October 5th, 2013

Cassandra Koestler: if the tale’s too terrifying

[NOTE: I'm planning to recycle a slightly edited version of some older posts on the World War II era that I think bear repeating. This one originally appeared about three years ago. People often think that knowledge of Nazi genocide only came out after the war ended. Many of the details, yes; but a great deal was known earlier and effectively ignored, as these quotes make clear.]

Remember, Cassandra’s curse was that she wouldn’t be believed even though she was given the gift of prophecy. Arthur Koestler wasn’t prophesying exactly, he was merely attempting to warn people based on actual events that were going on at the time—but still, he had trouble being believed when he tried to alert his readers and listeners to atrocities the Nazis were committing during World War II.

Koestler had his flaws, including a long devotion to Socialism. But, like his good friend Orwell (who shared that trait), he was a fierce opponent of Communism Soviet-style, having almost been burned in its fierce annihilative furnace early on.

He was also a tireless anti-Nazi. The following is what he had to say about that latter effort, and how hard it is to get people’s attention when it counts. The excerpts are from an essay Koestler wrote in 1944 entitled, “On Disbelieving Atrocities,” which appeared in his collection The Yogi and the Commissar (I’ve changed some of the paragraphing to make it easier to read):

There is a dream which keeps coming back to me at almost regular intervals; it is dark, and I am being murdered in some kind of thicket or brushwood; there is a busy road at no more than ten yards distance; I scream for help but nobody hears me, the crowd walks past, laughing and chatting.

I know that a great many people share, with individual variations, the same type of dream. I have quarrelled about it with analysts and I believe it to be an archtype in the Jungian sense: an expression of the individual’s ultimate loneliness when faced with death and cosmic violence; and his inability to communicate the unique horror of his experience. I further believe that it is the root of the ineffectiveness of our atrocity propaganda.

For, after all, you are the crowd who walk past laughing on the road; and there are a few of us, escaped victims or eyewitnesses of the things which happen in the thicket and who, haunted by our memories, go on screaming on the wireless, yelling at you in newspapers and in public meetings, theatres and cinemas.

Now and then we succeed in reaching your ear for a minute. I know it each time it happens by a certain dumb wonder on your faces, a faint glassy stare entering your eye, and I tell myself: now you have got them, now hold them, hold them, so that they will remain awake. But it only lasts a minute. You shake yourself like puppies who have got their fur wet; then the transparent screen descends again and you walk on, protected by the dream barrier which stifles all sound.

We, the screamers, have been at it now for about ten years. We started on the night when the epileptic van der Lubbe set fire to the German Parliament; we said that if you don’t quench those flames at once, they will spread all over the world; you thought we were maniacs. At present we have the mania of trying to tell you about the killing, by hot steam, mass-electrocution and live burial [Koestler seems to have been unaware of the gassing method that had come to be used most often by that time] of the total Jewish population of Europe.

So far three million have died. It is the greatest mass-killing in recorded history; and it goes on daily, hourly, as regularly as the ticking of your watch. I have photographs before me on the desk while I am writing this, and that accounts for my emotion and bitterness. People died to smuggle them out of Poland; they thought it was worth while. The facts have been published in pamphlets, White Books, newspapers, magazines and what not. But the other day I met one of the best-known American journalists over here. he told me that in the course of some recent public opinion survey nine out of ten average American citizens, when asked whether they believed that the Nazis commit atrocities, answered that it was all propaganda lies, and that they didn’t believe a word of it.

As to this country [Koestler was referring to Britain, where he was living at the time and writing for the war effort], I have been lecturing now for three years to the troops, and their attitude is the same. They don’t believe in concentration camps, they don’t believe in the starved children of Greece, in the shot hostages of France, in the mass-graves of Poland; they have never heard of Lidice, Treblinka or Belsen; you can convince them for an hour, they they shake themselves, their mental self-defence begins to work and in a week the shrug of incredulity has returned like a reflex temporarily weakened by a shock.

