Friday, October 15, 2021

Fire safety in urban China


A rapidly rising percentage of the Chinese population is living in high-rise apartment buildings in hundreds of cities around the country. There is concern, however, about the quality and effectiveness of fire-safety regulation and enforcement for these buildings (as well as factories, warehouses, ports, and other structures). This means that high-rise fires represent a growing risk in urban China. Here is a news commentary from CGTN (link) in 2010 describing a particularly tragic high-rise fire that engulfed a 28-story building in Shanghai, killing 58 people. This piece serves to identify the parameters of the problem of fire safety more generally.

It is of course true that high-rise fires have occurred in many cities around the world, including the notorious Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017. And many of those fires also reflect underlying problems of safety regulation in the jurisdictions in which they occurred. But the problems underlying infrastructure safety seem to converge with particular seriousness in urban China. And, crucially, major fire disasters in other countries are carefully scrutinized in public reports, providing accurate and detailed information about the causes of the disaster. This scrutiny creates the political incentive to improve building codes, inspection regimes, and enforcement mechanisms of safety regulations. This open and public scrutiny is not permitted in China today, leaving the public largely ignorant of the background causes of fires, railway crashes, and other large accidents.

It is axiomatic that modern buildings require effective and professionally grounded building codes and construction requirements, adequate fire safety system requirements, and rigorous inspection and enforcement regimes that ensure a high level of compliance with fire safety regulations. Regrettably, it appears that no part of this prescription for fire safety is well developed in China.

The CGTN article mentioned above refers to the "effective" high-level fire safety legislation that the central government adopted in 1998, the Fire Control Law of the People's Republic of China (link), and this legislation warrants close study. However, close examination suggests that this guiding legislation lacks crucial elements that are needed in order to ensure compliance with safety regulations -- especially when compliance is highly costly for the owners/managers of buildings and other facilities. Previous disasters in China suggest a pattern: poor inspection and enforcement prior to an accident or fire, followed by prosecution and punishment of individuals involved in the occurrence of the disaster in the aftermath. But this is not an effective mechanism for ensuring safety. Owners, managers, and officials are more than ready to run the small risk of future prosecution for the sake of gains in the costs of present operations of various facilities.

The systemic factors that act against fire safety in China include at least these pervasive social and political conditions: ineffective and corrupt inspection offices, powerful property managers who are able to ignore safety violations, pressure from the central government to avoid interfering with rapid economic growth, government secrecy about disasters when they occur, and lack of independent journalism capable of freely gathering and publishing information about disasters.

In particular, the fact that the news media (and now social media as well) are tightly controlled in China is a very serious obstacle to improving safety when it comes to accidents, explosions, train wrecks, and fires. The Chinese news media do not publish detailed accounts of disasters as they occur, and they usually are unable to carry out the investigative journalism needed to uncover background conditions that have created the circumstances in which these catastrophes arise (ineffective or corrupt inspection regimes; enforcement agencies that are hampered in their work by the political requirements of the state; corrupt practices by private owners/managers of high-rise properties, factories, and ports; and so on). It is only when the public can become aware of the deficiencies in government and business that have led to a disaster, that reforms can be designed and implemented that make those disasters less likely in the future. But the lack of independent journalism means leaving the public in the dark about these important details of their contemporary lives.

The story quoted above is from CGTN, a Chinese news agency, and this story is unusual for its honesty in addressing some of the deficiencies of safety management and regulation in Shanghai. CGTN is an English-language Chinese news service, owned and operated by Chinese state-owned media organization China Central Television (CCTV). As such it is under full editorial control by offices of the Chinese central government. And the government is rarely willing to have open and honest reporting of major disasters, and the organizational, governmental, and private dysfunctions that led to them. It is noteworthy, therefore, that the story is somewhat explicit about the dysfunctions and corruption that led to the Shanghai disaster. The article quotes an article in China Daily (owned by the publicity department of the CCP) that refers to poor enforcement and corruption:

However, a 2015 article by China Daily called for the Fire Control Law to be more strictly enforced, saying that the Chinese public now “gradually takes it for granted that when a big fire happens there must be a heavy loss of life.”

While saying “China has a good fire protection law,” the newspaper warned that it was frequently violated, with fire engine access blocked by private cars, escape routes often blocked and flammable materials still being “widely used in high buildings.”

The article also pointed at corruption within fire departments, saying inspections have “become a cash cow,” with businesses and construction companies paying bribes in return for lax safety standards being ignored.

So -- weak inspections, poor compliance with regulations, and corruption. Both the CCTV report and the China Daily story it quotes are reasonably explicit about unpalatable truths. But note -- the CGTN story was prepared for an English-speaking audience, and is not available to ordinary Chinese readers in China. And this appears to be the case for the China Daily article that was quoted as well. And most importantly -- the political climate surrounding the journalistic practices of China Daily has tightened very significantly since 2015.

