View Full Version : "Rrevenge is sour"

Tuesday, May 17th, 2005, 05:12 PM
George Orwell:"Revenge is sour"

9 November, 1945

http://www.resort.com/~prime8/Orwell/revengesour.html (http://www.resort.com/%7Eprime8/Orwell/revengesour.html)

Whenever I read phrases like "war guilt trials", "punishment of war
criminals" and so forth, there comes back into my mind the memory of
something I saw in a prisoner-of-war camp in South Germany, earlier
this year.

Another correspondent and myself were being show round the camp by a
little Viennese Jew who had been enlisted in the branch of the
American army which deals with the interrogation of prisoners. He was
an alert, fair-haired, rather good-looking youth of about twenty-
five, and politically so much more knowledgeable than the average
American officer that it was a pleasure to be with him. The camp was
on an airfield, and, after we had been round the cages, our guide led
us to a hangar where various prisoners who were in a different
category from the others were being "screened."

Up at one end of the hangar about a dozen men were lying in a row on
the concrete floor. These, it was explained, were S.S. officers who
had been segregated from the other prisoners. Among them was a man in
dingy civilian clothes who was lying with his arm across his face and
apparently asleep. He had strange and horribly deformed feet. The two
of them were quite symmetrical, but they were clubbed out into an
extraordinary globular shape which made them more like a horse's hoof
than anything human. As we approached the group, the little Jew
seemed to be working himself up into a state of excitement.

"That's the real swine!" he said, and suddenly he lashed out with his
heavy army boot and caught the prostrate man a fearful kick right on
the bulge of one of his deformed feet.

"Get up, you swine!" he shouted as the man started out of sleep, and
then repeated something of the kind in German. The prisoner scrambled
to his feet and stood clumsily to attention. With the same air of
working himself up into a fury -- indeed he was almost dancing up and
down as he spoke -- the Jew told us the prisoner's history. He was
a "real" Nazi: his party number indicated that he had been a member
since the very early days, and he had held a post corresponding to a
General in the political branch of the S.S. It could be taken as
quite certain that he had had charge of concentration camps and had
presided over tortures and hangings. In short, he represented
everything that we had been fighting against during the past five

Meanwhile, I was studying his appearance. Quite apart from the
scrubby, unfed, unshaven look that a newly captured man generally
has, he was a disgusting specimen. But he did not look brutal or in
any way frightening: merely neurotic and, in a low way, intellectual.
His pale, shifty eyes were deformed by powerful spectacles. He could
have been an unfrocked clergyman, an actor ruined by drink, or a
spiritualist medium. I have seen very similar people in London common
lodging houses, and also in the Reading Room of the British Museum.
Quite obviously he was mentally unbalanced -- indeed, only doubtfully
sane, though at this moment sufficiently in his right mind to be
frightened of getting another kick. And yet everything that the Jew
was telling me of his history could have been true, and probably was
true! So the Nazi torturer of one's imagination, the monstrous figure
against whom one had struggled for so many years, dwindled to this
pitiful wretch, whose obvious need was not for punishment, but for
some kind of psychological treatment.

Later, there were further humiliations. Another S.S. officer, a large
brawny man, was ordered to strip to the waist and show the blood
group number tattooed on his under-arm; another was forced to explain
to us how he had lied about being a member of the S.S. and attempted
to pass himself off as an ordinary soldier of the Wehrmacht. I
wondered whether the Jew was getting any real kick out of this new-
found power that he was exercising. I concluded that he wasn't really
enjoying it, and that he was merely -- like a man in a brothel, or a
boy smoking his first cigar, or a tourist traipsing round a picture
gallery -- telling himself that he was enjoying it, and behaving as
he had planned to behave in the days he was helpless.

It is absurd to blame any German or Austrian Jew for getting his own
back on the Nazis. Heaven knows what scores this particular man may
have had to wipe out; very likely his whole family had been murdered;
and after all, even a wanton kick to a prisoner is a very tiny thing
compared with the outrages committed by the Hitler regime. But what
this scene, and much else that I saw in Germany, brought home to me
was that the whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish
daydream. Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge.
Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and
because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is
removed, the desire evaporates also.

Who would not have jumped for joy, in 1940, at the thought of seeing
S.S. officers kicked and humiliated? But when the thing becomes
possible, it is merely pathetic and disgusting. It is said that when
Mussolini's corpse was exhibited in public, an old woman drew a
revolver and fired five shots into it, exclaiming, "Those are for my
five sons!" It is the kind of story that the newspapers make up, but
it might be true. I wonder how much satisfaction she got out of those
five shots, which, doubtless, she had dreamed years earlier of
firing. The condition of her being able to get close enough to
Mussolini to shoot at him was that he should be a corpse.

In so far as the big public in this country is responsible for the
monstrous peace settlement now being forced on Germany, it is because
of a failure to see in advance that punishing an enemy brings no
satisfaction. We acquiesce in crimes like the expulsion of all
Germans from East Prussia -- crimes which in some cases we could not
prevent but might at least have protested against -- because the
Germans had angered and frightened us, and therefore we were certain
that when they were down we should feel no pity for them. We persist
in these policies, or let others persist in them on our behalf,
because of a vague feeling that, having set out to punish Germany, we
ought to go ahead and do it. Actually there is little acute hatred of
Germany left in this country, and even less, I should expect to find,
in the army of occupation. Only the minority of sadists, who must
have their "atrocities" from one source or another, take a keen
interest in the hunting-down of war criminals and quislings. If you
asked the average man what crime Goering, Ribbentrop, and the rest
are to be charged with at their trial, he cannot tell you. Somehow
the punishment of these monsters ceases to sem attractive when it
becomes possible: indeed, once under lock and key, they almost cease
to be monsters.

Unfortunately, there is often a need of some concrete incident before
one can discover the real state of one's feelings. Here is another
memory from Germany. A few hours after Stuttgart was captured by the
French army, a Belgian journalist and myself entered the town, which
was still in some disorder. The Belgian had been broadcasting
throughout the war for the European Service of the BBC, and, like
nearly all Frenchmen or Belgians, he had a very much tougher attitude
towards "the Boche" than an Englishman or an American would have. All
the main bridges into town had been blown up, and we had to enter by
a small footbridge which the Germans had evidently mad efforts to
defend. A dead German soldier was lying supine at the foot of the
steps. His face was a waxy yellow. On his breast someone had laid a
bunch of the lilac which was blooming everywhere.

The Belgian averted his face as we went past. When we were well over
the bridge he confided to me that this was the first time he had seen
a dead man. I suppose he was thirty five years old, and for four
years he had been doing war propaganda over the radio. For several
days after this, his attitude was quite different from what it had
been earlier. He looked with disgust at the bomb-wrecked town and the
humiliation the Germans were undergoing, and even on one occasion
intervened to prevent a particularly bad bit of looting. When he
left, he gave the residue of the coffee we had brought with us to the
Germans on whom we were billeted. A week earlier he would probably
have been scandalized at the idea of giving coffee to a "Boche." But
his feelings, he told me, had undergone a change at the sight of ce
pauvre mort beside the bridge: it had suddenly brought home to him
the meaning of war. And yet, if we had happened to enter the town by
another route, he might have been spared the experience of seeing one
corpse out of the -- perhaps -- twenty million that the war has