I remember Michael Elkins, as I was growing up in the UK, as the BBC’s Jerusalem correspondent. I can still picture him reporting on, or after, the 1967 war and all the various events that happened from then on and thought out the ’70’s and ’80’s. I remember his matter-of-fact, authoritative style, most often with a night shot of Jerusalem behind him, as when he was reporting live into the BBC’s tea-time news bulletins, it was late evening or night over in Jerusalem.
I’m not going to try and ramble on about how interesting and passionate the book is here. This is copied from the inside cover of the hardback I have:
This is a powerful book about the resistance of the Jews in Europe during the Second World War and of the activities of a handful of the survivors of concentration camps who, after 1945, determined to avenge some of the millions of their dead brethren.
Michael Elkins writes about the ghettos that were set up throughout Eastern Europe and how, one by one, they were destroyed but not before the Jews had fought to their last one and with great heroism. He writes about the heroes of the concentration camps, the few extraordinarily courageous men and women who dared to make a personal stand against the Germans, and who had the strength and fortitude to incite their companions to revolt.
In the first few months of 1945, fifty men and women, still imbued with the fighting spirit, formed a secret organisation which came to be known as DIN, meaning ‘judgement’ in Hebrew. They were determined that the Nazis should know some of the pain, humiliation and torture that they had suffered. Many of the most powerful Nazis died at their hands and then they worked out the most daring plan of all – a scheme to poison the water supply to a quarter of a million German homes.
‘Forged in Fury’ is a remarkable work, written in white-hot anger about the most abominable evil ever known to mankind. It is an unforgettable book which will take its place among the best work available on the Second World War
You’ll probably going to agree with me, that parts of that last paragraph there, are a little overblown. However, whilst there is no denying the passion with which the book is written, as a good old BBC man, Michael Elkins never loses his objectivity.
The idea of poisoning the German water system does however, take the story into whole new areas of ethical problems. There can’t be many people who wouldn’t at least understand, if stop short of having actual sympathy for, the feelings of revenge that these Jewish resistance fighters had. Surely, no sensible person, would suggest to someone who has been through what they went through; ‘leave it to the proper authorities and the courts to dispense justice’, without laughing towards the end of that (futile) statement. However, the idea of poisoning the water supply and without doubt killing many, many innocent people in the process, is going to be a problem for most readers. I can imagine one of the resistance people saying to me; “Why should it be a problem? They killed many millions of innocent people – innocent Jewish people!”
I think there can be made a difference between those who actively took part and those who knew something about it and did nothing, or weren’t able to do something to stop it. In our current, whistle-blowing allowed society, it’s way easy to say ‘they should have done something about it’. But if there’s anything this book shows, it is how difficult and even deadly it was to raise objections to what was happening. If you also read Martin Gilbert’s ‘The Holocaust‘, you’ll find out how much even the ‘good guys’, the Allies knew about what was going on – and did nothing, to very little, about it. There surely were also, a whole mass of the German people who knew absolutely nothing about what was going on. Indiscriminately killing Germans, including the latter group, would surely reduce you to the level of the people on whom you’re trying to exact revenge.
Reading (the wonderful) ‘All Hell Let Loose‘ by Max Hastings, I was surprised at passages where he relates how much German opinion was against the war at the start and during. I always had the impression that they were all, 100% behind it, brainwashed to a man by National Socialsim. Not true. ‘The Germans’ killed many millions, and planned to kill many millions (mostly non-Jews of course) by starvation, in Russia and the eastern European countries they overran. And, Stalin killed, during his period in control of Rissia, many millions more of his own people than the Nazis did of Jews…
There…now I see how futile it all is to try and rationalise. No one won, everyone lost in World War II. Reading books like Max Hastings’ and Anthony Beevor’s on the war, you realise that there’s absolutely no point in trying to rationalise or justify the Second World War. It was beyond rationalisation and there was no justification for it. Causes, and effects yes, but no way to understand it. What the Jewish resistance people were doing, was avenging and taking revenge (people saying ‘I want Justice!’, always mean ‘I want revenge!’) from their own experience of the war and the Nazis. Their feelings are what matter most to them.
