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Warsaw, Poland: The Holocaust - When the Law is Wrong.
Auschwitz. A one way ticket to nowhere.
Poland circa 2003: Treading on the bones of history.
“There’s something happening here…
What it is aint exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Tellin’ me, I got to beware
I think its time we stop, children whats that sound?
Everybody look whats going down…”
For what its worth, Buffalo Springfield
I travelled to Poland to feel a lesson of history I studied in university. I saw a lot of beauty and hope in that country and its people. But I also saw a lot of sadness, especially in the oldest generation. As a recently graduated lawyer, I travelled to Poland to reconcile my belief in the purpose of law versus my knowledge of a historical atrocity that was legalised.
The Holocaust of the Second World War was largely centered in and around Poland, and within its borders most domestic enemies of the Reich (including those within its conquered territories) were transported to an almost certain demise. Religious minorities, ethnic minorities, political opponents, criminals, the intellectually and physically handicapped... and those who were simply inconvenient. It is not the only example of genocide, but it is the most significant in modern history with the most institutionalised framework. It is also the closest to me.
If I was to devote my life to a career, I needed my question answered.
As I travelled from camp to camp, knocking on the doors of locals with the aid of an interpreter, I discovered memories of the past that still lived. I sat for many hours hearing the confessions of those who were witness to scenes I had read about. I felt the weight they carried from their inability to stop the events that unfolded in their lives through no fault of their own. I shared their tears.
On the ashes of 6 million missing people, I reached a conclusion.
This blog isn't about my travel per say - rather, it is a record of my thoughts at the end of that voyage.
My fascination with law and the politics of power started young.
“I am the Law” …was a phrase made popular by the Sci-Fi comic creation called Judge Dredd - it is the story of a post nuclear apocalyptic society that had fallen prey to violence and resulting legal fascism. In this world, super cops rose to fill the lawless void, handing out instant and brutal justice. The comic made such interesting reading to me in my childhood because of the arbitrary nature of the penalties that were dispensed in its pages. Justice was not about what was right - it was about what was convenient. It was about the complete centralisation of power - it was about what Dredd - judge, jury & executioner - deemed on a whim to be suitable for the unfortunate ‘perp’.
“…You are judged GUILTY… the penalty is DEATH…”.
And so, ’justice’ was served with a round from his sidearm - for offences that were committed, about to be committed or suspected of being committed by a penal code passed by the few on the many, without the possibility of appeal.
My young mind consumed these stories, not only for their graphic violence, but out of a perverse fascination with a world where one man had ultimate power over another - simply by virtue of his station in life. Of a world where you were guilty - always - and never presumed innocent. Guilt was the standard - it was only a question of how culpable you were. How very interesting. How very FAR from reality…
Or is it?
Isn’t modern society a place where we can rely on the law to dispense justice, in a fair, equal and universal fashion for all people? Surely, that is a prerequisite for an advanced civilisation. One of those immutable facts that we never have to question, like those that make up the discipline of mathematics?
But is math and law = ? My mind flitted between the dark scenes depicted in Judge Dredd and the dark scenes depicted in my journey across Poland and my answer was…
My conclusion was that math & law are not equal. Math is based on logic - law is based on purpose. Purpose is a human construct which does not follow any universal rules, except for one: it is governed by subjective desire, not objective logic… If I was to bridge the two (maths & law), I would say that the only parallel that exists is that law is the mathematics of power. Desire + Power = Law. This is the reason why law provides an accurate snapshot for social dynamics throughout history.
The legal picture is almost always painted by those in control… and the resulting picture is often ridiculous, unjust and self serving.
Examples are found everywhere, both throughout history and in modern life. In the not so distant past, people of colour and women were considered property in the western world. In some regions of the world, women still have no rights, imprisoned under the yoke of quasi-religious laws. In certain societies, a person’s destiny is determined only by birthright into a caste system, which is in itself a set of social laws… Perhaps the most historically damning example is what lay beneath my feet in Poland.
As I trekked across the darkest landscape I had ever seen, the similarities with the fictional work of Dredd hit home to me. In Germany's case, there was a different suffering. The aftermath of a loss in World War One and the depression, followed by the crippling conditions of surrender delivered by the victors left its mark- first in looting, then in forced reparations that were engineered to provide ongoing collective punishment to a civilian population. From this seed came a different apocolypse which grew from a generation without hope. In that toxic environment, the hopeless looked for any cause to give them power - even if that required the surrender of self-determination. In their shoes, surrendering the concept of self may have seemed to be a fair price to pay for a future where their children may have some opportunity. From innocent beginnings, power became centralised - and fascism was born in Germany.
The steps beyond are well known to most. Suffice to say, the path led to the stroke of a pen which legalised a framework for genocide and its export to all conquered nations of the Reich.
So horrible was the resulting scene of destruction, the remenants which still live in the minds of the people I interviewed, that the powers of the world said “Never Again”. To ease their collective guilt at their inaction, they joined to form international systems of law to prevent these injustices from repeating. Nations joined under a blue banner to give these laws teeth and pledged their military forces for this purpose… and so the modern UN was formed from the ashes of the failed League of Nations.
To what effect, our international laws? Do the sum of these laws equate to justice? Do they achieve their objectives?
You only need to cast your eye to the third world today to see that history repeats - with legal sanction and without legal consequence. Domestic law has been and is complicit in genocide in Africa and international law is impotent (unless, of course, your bloodbath takes place over an oil field - whereupon the cavalry will arrive to secure your assets under the guise of justice for all). Meanwhile, corpses mount up & we in the west cash our cheques off their backs and change the channel when we see 15 seconds of the truth on the evening news.
Law and justice? In my humble opinion, justice is too often a utopian concept, an intangible opiate used to pacify the masses. The law maintains the status quo - to the benefit of the powerful and the detriment of the oppressed. The rest of mankind, like sheep, sit in the middle of a compromise. Too comfortable or under-resourced to implement change.
I am not saying that law has no purpose. It does. It is necessary and does fulfill a positive function. What I am saying is that we need to question before we believe and follow.
Just because it is law does not make it right.