Clearly all this is becoming a mania with me and my like. Clearly we must suffer from some morbid obsession, whereas you others are healthy and normal. But the characteristic symptom of maniacs is that they lose contact with reality and live in a phantasy world. So, perhaps, it is the other way round: perhaps it is we, the screamers, who react in a sound and healthy way to the reality which surrounds us, whereas you are the neurotics who totter about in a screened phantasy world because you lack the faculty to face the facts. Were it not so, this war would have been avoided, and those murdered within sight of your day-dreaming eyes would be alive.

Why is it so difficult to hear the screaming? Much of it is self-protective: if we paid attention to all the pain and suffering in the world, we’d be paralyzed by empathy and unable to enjoy our own lives. What’s more, there’s often a sense of powerlessness to change things. To intervene effectively in time—because an ounce of prevention is most definitely worth a ton of cure—would require an understanding and prescience that seems beyond the ability of most people. Unfortunately.

[NOTE: This passage explains why it was that Eisenhower insisted the death camps be photographed, and that the films and photos be shown to the German people and to the world. He knew that otherwise, the terrible facts would not be believed. And, of course, Holocaust denial has become a popular and growing industry, anyway.]

[ADDENDUM: The full Koestler essay originally appeared in January of 1944 in the NY Times Magazine.]

13 Responses to “Cassandra Koestler: if the tale’s too terrifying”

  1. patrick-who-is-hector Says:

    I would suggest the propaganda efforts of WW1 probably had a nontrivial role.

  2. Sgt. Mom Says:

    Exactly – from what I remember of my semester-long project to read every issue of the Chicago Tribune between 1935-45 – people did remember how they were taken in by propaganda. They weren’t going to get fooled again. People knew in a vague way, I think, that the Jews in Europe were being treated brutally, were imprisoned in labor camps and starved in ghettos, but being exterminated deliberately and systematically? That was just something they couldn’t even get their heads around, until April and May of 1945, when the Allies began liberating camps and finding the evidence. Ordinary people were stunned and horrified to find out that what had been going on was more than even the most rabidly anti-Nazi propagandist had been able to create. The Final Solution was simply unimaginable … until then.

  3. Ymarsakar Says:

    A lot of people prefer to think their masters in their social hierarchy are humans, not evil, so would never do such things.

    And since that is the case, all that needs to be done is trust in the Master and forget about all this stuff that a person can’t handle.

    Lacking a source that can be trusted (including their own brains at times) aids in this closing off of the heart and soul.

    The mind wouldn’t be closed off if it weren’t for the heart and soul

  4. Charles Says:

    Patrick-who-is-Hector and Sgt Mom;

    Yes, I was going to say the same thing. I remember several years ago when I first read about the WWI propaganda that the British spread; and so much of it was some of the same stories that came out of WWII, the only difference is that during WWII so much of it was real.

    Too much like Aesop’s fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

    Even in elementary school when we first read about the Nazi’s just marching civilians to the gas chambers, I and several of my classmates just couldn’t believe that people went “willingly.” How could you not fight back? If they are going to kill you anyway why not go out with a fight we thought.

    So, I really don’t blame most folks for not believing the horrors until given “proof.”

  5. kit Says:

    I am very late to comment but what happened to the Jews and others at the hands of hitler and the Germans haunts me. It happened before i was born but I was so horrified when i learned about it. I dont know what the world knew but i know the German people knew what they were doing to the Jews, their fellow citizens. Germans were turning Jews over to the SS. They saw them led off on trains and then they never saw them again. They saw the smoke from the ovens and they did nothing to save them. They knew they were being systematically slaughtered.
    Italians were told to round up the Italian Jews and hand them over to Germany but, they, for the most part, did not comply. Germans as a whole did comply….. willingly.
    I don’t know how old Germans can live with that evil history and how younger Germans deal with it.

