When I visited Picasso’s hometown Malaga in 2009, I was surprised by the discussion that greeted me. The public intellectuals of Malaga were still out there, arguing about Picasso’s complicity and collaboration with the Nazis. As a respectful art lover who knew peripherally about Picasso, and imagined him to be the greatest artist in the world, it surprised me these folks in his hometown seem to be focusing on his actions on ethical and moral grounds, rather than glorying in his artistic merits. But of course to the people of Malaga Picasso is a dude from their hometown who hacked out a large number of paintings (some of it pretty good), and on the side partied with the Nazis. For young people with clear moral boundaries, this still holds an unforgivable taint.
In Europe, people take the case of collaboration with fascist regimes seriously. This evening spent drinking coffee and hearing people still bitterly voicing their dissent of the famous man made me realize that “collaboration” was a serious charge, one that followed people no matter how far they fled (in Picasso’s case, to Paris), and one that didn’t escape them even after death. To read more about the French collaboration with the Nazis, go to this collection of articles from different newspapers.
This got me thinking about Nazi Germany, and all those photographs of people saluting Hitler. Clearly a lot of the population (if not all) were “collaborators” with the regime. What makes people follow an ideology like Hitler’s, that breaks all moral, ethical and humane norms? What makes people so cowed and afraid they can’t really speak out, even when they know terrible things are being done in their name, and with their tax support? And what makes a few of them “break rank” and speak out?
Democracy in “open societies” have often been the greatest violators of human rights—right up there with the regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. They have been brilliant at hiding the number of people they tortured and killed ,and history has been kind to them on many levels. But I often wonder what happens when the tide changes, and the mass scale of horrors come to light? Do these great regimes also come in front of a global trail like the Nuremberg Trial? Do they get treated with the same revulsion as those who preceded them? And when is that breaking point when people feel the full moral horror and stop collaborating?
In a capitalist time such as ours, “divestment” from the economy is often the most used tool to disengage and detach from countries with grave records of human rights and persecution of political opponents. If not on secular ethical grounds, then on religious moral grounds people stop engaging in trade, commerce, and social interactions with people who are clearly supporting regimes whose actions are unaccountable, whose scale of violations may go far beyond what can be imagined at the present time, and whose future strategies could include every form of control, domination, torture and terror known to mankind.
As in George Orwell’s time, clearly some things have to be discussed in metaphors. But I think people’s internal intelligence will tell them when the time has come to stop collaborating with regimes that may be the greatest threat to the human race’s moral integrity.