Category Archives: Gender Issues

Becoming FLOTUS

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Peter Slevin, Michelle Obama: A Life 

             In Michelle Obama: A Life, Peter Slevin, a former Washington Post correspondent presently teaching at Northwestern University, explores the improbable story of Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, now Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States (a position known affectionately in government memos as “FLOTUS”). Slevin’s sympathetic yet probing biography shows how Michelle’s life was and still is shaped by the blue collar, working class environment of Chicago’s South Side, where she was born and raised. Michelle’s life in many ways is a microcosm of 20th century African-American experience. Michelle’s ancestors were slaves, and her grandparents were part of the “Great Migration” of the first half of the 20th century that sent millions of African-Americans from the rigidly segregated south to northern urban centers in search of a better life.  Michelle was born in 1964, during the high point of the American civil rights movement, and is thus part of the generation that grew up after that movement had widened the opportunities available to African Americans.

            The first half of the book treats Michelle’s early life as a girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago and her experiences as an African-American at two of America’s ultra-elite institutions, Princeton University and Harvard Law School.  The centerpiece of this half is the loving environment that Michelle’s parents, Fraser Robinson III and his wife Marian Shields Robinson, created for Michelle and her older brother Craig, born two years earlier in 1962.  The Robinson family emphasized the primacy of education as the key to a better future, along with hard work and discipline, dedication to family, regular church attendance, and community service.

            Michelle’s post-Harvard professional and personal lives form the book’s second half. Early in her professional career, Michelle met a young man from Hawaii with an exotic background and equally exotic name, Barack Hussein Obama. Slevin provides an endearing account of their courtship and marriage (their initial date is also the subject of a recent movie “Southside With You”). Once Barack enters the scene, however, the story becomes as much about his entry and dizzying rise in politics as it is about Michelle, and thus likely to be familiar to many readers.

            But in this half of the book, we also learn about Michelle’s career in Chicago; how she balanced her professional obligations with her parental responsibilities; her misgivings about the political course Barack seemed intent upon pursuing; her at first reluctant, then full throated support for Barack’s long-shot bid for the presidency; and how she elected to utilize the platform which the White House provided to her as the FLOTUS.  Throughout, we see how Michelle retained the values of her South Side upbringing.

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        Slevin provides an incisive description of 20th century Chicago, beginning in the 1920s, when Michelle’s grandparents migrated from the rural south.  He emphasizes the barriers that African Americans experienced, limiting where they could live and work, their educational opportunities, and more. Michelle’s father Fraser, after serving in the U.S. army, worked in a Chicago water filtration plant up to his death in 1991 from multiple sclerosis at age 55. Marian, still living (‘the First Grandmother”), was mainly a “stay-at-home Mom.”  In a city that “recognized them first and foremost as black,” Fraser and Marian refused to utilize the oppressive shackles of racism as an excuse for themselves or their children.  The Robinson parents “saw it as their mission to provide strength, wisdom, and a measure of insulation to Michelle and Craig” (p.26). Their message to their children was that no matter what obstacles they faced because of their race or their working class roots, “life’s possibilities were unbounded. Fulfillment of those possibilities was up to them. No excuses” (p.47).

     The South Side neighborhood where Michelle and Craig were raised, although part of Chicago’s rigidly segregated housing patterns, offered a stable and secure environment, with well-kept if modest homes and strong neighborhood schools. The neighborhood and the Robinson household provided Michelle and Craig with what Craig later termed the “Shangri-La of upbringings” (p.33).  Fraser and Marian both regretted deeply that they were not college graduates. The couple consequently placed an unusually high premium on education for their children, adopting a savvy approach which parents today would be wise to emulate.

      Learning to read and write  for the two Robinson children was a means toward the even more important goal of learning to think. Fraser and Marian advised their children to “use their heads, yet not to be afraid to make mistakes – in each case learning from what goes wrong” (p.46).  We told them, Marian recounted, “Make sure you respect your teachers, but don’t hesitate to question them. Don’t even allow even us to say just anything to you” (p.47). Fraser and Marian granted their children freedom to explore, test ideas and make their own decisions, but always within a framework that emphasized “hard work, honesty, and self-discipline. There were obligations and occasional punishment. But the goal was free thinking” (p.46).

       Both Robinson children were good students, but with diametrically opposite study methods. Michelle was methodical and obsessive, putting in long hours, while Craig largely coasted to good grades. Michelle went to Princeton in part because Craig was already a student there, but she did so with misgivings and concerns that she might not be up to its high standards. Prior to Princeton, Craig and Michelle had had little exposure to whites. If they experienced animosity in their early years, Slevin writes, it was “likely from African American kids who heard their good grammar, saw their classroom diligence, and accused them of ‘trying to sound white’” (p.49). At Princeton, however, a school which “telegraphed privilege” (p.71), Michelle began a serious contemplation of what it meant to be an African-American in a society where whites held most of the levers of power.

       As an undergraduate between 1982 and 1986, Michelle came to see a separate black culture existing apart from white culture. Black culture had its own music, language, and history which, as she wrote in a college term paper, should be attributed to the “injustices and oppressions suffered by this race of people which are not comparable to the experience of any other race of people through this country’s history” (p.91). Michelle observed that black public officials must persuade the white community that they are “above issues of race and that they are representing all people and not just Black people” (p.91-92). Slevin notes that Michelle’s description “strikingly foreshadowed a challenge that she and her husband would face twenty two years later as they aimed for the White House” (p.91). Michelle’s college experience was a vindication of the framework Fraser and Marian had created that allowed Michelle to flourish. At Princeton, Michelle learned that the girl from blue collar Chicago could “play in the big leagues” (p.94), as Slevin puts it.

            In the fall of 1986, Michelle entered Harvard Law School, another “lofty perch, every bit as privileged as Princeton, but certainly more competitive once classes began” (p.95). In law school, she was active in an effort to bring more African American professors to a faculty that was made up almost exclusively of white males. She worked for the Legal Aid Society, providing services to low income individuals. When she graduated from law school in 1989, she returned to Chicago – it doesn’t seem that she ever considered other locations. But, notwithstanding her activist leanings as a student, she chose to work as an associate in one of Chicago’s most prestigious corporate law firms, Sidley and Austin.

       Although located only a few miles from the South Side neighborhood where Michelle had grown up, Sidley and Austin was a world apart, another bastion of privilege, with some of America’s best known and most powerful businesses as its clients. The firm offered Michelle the opportunity to sharpen her legal skills, particularly in intellectual property protection and, at least equally importantly, pay off some of her student loans. But, like many idealistic young law graduates, she did not find work in a corporate law firm satisfying and left after two years.

