[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.]