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Posts Tagged ‘Koestler’

Feb 14 2009

The door of my house in Granada is padded with metal and I had never given it any thought until an old lady that was born here 82 years ago came knocking and told stories about what happened here in the late 30ies. Some thugs came by one night she said and poured petrol on the door and was just about to set the house on fire when in the last minute they decided to leave the house with children alone and instead burn down the church at the mirador San Nicolas. Her father thus padded the door and all the windows so as to give them time to put out a fire should it happen again.

The most horrific crimes have been committed by perfectly normal people acting as a group, surrendering individuality and personal responsibility to a greater cause.

All over Spain there are discoloured bullet holes in the facades of beautiful old Gothic buildings and the horrific stories about mass-executions and farmers being shot through the eyes have an air of incredibility about them given the sublime beauty of the landscape today and the peaceful, fun loving mentality of the Andalusians I know. But the most horrific things humans have done are not crimes of individuals. The deaths caused by them are almost insignificant in comparison with the crimes performed by perfectly normal people acting as a group, surrendering individuality and personal responsibility to a greater cause, be that the Nation, the Leader, the Religion or the Ideology.

Perhaps no one has been more marked by the seeming irrational bestiality of humans and at the same time done so much to try to comprehend, explain and fight against it as the Hungarian-born author Arthur Koestler. Just like Orwell, Hemingway and many European intellectuals at the time. Koestler came to Spain to fight against the Franco lead fascists 1936 and onwards.

Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler

The whole notion that a group of poets would run to the trenches in the front lines of another country is bizarre and very hard to understand for us today. What did they expect to achieve? Were they going to read at the enemy!? In order to understand this intellectual mobilisation it is important to realize the role played by Spain and what was perceived as being at stake. The Spanish Civil war between 36-39 was the stage for the battle between the public and the ruling aristocratic minority. In 1931 through general election there was established the Second Spanish Republic that granted citizens, including women, the right to vote, the freedom of religion and the abdication of the king. It was fundamentally a progressive step for justice, from a plutocratic feudal society with widespread poverty to something akin to modern democracy. One of the problems was that while the “public” agreed that the state should be separate from the church and workers given more rights, there was great disagreement about how the state should be organised. Spain was a melting pot of communists, anarchists, fascists, monarchists, and was internationally seen as a war by proxy between the old aristocratic capitalist ideology and Russian backed communism. Catalonia was mainly socialist or communist. Malaga was the strong-hold of the anarchists (but being anarchists they had problems of organisation and fell quite easily to Franco’s troops). The internal disagreements between the political parties representing “the people” was probably one of the reasons why Franco could rise to power and mobilise a coup d’etat with the unholy alliance between the aristocracy, the church and the guardia civil. Thus Spain was perceived as having immense symbolic value for the whole of Europe as the struggle between a frail democracy and an aristocratic fascist regime. Franco’s mass-execution in the bullring in Badajoz and the air-bombings of Madrid were the precursors of the way the WW II would be fought.

Although some intellectuals like Hemingway did take to arms in the struggle, their role was to “make themselves useful” and indeed reading propaganda to the soldiers to boost morale. Koestler’s role was different, and the nail-bitingly dramatic story that lead him to be imprisoned with a death sentence in Seville is utterly thrilling. He was 31 years old and had been working in Berlin as a journalist, and was secretly working for the communist propaganda organisation with its headquarters in Paris. At the time of the news of Franco conquering Seville, he was however utterly depressed due to disillusions with communism in practice and personal failures as a writer, and was living in absolute poverty in a hayloft outside Paris writing on some anti-fascist book. Upon hearing the news he went to the head of the communist propaganda organisation, Willy Münzenberg, and asked to be sent to fight in the war. Willy finding the idea of a journalist fiddling with a gun a waste had a moment of inspiration and suggested that Koestler would instead go as a journalist and try to achieve an interview with Franco, with the implicit mission to establish proof that the fascists were breaking the international non-intervention agreement and were in fact receiving support from Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. At this time it was denied by all three countries and UK and France did not take the threat seriously. Koestler was fixed up with a fake cover as a journalist for two fascist sympathising news papers, was given more money than he had ever seen in his life and given an elegant suit. He was to enter Spain via boat to Lisbon, but by an over-sight on his part when he arrived in Lisbon his real Hungarian passport had expired and he was sent to the Hungarian consulate.

