New publication on Primo Levi

Innesti. Primo Levi e i libri altrui, ed. by Gianluca Cinelli and Robert S. C. Gordon, Oxford, Peter Lang, 2020

Primo Levi’s work presents an extraordinarily rich and articulated case of intertextuality. Being a curious, omnivorous, and asystematic reader, Levi explored multiple fields of knowledge – literary, scientific, historical, etc. – browsing between specialized and popular books and magazines, for reasons of research or pure entertainment, often approaching foreign cultures in the original language, driven by his eclectic curiosity and an intense desire to know and understand. Already fathomed in part by Levi himself in his anthology The Search for Roots (1981), his library remains however to be discovered. This volume intends to trace the features of a critical map of the grafts, intertexts and transplants that link Levi’s work to the books of others, by comparing it with twenty-one authors, in a “polyglot and multipurpose” gallery that includes classics such as Dante, Shakespeare, Leopardi, Baudelaire, and Carroll; authors of modern literature such as Kafka, Mann, and Calvino; and scientists such as Galileo, Darwin, Heisenberg, and Lorenz.

Table of contents

Domenico Scarpa: Prefazione xi
Gianluca Cinelli e Robert S. C. Gordon: Introduzione 1

Parte I – Gli strumenti umani
Antonio Di Meo: Primo Levi e William Henry Bragg 19
Mario Porro: Primo Levi e Galileo Galilei 37
Patrizia Piredda: Primo Levi e Werner Heisenberg 55
Alberto Cavaglion: Primo Levi e Giuseppe Gioachino Belli 73
Enzo Ferrara: Primo Levi e Stanislaw Lem 87
Stefano Bartezzaghi: Primo Levi e Lewis Carroll 107

Parte II – La condizione umana
Vittorio Montemaggi: Primo Levi e Dante 127
Valentina Geri: Primo Levi e William Shakespeare 143
Simone Ghelli: Primo Levi e Pierre Bayle 161
Martina Piperno: Primo Levi e Giacomo Leopardi 179
Damiano Benvegnù: Primo Levi e Konrad Lorenz 197
Pierpaolo Antonello: Primo Levi e Charles Darwin 215

Parte III – Comprendere e narrare il Lager
Charles L. Leavitt IV: Primo Levi e Elio Vittorini 237
Uri S. Cohen: Primo Levi e Vercors 255
Sibilla Destefani: Primo Levi e Charles Baudelaire 273
Stefano Bellin: Primo Levi e Franz Kafka 287
Davide Crosara: Primo Levi e Samuel Beckett 305

Parte IV – La ricerca di sé
Martina Mengoni: Primo Levi e Thomas Mann 327
Gianluca Cinelli: Primo Levi e Herman Melville 345
Mattia Cravero: Primo Levi e Ovidio 361
Marco Belpoliti: Primo Levi e Italo Calvino 381

Biografie degli autori 403
Indice dei nomi 407

Announcement: Experiencing War at the Library of Congress

For the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Library of Congress published a webpage titled Experiencing War. Researchers and anyone who is interested can access 12 collections with diaries, photos and oral histories of men and women who experienced that event.

The page can be accessed at this link:

The materials are part of one of the Library of Congress’ special projects: the Veterans History Project (VHP), part of the American Folklife Center, which collects personal accounts of American war veterans with the aim to preserve the memories of war and conflicts in which the United States took part, from the First World War up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VHP’s materials provide a wealth of sources for researchers who work on experiences of war, and many of those can be accessed remotely through their website:

Announcement: Shadow Agents of War Workshop

A fascinating event is taking place next week on 4th June at the University of Edinburgh: a one day workshop titled “Shadow Agents of War”, which will focus on the role in war of certain players who are largely overlooked by scholars of war and conflict, such as refugees, convicts, commoners and even animals. The workshop also promises to tackle methodological issues and point to relevant sources. The workshop is co-organised by Stephen Bowd, who is currently working on a project on gender and early modern warfare, Sarah Cockram, who focuses on the early modern period, too, and is interested in historical animal studies, and John Gagné whose current book project is on transcultural war in the early sixteenth century.

The workshop will have three sessions: The Unwilling Agents of War; The Organisers of War; The Suppliers of War.

The full programme can be accessed by following this link:

Land of mine: an Ethical Example of Wisdom and Empathic Rationality

By Patrizia Piredda

The Oresteia by Aeschylus, like every Greek tragic trilogy, represents a series of catastrophes and grieves provoked by the violent feeling of revenge that prevents reason from evaluating the best actions to take. Orestes is hunted and tormented by the Erinyes because he killed his mother, who assassinated her husband, who originally sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia, Orestes’ sister.   

In the last tragedy of the trilogy, however, a fundamental event happens: Athena, goddess of reason and justice, enters the scene as the judge of a regular process, during which a jury composed by twelve Athenians and the goddess herself has to judge whether to condemn or to absolve Orestes and therefore whether to stop the Erinyes hunting him. Orestes is eventually absolved and the long chain of sufferings and grieves is broken: the Erinyes are transmuted into Eumenides and Orestes, the last descendant of Agamemnon’s dynasty, finds peace.

The importance of this myth lies on the fact that it represents the passage from the habit of perpetuating the state of conflict throughout the violent reaction of revenge, which derives from the incapacity to limit the feeling of hatred, to the habit of mitigating the natural emotional reactions of hatred, violence, and resentment throughout rational thinking.

The myth of Orestes brings us to reflect on a number of fundamental aspects of the human character and on the building of our social habits, based on the capacity of feeling emotions and empathy in a balanced way, always in combination with the critical thinking of reason.

What can one do in the case of suffering from violence, or of having witnessed or perpetrated violent actions? In the ancient Greek society, violence (bia) was known as the mother of tyranny and defeat, while on the opposite end there was democracy, viz. a society based on free discussion and exchange of opinions. However, the statement according to which violence brings violence is only partially true. Any violent act begets revenge when the agent believes that only by means of punishment grounded on the principle of an eye for an eye it is possible to act by justice and to restore peace. These ethical reflections on the Greek myth are once more expressed in Land of Mine, a historical movie from 2015, directed by Martin Zandvliet and nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 2017.

After the surrender of Nazi Germany, the disposal of over two million anti-personnel mines all along the Danish beaches immediately started. German POWs were used for this dangerous work, many of whom were just boys, the same ones that the Nazi regime had sent to war after the Wehrmacht’s decimation.

