When did the barracks at Auschwitz get the last coat of fresh paint?

I had a conversation recently with a photo student, who wants to do a work on some Stasi related issue. She was mentioning to me, that she was planning on taking pictures in a former Stasi prison in Berlin. Since the Wall came down, this has been turned into a museum. When asked why, she said something about the authenticity of this place and quoted some people that had been imprisoned there saying something like “the smell is very special and authentic, the real smell the place had back then”. To that I say: bullshit.

The wall came down 28 years ago and the prison was closed shortly after. No smell in the world lingers on for that long. No matter what chemicals would constitute the smell, their composition would change over time and therefore the smell would certainly not be “the same” as thirty years ago. Plus, back then, the building was in use. People worked their every day and other people were forced to live in this very building. We all have experienced that the smell of our apartment seems to change, while we were on vacation for a week or two. It might be that the smell did not change, but our perception of it has, but in the long run, we certainly play a role in the olfactory composition of the place we live and work in.

I am not that interested in the mechanics of smells, rather the way this student was talking did remind me of a general issue I am having with the culture of memory.

We tend to expect of certain places of historical importance, to give away part of their story through their outside appearance. A terrible place needs to look devastating to fully trigger our moral switches, and a bad scent certainly helps in this regard. The more devastating a place looks, the more devastating a place it must have been back then. I guess, this can easily become a feedback loop.

When talking to the student, I asked her, what the place looks like right now. I have been there twice myself, but I wanted to hear it from her. Of course, everything looks grey, there are cracks in the plaster on the wall and in some places chunks have fallen off, the furniture looks very outdated, the bathroom fixtures were terrible. How is this authentic? I am quite sure that back, when the prison was still operational, the paint would have been much fresher, cracks in the wall would have been taken care of, and both the furniture and the bathroom fixtures were quite close to what people had at home.

I am not saying that back then this place wouldn’t have been a terrible place to be imprisoned. I am trying to make the point that a place does not need to look terrible to be terrible. Take Auschwitz for instance – just as a thought experiment. There was a time – maybe a very short one, but still – when the barracks were brand new. Maybe they even smelled of fresh sawn lumber, the paint was fresh and maybe the trees outside were in full bloom. Auschwitz at such a moment was as much of a terrible place as Auschwitz at the time the Red Army liberated the place. But it does not really fit our mental image.

Now, when these places – Auschwitz and the prison in Hohenschönhausen – are preserved for the future, much care is taken to preserve the general spirit of the place. But what spirit might that be? I guess it is the spirit we expect to find. If the decision is made to do some work on the place to preserve it for the future, this work is one of restoration, rather than renovation. But wouldn’t a place like the Stasi prison be better off with a fresh coat of paint, that aims to set the place back in time by 20 years, rather than a careful touch-up of the weathered paint that has come to represent the grey image we expect?

This also reflects in movies that try to show the terrors present at these places. To me, this seems quite natural. A location scout is sent to document the place, the movie is going to depict. He or she finds it in a carefully preserved state of despair and comes back with a set of images that depict precisely that. This material then is given to set designers to replicate. If a movie-goer, after seeing the film, visits such a place, the images encountered in the movie tells what the place needs to represent to “feel” real. This is a circle.

A similar thing can be seen in the depiction of inmates. Of course, places like Auschwitz did provide a terrible sight and starvation and murder were rampant and these things did take a toll on the inmates. But there might have been many people suffering, where this did not present itself in a similar fashion on the outside. Well-fed people with clean clothes and tidy faces can be killed and traumatized as well.

I believe that this isn’t merely a question of aesthetics, but this carries with it real life consequences. We may have reached the point, where we distrust a place or situation to be terrible, if it does not appear the way we expect these things to appear. During the current refugee crisis, politicians took the stage pointing out that many of the refugees carried smartphones and had nice clothes. The logic behind that seemed to be that only those in rags with dirty faces could be the ones that had an excuse to flee their countries. Surely, a nice-looking environment cannot be filled with trauma. Right?

