Not Saussure

March 23, 2007


Filed under: Books, history — notsaussure @ 11:35 am

Via Westminster Wisdom, a review in The Times by Andrew Scull of a new translation of Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation; the previous translation was apparently a greatly truncated version of the original French text, and this new edition restores several missing chapters and all the footnotes.   Gracchus explains,

What Scull does is demolish the factual basis upon which Foucault’s work rests- he goes after Foucault’s footnotes- it is a fine example of the way a thesis can be destroyed by a historian just going through the empirical work of examining the citations. The overall thesis and historical image once detached from reality then become not meaningless but useless as an analytical tool to understand the past with- their empirical basis undermined they float off to join the suggestions that Arthur conquered Burgundy, that Alfred burnt the cakes and that Britain was founded by Brutus,

though this does not, as Gracchus notes, necessarily invalidate the philosophical points Foucault seeks to make.    Foucault, however, has found some defenders in The Times, one of whom tries to make the perfectly reasonable point that Foucault’s trying to study what people had to say about madness at particular times rather than determining whether or not they were accurately describing social conditions.     That’s a perfectly fair point, but Andrew Scull’s complaint is that Foucault frequently goes further than this and treats the material he discusses as accurate statements of fact; it is, to use Gracchus’ analogy, one thing to discuss the idea that Britain was founded by Brutus (not the Et tu chap, but a mythical character, Brutus of Troy) and the importance of this pseudo-historical fact in the Middle Ages.   It’s quite another to write as if you think he did, in fact, found Britain.   

This, it it seems, is the mistake Foucault frequently makes; he moves from a perfectly justified examination of the significance of descriptions Bedlam Hospital in Eighteenth Century writing, and what these descriptions tell us about ideas about madness and sanity at the time, to various conclusions based on the demonstrably false premise that these descriptions were in any way accurate accounts of  that institution.       It’s one thing to study British social attitudes about asylum seekers from the way they’re reported in the popular press; it’s quite another to believe everything you read about them in The Daily Express.

Consequently, it’s rather unfortunate that one of people commenting in The Times, Paul North, of New York City, USA, comes out with the observation

In fact, Scull’s insistence that he check his facts is a symptom of the same progressivism that Foucault critiques.

Insisting he check he check his facts!  Quelle effronterie!

Technorati Tags: , ,


January 28, 2007

History lessons?

Filed under: Education, England, history — notsaussure @ 5:09 pm

An interesting article (what else do we expect?) over at Westminster Wisdom, in which Gracchus considers concerns expressed by Matthew Sinclair over the government’s plans

to teach more British history to help pupils have a better understanding of their own identity and Britain’s religious, racial, social and political diversity.

Matthew Sinclair is concerned by the topics on which the proposed history syllabus is to concentrate; according to the Guardian,

Lessons on the Commonwealth and empire, the slave trade and conflicts such as those in Northern Ireland are to be made a keystone of revamped citizenship education. Other issues such as migration will be made central to the curriculum. Pupils will be expected to learn core “British” values such as tolerance, respect, freedom of speech and justice and learn of “the shared British heritage”. There will also be a drive to ensure that white working class pupils do not feel alienated by attention being paid to ethnic minority pupils.

Of this, he comments,

Combine a focus upon periods of ethnic strife with the perspective that these problems are caused by white, Anglo-Saxon, evil and you have a recipe for lessons about how we should accept immigrants because of how awfully we mistreated their ancestors. Instead of trying to teach British national identity they’re trying the old strategy of trying to guilt the white British population into playing nice; this is not a novel strategy and doesn’t have the most impressive record of success.

Gracchus disagrees; he argues that

one of the points about history is to understand that our society has been shaped by people who had very different attitudes to the world than we of the points about history is to understand that our society has been shaped by people who had very different attitudes to the world than we do

and, speaking particularly of one particularly important, complex, controversial and influential Englishman, Oliver Cromwell, (more…)

January 6, 2007

Trying out your new sword on a chance wayfarer

Filed under: history, Internet, Philosopy — notsaussure @ 2:28 pm

Listening to The News Quiz on Radio 4 this lunchtime, I heard Jo Brand explaining that her favourite word was a Japanese term meaning ‘to try out your new sword on a passer-by’, which she rather liked the sound of (assuming, one supposes, she felt herself at no risk of being the passer-by), but she couldn’t remember the Japanese term for this practice. This vaguely reminded me of an essay I’d read years ago — must have been late ’70s or early ’80s — when I came across a discussion of the practice in a philosophical essay of that title, which used it to attack moral and cultural relativism. Apparently, the Japanese samurai not only had to be able to kill their masters’ enemies in battle but they had to be able to dispatch them with a single blow; failure so to do was apparently an immense dishonour and the only possible way to atone for it was to commit ritual suicide.