At the beginning of the movie, Sergeant Rasmussen savagely beats up one German prisoner who is strongly holding the Danish flag, probably stolen and kept as an ironic trophy. In order to understand this emotional reaction, it is necessary to take into account the fact that at the end of every war, the most common feelings toward the enemy army, guilty of horrible crimes and atrocities, are hatred, resentment and the desire of revenge. These feelings prevent empathy, compassions and sympathy for prisoners to raise and consequently hinder the possibility to attribute some value to their lives. At the beginning of the story, Sergeant Rasmussen, appointed to lead a team of prisoners for clearing an area of Danish beaches, is entirely dominated by these feelings as well as Lieutenant Ebbe, who manifests a strong rancour and a firm will to take revenge. However, being in daily contact with young prisoners, Rasmussen notices that his team is formed by boys who call their own mother when they feel pain and fear. Slowly, as Rasmussen grows aware of the situation, his feelings change and his hatred, under the control of critical reflection, turns into compassion. This allows him to act wisely and prevents him from committing injustices in turn. Rasmussen, insofar as Lieutenant Ebbe told him, promises his boys that once the clearing is finished they will go home. Without asking for authorisation, because his prisoners had not been eating for days, he personally brings them some food taken from the military depot and decides to relieve them from work on a Sunday so they can enjoy a football game. The peak of this empathic feeling is reached when Rasmussen provides moral support to one of his boys, who has just lost his twin because of an explosion. It is undeniable that many Nazi soldiers that many Nazi soldiers never had similar behaviours and that they almost never developed a thought based on mercy and empathy, which permits us to see ourselves mirrored in the others. The irrational and uncritical acceptance of the false beliefs promulgated by Nazi propaganda (like every uncritical acceptance of populist discourses) originated from the fear that impels to look for strong certainties that might protect the individual (or at least give an illusion of protection) as a part of a group, even if this happens to the detriment of freedom of thought and agency.

The characters of the movie, moreover, are very young boys educated under Nazism. Forged according to the principles of hatred, anti-Semitism, violence and the crazy myths of the purity and supremacy of the Arian race, the generations of the 1920s and 1930s developed their own image of the world founded on the emotion of fear and on the feeling of hatred against diversity: a concept of identity, in other words, which contemplates alterity as something potentially dangerous, since the other, being a stranger, is considered as a potential threat.

 Hatred generates hatred. There are two possible behavioural solutions for Rasmussen: to take revenge on his prisoners for the evil produced by the Nazi ideology that had been feeding them since they were born; or to listen to his own feelings and reason, and to show them a different way of life, built on humanity and wisdom. Rasmussen’s wisdom becomes evident during the football game, when his dog gets killed by a missed hidden mine which had remained undisposed. Suffering from the pain for the death of his dog, after his first reaction of fury – the same he felt when he beat up a prisoner at the beginning of the movie – Rasmussen is able to understand that the prisoners had not premeditated to let mines hidden in the sand and that it was just a human mistake. Therefore, he can regain control over his own emotions and eventually bring his duty to completion, viz. he grants the safety of the beach: he decides that the prisoners will check the safety of the ground by walking in a row all over the beach, but he does not take revenge or punish them. He does not allow hatred to take over reason and justice.

Rasmussen chooses, therefore, the second solution and thanks to his empathic and rational behaviour he manages to provide the young prisoners with a new perspective over life because he donates them an example of something they have not yet experienced: the feeling of justice that paves the way to democracy. In fact, as opposed to the violence of dictatorship, democracy expects the existence of disputes, insofar as without diversity there would never be changes or evolution. Democracy does not mean simply putting the city government in the hands of the population: this is, indeed, extremely problematic because the judgment of the individual – who is part of a group – is influenced by rhetoric. The propagandistic use of rhetoric is aimed at enhancing the passions in the audience as to convey the general opinion toward a precise direction; it is also aimed at diminishing the presence of a rational reflection through which it is possible to see the errors of argumentation and to eradicate prejudices, false beliefs and erroneous opinions.  That who does not develop such critical capacity risks having his-her emotions manipulated and, therefore, emitting erroneous judgments. When one is not aware of the importance and dangerousness of passions, it is possible that one easily listens to and accepts the absurd argumentations of propaganda, by approving and backing dictatorship and consequently by renouncing freedom. By thinking on the power of propaganda, Jaspers writes that the conflict of information, the prohibition of free public discussion and finally the repetition of falsehood might turn a community into an unresponsive dull mass (Karl Jaspers, Vernunft und Widervernunft in unserer Zeit, München, Piper, 1950). When the human being does not act like a thinking individual, he falls in the trap of sophists whom Jaspers calls the sorcerers, the enchanters that create illusion by promising knowledge and by claiming to act for the good of the others (Jaspers).

Such “sorcerers” fight reason with the weapon of “anti-reason”, which requires the enchanter’s and the enchanted audience’s cooperation: the mediocre and undecided people who legitimate anti-reason by believing in its absurdity and by adopting the rhetoric of scientific objectivity (Jaspers).

 Democracy, then, means that everyone should develop critical capacity to have a balanced interaction with their emotions, which are necessary for judgment, without letting them prevail over reason. In this way, it is possible within a group to compare different opinions based on knowledge and on rational and critical evaluation, which time after time permits to make decisions for the sake of social equilibrium.

This is what Rasmussen does. Even if he is blinded by hatred and pain, he is able to find an emotional balance between the feeling of grudge against the prisoners and that of compassion towards the young men. Eventually, reason prevails: it is right to punish those who are guilty of the evil they have perpetrated, but that it would be wrong to take revenge: this rational behaviour permits to break the same closed circle that reproduces the violence in the Oresteia.

Against the will of Lieutenant Ebbe, who instead of sending the young prisoners home, after the clearing is finished, assigns them to clear another beach, a much more dangerous one, therefore condemning them to death. Rasmussen decides to keep to his promise; he goes and picks them up with a truck and drives them a few metres away from the border with Germany, where he sets them free. By doing so, he prevents the perpetuation of the chain of hatred, which characterises Orestes’s myth according to which the victims sooner or later become oppressors, and prevents his own feeling of hatred from causing him to act unfairly.

The movie shows that the ethical sentiment depends on the individual and does not concern complying with laws and rules; these are fundamental for organising societies but, being made by human beings, can be unjust or wrong. Therefore, one must develop critical thought, which enables to judge and act well. The only possibility for the young prisoners to develop this feeling, in order to be rescued from an unjust system, is to develop the maturity to understand that they were educated to hate and to obey blindly. In other words, only by letting them modify and improve the consciousness of themselves and others, to develop a better conception of life through the experience of diversity and, above all, of justice, the young prisoners have a possibility to direct their lives toward wisdom.

War as Moral Experience in Wittgenstein’s Secret Diary

by Patrizia Piredda

When he stopped his studies of engineering in Manchester, Wittgenstein moved to Cambridge to study logic under the guidance of Bertrand Russell because he believed that by comprehending the fundamentals of language, and therefore the limits of language, he would understand its essence,   as well as that of human beings, in primis, himself. 

For Wittgenstein, knowing oneself was indispensable because only the man who knows himself can improve himself and become morally decent. When World War I broke out, Wittgenstein volunteered in the Austrian Army because he trusted “the fact that the experience of war would permit him to understand, beyond any fiction and illusion, who – which kind of man, so to say, – he really was. Thus, it was clarity and truth about himself that Wittgenstein expected from the war” (Perissinotto 13).

