Alex had always found her intuition to be a reliable guide. Right now, it screamed, “Don’t sign!”
The third Hitler, My Hero lecture was going to be recorded, like the others. However, this week’s recording would capture the attendee’s faces. Those uncomfortable with this could decline to sign the waiver and opt out, but they would have to skip the entirety of the session.
Alex was tempted to use the waiver as an excuse. Not wanting herself to be recorded was a perfect escape. But with Christopher to her left and George on her right, she found herself averse to the idea of withholding consent and exiting.
In defiance of her inner voice, Alex authenticated the document and waited for the rest of the room to do the same.
“Today,” said James, after confirming all remaining in the room had given consent to be recorded, “we are going to examine the first of Herr Hitler’s two north stars: the Jewish problem.”
A candle of concern brightened within Alex. It had first sputtered to life when James told them of the need to be recorded. Now it began to flare.
“Nazi antisemitism had four variants,” said James. He raised his right fist and a finger shot up as he listed each one. “Traditional, völkisch, racial and eugenic.”
The fingers and the fist dropped and James began to walk. “‘Traditional’ antisemitism is a nod to the vast history of Jewish persecution.” He stopped. “Any Jews in the room?” Alex turned and watched a few hands rise. James directed his words to them. “A selective reading of the Bible depicts you as spawn of the Devil and bringers of darkness.” James’ voice thundered as his arms rose up, “‘He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them is you are not of God.’”
James dropped the godly authority and began to move once more. “‘Völkisch’ antisemitism possessed more nuance—not much, mind you. It was tailored to German culture. The Völk was an idealised population, a nation sharing a culture, a tongue and a spiritual bond with their homeland’s soil, especially the forest.
“Jews were not of the Völk. They were parasites, suckers of vital energy, and bearers of the symbols of industrialisation and modernisation, things which alienated the Völk from their history and severed the Völk’s ties with the soil. Nonsense, of course. For centuries, Jews were excluded from typical Völkisch jobs and as a result the majority lived in cities and did jobs antithetical to the Völkisch ideal.
“The above combined to yield a ‘racial’ antisemitism. The tenets of this view were simple: first, the Jew is of a particular, identifiable race, and second, that race is inferior to the Aryan.
“Theories of racial hierarchies developed in the late nineteenth century. Arthur de Gobineau, one of the intellectuals who advocated for them, suggested the people of the world could be divided into three races: blacks, yellows and whites.
“Blacks were the lowest, incapable of sophisticated organisation and concentrated action. Yellows were better, but they still lacked certain qualities and capacities that enabled them to be anything more than bourgeois barbarians. Whites were the superior race. They were courageous lovers of freedom and the source of civilisation throughout history.”
James paused and let a silence seep into the room. Alex watched his eyes flit about, sampling the waves of attention breaking upon him. Satisfied, he resumed.
“It gets better. Whilst the whites were acknowledged as superior, it was also acknowledged that only two subsets of the white race had managed to retain the purity of their blood: the Aryans and the Jews. The former via the continuation and protection of their noble and virtuous culture; the latter by unscrupulously accumulating wealth and influence and using it to decapitate any threats to their parasitic heritage.
“‘Racial’ antisemitism posited that, in a Darwinian world, the Übermenschen—the overmen—were fated to undertake the daseinkampf—the struggle for existence—and destroy the Üntermenschen—the inferior humans, a class which included the Jews.
“Last up, we have ‘eugenic’ antisemitism. The idea that through careful breeding a ‘good’ race of men and women will appear. Not to be confused with neo-eugenics—selection at the genetic level—eugenics encouraged those with the ‘right’ characteristics to reproduce and forbade those without—the Jews, amongst others—from doing so. This idea was the source of the legislation prohibiting ‘cross-breeding,’ and the jump-off point for persecution of other minorities and non-ideal populations.”
James changed tact and gave the room an exercise. They were to formulate counters to each of the four foundations.
“It is not enough to intuit opposition to these ideas,” said James. “We need more than gut-level aversion. We need explicit refutation. So, can somebody offer an antidote to ‘traditional’ antisemitism?”
Alex’s friends and their righteous campaigns came to mind. Much of their expenditure of energy had been a consequence of such “gut-level aversion”.
Another moment passed and Alex raised a hand. She was not the first to do so, but James selected her nonetheless.
“It’s an outdated historical trope,” said Alex, “like the notion of fate, or the idea that women aren’t equal or capable of surpassing men.”
James nodded. “‘Völkisch’ antisemitism?”
A voice from the back answered. “The concept of the Völk comes from our desire to esteem connection with the natural world.”
“‘Racial’ antisemitism?” asked James.
“Calling someone a Jew is a statement about religious belief and cultural inheritance,” said a student up front. “It has nothing to do with race.”