Another major institutional obstacle to safety in China is the lack of genuinely independent regulatory safety agencies. The 1998 Fire Control Law of the People's Republic of China is indicative. The legislation refers to the responsibility of local authorities (provincial, municipal) to establish fire safety organizations; but it is silent about the nature, resources, and independence of inspection authorities. Here is the language of the first several articles of the Fire Control Law:

Article 2 Fire control work shall follow the policy of devoting major efforts into prevention and combining fire prevention with fire fighting, and shall adhere to the principle of combining the efforts of both specialized organizations and the masses and carry out responsibility system on fire prevention and safety.

Note that this article immediately creates a confusion of responsibility concerning the detailed tasks of establishing fire safety: "specialized organizations" and "the masses" carry out responsibility.

Article 3 The State Council shall lead and the people's governments at all levels be responsible for fire control work. The people's government at all levels shall bring fire control work in line with the national economy and social development plan, and ensure that fire control work fit in with the economic construction and social development.

Here too is a harmful diffusion of responsibility: "the people's governments at all levels [shall] be responsible ...". In addition a new priority is introduced: consistency with the "national economy and social development plan". This implies that fire safety regulations and agencies at the provincial and municipal level must balance economic needs with the needs of ensuring safety -- a potentially fatal division of priorities. If substituting a non-flammable cladding to an 80-story residential building will add one billion yuan to the total cost of the building -- does this requirement impede the "national economy and development plan"? Can the owner/managers resist the new regulation on the grounds that it is too costly?

Article 4 The public security department of the State Council shall monitor and administer the nationwide fire control work; the public security organs of local people's governments above county level shall monitor and administer the fire control work within their administrative region and the fire control institutions of public security organs of the people's government at the same level shall be responsible for the implementation. Fire control work for military facilities, underground parts of mines and nuclear power plant shall be monitored and administered by their competent units. For fire control work on forest and grassland, in case there are separate regulations, the separate regulations shall be followed.

Here we find specific institutional details about oversight of "nationwide fire control work": it is the public security organs that are tasked to "monitor and administer" fire control institutions. Plainly, the public security organs have no independence from the political authorities at provincial and national levels; so their conduct is suspect when it comes to the task of "independent, rigorous enforcement of safety regulations".

Article 5 Any unit and individual shall have the obligation of keeping fire control safety, protecting fire control facilities, preventing fire disaster and reporting fire alarm. Any unit and adult shall have the obligation to take part in organized fire fighting work.

Here we are back to the theme of diffusion of responsibility. "Any unit and individual shall have the obligation of keeping fire control safety" -- this statement implies that there should not be free-standing, independent, and well-resourced agencies dedicated to ensuring compliance with fire codes, conducting inspections, and enforcing compliance by reluctant owners.

It seems, then, that the 1998 Fire Control Law is largely lacking in what should have been its primary purpose: specification of the priority of fire safety, establishment of independent safety agencies at various levels of government with independent power of enforcement, and with adequate resources to carry out their fire safety missions, and a clear statement that there should be no interference with the proper inspection and enforcement activities of these agencies -- whether by other organs of government or by large owner/operators.

The 1998 Fire Control Law was extended in 2009, and a chapter was added entitled "Supervision and Inspection". Clauses in this chapter offer somewhat greater specificity about inspections and enforcement of fire-safety regulation. Departments of local and regional government are charged to "conduct targeted fire safety inspections" and "promptly urge the rectification of hidden fire hazards" (Article 52). (Notice that the verb "urge" is used rather than "require".) Article 53 specifies that the police station (public security) is responsible for "supervising and inspecting the compliance of fire protection laws and regulations". Article 54 addresses the issue of possible discovery of "hidden fire hazards" during fire inspection; this requires notification of the responsible unit of the necessity of eliminating the hazard. Article 55 specifies that if a fire safety agency discovers that fire protection facilities do not meet safety requirements, it must report to the emergency management department of higher-level government in writing. Article 56 provides specifications aimed at preventing corrupt collaboration between fire departments and units: "Fire rescue agencies ... shall not charge fees, shall not use their positions to seek benefits". And, finally, Article 57 specifies that "all units and individuals have the right to report and sue the illegal activities of the authorities" if necessary. Notice, however, that, first, all of this inspection and enforcement activity occurs within a network of offices and departments dependent ultimately on central government; and second, the legislation remains very unspecific about how this set of expectations about regulation, inspection, and enforcement is to be implemented at the local and provincial levels. There is nothing in this chapter that gives the observer confidence that effective regulations will be written; effective inspection processes will be carried out; and failed inspections will lead to prompt remediation of hazardous conditions.

The Tianjin port explosion in 2015 is a case in point (link, link). Poor regulations, inadequate and ineffective inspections, corruption, and bad behavior by large private and governmental actors culminated in a gigantic pair of explosions of 800 tons of ammonium nitrate. This was one of the worst industrial and environmental disasters in China's recent history, and resulted in the loss of 173 lives, including 104 poorly equipped fire fighters. Prosecutions ensued after the disaster, including the conviction and suspended death sentence of Ruihai International Logistics Chairman Yu Xuewei for bribery, and the conviction of 48 other individuals for a variety of crimes (link). But punishment after the fact is no substitute for effective, prompt inspection and enforcement of safety requirements.

