The man who dreamed of Zyklon B

George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw

Yesterday we examined George Bernard Shaw‘s enthusiasm for Hitler – and noted a 1933 letter to the New York Times in which he suggested that the Führer, instead of planning to exterminate Jews, should simply say: “I will tolerate Jews to any extent, as long as no Jew marries a Jewess. That is how he could build up a strong, solid German people.”

At other times, however, Shaw was gung-ho for extermination. A strong supporter of eugenics, he championed “the right of the State to make eugenic experiments by weeding out any strains they think undesirable.” He spelled out his ideas as follows:

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Zyklon B, the “gentlemanly gas” that Shaw hoped for

I think it would be a good thing to make everybody come before a properly-appointed board, just as they might come before the income tax commissioner, and say every five years, or every seven years, just put them there, and say, “Sir, or madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence?” If you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the big organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself…. I appeal to the chemists to discover a humane gas that will kill instantly and painlessly. In short, a gentlemanly gas – deadly by all means, but humane not cruel.

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Beatrice Webb

Some Shavians have insisted vehemently that when Shaw offered this suggestion, he was kidding, in the same way that Jonathan Swift was kidding in his famous essay “A Modest Proposal.” But Shaw wasn’t kidding. He floated the same idea in a private letter to his friend Beatrice Webb, writing: “I think we ought to tackle the Jewish Question by admitting the right of the States to make eugenic experiments by weeding out any strains that they think undesirable, but insisting that they do it as humanely as they can afford to.”

The only thing left to say about Shaw’s pro-Nazi views is that they survived Nazism itself. After Hitler’s death, Shaw remembered him as a “national hero”; when some of the Führer’s highest-ranking honchos were put on trial at Nuremberg after the war, Shaw considered them martyrs.

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Shaw’s ultimate hero

Shaw’s admiration for the Nazis, however, was eclipsed by his enthusiasm for Stalin and company. When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, Saw was delighted because he was sure the results “would reveal to the world the real strength of Soviet Communism.” The rapidity with which the Bolsheviks transformed Russia impressed him, and caused him to dismiss the Fabian ambition of gradually turning Britain socialist. Scorning law-abiding activists who sought to effect change from within the system, he looked up to men with “iron nerve and fanatical conviction.” During a 1931 visit to Moscow, he announced: “I have seen all the ‘terrors’ and I was terribly pleased by them.”

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Shaw biographer Michael Holyrod

Shaw returned to Britain from Russia “filled with religious fervour for the communist cause” (as one journalist has put it) and eager (as one of his biographers, Michael Holroyd, has written) to “bring the light of the Soviet Church to new audiences round the world.” Indeed, just as Shaw had promoted the idea of the Nazi extermination of Jews and other human beings whom he viewed as undesirables, he also argued for the wholesale massacre of Russian opponents of Communism, arguing that “if we desire a certain type of civilization and culture we must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit into it.” All this, dear reader, from the second-greatest playwright in the English language.

Defending de Man

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Paul de Man

Deconstruction seeks to turn coherence into incoherence. Paul de Man‘s own variation on it can fairly be described as outright nihilistic, systematically taking statements that have explicit meanings and dissolving them (as a murderer dissolves a corpse in quicklime) until the statements are utterly barren of even the slightest hint of signification.

So it was that when de Man, who died in 1983, was exposed four years later as a wartime Nazi,  defenders sought to take his newly discovered pro-Nazi wartime writings and deconstruct the Nazism – and anti-Semitism – out of them. At the same time, they did their best to twist the arguments of de Man’s critics out of all recognition.

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Harold Bloom

One example. When it was announced that a symposium would be held to discuss de Man’s Nazi articles, The Nation quoted an anonymous critic described as being “close to de Man” (and widely assumed to be another Yale eminence, Harold Bloom) who expressed disgust: “Paul must have known the Jews of Belgium were being carted away. We are discussing the butchery of the Belgian Jewish community, down to the babies. To treat this as one more item about which to have a symposium is outrageous.”

In response to this statement, Jacques Derrida, deconstruction’s founder, professed outrage, pretending that the unnamed critic had sought “to forbid the right to assembly and discussion.” (“What,” he asked, “does that remind you of?”) In other words, forget de Man’s Nazi past – Bloom (if Bloom it was) was acting like Hitler himself! Of course, the critic “close to de Man” had never proposed forbidding anything.

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Jacques Derrida

That was only the beginning of Derrida’s dubious, desperate defense. In the spring 1988 issue of Critical Inquiry, he published a 62-page essay that, as David Lehman put it, oozed “slithering elusiveness.” Employing a wide range of slick rhetorical devices, Derrida sought to prove that de Man’s written words don’t necessarily mean what you think they do – and/or that he may have written one thing even as he was thinking something else. Had de Man, asked Derrida, articulated anti-Semitic views even as he criticized “vulgar antisemitism” in the very same piece? Well, then, didn’t criticizing “vulgar antisemitism” amount to criticizing “the vulgarity of antisemitism” itself? Was he not, in fact, condemning the very anti-Semitism he had pretended to profess?

It was by means of such lame language games that Derrida sought to get de Man off the hook. “Borrowing Derrida’s logic,” commented Lehman dryly, “one could deconstruct Mein Kampf to reveal that its author was conflicted on the subject of the Jews.”

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David Lehman

Other champions of de Man were even more brazen than Derrida. One critic named S. Heidi Krueger actually tried to sell the case that de Man’s most offensive wartime piece, entitled “The Jews in Contemporary Literature,” was, like Jonathan Swift’s famous essay “A Modest Proposal,” meant ironically. In other words, it was one big joke. De Man may have assumed the voice of someone who hated Jews, but his underlying point, maintained Krueger, was to mock anti-Semitism.

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George Orwell

Then there was deconstructionist Richard Rand, who, by means of a truly audacious example of rhetorical sleight of hand, claimed to establish that de Man could not be anti-Semitic because, in a very important sense, de Man was himself Jewish. Huh? Rand went on to acknowledge that de Man was not Jewish “biographically speaking,” but explained that this didn’t matter: what counted was that those who were now accusing de Man posthumously of anti-Semitism were themselves, in reality, anti-Semites, who were displacing their anti-Jewish bigotry by charging de Man with the offense that they themselves were actually guilty of.

As Lehman observed, Rand’s argument illustrated “the eerie similarity” of deconstruction to the totalitarian up-is-down, yes-is-no rhetoric that George Orwell dubbed doublethink.

signs“Happy the deconstructor,” wrote Lehman, “who can prove, or at least get himself to believe, that black is white, that the four raised fingers of a hand make five, and that those who excoriate Paul de Man’s anti-Semitism reveal themselves to be anti-Semites.”

The whole 1987-88 de Man dustup is recounted at length in Lehman’s excellent 1991 book, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man. In the end, despite the brilliant efforts by the Yale crowd to spin them into non-existence, the plain facts about de Man could not be shot down. And they destroyed his image forever.

As it turned out, however, there were even more revelations to come – years and years later. We’ll get to that next week.