Revenge is Sour

Tribune, 9 November 1945

Whenever I read phrases like ‘war guilt trials’, ‘punishment of war criminals’ and so forth, there comes back into my mind the memory of something I saw in a prisoner-of-war camp in South Germany, earlier this year.

Another correspondent and myself were being shown round the camp by a little Viennese Jew who had been enlisted in the branch of the American army which deals with the interrogation of prisoners. He was an alert, fair-haired, rather good-looking youth of about twenty-five, and politically so much more knowledgeable than the average American officer that it was a pleasure to be with him. The camp was on an airfield, and, after we had been round the cages, our guide led us to a hangar where various prisoners who were in a different category from the others were being ‘screened’.

Up at one end of the hangar about a dozen men were lying in a row on the concrete floor. These, it was explained, were S.S. officers who had been segregated from the other prisoners. Among them was a man in dingy civilian clothes who was lying with his arm across his face and apparently asleep. He had strange and horribly deformed feet. The two of them were quite symmetrical, but they were clubbed out into an extraordinary globular shape which made them more like a horse’s hoof than anything human. As we approached the group, the little Jew seemed to be working himself up into a state of excitement.

‘That’s the real swine!’ he said, and suddenly he lashed out with his heavy army boot and caught the prostrate man a fearful kick right on the bulge of one of his deformed feet.

‘Get up, you swine!’ he shouted as the man started out of sleep, and then repeated something of the kind in German. The prisoner scrambled to his feet and stood clumsily to attention. With the same air of working himself up into a fury — indeed he was almost dancing up and down as he spoke — the Jew told us the prisoner’s history. He was a ‘real’ Nazi: his party number indicated that he had been a member since the very early days, and he had held a post corresponding to a General in the political branch of the S.S. It could be taken as quite certain that he had had charge of concentration camps and had presided over tortures and hangings. In short, he represented everything that we had been fighting against during the past five years.

Meanwhile, I was studying his appearance. Quite apart from the scrubby, unfed, unshaven look that a newly captured man generally has, he was a disgusting specimen. But he did not look brutal or in any way frightening: merely neurotic and, in a low way, intellectual. His pale, shifty eyes were deformed by powerful spectacles. He could have been an unfrocked clergyman, an actor ruined by drink, or a spiritualist medium. I have seen very similar people in London common lodging houses, and also in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Quite obviously he was mentally unbalanced — indeed, only doubtfully sane, though at this moment sufficiently in his right mind to be frightened of getting another kick. And yet everything that the Jew was telling me of his history could have been true, and probably was true! So the Nazi torturer of one’s imagination, the monstrous figure against whom one had struggled for so many years, dwindled to this pitiful wretch, whose obvious need was not for punishment, but for some kind of psychological treatment.

Later, there were further humiliations. Another S.S. officer, a large brawny man, was ordered to strip to the waist and show the blood group number tattooed on his under-arm; another was forced to explain to us how he had lied about being a member of the S.S. and attempted to pass himself off as an ordinary soldier of the Wehrmacht. I wondered whether the Jew was getting any real kick out of this new-found power that he was exercising. I concluded that he wasn’t really enjoying it, and that he was merely — like a man in a brothel, or a boy smoking his first cigar, or a tourist traipsing round a picture gallery — telling himself that he was enjoying it, and behaving as he had planned to behave in the days he was helpless.

It is absurd to blame any German or Austrian Jew for getting his own back on the Nazis. Heaven knows what scores this particular man may have had to wipe out; very likely his whole family had been murdered; and after all, even a wanton kick to a prisoner is a very tiny thing compared with the outrages committed by the Hitler régime. But what this scene, and much else that I saw in Germany, brought home to me was that the whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish daydream. Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.

Who would not have jumped for joy, in 1940, at the thought of seeing S.S. officers kicked and humiliated? But when the thing becomes possible, it is merely pathetic and disgusting. It is said that when Mussolini’s corpse was exhibited in public, an old woman drew a revolver and fired five shots into it, exclaiming, ‘Those are for my five sons!’ It is the kind of story that the newspapers make up, but it might be true. I wonder how much satisfaction she got out of those five shots, which, doubtless, she had dreamed years earlier of firing. The condition of her being able to get close enough to Mussolini to shoot at him was that he should be a corpse.