It is not difficult to identify the organizational dysfunctions in China that make fire safety, railway safety, food safety, and perhaps nuclear safety difficult to attain. What is genuinely difficult is to see how these dysfunctions can be corrected in a single-party state. Censorship, subordination of all agencies to central control, the omnipresence of temptations to corrupt cooperation -- all of these factors seem to be systemic within a one-party state. The party state wants to control public opinion; therefore censorship. The party state wants to control all political units; therefore a lack of independence for safety agencies. And positions of decision-making that create lucrative "rent-seeking" opportunities for office holders -- therefore corruption, from small payments to local inspectors to massive gifts of wealth to senior officials. A pluralistic, liberal society embodying multiple centers of power and freedom of press and association is almost surely a safer society. Ironically, this was essentially Amartya Sen's argument in Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, his classic analysis of famine and malnutrition: a society embodying a free press and reasonably free political institutions is much more likely to respond quickly to conditions of famine. His comparison was between India in the Bengal famine (1943) and China in the Great Leap Forward famine (1959-61).

Here is a Google translation of the 2009 Chapter V of the 2009 revision of the Fire Protection Law of the People's Republic of China mentioned above.

Chapter V Supervision and Inspection

Article 52 Local people's governments at all levels shall implement a fire protection responsibility system and supervise and inspect the performance of fire safety duties by relevant departments of the people's government at the same level.

The relevant departments of the local people's government at or above the county level shall, based on the characteristics of the system, conduct targeted fire safety inspections, and promptly urge the rectification of hidden fire hazards.

Article 53 Fire and rescue agencies shall supervise and inspect the compliance of fire protection laws and regulations by agencies, organizations, enterprises, institutions and other entities in accordance with the law. The police station may be responsible for daily fire control supervision and inspection, and conduct fire protection publicity and education. The specific measures shall be formulated by the public security department of the State Council.

The staff of fire rescue agencies and public security police stations shall present their certificates when conducting fire supervision and inspection.

Article 54: Fire rescue agencies that discover hidden fire hazards during fire supervision and inspection shall notify relevant units or individuals to take immediate measures to eliminate the hidden hazards; if the hidden hazards are not eliminated in time and may seriously threaten public safety, the fire rescue agency shall deal with the dangerous parts in accordance with regulations. Or the place adopts temporary sealing measures.

Article 55: If the fire rescue agency discovers that the urban and rural fire safety layout and public fire protection facilities do not meet the fire safety requirements during the fire supervision and inspection, or finds that there is a major fire hazard affecting public safety in the area, it shall report to the emergency management department in writing. Level People’s Government.

The people's government that receives the report shall verify the situation in a timely manner, organize or instruct relevant departments and units to take measures to make corrections.

Article 56 The competent department of housing and urban-rural construction, fire rescue agencies and their staff shall conduct fire protection design review, fire protection acceptance, random inspections and fire safety inspections in accordance with statutory powers and procedures, so as to be fair, strict, civilized and efficient.

Housing and urban-rural construction authorities, fire rescue agencies and their staff shall conduct fire protection design review, fire inspection and acceptance, record and spot checks and fire safety inspections, etc., shall not charge fees, shall not use their positions to seek benefits; they shall not use their positions to designate or appoint users, construction units, or Disguisedly designate the brand, sales unit or fire-fighting technical service organization or construction unit of fire-fighting equipment for fire-fighting products.

Article 57 The competent housing and urban-rural construction departments, fire and rescue agencies and their staff perform their duties, should consciously accept the supervision of society and citizens.

All units and individuals have the right to report and sue the illegal activities of the housing and urban-rural construction authorities, fire and rescue agencies and their staff in law enforcement. The agency that receives the report or accusation shall investigate and deal with it in a timely manner in accordance with its duties.

*    *    *    *    *

(Here is a detailed technical fire code for China from 2014 (link).)


Sunday, October 10, 2021

Ludwik Fleck and "thought styles" in science


Let's think about the intellectual influences that have shaped philosophers of science over the past one hundred years or so: Vienna Circle empiricism, logical positivism, the deductive-nomological method, the Kuhn-Lakatos revolution, incorporation of the sociology of science into philosophy of science, a surge of interest in scientific realism, and an increasing focus on specific areas of science as objects of philosophy of science investigations. And along these waypoints it would be fairly easy to place a few road signs indicating the major philosophers associated with each phase in the story -- Ayer, Carnap, Reichenbach, Hempel, Nagel, Hanson, Hesse, Kuhn, Lakatos, Putnam, Boyd, Quine, Sellars, Bhaskar, Sober, Rosenberg, Hausman, Epstein ...

So we might get the idea that we've got a pretty good idea of the "space" in which philosophy of science questions should be posed, along with a sense of the direction of change and progress that has occurred in the field since 1930. The philosophy of science is a "tradition" within philosophy, and we who practice in the field have a sense of understanding its geography.