Consequently, the provident samurai would, on taking delivery of a new sword, obviously want to road-test it to determine it was, in fact, ‘fit for purpose.’ There were complex rules about who could be used as guinea-pigs in these experiments and, apparently, chance wayfarers were the best choice. The author of the essay used this example to try to argue that, no matter how tolerant and liberal minded one was, and no matter how much one understood the cultural milieu of the samurai, there was no way a C20th Western liberal could begin to justify the practice.

My take on it, by the way, was that it probably — no matter what anyone said — didn’t go down too well with chance wayfarers in Japan at the time, so this was probably another example of a particular group in a society trying to pretend its cultural practices were the norm, and, in any case, if anyone tried to explain that his habit of running about slicing people up would have been considered perfectly normal behaviour in C16th Japan, that was all very interesting but not much of a guide to behaviour in Britain nowadays and that our legal system takes a dim view of such activities; I’ve always rather liked the quote attributed to General Napier when he was suppressing sati in British India:

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

(another example of powerful elites determining social morality, you see).

Anway, my curiosity piqued by Jo Brand’s recollection of the practice, I thought I’d try to look up the article, or at least the Japanese term for it. Mr Google quickly led me to To Try a New Sword on a Chance Wayfarer: This blog, a crossroads. My words, a sword. You, a chance wayfarer, where the latest entry is:

Hey English people!

Why are you visiting my blog? Don’t get me wrong; I love new visitors, especially from outside the USA. But I’ve been getting a bunch of visits from people in England searching for variations of “to try a new sword on a chance wayfarer.” It’s made me really curious. Are you all looking it up for a Japanese language class assignment or something?

So it rather seems that a lot of other people wondered about the term, too.

I was also delighted to discover from one of the comments that the Japanese term is Tsujigiri (辻斬)

Who says you never learn anything from fooling about on the internet?

(Now, let’s see what this does for my hits).

TechnoratiTechnorati: , , ,

January 1, 2007

Dickens on public hangings

Filed under: Books, history — notsaussure @ 1:00 pm

Dickens, in a letter to the London Daily News in 1846, having watched a hanging for the first time:

I was, purposely, in the spot, from midnight of the night before; and was a near witness of the whole process of the building of the scaffold, the gathering of the crowd, the gradual swelling of the concourse with the coming-on of day, the hanging of the man, the cutting of the body down, and the removal of it into the prison. From the moment of my arrival, when there were but a few score boys in the street, and all those young thieves, and all clustered together behind the barrier nearest to the drop–down to the time when I saw the body with its dangling head, being carried on a wooden bier into the gaol–I did not see one token in all the immense crowd; at the windows, in the streets, on the house-tops, anywhere; of any one emotion suitable to the occasion.

No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes. I should have deemed it impossible that I could have ever felt any large assemblage of my fellow-creatures to be so odious. I hoped, for an instant, that there was some sense of Death and Eternity in the cry of “Hats off!” when the miserable wretch appeared; but I found, next moment, that they only raised it as they would at a Play–to see the stage the better, in the final scene.

And this, from his essay (letter?) on Capital Punishment;

There never is (and there never was) an execution at the Old Bailey in London, but the spectators include two large classes of thieves– one class who go there as they would go to a dog-fight, or any other brutal sport, for the attraction and excitement of the spectacle; the other who make it a dry matter of business, and mix with the crowd solely to pick pockets. Add to these, the dissolute, the drunken, the most idle, profligate, and abandoned of both sexes– some moody ill-conditioned minds, drawn thither by a fearful interest–and some impelled by curiosity; of whom the greater part are of an age and temperament rendering the gratification of that curiosity highly dangerous to themselves and to society–and the great elements of the concourse are stated.

Nor is this assemblage peculiar to London. It is the same in country towns, allowing for the different statistics of the population. It is the same in America.