    And is it happening again? Europe is still anti-Jew. Why are they so accepting of the muslims and sharia at the risk of their own lives, freedom and liberty and so anti Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East. I dont understand. Is being anti Israel a cloacked way to be antisemtic? They are appeasing muslims the way England appeased Germany.
    And this time, not only the Jews, but Christians and all non Muslims will be fodder for the final solution.
    They told us what they mean to do to us, are we going to our deaths as “willingly” as stated by another commneter, as the Jews.
    I am so confused and sad.

  6. neo-neocon Says:


    Please read this post, on resisting the Nazis. I call your attention to this passage, but I think you should most definitely read the whole thing:

    In looking at the idea of whether successful nonviolent resistance to some of the Nazis’ harshest edicts was possible, one must always remember this differential treatment of occupied countries. What was successful in one place could never have been so in another. Just as Gandhi’s success depended on the fact that he was facing the relatively humane British, so it was that the brutality of the Nazi occupation in one country wasn’t the same as the Nazi occupation in another. Different policies allowed differential responses, such as, for example, the ability of the relatively autonomous and respected Danes to evacuate and thus rescue their relatively small Jewish population.

    The Nazis were well aware of the possibility of resistance and the need for a cooperative captive populace. That’s one of the reasons they thought it best to disguise and keep quiet the scope of their genocide. They feared a public backlash against it, even (or perhaps especially) in Germany.

    The Nazi racial laws that singled out the Jews for special persecution started slowly in Germany during the early 30s, increasing the Jews’ isolation from the general public over the years and culminating, as we know, in the Final Solution. There’s a great deal of controversy over how much the German people actually knew about the true nature and extent of the death camps. But certainly extreme persecution of the Jews of Germany and elsewhere was common knowledge, as was their deportation to parts unknown, never to be heard from again. So even if the German people didn’t know everything, they knew a great deal.

    Some of those “parts unknown” were in concentration camps in Germany itself, such as Dachau and Mathausan-Gusen. So the Germans in the surrounding area clearly knew about these camps. However, the term “concentration camp” is so familiar that most people do not realize that it’s a general term covering two horrific but somewhat different types of institution: the labor camp and the death camp. The camps in Germany were labor camps.

    Although conditions in labor camps were dreadful, and death was a common and expected occurrence in them, the main purpose of these camps was not to exterminate directly, but rather to harshly extract the full measure of hard labor out of the inmates with the least cost. If they happened to die from the conditions there, then so be it—and die they did, in droves. The death camps, however, existed solely for the purpose of efficiently killing virtually all their inmates shortly after arrival.

    A related distinction is also not ordinarily understood: none of the death camps was located in Germany. Rather, all six were in Poland. Why was this? Poland had a large Jewish population, and therefore the camps were located near the source and less transport would be needed. But it seems that the Nazi leadership may also have wanted to protect the German population from exact and precise knowledge of what was happening, by placing the death camps far away. Perhaps they didn’t have full confidence that their own populace would support outright extermination if it came to know, unequivocally and undeniably, that this was what was actually happening.

    In order to accomplish the task of genocide, especially the all-important initial action of rounding up the Jewish population, the cooperation of the local non-Jewish population was a requirement for success. And, as the example of the Danes shows, that cooperation was not always a given. So it would be best to keep the final destination as quiet as possible, to reduce the probability of protest.

    It didn’t always work. In addition to the Danes, the Bulgarians were able to defy the Germans and save their Jews. The Bulgarians were even more autonomous than the Danes (in fact, they were unoccupied German allies). They saved their Jews through a combination of church leadership and the fact that anti-Semitism had never really taken much hold there. The Nazis didn’t want to strong-arm the citizens of countries such as Denmark and Bulgaria, who were not considered enemies, into giving up their Jews. They were willing to wait and concentrate on places such as France where it was much easier to get public cooperation for the roundup of their prey. Later, they thought, they’d tie up loose ends in other places.

    Please also read this, as well as this. Also, see this.