Linda answered. “A successful eugenics programme is not only a path to the loss of genetic diversity—and the creation of widespread vulnerability to mass extinction. It’s also a risk because there’s no accurate, objective means of determining which traits will or won’t be valuable in the near or far-future.”
James cycled through the four types a couple more times. To every refutation offered Alex nodded her head. At the same time, though, she wondered how easy it would be to nod when the rhetoric was ubiquitous and woven through the fabric of everything within immediate existence, as it was in Hitler’s Germany. To condemn from afar was easy. To condemn from within?
She refocused her eyes and ears on James, who had moved the session onward.
“These ideas weren’t unique to Hitler or the Third Reich,” said James. “They came before and will persist for as long as we are able to conjure false differences between ourselves and exaggerate real ones. What was unique was the fertility of the soil which these seeds found and the vivacity with which they were encouraged to grow.
“First, Jews made up less than one percent of the total German population in the early twentieth century. When the Nazis took power in 1933, the Jews numbered half a million amongst seventy million. Most resided around the main urban centres, which meant that a large part of the German populace had minimal contact with Jewish people. Instead of impeding antisemitism, this accelerated it.
“Absence increases respect and honour. The boss of a soaring company who’s never in the office and hard to reach is elevated because of his scarcity. His presence is rare, so he must be of great value. This applies to someone cast as an enemy too. Familiarity dispels fear. The staunchest anti-immigrants are those who live in insular, incestuous communities. ‘Better the devil you know.’ Which links to the second point.
“Antisemitism was a continuous, low-level hum. The sort of sound that is noticed when it first begins but is soon assimilated into the environment and normalised.
“Peasant farmer losing workers and revenue because of flights to the cities? Blame the Jews. Artisan cabinet-maker unable to compete with the knockdown prices of mass-produced factory furniture? Blame the Jews. Weakening of the German economy at large? Blame the Jews and their cabal of international finance.
“The Jews were the alleged cause of every ailment of modern German society. The Jews were the butt of every joke, the most reliable of caricatures if one was after a cheap laugh in a busy beer hall. They were responsible for the loss of the First World War. They were behind sluggish democracy and its consistent impotence and inadequacy in the face of crisis.
“When Ernst vom Rath was assassinated, the Jews revealed themselves as a threat to the very integrity of the Reich and they brought upon themselves the retribution of Kristallnacht. Powers from around the world convened at the Évian Conference to discuss the flight of the Jewish population from Germany. Yet sentiment did not translate into activity. Other countries expressed their sympathy but they did not throw open their arms, or their borders—the Jews were confirmed as a pitied but unwanted scourge.”
James’ oratory was building. Alex had seen shades of it before. His voice had not risen in volume but the range of his tone had expanded. His body oscillated between bouts of movement and stillness. His face began to mirror the intensity that hid behind his words. Intrigue and worry frothed to surface of Alex’s mind.
“In abstract,” said James, “it’s hard to appreciate how effective this relentless portrayal is. We humans are seduced by suggestion. We are creatures of pattern and from these patterns we craft narratives.
“Imagine someone who you always see in the presence of people of power and influence. You don’t know their name, nor their role, only that they are always there. How many times do you have to note their presence before you start believing that they possess the attributes they are often adjacent to?
“It’s also worth noting that the majority of citizens of 1930s Germany were lukewarm in their antisemitism, if not tepid. It was not, for most, a belief they would die in the name of. But that wasn’t an issue.
“An intolerant minority had usurped the reins of government. These usurpers lit the already dry and assembled tinder of the antisemitic bonfire and heaped gasoline upon it. Their conviction was contagious. And although a thing isn’t true because a person is willing to die for it, one’s willingness to take a life in the name of something is persuasive.”
Alex realised she’d been holding her breath. James was nearing the peak he sought; he remained silent, his body became still.
In the Bard’s Narrative Arts class they’d discussed where status came from. Collectively, the class had reasoned it came from the absence of anything inessential. Charisma was nothing more than a profound economy. This theory was vindicated in front of Alex’s eyes. In the quiet of the room, Alex’s pulse quickened. The cold current of her objectivity became polluted with hot flows of anticipatory emotion.
“These were the high level ideas,” said James, words now near inaudible, “the ones that the elite of the Nazi party held to. But on the ground, day-to-day, in practice, how did the Nazis, en masse, determine who was a Jew and who wasn’t? Lacking modern tools and modern methods, their racial discrimination could only be primitive. Laughable, if it didn’t have such sinister consequences.”
James raked his eyes over his audience. “First, they considered your actions: helping a Jew made you a Jew. Second, they considered your family: if your grandparents were Jews, so were you. Third, they considered your appearance.”
