Denial is a strong capability of the human mind, socially evolved for its survival value. For example, at the end of the war in Germany, most people denied knowing about the existence of death camps. But they must have known of the concentration camps within which the extermination programmes were hidden. German people must, surely, have been aware of the civilian labour programmes, the loss of legal protections such as habeas corpus, the right to a trial. They must have observed the incremental passage of enabling acts for a police state with growing concern. Why didn’t they resist before it was too late? we ask, with comfortable hindsight. Why didn’t people speak out?
Some did, of course. And what happened to them? The same as would have happened under Stalin or Mao — they were beaten up, tortured or killed by private armies of brown-shirted thugs, or arrested and taken to labour camps, where they were tattooed with IBM serial numbers and worked to death for I G Farben. Or they were mown down on the edge of pits they themselves had dug. Or they were tortured or experimented on, lost in a world beyond the protection of laws.
Those who survived National Socialism in Germany were not, one must assume, its most outspoken critics. Those who stayed out of the camps would by definition be those who didn’t like talking about, or even knowing about, concentration camps and things of that nature. As always, not knowing is a survival strategy — and those who survived the regime are, I suppose, statistically more likely to be the ones who had mastered the art of not knowing.
In a Mafia neighbourhood, there are things you train yourself not to notice. Blindness has survival value, when the sighted begin to disappear into the prisons.
I lived for six years in Amsterdam. Arriving there several weeks before starting my new job, I walked around the city and hung out in the park and the coffeeshops. The first three conversations I had with strangers all went the same way. They’d ask me what I thought of the place so far, and I’d say great, really chilled, I liked it; and then they’d give me the dark warning. It would go something like this:
‘Well, just be careful. You know, Amsterdam is a place where you can get anything you want. And I mean, anything you want. So – be careful.’
One girl, with junkie’s skin, said to me, ‘It can be a very cold place, you know.’
And that’s true. Physically, it’s true – this is Northern Europe, after all, despite the balconies on every apartment and the flocks of parakeets in Vondel Park…
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