Learning the locusts’ lesson

We depend on insects for our existence, yet we abuse them casually.

Some years ago, at a time in my life when I was close to unemployable, a friend wangled me a job at Zoology Field Station No 3 (Insect Breeding), which, in spite of its grand title, was a series of small, almost ramshackle wooden huts and a couple of old glasshouses on a tiny plot of land just off Huntingdon Road in Cambridge.

My task there was simple: I grew plants to feed to the locusts and tobacco moths, I carried buckets of food mush into the cockroach house and scattered it across the concrete floor and I vacuumed the glass cases where the various insect tribes lived and died, and, in ways that never ceased to fascinate me, transformed themselves from one form into another. The locusts were my favourites: they would fasten themselves, upside down, to the side of the case, then gradually slip free of their old skin, leaving behind a perfect, if slightly shrunken image of the shining new body that had emerged. It was an astonishingly beautiful process and I would often take my lunch in the locust room so I could watch it happen, over and over, the new form emerging from the old, the massive continuum of transformation that is the essence of what we call nature, occurring before my eyes in one emblematic instance, endlessly repeated, yet always individual in the fine detail.

It is common knowledge, now, that we depend on insects for our continued existence; that, without key pollinators, the human population would collapse in less than a decade. Yet there is no other life form on the planet that we abuse so casually, as the current neonicotinoid controversy shows. In serious matters, our duty is to err on the side of caution – a policy that goes undisputed when the ecology of Wall Street or the City of London is in apparent jeopardy – but when it comes to safeguarding bees, all manner of folk, from government departments to the National Farmers Union, are now up in arms about the proposed ban.

Meanwhile, all over the country, garden centres and hardware stores are stocking their shelves for the summer with a wide variety of poisons, so their untrained and unconcerned customers can eliminate any variety of insect life that might cause them the least annoyance.

In response to the introduction of agricultural DDT in 1945, the great entomologist and popular science writer Edwin Way Teale said, “A spray as indiscriminate as DDT can upset the economy of nature as much as a revolution upsets social economy. Ninety per cent of all insects are good and if they are killed, things go out of kilter right away.”

When Teale uses the word “good” here, he is speaking from a human point of view. There is no good or bad in nature, which is the great lesson that careful attention to insect life teaches us – and nobody paid closer attention to insects than Teale. He saw how essential even the most common or, to human eyes, annoying bugs are to the economy of nature but he also understood that the lessons they teach us can be subtly philosophical, even spiritual.

“In nature, there is less death and destruction than death and transmutation,” he said – and, as I munched on my cheese and pickle sandwiches in the locust room at Field Station No 3 almost three decades ago, I was subtly, perhaps even subliminally, learning the truth of that saying.

As they move from phase to phase of their life cycles or shrug off an old skin to emerge brightly reborn in the summer light, insects remind us that life’s changes, life’s transmutations, are subtler and more varied than we think – and that our ordinary narratives of profit and loss are rather tawdry compared to the generational play of the butterfly, which in ancient Greece (lest we forget) was synonymous with the soul. 

There is no good or bad in nature. Photograph: Laura Letinsky/Gallerystock
ZACHARIE SCHEURER/NURPHOTO/ZUMAPRESS
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What can a new book of Holocaust testimony tell us about the Third Reich?

Laurence Rees has probably interviewed more people who lived through the Holocaust than anybody else.

“The first authoritative and accessible account of the Holocaust in three decades”, proclaims the publisher’s blurb about this book. But wasn’t Saul Friedländer’s prizewinning classic Nazi Germany and the Jews (in two volumes, in 1997 and 2007) authoritative and accessible? Perhaps the publishers think that Final Solution, the thousand-page epic published posthumously less than a year ago by the late, highly readable historian David Cesarani, wasn’t authoritative? Or maybe Peter Longerich’s Holocaust (2010), which nobody could reasonably say wasn’t authoritative, in some way wasn’t accessible?