James began to stroll, like he were taking air in a park on a summer afternoon. He abandoned the oppressive intensity of the previous moments.
“We don’t have time to bus in plastic surgeons and give you all hook noses, dark tangled hair, scraggly beards and overlarge eyelids,” he said. “The basic caricature of Jewish physiognomy. But I can give you an example of the arbitrariness of Nazi racial sorting.”
James’ mellow tone, coupled with the idea of an example of racial sorting, chilled Alex to the bone. She wanted to leave the room—to flee—but James now mellowed further. Alex, a part of her cooing like a naive pup with unconditional trust in its new owner, stayed.
“You’re all aware of the Nazi concentration camps,” said James. “But what you may not know is that there were two types of camps: labour camps and death camps. The labour camps preceded the death camps, outnumbered them, and functioned as a way to imprison political prisoners and other enemies of the Nazi state. Their purpose was not destruction.
“The death camps, on the other hand, were a consequence of the genocide effort and are much more infamous. Though, contrary to popular belief, they did not spring from the minds of the Nazi elite fully formed.
“Gall’s Law states, ‘A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.’
“Early on, the Jews were socially ostracised and encouraged to flee. But still, late in the 30s, some remained. Something had to be done.
“It began with extermination via roaming bands of Einsatzgruppen—death squads. But this was inefficient and costly. The soldiers had to travel to towns and villages, gather the Jews up, lead them in groups into the forest, lie them down, walk down the line shooting men, women and children in the back of the head, and dump the bodies in hastily dug pits. The psychological cost to the psyches of the individual German soldiers, as well as the burden of millions of ‘useless mouths’ which couldn’t be exterminated quick enough, led to the Wannsee conference and the idea of the Final Solution.
“In the run up to the Wannsee conference, roaming gas wagons were trialled. Camouflaged as food and drink vendors, these vans were small, mobile and inconspicuous. But they too were inefficient. ‘Why not bring the Jews to centralised sites for gassing?’ asked Nazi officials. Thus came the birth of Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau.”
James put a question to the room. “How were the Jews, the Roma, the political threats to the Nazis, and the prisoners of war transported to these death camps?”
Luce spoke up from across the room. Her voice was flat and void of all, barring a hint of despair. “Cattle cars,” she said.
“Cattle cars,” said James, letting the words roll off his tongue like he were a sommelier sampling a fine vintage. “For those with only an acute awareness of the conditions of transportation, I will now provide a description.”
James weaved to the middle of the room and squatted onto his heels. He spoke with deliberation, like a scout leader by a fire telling his troop a ghost story. A member of the production team, whose cameras had so far remained stationary, repositioned himself. People leaned this way and that to keep James in sight. His voice, sharp and definite, punctured the thick skin of silence around him.
“Imagine a freight train composed of thirty to forty box cars,” said James. “Those thirty or forty box cars contain five to six thousand people. Between one hundred and one hundred and fifty men, women and children crammed into a space measuring ten foot by thirty foot.
“The boxcars have no beds, no chairs, no tables, and no latrine or toilet. There is only a bucket for all the passengers to share. There is hardly room to stand, yet alone sit or lie down.
“The boxcars have only one or two windows. These are barred. There is zero ventilation. Just thick, cloying air, perfumed with the scent of human suffering.
“The people stuffed in the boxcars travelled for two to four days without food or water. The old, the ill and the weak died en route. The living were not allowed to remove the bodies.
“Now imagine these boxcars, these wagons of death and despair, sidling up to an extermination camp. Nazi officers sling open the sliding doors but have to step back to avoid the rotting dead that tumble out and into the dirt. To exit the boxcars, the emancipated bodies of the still-living have to clamber over them.”
Until this point, James had accompanied the description with furtive glances around the room. Now his head became immobile. His chin dropped to his chest and his eyes fixated upon a point on the floor. Alex had a clear view of his face. It was pale and slack, ghoulish. To her, James looked like a person forced to relive a trauma.
“They are hustled down a path,” said James, “beaten and kicked and chastised along the way, and told to form a line. At the head of the line is a group of SS officers. When a person or gaggle of people made it to the front, the SS would make the call.
“Imagine a multi-generation family survives the transit and appears in front of the officers—a grandma and grandpa, a father, a mother, a baby girl and a teenage boy. The SS looks at them. Their clothes, their faces, their bodily condition, their spirit. They take names, ask questions, and cross-check answers with official records.
“The SS motion for the boy and his father to go one way. They send the rest the other. The family don’t know that this rupture is eternal. But the SS do, and it pleases them.
“The SS know that the boy and his father will labour in service of the Reich until they expire. The SS also know that the others are too weak to do so. They know they are a burden on the Reich and a pollutant of future generations. Inside, and often out, they laugh because they know the weak are to be exterminated now and the strong are to be exterminated later.”
