Sean Matgamna takes a second look at "Perdition"

Submitted by martin on 10 May, 2012 - 11:37
Sean Matgamna

Tony Greenstein praises and justifies 'Perdition' by pointing to some of those who are against it. That's altogether too crude. Yet it is the normal standard of judgement used by the two-camps left in world politics.


The "Perdition" Affair

Here, as on everything else, the serious Marxist left needs an independent judgement. On a second reading, I think I was too soft on 'Perdition', much too soft.

The factual accuracy of Allen's account of Hungary has been contested on a number of important points. Here I will discuss what Allen makes of what he says are the facts.

A 'Hungarian Zionist leader', 'Yaron', has been accused of 'collaborating' with the Nazis in the mass murder of Hungary's Jews in 1944. He has brought a libel case against his accusers. Towards the end of the play Scott, counsel for Yaron's opponents, asks Yaron about a train on which, after negotiations between Jewish leaders and the Nazis, 1684 Jews escaped. How were the 1684 selected? Yaron says their first choice was to save the children.

Scott: Why didn't you?

Yaron: Eichmann and Wisliceny refused. They thought a children's transport might attract too much attention.

Scott: But 12 trains a day were already leaving for the killing centre at Auschwitz?

Yaron: It was their decision.

Scott: And so naturally you agreed...

Yaron - the Jew facing the mass murder of his community by the Nazis - is presented as a free and equal collaborator with the Nazi leaders.

Or take this exchange.

Scott: In your earlier testimony you said that you were innocent of committing treason against your own people.

Yaron: Yes.

Scott: Liar! The evidence presented in this court has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that you... collaborated with the Nazis.

Yaron: We represented the best interests of our people.

Scott: By sending them to the gas chambers?

Yaron (agitated): I explain, but you won't listen!

Scott: The language is unequivocal: betrayal. There was a distinction between the needs of the Hungarian Jews and the dictates of Zionism, and let us not blur that distinction by all this talk about 'representing their best interests'. To save your own hides you practically led them to the gates of Auschwitz. You offered soothing assurances while the ovens were made ready, the transports organised, the deportation orders signed, and the lists already made up.

Yaron: I told you. Our Zionist tradition demanded...

Scott: Dogma before people!

Yaron: Not to save our hides.

Scott: Not from ignorance.

Yaron: No.

Scott: Mistakes?

Yaron: No.

Scott: From conviction then. (Pause). Was it worth it? Was the purchase price of nearly one million Jews worth it?

Yaron (as if reciting): The creation of the Jewish state above all other considerations.

Scott: Coined in the blood and tears of Hungarian Jewry.

Yaron: We had to subordinate our feelings.

Scott (mockingly): The cruel criteria of Zionism!

Yaron: All deeds good or bad must be judged by the final outcome.

Scott: Now at last we are getting down to it.

Yaron: By the consequences and by the historical aims they serve.

...

Scott: And Zionism is a political movement.

Yaron: Tied to God through its religious faith and sanctioned by the prophets whose ideas gave it birth.

Scott: But why wait 2000 years? If Zionism was only discovered in the late 19th century when Herzl appeared on the scene...

Judge: I do hope that we are not about to enter into a theological discussion, Mr Scott?

Scott (grins): Sorry. (Pause). Would you not agree that the more earthy demands of Zionism are reduced to territory, Dr Yaron? After all, that is what the six day war was all about, wasn't it? Expansion.

Yaron: Protection.

Scott: Morally justifiable of course? (Yaron offers a wintry smile). Given that 'the creation of the State of Israel stands above all other considerations', then from the materialist Zionist point of view, was it morally right to betray the Jews of Hungary?

Yaron (snaps): Was it morally right to drop the bomb on Hiroshima?

Scott (unsure): No...

Yaron: Then kindly spare me your ethical fainting fits!

The hatred and loathing embodied in this passage, the dramatic climax of the play, is palpable, and I'm not sure it is just loathing of 'Zionism'.