        Michelle landed a job with the City of Chicago as an assistant to Valerie Jarret, then the City of Chicago’s Commissioner for Planning and Economic Development, who later became a valued White House advisor to President Obama. Michelle’s position was more operational than legal, serving as a “trouble shooter” with a discretionary budget that could be utilized to advance city programs at the neighborhood level on subjects as varied as business development, infant mortality, mobile immunization, and after school programs. But working for the City of Chicago was nothing if not political, and Michelle left after 18 months to take a position in 1993 at the University of Chicago, located on Chicago’s South Side, not far from where she grew up.

    Although still another of America’s most prestigious educational institutions, the University of Chicago had always seemed like hostile territory to Michelle, incongrous with its surrounding low and middle-income neighborhoods. But Michelle landed a position with a university program, Public Alliance, designed to improve the University’s relationship with the surrounding communities. Notwithstanding her lack of warm feelings for the university, the position was an excellent fit.  It afforded Michelle the opportunity to try her hand at bridging some of the gaps between the university and its less privileged neighbors.

          After nine years  with Public Allies, Michelle took a position in 2002 with the University of Chicago Hospital, again involved in public outreach, focused on the way the hospital could better serve the medical needs of the surrounding community. This position, Slevin notes, brought home to Michelle the massive inequalities within the American health care system, divided between the haves with affordable insurance and the have nots without it.  Michelle stayed in this position until early 2008, when she left to work on her husband’s long shot bid for the presidency. In her positions with the city and the university, Michelle developed a demanding leadership style for her staffs that she brought to the White House: result-oriented, given to micro-management, and sometimes “blistering” (p.330) to staff members whose performance fell short in her eyes.

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       While working at Sidley and Austin, Michelle interviewed the young man from Hawaii, then in his first year at Harvard Law School, for a summer associate position. Michelle in Slevin’s account found the young man “very charming” and “handsome,” and sensed that, as she stated subsequently, he “liked my dry sense of humor and my sarcasm” (p.121). But if there was mutual attraction, it was the attraction of opposites. Barack Obama was still trying to figure out where his roots lay. Michelle Robinson, quite obviously, never had to address that question. Slevin notes that the contrast could “hardly have been greater” between Barack’s “untethered life and the world of the Robinson and Shields clans, so numerous and so firmly anchored in Chicago. He felt embraced and it surprised him” (p.128; Barack’s untethered life figures prominently in Janny Scott’s biography of Barack’s mother, Ann Dunham, reviewed here in July 2012).  For Barack, meeting the Robinson family for the first time was, as he later wrote, like “dropping in on the set of Leave It to Beaver” (p.127).  The couple married in 1992.

        Barack served three 2-year terms in the Illinois Senate, from 1997 to 2004. In 2000, he ran unsuccessfully for the United States House of Representatives, losing in a landslide. He had his breakthrough moment in 2004, when John Kerry, the Democratic Presidential candidate, invited him to deliver a now famous keynote address to that year’s Democratic National Convention.  Later that year, he won  a vacant seat in the United States Senate  by a landslide when his Republican opponent had to drop out due to a sex scandal.  In early 2007, he decided to run for the presidency.

       Michelle’s mistrust of politics was “deeply rooted and would linger long into Barack’s political career” (p.161), Slevin notes.  Her distrust was at the root of discernible frictions within their marriage, especially after their daughters were born — Malia in 1998 and Sasha in 2001. Barack’s political campaigning and professional obligations kept him away from home much of the time, to Michelle’s dismay. Michelle felt that she had accomplished more professionally than Barack, and was also saddled with parental duties in his absence. “It sometimes bothered her that Barack’s career always took priority over hers. Like many professional women of her age and station, Michelle was struggling with balance and a partner who was less involved – and less evolved – than she had expected” (p.180-81).

        Michelle was, to put it mildly, skeptical when her husband told her in 2006 that he was considering running for the presidency. She worried about further losing her own identity, giving up her career for four years, maybe eight, and living with the real possibility that her husband could be assassinated. Yet, once it became apparent that Barack was serious about such a run and had reached the “no turning back” point, Michelle was all in.  She became a passionate, fully committed member of Barack’s election team, a strategic partner who was “not shy about speaking up when she believed the Obama campaign was falling short” (p.219).

         With Barack’s victory over Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, Michelle became what Slevin terms the “unlikeliest first lady in modern history” (p.4). The projects and messages she chose to advance as FLOTUS “reflected a hard-won determination to help working class and the disadvantaged, to unstack the deck. She was more urban and more mindful of inequality than any first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt” (p.5). Michelle reached out to children in the less favored communities in Washington, mostly African American, and thereafter to poor children around the world. She also concentrated on issues of obesity, physical fitness and nutrition, famously launching a White House organic vegetable garden. She developed programs to support the wives of American military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, women struggling to “keep a toehold in the middle class” (p.293).

        In Barack’s second term, she adopted a new mission, called Reach Higher, which aimed to push disadvantaged teenagers toward college. Throughout her time as FLOTUS, Michelle tried valiantly to provide her two daughters with as close to a normal childhood as life in the White House bubble might permit. Slevin’s account stops just prior to the 2014 Congressional elections, when the Republicans gained control of the United States Senate, after gaining control of the House of Representatives in the prior mid-term elections in 2010.

       Slevin does not overlook the incessant Republican and conservative critics of Michelle. She appeared to many whites in the 2008 campaign as an “angry black woman,” which Slevin dismisses as a “simplistic and pernicious stereotype” (p.236). Right wing commentator Rush Limbaugh began calling her “Moochelle,” much to the delight of his listening audience. The moniker conjured images of a fat cow or a leech – synonymous with the term “moocher” which Ayn Rand used in her novels to describe those who “supposedly lived off the hard work of the producers” (p.316) — all the while slyly associating Michelle with “big government, the welfare state, big-spending Democrats, and black people living on the dole” (p.315).  Vitriol such as this, Slevin cautiously concludes, “could be traced to racism and sexism or, at a charitable minimum, a lack of familiarity with a black woman as accomplished and outspoken as Michelle” (p.286). In addition, criticism emerged from the political left, which “viewed Michelle positively but asked why, given her education, her experience, and her extraordinary platform, she did not speak or act more directly on a host of progressive issues, whether abortion rights, gender inequity, or the structural obstacles facing the urban poor” (p.286).