James uncurled from his squat like a widow rising from the foot of her young husband’s grave. She saw him look at the cameras for a second, then he began to eyeball the faces around him. Alex looked to the ground, but she heard his words.
“You all understand this conceptually,” he said. “I sense it in your faces, see it in your bodies, taste it in the atmosphere of this room. You know the horror. But I want you to feel it.” Alex looked up. James eyes surveyed the room once more, holding on Alex’s for a second before moving on. “I want you to experience an infinitesimal part of the injustice.”
Alex did not dare breathe.
James headed to the front of the room and turned to face his audience. “Everyone, put a hand in the air.”
After a pause, hands began to float upwards.
“Okay,” said James. “Jessica, Demi, Luke, Owen. You were the first to raise your hands. Join me up here. The rest of you use the tables and chairs to create a narrow corridor down the middle of the room, beginning at the back there and ending in front of me.”
Alex didn’t voice the dissent that had begun to bubble. She couldn’t. The budding outrage numbed the possibility of fight or flight, leaving her to freeze as the noise of chairs moving and people getting into position entered her ears.
Once the room was set and the production team had adjusted, James ended his conference with the volunteers and took up position at the mouth of the corridor. The three students and single staff member now wore battered black hats and possessed short, stubby wooden sticks. James issued further instructions.
“All of you,” he said, iron in his voice, “group yourselves at the end of the room, at the mouth of the corridor.”
Alex was shuffled by the crowd to the rear.
“You will proceed, one by one, down the centre.” James gestured to his hat wearing, stick wielding companions. “We will sort you.”
James turned to his own cadre and offered a few more whispers, leaving the larger group to murmur in uncertainty. Alex clung close to Christopher, but said nothing to him or anyone else. She watched James converse at the end of the corridor, and watched the now-mobile cameras record the lead-up to what Alex assumed would be a degradation.
Little time passed before James announced to the group, “I have a request: please remember the conditions of the journey you have endured. They are not conducive to the defiance, courage or heroism some of you are preparing.”
All extraneous noise leaked from the room. James turned and nodded to two of the volunteers. They walked the corridor and flanked the person at the head of the larger group. It was Marcel. The aristocratic air which Alex was so familiar with had vanished.
James beckoned the trio forward and as they walked, the guards on either side of Marcel whispered, chanted and giggled in his ear. The trio reached the end of the corridor. Marcel’s escort stepped back and away, leaving Marcel stranded, three feet from James, with his head hung and arms limp at his side. James took a step closer and spoke in Marcel’s face. The words sounded Germanic but they came in too fast and loud a torrent for Alex to untangle. Marcel, dazed and unsure what was required of him, remained still.
James, with the two other guards loitering over each of his shoulders, moved closer, almost nose to nose. Again he repeated the sentence, but louder, close to a scream. Alex jerked at the sound and at the spittle that leapt from James’ mouth onto Marcel’s face. Marcel didn’t move or respond.
James stepped back and flicked his head to the right. The right-hand guard came forward, grabbed Marcel’s arm and led him away, jeering and mumbling and babbling the whole time. When Marcel and his guard reached the corner of the room, the guard pointed to the floor and repeated the same word multiple times: platz. Marcel crouched. The guard repeated the word with more vehemence. Marcel lay on the ground and the guard, after one last contemptuous look at the prone subject, rejoined James.
An imprisoned scarecrow, Alex watched James sort the group. Her fingers and toes tingled, her feet and arms itched, presenting wordless arguments in favour of escape and evasion. Yet like the attendants at Évian, the signs were acknowledged but not acted on.
To some, James made incomprehensible noise before dispatching them to the left or right. To others, he spoke in sweet, enunciated English, asking questions and considering answers before deciding where they were to go. A few times, he didn’t speak at all. He just prodded, lifted an arm or turned a head. Once or twice, he held the person in suspense, muttering, shouting, pointing, guffawing. In one instance, James spat at his victim’s feet.
Alex was one of the last to be sorted. She had faded to the back of the group, but as the group thinned her hiding space ran out. She was beckoned.
Alex strode the corridor, fighting to disregard the noise from the guards at her side and hoping for a swift dispatch. In violation of James’ advice she had opted not to flinch. She’d chosen to stand tall, to disrupt this ridiculous, vengeful game. Alex halted in front of James and stabbed him with her eyes.
James stared right back, demonic grin on his lips and devilish twinkle in his eyes. For a minute, he said nothing. For another minute, he did nothing, except look. It took almost all of Alex’s resolve, but she managed to hold.
James stepped close. His face was an inch from hers. Still demonic, he lowered his head and scanned her body, up and down, once then twice, a scowl upon his face. James re-initiated their eye contact. The scowl had morphed into an abyssal leer.