These are not the only serious and approachable accounts of the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews between 1939 and 1945. The Holocaust is one of the most intensively studied subjects in history and the publishers are misleading potential readers when they imply that somehow it isn’t.

What new insights and material does Laurence Rees bring to the table? Rees made his name in the 1990s as a television producer, making numerous outstanding programmes. He was editor of Timewatch, the BBC’s flagship series of historical documentaries, and then became head of history at the BBC while continuing to produce his own programmes, including The Nazis: a Warning from History (1997) and Auschwitz: the Nazis and the Final Solution (2005). These and other programmes were notable for their depth of research, their accuracy and their awareness of the latest thinking by specialists on the topics they covered. Rees has won numerous accolades for his work, including a Bafta and two Emmys. He has done more than anyone else to raise the standard of historical documentaries and to spread to a wide audience in a gripping fashion the findings of academic research, above all on the Nazis.

But he grew dissatisfied with television’s insatiable demand for new methods and perspectives. In 2008, he resigned from the BBC to set up a multimedia website about the Second World War, although he returned to television work with his independent company, with programmes such as The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler and Touched by Auschwitz. One hopes that he will continue making documentaries for many more years.

Rees has accompanied a number of his television documentaries with products of an even more traditional character: books. Auschwitz: the Nazis and the “Final Solution” (2005), a tie-in with his television series of the same name, became a bestseller. Like his others books, The Holocaust reads rather like a television programme put down on paper in an expanded but, in essence, unaltered form. The text is a kind of voice-over, written in plain and simple language that often verges on banality.

Television documentaries depend above all on visual images. The room they leave for spoken words is very limited; hence the need for simplicity and concision. However, a book of more than 500 pages demands a different kind of approach – the employment of stylistic grace of the sort that one finds in Friedländer’s magnificent volumes – and it is notable by its absence here.

Among Rees’s great virtues as a producer of documentaries about the Nazis were the assiduity and ingenuity that he displayed in searching out eyewitnesses and persuading them to speak to the recording camera. Often their testimony was gripping, moving and disturbing. Who can forget the blank denial of an elderly German woman confronted by Rees’s team with a denunciation that she had written to the Nazi authorities at the age of 20, reporting the “suspicious behaviour” of a neighbour who failed to give the Nazi salute and seemed to have a Jewish friend? The Gestapo always investigated letters such as this, and all too frequently the story ended with the arrest of the person denounced and their imprisonment and even death.

Over the years, Rees has probably interviewed more people who lived through the Third Reich than anybody else. For the television series he produced, hundreds of interviews had to be boiled down to a few fairly short excerpts. In The Holocaust: A New History, he presents a further, much more generous selection, marking it as “previously unpublished testimony”. Thus the book reproduces the documentary format of interviews linked by commentary.

Much of this testimony presents detailed evidence of the sufferings of the victims of Nazi anti-Semitism across Europe. Rees quotes at length an interview with a Frenchwoman who was taken with her family at the age of nine by French police as part of a round-up of Parisian Jews in 1942. They were kept in appalling conditions at a holding camp in Beaune-la-Rolande, south of Paris, and then their mothers were taken away, to be murdered at Auschwitz, although the children did not know their fate.

Among the graphic details supplied in the narrative, the interviewee describes how suddenly the children went to the camp latrine, and said, “Oh, come look, come look” – at the bottom, mixed with the excrement, there were many brilliant, shiny things. They were wedding rings that the mothers, having been told to surrender all their jewellery, had preferred to throw away rather than give up. Her father, who was away at the time of the raids, eventually succeeded in using bribery to free the girl.

At a Nazi death camp, one former prisoner interviewed by Rees had escaped immediate gassing by following the cryptic advice of one of the inmates: “Say you’re a carpenter.” He quickly learned the trade on the job and describes how when the women arriving at the camp had their heads shaved, they “gained hope, for if they are going to have their hair cut, it means there is going to be some life after . . . for hygiene is necessary in a camp”.

