Reporting Atrocity (3): Lidice Shall Live

10 June (the date of this post) is the anniversary of the Lidice massacre in what is now the Czech republic.   If the previous two posts were about disinformation then in this case the facts are not denied.  On 27 May 1942, members of the Czechoslovak resistance wounded Reinhard Heydrich, a top Nazi official in an ambush. Heydrich died a few days later. Hitler was incandescent and ordered the destruction of Lidice in revenge. There was, as far as I know, no particular reason to pick on Lidice though the Germans claimed that two families from the town of Lidice were in some way connected to the Czech resistance. 

Over two days, June 9–10,  German police and SS officials destroyed the town. The Germans shot 173 men (and boys over fifteen) as well as seven of the women. The rest of the women (including girls 16 and older) were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp where many of them died. Lidice was burned the town to the ground and a further 20 townspeople were executed. Lidice was to be erased from the map of Europe.

Most of Lidice’s children were sent to Lodz, a city in German-occupied Poland. There, nine of the children were judged as sufficiently Germanic to be given new German names and taught to speak German. There were then placed with adoptive German parents. Many of the other children were sent to camps and killed outright. 

The massacres at Lidice became well-known around the world. There were atrocities on a larger scale throughout the second world war but Lidice really caught the imagination of ordinary public as well as world leaders. Solidarity events were held and ‘Lidice Shall Live’ campaigns were set up. In Britain there was a particularly strong response in the city of Stoke through the efforts of Barnett Stross, a doctor, local councillor and labour activist. There was also an evocative film produced in Wales by the wartime Crown Film Unit entitled ‘The village that died’. This was a reimagining of the events as though happening in a village in Wales. For many the film captured what was at stake in fighting the war. 

Lidice was rebuilt after the war and a museum and memorial site were agreed. Many of the Lidice survivors worked at the memorial and so kept the story alive in Czechoslavakia (as was) and throughout the world. 

There was a connection with my city, Coventry, as an official twinning arrangement with Lidice was set up in 1947. The city donated the first 1,000 roses for the memorial garden in Lidice and peace committees from other countries donated thousands more. (The rose grower and media personality Harry Wheatcroft was called in to design the rose garden and he produced a new variety: the Lidice Rose.) 

There has never been a counter narrative about Lidice.  Hitler did not seek to deny the massacre took place, but quite the opposite had the story broadcast around the world and produced pictures to back up the account.  However, remembering Lidice is not entirely devoid of controversy. It was suggested by one Czech historian that a Jewish woman, who had been secretly living in Lidice, had been denounced by a neighbour – this happened before the massacre took place. This was rejected by Czech authorities and it led to the departure of Martina Lehmannová, director of the Lidice memorial, who felt that academic freedom was in danger if we could not discuss the past openly. 

On a wider scale, questions have been asked about who and how we remember. For example, why were allied governments were so quick to take Lidice to their hearts and not the plight of Jews in the concentration camps? But that is another question. Enough to say on this day that ‘Lidice Shall Live’.

Notes

The story of the massacre told in many places including a particularly accessible account at the encyclopaedia produced by the United States Holocaust Museum [online] 

https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/lidice

Within the same site there is also a clip from the testimony of Maria Doležalová speaking at the war crimes trial  

https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn1000383

Maria Doležalová (her later married name was Marie Šupíková) recently died – see Radio Prague International for a pen portrait.

https://english.radio.cz/memoriam-marie-supikova-one-last-survivors-lidice-massacre-8712796\

There are various blogs which recall the Lidice massacre including: 

‘Lidice lives’ a blog by an academic by Elizabeth Černota Clark, at Texas State University School.

https://lidicelives.wp.txstate.edu

‘Cultural value’ blog site produced by academic colleagues at Staffordshire University, in Stoke.  

https://blogs.staffs.ac.uk/culturalvalue/

There are photos of the village before and after the razing of the village on a web site produced by ‘Dobromysl’ (sorry I cannot provide more details of the site owners).  

http://www.indiannet.eu/galerie-exhib09.html

The controversy around academic freedom is covered in the Guardian newspaper

Tait, R. (2020)  Czech village razed by Hitler at heart of row on truth and history, Guardian 24 March 2020  

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/14/lidice-czech-village-razed-by-hitler-truth-history-row

You can view the film ‘The Village that died’ for free at the British Film Instittute web site:

https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-the-silent-village-1943-online

For more on Barnett Stross, who comes over as a remarkable man, go to a local history of Stoke web site (be sure to scroll down the page to see relevant pictures) 

http://www.thepotteries.org/portraits/007.htm

There is more on Harry Wheatcroft from his son at the Garden Trust web site:

Reporting Atrocity (2)

Discussion of the reporting of the war in Ukraine takes me back to a much more serious case of misinformation / disinformation in UK some years back. This concerned a libel of UK television reporters Penny Marshall and Ian Williams in an article published way back in February 1997.

The bare facts are that ‘Living Marxism’ a newspaper of a little known trotskyist group had published an article by the German journalist Thomas Deichmann casting doubt on the conditions experienced by Bosnian muslims in two Serb-run camps in Bosnia. The focus for the article was the claim that these reporters had deliberately misrepresented the image of an emaciated Bosnian muslim, Fikret Alic, to show him being caged behind barbed wire at Trnopolje camp, something achieved by careful use of ‘camera angles and editing’. In fact the article went on to argue the muslims in the camp were there for their own protection and free to come and go as they wished. The report ran under the headline ‘the picture that fooled the world’.The television journalists sued and the case finally made its way through court with a decision reached in March 2000.