Alex hadn’t moved. She focused on the bridge of his nose to avoid his eyes and maintain the illusion of contact.
James circled her, his shoulders brushing Alex’s as he wound around. On the third circuit, he stopped behind her. James expelled his breath onto her neck. Alex’s skin and everything underneath it curdled as the exhalations became shorter, came closer and increased in their disgusting warmth and intensity. Alex didn’t move—she couldn’t—for she knew that the only option equivalent to this violation was violence.
Not soon enough, James ended his torture and faced his captive. Alex did not permit her head to drop. He whispered something that she couldn’t understand. He whispered it again and laughed to himself, before motioning her to his left.
Alex, guided by the guard, stepped past and made to join the others, all of whom were face down upon the floor, inert. The guard blocked her way. Alex was led to a separate space and compelled to lie on the ground, alone.
The effect of James’ demonstration upon the BAIL cohort was diverse. Some of those present—Christopher included—shrugged off the demonstration once out of the confines of the class. The three volunteers who’d assisted James carried on as if nothing amiss had taken place. Others talked of it as a semi-religious experience, a passing through a profound gate of their life’s journey—George didn’t state he was a part of this group, but Alex guessed he was. Others—Alex one of them—spoke of boundaries and their defilement.
Online, the reaction was visceral. Alex didn’t share the raw livestream with her friends from home but they soon saw the edited version. Fragments of the third Hitler, My Hero lecture spread rapidly once released. The sorting in particular had proved susceptible to meme creation.
Alex’s friends were incensed when they saw how James treated her, but they were more enraged when they realised Alex hadn’t shared the livestream with them in advance, as usual, due to some sort of shame or embarrassment. Alex’s reassurances that she was fine, both physically and mentally, and her denial of shame and embarrassment only seemed to multiply the concern they felt for her.
The production team’s camera work didn’t help either. They had made a deliberate effort to capture the effect of the sorting. They’d homed in on faces and the resulting cinematography was intense and bleak. Alex’s friends claimed they could see the hurt and the fear on Alex’s face as James examined her, and they swore to act on her behalf, despite Alex’s half-hearted protests.
They put out a call to Voice of the Silent without her knowledge. When they told her of its near-immediate acceptance, and the funds which began to accrue, Alex couldn’t deny that she was pleased. If anything, the acceptance and popularity of the contract were validation of the opposition she harboured but refused to loose.
Yet, this vindication also robbed her of an obvious and easy course of action. Her friends, who had executed her will on her behalf, had left her feeling impotent. She said as much to Christopher—though she neglected to mention VOS’ engagement. His response was an easy chuckle and a question: “Why don’t you talk to James?” Clearly, he didn’t get it.
The following week, James’ virtual platform flooded with interaction. Mary’s office also saw unprecedented traffic: Alex, instead of confronting James, chose to visit her. As did several other students. Whilst they complained about the race lecture, its poor taste and its inappropriateness, Alex took issue with the violation of personal space during the demo. To her, the closeness—the poking, the prodding and the manipulation—seemed extravagant, even given the context.
Mary’s response was rote. James had notified her in advance of the demonstration, and while she was sympathetic to their complaints and would inform James of their nature, she also believed it was important. Wasn’t it James’ aim to make them feel an ‘infinitesimal part of the injustice’ the Jews felt? Wasn’t their presence in her office an ode to his success?
The other students, judging by the inaction all around, were cowed by Mary’s pre-prepared arguments. Alex wasn’t. She was convinced that her own complaint was justified.
They had entered BAIL in search of a unique experience, but there were limits to which that experience could diverge from normal schooling. Would James, if seeking to teach students about the nature of physical pain, be permitted to slap and kick them? No. Alex was right. The problem was what to do about it.
Over the weekend, Alex talked it through with Christopher and George. Christopher advised a dissociated stance. He admitted that James might have gone too far, but he claimed the overreach was a result of James’ attempt to gift experience to his students.
George was more calculated. In combination with the book James had given to Christopher in the library, George suspected a darker intent. Alex, still withholding knowledge of VOS’ campaign against James, listened to George counsel retaliation. “I’ll think about it,” she said, after he’d urged her to invoke VOS.
In her own mind, Alex felt like abandoning the rest of the series. The associated hassle was inessential in comparison to what else she could be working on.
However, the indifferent Christopher, the devotee George, and her polarised friends had urged her not back down in the face of James’ antics. All felt it important she continue to attend. Christopher cited the potential experience, George cited the strategic nature of the game, and her friends cited the need for an insider at BAIL.
Looking around the room minutes before the fourth Hitler, My Hero session was due to start, Alex realised why she had been persuaded by their advice: outrage and infamy offered quite the allure. Of all those that had complained, not one had begun a boycott of the series, James or BAIL itself.
