Craziness an uncomfortable rationale in latest brutality

Last updated 05:00 31/07/2014

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I had a kosher breakfast after the Berlin Wall came down, in a former synagogue that now housed a fashionable bistro. Armed guards stood outside in case someone lobbed a molotov cocktail into the careful reconstruction of the old building, since old habits die hard and history repeats itself. It was a strange ambience.

OPINION: New habits trouble me now, developing since World War II and the Holocaust became mere history, that endless churn of programmes on the History Channel in which every handkerchief ever used by the Fuhrer would be examined for clues to his madness if only they could be found. His crew of sinister henchmen flicker there nightly in grainy black and white, with much triumphant strutting, and altogether you'd think we'd be bored with it by now.

I look on that channel as aversion therapy, but there's a problem: it makes what happened seem bland and ho-hum. You tire of the Nazis after the umpteenth parade of villains. As with the crime channel, you're no longer appalled by what should sicken you.

The mystique of German fascism, however loony, lingers among the disaffected. We've even had attacks on Jewish gravestones here. Partly, maybe, it's a style thing: the Nazis had the best uniforms. Partly it's a lack of imagination, surely.

Designer John Galliano let his ignorance run away with him and was disgraced for an anti-Semitic rant in Paris a few years back. Maybe he swoons over the cut and swagger of stormtroopers' uniforms; more likely he was drenched in mind-altering chemicals, but in vino veritas, as the Romans put it - as in, when off your face your true nature comes out.

That was an ugly outburst and he'll have to live with the stain on his reputation, but that will soon fade. He's been welcomed back into the fashionable world, and anyway there are new human horror shows, like the killing in Gaza, where there seems to be no hope of reconciliation, still less a decent future for anyone living there.

Easy, then, to condemn the Jews as has happened for thousands of years when life gets complicated. Not so easy for me. The last war seemed like yesterday when I was a child. Somehow I gleaned from adult conversation that our dads had fought in Europe and North Africa to free the Jews from the Nazi concentration camps, which seemed to make perfect sense.

I was old enough to know better by the time I understood world events more clearly - as if you can ever understand why people willingly inflict catastrophe on others and themselves. I was shocked, in my naivety, to realise that as far as our side in the conflict was concerned, what happened to the Jews was to one side of the game plan.

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There are fewer Jews in this country now than when I was a kid, when Jewish refugees were visible and welcomed for their contribution to high culture in this barren backwoods. A Jewish cellist patiently taught me to be less than completely awful at playing the instrument, there were always Jewish kids in my class at school, and we believed some of their parents had survived the death camps, though we didn't ask; the subject was too big, and too raw.

At home my mother craved a taste of all the good things in Europe she would never see, and thrilled to the challenging new ideas she found among her Jewish friends. We'd have been a duller country without those immigrants, and I'd have had less sophisticated birthday cakes which, to be honest, I would have preferred.

It should be easy, then, for me to side with Israel. As for the Palestinians suffering in Gaza, it would then be a good idea to switch off, and I wish I could, but I can't. Nor can I say that either side is right and the other wrong.

I've moved into the state of current affairs inertia that goes with following world events when they seldom make any sense. Even the cheery Pope in Rome seems to have stopped smiling. Human nature has shocked us again.

A century after the start of World War I, which we're commemorating, we can hardly pretend there was a good side to it, but we don't stop. What savage beasts we are. What crazy things we die for.

- The Dominion Post


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