    As for Europe now, it is quite a leftist place, and very PC (at least, a lot of people are). Muslims are defined as underprivileged, third world people, and Jews as privileged, traditionally hated, first-world people. Therefore the first group is more favored than the second, and propaganda against Israel continues apace. However, there is also a backlash against Muslims in Europe by a subset of the European population. Jews are so uncommon in Europe now that Muslims way outnumber them (Hitler didn’t entirely succeed in making Europe Judenfrei, but he effectively did).

    As for your confusion, I think this post might go a long way towards clearing it up. An excerpt:

    …I think the desire [of Europeans] is to prove the Jews to be as guilty as the Europeans were, and thus to absolve the Europeans of guilt for participating in and cooperating with the Holocaust in such great numbers. And if the Jews and/or Israelis should happen to disappear as a side-effect of the present-day attitude of the Europeans, then so be it.

    This can be seen in the eagerness with which explicit and frequent comparisons are made between Jews–especially Israelis–and Nazis. And, in a separate but related phenomenon, I think it’s at least partly behind the comparison of Bush to Hitler. If the Israelis/Jews (and American Presidents) are as bad as the Nazis and their European collaborators, this serves a double function: first, it norms Europe’s behavior during WWII (“see, there’s nothing special about the guilt of Europeans, move along now”); and second, it can even be seen as justifying the Holocaust, as well (“Jews are evil, so it was okay for us to cooperate in attempting to destroy them”).

    Anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism not only both have a long history in Europe (the first phenomenon is an ancient one; the second has existed for centuries), but they both have a more recent function, and that it is to deflect and sooth European guilt.

  7. kit Says:

    thank you, Neo for your time, expertise and patience. I have read the entire posts very carefully and will continue to read everything you write about this. It is complicated but you have, indeed, helped my confusion. THANK YOU!

  8. John F. MacMichael Says:

    Charles (Oct. 5, 9:25 PM), when people talk about the Jews “willingly” walking into the gas chambers, they forget that those who were to be gassed were told that they were about to given showers and deloused as a disease control measure before they were put into the camp population. Then, once they had stripped and entered “the shower room” they were sprayed with Zyklon-B rather than water.

    One wonders if the person/s who came up with that horribly effective way of herding a myriad victims to their death was ever identified?

  9. John F. MacMichael Says:

    Another factor to keep in mind here is that even people who clearly saw the evil of the Nazis at the time had difficulty realizing the sheer magnitude of that evil.

    A short story by Stephen Vincent Benet (best remembered now as the author of “The Devil and Daniel Webster”) illustrates this. It is titled “Into Egypt” and was copyrighted in 1939. It is set at the border of a country, unnamed but obviously Germany. The view point character is a newly minted young army lieutenant given charge of a minor crossing point. Eager to do his duty to his State and his Leader, he is a very minor cog in the machinery of the great operation to cleanse the homeland of the “Accursed People” (the Jews). They are to be expelled, all of them, in three days with no more than they can carry.

    “Even the concentration camps had been swept clean, for this
    thing was to be final. After it, the State could say “How fearless
    we are we let even known conspirators depart. ‘ It is true that,
    in the case of those in the concentration camps, there had been a
    preliminary rectification a weeding, so to speak. But the news
    of that would not be officially published for some time and the
    numbers could always be disputed. If you kill a few people, they
    remain persons with names and identities, but, if you kill in the
    hundreds, there is simply a number for most of those who read
    the newspapers. And, once you start arguing about numbers, you
    begin to wonder if the thing ever happened at all. This too had
    been foreseen.”

    That line “And, once you start arguing about numbers, you begin to wonder if the thing ever happened at all.” is chillingly prophetic.

    Benet clearly regards what he describes as an atrocity and a horror but when we compare it to what actually happened we see how horribly reality outstriped the writer’s imagination.

  10. neo-neocon Says:


    You’re welcome!