The interviewees provide vivid descriptions of the horror of the evacuation of the camps as the Red Army approached, with the SS shooting anyone on the “death marches” who failed to keep up. One interviewee, whose job was to sort the clothes of murdered Jews, remembered: “When I marched out of the camp . . . I was very well dressed. I had a Russian hat, a fur hat, with a heavy coat, and good shoes. And the only thing is, I don’t know what made me do it, but I had my pockets full of lumps of sugar. Why I did it, I don’t know – other people took meat. The sugar and the snow [mixed together], I survived because of that.” Often Rees’s subjects evoke the state of mind they were in at the time, ranging from dull despair to terror, while those forced to help the SS suppressed their feelings in order to survive.

All of this is effective and often it is powerful. The question to ask, however, is whether relying so heavily on such testimonies is the right way to go about putting together a book, as opposed to a television series, on the Holocaust. There is no denying that the interview material on which Rees focuses is largely compelling, always illuminating and on occasion very moving, and Rees and his team clearly took great care to sift it for inaccuracies. Taken as a whole, it adds considerably to the detailed picture we already have of the Nazi persecution and extermination of the Jews. Still, it gives the book a rather partial character. This is not a complete history of the Holocaust and much of the most compelling evidence is left out because we have read it somewhere before.

Rees does incorporate written material in some quantity but he nonetheless privileges his interview material because, as he argues, when you talk to the people who lived through it, the history still lives. That is the view of the television producer; for a historian who spends almost all of his or her time ploughing through mountains of documents, history lives through the written word far more than it lives through interviews, because the written word can have the immediacy that comes from being contemporary, rather than being passed through the sieve of decades-old memory.

In its narrative structure, this is a fairly conventional chronological account of Nazi anti-Semitism. The first eight of the book’s 18 chapters describe the origins and spread of anti-Semitism in Germany and its consequences in practice once the Nazis assumed power. It is noticeable here that there is an overwhelming focus on Hitler, who is portrayed as almost the sole driving force in the Nazi persecution of the Jews. It’s a pity that Rees didn’t devote more attention to other leading anti-Semites in the Nazi leadership, from Goebbels to Alfred Rosenberg, or to the question, much debated and researched in recent years, of how far and in what way the Nazis’ hatred of Jews was shared by the bulk of the German population.

Persecution slid into murder in a process that Rees correctly portrays as occurring in stages and linked to Nazi plans for the creation of a new racial order in Europe that involved the murder by starvation and unchecked disease of millions of “Slavs”, “Gypsies” and other supposed racial undesirables. At this point, Hitler becomes much less prominent in the narrative, in a way that is surprising given his centrality in the first half of the book. Perhaps this is inevitable, in the light of Rees’s admirable determination to range across the whole of Nazi-dominated Europe, taking in the persecution and murder of Jews from Belgium to Belarus, but it again throws into relief his relatively narrow focus on Hitler earlier on.

The late David Cesarani deliberately extended his narrative of what the Nazis called the “final solution of the Jewish problem in Europe” – a “problem” that was entirely of their own making and a “solution” that was a euphemism for brutal, unrelenting extermination – beyond the end of the war, up to 1949, because, he argued, the suffering of the Jews did not end with the collapse of the Third Reich but continued in displaced persons’ camps and in what remained of Jewish communities in Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe. Rees stops abruptly in 1945, however, and we don’t learn enough about what came after.

This isn’t, therefore, the best book about the Holocaust, nor is it the first authoritative and readable account in decades, but it does add to the mass of testimony and evidence accumulated by other historians. Like all of Rees’s work, it is accurate and carefully researched, and the combination of a clear, simple style and powerful transcripts will ensure it a wide readership.

Ironically, in view of the scepticism that led its author to abandon his job in television because he thought that the future lay with the World Wide Web, it is perhaps a history not for the internet but for the television age.

Richard J Evans’s books include “The Third Reich in History and Memory” (Abacus) and “The Pursuit of Power: Europe, 1815-1914” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge