Dachau: A concentration camp up close

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the Dachau memorial outside Munich, Germany. First, I encourage everyone who can to go, it’s a superb and moving memorial. Particularly though, as someone who studies violence and the political economy of conflict and who also studied German political history, I was wondering how I’d feel visiting one of the primary nodes in what used to be a huge system of slave labor and death camps. Intellectually I know the history so instead I decided to try to feel the place, focus less on the historical plaques and explainers and more on the way the place made me feel as I walked through.

The buildings have displays and information throughout, covering the history and evolution of the camp as part of the wider system of Nazi politics and economics. Dachau was one of the earliest camps established, with the primary purpose of holding political prisoners from the local area starting in 1933. The camp evolved over time, providing slave labor to the region’s commercial, and later armaments, industries as over 188,000 people passed through it. Dachau would be used to funnel people designated “Lebensunwertes Leben” (loosely “life unworthy of life”), men women and children with developmental disabilities, into the T4 program’s euthanasia facilities. It was also a medical test site; the German air force performed tests on prisoners including how long the body took to completely shut down due to hypothermia in frigid water and the effect of low atmospheric pressure on the body (prisoners often died of embolisms during these tests).

When it was liberated in 1945 over 67,000 prisoners occupied it, and the surrounding network of work camps. This is a huge number since the camp was built to hold 6,000 prisoners. As World War II drew to a close and more prisoners were transferred from other camps closer to the front to Dachau to prevent their liberation, the mortality rate increased dramatically due to outbreaks of dysentery and typhus.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing was the persistent sense that the entire set up of the camp was meant to make you feel nothing; the layout was mechanistic and utilitarian. I didn’t feel a sense of doom or evil when walking around the camp muster court, through the narrow prison complex where people were tortured, or along the grassy ‘kill zone’ next to the camp wall. Instead I felt an overpowering sense of order. Dachau wasn’t a death camp, per se, but a labor facility. If you could work and were over 14, you stayed at Dachau; when you couldn’t you were sent to a death camp such as Buchenwald Treblinka* or Auschwitz to be killed (assuming you didn’t get worked to death at Dachau). It was a deeply unsettling realization to internally ‘feel’ the design of the camp so clearly. As a labor camp the point was maintaining order and efficiency. The more those two things could be internalized by the prisoners, regardless of their fear, terror, or hopelessness, the more effective the camp would be. As I walked through the facility, it wasn’t the atrocities committed in the camp or the terror experienced by the prisoners that resonated. It was the way that 82 years later the design of the space itself could continue to instill a numbing sense of mechanistic inevitability.

There was one section where I didn’t feel this though. In the northwest corner of the facility is the crematorium. It has a small gas chamber, most likely used for experiments instead of full-scale killing. There’s a narrow trail into the woods to the right of the crematorium that you can follow. It led to a quiet wooded area, and for a few minutes the oppressive control of the camp lifted. I felt a vague sense of peacefulness. I walked 20 yards down from the crematorium in foliage dense enough to no longer see the camp facility. Then I saw a plaque, which read:

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I looked up and it was woods to the cement camp wall, but about 15 yards farther down the trail was a second similar plaque:

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The inscription is harder to read because I wanted to capture the entire space. Unlike the other execution range, this one has been maintained. The tablet reads “Execution Range with Blood Ditch.” From the trail to the wall is about 10 feet, pistol range. The blood ditch is the small indentation in the ground next to the trail, where blood could collect and drain away. The wall, of course, is where you stood to be executed. As I read the tablet, I realized I was standing about where the executioner would stand. I turned to my back to the wall to get a sense of what a prisoner would see, and could only see the woods. They were thick, empty, and cut off sight between the camp and the execution range. This was the only place where a pure sense of terror struck me. Going back to applying meaning or a feeling to a place, this was a space that wasn’t meant to moderate your feelings. You weren’t in the numbing order of the camp anymore; you could feel terror as much as you wanted because once you were here, you were going to die. Bodies were cremated nearby after execution and the ashes were dumped in these same woods. They don’t have exact numbers for how many people were murdered in this wooded corner of the camp, but ‘thousands’ is the low end with an upper bound of 10,000+. They have a tomb of the unknown victims near the execution ranges:

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This was the one spot in the camp where emotion finally overwhelmed me. It was the absolute lack of industrialization that was so striking. The hugeness of Nazi killing is hard to conceptualize. It might shock the conscious, but it exceeds our ability to really feel it. It’s just too big. But in this corner of woods I could feel a sense of overwhelming sorrow. I could connect to an individual’s experience, away from the massiveness of the camp. Taken from a home and perhaps a family, head shaved and identity taken, worked brutally until being roughly shuffled in front of that gray wall in a nameless wood, and summarily executed. Not knowing where your family was, or if they’d ever know where you were. My initial feeling of peacefulness had been completely replaced by lonely anguish, which is the only thing I could imagine someone would have felt when they looked up, perhaps at the low sun through the trees or into the eyes of their executioner.

As I reflect on the feeling I found that wooded execution range to be a perfect summation of the Nazi view of those they considered sub-human. The death camps, due to the massiveness and collective murder, bestow the victim with an identity; Jewish, Roma, Slavic, etc. In dying together, there remained some collective identity. But the Nazi ideology viewed these groups as less then that, not worthy of identity. The death camps are searing symbols of the Nazi state, but these woods felt like a more accurate distillation of Nazi ideology. They were where you went after you were stripped of an origin, an identity, a name, your humanity, and turned into a cog. When you no longer served the purpose of a cog you were nothing. You were murdered in the woods, burned to dust and thrown back into those woods with the other unknown, untraceable thousands before and after you.

*Correction: A kind reader pointed out that Buchenwald was not a death camp. Indeed, there were no death camps on German soil. I have added Treblinka as an alternate example, and apologize for the mistake.

Initial Reflections on the Charlie Hebdo Attack

By now news of the tragic shooting at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris has made it around the world. Since I work in peacebuilding and conflict resolution, it’s been interesting seeing how the narratives about freedom of expression and the role of religion have circulated on social media. As I’ve sifted through the articles and posts I’ve wondered how to honor the lives of those killed, while finding ways to find common ground between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

One of the first themes I saw percolating around my Facebook and Twitter feeds was one of anti-religion sentiment. I’ve seen commentary that treats this as a referendum on religion generally, and Islam specifically. The problems with this line of thinking are multi-fold. Fundamentally this argument is a non-solution, since religion isn’t going to go away. By extension it discounts the many religious actors who are pro-peace. Finally, this position suffers from attribution error. IS/ISIL/ISIS/Daesh do what they do because they crave power, not because Islam is an inherently violent religion (any more than any other religion or concept of social order, at least). The vast majority of Muslims don’t subscribe to IS’s interpretation of Islam in the same way that the vast majority of Christians don’t subscribe to the Biblical interpretations of the KKK.

The second theme I’ve seen is the importance of freedom of expression. Whether one agrees with Charlie Hebdo’s editorial tastes or not, there’s no place in a liberal society for silencing opinions with violence. But just as we face a big challenge in not allowing this act of violence to be a referendum on Islam and religion generally, we also have an opportunity to expand the space for political satire. In the Middle East there is a flourishing anti-IS brand of satire. Much of it is brilliant, and shows there is a large population in the Muslim world that finds the retrograde politico-theorcratic goals of IS and related extremists to be unacceptable. This is common ground on which the Western and Muslim worlds can both stand in support of liberal social ideals.

The way to honor the lives lost in Paris is to refuse to let the extremists, wherever they are and whatever their affiliation, dictate the terms on which we relate to each other across religious and political divides.

The talk I gave at USAID Sept. 4

For those who were curious about what I discussed with USAID’s Office on Conflict Management and Mitigation on September 4, wonder no more. TechChange’s video guru got me on camera to record the presentation – hopefully it’s useful (or leads to some good arguments at least).

TC-109: Technology for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding

I’ll be teaching a course for TechChange on ICTs and peacebuilding next month. I’m really excited to be facilitating it, and I was really thrilled to see the final cut of the course introduction video we produced today:

Hopefully you’ll join us, it’s going to be a lot of fun and some awesome guests will be joining us to talk about their work in the peacebuilding and technology spaces!