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       Slevin’s book is not hagiography. As a conscientious biographer whose credibility is directly connected to his objectivity, Slevin undoubtedly looked long and hard for the Michelle’s weak points and less endearing qualities. He did not come up with much, unless you consider being a strong, focused woman a negative quality. There is no real dark side to Michelle Obama in Slevin’s account, no apparent skeletons in any of her closets. Rather, the unlikely FLOTUS depicted here continues to reflect the values she acquired while growing up in Fraser and Marian Robinson’s remarkable South Side household.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 17, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under American Politics, American Society, Biography, Gender Issues, Politics, United States History

More Alike Than Different

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Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies:
German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields 

       In Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Wendy Lower, a professor of history at California’s Claremont McKenna College, highlights the roles that women played in Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust. To date, Lower contends, these roles have been largely “suppressed, overlooked, and under-researched” (p.4). Nearly all histories of the Holocaust, Hitler’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population, leave out half the population of Germany during the Third Reich, “as if women’s history happens somewhere else,” resulting in an “illogical approach and puzzling omission” (p.14). But the Holocaust, she writes, “could not have been accomplished if a sense of duty had not prevailed over the sense of morality. In favoring perceived duty over morality, men and women were more alike than different” (p.111).

     Lower’s exhaustively researched and lucidly written study revolves around thirteen women who participated actively in the Holocaust. She seeks to demonstrate that their experiences were typical of a vast number of women drawn into the Nazi regime.  Lower provides short autobiographical sketches of the thirteen women and returns to their stories at different points throughout the book. But the full historical record of women’s precise roles in Nazi atrocities is scant, consisting of original wartime documentation, such as marriage applications, personnel records, and Nazi party reports, “devoid of personality or motive,” supplemented by more revealing postwar “self-representations” of women contained in testimonies, letters, memoirs and interviews (p.12). This thin historical record precludes Lower from bringing her thirteen women to life in the way that Eric Lichtblau does in his study of Nazi activists who sought refuge in the United States, The Nazis Next Door, reviewed here in October 2015. Nonetheless, Lower makes a strong case that the experiences of the thirteen women should not be dismissed as anecdotal or aberrational.

     In Lower’s analysis, women were frequently witnesses and accomplices to Nazi atrocities. Less frequently, but not insignificantly, they were themselves perpetrators who “killed Jews and other ‘enemies’ of the Reich, more than had been documented during the war or prosecuted afterward” (p.4). The Nazi ideology did not exhort German women to be killers; that function was, officially if nonetheless implicitly, reserved for German men. Women were above all expected to be fertile, the bearer of “racially pure” Aryan children to serve the Third Reich in the future. In Hitler’s Germany, the “female badge of honor was the pregnant belly” (p.116). Although the Nazi regime “trained thousands of women to be accomplices, to be heartless in their dealings with the enemies of the Reich,” the regime “did not aim to develop cadres of female killers . . . [I]t was not expected that women would be especially violent or would kill. Those who did kill exploited the ‘opportunity’ to do so within a fertile sociopolitical setting, with the expectation of rewards and affirmation, not ostracism” (p.52).

       This opportunity arose most frequently on Germany’s Eastern Front, Poland and the Western Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics.  Lower describes the Eastern Front as a “European stage where Hitler and his supporters fulfilled their imperial fantasies,” a space for the Nazis to “carry out criminal policies with impunity” (p.125). She estimates that approximately 500,000 women were assigned to the Eastern Front or volunteered to go, seeking to “fulfill their ambitions and the regime’s expectations, to experience something new, and to further the Nazi cause” (p.85). Of the thirteen women Lower studies, most did not begin their war experiences with the fierce hatred for Jews that underlay Nazi ideology. But their experiences on the Eastern Front “proved transformative. It was in the eastern territories that Nazi anti-Semitism found its fullest and most profound development” (p.163).

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        The thirteen women in Lower’s study came from different parts of Germany and, in two cases, from Austria. They were from middle and working class backgrounds, and from urban and rural areas. They were Catholic and Protestant, with and without university level education. All were “ambitious and patriotic” and, in varying degrees, shared “qualities of greed, anti-Semitism, racism, and imperialistic arrogance” (p.164). Most were startlingly young, in their early 20s, part of what Lower characterizes as a post-World War I baby boom, born during the fledgling Weimar Republic and coming of age in Hitler’s Third Reich.

      Approximately 3,500 women found roles as prison guards on the Eastern Front, very few of whom “exhibited a humane attitude toward the prisoners in their purview” (p.21). Female guards could “choose how cruel and sadistic to be toward prisoners” (p.52).  When female guards abusively managed the prisoner population, Lower argues, they “helped make mass murder standard operating procedure. They lent their organizational know-how and individual skills to the machinery of destruction” (p.109). However, the “first Nazi mass murderess was not the concentration camp guard but the nurse” (p.120).

       Nursing took on an “acutely nationalistic and ideological character” during the Third Reich, leaving “little room for traditional humanitarian ideals” (p.44).  It was the profession that “brought the largest number of German women directly into the war and the Nazi genocide, as nurses occupied a variety of traditional and new roles in the developing racial state” (p.43). Centrally planned mass killing operations, Lower explains, began in the hospitals of the Reich. The Nazi euthanasia program “involved the recruitment of female midwives and of medical personnel, both doctors and nurses. These professionals would eventually murder more than two hundred thousand people in Germany, Austria and the annexed Reich borderlands of Poland, and the Czech lands” (p.121). The first methods were the “sleeping pill, the hypodermic needle, and starvation” (p.120).  The first victims were children.  During the war, “nurses gave thousands of deformed babies and disabled adolescents overdoses of barbiturates, lethal injections of morphine, and denied them food and water” (p.120).

       The Nazi regime also engaged in an extensive program of forced sterilizations of non-Jewish German women. German women and girls were betrayed by mid-wives and nurses who, upon arrival of a child with reported alleged defects, recommended sterilization. In the “civil war for perfect Aryan babies that was underway even before the outbreak of World War II, women made cruel life-and-death decisions for other women, eroding moral sensibilities and implicating women in the regime’s crimes.” (p.23).

        One of the nurses whom Lower studies, Pauline Kneissler, was a Nazi party activist and a member of the Reich Nurses League who worked in Minsk, Belarus during the war.  Promoted to deputy senior nurse in Minsk, Kneissler “could order others to kill and administer deadly doses of sedatives” (p.237). Each day about seventy-five patients died in her ward.  When her boss asked if she was ready to murder without his guidance, she responded that she could and “had done so already” (p.237). After the war, Kneissler told a friend that German medical teams also gave lethal injections to wounded German soldiers, “our own,” as she put it, a subject that was — and, Lower indicates, still is — “taboo” (p.123).

