When Plunder Becomes a System of Governance

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The painting, Jewish Woman Selling Oranges by Aleksander Gierymski, was looted from Poland by the Nazis. (Wikimedia Commons)

In Postwar, Tony Judt evokes the chaos of living under the thumb of Nazi Germany:

It is misleading to think of the German occupation of continental Europe as a time of pacification and order under the eye of an omniscient and ubiquitous power. Even in Poland, the most comprehensively policed and repressed of all the occupied territories, society continued to function in defiance of the new rulers: the Poles constituted for themselves a parallel underground world of newspapers, schools, cultural activities, welfare services, economic exchange and even an army—all of them forbidden by the Germans and carried on outside the law and at great personal risk.

But that was precisely the point. To live normally in occupied Europe meant breaking the law: in the first place the laws of the occupiers (curfews, travel regulations, race laws, etc) but also conventional laws and norms as well. Most common people who did not have access to farm produce were obliged, for example, to resort to the black market or illegal barter just to feed their families. Theft—whether from the state, from a fellow citizen or from a looted Jewish store—was so widespread that in the eyes of many people it ceased to be a crime. Indeed, with gendarmes, policemen and local mayors representing and serving the occupier, and with the occupying forces themselves practicing organized criminality at the expense of selected civilian populations, common felonies were transmuted into acts of resistance (albeit often in post-liberation retrospect).

Judt describes a descent into rule by the gun—not simply as a monopoly on violence. Legitimacy is rooted in "force alone, deployed without inhibition." No appeal to divine right. No appeal to blood or the vote. Here is Method Man Law #1080—"I got more Glocks and Tecs than you\I make it hot, neighbors won't even stand next to you" 

Violence bred cynicism. As occupying forces, both Nazis and Soviets precipitated a war of all against all. They discouraged not just allegiance to the defunct authority of the previous regime or state, but any sense of civility or bond between individuals, and on the whole they were successful. If the ruling power behaved brutally and lawlessly to your neighbour—because he was a Jew, or a member of an educated elite or ethnic minority, or had found disfavour in the eyes of the regime or for no obvious reason at all—then why should you show any more respect for him yourself?

Judt is, I think, in speculative but interesting territory. There's nothing about a  social contract that necessitates equality among shareholders. What happens when some shareholders pay in more, but get out less? What is the message that a Power sends to its subjects when it says to them "Some members of society enjoy the protection of the State, and others are outside of the law?" And what happens when a whole sector of society is effectively branded as the rightful field for plunder?

For most Europeans in the years 1939-45 rights—civil, legal, political—no longer existed. The state ceased to be the repository of law and justice; on the contrary, under Hitler’s New Order government was itself the leading predator. The Nazis’ attitude to life and limb is justifiably notorious; but their treatment of property may actually have been their most important practical legacy to the shape of the post-war world.

Under German occupation, the right to property was at best contingent. Europe’s Jews were simply stripped of money, goods, homes, shops and businesses. Their property was divided up among Nazis, collaborators and their friends, with the residue made available for looting and theft by the local community. But sequestration and confiscation went far beyond the Jews. The ‘right’ of possession was shown to be fragile, often meaningless, resting exclusively on the goodwill, interests or whim of those in power.

There were winners as well as losers in this radical series of involuntary property transactions. With Jews and other ethnic victims gone, their shops and apartments could be occupied by local people; their tools, furniture and clothes were confiscated or stolen by new owners. This process went furthest in the ‘killing zone’ from Odessa to the Baltic, but it happened everywhere—returning concentration camp survivors in Paris or Prague in 1945 often found their home occupied by wartime ‘squatters’ who angrily asserted their own claim and refused to leave. In this way hundreds of thousands of ordinary Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Dutch, French and others became complicit in the Nazi genocide, if only as its beneficiaries.

It is important to remember the ordinary beneficiaries who do not always wear the swastika. It is important to remember that atrocity is not simply insanity, that it is often not insanity at all, but hard interest, that even in the Holocaust there were interests, that there were winners and that they saw themselves as such. 

In our own land, we have long observed this. To better avoid the painful fact that there were "winners" in a slave society, that those winners were not merely great planters, to avoid the fact that ordinary Americans are indicted in all that came from slave society, we discuss the "race problem" as though it were a problem of manners and civility. I am sure the average African-American in 1963 could empathize with the dream of little white boys and little black girls holding hands. But he likely would have settled for a day when white people would no longer see him and his family as a field for plunder. 

Judt is not wrong to focus on property. Theft is the essence of atrocity—if only the theft of dignity and life. Indeed, where I forced to to offer one word to sum up black people's historical relationship to the American state, "theft" is the first that would come to mind. Theft of labor and theft of family in slavery. Theft of life through lynching and pogrom. Theft of franchise in half the country. Theft through mortgages for some and contract loans for others. Theft through unemployment insurance for some, and debt-peonage for others. Theft of tax dollars which support "public" libraries that do not want you, "public" pools that will not have you, "public" schools that will not teach you, and "public" universities that will riot at the sight of you. 

Better to move along and go about your own private business. Better to forget this entire ugly everything. Better to focus on civility, your local diversity workshop, and the reduction of harsh and intemperate language. Better to forget that indigestible truth: behind every great atrocity stands some particular winner.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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