Ed Driscoll

Crimes and Misdemeanors and the Dachau Gift Shop

“You Wouldn’t Believe What I Saw in the Dachau Gift Shop,” is the memorable headline atop a new article by Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg.com. Immediately below said memorable headline is is an even more memorable photo that Goldberg took at — and here’s a phrase you rarely hear all that often — the Dachau Gift Shop — the gift shop at the Dachau concentration camp, which he had recently visited:

Before I go any further, a confession: This photograph would get me fired by the Associated Press, which has strict rules about manipulating imagery. I manipulated this image by moving the Philip Roth biography to the spot just below the Woody Allen biography in order to intensify the deep ridiculousness of a concentration camp gift shop selling biographies of Philip Roth and Woody Allen. The Roth biography had previously sat on an adjacent rack, alongside biographies of Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud.

I visited Dachau one afternoon during the Munich Security Conference with a friend, Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post. Visiting Dachau seemed like a particularly appropriate thing for us to do: At a panel discussion about Syria the previous night, a succession of very powerful people argued that they, and the governments and institutions they represent, are powerless to stop Bashar al-Assad from murdering Syrian citizens with whom he disagrees.

At this discussion, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former State Department official, became exercised, comparing this attitude to the indifference of the world to the Holocaust as it was taking place. “In the United States, we often ask, ‘Why didn’t Roosevelt bomb the trains?’ We aren’t very different,” she said.

I should underscore that this discussion about the West’s powerlessness in the face of fascist evil was taking place in Munich.

Though I am sometimes critical of attempts to compare current-day atrocities to the Holocaust, Slaughter’s analogy seemed appropriate. The Holocaust is the Holocaust, a sui generis, industrialized and scientifically advanced attempt — and a partially successful one — to exterminate an entire ethnic group without regard to nationality or borders. But Slaughter is right to argue that Syria exists on the same continuum of horror and that the response of the so-called civilized world should be a source of shame.

Perhaps a pair of tweets from Allen’s former muse could place that last sentence into context:

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And note that Farrow co-starred in Allen’s 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors, which was Woody’s movie-length apologia for the same Nietzschian Will to Power that fueled those who built Dachau in 1933. And Crimes and Misdemeanors also ties into the placement of Philip Roth in Goldberg’s photo. As Goldberg very likely knows, the two men have long had strangely intertwined and feuding professional careers. Claire Blume played the spouse of Martin Landau’s coldly-plotting lead character in that film, and would be married to Roth for six years, beginning the year after Crimes and Misdemeanors’ release.

At the conclusion of the marriage between Roth and Claire Bloom, Philip Roth would date…Mia Farrow. (They’re still on good terms; they punked the Internet claiming they watched Sharknado together last year.) Dubbing Roth and Allen “The Estranged Twins,” as a Slate journalist noted in 2001, “it’s here that the fun really began”:

The same year that Farrow published her memoir, What Falls Away, Allen released Deconstructing Harry—a vulgar film in which Allen played a novelist who savages friends and family members by turning sordid details of their lives into thinly veiled fictions. Allen drove the point home by casting Richard Benjamin—who, Meade points out, played the hero in film adaptions of both Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint—to play the novelist’s alter ego.

So what on earth are the biographies of Roth and Allen doing in the Dachau Gift Shop in the first place? Goldberg theorizes:

In the absence of dispositive answers but knowing a bit about how modern-day German culture objectifies Jews in odd and somewhat disconcerting ways, my best guess is that these biographies are meant to suggest to visitors, especially German ones, that Jews are, in fact, really quite excellent — for one thing, they’re funny! — and therefore the Nazis were idiots for trying to annihilate them.

Goldberg writes that he tried to contact the manager of the Dachau Gift Shop on several occasions to solicit a more specific answer, but she’s been ducking her calls — “Apparently, one thing you don’t want to do as a foreign visitor is upset the order of German concentration camp gift shops,” he drolly quips:

It’s just one of those unspoken taboos, I guess. Kind of like making too big a deal of modern-day massacres while attending an international security conference in a city whose name provokes memories of both fascism and appeasement.

Heh. And Goldberg’s last line dovetails all too well with an article by Mark Steyn appearing at Steyn Online this weekend on Schindler’s List, which was the Best Picture Winner at the 1994 Academy Awards:

All films ‘about’ the Holocaust have an uneasy tension between the close-up and the big picture. Spielberg understands that that tension is a problem not just of filming the subject, but of the subject itself: that the tale of any one individual has to struggle to avoid being swamped by the sheer scale of horror. His brilliant answer is to humanize the mass: in the anonymity of the ghetto, in the chaotic frenzy of a massacre, he can sketch characters in a few seconds, so that, in their various small responses, a hundred stories are told. And, even as he ennobles history’s vast supporting cast, he corrects all those films which flattered the Germans by personifying Nazi evil in the form of lip-curling bullet-headed commandants. The real face of evil is the bland anonymous German conscripts, after the Cracow massacre, combing the ghetto with the remorseless doggedness of petty officialdom, their stethoscopes pressed to the ceilings just in case there’s anyone still breathing up there. Thus, the greater German “list” — process, procedures, rules to be followed — within which Schindler’s had to operate; a system which transforms the stethoscope into an instrument of death and issues it to its infantrymen: In denying the Jews’ humanity, the Germans killed their own.

Read the whole thing.

Related: My post from late January on Hannah Arendt and The Evil of Banality.

Update (2/17/14): Sonny Bunch of the Washington Free Beacon on celluloid and “The Face of Jewish Vengeance.”