Quipo de Llano

Queipo de Llano

By a fortunate (or unfortunate), twist of events, the Hungarian consul was friends with the Franco aristocracy living in exile in Lisbon. Koestler was thus invited to a posh party in a casino and from a hayloft he suddenly finds himself buying drinks out of the communist wallet for the Marques de Quintanar, the Dutchess Vega de so-and-so, and when someone suggests a toast to the Hungarian Regent Koestler reciprocates by drinking to the health of General Franco. The most extraordinary thing is that he is introduced to no one less than Franco’s brother, Nicolas Franco, from whom he obtains a priceless document called Safe-Conduct, describing him as a reliable friend of he National Revolution that leads him all the way to Seville and grants him a personal interview with Franco’s head general in Seville – General Queipo de Llano.

Me on the road

A crucial event happens on his third day in Seville, and takes place in the allegedly famous Hotel Cristina. Having lived in Seville for a year and a half I did not know of any such place and I was curious to see if I could track it down. A couple of days ago I was invited by an old friend, a flamenco dancer that was just having her solo debut in one of the main theatres in Seville, to come down for a visit and I thought I could drive down on my bike, enjoy the flamenco and try to locate the Hotel Cristina. There is next to no info online, but it was supposed to be central, so after a bit of research and asking older people that were likely to remember such an illustrious place I managed to find the Hotel where Nazi pilots stayed in 1936. I learn that it was completely rebuilt in 1983, but while the inside is private residencies only the exterior is kept exactly as it was. One señora now living there told me: “Si, si, esto era Hotel Cristina. Aqui ibamos a bailar despues de las bodas”. The building is the yellow complex between five star hotel Alfonso XIII and El Torre del Oro where you find the modern US equivalent of cultural achievment…the McDonalds, and as it turns out about 100m away from where I used to live. Back then foreign journalists in Seville were treated with utmost suspicion, and one notorious Captain Bolin of Scandinavian descent was particularly fierce and had put a gun under the nose of a French journalist before he was expelled.

Hotel Cristina

Hotel Cristina

Any journalist entering Hotel Cristina was instantly suspected a spy since mainly Nazis lived there. As for proof of German support of Franco, it was not hard to come by as the Swastika uniforms were everywhere to be found. Against his better judgement Koestler still decides to enter Cristina and finds a group of Nazi airmen sitting by a table in the lounge bar. He walks up to the bar and orders a sherry, when suddenly his gaze is met by one of the men at the table – Herr Strindberg, the son of the famous Swedish author August Strindberg. The two had worked together in Berlin some years earlier and Koestler knew instantly that Strindberg had not only recognised him but beyond any doubt could blow his cover. In a moment of irrational panic, he orders another sherry, swallows it, and utters loudly:

-”Hello, aren’t you Strindberg?”

Strindberg replies:
-”Excuse me, but I am in a conversation with this gentleman”.

Alfonso XIII

Alfonso XIII

Koestler then mounts this incredible argument, acting indignantly about Strindberg not having greeted him properly, and when the Nazi officer demands to see his credentials he starts shouting, waving his hands in the air, calling it an insult and demanding that Captain Bolin sets the record straight. By chance the Captain walks through the doors and Koestler carries on with his theatrical tantrum at which the Captain gets pissed off and basically says he could not care less about whether two foreign journalists greeted or not and that they could all fuck off! As the Captain walks out the lounge Koestler also walks off in a strop, and due to the confusion he is not stopped. When back at his hotel, the rumour has spread about what had happened and he is advised to leave at once. He manages to arrange a transport to Gibraltar and crosses the border one hour before the order for his arrest is issued.