TechnoratiTechnorati: ,

December 18, 2006

Murder most foul

Filed under: history, Law, UK — notsaussure @ 1:10 pm

It being almost Christmas, one’s thoughts naturally turn to homicide. They were helped in this direction, at least in my case, by following a link over at The Flying Rodent’s place; he’s been moved to poetry by another blogger and I wondered what had so irritated him.

Part of the cause of his ire was a discussion about capital punishment, in which the old point about the ‘murder rate’ (I’ll explain the scare quotes in a moment) going up since the suspension of capital punishment in 1965 and its eventual abolition in 1969.

Since I know that crime statistics are notoriously difficult to interpret, I thought I’d do a little more digging. Eventually this took me to the oldest blog entry I’ve ever seen, an archived entry from 1996 by Tim Lambert of Deltoid. This gives the Homicide (or, more correctly, crimes initially recorded as Homicide) rates for England and Wales from 1857 to 1993. I’ve copied them into a spreadsheet and supplemented them with the more recent figures, which I took from Table 2.01 in the Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Violent Crime Overview, Homicide and Gun Crime 2004/2005.

The spreadsheet, should anyone wish to consult it, is here. One slight caveat to anyone consulting it; my Home Office figures give the rates for offences currently (as opposed to initially) recorded as homicide per million of population. Consequently, I had to calculate what population figure they were using for the relevant years and then use that to calculate what the rate was for offences initially thus recorded; for some years, my figures aren’t quite the same as Tim Lambert’s — I’m not quite sure why, but there’s not a great difference and I don’t think it alters the overall picture.

I’m not really trying to use the figures to argue anything, since my opposition to the death penalty isn’t particularly founded on stats, but I thought it worth making a few points.

First, homicide covers not only murder, but also manslaughter and infanticide (the last comprising between 1.86% and 5.89% of recording homicides between 1994 and 2005). The Home Office stats give a breakdown of what the crimes were eventually decided to be at court — murder, manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility, other manslaugher and so on — from 1994 onwards (table 2.02), but since we’re dealing with the way offences were initially recorded, we don’t have that information (at least I don’t) for cases before 1994. Consequently, the bare figure for Offences Initially Recorded as Homicide doesn’t tell us anything about what the offences were eventually determined to be or, in the cases of murder, the circumstances of the murder.

This last point doesn’t affect the figures, of course, but it’s worth recalling that ‘murder’ can mean a cool, premeditated execution killing, a killing committed in the heat of the moment, and also — which people don’t always realise — the results of a serious assualt that ended up far more serious than anyone expected. Consequently, in an example provided by the Law Commision in their recent report on Murder, Manslaughter and Infanticide, (p 4) if

D intentionally punches V in the face. The punch breaks V’s nose and causes V to fall to the ground. In falling, V hits his or her head on the curb causing a massive and fatal brain haemorrhage


This would be murder if the jury decided that the harm that D intended the punch to cause (the broken nose) can be described as ‘serious’.

Parliament apparently didn’t think this was murder when they passed the Homicide Act 1957, but the Court of Appeal decided it, in fact, was very shortly afterwards (see the Law Commission Report, paras 1.26 — 1.29).

Nor, returning to the figures, do we know anything about what the recording practices were in the past. That certainly seems to vary; In 1967, 14.49% of cases initially recorded as homicide were eventually determined to have been something else, while in 2003/4 it was down to 7.68%. Does that mean they were overly suspicious in 1967 or that we’re nowadays unduly willing to go along wth the initial determination? I don’t know.

However, which things having been said, it’s certainly the case that recorded homicide rates have doubled from the 1950s and 1960s, when they were 0.7 per 100,000 of population, to 1.4 per 100,000 of population in the 1990s.

That, though, is only half the story; if we go back further in time, it seems that — for whatever reason, but it can’t be capital punishment — the rates in the 1950s and 1960s were particularly low: the mean average rates per 100,000 for each decade were

1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920
1.7 1.6 1.5 1.1 0.9 0.8 0.7
1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990
0.8 0.8 0.7 0.7 1.0 1.2 1.4

However you interpret the figures, and I’m not going to try, it’s obviously a mistake to try to infer that because the death penalty was abolished, the murder rate went up, because that leaves you at a loss to explain why it went down from the 1860s onwards. It’s always a mistake to infer causality from correlation, of course; I once saw an elegant demonstration of how you could quite closely correlate the number of television licences with the homicide rate, too.