This might exactly be the point the US government was aiming for, when creating the new housing at for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Many of the images coming out of this place, look more like a very clean hospital, than a place we’d associate with torture. This is not done by accident, but our expectation that terrible places look a certain way, makes it very easy to fool us. And just because a camp for refugees is made to look nice, does not mean that it isn’t a terrible place.

But back to the smell at Hohenschönhausen prison. I find it fascinating that not just we, the spectators, fall for this trap. But even people who had been imprisoned there alter their memories over time. That way, the place is going to look more and more like the place should look like to suit the terrible things that took place there. I wonder though, how much the growing despair in the outside appearance, is going to influence the way the stories of despair are told – and maybe even the way they are remembered?

Maybe we should look at ISIS in the West as a youth revolt

— This is something I just wrote down, without planning too much. I realize that it might be a little bit confusing. This is just me, just rumbling on. —

Time and time again, fascists try to rebrand themselves to regain traction. They look for new symbols, to replace those, that have become too easily recognizable as belonging to their despicable agenda, or to replace those, that are outright illegal to use. And with the new symbols come new slogans. The change is limited to the outside appearance though.

I have quite some knowledge of how Islamist propaganda videos look like, and when I come across videos by groups that associate themselves with neo fascist agendas in the West, quite often it strikes me how similar they are in appearance. Take for instance the video below from a group that associates itself with the so-called Identitarian movement. The way these men run through the forest and wrestle looks so youthful and modern, yet the same is true for by many of the Islamist propaganda that tries to find recruits in the West. When looking through my collection for a video to pair with the Identitarian, I was somewhat lazy. This was the one I found first and this is why I used it. There are many others, that look more modern than this one here and that utilize a similar lightheartedness, than that is found in the Identitarian video, to spread their hatred.

But why do these groups that seem to aim for a weird sense of stability, one that is promised if you follow conservative values, constantly evolve? Maybe this could be explained, if we look at these groups as part of a youth movement that changes from generation to generation. Every generation that comes of age, has to define itself new. Fashion trends change constantly, and the army boots, skinhead haircuts and bomber jackets of the 90s just lost their appeal to the next generation of Nazis.

Many parties in the West have long ago formed their youth organization. In Germany, every major party has one. That is quite clever. There is the real party, with a grown-up agenda, aiming for real world politics, and then there is the youth wing that is allowed to be more extreme and sometimes even youthfully delusional.

Maybe this is true for ISIS as well. When looking at the propaganda, I have always found it quite interesting, that there seems to be a whole multitude of target audiences. On one hand, ISIS tries to appear like a state that is somewhere out there and that does stately things. Building roads, providing food and entertainment, or even punishing criminals – whoever those might be under their jurisdiction. But then there is also the propaganda that tries to recruit young people in the West and locally. This propaganda has a different appeal to it. This is the propaganda that tries to look young and fresh. Could it be, that this propaganda looks different because it is part of a youth culture?

We have to keep in mind, that at least in part, ISIS is the result of the Arab Spring, which in itself was driven to a huge extend by a disillusioned youth. Countries, that have been encapsulated by a crust of old elites, with little to no hope for a better future, served as a hotbed for a revolting youth. And when the promises, that were made, were broken, ISIS filled the void by promising an even brighter future.

In my youth, I had been fascinated by radical left ideas. I desperately wanted to fight for a better world. It just happened, that my own endeavor never turned violent, but I guess, I might have been walking a fine line. There were certainly violent groups and players that had an appeal to me; in hindsight though, I have come to realize that the promises they made back then were lies. I wanted to struggle for freedom and liberty and these groups pretended to do fight for the same goals. Yet, the stories by folks like Che Guevara or Ho Chi Minh and reality are two different things. But it sounded tempting.