Putting the ‘political’ back in political economy

I stumbled across an article in the New York Times a few days ago by Tyler Cowen of George Mason University and a regular contributor to the blog Marginal Revolution. Entitled “Income Inequality Is Not Rising Globally. It’s Falling.”, it takes a crack at attempting to indicate that while country-level income inequality is increasing the overall effects of globalization are leading to less aggregate income inequality globally, and that this is a good thing. I always enjoy reading Cowen’s stuff even when I don’t agree with him, and in this case I have a few contentions as a political scientist about his argument.

These contentions developed after seeing a comment from a friend on Facebook about the article. He noted that the key problem isn’t income inequality, but wealth inequality. The way that income and growth are structured in the modern world, if you start from a position of higher wealth and asset ownership, the more you benefit from the structure of the global economy. If you rely on a bi-weekly paycheck though you face nothing but downward pressure on your economic position, unless you work in the information, research, governance, or financial sectors (which happen to all play key roles in globalization). Cowen though says that while this country-level trend is unfortunate, we shouldn’t miss the point that globally income inequality has dropped. This is where I have my biggest contentions with the argument, since economics is about politics, and like Tip O’Neill said all politics is local.

To make his argument Cowen has to invert the relationship between people, politics and economic systems. In effect, he argues that we should be happy that while at the local (or national) level the economy might be a mess, it’s important that at a global system level income inequality is decreasing. For this to hold up, we have to assume that systems, in this case the global economic system, are what people are responsive to, things that people can’t or shouldn’t be motivated to change. While Cowen is more humane than many of his libertarian counterparts, believing that safety nets should still exist for the workers who lose in national wealth inequality, he still makes what I think is a problematically common mistake in economics. Implicit to Cowen’s argument is that economic systems exist in parallel or outside the impact of politics. Instead of discussing the tangible problem of increasing wealth and income inequality at the national level as something that can be changed through policy and intervention, he finds an abstract way to claim the system is working. This is a huge problem from a public policy perspective.

At a fundamental level Cowen’s argument subverts the notion of representative democracy. The models of economy have become the ends in themselves, things that politicians and policy makers have applied normative value to, and thus try to shape laws and policy for. This is where the democracy problem comes in. In the United States, we ostensibly elect officials to create policies that support the public interest. When those representatives make economic policy that is based on a set of models that actually lead to massive inequality and economic hardship, they are no longer representing their constituents and instead are representing the abstract notion of market economics. If my congressional representative’s response to a total failure of the economy in my district is to say “there may be no jobs and wages might be way too low, but at least on a global scale income equality is down” then they are not representing the needs of their constituents.

This is the inherent problem with Cowen’s argument, and it has knock on effects since policy makers listen to him and other’s from his school of thought. Essentially he is arguing that a system that has failed at the level where it matters (the citizen level) due to particular aspects of the socio-political nature of finance-driven markets shouldn’t be changed at the local level because it seems, depending on how you cook define the numbers, to be working at an abstract global level. It dehumanizes economics, which is an inherently very human enterprise. In case we forget our history, such things as the Reign of Terror, Communist revolutions, and Jesus’s life and teachings were in response to fundamentally broken and/or exploitive economic systems. If tally the score in those three cases, it would be: System Maintenance 0 : 3 Revolutionary Uprising (and Violence).

Politicians and public intellectuals who focus on abstract and contorted ways to justify the maintenance of an economic system that tangibly fails the public would do well to heed the lessons of history. Abstract arguments about the way the global system is working won’t mean much when the pitchforks come out at the local level.

Quick thoughts from the #Tech4PP Twitter chat

I followed (and even participated!) in NDI’s Twitter chat today on using technology to increase political party and electoral participation. If you’re interested you can find the thread by searching the hashtag ‘#Tech4PP’. There were a lot of good examples of tech being used to increase participation, make processes more transparent, and boost inclusion in the political process. Below are a few quick thoughts that supersede the character limit:

1) I thought it was interesting that the chat tended to center around software and hardware, of which there were many interesting examples, but I tended to see less about the human or legal components of the process. I think it’s going to get really interesting to do experimental and empirical research on changes in political participation as social media and mobile based tools become increasingly available. ProTip for my academic friends who study political participation: look at this thread since it has a ton of examples you’d be interested in.

