Over the last few years, there has been a boom in Young Adult dystopian fiction. The most notable is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, a trilogy of novels set in a post-apocalyptic North America.
Of course, dystopian fiction has been around for a long time. Two of the most famous novels are Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949), and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953). But this idea of a futuristic dystopia is new to most teenagers. For them it’s escapist fiction. They probably don’t realise that in relatively recent history the world experienced the reality of just such a nightmarish dystopian world. For those living in German-occupied countries during World War II, it was a lived reality.
A dystopian society is one characterised by human misery, oppression, poverty and violence. Propaganda is used as a means of control. Information, independent thought and freedom are restricted. Citizens are perceived to be under constant surveillance. Individuality and dissent are repressed. Measures of social control are often taken to horrific extremes. These were the conditions that existed in the German-occupied countries of Western Europe, Poland, and the Baltic States.
In many ways it was a situation without precedent. The Germans hadn’t simply invaded, looted, and then gone home. They had a Weltanschauung – a world view. An ideology that they wished to impose on everybody else. And the first principle of that ideology was the superiority of the German race. They made no secret of the fact that they intended to impose a racial hierarchy that downgraded all non-Aryans into lower categories. Those they considered to be racially impure, like the Jews, the Slavs and the Gypsies, had to be driven out.
In Poland and the Baltic States, extreme brutality and persecution of the Jews was immediate. In Latvia, almost the entire Jewish population of 70,000 was wiped out in the first five months. But when it came to countries like France, the Germans initially acted with a certain amount of restraint. Propaganda posters appeared everywhere: “We come as protectors, not as conquerors.”
It was not long, however, before a series of discriminatory laws against the Jews were enacted. By 1942, the full force of repressive measures had become evident. Every necessity of daily life was rationed. Many people were barely managing to exist on the meagre food rations, cut to almost twelve hundred calories per day. Citizens were subjected to curfews, censorship, curtailment of liberty, and fear of arbitrary arrest. Young men were taken off the streets and sent to Germany to work as slave labourers. The mass arrests of Jews had begun. They were interned in Drancy and then transported to Auschwitz.
For any Resistance attack against the German Army, large numbers of hostages were taken and summarily executed. A notice was published In the Pariser Zeitung of 16 July 1942:
The nearest male relatives, brothers-in-law and cousins of trouble-makers above the age of eighteen will be shot.
All female relatives of the same degree of kinship will be condemned to forced labour.
Children of less than eighteen-years-old of all of the above-mentioned persons will be placed in reform schools.
Any Resistance member arrested was subjected to brutal interrogation and torture. If they survived that, it was a one-way ticket to a concentration camp.
In November, 1942, SS Untersturmführer Klaus Barbie became the Gestapo chief for Lyon. His instructions were to crush the entrenched Resistance groups, recruit double agents, and rid Lyon of its Jews, Communists and Freemasons. Klaus Barbie carried out his task with such ruthless determination and unsurpassed brutality that he became infamous as the ‘Butcher of Lyon.’
Gestapo. A single word that has come to symbolise the horror of that dystopian world. While the present generation may not be aware of the historical details of that period, that one word has remained in the lexicon. Never in any country, or in any period of history, has such an organization held such power, or attained such ‘perfection’ in efficiency in carrying out its reign of terror. Its instruments of torture have never been equalled for cold-blooded sadism. It will remain forever in human memory as the ultimate example of an instrument of the State used to terrorize and control entire populations.
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