Everyday nowadays, the news seems to bring some other shocking facts or events – innocent citizens bombed, partying people murdered, a new civil war, a secret military mission, a coup… being sad or claiming solidarity on the internet is not enough anymore. It is high time that we make more of an effort to understand more of what is going on. What is ISIS about, the state that aims to be without borders, and that claims so many attacks. What is happening in those countries that were said to live through an ‘Arabic spring’, even when they were not in Arabia, but in Africa. Spring was soon over, coalitions were formed, old rivalries that ‘the West’ not even knew about came to the fore, and chaos in most cases seemed the only lasting result. And now, the failed coup in Turkey. People are twittering for or against the putschists, both in the name of democracy – how is that possible? If the president makes an appeal for people to support the nation – what does he mean?
In my latest post I made an attempt to outline my father’s views on the nation state – which, he thought, had become obsolete, something of the past. His experience, on that not so fine day, of foreign soldiers just crossing the border and walking past your house as if they had the right to do so – made it clear that the naive trust that our country is a protected piece of the earth, safe, belonging to ‘us’, the people who have the right to live here, is just that: naive. The imagined protection by this country, which makes us call it ‘home’, depends on the strategies and secret actions of governments, secret services, international trading agreements, financial deals: all kinds of complex things out of the sight of the normal citizen. When people say: ‘we don’t want any more strangers to enter our country’, they imagine that there is such a thing: a country which can be possessed, enjoyed as ours. It can, of course, but this enjoyment and its benefits depend on forces we may not even want to know.
And then, a government can pronounce the state of emergency and close its borders. Because there is a threat from within. There is an enemy in ‘our country’, and the state power promises to find it before it can escape, and – to use that so often misused slogan, ‘to bring it to justice’. If the borders are closed, every citizen can potentially be that enemy, this has to be found out, so what made the country safe in the imagination, the powers that represent the nation with its borders, now make it into a virtual prison. Not free to move, to get out. Or to get in.
Yesterday evening I started reading in the memoir of Raul Hilberg (1926-2007), the historian who was the first to try to understand the genocidal crimes of nazi Germany against the Jews, and others, by meticulously sifting through the German archives that were brought to the US after the war. The memoir relates of how this monumental work, The Destruction of the European Jews, which essentially determined his whole life, took shape, and what happened after that. I was struck especially by the first part of the memoir, in which he described how his fascinations as a child for geography, for maps, and for trains, eventually developed into deeply philosophical insights into the construct of the nation, the state, its inner workings, the balance of powers that keeps it floating, so to speak. I want to give you some quotations, which beautifully illustrate the kind of reflection we need to understand the complex events around states, borders, and powers, of our day.
“At the age of ten I was presented with a precious book. [..] The book was an atlas. A masterpiece of cartography, it was made for the eye, with maps so finely shaded that they highlighted the distinctions between major and minor rivers, deeper and more shallow waters, higher and lower mountains. Railroad tracks were always sketched in red, and cities were shown with circles and lettering denoting their size. Soon I leaped across the topographical features to the international frontiers. Here was something new: the political world, the world of power. Needless to say, Germany’s and Austria’s territorial losses in the First World War were indicated on several maps, and understandably Palestine was absorbed in an Arab desert.” (p. 41) The way this is written, Hilberg takes his reader from the wonder of nature, to the still relatively innocent wonder about human civilization, to another level of the map: the political struggles of nations over the land, to move on from there to the level where their recent wars, and the impending ones become visible, and finally to the way these wars use the technique of remembering old borders, or of emptying the map of stateless nations.
When the Hilberg parents, with their son, a Jewish family, fled Austria in 1939, Raul experienced the problem with borders and state power once more and described it in a very illustrative manner: “On April 2, 1939, we were on a train moving slowly across the Rhine bridge linking Kehl, Germany, to Strasbourg, France. A German woman approached my mother in the corridor of the railway car and, full of curiosity, asked my mother for her reactions to the Nazi regime. […] My mother replied that she would not speak until we had reached Strasbourg. A few minutes later we were free and – to be precise about our new status – refugees.” (p. 43) The train, moving over the earth, crossing a river, a bridge, a border, and on one side you could say ‘home country’, but not speak your mind; on the other side of that imaginary line you could, but would be forever uprooted.
When a few years later Raul returned to Germany with the US army, and saw a field where so many young German man lay dead after a battle, he asked himself why they were still sacrificing themselves for that lost state, the third Reich. “I already knew that the state, and its political order, rests on the possibility of an ultimate resort to force by a government acting against its own citizenry. The men who, with barking officers behind their backs, made their suicide run were proof of the viability of this system.” (p. 55) Further in the book he described his outlook on life as without any hope, completely despondent. A despondency that flowed from seeing and understanding the workings of the powers that could change nations into prisons, and borders from instruments for protection into instruments of fear. But that also motivated him to dedicate his entire life to making what he saw visible for others too, in words. For if we do not understand, we might not be hopeless, but then we might be completely lost in the games that the forces around us try to play with our lives, and with our minds.