2) I saw a theme in the chat that asked about how we transition from digital outreach to human participation. I thought the framing was interesting since it set up technology as the causal mechanism of participation. I’m not sure I buy that directionality in a generalizable way; perhaps there are examples of this, but on average across cases I’d be inclined to think that the technology/participation relationship hinges more on the intervening variable of pre-existing political interest and knowledge of the issues within the community. I see a use for regression analysis here.

3) I threw a comment into the mix about the need to understand the regulatory and legal environment in a country where any kind of digital political participation software is being used. I’ll admit I’m surprised I didn’t see more on this topic, since it’s a pretty fraught space. Some of the more interesting questions around data ownership, regulatory effects on access to technology, and the cost of broadband could play a significant role in the overall impact of technology on political participation.

These are just a few questions that came to mind as I followed the thread – it was a good one, and I think there are some really good examples of tech for political participation that can be pulled out of it by researchers who are interested in learning more about the space.

When Radio Goes Bad: RF communications and the increased violence in South Sudan

I was reading an update about the increasing ethnic violence in South Sudan forwarded to me by a colleague, and noted the fact that radio is being used to organize and encourage violence in South Sudan. For those who have studied or read about the genocide in Rwanda, radio was one of the key mediums employed by Hutu extremists for encouraging and organizing violence. I think there are significant socio-political differences between the increasing violence in South Sudan and the genocide in Rwanda, so I just want to focus on the challenges related to preventing the radio-driven organization of violence, since radio broadcasts encouraging targeted violence against civilians were heard during the recent massacre in Bentiu, South Sudan.

We have to start with the laws, regulations and norms of radio broadcasting and spectrum management. Broadcast spectrum has traditionally been treated as a public good, managed by governments. Indeed if we look at the language from the preamble from the recent revisions of the International Telecommunications Union’s 2012 Radio Regulations, it’s pretty state-centric. This gives broadcast spectrum a certain level of sovereignty, and traditionally there is a respect for that sovereignty – generally, jamming another country’s broadcast frequencies is frowned upon, even though there’s a long history of doing so for the purposes of tactical advantage during wartime or in pursuit of psychological operations during the Cold War. Basically, radio jamming historically isn’t something that friendly or neutral countries (openly…) do to each other.

This is important, because along with apparently being expensive and inconvenient, the U.S Department of Defense used the spectrum sovereignty argument to avoid jamming hate-radio broadcasts during the Rwandan genocide. Would jamming hate radio have prevented the escalation and organization of violence? Unfortunately it’s rhetorical question since the U.S. never tried, but I’d be inclined to say that it wouldn’t have helped the organizers of the Rwandan genocide. In fairness, much of the organization on the ground was developed over extended periods of indoctrination and training of youth militias, so blocking radio wouldn’t have stopped pre-determined operations that didn’t rely on it. If anything it likely would have had the effect of a panopticon, forcing the organizers to realize there was a much bigger player involved that had the military capacity to selectively jam national communication infrastructure. At the very least this would have caused break downs in vertical communication, possibly giving some nominal advantage to the peacekeeping mission.

So how does this help us frame the disturbing news that radio is being used in South Sudan to encourage or organize violence? Unfortunately it’s unlikely we’re going to see large scale radio jamming operations; the governments with the ability to do that still have ongoing diplomatic missions in South Sudan, and using their military assets to jam transmission frequencies would probably be interpreted as a violation of sovereign control of spectrum, as well as a likely violation of South Sudanese airspace. There could be a role for SMS text and multimedia messaging to provide early warning, but the problem is that even if peacekeepers get the text messages, it’s questionable whether they’d be able to protect at risk populations.

Unfortunately once violence hits a certain scale local violence prevention efforts, ICT supported or not, won’t be enough to stop it. Crowdsourcing and ICTs merely become tools that aid in accounting for the violence unless the international community is willing to provide a peacekeeping mission that is manned and equipped to realistically protect the population.

NATO, the U.S. and Ukraine: A political economy of bad options?

