Ever since the astonishingly inept US occupation of Iraq began, I have taken a special interest in books and movies about previous occupations and civil wars. I do not equate what the US has been doing in Iraq with the Nazi occupations of much of Europe, though I think that resentment of occupation by those regarded as “infidels” (believed to be inferior) is felt as more of an outrage (against the divine order) even than alien occupation is. And I think that there is great skepticism about the announced aims of any alien occupation.
I want to discuss a 1967 movie, “The 25th Hour” (directed by Henri Verneuil, based on a novel by Romanian C. Virgil Gheorghiu [1916-1992]) and a 1993 book, The Balkan Express by Slavenka Drakulic. Both are protests at being reduced to ethnic enmity and describe some lethal absurdities of such reductions. (What I’m writing does not hesitate about “plot-spoilers.”)
“The 25th Hour” (not the more recent Spike Lee movie with the same title) shows one earthy Romanian farmer, Johann Moritz (played by Anthony Quinn), who is recurrently reclassified and is penned up with the sheep and with the goats in puzzling-to-him succession. A local police sergeant (Jan Werich) covets Johann’s faithful wife, Suzanna (Virna Lisi) and when Jews of the region are rounded up and shipped off to dig a canal as a defense against possible Soviet invasion, the sergeant takes the opportunity to clear the field.
Johann does not consider the injustice of Jews being forced into labor camps (Romanian ones, this is two years before the Nazis took over Romania), only that he has been unjustly classified as a Jew. He knows that he is a Christian, but whether he is circumcised or not is not obvious. No one wants to commit himself that a mistake has been made.
Johann “escapes” with some other inmates, who have bought his way out in part because he has saved them by doing extra work. This “escape” (which involved being driven to Hungary by the camp commander) confirms that no mistake was made. The local priest and Suzanna have been trying to get Johann reclassified and returned, and since Jews can’t own land in the Iron Guard Romania, she has had to divorce him (while still refusing the slimy advances of the policeman).
Because he is a Christian, Jewish relief organizations won’t help Johann get out of Hungary. Soon, he is captured and tortured under the belief that he is a Romanian agent sent (with Russian gold left by his labor camp buddy) to spy on Hungary.
Next, he is sent to Nazi Germany as a “volunteer” worker—in a company including non-Magyars rounded up by Hungarian authorities in place of sending Magyars. The “volunteers” even have to stop and pick flowers to decorate the train that is taking them to a labor camp. (Is it necessary to provide a reminder that not all concentration camps are death camps—even if mortality rates are high in non-death camp concentration camps?)
Johann is fatalistic and works hard, though again maintaining that he isn’t one of the kind (this time, Hungarians), but is Romanian. An SS captain with particular commitment to Aryan race doctrine overhears one of these denials, and sees Johann as a model Aryan—so model an Aryan that he puts him in an SS uniform, lectures other officers about the original (unblond) Aryan type and Johann’s picture in SS uniform is widely circulated.
The temporary respite of being a guard rather than a prisoner comes with a high future cost. Johann springs a truckload of his “Hungarian” mates, shooting three Germans. Those he has helped tell the Americans that he saved them and is not a Nazi, but there are all those propaganda photos, and Johann is held for 17 months in the very same camp he was in (first as a prisoner, then as a guard) now run by the conquering US Army. The intellectual/novelist from back home (the character closest to that of author Gheorghiu) commits suicide, and then Johann is put on trial for involvement in genocide (despite having spent a year and a half as a Jew in a labor camp, and done as much as he could to help the inmates in the German labor camp).
There are a few more twists that I won’t reveal. I have to say that the casting of Anthony Quinn was particularly apt, since he was the actor for whatever ethnicity was needed in Hollywood of the 1960s. He sometimes played his own ethnicity (Viva Zapata, The Children of Sanchez”), but is best remembered for being “Zorba the Greek,” (and also played Aristotle Onassis and a Greek in “The Guns of Navarrone”) and also played Arabs (Lawrence of Arabia, Lion of the Desert), Russians (Shoes of the Fisherman), Italians (La Strada, The Secret of Santa Vittoria, Stradivari), Jews (Caiaphas in “Jesus of Nazareth”) Spaniards (Behold a Pale Horse, A High Wind in Jamaica), a Basque (The Passage), and Kublai Khan (Marco Polo).
Asked if he knows why he is on trial by the Allied court after World War II, Johann says that he does not know why he has been anywhere that he has been placed during the previous eight years (and he has missed the Soviet occupation and partisan reprisals back home in Romania, to which he cannot safely return). It is not just that his individuality has been reduced to an ethnic type, but he has been through a dizzying succession of ethnic typifications involving forced labor because he is what he knows he is not (though after the inconclusive circumcision examination he begins to wonder if the authorities were right and previously unknown to him he was a Jew).
The way classifying Johann as an instance of “the enemy” by the opportunist Romanian policeman particularly interests me and provides an obvious link to some of what Slavenka Drakulic wrote about, especially the example a young woman who saw a chance to get an apartment (a very scarce commodity in Zagreb) that had belonged to a woman who had become a pariah for expressing disquiet about the demonization in both directions of Serbs and Croats (“The Woman Who Stole an Apartment”). Property of Jews in German and Nazi-occupied Europe was similarly annexed—as was the property of Japanese Americans on the west coast of the US and Canada when they were incarcerated in concentration camps as enemy aliens (citizenship being trumped by race/ethnicity). Joseph Losey’s film “Monsieur Klein” flashes to my mind for showing a profiteer who is surprised to find himself consigned to the kind (Jews) from whom he had been profiting in Nazi-occupied Paris.