       The women who worked as secretaries and in other administrative positions on the Eastern Front made “enormous” but “publicly minimized” contributions to the implementation of the Holocaust (p.61). They “took dictation and typed up the orders facilitating the robbery, deportation, and mass murder of Jews. They performed these duties with the knowledge that they were contributing to the goal of total extermination of the Jewish people” (p.102).  By the end of 194I, the elite killing squads known as the Einsatazgruppen had completed its first wave of massacres in the Soviet Union, killing close to 500,000 Soviet Jews. “So extensive was the documentation of their gruesome work that after the war American prosecutors conducted a special Nuremberg trial against leading Einsatazgruppen members.” But, Lower notes, “little has been said about those who typed up this damning evidence of the Holocaust” (p.107).

        Another woman in Lower’s study, Liselotte Meier, barely twenty years old when she arrived on the Eastern Front in Lida, Belarus, fell in love with the Nazi Commissar for the region and became his administrative assistant.  Meier participated in the planning of massacres that occurred in 1942-43 in the region, and was by some accounts the most knowledgeable person in the Lida office. She had access to the office safe where most of the secret orders were stored. She kept the office stamp in her desk drawer, which allowed her to sign on behalf of the commissar. This gave her authority to determine “who was and who was not a Jew” and therefore to “decide who would be killed, [and] who could be a spared” (p.104). During secret planning meetings before a mass shooting, Meier took the notes and coordinated the action with the executioners, being “careful about how much she committed to paper” (p.104).

        Whether as camp guard, nurse, secretary, or other function, women on the Eastern Front became adept plunderers of goods and property — crates of eggs, flour, sugar, clothing, and home furnishings — in what Lower terms the “biggest campaign of organized robbery and economic exploitation in history,” with German women “among its prime agents and beneficiaries” (p.101). This indulgence was “not condoned by the regime; Jewish belongings were officially Reich property and not meant for personal consumption. Some plunderers, women among them, were punished and even executed for stealing from the Reich” (p.101).

        Most of the secretaries and administrative support personnel whom Lower identifies would best be described as witnesses and accomplices to Nazi atrocities rather than actual perpetrators. But some engaged directly in the perpetration of atrocities. Such women “slipped into another role – a hybrid characteristic that embodied the stiff Nazi patriot, brazen cowgirl, and cold-blooded anti-Semite. They carried whips, they brandished pistols and rifles, they wore riding pants, and they rode horses” (p.125). Lower documents the shocking case involving Johanna Altvater, who worked as a secretary in Ukraine, where she specialized in killing children. One observer noted that Altvater “often lured children with candy. When they came to her and opened their mouths, she shot them in the mouth with the small silver pistol that she kept at her side” (p.127).  Another secretary, Lisel Riedel Willhaus, wife of an SS commander, shot children from her balcony, with her own child standing next to her.

        Altvater was one of the few women working in administrative positions to be prosecuted after the war.  Despite extensive eyewitness testimony against her, she was twice acquitted, the second time in 1982.  But she was the exception. Very few women were called to account for their role in Nazi atrocities once the war ended.  Women, “especially those who appeared matronly and meek, did not seem capable of committing such atrocities. The physical appearance of the women and gender stereotypes held by the mostly male investigators and judges usually worked in favor of the female perpetrators, whose acts were in some instances as criminal as their male counterparts” (p.196).  Most women returned from the Eastern Front and “quietly resumed normal lives” (p.168), refraining  from speaking publicly about the atrocities they had seen and participated in.  Their silence, Lower argues, was rooted in “feelings of shame, grief, and fear” (p.97), although, she notes elsewhere, their shame “was not necessarily about culpability” (p.9).

         How and why women overcame their stereotypical passivity to participate directly in Holocaust killing are among the book’s central questions. Lower’s penultimate chapter, “Why Did They Kill,” is dedicated to the subject, but she addresses it throughout the book. The crimes committed by female perpetrators, Lower explains, “occurred within a web of professional priorities and tasks, personal commitments and anxieties.”  The perpetrator who accepted the perceived necessity of killing “could in the course of one day shoot Jewish children and then arrive home to coddle her son or daughter.  There is no contradiction here in the mind of the perpetrator: there is, rather, a startling degree of clarity” (p.162). That clarity in Lower’s interpretation may be traced to official anti-Semitic Nazi ideology, which “permeated everyday life, shaped professional and intimate relationships, and generated criminal government policies” (p.155).  Under the Nazi ideology, “Germans and Jews could not coexist.  Female killers, like their male counterparts, developed this conviction after years of conditioning in the Reich, [and] absorbed it from a general climate of popular and state-condoned anti-Semitism in Germany and across Europe” (p.162).

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        Minimizing the violent behavior of Nazi women, Lower cautions, “creates a false shield against a more direct confrontation with genocide and its disconcerting realities” (p.158).  In seeking to remove that shield and enlarge our knowledge of the unfathomable Holocaust, Lower’s chilling account provides another reminder of how a whole class of people, in this case women, could be swept into the orgies of violence to which Hitler’s murderous ideology gave rise.

Thomas H. Peebles
Paris, France
December 29, 2015

6 Comments

Filed under Eastern Europe, European History, Gender Issues, German History, History

Unwrapping the Saudi Mummy

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Karen House, On Saudi Arabia:
Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future

           Karen House is one of the most knowledgeable Western observers of Saudi Arabia. In “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future,” she uses her experience and insight to provide a perceptive description of the country, peeling back the “bindings of tradition and religion that wrap the Saudi mummy to explain how the society works, how Saudis think and live, and how events in the desert kingdom may unfold” (p.x). What emerges is a generally frightening picture of a close American ally that seems in almost every way to be the “antithesis of open, individualistic, Western societies,’ (p.iii), a closed, rigid, tribal society with glaring economic inequalities, where oppressive Salafi religious clerics play an outsized role, women probably face more obstacles to fulfillment of their potential than anywhere else on the planet, and Saudi youth foresee few realistic possibilities for a prosperous future.

         Whether Saudi Arabia can meet the diverse challenges which threaten to unravel it depends in large measure upon its ruling Al Saud family. House describes Saudi Arabia as “fundamentally . . . a family corporation” (p.10) and the “last significant absolute monarchy on earth” (p.12). Because of multiple wives and large families, Saudi Arabia’s royal family is said to include about 30,000 people, a scale unrivaled elsewhere. The family has stayed in power through a divide and conquer strategy, cleverly using money to “buy loyalty or to at least submission” (p.11), and cunningly exploiting division within a “deeply divided, distrustful and increasingly dispirited populace” (p.3). The ruling family “never promised democracy – and still doesn’t. Nor does it bother with sham elections to present the appearance of legitimacy, as do so many other Arab regimes” (p.3). House questions whether the Al Saud regime can reform itself in time to save itself. The “confluence of so many challenges coupled with the rigidity of the regime, the sullenness of the society, the escalating demands of youth, and most important, the instability inherent in generational succession” could, she argues, “prove fatal to Al Saud rule” (p.250).

          There are, to be sure, Saudi princes who seek change, but they are frustrated by their inability to bring it about. Up to now, the Saudi regime has been lucky never to have needed to resort to mass repression to maintain the status quo – conformity is too strong a strain in Saudi society to make a large-scale uprising likely. The Saudi people’s passivity and their willingness to live within their lot constitute the “ultimate gift to the Al Saud” (p.31). House compares the Saudi Arabia constructed by the Al Saud regime to an “earthquake building” whose rulers have “long had the wisdom to bend ever so slightly at the moment of greatest pressure and then later reclaim, over time, most of what they yielded” (p.30).

          Although Saudi Arabia is only a small part of the Arab world, and a tiny part of the Islamic world, it is the “spiritual center of the Islamic faith” (p.208), with its two most sacred sites, Mecca and Medina, located within Saudi borders. The ultra-conservative Wahhabi manifestation of Islam “hangs over Saudi Arabia like a heavy fog” (p.35) and remains a formidable obstacle to any sort of modernization within the country. Wahhabi Islam instructs Muslims to be “obedient and passive to their rulers, however imperfect, in pursuit of a perfect life in paradise” (p.27), an instruction that serves well the ruling Al Saud family.

          House nonetheless faults Saudi leadership for, again and again, seeming to make a strong stand against the Wahhabi clerics, only to back down. In 2011, for example, the government encouraged the hiring of women cashiers in a large supermarket chain. But religious leaders objected. “It is not permitted for a Muslim woman to work in a mixed environment with men who are not related to them, and women should look for jobs that do not lead to them interacting with men which might cause attraction from both sides” (p.173). The government quickly backed down. That the religious police were able to threaten female workers whose employment the government promoted constitutes, House argues, “clear evidence of the absence of rule of law and of a a country at war with itself, in which the Al Saud rulers are too insecure to enforce their own decisions” (p.174).

          House characterizes education in today’s Saudi Arabia as a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the Saudi religious establishment (p.143), for whom “controlling education is at least as important as controlling women because education is a key instrument for perpetuating a devout, conservative Islamic society” (p.142). Consequently, over most of the last three decades, Saudi education has been dominated by “fundamentalist, xenophobic religious indoctrination that encouraged young Saudis to see the West as decadent and Christians and Jews as infidel enemies of Islam” (p.129). Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the government has been “under pressure to revise its education curriculum to eliminate condemnation of Christians and Jews and also to downplay religious education in favor of knowledge that helps the flood of young Saudis emerging from high schools adapt to a global economy and secure jobs in Saudi Arabia” (p.131).

          Yet, in Saudi education today, there is almost no stretching of young minds. Wahhabi Islam formally forbids questioning or asking “how” and “why.” The study of philosophy is banned. As a result, “most Saudi students, even university graduates, choose education in soft subjects like religion, sociology, and Islamic history rather than the academic disciplines and practical skills that would equip them to compete in the private sector, where real jobs are available . . . Worse yet, most Saudi students emerge even from college or university having learned how to memorize rather than how to think” (p.142-43). Saudi Arabia spends more per capita on education that the United States, but the results are “catastrophic” (p.140).

          House delivers a heartfelt account of the challenges facing contemporary Saudi women, showing how their second class status, “sheltered, subjugated, and frustrated” (p.5), deprives Saudi society of a large portion of the human resources which the country needs to meet its many challenges ahead. Paradoxically, Saudi Arabia is also a very maternal society, where women far more than men influence the upbringing of children. Although Saudi women remain dependent on men, “what is new is that increasing numbers of Saudi women so clearly resent it” (p.101). Jeddah in particular has a “considerable number” of activist women who have “led the fight for change in their city and, by extension, across the kingdom” (p.98). House describes the clash over women’s roles as a “proxy war” between modernizers and conservatives over “what sort of Saudi Arabia both sexes will inhabit and over the role and relevance of the omni-present religious establishment in Saudi society” (p.72).

          Saudi youth – and Saudi Arabia has one of the youngest populations on earth – is almost uniformly “alienated, undereducated and underemployed” (p.114), a huge challenge to Saudi stability. While young people in every society resent authority and seek to exert their independence, youthful alienation in Saudi Arabia poses distinct challenges. As a quintessentially authoritarian society, “there are many more restrictions and conventions against which you can rebel” and “any form of youthful rebellion stands in stark contrast to the unquestioning acceptance and unruffled conformity of previous generations of Saudis” (p.105). Unlike rebellious Western youth, young Saudis must struggle against the “thick walls of religion and tradition constructed brick by brick from birth by family, school, mosque and government” (p.113). Youthful rebellion in Saudi ranges from the most benign, wearing casual western fashions, to lawlessness and gang violence, to fundamentalist Islam as the “only acceptable means to confront authority both parental and governmental” (p.105). A minority of these young Islamists follow their faith to terrorism.

          Saudi Arabia was the birthplace of a high percentage of the September 11 hijackers and their boss, Osama bin Laden. As Islamic fundamentalism swept the region in the wake of the 1979 religious evolution in Iran, the Saudi regime, eager to burnish its religious credentials, supported the jihadists and imposed rigid religiosity in the kingdom. “Beyond subjugating women, young Saudis were pressured to attend after-school training in religious fundamentalism, and over the next decade, the government gave billions of dollars to aid jihadists fighting in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia, spawning the global jihadists who two decades later brought down the World Trade Center” on September 11, 2001 (p.29). Then, in 2003, the regime ruthlessly suppressed religious extremists when they began terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia itself, the worst of which a was a bombing killing 26 people at the Riyadh housing complex, where many Westerners live. While their background and motivations might differ, almost all young terrorists, House contends, share “contempt for the society they see around them in Saudi Arabia and a yearning for more meaning in the lives (p.192).

          Saudi Arabia remains one of the principal suppliers of oil to the world, including the voracious markets in Europe and North America, and enjoys an expanding share of Asian markets. Ironically, oil wealth has “actually inhibited economic development. Given its plentiful oil revenues, the kingdom has not, at least until very recently, seriously focused on becoming competitive in any other economic sphere” (p.162). House discusses the intriguing possibility that Saudi oil production may be declining, perhaps precipitously. This is a closely guarded state secret. Only the ruling Al Saud family knows for sure, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it might be the case.