Yaron is characterised as a sneaking, revengeful and vicious ex-victim who collaborated with his oppressors and helped them against his own people for reasons of an unreasoning, absolute, mystical commitment to 'Zionism'. The playwright allows Yaron to offer no real defence: Yaron's answers simply serve to build up the case against him by asserting that his actions are due to 'Zionism'.

There is even a Stalinist-type amalgam between Zionism and religion. In fact most of the Zionists in that period were atheists or not especially religious. This is one of many examples of the way that Allen's target broadens far beyond the present, or the wartime, Zionist movement, to Jews in general, or to his idea of Jews.

Despite all the histrionics, nothing remotely serious is ever said about how it all fits together - how the betrayal of Hungarian Jews (including lots of Hungarian Zionists) served the historical programme of Zionism. The play zig-zags between political assertions and explanations in terms of personal self-serving by Yaron.

Yaron is allowed some spirited lines, for example accusing Britain and the USA of refusing to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz, to stop the death trains. But politically and intellectually - and it is a political argument or it is nothing - 'Perdition' never rises above the level of old-style Stalinist or Healyite stock-in-trade polemic. There is a lot more of the same sort of stuff.

Take another comment by Scott:

"They allowed themselves to become Eichmann's Trojan Horse, the Zionist knife in the Nazi fist. The simple, terrible truth is that the Jews of Hungary were murdered, not just by the force of German arms, but by the calculated [sic] treachery of their own Jewish leaders".

All through the play Allen zig-zags between denouncing Zionists and denouncing Jews. The result is that they are more or less identical.

In the following sentence he lapses back to 'Zionists' to avoid open absurdity: "In terms of salvation, the only 'chosen people' left in Budapest were these Zionists".

The use here of the term often favoured by anti-semites is, incidentally, quite representative of the play, which is full of Christian images in inappropriate places.

Or take - in detail - the judge's summing-up, which encapsulates the 'message' Allen wrote the play to convey.

The judge (i.e. Jim Allen) sums up the 'charge' against Yaron" "Miss Kaplan has accused Dr Yaron of collaboration with the Nazis, of fratricide, of helping in the destruction of his own people". The "accusation" has branded Yaron "with the mark of Cain".

How has the judge (Allen) understood the defence made by and for Yaron? "The defence has entered a plea of justification, which simply means an admission that the words defamatory of Dr Yaron... were true". The judge has 'understood' Yaron to say that "he cooperated with the Nazis, but he justifies this cooperation by saying that this was the only way that he and his colleagues could help their community".

'Perdition' makes its account of events in Hungary in 1944 serve for all the Nazi-controlled and surrounded Jewish ghettoes in Eastern Europe. Characters giving 'evidence' garrulously include details of the lives and behaviour of some of the strange satraps who ran the Judenrate (Jewish Councils) in Polish ghettoes. All details and particularities are blurred and blended into one picture.

It may be legitimate dramatic technique to concentrate, distill, and focus material. But it works totally against registering the gradations of experience of the Jewish communities.

For 1944 Hungary, it can be argued in retrospect that refusal to comply with Nazi instructions would have saved more people in the end, though immediately it would have led to mass slaughter of unknowable proportions and scale. Even there, to explore 'bargains' made sense to people whose alternative was to give the signal for mass slaughter to commence. The Jewish community was unarmed, facing the Nazis, and surrounded also by a considerable degree of Hungarian anti-semitism, though compared to the Nazis this traditional Catholic prejudice was almost benign. Jewish leaders hoped to play for time until the Russian army drove the Nazis from Hungary.

But in Hungary, we can say with hindsight that resistance might have saved many lives. No such thing can be said of the Jewish ghettoes in Poland, who were surrounded by the Nazis: all resistance was met with immediate mass murder, whose potential scale at any moment would be unknown.

Yet this is how the judge sums up, supposedly dealing with Hungary but speaking at the end of a play in which Hungary and Poland and everywhere else in Eastern Europe have been indiscriminately mashed together.

The opponents of Yaron, says the judge (Allen), "argued that this was not cooperation but collaboration. That Eichmann needed the support of the Jewish leaders in order to hoodwink the Jews and make it easier for them to get them to participate in their own annihilation".

The judge then picks out bits of the 'evidence' to summarise Allen's case - and he cites the Nazi decree giving the Jewish Council control over all Jews, as if it were the Jewish leaders' fault.

The Council allegedly distributed postcards from Auschwitz inmates written at gunpoint, to reassure the Jews in Budapest.

The judge discusses the train at length. Yaron's opponents had claimed "that the train was filled with privileged functionaries, young Zionists, and wealthy prominents, a fact which Dr Yaron himself did not contend. He... justified the selection by saying that had it been left to Eichmann, 'Palestine would have been flooded with cripples, old people, and socially worthless elements'."

The judge (Allen) continues: "We approach a most difficult and sensitive area, for we are dealing with what Dr Yaron describes as 'the cruel criteria of Zionism... the Zionist tradition that it is right to save the few out of the many'. Now this might appear as heartless", adds the judge, a man of rigorous principle who believes in all or nothing, or maybe that you should not bother with a measly 1684 lives.

With that remark to show his good heart and clear head, the judge (Allen) then discusses the moral question. "Individuals are often praised for their heroism in war after performing deeds which at the time earned condemnation, yet which in the long term appear to have been noble and justified". The other way round, too, says this unusual judge, who is really the Trotskyist Jim Allen - citing the atom-bombing of Japan. He thinks maybe the Hague Convention will have to be "revised to accommodate new concepts of mass murder".

With that warm-up, the judge then says this:

"Looking at it from Dr Yaron's point of view, ruthless measures [i.e. he accepts the allegations in the play] must of necessity accompany progressive aims, and the harsh doctrine of Zionism [sic - i.e. as defined by the 'ruthless measures', identified with and thereby made responsible for Yaron's 'collaboration'] is justified within the historical content of what was necessary to achieve a new Homeland in Palestine. 'When needs must the devil drives'. But here we are back on the shifting sands of morality, of the ends justifying the means, and I don't want to go into that".

But he will, and having asserted that collaboration with the Nazis to save 1684 and kill hundreds of thousands of Jews was a means to the end of achieving the Jewish homeland, he doesn't pause to ask himself how such means, in Hungary or anywhere in Eastern Europe, could possibly serve the ends of Zionism.

He continues, driving home the point to which all the philosophy is leading up. "Nevertheless, it can be argued that Israel exists today as a direct result of the actions of David Ben Gurion and men like Dr Yaron". He means 'actions' like 'collaborating' with the Nazis in killing Jews.

The stuff about necessary ruthlessness and single-mindedness in a progressive and noble cause is in fact tongue-in-cheek, for earlier in the play Israel today has been roundly condemned. The philosophising serves only as a bridge between the allegations against Yaron and the assertion that collaboration with the Nazis lies at the root of Israel - that there is a sort of world Jewish-Nazi conspiracy to replace the old Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy.

In a serious discussion or play, the judge would question and probe all the unproven assertions and unestablished links. Here, even his 'sympathy' for Yaron's side serves to condemn it.

The judge clinches the point, just to make sure you remember it, and works in human consideration and spurious sympathy to disarm resistance to his message. "It is a complex issue with different strands woven into the pitiless tapestry of war, genocide, and the efforts of a group of individuals trying, against all odds" - and by deliberately betraying millions of their own people and helping the Nazis lead them to the slaughter! - "to build a nation, a haven for a people persecuted throughout history.

"If, on the evidence, you decide that Dr Yaron did collaborate" - then, of course, he is damned, and the state which arose "as a direct result of the actions of men like... Yaron" is, at the least, morally tainted. But Allen is engaged in a weaselling wrapping-up exercise, and the sentence switches direction in the middle, going from the vicious political slander to the hypocritical 'sympathy'. The sentence ends: "... then you must also take into consideration the circumstances. You must ask yourself how would the average man behave in that kind of situation. Would he have sacrificed his own life and the lives of his family?"

But hold on a minute! If Yaron is guilty of selfishly saving his own skin at the expense of others, what has that got to do with 'the cruel criteria of Zionism'? Nothing. This passage is an example of the incoherence, and the slipping and sliding from one thing to another, that makes 'Perdition' a bad example even of what it wants to be (though it does help hypocritically to wrap up the poisoned politics).

After the judge makes a few more 'legal remarks', he sends the jury away, telling them to "consider your verdict", and the curtain falls. The pretence is that the audience is the jury. But really the judge has been the jury.

And his verdict is plain and clear: the Zionists collaborated with the Nazis in order to help get Israel. Like the judge's summing-up, the final speech by counsel for Yaron is really just part of the political indictment. Much of it is tongue-in-cheek rhetoric which really conveys, and is meant to convey. the opposite of what is said. This, for example:

"Mr Scott went to great lengths prove that Dr Yuron acted as a representative of the Jewish Agency and yet, as we have heard, Dr Yaron never denied this. Throughout his political life he has consistently identified the problem of the Jews with the need to establish a Jewish Homeland in Palestine, a Jewish renaissance in the land of Israel. That was always his primary goal.

"But this of course raises problems for the defence which were never touched on. And with good reason, for if Dr Yaron acted as the official representative of the Jewish Agency in Palestine, then why single him out as a collaborator? Why not go the whole hog and accuse the entire Israeli cabinet of collaboration?"

Accuse the Israeli cabinet, not of doing vile things to the Arabs under its rule (though that is the sort of consideration that 'Perdition' appeals to), but of collaboration in the mass murder of Jews...? Absurd, yes, but one Israeli prime minister, Ben Gurion, is linked elsewhere with Yaron, as we have seen.

I have pointed out that Allen makes Hungary serve for all the Jewish ghettoes, ignoring the different conditions in Warsaw after September 1939 and Budapest just after the Nazis seized Hungary in 1944. He has his characters tell horror stories about the Polish ghettoes and the Judenrate there. Add to this the way that, when supposedly polemicising against Zionism, he often uses 'Zionist' and 'Jew' interchangeably; and add the way he zig-zags in explanation of motives from desire to save himself to Zionist grand design - the fire is forever wobbling away from the Zionist alleged target to include more and more Jews.

The loathing and hatred he spews out targets not 'Zionists’ but Jews. Does Allen mean to do that, or is the effect unintentionally produced by sloppiness and lack of control over his material? At first I thought the latter, but I'm not sure any more.

Certainly the 'balancing' remarks - which are there - and the conventional warning against a revival of fascism put into the mouth of Scott towards the end of the play, do not and cannot offset the anti-Jewish drift of the play, as Allen intends them to. The picture presented by Allen (like Brenner, and like the Stalinist inventors of the thesis of links and identification between the Nazis and Zionists) is, as I've already said, an inversion of the old Nazi idea of the 'Jewish-Bolshevik' world conspiracy. In Allen this is replaced by a sort of 'Jewish-Nazi' conspiracy, made to seem slightly less lunatic by being described as a conspiracy against the Jews, and backed up by examples of Zionist/Nazi contact and of the 'collaboration' at gunpoint of the victims of Nazism with those who held the gun and annihilatingly superior force.

When they come to expound the 'Zionist-Nazi' conspiracy, both Allen and Brenner wind up clawing in the Jewish communities and outlining the lunatic picture of a conspiracy between the Nazis and the leaders of the six million they killed (though they killed the leaders, too). Their 'Zionist-Nazi' version breaks down because there wasn't a sharp division between Zionists and Jews. The Zionists were an organic part of the Jewish communities. not some intervening 'demons ex machina'. Allen's sloppy zig-zags are a mechanism for reconciling his political conscience — what he thinks he is doing, and why — with his rampant prejudices. Even if it is triggered by Israel's dealings with the Palestinian Arabs, the prejudice is retrospective and historically all-embracing: and 'Perdition’ is awash with it.

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