Wittgenstein spoke about the experience of World War I in two different diaries: the first one is a work-notebook in which he wrote his thoughts, questions and the progress of his work on logic (which was eventually published under the name of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), as well as his reflections on ethics, the function of philosophy, and such concepts as the will, the good, evil and suicide. The second one is a personal diary, composed of three notebooks which begin on 9 August 1914 and end on 19 August 1916, written in a secret code so that none of his comrades could read it. During the war years, in contact with other soldiers and immersed in the military life, Wittgenstein went on working on the problems of language, but he slowly changed the focus of his research and broadened his interest beyond logical problems: in a letter of 22 May 1915 to Russell, Wittgenstein wrote that the problems in which he was interested “have become more and more precisely and general”, and that his method “has drastically changed” (Wittgenstein, Lettere 75): now, it was fundamentally oriented toward ethics. 

For Wittgenstein, the encounter with the other in war was an existential experience that allowed him to look within the depths of himself in order to question himself and understand who he was.  This in turn would allow him to correct errors in his thought, to eliminate prejudices, faults and erroneous judgments and, finally, to act well. To reach this state of deep knowledge, Wittgenstein had to understand which role the passions and reason play in making moral decisions, so as to put the former under the control of the latter: in other words, at this time in his life, acting as a decent and moral person meant for Wittgenstein being able to understand and control his own passions which, generally, lead a person to make practical decisions in order to satisfy private and egoistic desires without considering whether the action is good or bad. At first, Wittgenstein believed that the war would make men better; however, early in the conflict the promiscuity that he saw in other soldiers made him start to believe that war cannot change the nature of human beings: if possible, it makes people’s moral tendencies even worse. Wittgenstein changed his mind because, in his opinion, his comrades did not attempt to understand what was happening to them, even though they were going through a new and traumatic experience that demanded understanding; instead, they kept on following irrational passions and base desires. If, as Wittgenstein wrote on 12 August 1916, “a bad life is an unreasonable one”; if living in sin – i.e. living enslaved to passions and desires – means living “in discord” (Wittgenstein, Diario 118); and if a life without knowledge is evil, then his comrades could not logically appear to him as good persons. 

From the first notes of his diary, Wittgenstein wrote that he was horrified by his comrades’ vulgarity: he did not consider them stupid, but he believed that they were limited by the “typical attitude of the majority of men, according to which they mirror themselves in what they have instead than in what they are” (Gargani, 11). Since, in his opinion, his comrades chatted only about “nonsensical” things based on prejudices and superficialities, Wittgenstein felt deep disquiet (Unheimlichkeit), and as a result he depicted them as scoundrels dominated by the most selfish instincts and lust, which led them to a loss of self-control and to immorality. On 21 August 1914 Wittgenstein wrote: “The lieutenant and I have spoken about many different things. He is a very kind person. He can cope with the worst scoundrels and be kind to them. If we hear a Chinese speak, we tend to consider his speech an inarticulate gurgle. The person who understands Chinese will recognise the language. Thus I often cannot recognise humanity in man, etc. […] all concepts of my work have become ‘foreign’ to me. I cannot really SEE anything!!!” (Wittgenstein, Diario 54). 

In contact with the other soldiers, Wittgenstein could no longer see what might be called humanity, nor could he recognise in others his own human essence, i.e. a rational creature who strives to know himself in order to be morally good. Therefore, Wittgenstein was not able to perceive others as friends, because friendship for him could only arise between good men: he had an elitist sense of friendship, founded on respect, dialogue, loyalty, love and a deep sense of ethics which, in his opinion, his comrades seriously lacked. On 15 August 1914 he wrote: “The crew is a gang of scoundrels! No enthusiasm, incredible vulgarity, stupidity and cruelty. Therefore, it is not true that the great common cause necessarily makes man nobler… According to all our external conditions, our duty on the boat should provide us with a wonderful and happy time, but alas! As a result, it will be very difficult to communicate with the others” (Wittgenstein, Diario 52-53).

Moreover, two days before, on August 16 1914, he wrote that “the stupidity, the insolence and the evil of these people have no limits” (Wittgenstein, Diario 53). Beyond these severe and tranchant judgments, Wittgenstein did not believe that he was a better man than his comrades, but that he had a stronger will to become better. In fact, one of the major differences that Wittgenstein perceived between himself and the other soldiers was the awareness that he was not yet a good man. In the letter of 3 March 1914 to Russell he wrote: “we both have our weaknesses, but I do especially, and my life is FULL of the most awful and miserable thoughts and actions (and this is no exaggeration)… Until today my life has been full of filth” (Wittgenstein Lettere 67); on 7 March 1915 he moreover wrote: “I feel like a completely burnt out stove, full of impurities and filth” (Wittgenstein, Diario 101).

Nevertheless, during the war Wittgenstein went on trying to improve himself, to control his body’s weaknesses and get close to the order that derives from reason, which however belonged in its pure form only to God. At that time young Wittgenstein believed that such an order is located in our language: for him, there was a correspondence between good use of language and good action, thus it followed that thinking well is acting well. According to this correspondence, thanks to a constant effort to free himself from linguistic errors (prejudices, common statements, nonsense, false and erroneous reasoning) a person might aspire to live a decent life: on 20 July 1916 Wittgenstein wrote to himself in his diary: “continue to work and you will become a good man” (Wittgenstein, Diario 116).

The will moves man to strive for absolute good, beyond the partiality of a mundane ‘good’ corresponding to private desires. To reach absolute good, one needs a full view (Überblick) of things even if this seems to be a desperate attempt: on 12 November 1914 Wittgenstein wrote: “I have worked quite a lot, but without seeing very clearly (Wittgenstein, Diario 79); on 13 November 1914: “I cannot see clearly” (ibid.) and on 16 November 1914: “no clarity yet. Although I am right in front of the solutions to the deepest questions, so near as to almost crash into them with my nose!!! Now my spirit is simply blind to these things! I feel as if I am RIGHT IN FRONT OF the door to the solution, but I cannot see clearly enough to open it” (Wittgenstein, Diario 81). Moreover, if on 29 July 1916, in a moment of desperation after being shot at, Wittgenstein wrote that he was afraid of dying and losing the pleasure of life, some days before, on 8 July 1916, he had written that such a fear was a misleading feeling because “fear of death is the best sign of a false life, i.e. a bad life” because “he who is happy must not fear.  Not even death” (Wittgenstein, Quaderni 219). Even if it is a desperate attempt, one always should (or better, must) try to go beyond  one’s own limits because only in this way is it possible to fight the irrational fear in which lies the sin that leads  men to believe that a false conception is true.