          Iran poses a far greater threat to Saudi Arabia “than any other power in recent decades” (p.253). Many Saudis are convinced that Iran’s goal is to “occupy Islam’s two holiest sites and to declare a Shiite state in Saud Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province . . . where Shiites are a majority. For the Al Saud, the loss of either its oil or its religious legitimacy would spell the catastrophic end of the dynasty” (p.239).

          At several points, House compares today’s Saudi Arabian governmental institutions to those of the Soviet Union in its last stages, hopelessly sclerotic, and incapable of responding to anything resembling the people’s needs. As in the old Soviet Union, where leaders could pull the levers of power, but nothing much happens, the “new bureaucratic structures superimposed [in Saudi Arabia] upon the old networks are blocking rather than facilitating progress” (p.177). Like the Soviet Union in its dying days, Saudi Arabia has ossified leadership, with the line of succession leading to “more old men in their eighties” (p.178).

          House is clear that Western style democracy is not in the cards for Saudi Arabia any time soon. The Saudis, she declares flatly, “do not crave democracy” (p.9 ). Rather than seeking democracy, most Saudis seek some sort of more clearly defined constitutional monarchy. Increasingly educated Saudis want to modernize but they most surely do not want to Westernize, and they “resent the Western view that modernization means Westernization” (p.224). What most Saudis want, House argues, is a:

government that is more efficient in providing basic services and that is accountable for its decisions. They want transparency with the uses of the nation’s wealth and less corruption. They want rule of law, not of royal whim. They want to know that they are being treated equitably with others in society and that punishments and penalties meted out don’t change at the whim of authorities or with the status of the offender (p.224).

           House neither favors nor predicts the regime’s collapse, warning that the alternative is likely to be significantly worse – either some form of military or Wahhabi Islamic rule. The least worst option available for the country seems to be encouraging the evolution of a more egalitarian, secular and pluralist state, undertaken by some of the more forward-looking Al Saud princes. But this path can also be hazardous. House points to Alexis de Tocqueville’s admonition that a monarchy is at greatest risk when it acknowledges the need to reform and begins to offer small changes. “Only a great genius can save a ruler who is setting out to relieve his subjects’ suffering after a long period of oppression,” the forward-looking French aristocrat wrote in the mid-19th century. “The evils, patiently endured as inevitable, seem unbearable as soon as the idea of escaping them is conceived” (p.252).

          Whatever direction Saudi Arabia takes, the country appears likely to be a critical oil source for the foreseeable future, as well as a potential breeding ground for terrorism. Add to that Saudi Arabia’s role as probably the principal counterweight to Iranian ascendancy in the volatile region and Saudi Arabia becomes a country which the United States and the West ignore at their peril. For readers seeking to become more familiar with today’s Saudi Arabia, Karen House’s concise, comprehensive and well-written book sheds much light on the forces tugging from different directions on this retrograde kingdom.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
September 16, 2014

5 Comments

Filed under Gender Issues, Politics

The Limits of Toleration

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel,

and

Irshad Manji, The Trouble with Islam Today

[Introduction: This is a commentary I wrote in September 2008.  At that time Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book was on the best-seller list, and her general profile has risen even further since 2008.  Today, she lives in the United States and is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.   Although less well-known, Irshad Manji’s profile has also risen since 2008.  She too recently migrated to the United States, from her native Canada.  She is presently director of the Moral Courage Project at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, which aims to “challenge political correctness, intellectual conformity and self-censorship.”  She is a frequent “talking head” on a diverse range of TV news programs.  I have edited the original commentary only minimally, adding notably the reference in the final paragraph to the “Arab spring”]

“I believe that Islam is no different from the world’s other major religions; that it has a strong humanistic component; and that many, hopefully most, of its adherents are altogether capable of living harmoniously with persons of other faiths.”  Thomas H. Peebles, 9/12/06 (email correspondence to friends)

Was I hopelessly naïve when I wrote the above, or just ignorant?  In my defense, I did not have the benefit of having read “Infidel,” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, nor had I read Irshad Manji’s “The Trouble with Islam Today” — two books about contemporary Islam, written by brilliant young Muslim women.  Ali’s is a poignant, riveting personal memoir, whereas Manji offers an analytical prescription for changing Islam, well captured in her subtitle, “A Muslim’s Call for Reform of Her Faith.”  Ali’s book was difficult to put down, and left me inspired yet emotionally drained at the end.  Initially, Manji’s book rubbed me the wrong way.  She seemed too glib and perhaps a little too full of herself.  But by the end, I developed a respect for her too.  In her breezy, informal style, Manji conveys a wealth of knowledge and insight about Islam and the Islamic world.  Among her contributions, she shows that the Muslim Holy Book does not support the anti-Semitism that seems endemic in many parts of the Muslim world (p.21, 39).  But Ali’s book is more complex, unsettling, and challenging – a spellbinding story that contains powerful messages about freedom and its limits, democracy, and human rights.

I was reading both books with the hope of validating the views which I went out on a limb to express in 2006, quoted above; or, to quote from the “discussion questions” for book clubs inserted at the end of Ali’s book, using both to help me reexamine whether Islam is “compatible with Western values and culture” (book club questions are a feature I had never seen before, then found again at the end of Manji’s book).  Manji’s answer to the book club question is a definite “maybe.”  Throughout, she leaves no doubt that a more open, less dogmatic Islam, although difficult, is attainable.

Much of Ali’s book, by contrast, lays out the case that Islam is altogether incompatible with Western values.  Muslim culture, based on the Koran, is “brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war,” she writes (p.272).  I had the sense she was killing me not so softly when she belittled those Westerners who argue that Islam is a peaceful and humane religion.  Looking at “reality, at real cultures and governments,” Ali sees that “it simply isn’t so” (p.349).  Westerners swallow these arguments, she says, “because they have learned not to examine the religions and cultures of minorities too critically, for fear of being called racist.”  Ouch!  That hurt.

But, surprisingly, a close reading of Ali’s book reveals that for her, too, Islam is at least potentially compatible with Western values: Ali proffers a highly tentative maybe, rather than Manji’s definite maybe.  The key for both is that the Muslim world needs to undergo its own version of the Enlightenment, similar to that of Western Europe and North America in the 18th century, when the notion of a secular state that promotes equality and encourages tolerance began to take hold.  Manji’s book throughout is a plea for what she calls a “reformation” in Islam (p.30).

Ali too uses the word “reformation,” which she describes as moving “from the world of faith to the world of reason” (p.347).  “In the past fifty years,” she observes, the Muslim world has been “catapulted into modernity.”  Muslims “don’t have to take six hundred years to go through a reformation in the way they think about equality and individual rights” (p.350).  Just as the West freed itself from the “grip of violent organized religion,” Ali assumes that the “same process could occur among the millions of Muslims,” infusing traditions that are “rigid and inhumane with the values of progress and modernity” (p.272-73).  Surely, she says, now it is “Islam’s turn to be tested” (p.282).