But now I suggest that readers examine Wojciech Sady's excellent article on Ludwik Fleck in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link). Fleck (1896-1961) was a Polish-Jewish scientist and medical researcher who wrote extensively in the 1930s about "social cognition" and what we would now call the sociology of science. His biography is fascinating and harrowing; he and his family survived life in Lvov under the Soviet Union (1939-1941) after the simultaneous invasion of Poland by Germany and the USSR; occupation, pogroms, and capture by the Germans in Lvov; resettlement in the Lvov ghetto; transport to Auschwitz and later Buchenwald; and survival throughout, largely because of his scientific expertise on typhus vaccination. Fleck survived to serve as a senior academic scientist in Lublin. In 1957 Fleck and his wife emigrated to Israel, where their son had settled.

Fleck is not entirely unknown to philosophers today, but it's a close call. A search for articles on Fleck in a research university search engine produces about 2,500 academic articles; by comparison, the same search results in 183,000 articles on Thomas Kuhn. And I suspect that virtually no philosopher with a PhD from a US department of philosophy since 1970 and with a concentration in the philosophy of science has ever heard of Fleck. 100% of those philosophers, of course, will have a pretty good idea of Kuhn's central ideas. And yet Fleck has a great deal in common with Kuhn -- some three decades earlier. More importantly, many of Fleck's lines of thought about the history of concepts of disease in medicine are still enormously stimulating, and they represent potential sources of innovation in the field today. Fleck asked very original and challenging questions about the nature of scientific concepts and knowledge. Thomas Kuhn was one of the few historians of science who were aware of Fleck's work, and he wrote a very generous introduction to the English translation of Fleck's major book in the sociology and history of science, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (1979/1935).

Here are Fleck's central ideas, as summarized by Sady. Understanding the world around us (cognition) is a collective project. Individuals interacting with each other about some aspect of the world constitute a "thought collective" -- "a community of persons mutually exchanging ideas or maintaining intellectual interaction" (Sady, sect. 3). A thought collective forms a vocabulary and crafts a set of concepts that are mutually understood within the group, but misunderstood by persons outside the group. A "thought collective" forms a "collective bond" -- a set of emotions of loyalty and solidarity which Fleck describes as a "collective mood". There are no "objective facts"; rather, facts are defined by the terms and constructs of the "thought collective". And the perceptions, beliefs, and representations of different "thought collectives" concerned with ostensibly the same subject matter are incommensurable.

So it is not possible to compare a theory with “reality in itself”. It is true that those who use a thought style give arguments for their views, but those arguments are of restricted value. Any attempt to legitimize a particular view is inextricably bound to standards developed within a given style, and those who accept those standards accept also the style. (Sady, sect. 7)

And scientific knowledge is entirely conditional upon the background structure of the "thought collective" or conceptual framework of the research community:

As Fleck states in the last sentence of (1935b), “'To see’ means: to recreate, at a suitable moment, a picture created by the mental collective to which one belongs”. (Sady, sect. 5)

Thus, it is impossible to see something radically new “simply and immediately”: first the constrains of an old thought style must be removed and a new style must emerge, a collective's thought mood must change— and this takes time and work with others. (Sady, sect. 5)

These ideas plainly correspond closely to Imre Lakatos's idea of a research community and Thomas Kuhn's idea of a paradigm. They stand in striking contrast to the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle being developed at roughly the same time. (And yet Sady notes that Moritz Schlick offered to recommend publication of Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact in 1934.)

Upon first exposure to Fleck's ideas from the Sady article I initially assumed that Fleck was influenced by Communist ideas about science and knowledge (as were Polish sociologists and philosophers in the 1950s). The "collective thoughts" that are central to Fleck's account of the history of science sound a lot like Engels or Lenin. And yet this turns out not to be the case. Nothing in Sady's article suggests that Fleck was influenced by Polish Communist theory in the 1920s and 1930s. Instead, his ideas about social cognition seem to develop out of a largely central European tradition of thinking about thinking. According to Sady, Fleck's own "thought collectives" (research traditions) included: (1) medical research; (2) the emerging field in Poland of history of medicine (Władysław Szumowski, Włodzimierz Sieradzki, and Witold Ziembicki); (3) the Polish "philosophical branch" of mathematical-philosophical school (minor); (4) sociology of knowledge (Levy-Bruhl, Wilhelm Jerusalem; but not Max Scheler or Karl Mannheim; also minor). Sady also emphasizes Fleck's interest in the debates that were arising in physics around the puzzles of quantum mechanics and relativity theory.

So there is a major irony here: one of Fleck's central ideas is that individual thinkers can achieve nothing by themselves as individuals. And yet Fleck's ideas as developed in his history of the medical concept of syphilis appear to be largely self-generated -- the results of his own knowledge and reflection. The advocate of the necessity of "thought collectives" was himself not deeply integrated into any coherent thought collective.

This story has an important moral. Most importantly, it confirms to me that there are always important perspectives on a given philosophical topic that have fallen outside the mainstream and may be forever forgotten. This suggests the value, for philosophers and other scholars interested in arriving at valuable insights into difficult problems, of paying attention to the paths not taken in previous generations. There is nothing in the nature of academic research that guarantees that "the best ideas of a generation will become part of the canon for the next generation"; instead, many good and original ideas have been lost to the disciplines through bad luck. This is largely true of Fleck.

