Saturday, December 31, 2005

Competition in frightfulness

Harper’s has a good review of the year. And so, hurrah, does Dave Barry, just when I thought he was skipping this year.

The end of the year is also the time when the British release archival materials. This year, there’s some good, oddly relevant World War II stuff. We find that Churchill wanted to execute Hitler and other Nazi leaders without trial – he mused about getting an electric chair from the Americans on Lend-Lease. He figured war crimes trials would be a farce and planned to use a Bill of Attainder – one of those things mentioned in the American Declaration of Independence as a sign of British oppression. The Brits were annoyed with the American troops stationed on their soil for eating like pigs while the natives were rationed, and that they agreed to allow the American military to enforce its racial segregation rules, but not in British pubs, cinemas, dance halls, etc. When the Germans put British POWs in chains, the British retaliated; Churchill: “We’ve each tied up 1,500. Germans threaten to go up to 5,000.” When the Germans destroyed a whole village (Lidice) in Czechoslovakia, Churchill considered wiping out German villages through bombing on a 3 to 1 ratio, but was talked out of it; said future prime minister Clement Attlee, “I doubt if it is useful to enter into competition in frightfulness with the Germans.”

And there are Guantanamo echoes: Gandhi began a Quit India campaign during the war, was promptly locked up without trial (in a palace rather than a prison), and began a hunger strike. British cabinet members were scared of the repercussions his death in custody would bring, and tried to work out how to release him without losing face. Churchill (who’d had to deal with hunger-striking suffragettes when he was home secretary 30 years before) was of the let-him-die school, but said that if they insisted on letting him out, they should pretend it was not because of the hunger strike, not “an act of submission to G’ will,” but portray it “as act of grace because det(ained) 6 (months) and we’ve beaten him.” There’s actually a similarity in Churchill’s approaches to Gandhi and Hitler: a wish to maintain control of the spin and give no legitimacy or voice whatsoever to them. His idea of, specifically, electrocuting Hitler was to use a form of capital punishment that would label him a “gangster” rather than a führer.

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