Walk along history lane

Avenida de la Constitucion

Back in Paris, his story becomes front page news in both France and UK, and help raise the awareness of the brotherly bond between Hitler and Franco. Koestler return twice more to Spain, first in some secret mission personally requested by the Spanish Foreign Minister to recover some documents in Madrid, and then to report as a war correspondent in Malaga, where he is eventually captured by none other than Captain Bolin himself and is very nearly shot on the spot. Instead he spends three months in the Central Prison in Seville, under death sentence, where Franco had revived vile garotte as a means of execution. The vile garotte was a way of killing someone by screwing a vice into the back of an iron collar, and listening to the screams of his previous cell mates he suffers both extreme anxiety attacks as well as some mystical experiences inspired by Euclid’s proof of infinity. Details about this episode is documented in Dialogue with Death, available to read online.

He is released in exchange for a very beautiful lady from Seville, a wife of a fighter pilot, captured by the opposition. However, Koestler spends time in jail twice more in his lifetime. Once in Le Vernet in France, ironically as a suspected Nazi sympathiser, and in Pentonville prison in London due to lack of the appropriate documents. These were extremely political times, and almost every character in his autobiography dies an unnatural death.

Franco and Hitler alliance

Franco and Hitler alliance

I reread his story by the beautiful fountain in front of Cristina, where the now car free area is bathing in sunlight and busting with a sublime spring like euphoria. Tourists in horse carriages, students on the year abroad, locals riding the public bicycles whistling along la Avenida de la Consitucion. The Andalusian newspaper El Correo de Andalucia has put up historical front pages along the walk, and with a mildly hopeful smile I notice that someone has thrown a stone through the one declaring the united front of Franco and Hitler.

I will leave you with this gem, and if anyone can understand a word of what Franco is saying about “a movie man” please transcribe it below.

Oct 30 2008

“If this is the work of the Communists, which I do not doubt, may God have mercy on them!” These words were uttered by Hitler when standing in front of the burning Reichtag, the German House of Parliament in Berlin, 27 Feb 1933. This became the justification the Nazi party needed to implement extreme measures against known Communists, and already at midnight the search parties were on their way to get their victims. “Left-wing deputies and literary figures, unpopular doctors, officials and lawyers” were dragged out of bed and the first wave of concentration-camp arrests began.

In the autobiography “Defying Hitler” Sebastian Haffner is telling the story of an individual well-educated German’s effort to keep both his sanity and life while left and right wing extremists stage a battle, neither using more humane or dignified means than the other. “It was only next morning that I read about the fire, and not until midday that I read about the arrests. Around the same time a decree of Hindenburg’s was promulgated. It abolished freedom of speech and confidentiality of mail and telephone for all private individuals, while giving the police unrestricted rights of search an access, confiscation and arrest.

“Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Reichtag fire is that the  claim that it was the work of the Communists was so widely believed. Even the sceptics did not regard it as entirely incredible.” Everybody expected a Communist retaliation but as it didn’t come people took it as an implicit admission of guilt. “After all that,” Haffner continues, “I do not see that one can blame the majority of Germans who, in 1933, believed that the Reichtag fire was the work of the Communist. What one can blame them for, and what shows their terrible collective weakness of character clearly for the first time during the Nazi period, is that this settled the matter. With sheepish submissiveness the German people accepted that, as a result of the fire, each one of them lost what little personal freedom and dignity was guaranteed by the constitution; as though it followed as a necessary consequence. If the Communists had burned down the Reichtag, it was perfectly in order that the Government took ‘decisive measures’!

What struck me personally when reading this passage is the eerie resemblance to current events. One can go over the text and simply substitute the Reichtag for the Twin Towers, the Communists for the Muslim terrorists, the Hindenburg decree for the US Patriot Act, UK Communications Data Bill or the Swedish FRA law. The issue is not whether a democratic government should take actions to protect it citizens against potential threats – that is the essential raison d’etre of a representative government – but whether or not one can trust any government with absolute power.

Las 13 RosasIf one considers even as a remote possibility that the government itself would be a part of that threat against which the public needs to protect itself, the implications of giving them – or any group of people – the right to be both judge and jury are just unimaginably horrific. As it turns out one doesn’t actually need the imagination  – two brilliant recent movies show how historically those horrors have manifested themselves. I’m thinking about Las 13 rosas and Sofie Scholl, both dramatizing real events in Germany and Spain, where young idealists – mostly minors – were sentenced to death for the crimes of spreading pamphlets. I would imagine one of those pamphlets could have said something akin to this blog post.

