Selfies at Auschwitz

It’s happened. An insensitive dipshit has used Twitter to publish a “Selfie in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp [rose-cheeked smiley emoticon].”

It was probably inevitable. The powerful Godwinian reaction to it certainly was. Without a doubt this was an exceptionally inappropriate form of self-portraiture. There’s nothing admirable about it, and I’m not about to defend its propriety. At the same time, no way in hell am I going to join the shrieking claque laying into the self-crowned “Princess Breanna” for allegedly plumbing unconscionable new depths of wrongness. She was just another sheltered tourist being an asshole on vacation: not good, but not racially motivated violence under color of authority, either. Everybody shat a fucking brick because she indulged her irreverent vanity at a Nazi death camp, proving that she, a “princess” (but of course), had no idea of the solemnity of the camp, the terrible suffering endured by its prisoners, and the unprecedented scale of the depravity unleashed against them. Would she have provoked such outrage and shock had she published exactly the same picture, but at the site of Pickett’s Charge, or at Bull Run? I doubt it. It’s widely forgotten, even in the United States, that the US Civil War was, like the Holocaust, an unprecedented bloodletting in a formerly peaceful country that shocked foreign observers. This is our history, not Germany’s or Poland’s. And I doubt there would have been a significant negative reaction at all had she published the same photo from Alcatraz. Alcatraz was a place of great suffering for many of its prisoners, arguably including ones whose incarceration there served society no clear benefit, but it’s nigh impossible to find anyone who gives a shit about the aggressive, flippant tackiness with which it has been marketed to death.

I have personal reasons for not wanting to join the Two Minutes Hate of Princess Breanna. It’s kind of a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I thing. When I was sixteen, I spent the first two weeks of a month-long exchange program in Germany being obnoxious at a CVJM summer camp near Hannover. This happened partly because I was a callow little dipshit, but probably more because I was hypomanic. Then, roughly overnight, a depression set in, and I pretty much went silent for a week. Before we flew to Hannover, our group’s adult leader had to strike language I had put in a draft letter to my host family about how I was “looking forward to seeing the concentration camps” or some such.

Oops. Realize, though, that I was writing a courtesy letter to foreigners on assignment at a time when I was living no filter. Even without the zoom-zoom, people say stupid, insensitive shit in these circumstances. Not long ago, I was having lunch in Oregon with a group including several visiting Brazilians when one of them asked me, “You went to university, but you prefer to be a picker?” Good grief. No, I prefer to be employed sometimes, and it was the olive growers who hired me that week. (They were strange motherfuckers, and their contractor never paid me, but it was actually pretty fun work.) Language barriers are nice for bringing out these precious little class prejudices. Sadly, knowing that I’d be having lunch with the Brazilian jet set, I was braced for exactly that kind of belittling caste horseshit.

Just as sadly, Holocaust references are exactly what a German can expect from an American. That’s what we’re taught about Germany. Unlike Germans, we aren’t really told about Germany’s thousands of years spent under regimes other than the Thousand Year Reich, the one that came up 988 short. All we hear about are the dark twelve under the funny little Austrian. Fuck, our public schools hardly even teach us about Bismarck.

It should come as no surprise when this focus on the Holocaust starts to ring hollow. Students start to wonder why the teachers keep harping on the awfulness of the Nazis. Or maybe, even if they recognize that the Nazi genocide was evil, they can tell that its instruction has been politicized. The Holocaust is inextricably caught up in the Israel-Palestine mess, for example, at a time when the Israeli government is doing a fine job of replicating the conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto in the Gaza Strip.

After a point, the whole project of Holocaust education starts to lose credibility. The National Mall is home to a Holocaust Museum, but not to an equivalent museum dedicated to the Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields, or any of Stalin’s atrocities, even though, like the Holocaust, none of these things took place within an ocean of the United States. Should the German government display a permanent collection of smallpox-infected blankets or slave whips and chains across from the Brandenburg Gate? Should such a museum be opened on the outskirts of the Kremlin?