In so far as the big public in this country is responsible for the monstrous peace settlement now being forced on Germany, it is because of a failure to see in advance that punishing an enemy brings no satisfaction. We acquiesce in crimes like the expulsion of all Germans from East Prussia — crimes which in some cases we could not prevent but might at least have protested against — because the Germans had angered and frightened us, and therefore we were certain that when they were down we should feel no pity for them. We persist in these policies, or let others persist in them on our behalf, because of a vague feeling that, having set out to punish Germany, we ought to go ahead and do it. Actually there is little acute hatred of Germany left in this country, and even less, I should expect to find, in the army of occupation. Only the minority of sadists, who must have their ‘atrocities’ from one source or another, take a keen interest in the hunting-down of war criminals and quislings. If you asked the average man what crime Goering, Ribbentrop, and the rest are to be charged with at their trial, he cannot tell you. Somehow the punishment of these monsters ceases to seem attractive when it becomes possible: indeed, once under lock and key, they almost cease to be monsters.

Unfortunately, there is often a need of some concrete incident before one can discover the real state of one’s feelings. Here is another memory from Germany. A few hours after Stuttgart was captured by the French army, a Belgian journalist and myself entered the town, which was still in some disorder. The Belgian had been broadcasting throughout the war for the European Service of the BBC, and, like nearly all Frenchmen or Belgians, he had a very much tougher attitude towards ‘the Boche’ than an Englishman or an American would have. All the main bridges into town had been blown up, and we had to enter by a small footbridge which the Germans had evidently mad efforts to defend. A dead German soldier was lying supine at the foot of the steps. His face was a waxy yellow. On his breast someone had laid a bunch of the lilac which was blooming everywhere.

The Belgian averted his face as we went past. When we were well over the bridge he confided to me that this was the first time he had seen a dead man. I suppose he was thirty five years old, and for four years he had been doing war propaganda over the radio. For several days after this, his attitude was quite different from what it had been earlier. He looked with disgust at the bomb-wrecked town and the humiliation the Germans were undergoing, and even on one occasion intervened to prevent a particularly bad bit of looting. When he left, he gave the residue of the coffee we had brought with us to the Germans on whom we were billeted. A week earlier he would probably have been scandalized at the idea of giving coffee to a ‘Boche’. But his feelings, he told me, had undergone a change at the sight of “ce pauvre mort” beside the bridge: it had suddenly brought home to him the meaning of war. And yet, if we had happened to enter the town by another route, he might have been spared the experience of seeing one corpse out of the — perhaps — twenty million that the war has produced.

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Notes:

A less sympathetic view of ‘innocent Germany’ was expressed in a letter from Mrs. S. Rose printed in Tribune, 16 November 1945:

Of course everyone knows that revenge can be sour—if too long delayed and too long anticipated. But it can also be sweet if it takes the form of just, sure retribution. Why does Mr. Orwell seek to damp down the just indignation of the still suffering victims of fascism? Is it that he sympathises with it more than he pretends to do with the millions it has outraged? Is he so kind to Germany because he hates Russia and the other Slav countries who won’t let him forget and forgive and so resume his comfortable existence writing for progressive journals?
His poor withers are wrung with pity for innocent Germany because by a “monstrous” peace settlement she is suffering the “crime” of dismember­ment. He would not punish her at all for twice in one generation hurling the world into the ruin of world war, because “punishment brings no satisfac­tion. ” The man who can write like this has lost all sense of justice and reality.

On 7 December 1945, Tribune published a response to Mrs. Rose’s letter from H. Duncan Littlechild:

Is it not Mrs. Rose rather than Mr. Orwell who has lost all sense of justice and reality? There are still millions in Spain and Portugal suffering from fascism, and I am certain that Mr. Orwell is at least as disturbed as Mrs. Rose; but disgust with a regime does not entail blood lust.
I would like to remind Mrs. Rose that justice does not mean, as she appears to think, the Mosaic law of an eye for an eye, but rather the socialist interpretation. When justice for miners, or other workers, is called for, it means that their needs should be understood, and, being understood, should be satisfied. It was this failure, twenty-five years ago, to deal justly with the people of Germany that was wholly responsible for the recent holocaust. As for the cry that Germany has twice plunged the world into the ruin of world war, this statement may be convenient to the Tory capitalists, but it is simply not true.
Perhaps Mrs. Rose is not aware that until September, 1939, we were supplying Germany with munitions of war, and Japan long after the date. As one who saw German dead at Passchendaele and in France, I can assure your correspondent that such a sight brings no feeling of exultation. Only a dead fellow human is seen, and that brings angry bitterness and a feeling of nausea for those who still laud the glories of war.

 

We want peace, and that can only be secured by interpreting justice as Mr. Orwell does, and not by the damnable Mosaic interpretation of Mrs. Rose.

On 31 December 1945, Dwight Macdonald wrote from the United States to tell Orwell that this article made a point which was new to him and very important: ‘when I have been angry with people, I too have felt just the same lack of interest, later, in scoring off them. Stalin, however, apparently is a horse of another color!’

Source: CW17-2786

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