  11. Monday afternoon round-up and Open Thread Says:

    […] about the totalitarian instincts inherent in socialism.  Neo-Neocon has a fascinating excerpt from Koestler’s Cassandra-like lament about the Nazis — and the blind eye that the rest of the world turned to acts too horrible […]

  12. Callmelennie Says:

    One other thing to understand about the labor camps in Germany. They were not always the scenes of unimaginable horror and squalor that assaulted the senses of the Allied liberators. Before 1945, they were fairly orderly places; brutal to be sure, but orderly.

    The Germans had a dire need for unpaid forced labor, so they had an interest in keeping the inmates from starving and falling ill, just as a mule skinner would have an interest in keeping his mules healthy.

    But, starting with the Soviet invasion into Germany in January 1945, the whole thing, along with the Third Reich, began to fall apart. Inmates from camps in the east were forced-marched westward, which overcrowded the remaining camps. The food and medicine distribution system collapsed, or these items were diverted to the regular German people.

    In short order, epidemics began to to break out among the overcrowded sickly inmates. To add to the horror, as the Allies drew ever nearer, SS guards began mass murdering remaining inmates to remove any witnesses to their cruelty. And the result was an un-Godly horror that was not representative of what these camps had been. So you can’t point to this obvious squalor and say “How could the Germans no know of these horrors; you could smell these things from miles away.”

    But in another sense, seeing as how the Third Reich had removed all evidence of the majority of the death camps and the mass shooting pits in Russia, it is fitting that these atypical work camp scenes at the end of the war be used to represent the Holocaust — because they do convey the enormity of it.

  13. neo-neocon Says:


    Most people don’t even understand that there was a difference between labor camps and death camps and lump them all together. I discuss the distinction between the two at length here.

    However, the Germans’ interest in keeping laborers alive was not all that great. After all, they could easily replace them with new slave labor. The death rate at labor camps was nothing like at extermination camps, of course, but it was high.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


Ace (bold)
AmericanDigest (writer’s digest)
AmericanThinker (thought full)
Anchoress (first things first)
AnnAlthouse (more than law)
AtlasShrugs (fearless)
AugeanStables (historian’s task)
Baldilocks (outspoken)
Barcepundit (theBrainInSpain)
Beldar (Texas lawman)
BelmontClub (deep thoughts)
Betsy’sPage (teach)
Bookworm (writingReader)
Breitbart (big)
ChicagoBoyz (boyz will be)
Contentions (CommentaryBlog)
DanielInVenezuela (against tyranny)
DeanEsmay (conservative liberal)
Donklephant (political chimera)
Dr.Helen (rights of man)
Dr.Sanity (thinking shrink)
DreamsToLightening (Asher)
EdDriscoll (market liberal)
Fausta’sBlog (opinionated)
GayPatriot (self-explanatory)
HadEnoughTherapy? (yep)
HotAir (a roomful)
InFromTheCold (once a spook)
InstaPundit (the hub)
JawaReport (the doctor is Rusty)
LegalInsurrection (law prof)
RedState (conservative)
Maggie’sFarm (centrist commune)
MelaniePhillips (formidable)
MerylYourish (centrist)
MichaelTotten (globetrotter)
MichaelYon (War Zones)
Michelle Malkin (clarion pen)
Michelle Obama's Mirror (reflections)
MudvilleGazette (milblog central)
NoPasaran! (behind French facade)
NormanGeras (principled leftist)
OneCosmos (Gagdad Bob’s blog)
PJMedia (comprehensive)
PointOfNoReturn (Jewish refugees)
Powerline (foursight)
ProteinWisdom (wiseguy)
QandO (neolibertarian)
RachelLucas (in Italy)
RogerL.Simon (PJ guy)
SecondDraft (be the judge)
SeekerBlog (inquiring minds)
SisterToldjah (she said)
Sisu (commentary plus cats)
Spengler (Goldman)
TheDoctorIsIn (indeed)
Tigerhawk (eclectic talk)
VictorDavisHanson (prof)
Vodkapundit (drinker-thinker)
Volokh (lawblog)
Zombie (alive)

Regent Badge