Still, overall, Manji’s vision is far more optimistic, in large measure because she was brought up in a Muslim family in dour but diverse British Columbia, Canada, where the more stifling aspects of Muslim culture are counterbalanced by the province’s general openness.  Growing up amidst war, dictatorship and rigid patriarchy in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya afforded Ali no such advantage.  Ali’s description of her youth in these countries is chilling in many respects, never more so than her description of the genital mutilation she was forced to undergo as a girl.  But this is simply the most graphic example of a suffocating Muslim culture that subjugates women and leaves little room for free inquiry for either sex.  And it is striking that Ali dwells far more on the intellectual rather than economic impoverishment she encountered as she moved between four different countries as a girl.

Similarly, when Ali moved to the Netherlands to avoid an arranged marriage, she was captivated far more by the country’s spirit of openness and free inquiry than by its material prosperity (and we can argue well into the night on whether there is a connection between the two: do you need one to have the other? if so, which is the chicken, which is the egg?).  In the portion of her book on the Netherlands, where she transforms from outsider to insider, Ali found a “post-religious,” highly secular society, where people “openly disbelieved every aspect of religion” and “God was mocked everywhere” (p.239).  She also found Holland to be a “post-patriotic” society, “uncomfortable with the symbols of Dutchness,” where being Dutch seemed to mean “absolutely nothing“ and nationalism was seen as “almost the same thing as racism” (p.257).  Nobody, she emphasized, “seemed proud of being Dutch” (p.257).

Despite its openness – or maybe because of its openness – Ali perceives clear limitations to Holland’s ability to absorb and integrate outsiders.  When massive immigration to the Netherlands began in the 1980s, there was a “sense among the Dutch that society should behave with decency and understanding toward these people and accept their differences and beliefs” (p.246).  But the result was that “immigrants lived apart, socialized apart.  They went to separate schools – special Muslim schools or ordinary schools in the inner city, which other families fled” (p.246).  While the Dutch contributed generously to international aid organizations, they were “also ignoring the silent suffering of Muslim women and children in their own background” (p.246).

For Ali, the Dutch form of toleration – that paradigm Western value – subverts individual freedom when applied to Muslim women.  To paraphrase Barry Goldwater’s famous 1964convention line, Ali contends that toleration of a system that systematically subjugates women and deprives them of their rights is no virtue.  Indeed, the chapters in her book on the Netherlands might have been titled “The Limits of Tolerance.”  Manji reaches a similar conclusion.  She says that as Westerners “bow down before multiculturalism, we often act as if anything goes.”  The “ultimate paradox,” she says, is that in order to defend Western tolerance and diversity, “we’ll need to be less tolerant” (p.199).  This is also Ali’s “ultimate paradox”: Western tolerance should not extend to systemic human rights abuses practiced in minority cultures.  Thus stated, the principle seems self-evident, but Ali’s example of the Dutch Ministry of Justice’s refusal to record honor killings of women because it would “stigmatize one group in society” (p.295-96) shows how well meaning, tolerant officials can have difficulty applying it.

In this vein, in his introduction to Ali’s book, the late Christopher Hitchins contends “without equivocation” that:

[i]f Muslims want to immigrate to open and developed societies in order to better themselves, it is they who must expect to do the adapting.  We no longer allow Jews to run separate Orthodox courts in their communities, or permit Mormons to practice polygamy or racial discrimination or child marriage.  That is the price of ‘inclusion,’ and a very reasonable one (p.xviii-xix; emphasis in original).

Does anyone disagree?

Even with these reservations and insights into the limits of toleration, perhaps the most striking aspect of Ali’s book is her affirmation of the superiority of Western values over those of the societies she grew up in.  Having made her journey from the “world of faith” to the “world of reason,” she has particular credibility when she says she knows that:

one of those worlds is simply better than the other.  Not because of its flashy gadgets, but fundamentally, because of its values . . .Life is better in Europe [and I hope she would include North America] than it is in the Muslim world because human relations are better, and one reason human relations are better is that in the West, life on earth is valued in the here and now, and individuals enjoy rights and freedoms that are recognized, and protected by the state (p.346).

Manji, who grew up in a Western culture and could take its individual liberty and spirit of inquiry for granted, is just as emphatic.  She opens her book by paying homage to the freedoms afforded her in the West: “to think, search, speak, exchange, discuss, challenge, be challenged and rethink” (p.19).  Unlike Ali, she never had to choose between Islam and the West.  As she puts it, “the West made it possible for me to choose Islam, however tentatively.” Manji not only reaffirms the superiority of Western values but also sees Western Muslims as “poised to demonstrate the possibilities of reforming Islam” (p.186); or, as she puts it at the beginning of her book, having the capacity to restore Islam’s “better angels” (p.4).  Muslims in the West have the “luxury of exercising civil liberties, especially free expression to change tribal tendencies,” Manji asserts.  “Are we leveraging that freedom? Are enough non-Muslims challenging us to do so?” (p.186).

But only a miniscule portion of the world’s Muslim population lives in Europe and North America.  Most still live in predominantly Muslim countries and unless these countries undergo sweeping transformation, reform of Islam is unlikely to be widespread.  And here Manji’s analysis conveys a better sense of the diversity and dynamism within the Islamic world.   Somalia and Saudi Arabia are not the only models.  Manji cites  Turkey, flawed in many ways but nonetheless the Muslim world’s most mature and secular democracy (p.156).  Today, she would be likely to cite the democratic sentiments so widely manifested in the “Arab Spring” — although she would probably want to add a word about how the Arab Spring also demonstrates the difficulty of utilizing those sentiments to build sustainable democratic institutions.  Indeed that very difficulty demonstrates that there is still today, as in 2008, a long way to go before a Muslim Enlightenment takes hold in the Islamic world.  But if counterparts as articulate and clear-eyed as Ali and Manji can be empowered in that part of the world, it would be imprudent to discount this possibility as hopelessly naïve.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

May 7, 2012

10 Comments

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Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France


 Image

This book was my parents’ 2011 selection from my annual Christmas “wish list.” It is really two short books in one, approximately equal in length. The first half depicts France under German occupation and the rise of the French Resistance movement. The second takes place outside occupied France, in hellish Nazi prison camps, first Birkenau, part of the Auschwitz complex, then Ravensbrück. Both halves revolve around 230 women who were part of the Resistance before being deported East in January 1943 on a “Train in Winter,” le Convoi des 31000. Forty-nine of the 230 survived a twenty-seven month ordeal, liberated in the spring of 1945. “Those who came back to France in 1945 owed their lives principally to chance,” Moorehead writes, “but they owed it too in no small measure to the tenacity with which they clung to one another, though separated by every division of class, age, religion, occupation, politics and education” (p. 7).