But surely we have learnt from past mistakes? The US, UK and Swedish governments embody the ideals of democracy and respect the right to free speech and tolerance of diversity. They have accepted and signed the declarations of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions which in effect make them law in these countries. Or have they? As it turns out at the beginning of May, 2001, the United States lost its seat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission for the first time since the panel’s founding in 1947. The US are not adhering to the Geneva convention as is clear in the US treatment of Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. They are being tortured and some have been killed. Their guilt is not only relative to whoever would be judge and jury – not that they have had a chance to have a fair hearing – but highly questionable from the simple fact that the majority of them were sold to the US army by the Iraqi equivalent of bounty hunters.

At the very least if we were to place trust in the government to have the lawful right to infringe on those human liberties previous generations so painfully struggled to establish, we can demand that they exact extreme caution and vigilance when exercising those rights. If we give them exceptional mandate to protect us from terrorists we do so only in the faith that they must not abuse that mandate by say invading a country quite unrelated to the assumed responsible for the attack. As the Reichtag fire was used to justify Hitler’s invasion of Poland so was 9-11 used to set in motion a plan that the US neoconservatives had long been wanting to realise. All they needed was an excuse, and with a people still sore and with a lust for revenge even a far-fetched one would do.

More recently, on the 8th Oct 2008, the UK the Anti-terror Crime and Security Act of 2001 showed its versatility and was invoked against a whole country that has until then had been considered one of their best friends – Iceland. Until 2006 Reykjavik airport Keflavik was in effect an American airbase. When I lived in London Reykjavik was considered the coolest capital in Europe, and I have many wonderful friends there. As this tiny country of some 300.000 inhabitants have run into grave financial difficulties as of late and is facing nationwide bankruptcy, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has the perfect baton to hit them when they are lying down. Iceland is put on the list of suspected ‘terrorist regimes’ subjected to financial sanctions, along with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, North Korea, Sudan and Iran. Why? To protect UK financial interests or because they did not want to be American underdogs?

The only case in which absolute power can be justified is when it is paralleled by absolute goodness and undepletable resources of patience, tolerance and understanding. That is, omnipotence demands nothing short of divine justice and divine omniscience. What human institution would ever come close to that?

In the case of the Reichtags fire, Hitler and Goering saw it as a sign from heaven, and the staged trial was supposed to give them complete mandate to eradicate their enemies. The 1933 equivalent of the hijackers was a 24 year old psychopathic Dutch homosexual by the name of Van der Lubbe. He had joined the Communist Youth League and spread pamphlets for them. According to Arthur Koestler, he was a tramp and a compulsive liar with ambitions to fame but no trace of qualities that would make it happen. When failing to swim the Channel he set fire to the House of Parliament and became an historic figure. He was captured and under torture confessed and was brought to trial along with the leaders of the opposition Communist Party. He was declared guilty and subsequently guillotined.

If history repeats itself the equivalents of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein perhaps would have been Georgi Dimitrov, the future General Secretary of Communist International and Ernst Torgler, another leaders of the Comintern. Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld would be a suitable candidates for the Goering and Goebbels parts, but who would be Hitler? A tricky one. Or not.

The trial was perceived as a struggle between truth and falsehood, guilt and innocence, whereas in fact both parties were guilty. They were both lying and using propaganda and crime as means to their ends. The irony of the proceedings was that while the Nazis hoped to be able to frame the guilt on the Communists, their utter failure to do so became by implication an indictment of their own guilt in the fire. Both parties agreed that Van der Lubbe was guilty and that there must have been a conspiracy behind him. However since there was no evidence to prove a link between the fire and the Communists and because the Nazis themselves stood to gain more from the arson the plan literally backfired. Turns out that there was an underground tunnel that connected the Reichtag and the palace of Hermann Goering that could have been used by the incendiaries. Instead of enjoying the humiliation of his enemy, Goering found himself busy defending his own honour and innocence.

The Communist leaders were acquitted there and then.

In January 2008, the Federal Court of Justice of Germany overturned the death penalty verdict of Van der Lubbe.