirely. But the second Goering spoke, it was he would control, as the relationship between victim and perpetrator, even interviewer and interviewee dictates (mostly).

As it stood, that young Jewish reporter's action spoke more words than any interview Goering could ever give. Goering did not have the last say. The silence and vacuousness of anything he could have said was realised through the young reporter's actions.

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