Monday, January 17, 2005
Chums in Treblinka: Idealism, Cynicism, and the Somme
I’ll start with a digression: One of the very, very few things about the battle of the Somme that I can read about without regret is the moment when the British forces overran some of the German lines, and, for the first time, saw the trenchworks of the enemy.
The British, accustomed to nothing but the “troglodyte world” (Paul Fussell) of the battlefield and their own trenches, had no idea how complex the German entrenchments were. The German engineers, benefiting from the high ground, were able to dig deep into the earth, unlike the British, whose trenches typically flooded below their clapboard runways (Per Martin Middlebrook’s classic First Day on the Somme, many of the British wounded in their own trenches actually drowned in the July 2nd rainstorm).
When the tommies moved into the previously German trenches, their reportage is full of wonder, admiration, and jealousy. “I went down flights of steps into German dug-outs astonished by their depth and strength,” wrote the journalist Phillip Gibbs. “Our men did not build like this.” The soldier George Coppard was more descriptive:
Some of the German dugouts were thirty feet deep, with as many as sixteen bunk-beds, as well as door bells, water tanks with taps, and cupboards and mirrors.
The trenchworks featured boarded walls, floors, and ceilings; finished wooden staircases, electric lights, real kitchens, wallpaper (!), furniture, and curtains. The lower levels were deeper than the concussive force of the British artillery could penetrate. In addition, there were multiple rows of trenches behind each other with narrow communication trenches connecting them where the bodies of the Germans killed in the offensive were part of the terrain. (“The knee of a German partially buried by the shell that killed him…forms a stile over which we step daily” quotes Robert Cowley from a soldier diary).
The admiration for the achievements of the Germans reminded me of another comment from another veteran of combat against them. This is from Part 5 of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, talking about the ethnic Germans in Siberian exile during the Stalin era:
They were good husbandmen and indefatigable, they did not fall into despondency, and even in this place set to work as methodically and sensibly as ever. Is there any wilderness on earth which Germans could not turn into a land of plenty? Not for nothing did Russians say in the old days that ‘a German is like a willow tree—stick it in anywhere and it will take.’
But as I said, that was a digression. Pretty much everything about the Somme offensive is horrible to read. Running through the slaughter of one British unit after another—so many of whom seem to be have unbearably endearing Hardy-Boy-esque names like “Barnsley Pals” and “Grimsby Chums”—is to feel a very real death of innocence. John Keegan uses the phrases “Treblinka-like” and “extermination” to describe the deaths of 21,000 young British men in little over an hour, a not unreasonable comparison. You go through the literature and you come to hate, truly hate, the term “attrition.”
It’s one thing to read a recent book on the War on Terror like, say, David Zucchino’s Thunder Run and see masses of Baathists and jihadists literally disintegrate under Bradley coax fire and feel no more regret for them than if they were pixels in a game of Castle Wolfenstein. But the men and boys who volunteered to be massacred in Belgium were—if it’s possible to use the word today without irony or sarcasm—idealistic. I would still call it idealistic even if, as a devil’s advocate might say, many of them were unemployed before enlisting. Unlike the jihadists, they weren’t angling for a ticket to the Celestial Whorehouse. Their sacrifice was not self-interested, and because of its horrible futility, more tragic than heroic.
The atrocious slaughters of the war—in which the Somme is prominent for a number of reasons—and the disillusionment they produced, altered the culture decisively. The hallmark of postwar culture in the West was a particularly bitter cynicism verging on nihilism. Belief itself became suspect, and the only smart thing to do was to doubt. Or, in other words, “The best lack all conviction,” as Yeats famously wrote in 1919. One of Hemingway’s early stories features a veteran whose state of mind he describes like so: “A distaste for everything that had happened to him in the war set in because of the lies he had been told.” Hundreds of books appeared in the 1920s and 1930s on the subject of the “science” of propaganda, nearly all of which told readers that they had been made fools of in the Great War, and enjoined them to never let it happen again. After Armistice Day, idealism was for dupes and rubes.
All of which is (arguably, at least) not an unreasonable reaction to the catastrophic failures of leadership that marked the First World War. The problem was that cynicism is not a serious way of dealing with the world. Cynicism tends to produce passivity, because for the cynic all demands for action are suspect. In the long run cynicism, looking at everything with a jaundiced eye, puts the absurd on a par with the rational; it makes the harebrained seem equally as reasonable as the obvious. What this meant for the world of the 1920s and 1930s, we already know: Maybe—so the thinking goes—that Marx fellow is right about private property. Or maybe there is something to that international Jewish conspiracy business. Who can say?
Which brings us right back, I think, to Treblinka. I would argue that it was the cynicism of the postwar era that allowed the Nazi cancer to grow so powerful in the first place, and that it was cynicism that later essentially enabled the Holocaust. So much of the journalism contemporary with the discovery of Nazi atrocities expresses the same thought as one American newspaper editor: “I went over to Buchenwald in the attitude of ‘Being from Missouri.’” The contemporary response among those who disbelieved in the extermination of the Jews was universal: I was sure it was all propaganda, just like in the last war.
I’m left with two conflicting images: The magical German trenches of the Somme, and the monstrous German machineries of Treblinka, with only a generation, and a cynical imagination, between them.