 Contrary to the common experience of war, wherein a soldier considers his comrades to be his friends and the opponents, the unknown soldiers, the enemy who must be fought, Wittgenstein considered his comrades his principal enemy, from whom he had to defend himself. Wittgenstein’s concept of friendship, however, was embodied in David Pinsent with whom he was in a close contact during the war: they had become friends when both of them were studying in Cambridge.   During the war, since Wittgenstein was fighting in the Austrian Army and Pinsent was fighting in the English Army, they should have considered themselves enemies. Pinsent died on 8 May 1918. Wittgenstein was informed of his death by a letter from Ellen Fanny Pin, David’ mother, sent dated 6 July 1918, to which he replied, writing that Pinsent had been his first and only friend: “I have indeed known many young men of my age and have been on good terms with some, but only in him did I find a real friend; the hours I have spent with him have been the best in my life, he was to me a brother and a friend. Daily I have thought of him and have longed to see him again. God will bless him” (Monk 155).

To him Wittgenstein dedicated his Tractatus logico-philosophicus

For further reading

Gargani, Aldo, Il coraggio di essere, in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Diari segreti, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 1987, pp. 1-45

Marconi, Diego, Wittgenstein e la filosofia, in Ludwig Wittgenstein, La filosofia, Roma, Donzelli, 2006, pp. vii-xxxvii

Monk, Ray, Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Duty of Genius, New York, The Free Press, 1990

Perissinotto, Luigi, Wittgenstein. Una guida, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2010

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Diari segreti, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 1987

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Lettere. 1911-1951, Milano, Adelphi, 2012

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Quaderni 1914-1916, in Tractatus logico-philosophicus – Quaderni 1914-1916, Einaudi, Torino, 2009, pp. 127-299

What does “proximity” mean for local interpreters working in zones of conflict?

By María Manuela Fernández Sánchez

What does ‘proximity’ mean for local interpreters working in zones of conflict?

Few professions have such discriminatory stereotypes as translators and interpreters. Very sadly, the Italian cliché traduttore, traditore is still thought to be true by many people. Nevertheless, both translators and interpreters have also contributed to the persistence of these stereotypes. To make matters worse, the concept of the unfaithful interpreters has been fuelled by sensationalist media as well as by military and political leaders. The following example is from The New York Times:

“Would you mind speaking without an interpreter?” Vladimir V. Putin asked, and his visitor, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s new foreign minister, responded that he could not imagine doing business any other way. The two then chatted in Russian, as if their meeting this month were a homecoming for a local boy who made good (13 June, 2009, “Mideast in Flux. An Israeli Cozies Up To Moscow”, by Clifford Levy).

With regard to local interpreters who work in zones of conflict, positive reports of good work and lasting friendship are counterbalanced by more negative reports that accuse interpreters of being “lazy, inept, or unpunctual” (Freeman 2012). Unsung heroes and unsung villains in equal proportion, according to Colin Freeman, foreign correspondent of The Telegraph. They are the indispensable guides of camera crews, war reporters, and photojournalists. However, local interpreters and fixers are not the only ones accused of unprofessional behaviour. Also harshly criticized are messengers, special agents, mediators and subalterns in general. Because they find themselves in a vulnerable situation between opposing parties, they often feel trapped by their precarious and asymmetrical status and difficult working conditions.

In some cases, the reasons for such criticism are less transparent and the result is more dramatic. On 12 April, 2004, the photographer and journalist Gervasio Sánchez wrote an article titled ¿Un traductor traidor? [A translator traitor?] in the Spanish newspaper El País. In it he stated that most people harbored serious doubts that the interpreter, Al Mayali, had murdered seven Spanish special agents (“Muchos dudan de la culpabilidad del intérprete Al Mayali en el asesinato de siete espías españoles.”).

Gervasio Sánchez is a photojournalist with over thirty years of experience. He has covered countless international conflicts and has received many prestigious international awards, which have highlighted his commitment to both journalism and photography, as well as to the victims of the wars that he has covered. As part of his work, he has taken many iconic images of the siege in Sarajevo and the devastating effects of land mines in civilians. He is one of those photographers who spend weeks, months, and even years in a country to tell the stories of people’s lives in the midst of war. His idea of an extended family includes people whom he had the opportunity to meet as a war reporter. In fact, he often returns to the places where he has worked and visits old friends in order to see what life is like years after the conflict, and to discover how people are coping with the aftermath of war.

The backdrop of Gervasio Sánchez’s article is post-Saddam Iraq. The article was written in Bagdad, a city where he had worked for many years. Flayed Al Mayali was his interpreter at the time and still is each time he returns to Iraq. In the article, Sánchez describes his astonishment at the unexpected news of Al Mayali’s arrest as an accessory in an attack on the Spanish military. This astonishment was also shared by the rest of the Spanish colony in Iraq. On both a professional and personal level, Al Mayali was highly valued. Before beginning to work as a close assistant of Major Alberto Martínez, the head of the Spanish Intelligence Services (CNI) in Iraq, Al Mayali taught Spanish at the University of Bagdad. The attack that killed seven Spanish special agents, including Major Alberto Martínez, occurred on 29 November 2003 during an ambush. 

Flayed Al Mayali was arrested on 22 March 2004 and questioned in relation to his possible participation in the attack. He was interrogated for five days and finally declared an accesory to the crime. He was subsequently taken to the Coalition Holding Facility, a detention center in Bagdad, and was handed over to the US military authorities. Al Mayali was then imprisoned in Abu Ghraib. After eleven months of confinement in the Abu Ghraib prison and Camp Bucca, he was released without charges in February 2005 by a commission composed of American and Iraqi military authorities and lawyers.

The Spanish government did not inform the public or even acknowledge his arrestor detention. During his months in prison, Flayed Al Mayali was abandoned by the same government that he had served so faithfully for four years. Although Gervasio Sánchez repeatedly denounced to authorities that Al Mayali had been unjustly arrested and imprisoned without any proof and requested an investigation that would clear his name, the Spanish Secret Service silenced all news related to the ambush.

In an interview with Gervasio Sánchez on 29 November 2013 for the Spanish newspaper El Heraldo de Aragón (link to article), Flayed Al Mayali remembers the tragic events which took place ten years ago. He explains his deep sorrow when he learned of the killing of his close friend and employer, Major Alberto Martínez. He also recalls the beatings, insults, and threats received during his interrogation by Spanish military personnel as well as the total neglect and feeling of abandonment that he experienced in the American prisons.

Interestingly, he mentions the circumstances of his proximity and familiarity with  Spanish special agents as one of the reasons for being singled out as scapegoat. In his opinion, since they did not have the means to investigate the ambush, it was easier to accuse the person who was closest to the victims, and that happened to be him (“Yo creo que como eran incapaces de investigar el tema bien, la víctima más cerca de ellos fue yo (sic)”).