Obviously, something as complex as homicide has a multitude of causes; as a guess, and it’s only that, it might be worth looking at the relative price of alcohol as one, but only one, factor, given the role alcohol seems to play in many crimes of violence (see Home Office stats, ‘Offence Profile’ pp 21-22).

tag: , , ,

December 11, 2006

A German War Christmas

Filed under: Blogroll, history, Religion — notsaussure @ 8:11 pm

A discussion over at The Tin Drummer‘s place touches on the religious beliefs, or lack of them, of the Nazis and reminded me of an interesting site I came across some time ago, the German Propaganda Archive, that has some fascinating material from both the Third Reich and the DDR, that seems to support The Drummer’s suggestion that the Third Reich used and tried to transform traditional religious customs and images for its own secular, ideological purposes.

The archive includes extracts from a 1943 Advent Calendar, the preface to which reads

Nazi Advent Calendar

“Dear German mother! Christmas has always been particularly a festival for children. War and destruction may rage in the world, and everyone, man or woman, in Germany may have to arm themselves with hardness and will in order to continue the battle until victory — yet our children should delight in this most German of all holidays as much as possible. We are fighting this war for our children, for them we are bearing the burdens and dangers, but their eyes should remain bright during the Christmas season, and they should laugh with joy in anticipation and Christmas pleasure…. In most families, the father is in the field, and often they have been forced to leave their homes because of the war. Death’s hard hand may even have torn holes in the family. Still, the German mother will hold her hand protectively over childhood joy and childhood thoughts in this Christmas season.”

German soldiers and treeOne day before Christmas, we have two German soldiers standing by the grave of a fallen comrade, which is covered by a Christmas tree; the text apparently reads:

“In war or in peace, you may never forget the quiet thankfulness and obligation owed to those whose sacrifices enabled you to celebrate Christmas. Therefore, a candle should burn in every home for those most loyal who stand eternal watch on the wide fronts of this war.”

Three lost travellers The picture for Christmas Day itself looks at first sight like a Madonna and Child and the Three Wise Men, but accompanies a completely secular retelling of the Christmas story in a completely different context, about a woodcutter who gets lost in the woods and encounters a soldier, returning from the wars, and a king, lost while hunting.

The site also has extracts from a 1944 Deutsche Kriegsweihnacht, German War Soldiers' Christmas 1943 Christmas, a 200-page Christmas annual of seasonal stories, songs, letters and illustrations, with a similar emphasis on soldiers on the Eastern Front; this illustration of soldiers gathering round their Christmas tree in a dug-out accompanies what purports to be a letter from a soldier’s wife for Christmas 1943, which ends

“And so, like millions of women today, the light of my heart shines forth with joy and love, illuminating the front, brightening the year’s longest night, in which you stand watch and fight for us. That light is within us, and will give us all the strength to find our way to a fresh spring. That is my firm, unshakable faith.”

It’s hard not to be moved when contemplating the bitter irony of this in the light of what Christmas 1943 must actually have been like for the encircled remnants of the German VIth Army awaiting their inevitable fate at Stalingrad.

Hitler admires his Christmas Tree The annual includes a seasonal picture of the Führer admiring a Christmas tree, together with an extract from Goebbels’s 1941 Christmas Eve speech:

“On this evening we will think of the Führer, who is also everywhere present this evening wherever Germans gather, and place ourselves in the service of the fatherland. At the end of the war, it shall be greater, lovelier, and more impressive. It should be the proud and free homeland for us all. We promise the Führer that in this hour he can rely on his people at the front, at home, and in the world. He leads us. We follow him. Without the shadow of a doubt, we follow him, bearing the flag and the Reich. The flag and the Reich shall remain pure and unscathed when the great hour of victory comes.”

and this seasonal Christmas wreath together with a distinctly un-Christmas-like quotation from Hitler:

Hitler's Christmas MessageAll nature is a gigantic struggle between strength and weakness, an eternal victory of the strong over the weak

The site also gives a translation of a 1937 theoretical article on transforming traditional Christian holidays into something more appropriate to National Socialist purposes and ideals; for example,

we can present it [Christmas] as a holiday of actual domestic national peace, which is in fact without question a critical demand of the National Socialist people’s community, to each individual German. If we make visible the blessings of this actual peace, along with its foundations and requirements, then “Christmas” doubtless can be a high point in the course of the political year. Both according to popular custom and popular view, the Christmas holiday can justifiably be seen as a festival of the nation.