Alex, feeling like her strings had been pulled, regarded James with more than a little distrust as he began the session.
“Last week,” said James, looking more smug than usual, “we examined the topic of race through the prism of the Jewish question, the first of Hitler’s two north stars. This week we’re going to peak at Nazi military doctrine and touch on the second star. Hitler’s quest for lebenstraum, living space in the east.”
The tension in Alex’s shoulders and neck eased. Aside from giving the audience firearms, she saw no way for this lecture to be worse than the last.
“Hitler and his Reich did many things,” said James. “They disrupted politics, manipulated culture, and weren’t far off complete genocide. Another thing the Nazis are remembered for is the Blitzkrieg, the herald of the modern age of warfare.”
James paused. “In the lecture folder, you’ll see a grid outlining the four generations of warfare and their features.
“First-gen warfare was about absolute manpower: could the totality of the Greek forces defeat the totality of the Persian forces on the plain of Marathon? Second-gen warfare was about relative manpower. Jump forward in time to the second Persian invasion of Greece, when a minimal Greek coalition held the pass of Thermopylae for over three days. Third-gen warfare was about manoeuvring military units in a dynamic manner to create surprise and unleash panic. Fourth-gen warfare focuses on systems disruption and asymmetric attacks—primitive attacks that bring down complex infrastructure, and so on.”
James, session introduced, now began to pace.
“Also note that, despite the historical examples, particular aspects of the earlier generations of warfare haven’t ended and are not confined to specific historical periods. The Greeks holding the pass at Thermopylae was an example of second-gen warfare. As was the American Civil War and the First World War.
“Similarly, elements of fourth-gen warfare have been present throughout history. What else would you call it when a scheming civil servant purchases a contract that initiates a conflict aimed at inciting the populace to dethrone a despotic ruler?
“Back to the Nazis, though. To understand what third-generation warfare is, it is best to consider a few concrete examples and create abstractions from them. You should now have access to four looped graphics in the lecture folder.”
James gave the class time to consider them. Each was set up in the same way: a timeline at the bottom, a single sentence of text above it, and above that a cartographic view of a conflict which evolved with each progression.
“There are,” began James again, “similarities between Guderian’s Blitzkrieg, Rommel’s North African trail-blaze, the first half of the Russian penetration and the desperate shunt through the Ardennes. They are?”
Alex said nothing. War was a boy’s game. Soldiers, tanks, ships and planes were, to her, the playthings of infantile men who preferred the simplistic nature of a battlefield.
Alex looked about. She watched Christopher blitz through multiple documents, pages and links on his tablet. Having found what he was looking for, he raised his hand. James acknowledged him.
“An emphasis on psychological dislocation and the continued exploitation of that dislocation,” said Christopher.
James smiled and said, “Thank you, Basil. The others? Speed, technology and improvisation; small unit size, manoeuvrability and unpredictability; autonomy; identification of and exploitation of asymmetries. These are all features of third-generation warfare—manoeuvre warfare—as practised by the Nazis, and others. Can anyone give me an example from one of their campaigns where these elements were absent? What effect did it have?”
George, after aping Christopher’s actions of a moment ago, raised his hand. “Hitler let the Brits off. He let Guderian chase them to Dunkirk, but then he retracted the Panzer group’s initiative and stalled. Not only did he let the British and French forces escape, he gave them empowering propaganda”
“Hitler,” said James, tipping his head to George, “profited by relinquishing direct control of the invasion of France. But he lost his nerve just as he was about to take the prize that could have meant the complete conquering of Europe. One more example?”
George continued. “Being stuck just out of range of Moscow in the winter?”
James nodded once more. “A six-week delay to the start of Operation Barbarossa meant that the Nazi’s momentum was extinguished before they could enter the bastion of Moscow. It’s debatable how detrimental that would have been to the Russians, most of whom would have rather seen Moscow burn that in German hands, but it’s worth considering.”
James returned to the head of the room and planted his feet.
“The Nazis were stellar third-gen practitioners. But they never leaped further into the future, into the fourth-generation of conflict.
“Fourth-gen conflict is characterised by the dissolution of categories. Before its onset, the military were kept separate from the civilians. Now, everyone is enlisted. Politicians, generals, fighter pilots, factory workers, housewives, students—everyone is, in some way, a combatant. Every person is capable of being a pawn, a knight, a king or a queen.
“Fourth-gen warfare,” said James, “is further differentiated from the other generations by its chaotic and complex nature, its longevity, it’s emphasis on decentralised command and co-ordination, its ad-hoc use of any and all technological sources in pursuit of severe asymmetrical effects, and its ability to defy the bounds of traditional morality and virtue.”
