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  1. The Weekend Essay
30 March 2024

Garden variety Nazis

The Zone of Interest unearths the horticultural roots of the Shoah.

By Gavin Jacobson

In a series of letters written between 1771 and 1773, Jean-Jacques Rousseau warned his friend, Madame Étienne Delessert, against the practice of horticulture. Commonly thought of as a philosopher, Rousseau’s abiding interests were music and, especially in the declining years of his life, botany. If the study of plants was respectable and salutary, the landscaping of gardens, he thought, where the imprint of the gardener’s hand deforms nature, was a grotesque enterprise performed by monsters. Tutoring Mme Delessert on how to observe spring flowers, the philosopher-botanist wrote:

To the extent that you will find them double, do not occupy yourself with their examination; they will be disfigured, or if you want, adorned according to our fashion, nature will not find herself in them anymore: she refuses to reproduce by monsters thus mutilated; because if the most brilliant part, that is, the corolla, multiplies itself, it is at the expense of the most essential parts, which disappeared under this brilliance. Take then a simple Wallflower, and proceed to the analysis of its flower.

The monsters in Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, Rudolf Höss and his wife Hedwig, are gardeners, and large parts of the film take place in their manicured patch next to Auschwitz. After his arrest in 1946, the commandant of the camp described the grounds of the family home as his wife’s “flower paradise”, and there is a scene in the film in which Hedwig gives her mother a tour, naming each plant and vegetable as they amble across a space of rigid utilitarian design that Rousseau would have considered a horticultural monstrosity, with fixed pathways, planted greenery, sharply demarcated lawns, a large green house, and symmetrical flowerbeds tended by camp prisoners. It has something of the “sublime uniformity” described in Jim Craces eden (2022), his novel in which the Garden of Eden after the expulsion of Adam and Eve becomes a labour camp where “Order is the order of the day”.

Paradise may have been lost in Eden, but for Rousseau, the wild and rustic garden was also the place where innocence might be regained. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La transparence et l’obstacle (1957), his masterpiece on the life and work of the Genevan, Jean Starobinski writes that “Plants, symbols of nature’s purity, purify Jean-Jacques; it is as though plants possessed the magic power to bestow their innocence on the person contemplating them”.

Is this why, in one of Zone’s early scenes, Hedwig holds her and Höss’s baby up to the flowers, hoping that the roses and dahlias will protect her from the unspeakable sins being committed beyond the wall? For the whole family and their staff, whose lives unfold to an abominable soundtrack – the low thrum of furnaces, the belching of smokestacks, the “crack crack” of gunfire, the steam whistle of the next transport, the screams of parents violently separated from their children – the garden is where they retreat, not to shut out the atrocities but to search for a lost and irretrievable innocence.

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By focusing on life in the garden, Zone emphasises the horticultural imagery of Nazism, and of the colonial mind more generally. Before it became the capital of industrialised murder, Auschwitz was originally conceived as a project to impose order on nature, through which Jews and other undesirables to the Nazi regime would be worked to death. During a visit to the camp in March 1941, Himmler ordered Höss “to put the prisoners to work on the largest possible projects of agricultural improvement and thereby make the entire marsh and floodplain area of the Vistula productive”. The Italian writer Primo Levi, who was an inmate of the camp between February 1944 and the end of January 1945, later described Auschwitz as “the ultimate drainage point of the German universe”. As David Blackbourn notes in The Conquest Of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany (2006), Levi had “thought himself into the heads of his persecutors, for whom drainage was both metaphor and reality”.

Writing at the end of the 1980s, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argued that the Holocaust was “a by-product of the modern drive to a fully designed, fully controlled world”. His contention was that at some point in the early 20th-century, the metaphor associated with social management shifted from the game keeper – who let society reproduce itself – to the gardener, who is “armed with a detailed design of the lawn, of the borders and…[seized] with the determination to treat as weeds every self-invited plant which interferes with his plan and his vision of order and harmony”.

It was Richard Walther Darré, an agronomist and founder of the SS’s central office for race and colonisation in 1931, who made farming and gardening the deadly metaphors that were central to the way Germans in the 1930s and 1940s thought about the genocidal expansion of the Reich.

In Neuadel aus Blut und Boden (1930), in which he advocated for a systemic eugenics programme, Darré wrote that, “Those who leave garden plants to their own devices, will see, to their great dismay, that it will not be long before all the plants are overrun by weeds.” Germans needed to pursue “the creative and deliberate action of the gardener who encourages […] that which should be encouraged and roots out that which should be rooted out.” Like good Nazis, living under a system where the distinction between metaphor and reality has collapsed, Rudolf and Hedwig spend their working days, one in the camp, the other at home, digging out weeds (“all these weeds here,” Hedwig complains), all the while clinging to their postwar dreams of becoming farmers and making the barren and untenanted steppes of the East bloom.

