Book Review | I You We Them: Journeys Beyond Evil

Dan Gretton’s magisterial work looks at corporate collusion with the Holocaust, how white-collar workers at desks in well-lit offices commit evil, and how ‘violence bleeds from paper’.

Oh, how we flinch from reality.

An apparently noble person, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, denied the ethnic cleansing of 40 000 Rohingya in Myanmar. Another, Austrian writer Peter Handke, repeatedly refuted the Balkan genocides of the 1990s even as he accepted last year’s Nobel Literature award.

Many have selective blind spots. Holocaust historians overlook Germany’s atrocities in what was then South-West Africa between 1904 and 1908. General Lothar von Trotha’s murderous methods killed 80% of the Herero population, blueprinting the Holocaust less than 40 years later.

But we all display collective amnesia. Consider the whitewashed tragedy of the so-called founding of the Americas, celebrated as the Thanksgiving and Columbus Day public holidays in the United States. In North America alone the expansionist wars, strategic dispossession and regular slaughters killed an estimated 10 million of the continent’s original peoples in the 400 years to the start of the 20th century. The number rises tenfold with the inclusion of South America.

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How far back must we shake our narratives before recognising that extremist impulses are embedded in Western identity and culture? The term genocide was coined in the formative stages of the United Nations conventions and the development of the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but the deliberate intent, the very strategy of annihilation, had long been established.

I You We Them: Journeys Beyond Evil – Desk Killers in History and Today (Penguin Random House, 2019) by Dan Gretton is the product of 22 years of concepts framed, connections formed, ideas dissected – and then 10 years of research and writing. His 1 000-page opus is not, primarily, a history of genocides or ethnic cleansings. Part memoir, part monograph, part morality tale, Gretton intersperses sections of gut-wrenching historical evil such as the mechanised slaughter of the Nazi’s Chełmno, Bełżec and Sobibor extermination camps, with diverse musings and meanderings across rural England and around European cities.

The book is a journey in multiple respects: through landscapes and cityscapes to reimagine sites of terror or tumult; an immersion into human nature, including the mutation of memory; and of self-discovery. The jumbled but extraordinary result leads to an understanding of harrowing, often hidden histories, and a reframing of how we think about the past – and how Martin Luther King Jr was wrong: the arc of the moral universe doesn’t magically bend. It needs to be pulled towards justice.

What would you do?

Englishman Gretton pulls no punches in contextualising the history of his own nation. Being on the right side during World War II has given England a pass in respect of its atrocious international behaviours, stretching back centuries. Pride, culture and curricula gloss over the depravity and horrors of slavery and colonialism; another example is the Irish famine of 1845-1851. Over a million Irish died, excluding those who perished in the island’s desperate emigration wave. The UK’s ruling elite regarded the Irish as beneath contempt, and so Whitehall, just a few hundred kilometres away, ignored the famines and coaxed the exodus.

Gretton also explores the psychology of the planners. He’s unearthed a German word to describe them in relation to the Holocaust: Schreibtischtäter, “desk-killers”, those who destroy at the stroke of a pen. Or, today, a computer keystroke: society continues to pose the wrong questions and focus in the wrong places.

Or, we do not ask or look at all. For many years I worked on Shell’s communications, comfortable in the company’s global mission of “profits with principles”. Shell’s operations in the Niger delta flirted with my conscience, but oil, after all, is the engine of the global economy and its extraction surely brought revenues and upliftment to Nigeria?

How little I knew – and what paltry effort I made to think, to understand, defaulting instead to the compartmentalisation of my mind. Since 1958, Shell has reaped some £350 billion from Nigeria. But the people of the Niger delta number among the world’s poorest, and their habitat has been ruinously befouled and toxified. Chillingly, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other protesters were hanged by the Nigerian government in 1995 – a human rights travesty unequivocally linked to Shell’s activities.

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We need to find a new language to assess the institutional complacency, or the implicit violent intent, within spreadsheets, minutes of meetings, corporate strategies and policies – in real effect, how “violence bleeds from paper”, with results such as Union Carbide’s negligence which caused 16 000 deaths in Bhopal, India, in 1984, or the environmental catastrophe triggered by BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010.

Indeed, the issue of corporate collusion with the Holocaust has never been properly addressed. Deutsche Bank bankrolled the Nazi party and financed concentration camp construction; Allianz insured the camps; IG Farben partnered with the SS in operating the Reich’s largest chemical plant at Buna-Monowitz, in Auschwitz. (From the “devil’s chemist” spun reputable companies such as Bayer, BASF and Sanofi – and the Buna-Monowitz plant is still being run today, by a Polish chemicals firm.) Yet only six senior German financiers and industrialists ever faced trial for their Nazi links or activities. As CS Lewis wrote, “The greatest evil is done in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars who do not need to raise their voices.”

Within the kaleidoscope of history, psychology, ideologies, literary extracts and personal reflections, I You We Them crystallises two epiphanies. The most challenging is its demand for personal introspection. “What would I do?” it asks, if required to perform tiny, seemingly innocuous tasks, within a larger scheme with devastating consequences. The most upsetting is a realisation that, by deliberately choosing ignorance or a shade of obliviousness, we allow even mass killings of fellow human beings to sneak under our radars despite being perpetrated in plain sight.

How old are the bones beneath the earth gnawing at our consciences, hands now clawing at our ankles in demand of remembrance, of apology and rightful compensation? Beyond the deepest, darkest actions of human beings, the ultimate crime against humanity may be the shrouding silence across generations and centuries. In its implicit paramountcy of trivialisation, moving on, forgetting – or outright denial – it corrodes our morality and inflicts continuing anguish.

Genocides never truly end.

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