Monday, October 12, 2015

Barbed Wire: A History Of Denying Human Freedom

Human Misery

Trapped: Zaretsky writes: “It does not take a great stretch of moral imagination to portray great swaths of North Africa and the Middle East as one vast concentration camp. It is a region where suffering, disease, and despair are the rule — a camp whose walls of barbed wire have been strung up not by the failing and murderous governments inside, but rather by us along its edges. The barbed wire fences uncoiling in France and Hungary, Italy and Greece are not keeping undesirable elements outside of Europe. Instead, they are keeping those same elements inside zones where death, not life, is commonplace.”
Illustration Credit: Jeremy Traum; for the Boston Globe. 

An excellent article, by Robert Zaretsky, in The Boston Globe looks at the history of barbed wire, including its uses to both keep out and keep in both predators and people. It seems that the history of barbed wire is linked to a misapprehension of whom is the predator. By interpreting and then defining certain groups of people as predators, it becomes easier (on the conscience, it seems) to use and justify ways, even if otherwise inhumane, to keep such persons contained or concentrated outside the gates of humanity.

In “The tangled history of barbed wire (September 27, 2015), Zaretsky, a professor working in the field of modern European intellectual and cultural history. at the University of Houston, writes:
EARLIER THIS MONTH, the Hungarian government, scrambling to seal its southern border against the influx of North African and Middle Eastern refugees trying to reach Germany, placed a bid for 10,000 rolls of razor wire. Though the deal was worth hundreds of thousands of euros, a German manufacturer, Mutanox, wouldn’t sell to the Hungarians. “Razor wire is designed to prevent criminal acts, like a burglary,” explained the company spokesman. “Fleeing children and adults are not criminals.”
Had you doubts about the cunning of history, lay them to rest. From Germany’s welcoming of refugees to its outrage at Hungary’s violent efforts to stop them, the country that, 75 years ago, made barbed wire into the symbol of man’s inhumanity to man has done much to overcome its past.

Yet, the Mutanox spokesman did not fully uncoil the history of barbed wire. Contrary to his claim, one of the hallmarks of our age is that fleeing children and adults have often been considered criminals. Entire peoples, by dint of their race, religion, or social class, have been judged as standing outside either the law or humanity. Stretching between them and us, figuratively and literally, has been barbed wire, whose history tells us much about the plight of today’s refugees. 
Not coincidentally, South Africa was also the birthplace of the modern concentration camp — the demarcation of space by barbed wire, but this time to keep people in and not out. When the British rounded up families from their farms and villages to throttle support, material and logistical, for the commandos, they needed to build camps for the civilians as quickly and cheaply as possible. Barbed wire was as versatile as duct tape: ideal for a thousand different emergencies, only all of them far more insidious. The British turned to barbed wire to serve as the walls for the camps where the civilians were relocated. Though they soon became breeding grounds for disease and despair, these camps, were devoted to the control, not demolition of a people. Nevertheless they gave not only a name, but also a blueprint to the camps that erupted across the European continent in the decades to come.
One of the enduring images of the Holocaust is of individuals, notably children, standing behind barbed wire. Nations today that elect to use barbed wire, whether to keep people out or persons contained within, have decided to use a cheap tangled piece of metal (typically steel), but one so laden with powerful imagery that it defies human reason why it would be considered necessary today. It would seem a foolish choice to make. But, then again, such nations have no recollection of history, or a a desire to look into and grapple with their dark past. Germany has, to a large degree; most of Europe has not.

For more, go to [BostonGlobe]

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