The case of Al Mayali came up recently in a conversation that I had with Gervasio Sánchez on 21 June 2015 (The context of the conversation was the summer course “What matters is dignity” given by the journalist on 20 and 21 June 2015 in Laredo (Santander, Spain). I am very grateful to him for having taken the time to answer my many questions), when I asked him to tell me about his experience with local interpreters. I was curious about the interpreter profile that he required, given that the nature of his work demands an immersion in the local culture. He told me that he preferred to hire a local interpreter who was able to interpret into Spanish rather than English since that way communication was more fluid. He also said that, ideally, the interpreter should be a versatile person, able to drive and with a network of local contacts. As part of his war coverage, one of his priorities was always to obtain personal stories from the people living in the zones of conflict. He thus asked the interpreter to give him a faithful and complete rendition of what the person was saying, and if necessary, he would even give the interpreter specific instructions about the kind of work that he needed. 

The rest of our conversation dealt with photography and interpreters. Photography is an act of selection (Fink 2014: 115). Why are there so few photographs of local interpreters? Is their presence not a reminder of the linguistic and communicative involvement present in the coverage of wars and in the resolution of conflicts? Is the presence of local interpreters linked to the failed linguistic policies of governments as well as those of military and international organisms?  

Gervasio Sánchez has occassionally taken photographs of some of the local interpreters that have worked for him, but they are mostly private photographs, in other words,  photographs taken for affective reasons. In fact, in a post published by Sánchez nine years after the detention of Al Mayali El honor perdido de Flayeh al Mayali (The lost honor of Flayeh Al Mayali link to article), the photojournalist also included various photographs of Al Mayali. Two of them possibly show Al Mayali working with military authorities, whereas the other two depict the interpreter respectively with his family and with a group of students in Bagdad. 

In fact, there is nothing surprising in having a close relationship with someone who is your partner in very dangerous situations. Friendship and a sense of hospitality often come later if the collaboration persists in time. Other journalists such as John McCarthy (2012), author of the book You can’t Hide the Sun. A Journey through Israel and Palestine, describes the important job performed by Suha Arraf, her interpreter in Arabic and Hebrew. He also includes a personal photograph of her in which she resembles a tourist engaged in sightseeing. The caption reads: “Suha Arraf, my friend and guide, in trademark sunglasses”. 

In conclusion, every image is a construction in which absence is as meaningful as presence. We also know that the value of images is defined by their use, whether  private or public. If, as translation historians, we find it interesting to study interpreters as photographic subjects in zones of conflict, this is because such photographs provide us with a window through which we can view interpreters in their physical characteristics and in their professional roles. Such photographs also provide us with a unique opportunity to understand the complexity of the often covert wars and conflicts in which they participate as linguistic mediators and in which their proximity cannot be taken for granted.


Fink, Larry. 2014. On Composition and Improvisation. New York: Aperture.

Freeman, Colin. 2012. “Fixers-the unsung heroes (and villains) of foreign reporting”, The Telegraph, 28 November.

McCarthy, John. 2012. You can’t hide the sun. A journey through Israel and Palestine. London: Random House.

Encountering war in the letters from the front

By Gianluca Cinelli

The letters sent from the front during WWII constitute a broad universe which we are just partially familiar with (tens of thousands of letters out of billions). Only a very small portion of the immense corpus of letters from and to the fronts has been published, which means that such a form of testimony constitutes an important but also distorted means of encounter with war. Do therefore letters constitute a good means for encountering war? Do people at home really come across war, when they read the letters received from their loved ones at the front? The testimony provided by a letter from the front is complex and ambiguous insofar as it differs both from autobiographical texts written after the events in the form of a narrative and from diaries, which are basically private writings with an open and discontinuous narrative structure. Letters from the front imply the presence of a defined reader, normally the family, relatives, friends etc. of the combatants who write. Letters are first of all life-signals that combatants exchange with their families back home. Therefore, they also imply a sort of dialogue dislocated in space and delayed in time, which affects communication and the flow of information. Moreover, letters from the front are subject to censorship, which limits the freedom of the writers to express their minds openly. Finally, combatants tend to present themselves in their letters as individuals who struggle to balance their experience of violence and suffering with the ideas, expectations and sets of values of their relatives at home. Combatants cannot and dare not report the reality of their daily life in war directly to their relatives without applying some language-filter. Letters from the front line must first of all keep the dialogue between combatants and their society as it existed before the war alive (Letzel 1998: 30). Such a dialogue is irregular and ambiguous, though, because, on the one hand, censorship prevents it from being spontaneous and, on the other hand, self-censorship represents the psychological device by which the system of values shared with family and friends is protected from the potential harm resulting from direct representation of the war. Insofar as censorship prevents the combatants from expressing freely their own thoughts and from revealing classified or secret aspects of the war, the relationship between combatants and censorship has two faces: on the one hand the soldiers try to escape control by avoiding prohibited topics; sometimes, conversely, they use the keywords of propaganda in order to “smuggle” opinion and information which should not be put into writing. This is the reason why one often comes across letters which appear oddly propagandistic, discordant with private communication. Most of the times, such an attitude is a subtle way of “cheating” censorship, which urges the recipient to read between the lines.

In the German letters sent home from Russia in 1941, the invasion at first appears as a just war waged in self-defence against communism and the “Judaic-Bolshevik” plot. For many German soldiers, the war and the annihilation of the Red Army would impede the “red beasts” to reach Germany, thus they represented that total annihilation-war as a cause worth fighting and death. The soldiers of the Wehrmacht often considered themselves as liberators and restorers of Catholicism in Russia, which they depicted as a backward country populated by uncivilised inhabitants. Nonetheless, perplexity and fear do emerge from the letters of these combatants as long as they advanced deeper into enemy territory and witnessed a cruel war conducted relentlessly against civilians, POWs and Jews. No writer openly refers to these misdeeds, which was prohibited by censorship: they just write that the war is demanding more than mere physical effort and courage in battle: obedience, faith, endurance and determination therefore assume a secret meaning, insofar as the combatants try to tell (ambiguously and indirectly) that they are experiencing unexpected war crimes from which they cannot call themselves off. Shootings, hangings, deportation, forced labour, mass mortality from starvation and disease among the Russian POWs hardly made their way into the letters, because any admission that the conflict in the East was a criminal extermination war, would undermine the moral link between the combatants and their families, from which the former received the signal of a normal life, so they made every effort to send back a representation of their daily life as much normal, by removing all reference to violence and horror.

But the brutality of the war in Russia took its toll on the soldiers. Beside the restrain of censorship, self-censorship represented a constant attitude of the combatants to face a moral crisis, as soon as they began to recognise in their comrades a glimpse of the bandit and raider, or to understand that the series of victories was turning into defeat. The language of letters bears the scars of such internal conflict. The combatants, by writing that their condition was “beyond description” and by promising that one day they would tell everything in person at home, put a distance between themselves and the events, thus concealing their moral struggle. Silence was therefore all but mute: if blackened lines in censored letters show that the State could control and transform dissent into coerced consent, silence imposed by self-censorship was rather a blank to fill with interpretation.