It is not really clear to me why LM ran the story but it looked part of an unlikely morphing from a far left group to a more loosely aligned group of libertarians; part of this process seemed a desire to take up contrarian positions almost as a matter of principle, especially positions which would provoke the liberal left.   The verdict of the jury was clear: the journalists had been libelled and, unable to pay damages, the magazine folded. As far as I know no-one connected with the magazine LM apologised, quite the contrary. Yet this did not stop Thomas Dietrich or the publishers of LM from becoming media personalities, and in one case being a regular guest on the BBC. 

Notes

Discussion of these camps has remained a difficult issue in Serbia and the story of denial has run and run with a recent film on Serbian television again arguing that the camps were there to protect Muslims. In response Fikret Alic is reported as saying:

It is unfortunate to see that today some people make fun of our suffering and deny it, although personally I don’t pay too much attention to it, because I know what we lived through. This is not a matter of opinion, as our testimonies and the trials in British and Bosnia-Herzegovina courts confirmed. I think it would be good to punish the genocide deniers in order to look ahead to the future. And that requires a clear picture of what happened, and means facing the truth.

Source: Pita, A. (2022) Man whose harrowing image defined Bosnian conflict takes denialists to court.html El Pais 4 January 2022

https://english.elpais.com/usa/2022-01-04/man-whose-harrowing-image-defined-bosnian-conflict-takes-denialists-to-court.html

For a detailed account of the trial and an exploration of media reporting try:

Campbell, D. (2002). Atrocity, memory, photography: Imaging the concentration camps of Bosnia–the case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part 1. Journal of Human Rights, 1(1), 1-33.

One journalist who reported on the camps but who was not part of the libel claim discussed his experiences nearer the time of the original report:

Vulliamy, E. (1997) I stand by my story, Observer, 2 February 1997.

https://www.theguardian.com/itn/article/0,,191236,00.html


Reporting Atrocity 1

The other day BBC Radio carried a programme on academics who had tweeted or retweeted posts that cast doubt on atrocities carried out by Russian soldiers during the Ukraine war. (There is at the time of writing access to both the programme, ‘File on Four: Ukraine: The disinformation war’, and transcript of the broadcast at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0017thr)

The focus was on the discovery of over 1,000 corpses in the village of Bucha just East of Ukraine, many of the bodies were found with their hands tied behind their backs. The evidence seems clear: they were killed by Russian soldiers and indeed satellite images show corpses lying in the street days before the Russian occupiers left the city. But the Kremlin said that not a single civilian was injured and instead the Russians are the victims of a hoax. This was a deliberate attempt to mislead – as the programme makers have it to disinform or, in simple language, lie – about the killings. However, some saw support in the Russian position in that the Mayor of Bucha did not mention the bodies when celebrating the liberation of the village.

The Mayor’s comments (or lack of comment) were tweeted or retweeted by various people including it seems a London based academic who was concerned that we gave space to both sides of the story even if he was, in his own words, very much anti Putin and against the invasion of Ukraine. However, by giving space to the Russian claims he was accused of sending out misinformation (the accidental sharing of false narratives).

The second case was similar and concerned the Russian claim that they had not shelled a maternity hospital in Mariupol in the south of the country. This shelling made headlines around the world, not least as there was something shocking about the juxtaposition of bombs and rubble and of all things a maternity hospital.  The claim by the Russians was that Ukrainian forces were being hosted in the hospital and again an academic in Scotland shared this claim in a tweet. However, it seemed later that in making their case the Russians were referring to hospital number 1 some miles away and not hospital number 3, the maternity hospital. Again the academic explained that he was not a supporter of Putin or the invasion but claimed that it was important to hear both sides, not just to rely on Western reports.

I think in both cases discussed in the programme the academics were treated harshly – the examples might have made a small item on a current affairs programme rather than merit a full ‘File on Four’. You might also get the impression from the programme that universities and university staff are neutral when it comes to the war when in fact like the rest of the country they are firmly behind the Ukrainians in this conflict. However, there is a real problem in my mind in the way the academics talked about the cases. Yes it is important to hear both sides but it is not right to suggest that there is an equivalence in the reliability of the reporting from in this case western media and Russian lies.

Of course we never know 100 percent what really happened if we were not there and no reporting can ever completely capture the entire truth. However, I have, when it comes to the reporting of the Ukraine war, an overwhelming sense that the reporters from western news organisation such as BBC, Deutsche Welle, NBC are trustworthy and have no professional interest in misleading us. Of course, they have their own biases but they do report critically on the actions of their own governments and in the case of Ukraine there is no clear reason why they would want to misinform. Intuitively these reports seem highly likely. Invading armies from every nation end up committing atrocities and who would not expect a hospital to be bombed either by accident or design? In contrast, Russian officials have habitually lied and in many cases seem completely blasé about lying. To repeat these lies and question what people have suffered without strong grounds for doing so seems particularly cruel.

What I take away from this episode is that when academics engage with wider society (and they are rightly being encouraged to do so) we do not get a free pass – our motives are going to be questioned. I also learn from this that Tweets and retweets are not the way to put out nuanced arguments – it is too easy to give credence to a viewpoint through a Tweet and without taking responsibility for the view expressed.

For more on this

The stories are well covered in a various of news items, see for example

‘Life under Russian forces in Ukraine’ BBC 6 April

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-7KaGZ7WPk

Ukraine accuses Russia of bombing children’s hospital in Mariupol Al Jeezera 9 March 2022

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/9/ukraine-accuses-russia-of-bombing-childrens-hospital-in-mariupol