Sympathy cannot be dished out or apportioned on the basis of ‘casualty’ figures written like they were a spreadsheet. One death is a death too many for that person and his or her relatives. Their feelings of injustice or desire for revenge cannot be soothed by referring to other people’s suffering. Some other peoples’ suffering surely cannot said to have been ‘worse’, just because more of them died. Getting into a discussion about who has the right to feel the need for revenge, because they were most hard done by, is pretty futile and is never going to solve anything. Time and time again in ‘All Hell Let Loose’, Max Hastings discusses the problem of feelings of ‘of course, we had it worse (than you did)’, or rather; ‘of course they had it worse (than you did.)’ Here for example, he says;
Was, for example, a Hamburg woman who ardently supported Hitler, but perished in the July 1943 firestorm generated by Allied bombing, an accomplice to Nazi war guilt, or the innocent victim of an atrocity?
One of the most important truths about the war, as indeed about all human affairs, is that people can interpret what happens to them only in the context of their own circumstances (my italics). The fact that, objectively and statistically, the sufferings of some individuals were less terrible than those of others elsewhere in the world, was meaningless to a British or American soldier facing a mortar barrage, with his comrades dying around him, to be told that Russian casualties were many times greater. It would have been insulting to invite a hungry Frenchman, or even an English housewife weary of the monotony of rations, to consider that in besieged Leningrad starving people were eating each other, while in West Bengal they were selling their daughters. Few people who endured the Luftwaffe’s 1940-41 blitz on London would have been comforted by the knowledge that the German and Japanese peoples would later face losses from Allied bombing many times greater, together with unparalleled devastation. It is the duty and privilege of historians to deploy relativism in a fashion that cannot be expected of contempory participants. Almost everyone who participated in the war suffered in some degree: the varied scale and disparate nature of their experiences are themes of this book. But the fact that the plight of other people was worse than one’s own did little to promote personal stoicism.
‘We’ were of course, ‘the good guys’ in the Second World War, weren’t we? The other evening, in a programme called, I think, ‘The Second World War in Colour’, there were shown pictures of the Allied bombing of Dresden. Throughout the bombing campaign against Germany, it was said the US favoured surgical strikes on German infrastructure. But Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, in charge of British Bomber Command, was all for carpet bombing German towns. This was thought to be a way to both achieve the same and hopefully turn the German people against the war and their leaders – through the suffering of their own people. For ‘suffering’, read ‘deaths.’ To try and change someone’s mind, you deliberately set out to kill thousands of people. The more people you kill, the more likely they are to change their mind? Killing one person isn’t enough, 1,000 isn’t enough. But 50,000 just might do it. Would anyone in Dresden have agreed that it might be a good idea for them to die, so that a leaders’ mind might be changed? Seems like Harris tried the tactic again and again throughout the course of the war, stopped when it appeared not to be working and then tried again when the US approach seemed not to be working. The Dresden attack came towards the end of the Allied bombing campaigns and Dresden was described in the voice-over as having little or no military importance. And that 50,000 people died in the attack. Clearly, the aim was to kill as many people as possible. A tactic we normally think of as the sole province of the Nazis/Germans? Knowing that, could we complain if some Germans felt the same feelings of revenge over all British people? Or can we suddenly get all precious and judgemental if the people featured in ‘Forged In Fury’ did try and turn the unimaginable suffering of their own people into revenge on the perceived perpetrators? I have been to Dresden reasonably recently and must admit I was rather hoping they didn’t realise I was English. Being able to chat to the wife in Danish, made me feel a little less visible, I must admit. It’s a lovely city now, by the way, really only now being re-built after the war and after the communist era.
Anyway, ‘Forged In Fury’ is without doubt a very good book. Go read it and have a peek inside their minds and just be glad you don’t have to make the decisions they did.
Schindler’s List >> The Holocaust (Martin Gilbert) >> Forged In Fury >> Munich