Silence as refusal to speak about the war means that the encounter with war was so shocking that it had to be framed within a discourse of apparent normality. Which also means that the language of letters would deny people at home the possibility to actually encounter war and to understand what was going on at the front. In situations of extreme danger like in Stalingrad or in other great battles in 1943-1944, combatants found it very difficult to conceal reality. In the letters written under life-threatening conditions of extreme suffering and fear, the combination of censorship and self-censorship became highly problematic, because the attempt to escape through writing stood in open contradiction with experience, and this created violent swings in language. One can find, in fact, strong oppositions between expressions of hope and despair, or between appeals to calm, often dictated with a strained enthusiasm, and crude descriptions of a hopeless condition.

Silence therefore became a form of complicity. It occurred first of all as ellipsis (denial), but it could also occur as understatement and irony. There were two different types of self-censorship: the first was a rational precautionary reaction to the presence of the military censorship and to its restrictions. Silence or the displacement of information was not aimed at interrupting the communication totally; the writers wanted to be understood by their recipients but not by censors. This was the reason for the promises to speak in person at home, for cryptic symbols (e.g. a circle with a point inside, to mean the encirclement of the German 6th Army in Stalingrad) and other allusions.

The second case was that of total and impenetrable silence, when the combatants passed over entire parts of their daily life and experience in silence simply by writing about other things, until their letters conveyed an image of the war tampered with as though those aspects of violence and horror had never existed at all. Adjectives like “inconceivable”, “indescribable” and “unimaginable” represent the limit beyond which silence became total. It was no longer a matter of “I cannot say this because it is forbidden”; the war had to be radically transformed into a bearable experience that the reader at home could handle, comprehend and eventually justify in order to believe that their loved ones would eventually come back home as they once were.

The readers of letters encountered war through a thick filter of linguistic and ideological manipulation: they encountered the “soft” version of the war depicted and tampered with by the combatants themselves, who quite usually arranged their representations as a compact pack of standardised communication, in which life-signal appeared as the most important and urgent content to communicate. “I am still alive and in good shape and spirit” was likely to be in the end the most useful and consolatory thing to write and read.

But war, despite its distorted images, changes and affects the combatants for the rest of their lives and urges them to constantly arrange the story in order to make sense of it and to make it bearable and acceptable. Self-censorship in the letters is first of all a symptom of the pursue not much for a true and authentic account but rather for consent and self-acknowledgement aimed at permitting, after the war, the return of the veterans into the circle of their community as civilians. Therefore, one can see the letters from the front as a first stage of the attempt to stretch a bridge over the gap between war and those civilians who, away from it at home, can only imagine it through the official representations of propaganda and those unorthodox of letters and first-hand oral accounts made by veterans when they come home on leave. Many Germans became aware of the actual situation in the East by listening to the accounts that the veterans made in secret: crimes, extermination of the Jews, the defeat in Stalingrad, the general retreat in 1944 were taboos that the Nazi propaganda tried to keep secret. Through the letters from the front many German families encountered a war that they had never imagined, although a war still tampered with. Perhaps, only after 1945 silence in the letters began to make sense, when defeat opened the eyes of the majority, as one veteran wrote:

“In retrospect, I realized that I – and countless others like me – had helped Hitler start and fight a world war of conquest that had left tens millions of people dead and destroyed our own country. I wondered now whether I would ever question these things if we had won the war. I had to conclude that it was unlikely. This was a lesson taught by defeat, not by victory” (Knappe 1993: 298).

Further reading

  • Buchbender, Ortwin and Reinhold Sterz, eds., Das andere Gesicht des Krieges. Deutsche Feldpostbriefe 1939-1945, München, Beck, 1982
  • Ebert, Jens, Feldpostbriefe aus Stalingrad. November 1942 bis Januar 1943, Göttingen, Wallstein, 2003
  • Golovchansky, Anatoly and others, eds., “Ich will raus aus diesem Wahnsinn”. Deutsche briefe von der Ostfront, 1941-1945, aus sowjetischen Archiven, Reinbeck, Rowholt, 1993
  • Knappe, Siegfrid and Ted Brusaw, Soldat. Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949, Shrewbury, Airlife, 1993
  • Letzel, Klaus, Deutsche Soldaten – nationalsozialisticher Krieg? Kriegserlebnis – Kriegserfahrung, 1939-1945, 2nd ed., Paderborn, Schöningh, 1998
  • Schleicher, Karl-Theodor and Heinrich Walle, eds., Aus Feldpostbriefen junger Christen, 1939-1945. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der katholischen Jugend im Felde, Stuttgart, Steiner, 2005

Reading War Photographs: Who is the photographer?

By María Manuela Fernández Sánchez

Reading War Photographs: Who is the photographer?

In an interview published in the newspaper El País (April 17, 2015), José Palazón, president of the nongovernmental organization “Prodein”, and winner of the XVIII Luis Valtueña Humanitarian Photography Award, remembers a conversation that he had with a prosecutor, twenty years ago, when he was denouncing the abuses against immigrants in Melilla, the Spanish enclave on the North African coast. Palazón complained that his efforts to gain visibility were not getting anywhere, to which the prosecutor replied: “Look for evidences. Take photographs”. Since then, it seems that Palazón has learned his lesson and the photograph “Desolate landscapes”, which he submitted to the Luis Valtueña photography competition has travelled around the world.

“Desolate landscapes” is an unusual reflection of the invisibility of undocumented immigrants, and the indifference to their suffering in developed countries. The contrast between the vulnerable location of a group of immigrants, precariously perched on the high border fence dividing Spain and Morocco, and the view of the luxurious golf course where two golfers are blithely immersed in their game is doubtlessly the ironical reflection of the evident failure of Spanish government as well as of European immigration policies to face and successfully deal with the immigration crisis from Africa.

In documentary photography, the question about who is taking the photograph is one of great significance. James Curtis explains: “If we are to determine the meaning of a documentary photograph we must begin by establishing the historical context for both the image and its creator. A documentary photographer is an historical actor bent upon communicating a message to an audience. Documentary photographs are more than expressions of artistic skill; they are conscious acts of persuasion”. 

The use of photographs to tell stories has accompanied photography since its invention in the first half of the nineteenth century and has paralleled the evolution of independent journalism. Documentary photography has mirrored the desires of their audience as well as their prejudices (Curtis, ibidem). In a similar way, press photographs and propaganda images in war time ‘speak directly to the cultural concerns of the society at which they are directed, both in the subject chosen for representation and in the way those subjects are portrayed’ (Brothers 1997: 2).

In wartime, governments place great importance on graphical testimony. The control and use of the images, depending on the evolution of the conflict and the public support of the war effort are a key element in any propaganda campaign. In this sense, a high percentage of war photographs show carefully prepared scenes in which the participants posed for propaganda purposes. If the field of military history is one of the most productive in terms of primary sources for the study of wars, this is basically because military activity generates a lot of documentary work.