When I was at that age, I might have been just lucky that there were not so many revolutions easily accessible, that were calling for volunteers to fight. Even if they would have, I could have never afforded to book a flight to, let’s say Nicaragua.

Of course, the things done by ISIS and Co are terrible, but I wonder how we will be able to cope with the next way of unrest, if we merely look at ISIS as something solitary. As something that is rooted in some specific issues, of some specific time. There is this aspect as well. The set of problems at work in the Middle East post Arab Spring are different than the problems in Cuba under the rule of the Batista regime. But there is also the struggle of the youth every society has to cope with.

The growing inequality in many societies, the overpopulation, the disappearance of job opportunities, due to the coming AI breakthrough, climate change, these problems – and many more beyond our horizon -, mean that coming youth generations might have even more reasons to feel disenfranchised in the society they live in. Struggling violently, might seem even more tempting than it is now.

I think it is very dangerous, to look at the problems ISIS seems to cause amongst the youth around us, as something that is just linked to groups like ISIS and therefore as something we might be able to defeat on the battlefield. Members of coming generations are going to take up arms again and fight their own fight. ISIS is going to disappear. And the radical forms of religion are going to grow out of fashion amongst many young people. But religion is just some banner to unite under in a world that seems to hate you.

ISIS, Putin and the claim of responsibility

An image from a recent attack on a casino in the Philippines. Contrary to initial reporting and even a tweet by Donald Trump, the perpetrator was no ISIS member, but rather an indebted gambler.

Claiming or denying responsibility for things that happen, seems to have become almost an art form.

Imagining a criminal, confessing to a whole bunch of crimes he did actually not commit, is quite an extraordinary thought. But this is pretty much normal, if it comes to certain terrorist organizations. It appears as if ISIS in particular, claims almost everything at one point or the other. Sure, there are the official looking ISIS channels who seem somewhat more cautious, but even they did claim responsibility for the shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando for instance, where the perpetrator in part seemed to have been motivated by his inability to cope with his own sexual orientation. OK, if I think about it, this might exactly be the reason that incites a huge chunk of religious violence, but normally this is not the stuff a group like ISIS wants to be openly associated with.

The point is though, that Islamist terror groups tend to claim responsibility for far more attacks and events, than what they have actually organized. The attacker in Orlando might have mentioned ISIS in a phone call, he made to the local police during his attack; so, he might have been inspired by the Islamic State; but if we look into it, there seems to have been little actual relationship between the attacker and the group he did mention. Inspiring someone and being fully responsible for his actions, are indeed two separate things.

One the other extreme we find Russian president Vladimir Putin. Whenever someone makes any claim of Russia being involved in anything, Putin instantly seems to deny any connection. Be it meddling in the US election, the support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine or the killing of figures of the Russian opposition in Russia and abroad, he instantly denies any involvement and frequently calls the accusations conspiracy theories.

Neither Putin nor ISIS are stupid, let alone inexperienced, so rather than dismissing their difference in style as merely a personal preference, one should look at this as a strategic decision.

A terror group like ISIS tries to spread terror and fear, precisely to extend its otherwise very limited reach. Claiming responsibility for a multitude of events – these do not necessarily need to be attacks – does make sense. Especially in a media environment with an ever-shortening attention span. The way events are perceived is decided in the first couple of hours, until the whole media circus moves on. So, by pretty much claiming everything almost instantly, some claims might make headlines and that is all ISIS needs. That way, ISIS is more of a claim-machine than one that needs to orchestrate terror.

To law enforcement or the judiciary system – and to the victims – it is important to determine, if something had been an attack and who was behind it. But the panic element, that makes terror so devastating, relies on fast paced judgements. If prosecutors, weeks after an event, find out that a blast had been a technical malfunction, the battle over our perception has already been lost.

