Ce Pauvre Mort

While the governments and the ruling classes of Europe and the United States were ignoring, enabling, or supporting fascists, George Orwell was fighting them in Spain. There he took a fascist bullet in the throat. Later, back in England, and on the continent of Europe, Orwell lost family, friends, and property to fascist bombs and fascist bullets.

milosevic_trial_nazi_nuremburgYet after the war, Orwell wanted no part of the war-crimes tribunals convened to try and punish now-vanquished fascists. In a remarkable essay published November 9, 1945, Orwell concluded: “Revenge Is Sour.”

As people on the left continue to press for war-crimes tribunals to try and punish members of the now-vanquished Bush administration, Orwell’s essay, I think, deserves some attention.

Orwell begins in this way:

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.

Orwell’s guide in that camp was an interrogator with the American army, formerly a Viennese Jew. The prisoners included a dozen men formerly with the SS.

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.

Orwell’s guide suddenly exploded in fury, kicking the prisoner on his deformed feet and commanding him to rise. As the man struggled to do so, the interrogator explained that this prisoner’s Nazi party number indicated he had been with Hitler & Co. from the beginning; further, he had served in the political branch of the SS at a rank equivalent to general. It was probable that he had overseen camps and ordered imprisonments, torture, and killings.

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.

Orwell understood the abuse meted out to this prisoner, and to others, by his Jewish guide.

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.

celebritydeathmussolini10Orwell recounts the story of the Italian woman who fired five bullets into the corpse of Mussolini, exclaiming “these are for my five sons!” He acknowledges that this woman had probably dreamed for years of exacting just such a revenge, but wonders how much satisfaction she truly drew from it: “The condition of her being able to get near enough to Mussolini to shoot at him was that he should be a corpse.”

Orwell declares the peace settlement forced upon the Germans by the victorious Allies “monstrous” and pronounces the expulsion of millions of Germans from Prussia “a crime.” These things happened, he believes, “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.”

Orwell notes that “there is little acute hatred of Germany left in this country,” and concludes that:

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.

Orwell ends by noting that “there is often need of some concrete incident before one can discover the real state of one’s feelings.”

Orwell and a Belgian journalist entered Stuttgart shortly after it was captured by the French army. The Belgian had broadcast throughout the war for the BBC, and “had a very much tougher attitude toward ‘the Boche’ than an Englishman or an American would have.” Because all the main bridges into town had been blown up, Orwell and the Belgian had to enter upon a small footbridge, where a dead German lay 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 blossoming 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 humiliations 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 even one corpse out of the—perhaps—twenty million that the war has produced.

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2 Responses to “Ce Pauvre Mort”


  1. 1 Julia Rain June 25, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    I think Orwell makes a very good case. However, revenge isn’t really possible now. Washington is still steeped in conservative culture, as is much of the media, even MSNBC. I had to listen to this woman on MSNBC regular news drone on and on about how pictures of recently released detainees (from Northern China) enjoying their new freedom in Bermuda might “send the wrong message”. Considering these men were declared innocent not long after capture, and by the Bush administration no less, yet this woman was worried that pictures of the first decent thing we’ve done for them might send a message that we treat our prisoners better than our citizens. Perhaps this woman is a Dem and is just concerned about what Fox News et al. might do with those images, which is a just worry. My point is that if no one is punished, – not even punished, just declared guilty – they’re going to get away with it. Far too much of the country believes Bushco did nothing wrong. And if they believe Bushco did nothing wrong, they will not be outraged the next time it happens.

    I don’t really believe in punishment. I hear people calling for the blood (sometimes literally) of Bushco and I don’t like it. I mention that these people have families, innocents, who would be unfairly hurt if their those guilty people they loved were killed or harmed or locked away forever. The retort is always that far more people have been and will be hurt if these people are not brought to justice. Maybe so, but I simply find it impossible to condone, because I believe that everyone is redeemable and everyone is a product of their environment, and to an extent their mistakes and grave deeds are not wholly their fault – and there comes a time, at some point, when there’s simply nothing and no one left from whom to exact revenge. Do we blame Bush’s mother for giving birth to him? The environment he grew up in for shaping him and instilling ideas? God for creating him in he first place?

