Killing millions from behind their desks

Jonathan Kirsch

THE WASHINGTON POST – When Dan Gretton, a British author, activist and teacher, looked out on the North Sea from the Suffolk coast on a grey day in the winter of 2006, a curious and provocative thought occurred to him.

“In that sea, there still exist, in minuscule particles, the pulverised stones of Spandau prison dumped into these waters after its last prisoner died,” he muses in the opening passage of I You We Them: Volume 1: Walking Into the World of the Desk Killer.

He recalls the decade of work that went into the research and writing of his book: “Ten years of visiting archives, walking through sites of extermination, reading interviews with survivors and perpetrators, and thousands of pages of testimony.”

The sheer scale of Gretton’s work speaks volumes – and I mean that literally – about the depth and breadth of his knowledge about what he calls “desk killers.”

At more than 1,000 pages, I You We Them is the first of a two-volume work, and each volume consists of two lengthy books. (He began writing in 2006, and the first volume was published in Britain in 2019.)

But the work looms so large because it is much more than a history of bureaucratic crime. Rather, Gretton has written himself deeply and intimately into the work, which also serves as a poignant memoir; a travelogue that leads the reader through time and space, history and memory; and an extended exercise in observation and introspection.

A walk through London, for example, turns out to be Gretton’s effort to trace the outline of the site where the old Bedlam lunatic asylum once stood. “There is so much that we still do not see,” he writes.

“There are so many connections that we have not yet begun to make. Although they lie in front of us; we pass them every day on our way to work, on our way home. Only on a rare day does something make us stop. And for some unfathomable reason, on this particular day, we look up and notice what we’ve never seen before.” Here is a glimpse of the restless imagination that drove Gretton to undertake and complete his daunting task.

But the rude beast that slouches across every page of I You We Them is the Holocaust. “Desk killer” – Schreibtischtaeter in German – immediately conjures up Adolf Eichmann, and Gretton traces the concept to Gideon Hausner, who served as prosecutor in Eichmann’s trial in 1961.

He acknowledges that the notion of a murderous bureaucrat is implied in Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, “the banality of evil,” but he also points out that it is now embedded in the popular culture, citing a lyric from Bob Dylan’s Masters of War as an example: “You that hide behind desks.”

The demons can be detected in a journal entry that a 23-year-old Gretton wrote about an excursion across Germany in 1987, two decades before he started working on I You Me Them. “We took off right, deeper into the pines. Soft, needled track with smaller pathways every now and then beckoning us away from the main one,” he writes. But the pastoral tone turns suddenly historical and then horrific: “The power of the film, Shoah, still so much with me – the recurring, silent sweeps of camera down pine tracks, to make this landscape so sinister. The muffling silence of the woods (as Phil Ochs once sang – ‘The fair trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes’). The way that Chełmno and Treblinka were buried deep in the forest – few people would ever hear the screams.”

When applied to the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general, the notion of the desk killer turns out to be a serviceable taxonomical tool. Albert Speer, for example, Hitler’s favourite architect and the man in charge of German armaments, “sought safety in abstraction – systems, statistics, problems,” as Gretton points out. “Although he was personable, even charming, this disguised an essential lacuna in him – an inability to fully understand the emotions of others, or indeed himself.”

When Speer visited a weapons factory where slave labourers were worked to death – “one of the very few times in the war when he was directly confronted with the human cost of his directives from Berlin” – he was unable to “look into the eyes of the slave labourers – his slave labourers.”

The contemporary counterparts of the desk killer, according to Gretton, can be found in the here and now.

“The reason I have been haunted by this concept for most of my adult life is not primarily because of events that happened 60 or 70 years ago – it is because the desk killers have always been with us, and today are more numerous than ever,” he insists.

“You can find people killing from their desks and their computers in the military, but also in the civil service. They might be in the oil industry, armaments, pharmaceuticals, but you can also find them in finance, insurance, politics or law. They rarely intend to kill, or injure, but their actions, combined with the vast and diffuse reach of government and contemporary corporate power, result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and devastated lives.”

Perhaps the most urgent point that Gretton seeks to make, and the one that elevates his book from a work of history and memoir to a manifesto, is that the example of desk killers in the Holocaust must be seen as a moral caution against complacency and complicity in our own lives and our own times.

“So what does it take to get through the invisible barriers we’ve put up around ourselves, the screens and the filters we protect ourselves with?” he wonders. “How do we start to break through the normalisation of extreme suffering in our world – the hundreds of bodies of human beings that wash up on Mediterranean beaches every year, the thousands mutilated by British weapons used in Yemen, the hundreds of thousands killed in the war in Syria that has now lasted longer than the Second World War?”

The question is not merely rhetorical. Gretton’s book provides an answer.