The analysis of war photographs must thus include the consideration of many signifying elements, not the least of which is the broader process of the production and distribution of images. David Simpson (2010: 13) observes that our current wars are highly mediated. He continues by saying that sometimes a portion of what is seen is taken without question as real, other times, some items “are held up to a compulsively sceptical inquiry about what has or has not been spliced and doctored. Some things remain unseen”. 

The debate about the authenticity of war photographs has been recently in the news, though this time, in regards to allegations of criminal abuse by Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad. On January 20, 2014, CNN and The Guardian reported that a team of internationally renowned war crimes experts had found direct evidence of systematic torture and killing in Syrian prisons. The report, based on thousands of photographs of dead bodies, is the testimony of a Syrian government defector codenamed “Caesar”, who during his secret work with a Syrian opposition group, smuggled out the photographs and fled the country. The defector worked as a photographer in the military police. When the war broke out, his work consisted of taking photographs of allegedly murdered detainees. 

In conversation with the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, Jonathan Tepperman (Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2015. Vol.94. No.2, 58-65), Bashar al-Assad called into question the irrefutable evidence of such images of terrible torture and abuse. He stated: “None of these allegations that you mentioned are concrete; all of them are allegations. You can bring photos from anyone and say this is torture. Who took the pictures? Who is he? Nobody knows. There is no verification of any of this evidence, so it’s all allegations without evidence”. 

When Jonathan Tepperman mentioned that Caesar’s photos had been looked at by independent investigators, the Syrian President replied: “No, no. It’s funded by Qatar, and they say it’s an anonymous source. So nothing is clear or proven. The pictures are not clear which person they show. They’re just pictures of a head, for example, with some skulls. Who said this is done by the government, not by the rebels? Who said this is a Syrian victim, not someone else?”   

In his political interest, it makes perfect sense for the Syrian President to repeatedly deny any responsibility for these deaths. What is more striking, however, is the way his words evoke timeless issues which are never out of the limelight, such as the usefulness of photography as primary historical evidence and the ambiguity of photographic meaning.

The argument that the source is anonymous, and consequently the images might come from anywhere else the world is not conclusive. The point is that the author of the photographs is a witness. It can be a singular individual or a group of people. The photographs were “shot for the record” (Curtis, ibidem). They show an undeniable reality, which is currently the object of inquiry by independent experts. The images are disturbing because they record something that actually happened. In fact, they show one of the harshest realities of wars, and their authority is derived from that harshness. In this respect, they can be regarded as a special kind of raw material. Consequently, the photographer had no need to adopt an aesthetic agenda. This descriptive function of photography represents the main use of the medium when it is at the service of scientific and historical investigation.

However, it would be misleading to think that images that provide evidence are easy to understand. Their content is dependent on a network of technical information and cultural knowledge. Furthermore, even the most realistic photograph can be manipulated “according to a variety of contextualizing factors, such as caption and layout, which may be outside the photographer’s control” (Ritchin 1999: 89). In this sense, the demand for verification on the part of the Syrian President is logical though extremely awkward.

The question about how an image is to be understood is also crucial in the area of our research interest, namely, the contemporary history of interpreting. When wartime interpreters are studied as photographic subjects (Fernández Sánchez, 2014), one should always bear in mind that most of the photographs were taken on commission for the government or for press agencies. In these cases, captions, dates, and information concerning the publication are vital in order to be able to correctly read the photographs. Through the photographic image, interpreters and interpreting experiences have become visible. These language intermediaries were present in historical events and in different settings, which contributes to document an important dimension of armed conflicts that often goes unnoticed. 

Today, the increasing ubiquity of images from civil wars, ethnic conflicts, and terrorism  also focus on local translators and interpreters, or “fixers”, as witnesses and victims of war. Their role, their proximity to the local population and their low occupational status in many cases deserve a closer look.


Brothers, Caroline.1997. War and Photography. A Cultural History. London and New York: Routledge.

Curtis, James. 2003. “Making Sense of Documentary Photography”, History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web,  HYPERLINK “”

Fernández Sánchez, María Manuela. 2014. “Interpreters in the Field: Friends or Foes?”. In Framing the Interpreter. Towards a visual perspective, edited by Anxo Fernández-Ocampo and Michaela Wolf. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 172-180.

Ritchin, Fred. 1999. In Our Own Image. The Coming Revolution in Photography. Aperture: New York.

Simpson, David. 2010. “Seen through the Loopholes”, London Review of Books, Vol. 32, No 5, p. 13-14.

War and the Humanities: an introduction to Close Encounters in War

By Simona Tobia and Gianluca Cinelli

War and the Humanities: an introduction to Close Encounters in War

Ancient Romans used to say “si vis pacem, para bellum”, which one could rephrase as “if you want peace, prepare for war”. War has always been much more than mere fighting. It affects society as a whole even in peacetime, for example in terms of training, preparation and strategy. Carl von Clausewitz wrote that war is the “continuation of politics by other means”, meaning that war implies some transformation of mentality and the awareness that sometimes dialogue and compromise are not enough to compose litigation between two countries o two communities. However, war is no necessity. The Latin motto cited above must be read ironically, especially because it sounds very useful for any imperialistic ideology aiming to preserve its power and privileges by threatening other countries by stockpiling weapons and training big armies. War is not desirable, and as the French WWI veteran Jean Giono said, war does not uphold peace. All the opposite: war produces war, while peace is just another path. But one could say that it takes a long way to understand this, or better, it takes experience.

War is a brutal affair, but it has been and continues to be a key aspect of human history and social change. The Humanities and the Social Sciences can help us make sense of that, because they talk about who we are and they help us define our experience. They can also help us make sense of the disturbing aspects of the human character which become so evident in war. The violent nature of wars and conflicts and their effects on societies around the world and throughout history raise complex moral and ethical questions the answer to which is generally very controversial. For example is war always wrong? How can we explain our behaviour in war? Why do we wage war?

We believe that the best way to address these complex questions (again, ambitious project!) is to look at the cultural aspects of war and conflict, really focusing on the human experience of those who were (or are) there. We want to talk about ‘what it is like’ to be there, and for us the best way to do it is with the help of the Humanities. ‘Cultural aspects’ means that any kind of narrative about war and conflict is interesting for us, as well as any kind of representation, from literary, journalistic and artistic portrayals to exhibits and museums.

Combatants are not the only witnesses of war. Civilians, journalists, NGOs-operators, and other groups can equally tell stories about war insofar as they have seen it. The strength of such stories rests on their ability to convince others that war is, or is not, a worthwhile experience. They have come across war and gone through it, for better or worse. All those who have seen war have experienced violence and its corruption. Story-telling, together with other things (such as monuments, museums, celebrations, and others) embodies atonement, purification and return to civil society. Witnesses can share their opinions about war, can use words as a new and not lethal weapons to support the cause of fighting or that of peace. Story-telling is a particular encounter with war for those who have no clear idea of what war is. A narrated conflict is a cultural object. It is made of images and words; its very fabric is the rhetoric of story-telling, and later on of history. From facts to stories, war transforms itself into an experience of suffering and violence which can be made without the risk of getting overwhelmed and harmed.

