Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Imperial Nostalgia

So what's with all this nostalgia for the mythical glory days of Empire? Its sad and somewhat telling that the public consciousness needs repeatedly to be reminded of the rather more sombre realities of Empire.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. Its a harrowing experience, but an important one. Its easy to disconnect the kind of thinking that led to the dehumanization of Jews in Europe from the story of western civilization, or western culture, and pin it firmly on to the chest of an aberrant Nazi ideology.

But can the holocaust be so easily shunted aside? Was Nazi thought really so alien and different from everything else in the social and cultural landscape that gave rise to it? Can we simply attribute this kind of thinking, as some have done, to having its roots in the "German character", whatever that is? Surely the logical answers to these questions are no, no and no.

Recently I have acquired Sven Lindqvist's book "Exterminate All the Brutes". Part travelogue and part-history, the book takes its title from the words spoken by Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's indictment of colonialism, Heart of Darkness. I haven't read the book yet, but here is a passage from a book review:
The ultimate theme of this book is Lindqvist’s belief that the Holocaust was not truly unique in European history, but rather was the culmination of European policy towards outsiders. For Hitler, fueled by anti-Semitism, the Jews were in the way of his plans for expansion. And like the Africans, Aborigines, and Native Americans before them, they needed to be eliminated. As Lindqvist puts it, "Auschwitz was the modern industrial application of a policy of extermination on which European world domination had long since rested." The policy was only seen as a horror when it was applied to other Europeans.

The point was driven home when I was reading an article by the historian Derek Sayer, "British Reaction to the Amritsar Massacre 1919-1920" (Past and Present, No. 131. (May, 1991), pp. 130-164). The Amritsar Massacre occurred when Brigadier-General Dyer led a force of fifty riflemen to a large walled maidan where a crowd of up to twenty thousand people had peacefully gathered in defiance of martial law ordinances. Without issuing any warnings or orders to disperse, Dyer ordered the troops to open fire on the crowd, firing over 1,600 rounds. Estimates vary, but at least 379 people were killed and over 1,200 injured. When explaining his actions, Dyer stated:
"I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed and I consider this the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce, if I was to justify my action. If more troops had been at hand the casualties would have been greater in proportion.... There could be no question of undue severity."

"The massacre", as Derek Sayer points out, "was an exercise in moral education." In fact it was carried out for the good of Indians everywhere - a part of the civilizing mission of benevolent British rule. Dyer went on to say:
"It was a merciful though horrible act and they ought to be thankful to me for doing it... I thought it would be doing a jolly lot of good and they would realize that they were not to be wicked."

And on why he did not disperse the crowd peacefully:
"I could disperse them for some time, then they would all come back and laugh at me and I considered I would be making myself a fool."

As an aside, there seems to have been a genuine and deep-rooted fear amongst colonial officials of not being taken seriously by the natives from whom they expected to command fear and respect. Take for example this incident, related in Anderson's book Histories of the Hanged and reproduced in a review in the Guardian:
One officer quoted by Anderson gives a taste of the impunity - and the hatred. Interviewing three enemy suspects he says: "One of them, a tall coal-black bastard, kept grinning at me, real insolent. I slapped him hard, but he kept on grinning at me, so I kicked him in the balls as hard as I could ... When he finally got up on his feet he grinned at me again and I snapped. I really did. I stuck my revolver right in his grinning mouth ... And I pulled the trigger. His brains went all over the side of the police station. The other two (suspects) were standing there looking blank ... so I shot them both ... when the sub-inspector drove up, I told him the (suspects) tried to escape. He didn't believe me but all he said was 'bury them and see the wall is cleaned up'."

What's relevant here is not that this kind of atrocity occurred, or that Dyer was proclaimed a hero by the British press and hailed as the saviour of British India both by the Anglo-Indian government and in the House of Lords. (That the army shared this assessment can be seen in its double promotion of Dyer over the next year.) Rather, what I want to draw attention to is something that happened when Edwin Montagu, the secretary of state of India, attempted to have Dyer removed from his post.

Montagu was a liberal politician and his views on the situation were at odds with the Anglo-Indian government in India, as well as with much of the British public. Montagu was attacked in the press for his "mendacity and equivocations". In a public debate in the House of Commons on whether Dyer should be censured or not, he came under repeated bitter attack, and then was himself the subject of a proposed censure.

The most virulent attacks on Montagu followed the failure of this motion and focused in on the fact that Montagu was a Jew (only the second ever to enter the British cabinet). Vituperative editorials ran alongside articles such as "The Cause of World Unrest (the Jews)" and "These Be Thy Gods, O Israel!" Even generally supportive papers such as the Times had written "Mr Montagu... is also a Jew, and in excitement has the mental idiom of the East", thereby being "insensitive to our English method of political argument."

And there we seem to have the germs of it. The idea, ultimately so tragic, that Jews were not of the West, but of the East. Jews in Europe had always occupied a somewhat ambiguous position in society - many integrating to a large degree, but never quite managing to shed their identity as an 'other' (indeed, one might say, holding on to a distinct identity). But in the scramble to quantify, qualify and classify the hierarchy of races that gripped European society in the late 19th century and early 20th century - a project that was itself rooted in the experience of colonialism - Jews ended up on the wrong side of the divide between the higher, Occidental races, and the lower, Oriental races. It was this 'understanding' that made it possible for Europeans to treat them just like they were treating any other non-European group that somehow or other were seen as inhibitors of progress - as brutes to be exterminated.

Its sad, but true, that despite the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, the British felt free in using similar systems (albeit without the 'Final Solution') in their handling of colonial groups such as the Mau Mau in Kenya. And it shouldn't surprise us that this kind of thinking is able to once again come to the fore to justify outrages such as Abu Ghraib.


1 comment:

kokismith said...

It's official. You should write a book.