Given all of the commentary about The Zone of Interest against the backdrop of Israel’s assault on Gaza, as well as Glazer’s divisive Oscar’s speech, it is hard to ignore the horticultural parallels between the language I’ve described here and the strategy of “mowing the lawn” or “mowing the grass”, the informal term the IDF has historically used to describe its counter-terrorism doctrine in Gaza. Writing for the Jerusalem Post in 2021, David M. Weinberg of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security said, “Just like mowing your front lawn”, military action in Gaza “is constant, hard work. If you fail to do so, weeds grow wild and snakes begin to slither around in the brush”.

Glazer’s film is an artistic triumph precisely because it avoids the usual impulses to abuse the white-hot material on which it is based. In 1979, Primo Levi reviewed the highly successful TV miniseries Holocaust. The screenwriters, Levi thought, “had a sense of balance and didn’t give in to the temptations of the macabre, the base, the shocking, although it’s well-known that what’s shocking ‘pays’”. A visible effort had been made “not to lapse into stereotypes, to provide characters with individuality”. Zone can be credited with same virtues. Indeed, Zone is “a treatment of the Holocaust like no other” for the reason that it encapsulates the intellectual and moral sensibility of inmate number 174517, Auschwitz’s most lucid witness. For Toni Morrison:

Long after his eleven months in what he calls the Lager (Auschwitz III), as a survivor, Primo Levi understands evil as not only banal but unworthy of our insight – even of our intelligence, for it reveals nothing interesting or compelling about itself. It has merely size to solicit our attention and an alien stench to repel or impress us. For this articulate survivor, individual identity is supreme; efforts to drown identity inevitably become futile.

The Zone of Interest, like Levi’s writings, refuses “to place cruel and witless slaughter on a pedestal of fascination”, but instead centres on the bourgeois conventionality displayed by the Höss family. Rudolf was “not a bloodthirsty sadist, or a fanatic full of hatred,” Levi wrote in La Stampa in 1959, “but an empty man, a tranquil and diligent idiot who endeavoured to carry out as carefully as possible the bestial initiatives entrusted to him, and in this obedience he seems to find every doubt or worry put to rest. It seems to me that the facts of Auschwitz can be interpreted only in this manner – that is, as the insanity of a few men and the stupid and vile consent of many”.

Years later, in 1985, Levi wrote the forward to the Italian edition of Commandant of Auschwitz: The Autobiography of Rudolf Höss, a memoir, he asserted, not of a monster, but of a garden variety bourgeois-turned-Nazi, someone who, had he grown up in a different environment, “would have become a gray, ordinary civil servant, dutiful and order-loving – at most a careerist with modest ambitions”. In the same essay, Levi reflected on the question that survivors of the death camps asked in the years after their liberation in 1945:

Who were ‘those on the other side,’ what were they like?… This book gives a clear answer to this question. It shows how easy it is for goodness to yield to evil, first besieged and then submerged by it, while surviving in grotesque little islands: a normal family life, love of nature, a Victorian morality… Höss was one of the worst criminals ever, but he was made of the same substance as any bourgeois from any country.

In pointing to the unsettling ordinariness of those who planned and administered the Shoah, Levi (and Glazer) unconsciously channelled the ideas of the great inquisitor of fascism, Theodor Adorno, who showed how the potential for barbarism was not at the periphery of life but at the very heart of the modern experience. Whereas Rousseau saw the garden as a place in which innocence could be regained, and George Orwell, for example, thought of it as a place of greater safety from fascism and war, Adorno considered the garden a redoubt of fascist potential. As he put it in Minima Moralia (1951):

Privacy has given way entirely to the privation it always secretly was, and with the stubborn adherence to particular interests is now mingled fury at being no longer able to perceive that things might be different and better. In losing their innocence, the bourgeois have become impenitently malign. The caring hand that even now tends the little garden as if it had not long since become a ‘lot’, but fearfully wards off the unknown intruder, is already that which denies the political refugee asylum. Now objectively threatened, the subjectivity of the rulers and their hangers-on becomes totally inhuman. So the class realises itself, taking upon itself the destructive will of the course of the world. The bourgeois live on like spectres threatening doom.

“Honestly, to have all this…” Hedwig’s mother tells her daughter, as they gaze out across the garden fertilised by the ashes from the crematorium. “You have really landed on your feet, my child”. “The linden trees are turning yellow. It smelled so nice when they were flowering,” Hedwig replies. A gunshot rings out in the distance. A dog barks. “This will grow and cover everything,” she continues, pointing up to the vines winding themselves around the exposed beams of the pergola. “You’ll see next time you visit”. The camera then cuts between the blooms – marigolds, sunflowers and roses – before finally settling on a hibiscus. As the sound of shrieks increasingly disturbs the tranquillity of their flower paradise, its deep red colour bleeds outwards, engulfing the screen.

[See also: What Christopher Nolan got wrong about Oppenheimer]

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