Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Euphemisms

I spent the last couple of days studying the Wannsee meeting. Why on earth does one do these things? Periodically, living in the Middle East and getting a lot of weirdness about Jews and their ills, I go and do some study on Nazism to get myself some clarity. Now I have a wonderful new supervisor who, finding that I was a Kenneth Branagh fan, got out her copy of the HBO dramatization of Wannsee, "Conspiracy," starring him as Heydrich. I watched the movie first, and then read Mark Roseman's book (also from my supervisor), The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting, which described Wannsee and its import to the Nazi genocide decisions and ended with the text of the Wannsee Protocol.

One of the things that interested me about this well-known document is its use of euphemism even though its language made it absolutely clear that the euphemism was, in fact, a euphemism. What was the point? The document referred to the "final solution" for the "Jewish Question" as "evacuation to the East." But it also mentioned such things as that Jews were expected to prefer sterilization to "evacuation," and used "evacuation" in contexts where it made very little sense, so that it was chillingly clear that you could read "killing" or "murder" for "evacuation." When they seemed to get bored with the "evacuation" euphemism, they used the "final solution" euphemism in its place.

In the dramatization, all members of the meeting were very clear on what they were talking about and Eichmann even described the gassing methodologies - with "figures" on how many had been gassed in trucks and what he thought would be the capacity of ovens. There is nothing in the document to back this up and the parties minimized Wannsee's importance (not surprising, since they were testifying at their own trials). Eichmann himself gave contradictory testimony and said he could not remember a lot of specifics. But it did seem to me that in order to issue this document, they had to have discussed the issue with a bit more clarity than the document's murky terminology.

I can imagine such a meeting taking place today, being recorded for posterity, and the people using hand gestures to denote "scare quotes" around the word "evacuation" as they discuss the issue, winking at each other.

I've always been bothered by euphemisms - they seem to draw a curtain across things we would rather not know about ourselves. If people were always forced to use the clearest possible words for what they in fact mean, might some perpetrators of crimes against humanity drawn back? Did the euphemism help them to commit the crime? Or was it merely an automatic impulse to avoid being too clear about such an action?

5 comments:

Julaybib said...

Salaams

I've seen the Branagh film - very powerful.

I don't own either volume of Art Speigelman's Maus. I have owned both volumes, twice, and both times they disappeared into the vortex known as 'lent into to a friend'.

Buying it again is a problem. The minute I get it home (or it hits the doormat c/o Amazon), the book opens and I CANNOT put it down!

Wasalaam

Yakoub

Shahzaman said...

I saw the 1984 German TV version of the Wannsee Conference, Wannseekonferenz, before I saw the rather inferior English-language remake, Conspiracy (2001).

I have little faith in the honesty of film makers so I decided to read up on the subject. It seems both are fictional dramas based on the minutes which may be read at http://www.ghwk.de/engl/protengl.htm

My interpretation is that both films falsely suggest that the conference was for planning the holocaust.

May I suggest you study the textual sources before making your mind up on the accuracy of the films.

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Klaus said...

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