tag: ,

October 26, 2006

Veils and vestments

Filed under: Catholicism, England, history, Islam — notsaussure @ 10:32 pm

A curious article on the Beeb website, purporting to draw parallels between current concern (at least in some quarters) about how Muslim women dress and religious controversy in the C17th:

These may seem like unfamiliar and uncharted waters that British society is moving into – controversy over religious clothing, and fearful tensions between a religious minority and the mainstream. In fact, we’ve been here before, 400 years ago – or somewhere uncannily like it.
In the days of Elizabeth I and James I/VI, the English church was riven by the Puritan controversy. The main issue – at least on the surface – was what ministers should wear: traditional robes or ordinary clothes. The difference is that then it was the establishment that demanded distinctive clothing and the radicals – the Puritans – who insisted on everyday wear.

and it goes on at some length to try to establish this.

I’d have thought there was an historically much more recent and far closer parallel, though; that between Catholics in Victorian England and Muslims today — recent immigrants, practicing a faith that had long been distrusted and seen as the enemy of Protestant England, and one with connections, at least in the English mind, both with hostile or potentially hostile foreign powers, with foreign religious leaders issuing fatwahs (or encyclicals, as we call them) that the faithful may be tempted to follow in preference to British law and custom.   You’ve certainly got the terrorist connections, and there was even controversy about religious dress; I’m not sure when the rule was revoked but certainly the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, which is generally thought of as having removed most of the legal disabilities suffered by Catholics, provided

That if any Roman Catholic Ecclesiastic, or any member of any of the orders, communities or societies hereinafter mentioned, shall, after the commencement of this Act, exercise any of the rites or ceremonies of the Roman Catholic religion, or wear the habits of his order, save within the usual places of worship of the Roman Catholic religion, or in private houses; such ecclesiastic or other person shall, being thereof convicted by due course of law, forfeit for every such offence the sum of Fifty pounds.

Curiously, though, they left religious women alone;

Provided always, and be it Enacted, That nothing herein contained shall extend or be construed to extend in any manner to affect any religious order, community or establishment consisting of Females bound by religious or monastic vows.

On a slight sidetrack, I’m always a bit bemused by complaints about Muslim women who wear the veil visibly rejecting British norms and mainstream society; I mean, most of us would agree, I’d have thought,  that taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and living a communal life with other, like-minded, folk was rather out of the mainstream and something of a radical rejection of many aspects of contemporary life and culture, but we don’t seem too bothered when monks and nuns do it.   I suppose one difference is  we’re used to seeing them. 

Technorati tags: , , , ,

October 18, 2006

John Reid and being ‘soft on terrorism’: Plus ça change

Filed under: civil liberties, history, UK, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 4:22 pm

The Guardian reports

Opposition parties have been calling for Mr Reid to make a formal emergency statement about the disappearance of the men – said to be dangerous – to the Commons today. A Home Office spokeswoman said this morning that there were no plans for such a statement.

However, Mr Reid did speak to reporters at a photocall in central London [Miaoww!] aimed at increasing support for controversial government plans for compulsory ID cards.

He said: "The opposition in parliament is led by the Conservatives and the Liberals. They are the first to complain when things go wrong and the first to run away when very difficult decisions are made in parliament.

"If they want to prove their credentials, why don’t they vote in parliament for every single stronger measure that we bring to combat crime?"

Mr Reid said a litmus test would be how the opposition parties decide to vote on forthcoming ID card legislation, which the home secretary said would be crucial in fighting terrorism. Critics of ID cards say they do not stop terrorism and point to attacks such as the train bombings in Madrid, where ID cards already exist.

Hmm, thinks I.   That’s a familiar line of argument.   Let’s cast our minds back 10 years, to 9 January 1999.   Then the House of Commons was debating  the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill, as they had annually to do..     The then Labour Northern Ireland spokesman, the late Dr Mo Mowlam, had moved an amendment opposing this, largely on the grounds it retained powers for the Secretary of State to resurrect the long-unused provisions for detention without trial, subject to their being debated by Parliament within 40 days of their reintroduction.