    To an extent I want them declared guilty because I am sick and tired of hearing all around me about how these acts were justified, acceptable – even good. I want that to stop. I’m right, I know it, and I want everyone else to know it too. So there is some selfishness in it. But mostly I want people to understand that these acts were wrong – not just because they’re immoral, but because they are illegal and endangered our nation – so that this can never happen again. So that people’s eyes can be opened. Of course, many will spout that the country is so “controlled by leftists” that leftists now control the interpretation of history. I don’t care about them. They are too far gone to bother with for now. But your average voter believing that waterboarding is okay in a “ticking-bomb” scenario is completely and utterly unacceptable. NBC Nightly news won’t even admit that all the evidence shows that torture severely impaired our intelligence gathering capacity because the only way regular interrogators were able to extract information was by building trust, which is rather hard to do if you’ve waterboarded someone 83 times.

    I think there are plenty of people out there who aren’t necessarily sadists who want to see the 9/11 plotters punished. Of course they channel this energy into wanting to keep Gitmo open and other such things. It would be nice is we could channel their energy into being angry that we tortured detainees instead of using what worked, which was trust-building, and perhaps if this was done correctly we could have actually found Bin laden. Or maybe they could be angry that we went into Iraq instead of concentrating on Afghanistan, which actually went surprisingly well in the beginning, but of course it’s now way too late and Afghanistan is a lost cause militarily. When we first went in and ousted the Taliban, and had a decent amount of support from the people, we had a chance. Seven years later, that chance is gone.

    Then there are those who cry for blood after learning of the actions of serial killers and such. I don’t think these people are sadists. They just don’t know what to do with their anger and shock. They want to see punishment and hope that that will somehow make the world safer and more just. It doesn’t.

    • 2 bluenred June 26, 2009 at 1:14 pm

      Good post.

      What is lost in the Bermuda stories is, as you note, that those people were unjustly imprisoned. They should never have been locked up at all. The purpose of law is to provide a remedy for injury. Unlawful and unjust imprisonment is an injury. It would seem to me that swimming in Bermuda might be considered part of the “remedy” for the injury that these people suffered. I take it, however, that this view is not being articulated on any of the TV networks that you monitor.

      The best way, in my view, to ensure that the misdeeds committed by the Bush administration are not in the future repeated is the enactment of a set of strong laws that explicitly prohibits the acts the Bushies engaged in, from torture to rendition, from kangaroo courts to indefinite detention.

      Some BushCo practices are being slapped down by the courts, which is all to the good, but that is not the definitive solution, as people can always engage in the future in acts that are similar to, but not precisely the same as, those disfavored by the courts . . . thereby requiring legal wrangling until the courts (hopefully) strike down these new practices, too.

      The proper place to begin in prohibiting these practices is in Congress. Unfortunately, Congress has, since at least the Nixon administration, been a supine institution, willing to cede its authority to the executive, though the Founders intended it to be the strongest and most vigorous of the three branches.

      Actually, the truly proper place to begin in ensuring that these sorts of misdeeds never happen again is with the people. If a majority of the populace is not made to feel, and keep feeling, that practices such as torture and rendition and indefinite detention and the like are wrong, always wrong, then laws will do little to stop the next band of brigands, when they roll out a new bogey sufficiently scarifying to frighten the people into believing such behavior to be “justified.”

      That prosecutions won’t necessarily result in either justice or deterrence is reflected in the fact that at least three people involved in BushCo misdeeds–Rodriguez, Abrams, and Poindexter–were previously prosecuted for misdeeds committed during the Reagan administration.


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