But here is another, more singular fact that is of interest. How did Sady's article, and therefore Fleck himself, come to my attention? The answer is that in the past year I've been reading a lot about Polish and Jewish intellectuals from the 1930s with growing fascination because of a growing interest in the Holocaust and the Holodomor. That means a lot of searches on people like Janina Bauman, Leszek Kołakowski, and Vasily Grossman. I've searched for the histories of places like Lvov, Galicia, and Berdichev. And in the serendipity of casting a wide net, I've arrived at the happy experience of reading Sady's fascinating article, along with some of Fleck's important work.

Here is the prologue to Fleck's Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. It expresses very concisely Fleck's perspective on science, concepts, and facts.

What is a fact?

A fact is supposed to be distinguished from transient theories as something definite, permanent, and independent of any subjective interpretation by the scientist. It is that which the various scientific disciplines aim at. The critique of the methods used to establish it constitutes the subject matter of epistemology.

Epistemology often commits a fundamental error: almost exclusively it regards well-established facts of everyday life, or those of classical physics, as the only ones that are reliable and worthy of investigation. Valuation based upon such an investigation is inherently naive, with the result that only superficial data are obtained.

Moreover, we have even lost any critical insight we may once have had into the organic basis of perception, taking for granted the basic fact that a normal person has two eyes. We have nearly ceased to consider this as even knowledge at all and are no longer conscious of our own participation in perception. Instead, we feel a complete passivity in the face of a power that is independent of us; a power we call “existence” or “reality.” In this respect we behave like someone who daily performs ritual or habitual actions mechanically. These are no longer voluntary activities, but ones which we feel compelled to perform to the exclusion of others. A better analogy perhaps is the behavior of a person taking part in a mass movement. Consider, for instance, a casual visitor to the Stock Exchange, who feels the panic selling in a bear market as only an external force existing in reality. He is completely unaware of his own excitement in the throng and hence does not realize how much he may be contributing to the general state. Long-established facts of everyday life, then, do not lend themselves to epistemological investigation.

As for the facts of classical physics, here too we are handicapped by being accustomed to them in practice and by the facts themselves being well worn theoretically. I therefore believe that a “more recent fact,” discovered not in the remote past and not yet exhausted for epistemological purposes, will conform best to the principles of unbiased investigation. A medical fact, the importance and applicability of which cannot be denied, is particularly suitable, because it also appears to be very rewarding historically and phenomenologically. I have therefore selected one of the best established medical facts: the fact that the so-called Wassermann reaction is related to syphilis.

HOW, THEN, DID THIS EMPIRICAL FACT ORIGINATE AND IN WHAT DOES IT CONSIST?

Lvov, Poland, summer 1934


Saturday, October 9, 2021

Striving for consensus in Nazi Germany?


Nathan Stoltzfus's Hitler's Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany has a remarkable and startling thesis: though the Nazi regime used absolutely unconstrained violence and coercion in its conquest, domination, and annihilation of its enemies (Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, the USSR), its approach to ruling Germany was strikingly different. Stoltzfus maintains that Hitler and the Nazi regime sought to cultivate broad support among Germans for its war and extermination aims, while building a strong consensus around ideology and values in the German homeland.

Except for a tiny fraction of the population, consisting of Jews, political dissidents, social outsiders, and the congenitally “incurable,” National Socialism strove to bring all Germans into line with the thinking that they should be the master of others. The effort to extract the maximal effort of the people in conquering the continent and killing millions outright was conducted with concern for the “German-blooded” people. Nazi propaganda directed German women to become the mothers of the nation through appeals to love of Nazi leaders and heroes, as well as for their own children. The National Socialist People’s Welfare (NSV) was an enormous agency dedicated to benefiting productive, racially valuable Germans. kl 54

In fact, Stoltzfus suggests that post-war Germany has fallen for a myth of its own wartime history: the myth of a violent, coercive dictatorship that compelled the German people to carry out his evil purposes.

The Germans have earned high praise for facing the crimes of their past, showing more reluctant countries how to do it. Still today there are signs of a retrenchment among some historians, as well as in the official commemorations in Germany, in the comforting belief that Hitler ruled his own “race” of people by intimidation and terror more than by incentives and rewards, that the Gestapo crushed all opposition, and that the dictatorship set its course according to its ideology and proceeded in a straight path toward it, steamrolling any obstacles with brute force. kl 102

But according to Stoltzfus, this is a myth. On the homefront, Stoltzfus appears to argue, Hitler was a calculating politician, aiming at creating a supportive and contented public, rather than a ranting dictator using murder, torture, and imprisonment to coerce his nation to his goals. And the German public was largely willing to support his policies.

Robert Gellately makes a similar case in Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.

Hitler wanted to create a dictatorship, but he also wanted the support of the people. The most important thing he could do to win them over was to solve the massive unemployment problem. Although it is clear that his regime beat the Great Depression faster than any of the Western democracies, it still took time.