Since I’m not an expert on Ukraine, the greater region it’s situated in, or much of the history, I’ve primarily observed and absorbed the various op-eds, arguments and blog posts I’ve seen from others. I don’t really have much to add about Ukraine or the politics of the region itself, but I have found the debate about what the best options are for the U.S. and NATO to be interesting. It seems that we’re encountering the limits of security-centric foreign policy, and profit-at-all-costs national economic outlook. Russia isn’t playing a complex game, the problem is that NATO and the U.S. don’t have the right tools to counter Russia’s fairly straight forward behavior.

As part of foreign policy, security is important, but it has limits. In the U.S. we have big military, big intelligence community, and relatively small everything else. Our military is powerful, but that’s only useful if we’re willing to use it; Russia knows we’re unlikely to put troops on the ground in Ukraine, so they can be pretty provocative along the Ukrainian border and with their special forces. We have big intelligence, but so what? We’re not going to put boots on the ground, and we’re not winning the diplomatic game…so what’s our massive intelligence apparatus gaining us? We’re not going to invade, and our token support to Kiev in terms of materiel, Geneva agreements and IMF packages doesn’t help much when the U.S. and NATO have no real leverage to change Russia’s behavior.

If we’re honest with ourselves, the U.S. has let it’s diplomatic capacity and creativity wane quite a bit the last 20 years. I wouldn’t say that U.S. diplomats are less talented, but I do think we have a pair of political economic problems that keep them from being able to be creative and offensive. We just unpacked one in the last paragraph; foreign policy is increasingly viewed as a security problem, so funding goes to security apparatus over diplomatic capacity. This has a knock on effect of causing anything not directly security related to effectively not be part of foreign policy. In principle energy policy, monetary and banking policy, and trade would be part of a strong foreign policy; in practice, they aren’t really. I’d argue that this is a unfortunate outcome of a national economic zeitgeist that favors short term profit and privatization above all else.

Let’s look at energy. To keep it simple, Russia provides a lot of gas to Europe; if NATO gets too aggressive, Russia will turn off the gas. Russia has the leverage because the U.S. and NATO don’t really have any viable energy alternatives. The diplomats don’t have much to work with because, particularly in the U.S, natural gas and petroleum interests work hard to prevent the expansion of renewable energy sources, and the export of gas and oil, with the help of compliant policy makers. This makes sense for those industries since they want to protect their market caps and profit margins. The problem is that this takes energy policy out of a NATO diplomat’s toolkit. Thus we end up with limited capacity to quickly scale a market for alternative energy, which could replace as least some of the need for Russia’s gas while also driving the price down (gas supplies don’t decrease but demand does). There’s potentially serious leverage for the U.S. and NATO here, but we can’t take advantage of it.

I’ve simplified these issues quite a bit to make my point, but perhaps some simplification is in order. Russia doesn’t need to play a complex game in Ukraine because they have a solution that the U.S. and NATO can’t effectively respond to. Perhaps the West’s real problem is continuing to make increasingly complex arguments to justify our drift toward a one dimensional foreign policy, when what we need to do is make fundamental changes to how we think about the role of domestic investment, research and development, not exclusively as profit-making pursuits, but also as keys to our ability to project power in an increasingly multi-polar world.

 

The Prevention Problem: Thinking about Rwanda 20 years later

Of my areas of interest, the two that stand out are violence prevention and technology. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, and I’ve been keeping track of the media coverage which has included the usual themes of never again, and a call to seek the tools and capacity to prevent such events in the future. To really make this happen though there needs to be a differentiation between patterns of smaller atrocities and genocide. This presents a challenge for localizing peacebuilding, especially for those of us who work in the technology space.

First, we have to differentiate atrocities from genocides. There are books upon books worth of arguments about semantics (which are important from a legal standpoint!), but I want to generally focus on differences in scale and intent. A militant group might commit a one-time atrocity to make a political statement, a riot could lead to a military crackdown that spins out of control, one ethnic group might target another over land rights, etc. These can be atrocities, especially if there’s a pattern of events. Genocide, what happened in Rwanda 20 years ago, is different in scale and intent. The scope of violence is an entire identity group, and the intent is the elimination of that group. Unlike an atrocity, this requires state-grade organization and capacity. Indeed, these are rather blunt definitions that ignore a lot of semantic detail, but bear with me.