Dr Mowlam was at pains to stress that Labour, then  in Opposition, weren’t soft on terrorism;

In answer to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery, I have made it clear that we would support sensible new legislation in response to terrorism. We do not oppose counter-terrorism legislation; we oppose the nature of the Bill.

We recognise that, while violence and intimidation continue on the streets of Northern Ireland, certain procedures under the existing system cannot be changed overnight or without introducing new legislation. That is a criticism that the Liberal Democrats always make of us. They say that we vote against a measure because we disagree with it in principle, but that in practice we do not leave anything on the books. If a review had been carried out during the past eight months, we could have had before us different legislation that we might have felt able to support.

We have consistently maintained that the EPA [Emergency Powers Act] is unacceptable. Our opposition to one of its central tenets– the power of imprisonment without trial–is well established, yet it remains in the Bill.

This, however, was insufficient to convince Mr Nick Hawkins (Blackpool South):

Unless and until they support the Government on every piece of anti-terrorist legislation, the voters of Britain will never take seriously any of the weasel words of Labour spokesmen from the leader downwards on the strength of the Labour party’s policy on crime. If the Opposition will not support us on measures against terrorism, they cannot be taken seriously. It is a measure of the desperation of their opposition for opposition’s sake that the Opposition intend to vote against these important and crucial powers tonight.

That, of course, was hardly a new line of argument even in 1996.   On December 6, 1988, only a year after Dr Reid entered Parliament, Mr Ian Stewart, then then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was telling MPs in closing a similar debate, where Labour were very upset about holding terrorist suspects for 4 days without charge or access to legal advice,

The important point is not so much what the Opposition might do in office, but that, if they treat legislation in the way that they are treating this legislation, they will have no right ever to hold office again. It is an important test of a responsible Opposition that they should look at the central purpose of legislation before deciding to vote against it or to produce what is called a reasoned amendment.

Dr Reid rightly then rejected Conservative accusations about people who voted against what they considered bad bills and unnecessary or counterproductive measures.   I wonder what’s changed.  

And before anyone objects that we face a new threat in the form of Islamic extremists, who’re far more dangerous than PIRA ever were;  perhaps that’s true — of the Mainland.

But I, for one, will need more convincing that in Northern Ireland, PIRA and the Unionist paramilitaries were ever less numerous or  well-organised, commanded less support in their respective communities, had smaller armories of guns, ammunition and explosives or were any less murderous than any religious fanatics in Bradford.   Or don’t the Irish count?

Technorati tags: , , ,

September 3, 2006

Work Makes You Free

Filed under: history, Politics, Russia/USSR — notsaussure @ 1:41 am

Last Thursday, The Daily Telegraph reported an unfortunate slip by an Italian politician:

An Italian politician has used the “work makes you free” slogan used on the gates at Auschwitz in a brochure to promote local job centres.

Tommaso Coletti said he could not remember the source but was impressed by the quote.

“Work makes you free. I don’t remember where I read this phrase but it was one of those quotes that have an instant impact on you because they tell an immense truth,” Mr Coletti, the president of Italy’s southern Chieti province and member of the centre-left “Daisy” party, wrote in the pamphlet.

There was a bit of a discussion at Mr Eugenides about the origins of the phrase Arbeit macht frei and its left-wing connotations. I’ve at last found the reference for which I was looking and, rather than post there again, I’m putting it here.

In her study of the Soviet camps, Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum writes

If it was not dark, if they were not ill, and if they were interested enough to look up, the first thing the prisoners saw on arrival was their camp’s gate. More often than not, the gate displayed a slogan. On the entrance into one of the Kolyma lagpunkts “hung a plywood rainbow with a banner draped over it which read: “Labour in the USSR is a Matter of Honesty, Glory, Valour and Heroism!” Barbara Armonas was welcomed to a labour colony in the suburbs of Irkutsk with the banner:”With Just Work I Will Pay My Debt to the Fatherland”. Arriving in Solovetsky in 1933 — it had by then become a high-security prison — another prisoner saw a sign reading: “With an Iron Fist, We Will Lead Humanity to Happiness!” Yuri Chirkov, arrested at age fourteen, was also confronted with a sign at Solovetsky which read: “Through Labour — Freedom!” — a slogan which is about as uncomfortably close as it is possible to get to the slogan that hung over the gates of Auschwitz. (pp 172 -173)

Create a free website or blog at