September 13, 2010
SPIEGEL: Monsieur Lanzmann, the overriding theme of your extraordinary life is death. You begin your memoirs with thoughts on the death penalty and end it with your masterpiece, the monumental documentary film “Shoah.” Where does this obsession come from?Lanzmann: That’s a good question, because it’s a central question for me. And yet it also contains a paradox. My book is a hymn to life to a certain extent, a hymn that rises above the horizon of the experience of death. For me, death has always been a scandal. The sense of horror I experienced as a child after watching a film with an execution scene involving the guillotine has remained with me for my entire life.
SPIEGEL: The fear of a violent death, a prospect you sometimes faced during the war?
Lanzmann: Every death is violent. There is no natural death, unlike the picture we like to paint of the father who dies quietly in his sleep, surrounded by his loved ones. I don’t believe in that.
SPIEGEL: Is that why the arrogance of imposing death as a penalty is the most extreme form of sacrilege?
Lanzmann: How can one impose death as a penalty? This is a philosophical conundrum. It’s certainly quite odd that I begin my book with a long chapter about the death penalty. French television made a film about me last year, and when I was asked to propose a title, I chose: “There is Only Life.”
SPIEGEL: You include a similar quote in your book, taken from an Auschwitz prisoner.
Lanzmann: It was from Salmen Lewenthal, a member of the Jewish work commando that had to dispose of the bones of those who were murdered and incinerated. He and fellow prisoner Salmen Gradowski secretly wrote a sort of chronicle of horror. They buried the pages near the crematoriums, where they were found after the war, half-decayed and partially illegible. This Lewenthal gave the best answer to the obscene question of why they, as Jews, were willing to do their horrible work, even though they, too, were doomed. “The truth is that one wants to live at any cost, one wants to live because one lives … because the whole world lives.” This is the sanctification of life in the kingdom of death.
SPIEGEL: And yet you asked yourself the question of how you would have decided, if you had had the choice between life and death.
Lanzmann: Yes, the question of courage and cowardice is a recurrent theme in my life. I was often in situations in which I behaved in a completely cowardly way, as I was forced to realize afterwards. That’s because I prefer life to death. And yet I have done dangerous things in which I put my life at risk.
SPIEGEL: As a member of the Résistance during the German occupation of France, you once barely escaped arrest by the Gestapo.
Lanzmann: What would I have done if I had been tortured? Would I have talked? Jean-Paul Sartre has addressed this question at length. Everyone talks if he is really tortured. The real heroes are those who put a bullet in their heads to avoid the risk of talking.
SPIEGEL: Would you have been such a hero?
Lanzmann: I don’t know. But I do know that the Gestapo knew how to get people to talk. I saw with my own eyes how the Germans arrested members of the Résistance at the train station in Clermont-Ferrand. The poor guys were ashen-faced. They knew what was in store for them. I didn’t fully consider the dilemma at the time, which is one of the things for which I blame myself. I didn’t reach the inner certainty that I would be able to sacrifice my life, if need be, so as not to betray someone else.
SPIEGEL: Did you kill anyone?
Lanzmann: Yes, I was involved in several ambushes, as a machine-gunner and as a gun loader. Once, in the summer of 1944, we ambushed a German convoy on its way to the front in Normandy. I shot, and I certainly killed Germans.
SPIEGEL: Did you have any scruples?
Lanzmann: Why should I have had scruples? I was waging war, war against a common enemy. In that situation, you have to be willing to give death, to kill those who have come to kill.
SPIEGEL: How did you feel in those moments?
Lanzmann: The man next to me in that ambush, a quiet man who was significantly older than me, was suddenly transformed, almost out of his mind, when we opened fire. He shouted: “There, you scum, you rascal, that’s for Papa!” His father had died in World War I. He was filled with hatred in that moment, as he took revenge for his father. I wasn’t inspired by such feelings. But for me, as a Jew, the Résistance was the best way to protect myself. It meant that you weren’t helpless, that you had a chance.
SPIEGEL: Is a just war always a war in self-defense?
Lanzmann: Yes, I am deeply convinced of that.
SPIEGEL: You joined the Communists in the Résistance — because they were the most well organized group or out of ideological conviction?
Lanzmann: I wasn’t particularly close to the Communists politically. My family leaned toward the left, as I do today, but I hadn’t read Marx, Engels, Lenin or Stalin. An acquaintance involved in the communist youth movement suggested I join. It could just as easily have been another movement. And things didn’t go so well with the Communists. Once they wanted to kill us, claiming that we were deserters.
SPIEGEL: And yet you write that you wept when you heard the news of Stalin’s death in 1953.
Lanzmann: Not out of sympathy for the dictator. I didn’t care about Stalin. I was deeply moved by the way the Soviet marines lowered their flags in mourning. To me, this gesture symbolized the heroic courage of the Russian people, who had made horrible sacrifices and bore the greatest burden of the war against the Nazis.