If our goal is the prevention of atrocities and genocide, and our preferred method is to empower local communities with the tools and skills to prevent violence before it starts, then scale and intention matter. If we take the example of election violence in Kenya in 2007/8, there were many atrocities committed, but the intent wasn’t overtly genocidal. Since that election there have been efforts made to reinforce peace keeping (not ‘peacekeeping’) capacity at the local level through training programs and innovative approaches to information sharing using mobile phones and social media. In this scenario the communities that would be affected by discrete events of violence could prevent the spark at the local level. Compare this to Rwanda in 1994, where the Hutu-led government provided the weapons and logistics to the militias that did the killing, and the aim was the elimination of the Tutsi ethnic group. There had been atrocities at the local level leading up to the genocide (particularly in the north where the Tutsi RPF militia was fighting Rwandan government forces), but when the genocide started in earnest the violence was top-down and totalizing. Local-level violence prevention and peacebuilding methods weren’t going to stop that level of organized killing.

So where does this leave us now? If the goal is violence prevention, then we have to recognize where the local strategies work, and be willing to push for international intervention when necessary. Start by asking,”is the violence extrinsically motivated, and localized?” Are people fighting over a tangible thing (e.g. land, access to water, representation in government)? If so, there are going to be opportunities for local-level peacebuilding and violence prevention. Public information and discourse will play a major role in this kind of peacebuilding, and communication technology can have a significant positive multiplier effect. Is the violence extrinsic and national, for example election violence? This is where intervention from the international community probably needs to happen, but there’s also a large place for localized peacebuilding too. For example, peacekeepers might come to enforce stability but local level peacebuilding needs to happen if the gains from a ceasefire are going to hold up in communities. Communication technology can play a role in linking communities to each other, as well as providing a conduit for sharing needs and information with the national government and international intervenors.

What about intrinsically motivated national level violence? This where local solutions start to lose impact, especially when we’re talking about the violence being carried out by the state against a minority. At this point, it’s unlikely communication technologies are going to be much use; either they’ll amplify negative messages in an already politically volatile space, or they won’t matter as violence becomes ubiquitous. Large, international intervention becomes necessary at this point to force the sides apart and impose stability while a peace process is undertaken.

Localized peacebuilding and technology are at their most effective before large scale violence starts. Communication technology in particular can play a powerful role in connecting communities, and breaking down narratives that can reinforce the kinds of intrinsic, dehumanizing narratives of violence that open the door to genocide. When we think about ‘preventing genocide’ we actually need to be thinking about how we prevent or intervene in the small atrocities which build up to a Genocidal event, because once that event has started it’s too late.

Learnings from ISA

Another March, another ISA conference. 2014 has been good, especially since the networking and socializing was matched by excellent feedback on what I presented. The highlights:

What I thought was a failed experiment in getting Twitter to love me actually teased out some interesting methodological challenges that other panelists on the Crowdsourcing Violence panel faced. Basically, the problem is how to encourage participation in the crowd when there isn’t an emergency. Whether it was crowdsourcing using Twitter or crowdseeding using trusted reporters, we all faced a challenge in getting participants to respond. This makes crowdsourcing and crowdseeding difficult to use as research methods. It’ll be interesting seeing how we all approach this challenge in our different papers and projects, to see if there are ways that incentives or networks can be tapped to get more consistent participation.

My paper on using crowdsourcing to support peacekeeping operations also got some good feedback. The paper was my attempt to think about technology in the context of peacekeeping operations, as opposed to peacekeeping being responsive to the technology available (e.g. how do we avoid deploying a technology solution seeking a problem). I’m going to take this in an institutional analysis direction, and focus on interviews with peacekeeping staff and experts since there is a paucity of documentation on the few crowdsourcing and crowdseeding projects that have been undertaken by missions.

This was an overall excellent week, with solid panels, fascinating topics and good conversation. If you have thoughts or feedback on my papers, feel free to share in the comments section, or shoot me an email!