Alex’s attention jerked back to life. This sounded more like the realm of conflict she was drawn to, and the realm which the generation she was a part of would have to learn to navigate, both now and in the future.
“To see what this looks like in practice, we only need to look around us,” said James. “All of you here are combatants in one way or another. If you look at the final document now available to you all, you’ll see what I mean.”
Alex navigated to the lecture folder and opened it up. It was a grid, entitled Patterns of Full-Stack Conflict. The columns were labelled: individual, pack, troop, tribe and imagined community. These were further cast as ‘losers’. The rows were similarly labelled but cast as ‘winners.’
“These are some examples of conflict,” said James. “The range spans the generations of warfare, but the reason I’m sharing it with you all is I want you to see how varied conflict can be. And how ubiquitous it is. I also want to make a point.”
Alex looked up from the grid. James eyes’ darted away from her.
“One of the squares,” said James, “lists an individual ‘winning’ against an imagined community and calls it ‘lone wolf terror’. I need not explain that. But consider that an individual can engage in prolonged conflict with an imagined community, or even a tribe. An individual can post antisemitic content dressed up in the garb of history or anthropology. A subculture can mobilise against what it sees as a toxic mass culture, or vice versa. You students could choose to rebel against the fact that the generations holding the reins will not live to see the consequences of their steering.”
James’ voice dropped in volume.
“Each of these types of conflicts is easy to grasp. Taken one-by-one they are comprehensible, understandable, predictable. But what makes fourth-gen warfare in the fourth-world—a world whose fundamental institutions are decaying, like ours— interesting is its unpredictability.”
James smiled and began to walk from left to right.
“Individual against individual; troop versus tribe; pack opposing imagined community. All these levels of conflict are happening all the time, everywhere, and the state of our society is tied to the progress of every single one of them. The smallest conflict between the most insignificant parties is one that can turn out to have the most cataclysmic effect. In a sense, the local-global dichotomy dissolves. All conflicts are local in nature but global in salience.”
Alex’s attention, after re-engaging, had not slipped. She didn’t have the time to unravel it now, but she sensed that what James was talking of could help her when it came to combating modern trends she saw as dangerous. There was substance here she looked forward to digesting with her friends.
“The result of all this,” said James, “is empowerment. In such an environment, we are all faced not with the choice of fighting or not fighting, but of how we are going to engage.”
James eyes traversed the room but again they seemed to spend a moment longer on Alex than anyone else.
“The traditional choice is ‘voice or exit’. You can leave. Quit the landscape. For example, many Jews in 1930s Germany sensed disaster and fled. But now? The world is small. There is nowhere you can run where conflict will not touch you. Which means exit is a tactical manoeuvre. It’s the repositioning of a piece on the chessboard, not checkmate. It does not end yours or anyone else’s conflict. It just transforms it. And there is a moral concern with flight—if the strong, averse to conflict, flee, what happens to the weak who remain?
“Another option is voice. You can stand, speak your defiance, announce your outrage. But what use is a word? Will a word stop a bullet? Will it turn the tip of a blade? Will it extinguish a flame? Will it protect a family member, a friend or a stranger who is on the other side of town, or thousands of miles away?”
James let the question linger, let all examine the obvious answer.
“In a civilised, democratic society, perhaps it would. But outside of such a domain, the word is a dull instrument. Something else is required. This is where our duo becomes a trio.”
James scanned the room before speaking. “You cannot exit and your voice will not be heard, and if it is it won’t be listened to.” James focused on Alex. “What option remains?”
A small part of her panicked, wondering why she had been asked the question. A larger part of her overrode the concern and encouraged her to provide the answer.
“Action,” said Alex.
James smiled and gave her the smallest of winks.
“Voice or exit,” said James. “were the options of the past. Now, our only option is to act.”
James nodded to himself, as if reaffirming the idea. He then swept into the midst of the class and dragged them back in time, to Hitler’s early foreign conquests, and explained how the Fuhrer acted whilst other powers sought to avoid conflict or denounce it.
Later that evening, Alex was sat in the residence’s living room. Christopher was on the sofa next to her. George was opposite. She had checked in with her friends, and checked up on the progress of the VOS campaign. The latter was ticking along but it hadn’t had any discernible effect on James, either offline or online. It’s like VOS were creating dark clouds and spewing raindrops but James was indoors, dry and warm and content.
Alex thought of James’ insistence on action, and his wink. The fourth lecture seemed like an attempt to radicalise the audience and goad them into action. But Alex also felt that James had singled her out, sent her a personal message. Was he daring her to act? She wanted to, certainly. But what was there left to do?
Alex omitted a loud sigh. Both Christopher and George looked to her.