Some of my own ancestors, Jews who moved to Moscow from the Pale of Settlement after converting to Lutheranism, could have been killed by the Nazis or the Soviets had they not emigrated to London in 1905 and then on to the United States. It would have been a matter of geographical luck. The Wehrmacht bit off more of Russia than it could chew, but it got awfully close to Moscow at its zenith. We’re unaware of the fate of any relatives left behind in the Pale of Settlement, but we’re pretty sure that a Muscovite cousin of my grandfather’s was killed or at least imprisoned in the Stalinist purges. My great-aunt corresponded regularly with her after emigrating until, circa 1938, the Soviet Post started returning her letters as undeliverable. Apparently no forwarding address was on file for the cousin, and none of her relatives got in touch with my great-aunt to say that the cousin had died or become unwell. By my great-aunt’s account, this cousin was a very responsible woman who certainly wouldn’t have moved without providing her new address or simply cut off contact without explanation.

Anyone familiar with the history of antisemitism in Eastern Europe knows that Tsarist and Soviet governments alike had a history of treating Eastern Europe’s Jews terribly. They tolerated (or plainly orchestrated) pogroms, barred refuseniks from emigrating to Israel, and, in Stalin’s case, came close to deporting Russian Jews to concentration camps in Kazakhstan. Anyone familiar with Eastern European history in general knows that the Tsarist and Soviet governments had practically no respect for human life. Stalin’s belligerent, nihilistic hostility to human life was merely more aggressive and thorough than the murderousness of his predecessors and successors. These histories of butchery are well-established in the historical record, but for a variety of reasons they’re barely taught in American schools. Like Hitler, Stalin was a member of the million-a-year murder club, but he had three decades in which to murder his subjects, not the mere twelve that Hitler enjoyed. It’s also well-documented that the British colonial administration deliberately starved millions of Irishmen by expropriating crops during the potato famine. They accomplished Stalinism through the civil service of a parliamentary monarchy; no mean feat, but again, we aren’t taught about this horrific history in our schools.

The sick truth is that genocides are easily, perhaps inevitably, politicized. The domestic butchery of East and Southeast Asia is generally ignored because few people stateside feel that they have a dog in these fights. Stalin’s purges, mass deportations, and contrived famines are embarrassing to certain insecure elements on the left but quite useful to certain right-authoritarians. Then there’s the ridiculous business of Holocaust denial. At first glance, it looks either completely nuts or calculatingly provocative, but the lobbies that pursue it often have a sick political interest in downplaying the savagery of the Nazis. A society will fiercely resist efforts to reestablish a police state for as long as it carries the memory of such a genocide in its hearts. Holocaust deniers have a variety of motives, but what they have in common is a desire to replicate one or more elements of Nazi state coercion in their societies. This is why the deniers are so heavy on noxious racists, pre-1789 monarchical throwbacks, red-baiters, and hard-right-libertarian lunatics.

At least Princess Breanna believes in Auschwitz. Like, the Nazis did bad stuff there, so now it’s another stop on the European vacation itinerary, but, like, we go to these places and take pictures of ourselves because stuff happened there, right? Right. It’s really wrong, too, but yeah. Shit went down there, and by the way, a lot of Poles were hella complicit in Nazi atrocities, and the Holocaust was a much more aberrant departure from the antecedent broad arc of German history than from the antecedent history of Germany’s eastern neighbors. But Princess Breanna isn’t the only callow thing who didn’t go on vacation in these places in order to learn about their history. God knows she isn’t Patient Zero in the perversion of foreign travel into an orgy of status- and attention-whoring. She isn’t the only representative of Ami who hasn’t gotten around to reading Thomas Sowell’s Germans and History. It’s also worth noting that she’s too busy brightsiding a motherfucker with selfies from solemn prison ruins, perhaps reveling, if subconsciously, in her own non-incarcerated status, to preside over the world’s largest per capita population in prison or under court supervision. Because it ain’t Germany or Poland that’s pulling that depraved stunt.

It’s Ami.

Clap along if you feel like a camp without a fence.

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