Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Inevitability of Fate

Sights, sounds and stenches horrible beyond belief,
cruelties so enormous as to be incomprehensible to the normal mind.
- Colonel William W. Quinn, referring to Dachau in April 1945
Recently I visited the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London.  The exhibition traces the rise of National Socialism and Nazism from 1933, when Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, and the subsequent persecution and murder of European Jews until to the liberation of the concentration camps by the Allied and Soviet forces in 1945. Using photographs, documents, newspapers, scale models, military footage, personal testimonials and various objects confiscated at the camps (clothes, toys, shoes etc), the exhibition graphically demonstrates precisely how Hitler planned to implement his “annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe” policy.
As you can imagine, the exhibition is really very harrowing and disturbing. It remains with you long after exiting the museum doors.
For me, one of the most upsetting aspects was the realisation that all the people who had the terrible misfortune to get caught up in this horrendous chapter of history were in fact normal everyday folk who could have easily been my next door neighbour, my grocer or hairdresser; my cousin, brother or parents.
And, perhaps even more horrifying, was the dawning awareness that not only were the victims of the Holocaust normal everyday folk but so were many (not ‘all’!) of the perpetrators. A lot of the prison guards, low-grade political activists, train drivers, press reporters and many others were previously living normal, everyday lives. For me, it is a horrifying thought that seemingly most anyone can be turned from an upright citizen into a criminal monster given the appropriate external stimulus. It is a form of vanity, I think, to believe that we personally might be immune to such influences and would have therefore behaved differently.
The controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich explored the mechanisms of how this might occur in his 1933 book ‘The Mass Psychology of Fascism’. Needless to say this book was quickly banned by the Nazis and Reich, realising the danger he was in, fled Germany for Austria and later to the United States (where, ironically, in 1956 he had his scientific laboratory equipment destroyed and his writings burnt in a New York incinerator by the FDA. Reich subsequently died in a US prison).
In one of his TV specials, The Assassin’ (2011), the eccentric and multi-talented English ‘mentalist’ Darren Brown reveals how a previously upstanding member of society with no criminal history could be “conditioned” and “programmed” to assassinate Stephen Fry, whilst Fry performed live on stage. Brown used various “brainwashing” techniques to accomplish this, including Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), hypnosis, aural and visual repetition and a host of other methods – each of which he describes in detail as he carries them out. In another special, The Heist’ (2006), Brown uses these and similar techniques to attempt to manipulate a number of individuals into holding up a security van in broad daylight. After receiving the conditioning three of them proceeded to rob the van of their own accord, voluntarily.
This is an important point, it seems to me. Although the robbery was carried out as a result of their brainwashing – they would not have considered doing such a thing beforehand; the “tendency” or “urge” to act thus having been artificially implanted into their mind – the actual act of committing the robbery was their own choice and not because of any directly given third-party instructions.
As well as being good TV entertainment, Brown’s programmes are often thoughtful and educational. In these particular instances they are also a bit scary because of the potential implications.
All of this brings to mind the now infamous Milgram Experiment carried out at Yale University during the early 1960s, with detailed findings published in 1974. This experiment was designed to observe how everyday folk respond to authority figures. It was specifically motivated to try and understand some of the psychological mechanisms at play within the perpetrators of the Holocaust. The experiment found that 65% of people were willing to administer (what they believed to be) a lethal electric shock to another person, if given an instruction to do so by an authority figure.
Scary stuff.
As I write these words, I am at Rose Borchovski’s deeply moving ‘The Inevitability of Fate’ exhibition in Second Life, after having just re-watched Tutsy Navarathna’s latest machinima of the same name (embedded below).
Rose’s installation addresses some of the same issues as the IWM’s Holocaust exhibition but in a narrative form.
The installation tells the story of Angry Beth and Lot.
Until Lot turned eight years old, everything was happy in their lives. However, when war came everything changed. Lot and Beth were forced to leave their home and became separated from each other. After a long, bitter war Beth returned home but Lot did not.
Beth forever searches for Lot. She has good days and bad days. On the good days, Beth imagines she is flying like a bird, face turned skyward; on her bad days, she knows only anger at her loss.
Beth’s wounds will never heal; Lot was never given the opportunity to become who she was meant to be.
It is a terrifically emotional installation made possible by a combination of the back story, the visual components of the narrative and especially the incredible sound loops that play constantly in the background.
These sounds are tremendously good, frequently giving me shivers and one particularly – the “I miss…” sound loop – bringing me close to tears.
It is beautiful work by an accomplished and experienced artist.
It was fitting therefore that an equally accomplished and experienced artist should decide to make a machinima of Rose’s installation. Tutsy’s film of Rose’s work uses many of the visual and aural elements from the installation itself, plus he brings his own unique flourishes and style to the work.
The IWM’s Holocaust exhibition, Rose’s installation and Tutsy’s machinima all tackle the same highly charged subject matter in their own particular way – and each have added to my appreciation of what happened during those dark days in Europe. Dark days, it should be emphasised, which were *not* at some distant point in history, but within living memory of some of my own family members.
I feel sadness right now. A deep sadness for what happened then and an almost prescient expectation that something similar may happen again, perhaps even within my own lifetime.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.


  1. Oh Dear ! Thank you for this text, puts the finger once more on our psychological fragility, and the associated risks.
    as you so rightly say !
    "it is a horrifying thought that seemingly most anyone can be turned from an upright citizen into a criminal monster given the appropriate external stimulus. It is a form of vanity, I think, to believe that we personally might be immune to such influences and would have therefore behaved differently."

  2. Thank you Pixie for this Post , Rose x