SPIEGEL: Were you ever afraid for your life?
Lanzmann: Sometimes, but not in the concrete moment of battle, even though that was when I was in the greatest danger. Fighting the Germans wasn’t child’s play. They were outstanding soldiers, extremely careful and disciplined.
SPIEGEL: You weren’t afraid of being deported, of being loaded onto a train to the East?
Lanzmann: I witnessed roundups of Jews, but we had only a vague idea of what would happen to the deportees. My father was much more pessimistic than I was, by the way. It was more of an apprehension. We sensed that something horrible must have been happening somewhere far away in the east. But it was unimaginable to make the mental leap from there to the systematic extermination of the Jews. There was no precedent for it. Even at the entrance to the gas chambers, the Jews still clung to a last bit of hope, which I demonstrated in my film “Shoah.” One cannot know what one cannot imagine. The gas chambers were the culmination of a series of lies and acts of violence. When Jan Karski, the courier of the Polish government-in-exile, was in Washington in 1943 to report on the things he had seen in Warsaw ghetto and the Izbica camp, the American Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, himself a Jew, said to him: “Young man, I don’t believe you. I’m not saying that you’re a liar, but I don’t believe you.” The justice thought that he knew what people were like.
SPIEGEL: People knew you were a Jew when you were in school. Did they take it out on you?Lanzmann: Strangely enough, never. We were three Jews in a small class, but I didn’t hear a single derogatory remark. I was registered under my real name, even though my father had obtained forged papers, without the notorious red Jewish stamp. This silence was a form of solidarity.
SPIEGEL: Still, the Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain was openly anti-Semitic.
Lanzmann: France had two faces, that of collaboration and that of the Résistance. Of the 76,000 Jews deported from France, only 2,500 survived. But two-thirds of the Jews in France were not deported. They were rescued thanks to support within the French population. My false papers identified me as Claude Bassier, born in a small town in the Auvergne. French government officials participated in the effort. They didn’t expect payment, but were simply helping their community, for reasons of humanity…
September 13, 2010
How Muslims breached the culture gap with the western world.
Human beings have difficulty in bridging cultures. More often than not the effort of sympathising with the ways in which other men make sense of life is too great. We are all aware of the mutual incomprehension experienced between families, groups and classes in our society, of the long history of prejudice which has sharpened the divisions between western peoples, of the enormous gulf which lies between the world’s great civilisations. We also know the high cost of failing to reach out to grasp the humanity in other men: the greater ease with which war is contemplated, blood actually spilled, and human dignity denied.
For more than a millennium few relationships have exhibited greater lack of understanding than that between the Christian and the post-Christian civilisation of the West and that of Islam which reaches from West Africa through West, Central and South Asia to the island archipelago of south-east Asia. The ‘WORLD’S DEBATE’ which Gibbon found in the Crusades has long remained a dialogue of the distinctly hard of hearing.
For much of the period Westerners have regarded Muslims as a menace, a threat both to Christian revelation and to western security. Since Westerners have come to dominate the world, which is a relatively recent event, they have also come to regard them as a foil against which western identity might be explored and as a yardstick against which western superiority might be measured. Rarely, if ever, have Westerners valued Muslims for themselves.
Up to the eighteenth century Muslims were no less cocooned within their own world-view. God had told them that they were the best community raised up for mankind, and over one thousand years of expansion and success had followed this revelation through Muhammad. Certain that history was on their side, they showed little interest in the West, indeed, it seems that not one Muslim scholar ever bothered to learn a western European language.
We all have some inkling of western prejudices regarding the followers of the Prophet. Among them, and echoing the old medieval polemic against Islam, there would be some focus on the Muslim’s supposed uninhibited enjoyment of sex and sensuality; the Prophet did, after all, have twelve wives, and the founder of modern Saudi Arabia over three hundred. There would probably be a tirade against a religious system which, by contemporary western standards, oppresses women. Reference would be made both to the arbitrary violence which Islam seems to encourage and to the brutal punishments imposed by holy law, lapidation for adultery and hands lopped off for theft. Something undoubtedly would be said about fanaticism, the suicide car-bombers who hope to go straight to paradise, the soldiers barely in their teens who seek martyrdom on the field of battle. Indeed, we would expect to hear the disdain of post-Enlightenment culture for a world which seems in such large part still to be moved by the irrational forces of religion.
On the other hand, we probably have a much less clear idea of Muslim prejudices regarding the West, and so these require rather more attention. One problem should be aired straightaway; Muslim attitudes are less harmonious than those of Westerners. They range from those of a western-educated élite whose hearts and minds have been stolen by the West, to those of a proud Islamic resistance which is determined to thrust back every advance of western culture, values and power in their world. But, in spite of this battle of the cultures which is being fought within all Islamic societies, most will share to some degree in the following attitudes…
September 13, 2010
This image has been posted with express written permission.
This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.