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Century of poetry and war

PART 4: crimes against humanity


Bread and a Pension by Louis Johnson

It was not our duty to question but to guard,
maintaining order; see that none escaped
who may be required for questioning by the State.
The price was bread and a pension and not a hard
life on the whole. There was some scraped
enough on the side to build up a fairish estate

for the day of retirement. I never could
understand the complaints of the restless ones
who found the hours long, time dragging:
it always does. The old hands knew how good
the guardroom fire could be, the guns
gleaming against the wall and the nagging

wind like a wife outside. There were cards
for such occasions and good companions
who truly were more than home since they shared
one's working life without difference or hard words,
aimed at much the same thing, and shared opinions
or news they had read. If they cared

much it was for the quiet life. You cannot hold
that against them, since it's roundly human
and any decent man would want it the same.
And these were decent; did as they were told,
fed prisoners, buried the dead, and, on occasion,
loaded the deathcart with those who were sent to the flames.


  the first world war
  the 1930s
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
Refugee Blues GO
Bread and a Pension GO
Dispossessed GO
After the War
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  women's voices


The 'speaker' is a former guard at a slave labour camp for Jews.
'Bread': a living wage
'There was some...': some of the prison guards made extra money on the side, maybe on the black market or by diverting prison supplies (including food supposedly for prisoners)
'estate': money and property
'roundly': thoroughly
'sent to the flames': sent to the gas chambers and incineration furnaces at the death camps. The implication is that they deserved such a punishment


Because most German men were conscripted into Hitler's army, there was a shortage of workers in factories and on farms. The Germans dealt with this problem by forcing 5.5 million men from German-occupied countries (such as France and Holland) to work in industry and agriculture for them. In the same way they forcibly employed 2.5 million prisoners of war. Jews, too, were forced into slave labour camps, where they were treated particularly brutally (beaten, starved and humiliated) and made to work literally to death: at least half a million ended their lives this way.

Concentration camp leaders and prison guards were among the Nazis brought to trial after the war. Some others committed suicide; many escaped and changed their identities.

In 1995 the International Committee of the Red Cross apologised for its 'moral failure' in not openly denouncing atrocities carried out against Jews during the Second World War. The ICRC administration had 'taken another look at its share of responsibility for the almost complete failure by a culture, indeed a civilisation, to prevent the systematic genocide of an entire people and of certain minority groups'. Among these minority groups singled out for persecution, imprisonment and death were Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, and homosexuals.
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Survivors of the Holocaust have had grim stories to tell about the men and women who were their prison guards. Not many tales have been told by the guards themselves, for obvious reasons. A German SS Major who had organised some of the deportation of Jews said at his trial 'Everyone down to the lowest clerk knew what went on in the concentration camps'.

In a way this poem is brave in presenting the prison guard's point of view. Perhaps it was true that many guards did their job because it was a job, and did it without asking questions of their bosses or their consciences. Maybe in other respects many were 'decent' men, grateful for each other's companionship, the warmth of the guardroom fire, or escape from an unhappy marriage.

'Bread', yes - but a pension too? The guard 'speaking' in this poem seems to think he's in a secure job, a career for life. Yet all the guards must have known that the camps would not go on for ever. The war would end, and so would the secret labour camps; in time, anyway, there would simply be no Jews left to kill. Or did their complicity in atrocities mean that most prison guards did not look beyond tomorrow?

And would this man's work-mates have stuck by him if he had fallen foul of the authorities they feared and obeyed?

The most significant phrase of the poem (and its strongest critique of its submissive 'speaker') is in the last verse - and it's even possible to overlook it. 'Did as they were told'. To the guard, that's praise. In 1960, Adolf Eichmann, the chief organiser of the deportation and imprisonment of Jews, went on trial in Israel. He explained to the court that he was only 'obeying orders'. For many of Germany's war criminals, this seemed to be an adequate justification.

Is it? Outrage says No. Wisdom and humanity says No. But how often do we look closely into the significance of things we're told - and paid - to do? How often do we hear, 'I couldn't say no to the boss, could I'? Or: 'I know it's bad, but if we didn't do it, someone else would'? - a common defence put up by people who work in armaments manufacture. (Though there are plenty of people in parts factories who don't even know they are working in the arms business.)

The guard in this poem doesn't ask questions, but he certainly raises them.

Might the words of this poem be part of an imprisoned guard's defence?

What might be the defence of people who committed genocide later in the 20th century - in Rwanda in 1994, for example, where the military and radio broadcasts urged them on?




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