“We know James knows about VOS, right?” said Alex.
Neither of the boys said a word.
“Do you think he knows they’re active against him?” she asked.
Christopher responded. “But they’re not—”
“They kind of are,” admitted Alex. “I didn’t do it. My friends saw what happened to me in the third lecture, got angry, and contracted them.”
Christopher continued to look at her, confused. George looked at her too, but there was a crease on his forehead, like he was working out a puzzle.
“When?” he asked.
“Last week,” said Alex.
“I thought so,” he said, without further explanation. “Yes, I think he knows about VOS. Why’d you ask?”
Alex paused. She glanced around to make sure the room was empty, except for the boys.
“It feels like—” she said. She tried again, quieter this time. “It feels like James is singling me out.”
As she said the words she watched for hints of reaction on their faces. There was no scorn or amusement, only a softening.
Christopher made the same suggestion as before.
“Talk to him,” he said. “Tell him to stop. Be honest.”
“You’re so naive,” said George. “That won’t work.” He turned to Alex and addressed her. “You’re interpreting James’ attention as a problem. Assuming that he thinks you’re a weak link. What if he’s only singling you out because you’re the strongest?”
Alex paused, pleased that neither questioned whether or not James was focusing on her more than others. Then she laughed.
“Now who’s naive, George?” she said. “Besides, if he did think that—which he doesn’t—then wouldn’t he expect me to handle the situation as he described. To fight back?”
“But VOS are already involved,” said Christopher, “and James knows about them. So what can you do?”
“Is there a way you could add weight to the campaign?” asked George.
Alex hesitated. An idea had come to mind but she was uncertain whether she wanted to pursue it.
George continued. “Say James is expecting you to come after him in some way. You can’t talk to Mary—she’s fair but she won’t turn on him to that extent. And you can’t speak to him one-to-one without losing ground—toe-to-toe is not a good idea. I guess you don’t want to leave BAIL?”
“No,” said Alex, which was half-true.
“That settles it then,” said George. He leaned forward, dark grin on his face, conspiratorial mode engaged. “James wants to trade blows. So set the rules of engagement. Control the tempo. Make it asymmetric, like he talked about today. Strike hard, fast, close and with surprise.”
Christopher questioned George’s advice. “That sounds like fighting dirty to me.”
George turned to him. “This isn’t a fight.”
Alex responded with her own question: “What’s more important: the means or the ends?”
Simultaneously, George said, “The ends,” and Christopher said, “The means.”
Alex focused on Christopher as she spoke. “James talked about fourth-gen warfare and how it shifts the boundaries of morality and virtue. Losers fight fair and their concerns get swept into the abyss of history. I don’t want to be a loser.”
“So what—” asked Christopher as Alex stood up.
“—am I going to do?” finished Alex. The decision was made. “Act.”
George looked at her, a glint in his eye. His voice was flat, serious. “Do you have any idea how far this can go?”
Alex batted away George and Christopher’s concern, as well as her own. “James has wrapped a fortress around himself. He’ll be okay, no matter what I do.”
Alex began to rush from the room.
Christopher’s words rang out. “Alex, there’s only two Hitler, My Hero sessions left. That’s two weeks. It’s not enough.”
Alex turned to face them and paired a shrug with a smile.
“You haven’t studied network dynamics have you? Strong incentives plus imminent deadlines can be explosive.”
Alex darted from the room, leaving Christopher and George to wonder what it was she was going to do.
As she climbed the stairs, Alex let the energy invade her. The day had been long but the thought of doing something, of opposing action with action, was invigorating.
There already existed numerous hot-takes on the third Hitler, My Hero lecture. Alex and her friends weren’t going to make any more. Instead, they were going to splash the existing memes, GIFs, articles and commentaries with the colours of psychological abuse.
Using Alex’s treatment at the sorting as a foundation, they were going to imply that James was a predator. They were going to gather the threads of every negative rumour concerning him and fold them into a tapestry that, at best, annihilated the mostly clean reputation he’d accumulated over the years. At worst, it would cast clouds of doubt above his haloed horns. The end result would be the sort of thing that had spurred a younger Alex, and others like her, to protest and coordinate.
Late into the night, Alex and her friends sowed seeds and created an air of depravity and fear around James Barker and BAIL. At times, she felt stabs of guilt and apprehension at what her clique were doing, but she learnt to ignore them, to tag them as manifestations of the desire to say nothing, to do nothing, to be nothing.
After evaluating their collective handiwork in the early hours of the morning, Alex felt a deep satisfaction. It was a more luxurious, layered pleasure than the one she’d found whilst crafting Henrik’s blocks of wood. The blocks, no matter what one did to them, were destined to remain lifeless and dumb. What Alex and her friends had created during the night had the power to grow on its own.