'With Complete Indifference to Life or Death'

Is there such a thing as noble victimization?
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Prisoners liberated from Gesiowka concentration camp by the the Polish Home Army during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising; Ghetto Fighters House Museum

Christian Fleetwood, there are so many millions raped, pillaged, murdered, and gone. Defeat is defeat. It is humiliating, destructive, and dehumanizing. There's nothing noble about the bottom.

There are no Djangos in history and when one finds Djangos, one has to be careful to not commit the nationalist error of ascribing those actions to some bone-deep chivalry. Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands

And then finally there is the matter of only seeing resistance in grand and vengeful strokes. The tendency is to make too much of Nat Turner, and too little out of the enslaved women who would do anythingfilthy, spectacular, and mundane—for the majestic goal of simply saving her son. A few years back, Ron Rosenbaum wrote a great piece on the inability of Americans to grapple with 9/11. His point was that we focused on Flight 93"The Plane That Fought Back"because we could not grapple with the fact that thousands had been killed, without any chance to fight, without any sort of choice in how they might die. Instead we wanted a "feel good 9/11 movie."

Or maybe the need for narratives of uprising springs from something else. Bloodlands is filled with repeated acts of unimaginable horror. There is very little heroism in the book. Snyder licks shots at the God of History, at our sense of "progress," at our belief in meek inheritance, and triumphant justice. Then about three quarters of the way in, Snyder tells the story of the 1944 uprising in Warsaw. The uprising is defeated and thousands are killed. But there is one moment that stood out for me:  

On 5 August, Home Army soldiers entered the ruins of the ghetto, attacked Concentration Camp Warsaw, defeated the ninety SS-men who guarded it, and liberated its remaining 348 prisoners, most of them foreign Jews. One of the Home Army soldiers in this operation was Stanisław Aronson, who had himself been deported from the ghetto to Treblinka. Another recalled a Jew who greeted them with tears on his cheeks; yet another, the plea of a Jew for a weapon and a uniform, so that he could fight. Many of the liberated Jewish slave laborers did join the Home Army, fighting in their striped camp uniforms and wooden shoes, with “complete indifference to life or death,” as one Home Army soldier recalled.

I read this and started crying like a baby. Most of history's oppressed do not die with their wooden shoes on. But this scene was so familiar to me from studies of the Civil War. Very often you'd find men who'd been slaves one week, turn around and become soldiers the next. At Miliken's Bend, for instance, you had men who'd literally been working on cotton plantations a month earlier, turning around to fight white Texans during the Vicksburg campaign. 

Early on in Anne Applebaum's The Iron Curtain, she talks about how totalitarian governments rarely triumph completely. And I think there's a similar argument in the case of enslavement wherein the enslaved, very often, never completely becomes "a slave." I think that's what got me about that momentyou are half-starved, dressed only in your stripes, and your wooden shoes, but you have not actually fallen into that dark night of dehumanity. Violence is only the most spectacular example of this kind of resistance. Primo Levi has a great moment in If This Is a Manwhere he is told by another prisoner that he must continue to wash, that he cannot become what the enslaver asserts him to be. 

And there's something else: a significant portion of enslavement involves crafting a narrative of weakness. The racistNazi or Confederatemust always justify himself, and thus asserts that the subjugated has earned their fate through a blood-born cowardice. The subjugated claps back with their own narrative—"We too have Warsaw. We too had a 54th." I don't know how you avoid that need. I don't even know that you should. And I don't know how you integrate that into other narratives, because this too is Warsaw:

After October 1943, the Jews of Concentration Camp Warsaw were forced to perform yet another task: the disposal of the bodies of Poles taken from Warsaw and executed in the ruins of the ghetto. Poles were brought in trucks in groups of fifty or sixty to the terrain of the former ghetto, where they were executed in or near Concentration Camp Warsaw by machine gunners of the local SS and another police unit.

Jewish prisoners then had to form a Death Commando that would eliminate the traces of the execution. They would build a pyre from wood taken from the ruins of the ghetto, and then stack bodies and wood in layers. Then the Jews poured gasoline on the pyres and lit them. Yet this was a Death Commando in more than the usual sense. Once the bodies of the Poles were burning, the SS-men shot the Jewish laborers who had built the pyre, and tossed their bodies into the flame.

A serious humanism must conclude that you are no better than those who went into the pyre, that you would have gone into the pyre too, and thus have no right to disgust, because you cannot access that awful calculus, and that you have not earned the right to pity, that you mustat all costavoid the nationalist error of seeing yourself only in Nat Turner.

I haven't been to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. since I was a 22-year-old cub reporter. I've never been to Germany or Poland. And I wasn't on this line of questioning when I was in France. I wish I had something more learned to say. And this can only be a notepad of my thoughts, questions for later pursuit. I wish I knew more. Soon come.

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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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