The new regime made no bones about using coercion in many forms against its declared enemies, but it also sought the consent and support of the people at every turn. As I try to show in the book, consent and coercion were inextricably entwined throughout the history of the Third Reich, partly because most of the coercion and terror was used against specific individuals, minorities, and social groups for whom the people had little sympathy. (kl 195)

Thus, the Nazis did not act out of delusional or blind fanaticism in the beginning, but with their eyes wide open to the social and political realities around them. They developed their racist and repressive campaigns, by looking at German society, history, and traditions. The identification and treatment of political opponents and the persecution of social and racial outsiders illustrated the kind of populist dictatorship that developed under Hitler. (kl 264)

And Gellately argues that the German public was aware of many of the details of the violence of the secret police and the use of concentration camps and rejects the view that these facts were withheld from the German public:

This book challenges these views. It shows that a vast array of material on the police and the camps and various discriminatory campaigns was published in the media of the day. In the 1930s the regime made sure the concentration camps were reported in the press, held them up for praise, and proudly let it be known that the men and women in the camps were confined without trial on the orders of the police. kl 299

The most compelling evidence of this interpretation of Hitler's populist dictatorship, for Stoltzfus, is the fact that there were occasional signs of public disapproval of Nazi actions, including resistance by Germany's churches to euthanasia, protests against imprisonment of Jewish husbands of non-Jewish wives, and public protests over other issues; and the Nazi regime sought to change its behavior to conform better to the expectations of the public. These are the compromises in the title of Stoltzfus's book.

During 1943 as well, Hitler preferred to appease rather than repress two spectacular street protests by women, even as the People’s Court increased sentences for treason. By mid-1943, complaints and jokes about the regime leaders were so prevalent that prosecutors thought that singling one person out for punishment on such an offense was untenable, and the SD was concerned about an inner collapse on the home front. kl 512

Taken separately, each instance of regime compromise might be explained as an exception that it made for specific sectors of Germans: workers, the churches, women. Taken together, the various cases of the dictatorship’s willingness to compromise in ruling the people illuminate a pattern of response to social dissent, regardless of which group was dissenting. The regime’s willingness to make concessions to the working class in order to assuage its dissatisfactions is well documented.51 But it also preempted or ameliorated signs of sustained opposition in public by other social groups as well, an approach that is hardly surprising considering its earnest manipulation of demonstrations and rallies in an effort to influence opinion and “nationalize the people.” kl 566

In this respect, if Stoltzfus and Gellately are correct, the domestic dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin were radically different. Stalin treated the population of his nation as the enemies of socialism and of the regime, and his tools of control were entirely drawn from the war chest of arrest, terror, imprisonment, and murder. Soviet citizens were terrified into submission -- with the partial exception of support for the "Great Patriotic War" and Comrade Stalin's brilliant generalship. If there is such a thing as a "scale" of totalitarianism, this suggests that the Soviet Union under Stalin was a vastly more fully totalitarian state than the domestic Nazi state in Germany.

The reason this argument by Stoltzfus is especially important today is that it is not just about history -- about Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Rather, it seems to suggest a playbook for contemporary "wannabe" autocrats and dictators, including a recent president of the United States. The strategy that Hitler pursued, according to Stoltzfus, was to put forward a compelling nationalist ideology affirming the German nation, a powerful and vitriolic racism against Jews and Slavs, and an assurance that "the leader" can achieve the national interest by leading the nation and waging merciless war against its racial enemies. This is the stuff of radical right-wing populism today. Stoltzfus appears to recognize this continuity:

While his dictatorship murdered millions in the name of ideology, Hitler managed the relationship with the Germans of the Reich in ways that place him among those whom scholars now identify as “soft” dictators, who prefer the tactics of persuasion, enticement, cooptation, and compromise to work their will. These scholars associate “soft” tactics with dictatorships of the twenty-first century by contrasting them in one fell swoop with caricatures so gross they characterize both Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes. kl 204

Had he not been aiming to reshape the Germans into a Nazi national community, with a new Nazi superego, Hitler could have relied more fully on terror. But he was convinced that the existing German mythos could only be replaced by edging it out with another ideology the people found acceptable. In Nazi practice, as Hitler foresaw it, force could be deployed to secure the people’s worldview once a majority was behind it, as he continued toward winning all but the fringe. kl 230

"Soft dictatorship" at home, with a willingness to compromise when public opinion appears to demand it, along with consistent planning and action in support of the underlying racist ideology -- that is a very different understanding from the traditional view of Nazi dictatorship. And yet it is a worrisome illustration of the power that charismatic, malevolent leaders can exercise over a mass society.


Saturday, October 2, 2021

Vasily Grossman on Treblinka


Vasily Grossman was an important Soviet writer and journalist from the 1930s through his death in 1964. He was a Ukrainian Jew born in 1905, and his mother died in a mass execution of Jews in Berdichev, Ukraine, in 1941. He was a man of the "bloodlands", in Tim Snyder's term. During World War II he became one of the best-respected war correspondents in the Soviet Union, and he accompanied the Red Army through many of the bloodiest battles of the war against Hitler, including the battles of Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin. He was also present with the Red Army at Babi Yar in Kiev in 1943. His writings under a totalitarian state and throughout the Holocaust present an unusual example of courage and independence in a time in which the forces of dictatorship and repression were supremely powerful across both Nazi and Soviet spheres. His greatest work was Life and Fate, a thousand-page novel aimed at expressing the human and political realities of the battle of Stalingrad. The novel was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988 and 1989 because of its supposed anti-Soviet tendencies, long after Grossman's death.