The reaction of denying any wrongdoing seems quite “reasonable” as well. If you deny any involvement in anything evil, that might limit your liability. Every two-year-old knows that. It becomes odd, when everyone knows that you are lying. Take for instance the fighting in Eastern Ukraine that goes on for years now. Putin denies any support for the so-called separatists. That seems odd, since the lack of support by official channels in Russia make it very hard to explain, where all the shiny new Russian tanks and small-arms are coming from.

Everyone knows, that there is support from within Russia and either Putin is extremely naïve, or he is lying. But constantly lying might in fact be a clever political move. People know that you do at least some of the things people claim you do. By appearing untrustworthy to your opponents – in Putin’s case the West -, people might start to believe that you are responsible for almost everything. You might become the focus of a conspiracy theory.

Conspiracy theories are funny, since, when you fall for them, they always seem to be directed against you. I have yet to find a person, who thinks that there is a conspiracy going on that aims at making his life better. That way, these conspiracies are always aimed at something extremely powerful, lurking in the shadows. But what if you are at the receiving end of such a theory? To some groups – i.e. the Jews, Freemasons, Communists -, this can have dire consequences. But if you are an organization that holds real power and whose job it is to use that power, people associating even more power to you, might certainly have some benefits.

I believe for instance, that American institutions, like the NSA and CIA, that are constantly under suspicion, do certainly realize that this conspiracy theory that is associated with them isn’t necessarily the worst thing. There are quite a few people, that almost believe in the omnipotence of these US agencies. And you do not want to pick a fight with such a powerful organization willy-nilly. That way, the CIA reaches parts of the world, where there is no agent present.

Strangely claiming everything and denying everything might create a similar outcome. It widens your reach. But the constant claim is the tool of the weak and the constant denial is the tool of the actor, people already think is powerful. There comes the point, where you should start switching from one to the other. If you have widened your virtual reach to a point, that people start believing in your godlike powers, it might become favorable to deny everything.

How to report on terror attacks

In light of the recent terror attacks, I believe that the media is obliged to report these attacks with a high level of care. The reach of terrorism is always extremely limited and terrorist organizations heavily rely on the media attention their attacks create to spread fear. The role of the media should not be to widen this reach, but moderate it.

These are some guidelines I believe might be important to follow.

– Treat it as a crime, until local law enforcement says it has been a terror attack.

– Ignore statements by ISIS, al Qaeda and such. What they are saying is propaganda and should therefore be ignored. By repeating their statements, you spread propaganda and therefore make the attack more successful. Just because they make the claim, that they have orchestrated something, does not mean anything.

– People feel the need to upload videos and images taken during attacks. Other people have the urge to search for these videos. Refrain from using these videos. The information value of these videos for the public is extremely limited, unless your goal is it to show people in distress.

– Images of the perpetrator should only be used when law enforcement asks the media to do so. What you might believe is reporting is in fact a glorification of attackers?

– Report facts and not feelings. Of course, people had been confused and scared during the attack. There is no point in putting emphasis on that, unless you wish to spread fear and uncertainty further.

– Only report things that are important for the public to know. Overreporting makes things more difficult for law enforcement and makes it harder for the public to understand.

– Try not to report everything law enforcement does live. If you want or not, you might help the attackers.

– If the whole event is still unfolding, does the general audience really need to know the names, genders and ages of the victims? Let the families come to terms first and then, later, we might join them in their grief.

– If you make a claim, that later proves to be false, at least have the decency to report your correction with a similar emphasis than your original statement. Otherwise the misleading claim is going to stick with the audience.

Perception Perception Perception

What makes terror so devastating is not the reach of a certain blast or the number of people killed; it is the way it manages to embed itself deep into our perception. It makes us scared and keeps us preoccupied with an idea of constant danger.

This feeling of terror has to be understood at a personal level. Each one of us is a possible target that might be overwhelmed by this feeling.  Only at a later point would the reaction of our society as a whole be of interest.

We personally feel threatened. Terror is this invisible threat that seems to be directed at people like us and therefore might harm us any moment from now. So being afraid almost seems to be a valid idea. The way we feel these threats apparently needs no explanation to be real.