Moorehead’s story of the growing solidarity between the women prisoners begins with the early phase of German occupation in 1940. To the great relief of the French, this phase was relatively civil, not marked by the savagery that had accompanied the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. Indeed, the Nazis were initially “astonished by the French passivity” (p.13). The French government ended up in Vichy, a spa near Clermont-Ferrand in the heart of the Auvergne. Led by World War I hero Marshal Phillipe Pétain, the Vichy regime embarked upon a path of collaboration with the German occupiers. Pétain and his followers – “Catholic, conservative, authoritarian and often anti-Semitic,” as Moorehead describes them (p.15) — believed that collaboration would lead to a France:

purged and purified, returned to a mythical golden age before the French revolution introduced perilous ideas about equality. The new French were to respect their superiors and the values of discipline, hard work and sacrifice and they were to shun the decadent individualism that had, together with Jews, Freemasons, trade unionists, immigrants, gypsies and communists, contributed to the military defeat of the country (p.15).

Not all French adhered to Pétain’s vision of what he called la France éternelle. The resistance to the Vichy government and Nazi occupation included every class and ideology within French society. But members of the French Communist Party (PCF in French) were in the forefront of the movement, a useful reminder that, whatever else its failings, the PCF was way ahead of much of the rest of France in seeing the existential threat that Nazism posed to French civilization. 119 of Moorehead’s 230 women were PCF members or supporters and as such “already knew a good deal about survival and the clandestine life” (p.25).

In 1940, when the occupation began, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies, confusing the French Communists who nonetheless rallied to the cause of the Resistance. But when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the confusion ended and everything changed. In the summer of 1941, the chasse aux Juifs, the hunt for Jews, began in earnest, “so zealously pursued by the French collaborators that it was said that even the Nazis were impressed” (p.75-76). The final portions of the first part of Moorehead’s book reveal strong and heroic acts of resistance, along with betrayal of many of the resistants by their fellow countrymen. As the first half ends, the 230 women were placed in Romainville, a camp in France, before being sent East to Birkenau on the train in winter, le Convoi des 31000.

Throughout the second half of the book, Moorehead expounds upon how the solidarity among the French women imprisoned in the camps deepened and became a key to their survival. The French women “took pride in their closeness” and were “as kind, helpful and polite towards one another as they would have been back home” (p.212). They were helped by their “particular skills as women, caring for others and being practical,” making them “less vulnerable than men to harsh conditions and despair. Adaptability was crucial, resignation fatal” (p.220). The women became so cohesive, “so attuned to each other’s frailties, so watchful and protective, that planning how to keep the group alive had become a way of life” (p.215).

Nonetheless, two and a half months after reaching Birkenau, the initial group of 230 French women was down to eighty. “A hundred and fifty of them had died, from typhus, pneumonia, dysentery, from dog bites and beatings, and gangrenous frostbite, from not being able to eat or sleep, or from being gassed” (p.218). The ones still alive were the stronger women, “those neither too old nor too young, those sustained by belief in a new world order; or, quite simply, because they had been very lucky” (p.218).

Fifty-two of the 230 women survived the ordeal in Birkenau before being transported in early 1944 on another train in winter to Ravensbrück, north of Berlin. At Birkenau, the “primary goal had been to exterminate the inmates, with the majority being gassed as soon as they arrived, and the others worked to death” (p.254). Ravensbrück, although hellish, was set up as a commercial enterprise to fuel the German war machine, with death being “simply a by-product and not an end” (p.254).

There were 5,000 French women at Ravensbrück. Those who came from recognized groups, Moorehead writes, communists, Catholic Bretons, the intellectual bourgeoisie, were “team players, and the easiest to get on with” (p.255). As a national group, the French were more cohesive than the other nationalities, more prone to look after their own” (p.255). The friendship between them “stronger than anything they had known in their previous lives, had become their credo; it defined them” (p.254).

In addition to luck and solidarity, there were unanticipated keys to survival:

Discussion groups were started, on everything from raising rabbits to esoteric questions of philosophy. Despite the lack of books and paper, there was a huge hunger for knowledge, particularly the learning of languages, though very few women chose to learn German (p.250).

Forty-nine of the fifty-two who went from Birkenau to Ravenbrück lived to see the end of the war, thirty four of them communists (with four of the forty-nine still alive as Moorehead’s book went to press). Fourteen were widows, their husbands shot by the Nazis or dead in the concentration camps. The forty-nine went home “emaciated, haunted, grieving for the dead companions, but alive” (p.278). In their two years and three months in the camps, the survivors had:

witnessed both the worst and the best that life had to offer, cruelty, sadism, brutality, betrayal, thievery, but also generosity and selflessness. Their reserves of strength and character had been pushed to the very far limits of endurance and every notion of humanity had been challenged (p.288-89).

The return to France “proved as hard and as unhappy as anything they had known. Return, they said, was a time of ‘shadowy places, silences and things not said’” (p.289). The survivors had to face questions about how to remake their lives, and how to convey to their families what they had been through. The camps were “so extreme, so incomprehensible, so unfamiliar an experience, that the women doubted that they possessed the words to describe them, even if people wanted to hear; which, as it turned out, not many did” (p.293). When the women did talk about why they survived, they asked themselves repeatedly:

what it was in their particular story or character that enabled them to live, whether it was their optimistic nature, or because they had been able to use their skills as women, caring for others. In the end, they always came back to the same two reasons: they had lived because each of them had been incredibly lucky, and because of the friendship between them, which had protected them and made it easier to withstand the barbarity” (p.313-14).

The second half of Moorehead’s book is difficult to read, but a poignant reminder of the brutality and depravity which characterized the camps. With its emphasis upon the role of women in the Resistance and the camps, the book is a useful supplement to much of the literature on the subjects, heavily concentrated on men. Throughout the second half, I asked myself whether Moorehead might be overstating the extent to which friendship and solidarity were the women’s keys to survival; whether, in the end, it all came down to raw luck. But I was moved by her depictions of the “worst and best that life had to offer,” and understood how the valiant women who survived felt wiser, “in some indefinable way,” because they comprehended, as Moorhead writes, the “depths to which human beings can sink and equally the heights to which it is possible to rise” (p.314).

Thomas H. Peebles
Washington, D.C.
March 26, 2012

5 Comments

April 8, 2012 · 2:29 pm