After the Soviet victory at Stalingrad Grossman accompanied the Soviet 62nd Army into Poland, and was the first journalist to visit the site of the the recently-destroyed extermination camp of Treblinka in September 1944. Treblinka was a place specifically designed for mass murder, only sixty kilometers from Warsaw in Poland. Grossman's 1944 documentary essay on Treblinka, "The Treblinka Hell" (link), is detailed, grim, and unblinking; it should be an essential element of our efforts to understand the realities of the Holocaust. Grossman's article is one of the first extensive reports on the details of Nazi extermination of the Jews. It is brutally honest and explicit, and -- unlike the preferred Soviet narrative -- it is explicit in recognizing that this was an extermination camp for Jews, along with a small number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs. The article is a remarkable piece of documentary journalism and historical reportage. Further, as Zsuzsa Hetenyi notes in "Facts and Fiction in Vasily Grossman's Prose" (link), the piece also has much of the narrative evocativeness and empathy that Grossman displays in his fiction writing. It is a powerful piece of contemporary witness reportage of the realities of the Shoah.

When capture by the Red Army appeared imminent, the Germans at Treblinka made every effort to destroy all the evidence of what had taken place there:

Early in the morning of July 23, the guards and SS men took a stiff drink and set to work to wipe out all trace of the camp. By nightfall all the inmates had been killed and buried. Only one man survived -- Max Levit, a Warsaw carpenter, who was only wounded and lay beneath the bodies of his comrades until nightfall, when he crawled off into the forest. He told us how as he lay there at the bottom of the pit he heard a group of some thirty young lads singing a popular Soviet song, "Vast is my Native Land," before being shot down; heard one of the boys cry out: "Stalin will avenge us!"; heard the boys' leader, young Leib, who had been everyone's favourite in the camp, scream after the first volley: "Panie Watchman, you didn't kill me! Shoot again, please! Shoot again!" 373

Grossman and other Red Army investigators learned a great deal about the workings of the camp, including the names of the commander and many guards. Prisoners in Camp 1, the labor camp, received a food ration of 170-200 grams of bread -- less than 530 calories, a starvation diet. Random murders by the guards were frequent, including murders of children. Conditions in Camp 1 were hellish. And yet Camp 2 was much, much worse. Camp 2 of Treblinka was a death camp. "Everything in this camp was adapted for death." Train after train arrived in the camp every day, and no one departed. "For thirteen months or 396 days, the trains returned empty or loaded with sand; not a single one of those who were brought to Camp No. 2 ever returned." And who were these people? "Who were the people brought here by the trainload? Mainly Jews, and to a lesser extent Poles and Gypsies" (377).

By the spring of 1942 almost the entire Jewish population of Poland, Germany and the western districts of Byelorussia had been rounded up in ghettos. Millions of Jewish workers, artisans, doctors, architects, engineers, teachers, art workers, and other professionals together with their wives and children, mothers and fathers lived in the ghettos of Warsaw, Radom, Czestochowa, Lublin, Bialystok, Grodno, and dozens of other smaller towns. In the Warsaw ghetto alone there were about 500,000 Jews. Confinement to the ghetto was evidently the first, preparatory stage of the Hitler plan for the extermination of the Jews. (377)

The trains that came to Treblinka from the West-European countries -- France, Bulgaria, Austria and others -- were another matter entirely. These people had not heard of Treblinka and up to the last minute they believed they were being sent to work. The Germans painted alluring pictures of the pleasures and conveniences of the new life awaiting the settlers. Some trains brought people who thought they were being taken to some neutral country. Victims of a gruesome hoax, they had paid the German authorities large sums of money for passports and foreign visas. (377)

Some of Grossman's prose is haunting and poetic, and contributes to a more human understanding of the evil and grief of the Shoah --

Anything up to 20,000 people passed through Treblinka every day. Days when only six or seven thousand came out of the station building were considered wasted. The square was filled with people four and five times a day. And all of these thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people with the frightened, questioning eyes, all these young and old faces, these pretty dark-haired and fair-haired girls, the stooped and baldheaded old men, the timid youngsters -- all of them merged into a single flood that swept away reason, human knowledge, maidenly love, childish wonder, the coughing of old men and the throbbing hearts of living human beings. (380)

Grossman goes through every step of the journey from disembarkment from the train to killing in the gas chamber, and the indignities and brutality -- and murder -- that occurred in between. The gas chambers at Treblinka made use of carbon monoxide generated by large engines to asphyxiate the victims, or pumps that evacuated the oxygen from the chamber, leading once again to asphyxiation.