What is much harder to grasp, is to understand threats that are directed at people, we do not associate with – others. Empathy might enable us to get a hint of what the other person might experience, but even with an empathetic approach, there is little present of this deep-seated feeling of terror.

This feeling of terror is linked to phobias in that the threat might be real, but my reaction has little connection to the level of the threat. I for instance am afraid of heights. To some extend that is a valid fear, since falling off a ladder might carry some dire consequences. But most people don’t just fall off ladders. Accidents happen, just not all the time. Normally being careful should be enough. My phobia does not care though. Standing next to a ladder and looking up, very often the fear of the height feels illogical – even to me. Once I try to ascend it though this question of whether it is logical or not completely disappears. Friends of mine “know” that I am afraid of heights. Can they understand it? I have my serious doubts. They are be able to see the same threat I do – falling off a ladder – just it does not seem to be similarly directed at them. For them, “being careful” is all that is needed.

With the way Islamist terror currently has a firm grasp on media attention, it is somewhat hard to see that there are other, quite similar, threats aimed at other groups. And this, I believe, is a very serious issue. If we look at racist violence against immigrants, the drone warfare by the US in different parts of the world or the police violence in the US against people of color and so on; these are all things that cause a similar form of anxiety in those who feel under threat. I am not saying that police violence in the US is a terrorist operation, but it does certainly create the feeling of being terrorized in those who feel targeted. The threat become something that is unavoidably directed at you.

I recently had a discussion with an openly racist person here in Germany. He did not deny that there were “some” acts of violence against refugees in Germany, what he denied though was my claim that this is terror quite similar to the terror by Islamists. For him one thing is merely a series of criminal events and the other stuff is pure terror. This is what I tried to explain earlier. Terror is very hard to see if it affects others. Or, to phrase it differently, terror is what affects you.

Most of us will never become victims of terror attacks. Most refugees in Germany will never be harmed by Nazis. Most Afghans are never personally harmed in drone strikes. And most people of color in the US will never be harmed by police. Yet, the feeling of terror that unites these groups, isn’t entirely baseless. There are people that are harmed or killed. And the feeling of terror is real. So how should we address this?

Even though this is hard, we must try to separate the personal level from the level of society. The events that cause terror, like attacks by ISIS and Co, attacks by Nazi on refugees, the police brutality, these are real life events that have to be addressed. This should be the job of lawmakers or law enforcement. But the terror itself, in that it exists on a personal level of perception, is trickier to address. We see the main problem already. If we look at a country like Poland that hasn’t seen a single Islamist terror attack and that has a minuscule number of Muslims, we might still be able to find a similar level of terror in ordinary people, then within a society that suffers heavily from this kind of attacks.

So, if even the absence of terrorism is no guaranty for the disappearance of the feeling of terror, not too much hope should be spent on extremely tough laws and wide-reaching surveillance. Even outrageous demands like the deportation of all Muslims would just not help. The terror is a feeling that rests in us and it is quite hard for the government to rescue us from ourselves. On the contrary. Us, being afraid, is quite handy. Laws and restrictions are easily argued for and populism feasts on it.

The lack of empathy – or the limited reach of empathy – makes things quite difficult to cope with. When different people with different fears communicate, quickly it feels like both sides just won’t take the other side seriously. When Germans show their fear, when a terror attack takes place, and refugees do not show a level of outrage that is considered adequate, this is understood either as their them being complicit or them lacking compassion. But the same could be said the other way around. When refugees are under attack, so many Germans just do not seem to care? Are they complicit? Do they lack compassion? Some certainly do, as do some of the refugees in the first example. But I believe that most just do not really understand that the whole thing is that big of a problem.

Take the troubles in Israel and Palestine. Just imagine that both sides might be right and both sides might do wrong. It could be, that some of the actions both sides undertake, might be understood as acts of terror on the other side.