The cosmopolitan Drakulic had a better education and a far more cosmopolitan outlook than Johann, Suzanna, or M. Klein. She was surprised by the collapse of communism in Europe (in general and Yugoslavia in particular), though How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, her brilliant collection of essays on the frustrations of everyday life for women in the Soviet Empire (and in Yugoslavia, the Stalinist state that allowed its citizens to visit noncommunist countries and shop in them) shows the basic failures to provide for the dignity and well-being of the people, women in particular. Already in that book, she stressed that although what seemed permanent structures of oppression melted, the attitudes of indifference to what the state did persisted. Civil society was not brought into instant or automatic existence by the fall of communism. The young generation (that of Drakulic’s daughter) had no engagement in civil society or politics (“a refusal to discuss or understand politics [w]as a form of rebellion against the then apparently immutable communist regime”).
The breakdown of the communist system did not end the rule of autocrats in general, and the increasingly Serbianist Slodoban Milosovich in command of the Yugoslavian army and state apparatus in particular.
Drakulic was appalled by the attacks attempting to prevent the secession of Slovenia, though soon the fratricide was Serbian/Croatian, and Slovenia was a place of refuge (to which she fled for a time).
Her essays chronicle the gradual realization of war impinging on and eventually eclipsing concerns about private lives, loves, careers, possessions—and homes and loved ones. She resisted stockpiling salt, which those who had survived World War II told her was important to stockpile, not just for use but for sale. (How many of us who have lived our whole lives in North America have ever had to think of such things?)
In “On Becoming a Refugee,” she recalled
“For a long time I had refused to leave my home, even to consider such a possibility. For months and months, I could hear the noise of war coming closer and closer, but nonetheless I still chose to ignore it. I know these symptoms of denial by heart now: first you don’t believe it, then you don’t understand why, then you think it is still far away, then you see war all around you but refuse to recognize it and connect it with your own life [but] in the end it grabs you by the throat… wait[ing] for something to happen, to hit you at last. You learn to breathe in death, death becomes your every second word, your dreams are impregnated by dismembered bodies, you even begin to picture your own death.”
Some of this is a pattern that is familiar from accounts of soldiers thrust into insurgencies (US memoirs of Vietnam, for instance), but in Croatia during the early 1990s, as in Iraq in recent years, this malaise extends to the “civilian” population, not just to those in militaries.
In the US, we are led to believe that the enmities between Serbs and Croats, between Sunni and Shi’ite are eternal. The communist Yugoslavia oppressed ethnic, national, and religious belief, just as the secular Baathist state of Saddam Hussein did. Tito was Croatian by birth and there were Croatians fighting alongside Serbs against the Nazis. In the war against Iran that (with US support—see the famed photo of Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein), Shi’ite Iraqi (Arabs) fought against Shi’ite Iranians (Persians). If the most profound difference in the region was Sunni/Shi’a, the Shi’ites from southern Iraq would have joined their Iranian coreligionists. This did not happen.
Baghdad and Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo were multiethnic cities in which ethnic/religious differences did not lead to slaughtering each other.
Drakulic, the daughter of a former partisan who became an officer in the Yugoslavian army (and a communist party member) married a man of Serbian ancestry, so that when sides were arrayed, their daughter had to choose between her father’s and her mother’s “kind,” a kind that they had not felt themselves to be—being Yugoslavians.
“I was aware that he was from a Serbian family while I was from a Croatian one, but it didn’t mean anything to me, one way or the other. World War II was long over when the two of us were born and throughout my life it seemed to me that everyone was trying to escape its shadow, to forget and just live their lives.”
Draklulic’s father told her (when she had been playing with his pistol) that “war was the most horrible thing a human being can experience, and that we, his children, didn’t need to know what it looked like…. The brutal disruption of the tender fabric of his life, this is what he regretted deeply, the way a war snaps your life in half yet you have to go on living as if you are still a whole person. But, as I learned from his example [before having her own experience], you are not—and never will be—a whole person again.”
In 1991, a friend of hers wrote (and was excoriated for writing): “We are never going to get out of this nationalist discourse, Croatian or Serbian alike. We’ll never be able to build our future on that, we’ll be thrown back perpetually into the past, far back into the past.”
“In the new state of Croatia, no one is allowed not to be a Croat,” Drakulic wrote in “Overcome by Nationhood.” Though deeply distraught about it, “being Croat has become my destiny…. I am nobody because I am not a person any more. I am one of 4.5 million Croats. I regret that awareness of my nationhood came to me in the form of punishment of the nation I belong to, in the forth of death, destruction, suffering and—worst—fear of dying. I feel as an orphan does, the war having robbed me of the only real possession I had acquired in my life, my individuality. But I am no longer in a position to choose.”
Drakulic has the analytic ability and vocabulary to address (and protest) the reduction to one of a particular kind that has befallen her. Johann in “The 25th Hour” lacked these and had experiences of being cast in a succession of enemy “other” identities (that he didn’t understand).
Neither the movie nor Drakulic’s collection of essays or I provide solutions for how to avoid the virulent infections and reinfections of dehumanizing others, but all (I hope) provide experiences to think about.
And “bringing it on home,” from a recent New York Review article by Marilynne Robinson:
“Nativism is always aligned with an impulse or strategy to shape the culture with which it claims to have privileged intimacy. It is urgently intent on identifying enemies and confronting them, and it is hostile to the point of loathing toward aspets of the society that are taken to show their influence. In other words, these lovers of country, these patriots, are wildly unhappy with the country they claim to love, and are bent on remaking it to suit their own preferences, which they feel no need to justify or even fully articulate. Neither do they feel any need to answer the objections of those who see their shaping and their disciplining as mutilation.”
(Except for the last paragraph, this was first published in 2007 on Associated Content, a site bought and destroyed by the cretins who run Yahoo. ©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray