Magazine article New Internationalist

Heaven, Hell and Spring Sunshine

Magazine article New Internationalist

Heaven, Hell and Spring Sunshine

Article excerpt

One of Disneyland Paris's more impressive exhibits is a nine-screen cinema which shows films in the 360-degree round, so that if you see the Matterhorn in front of you, you will be able to turn your head and see Zermatt behind you as if you were truly amidst the Swiss Alps. Such setpiece scenes are woven together by an enjoyable nonsense of a narrative that has a robot time-traveller picking up nineteenth-century science-fiction writer Jules Verne by mistake and taking him on a journey into our own age. Naturally Verne is a sucker for the wonders of scientific progress -- space rockets and racing cars -- and a veil is drawn over the debit side of the ledger, such as environmental destruction. Eventually we and Verne are taken farther on into the future and are vouchsafed a brief vision of a Parisian metropolis a century or so on as a kind of science-fiction heaven on earth.

This firm faith in scientific advancement as a guarantor of human progress will come as no surprise to readers of the NI's recent issue on the Disney corporation (NI 308). And it can beguile even the most cynical of us. But in truth only the most blinkered, privileged observer could retain an unalloyed faith in the notion of human progress at the end of the twentieth century of which the philosopher Isaiah Berlin said: 'I remember it only as the most terrible century in human history.'

Of course the balance sheet at the end of the century can point to amazing improvements, not least in higher life expectancy and declining infant-mortality rates all over the world. Most inhabitants of industrialized countries, and a significant elite in developing nations, benefit from a level of comfort, education and access to information undreamed of by even the most ardent optimist in 1900.

But all too much of the progress has been for the exclusive benefit of the richest fifth of the world's people, who now receive over 80 per cent of the world's income compared to the 2 per cent earned by the poorest fifth.[Symbol Not Transcribed] The scale of destruction of human life in the century should alone be enough to dispel any lingering illusions about the inevitability of progress. 'Hundreds of millions starved to death because of the permanent maldistribution of the available food in the world. In addition, about 100 million died in the great famines of the century... War killed another 150 million, government repression about 100 million. The total of 14 million who died in the century's genocides was, on this scale, comparatively small, but they were victims of the greatest acts of deliberate murder.'(f.1)

All meditations on the meaning of the century, even the mainstream ones, must inevitably return to the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews -- and the Romanies, gays and socialists who perished in the death camps alongside them. The ethnic genocide which began and ended the century -- the Turkish massacre of Armenians at the beginning and the Serb extinction of Bosnians and Albanians at the end -- is depressing enough evidence of the human incapacity to outgrow blind prejudice and blood-thirstiness. But the Nazi extermination programme stands unique in history for its particular horror -- the industrialization of mass nurder, the routine annihilation of six million people by faceless bureaucrats and soldiers who were simply 'doing their job'.

A recent interview in the German magazine Der Spiegel with a man who worked as a doctor at Auschwitz underlines the peculiarly twentieth-century horror of what Hannah Arendt called 'the banality of evil'. Dr Hans Munch conducted scientific experiments on people under the auspices of the notorious Josef Mengele. He still feels no remorse, no regrets about the part he played and he lives in comfortable retirement. 'To eradicate the Jews, that was the job of the SS at the time,' says Munch. 'I could do experiments on people, which otherwise were only possible on rabbits. It was important work for science... No, I can't say I felt pity. …

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