Friday, April 20, 2007

Deaths exaggerated

The British "progressive" columnist and semi-blogger Oliver Kamm, who can be very annoying (particularly in his dogmatic denigration of blogs), but who "gets" certain things (cough*Islamofascism*cough), can be good on the right subject, one of those being the world's favorite Holocaust denier, David Irving. The other day Kamm wrote about Irving's influence on a much more famous writer, Kurt Vonnegut, whom, Kamm notes, "anticipated his [own] death in an article in 1972," in which he said:

“I don’t console myself with the idea that my descendants and my books and all that will live on. Anybody with any sense knows that the whole solar system will go up like a celluloid collar.” His talent as a novelist was to tell of bleakness with mordant humour. . . .

Throughout his life, he decried America’s social ills. “One wonders how many of the obituaries will note that he was a loudly self-proclaimed socialist?” wrote one commentator this week, describing Vonnegut as a “writer for our times”. I am guessing [Kamm says] but probably most of them.

(Wrong. The NYT didn't. Or the LA Times. Or the Washington Post. Even the Grauniad failed to note Vonnegut's "loudly self-proclaimed" socialism.) Kamm continues:
Aesthetic quality is independent of politics, and it is a vulgar error to suppose that a character necessarily speaks for the author. With Vonnegut, however, the authorial voice is hardly subtly disguised. “Everything is going to become unimaginably worse, and never get any better again,” he declared in 1970. The constant insinuation of catastrophe, leavened by dark humour, is present in much of his work.

Vulgar error. I love the Brits. Of course, that constant insinuation (and much, much more than insinuation) of catastrophe is present in the the work of every leftist--minus, of course, the humor, dark or otherwise. Kamm:
Vonnegut experienced one of the great traumas of 20th-century history. As a prisoner of war in the Second World War, he lived through the bombing of Dresden. He survived through being incarcerated in an underground locker in an abattoir. When he emerged he found “135,000 Hansels and Gretels . . . baked like gingerbread men”. The event became a central theme of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and suffuses much of the rest of his work. . . .
Unfortunately, as Kamm points out:

Vonnegut’s philosophy and history are simplistic. Dresden was hellish — but there were not 135,000 deaths. The true figure was probably no more than a fifth of that. Vonnegut’s number came directly from the now discredited work of the Holocaust denier David Irving.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Irving is cited by name, and a long passage, by a retired air marshal, from the foreword to Irving’s book The Destruction of Dresden is reproduced. . . .

Dresden, whose beauty Vonnegut likened to Oz, became a sacrificial myth in a litany of Western crimes, unrelated to its industrial and political importance to the Nazis. In arguing in 2003 that “people are lying all the time as to what a murderous nation we are”, Vonnegut cited Nagasaki as “the most racist, nastiest act by this country, after human slavery”. Yet, as an outstanding new book, Hiroshima in History, demonstrates, contemporary Japanese government records and memoirs confirm that the dropping of both A-bombs, Nagasaki as well as Hiroshima, was crucial to Japan’s decision to surrender.

These were catastrophic acts committed under the necessity of defeating barbarism. But man is not equally culpable, and history not a record of symmetry in brutality. It merely seemed that way to a particular generation at a historical moment: the Vietnam War. The critic Robert Alter in 1975 presciently attributed Vonnegut’s popularity to “the need of many readers over the past decade for a novelist who could write away history while seeming to write about it”.

Irving, who is quite proud of the fact he was cited by Vonnegut, replies to Kamm, sort of--no link, but you'll get the gist in Kamm's response. What's funny is that Irving also stupidly links to his most hated enemy, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, the defendant in Irving's famous libel suit. Lipstadt has a surprisingly active (if somewhat hurried-looking) blog, History on Trial (the name, of course, of her book on the libel suit), and in the post Irving links to, she says:

People like Irving, i.e. Holocaust deniers, like to inflate the number of dead in Dresden as a means of engaging in "immoral equivalencies," i.e. arguing that while "some" Jews may have "died" [not murdered] in Auschwitz, this number pales by comparison to the number of "innocent" Germans killed in the bombing of Dresden.

Vonnegut helped perpetuate that myth and spread this form of denial. He probably did so initially unwittingly. But since the publication of that book enough has been written to show this is not true and he could have corrected it has he been so inclined.

And so it goes.... on and on and on.

Update: Meryl Yourish is more forgiving of Vonnegut.

Update II: More on Irving, Lipstadt and (groan) Ward Churchill here und here. Read!

Update: The Wapo's obituary of Vonnegut has this line:

Saturating [Dresden] with high explosives, followed by hundreds of thousands of incendiaries, the [British and American] bombers ignited a firestorm that claimed more than 100,000 victims. The city burned for a week.

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