Grossman reflects as a human being on this sequence of monstrous inhumanity:

Great is the power of humanity; humanity does not die until man dies. And when there comes a brief but terrifying period in history, a period in which the beast triumphs over man, to his last breath the man slain by the beast retains his strength of spirit, clarity of thought, and warmth of feeling. And the beast who slays the man remains a beast. In this immortal spiritual strength of human beings is a solemn martyrdom, the triumph of the dying man over the living beast. Therein, during the darkest days of 1942, lay the dawn of reason's victory over bestial madness, of good over evil, light over darkness, of the power of progress over the power of reaction; an awesome dawn breaking over a field of blood and tears, an ocean of suffering, a dawn breaking amid the screams and cries of perishing mothers and infants, amid the death rattle of the aged. The beasts and the philosophy of the beasts foreshadowed the end of Europe, the end of the world; but people remained people. They did not accept the morals and laws of fascism, fighting with all the means at their disposal against them, fighting with their death as human beings. (389-390)

And how many were there of these innocent victims? Grossman tries to estimate the dead in different ways, based on the frequency of train arrivals and the capacity of the ten gas chambers. He estimates that three million men, women, and children were murdered at Treblinka in the 13 months of its operations. This is probably an over-estimate; the camp was not as efficient in killing as Grossman believed. The article on Treblinka published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum gives an estimate of 925,000 Jews and an unknown number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs (link). But whether three million victims or one million, Treblinka was a place of unspeakable evil.

And what about the guards and executioners? What was their psychology? Grossman has a view on this question as well, and it stands in counterpoint to Hannah Arendt's idea of the banality of evil.

It must be noted here that these creatures were by no means robots who mechanically carried out the wishes of others. All witnesses speak of a trait common to all of them, namely, a fondness for theoretical argument, a predilection for philosophizing. All of them had a weakness for delivering speeches to the doomed people, for boasting in front of their victims and explaining the "lofty" meaning and "importance" for the future of what was being done in Treblinka. They were profoundly and sincerely convinced that they were doing the correct and necessary thing. They explained in detail the superiority of their race over all other races. (400)

Grossman describes the uprising at Treblinka, which, according to Grossman's account, was surprisingly successful. Prisoners succeeded in burning much of the camp and killing some of the guards and executioners, and about 300 prisoners escaped. Most were subsequently tracked and killed, but about a third survived to tell their story. The mutiny and the German defeat at Stalingrad appear to have led to the Germans' efforts at erasing Treblinka completely in 1943. Grossman reflects on the Nazi efforts at erasing Treblinka:

What was the object of all this destruction? Was it to hide the traces of the murder of millions of people in the hell of Treblinka? But how did they expect to do this? Did they really think it possible to force the thousands who had witnessed the death trains moving from all corners of Europe to the death conveyor to keep silent? Did they believe they could hide that deadly flame and the smoke which hung for eight months in the sky, visible by day and by night to the inhabitants of dozens of villages and small towns? Did they think they could make the peasants of the Wulka village forget the fearful shrieks of the women and children which lasted for thirteen long months and which seem to ring in their ears to this very day? (405)

The essay has moments of poetic transcendence. Here are Grossman's words describing his own entrance into Treblinka as part of the Stalingrad Red Army:

We enter the camp. We are treading the soil of Treblinka. The lupine pods burst open at the slightest touch, burst open by themselves with a faint popping sound; millions of tiny peas roll on the ground... The earth ejects crushed bones, teeth, bits of paper and clothing; it refuses to keep its awful secret. These things emerge from the unhealed wounds in the earth. (406)

And here are the closing words of the article, Grossman's own assessment of this great evil:

Every man and woman today is in duty bound to his conscience, to his son and his mother, to his country and to mankind to examine his heart and conscience and reply to the question: what is it that gave rise to racism, what can be done in order that Nazism, Hitlerism may never rise again, either on this or the other side of the ocean, never unto eternity.

The imperialist idea of national, race, or any other execeptionalism led the Hitlerites logically to Majdanek, Sobibor, Belzec, Oswiecim and Treblinka.

We must remember that racism, fascism will emerge from this war not only with bitter recollections of defeat but also with sweet memories of the ease with which it is possible to slaughter millions of defenseless people.

This must be solemnly borne in mind by all who value honour, liberty and the life of all nations, of all mankind. (408)

There is a strong moral voice in Grossman's writings. Here Grossman tries to express why it is important to speak honestly about the facts of mass murder and genocide. He believes profoundly that the Holocaust, mass extermination, and totalitarianism must be confronted honestly and without fear.

It is the duty of a writer to tell the truth however gruelling, and the duty of the reader to learn the truth. To turn aside, or to close one's eyes to the truth is to insult the memory of the dead. The person who does not learn the whole truth will never understand what kind of enemy, what sort of monster, our great Red Army is waging battle against to the death. (399)

Grossman is one of the most important and passionate contemporaneous observers of the Shoah (and the crimes of Stalinism as well), and his texts and novels demand our attention. In collaboration with Ilya Ehrenberg, Grossman compiled a massive set of documents offering witness to the crimes committed against the Jews, by the Nazis and by the Stalinists, in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry. The manuscript was complete by 1944, but characteristically, Soviet censors never permitted publication of the massive compilation. A Russian edition was published in Kiev in 1991.