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World War II

The Zone of Interest 

Jewish International Film Festival / A24
by
22 November 2023

In Martin Amis’s novel The Zone of Interest (2014), Auschwitz Commandant Paul Doll asserts that to meet the objectives of the Reich it is necessary to ‘shut down a certain zone of the mind. I must accept that we have mobilised the weapons, the wonder weapons, of darkness.’ Doll is not a man seeking to absolve himself. Rather, he attempts to explain his dilemma, lamenting not so much the moral nightmare into which he has been thrust, but the bureaucratic one: how to balance the Reich’s need to exploit the prisoners for their labour with the desire to eradicate them as quickly and efficiently possible? ‘The Christian system of right and wrong, of good and bad,’ he muses, ‘is 1 we categorically reject … There are only positive outcomes and negative outcomes.’

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Bomber Command operations cost about 3,500 Australian lives in World War II. This was more than five times the number of Australians who died in the Battle of Kokoda from July to November 1942. Yet the strategic bombing offensive over Germany has never held a comparable place in the national memory of war. 

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What happens when you mix some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century with the urgency of war? Wizards of Oz, a new book by lawyer and former politician Brett Mason, seeks to provide the answer. It is an account of a friendship between two Adelaide men and their extraordinary scientific achievements during World War II. 

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Why do publishers do this? The cover of this book screams that the Cowra breakout is an ‘untold’ story, and ‘the missing piece of Australia’s World War II history’. Neither claim is remotely true, as the author himself acknowledges. Once we get past the sensationalist cover and into the text, Mat McLachlan notes that the story of the Cowra breakout has been told several times before, and well: he even salutes Harry Gordon’s Die Like the Carp!, first published in 1978, as the ‘definitive’ account. So this is hardly the missing piece of an Australian military history jigsaw. Another stretch is the suggestion in the shoutline that the breakout was a conventional military ‘battle’.

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In the twentieth century, the Jewish experience has been dominated by two extraordinary (and related) events: the Nazi holocaust and the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel. It is natural that they should be reflected in Jewish historiography, and especially in the large number of books, articles, and theses concerned with the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish communities around the world. In Europe, especially, where almost every national Jewish community was destroyed, historians (many of them survivors of the events they describe) have been struggling to come to terms with the way these things happened.

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‘Freedom’ is a word that slips off the tongue easily. As the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre notes in his essay ‘Freedom and Revolution’: ‘No word has been more cheapened by misuse. No word has experienced more of the tortuous redefinitions of politicians.’ In the essay, MacIntyre turns to Karl Marx to recover the idea that human beings are essentially free. With the same source of inspiration, but through a poignant and often funny memoir of coming to age in state-socialist Albania, Lea Ypi’s Free attempts the same task.

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The suffering of prisoners of the Japanese dominates many Australians’ memories of World War II. More than 22,000 men and almost forty women were captured in Southeast Asia between 1942 and 1945. About 8,000 of them died. Traditionally this high death rate has been attributed to a mix of Japanese cruelty and their refusal to observe international humanitarian law. The military code of bushidō, it is argued, meant that Japanese soldiers had no respect for enemies who had surrendered. 

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Not many people create an archive. For almost thirty years, Phillip Maisel led the testimonies project at Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre (JHC). Maisel’s memoir is his story of surviving the Holocaust and becoming ‘the keeper of miracles’.

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When I was a graduate student in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, Russian friends used to talk a lot about World War II. Their stories were of hardship and suffering stoically borne by the population and finally vindicated by victory in 1945. This was not dissimilar from what was published in the Soviet press on the subject, but without the press’s obligatory references to the wise leadership of the party. Wendy Z. Goldman and Donald Filtzer tell basically the same story as my Soviet friends. Invoking the image of a ‘levée en masse spirit’ in the wartime Soviet Union, they admit that ‘strict discipline and repression certainly played a role’ in the state’s ‘unprecedented feats of mass mobilization’, but they put their interpretative emphasis elsewhere: ‘without the support of the vast majority of people and workers in particular, the great achievements on the home front would not have been possible’.

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The invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany in 1941 caused massive destruction over a huge area. The number of deaths is uncertain, though a figure of around twenty-seven million is now widely accepted. The lives of many more millions were affected – as soldiers, as workers in war-related industries, as civilians in besieged and occupied territories, as refugees – and the experience of hardship and self-sacrifice in what is widely referred to in Russia as the ‘Great Patriotic War’ or the ‘Great Fatherland War’ continues to dominate the Russian historical narrative.

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