All representation is interpretation. It has its own reality but it also contributes to create new reality. Representation-interpretation transfigures war into an indirect experience, an intellectual one. One could say that a discourse on war is true because it has been produced by an eye-witness or by an objectively detached and well-informed historian. But how can one tell the difference? Where is the limit between war as reality and war as a vision? The Humanities and the Social Sciences set the tools, critical and intellectual, to face this methodological and epistemological questions. What’s more, they also help understand those questions ethically.

War as an encounter with the unknown, the unexpected, the undesirable implies an understanding of what encountering ‘the enemy’, ‘the other’, or merely ‘the different’ means. Disciplines such as history, philosophy, literature, sociology, anthropology, psychology and others can help us discern and comprehend. So let us begin our discussion with two articles on the very actual issue of violence in captivity.

Interrogation in WW2: any lessons learned?

By Simona Tobia

Terrorists kidnapping relief workers and journalists, terrorists publishing videos of horrible executions by decapitation and even burning, terrorists wiping out principles such as the freedom of the press and satire in the heart of the West in Paris, while stories of westerners joining the fight on the IS side are profusely present in the news. The ‘war on terror’, far from over, is raging, and it continues to be depicted by Western media and political authorities as a ‘just war’ fought against a heinous enemy.

After seeing the US Senate report on the CIA published at the end of 2014, I was wondering to what extent can human beings go to fight what they perceive to be atrocity and evil. I would like to share some ideas gathered during my research on WWII, another conflict which took the shape of a ‘just war’ against an overwhelmingly evil foe, to see if there are some lessons we can learn from that past.

Interrogation and questioning of POWs is one of those settings in which lines are often allowed to blur and mistreatment and breaches of the Geneva Conventions take place, frequently in the name of so-called ‘ticking-bomb scenarios’. This is the official argument in defence of the use of harsh methods (let’s call things with their own name: torture), portraying a very artificial situation in which a bomb is ticking its way towards a devastating attack and only by torturing the terrorists who placed it will the intelligence officers be able to save hundreds of lives. However, so far I have not yet come across any historical case in which this actually happened.

Ill-treatment, psychological abuse and torture committed by representatives of liberal states such as Britain and the US are an astonishing reality, not only in war on terror, but also in and after WWII. Given the shared memory of WWII, with narratives of a war (‘just war’?) fought against a brutal enemy, it appears hard to believe, but the stories of at least a couple of British interrogation centres where lines were actually allowed to blur are worth telling.

The (in)famous London District Cage was headed by Lt. Col. Alexander Scotland. Its prisoners included war crimes suspects from the SS and the Gestapo, ‘the worst of the worst’, and the many reports of ill-treatment and torture included one by Fritz Knoechlein, who wrote a long letter complaining of the treatment he received at the Cage, where he was deprived of sleep, starved, beaten and humiliated constantly. Knoechlein was a high ranking officer in the SS, and he had been responsible of the Le Paradis massacre of May 1940, when 99 British POWs who had surrendered to his unit were machine-gunned en masse; the order was given by Knoechlein, who was later tried for war crimes and executed in Hamburg in 1949. Lt. Col. Scotland wrote a memoir in which he talks at length about the London Cage, admitting to have breached the Geneva Conventions. The book had to be submitted to censorship and was only published in 1957, after having caused a lot of distress in the Foreign Office and the MI5. More recently this story hit the headlines in the Guardian where an article appeared in November 2005 denounced it as a ‘torture centre’.

After the end of the hostilities a CSDIC centre was established in Bad Nenndorf, in the British Zone of occupation of Germany and Lt. Col. Robin ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens became its commandant. The camp and those who ran it were the protagonists of a huge scandal with allegations of abuse and ill-treatment of prisoners, followed by investigation carried out by inspector Tom Hayward. Following his reports, the centre was closed in July 1947 and some of the camp’s officers were brought to court martial in 1948. Among them, there were Lt. Col. Stephens, who was acquitted in July 1948, the Medical Officer Capt. J.S. Smith who was sentenced to be dismissed the service, and a German born interrogator, a former refugee who had joined the British war effort, Oliver Langham. In fact ‘Tin Eye’ struggled to run the camp because of funding reductions and insufficient resources. Prisoners often ended up in nearby hospitals severely harmed and malnourished, and in January 1947 two of them died shortly after admission. Inspector Hayward found in his investigation that interrogators and the camp’s guards were not likely to be totally impartial, either because they were ex German or Austrian refugees or because they were young soldiers who had experienced harsh combat in various war theatres, and arriving in Germany some of them had to face even more war horrors liberating Bergen-Belsen. The investigation proved that that conditions in the CSDIC centre were very harsh: prisoners were kept in cells with no heating and no mattresses, were denied a proper rest, and some of them were found wearing dirty clothes because they could not dry them. Prisoners could be punished with ‘solitary confinement’ sometimes even for longer than 40 days. Solitary confinement was used as a form of ‘mental pressure’ for prisoners considered to be with-holding the truth. Threats to execute, arrest, torture the prisoners’ relatives, such as wives or husbands and children, were also part of the ‘mental pressure’ and they were allowed because they were never carried out. It should be stressed that the commander was against violence and Gestapo-like measures only because he thought that those were counterproductive, and not certainly for humanitarian concerns. He was convinced that physical violence produced poor intelligence.

The London Cage and CSDIC’s stories challenge the myth of British wartime interrogation systems, traditionally thought to be “legal, well-tried and highly successful”. The British system of interrogation was of course successful in wartime, but it was despite and not because of techniques such as those employed by CSDIC. An extremely complex system of intelligence networks, well trained professional intelligence officers, including various centres, eavesdropping facilities, a cross-check technique, and the legendary British double-cross system, made the collection of human intelligence successful in WWII. Violence was most likely employed by the least experienced and more resentful interrogators and it was never fruitful, as Hayward’s report shows very clearly.

This was by no means an attempt of writing an exhaustive history of interrogation in WWII in a blog post (I believe it deserves an entire book, which is the object of my current research), but I think there are a few lessons that we can learn today. It is easy to conclude that harsh methods seem to become acceptable even in a conflict narrated as a ‘just war’ if the enemy is heinous enough, but it is also interesting to note what actually works in the collection of human intelligence, and to work how the reasons why violence sometimes happens (in the – naïve, I know – hope to be able to reduce it in the future).

Further reading:

Andrew, Christopher and Tobia, Simona, Interrogation in war and conflict. A comparative and interdisciplinary analysis (London, Routledge, 2014)

Cobain, Ian, Cruel Britannia. A secret history of torture (London, Portobello Books, 2012)

Hoare, Oliver, Camp 020. MI5 and the Nazi spies (Richmond, Public Record Office, 2000)

Jackson, Sophie, British interrogation techniques in the Second World War (Stroud, The History Press, 2012)