“Barbed Wire: A Political History” by Olivier Razac

Here's how a simple twist of spiked metal ravaged the American West, crucified a generation of young men and terrorized millions of Europeans.

Topics: Books,

In a world jampacked with stuff for the body, house, car, government or corporation, one can only survive through selective awareness. Paying full and serious intellectual attention to everything from the microwave to the beer-can cozy simply isn’t possible. Just imagine how hard it would be to get anything done at work if you couldn’t type without ruminating on the letter arrangement of the modern keyboard. Why is the “P,” a relatively popular letter, so hard to reach? Who decided that the “I” didn’t belong between “H” and “J”? Was it always this way? (As a matter of fact it was. Early keyboards were designed to slow down typists, whose fingers moved so fast they jammed the mechanisms of the old manual typewriters.)

These are just a few of the questions that would get you fired if you couldn’t survive without having them answered. And yet, to completely forget how we have shaped and been affected by the various things that surround us amounts to ignorance. Many of the modern products we regularly overlook — plastic trash bags, to take a more trivial example — have dramatically altered the nature of our society. They are parts of the honeycomb we’ve built to make life easier, cleaner or better-looking. Because they envelop and reflect us, they deserve to be analyzed and discussed.

Seinfeld’s writers understood this. Authors and book publishers have also made a habit of identifying significant items and holding them up to the light of intelligent study. In the past few years alone, air conditioning, wristwatches, guns, steel and even the color mauve have all been subjected to literary scrutiny.

Now, barbed wire can be added to the list. Olivier Razac, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Paris, has written a short history of the metal fencing and how it’s been used through three periods: the settling of the American prairie at the turn of the 19th century, World War I and World War II, specifically in concentration camps. The result — “Barbed Wire: A Political History” — may fall short of a complete and thorough exegesis on all things wiry and barbed. In fact, Razac’s slim, often repetitive book will leave the curious hungry for more. But with its pictures, quotes from primary sources and expansive prose, “Barbed Wire” offers more than enough insight to be worthy of a focused read.

Razac’s primary goal is to prove that barbed wire has been used repeatedly for “the political management of space.” He points out that barbed wire began in the world of agriculture. J.F. Glidden, an Illinois farmer, patented the design — a pair of metal wires twisted to hold a barb in place — in 1874 as a means of keeping wild animals from private land. But barbed wire was also far cheaper than other forms of fence and it hit the market just as American settlers fanned out across the great plains.

Thus, it became the boundary enforcer of choice, the fence that appeared in places that had otherwise been left unmarked. Steel makers benefited substantially: About 270 tons of barbed wire were produced in 1875; by 1901, that number had shot up to 135,000 tons. The problem, of course, was that the newly cordoned-off lands were not unoccupied. Native American tribes had been roaming the plains for generations — and they had no reverence for the private ownership that barbed wire protected. To them, the spiked metal barrier was not a new fancy fence but rather a tool of subjugation. It was a cultural weapon that single-handedly altered their daily existence. The buffalo and bison that they hunted no longer had the same freedom to roam; the tribes no longer had the same freedom to hunt.

Most Native Americans decided to flee barbed wire rather than fight its spread, but eventually they had nowhere to go. Barbed wire dominated the once-open landscape, surrounded tribal areas and eventually destroyed the communal nature of their society. “In short,” Razac argues, “it created the conditions for the physical and cultural disappearance of the Indian.”

Historians might want to point out that other factors did far more damage to Native American life than barbed wire. Guns, greedy settlers and the ignorant Manifest Destiny belief that white Europeans deserved the land from coast to coast — these all significantly contributed to the Native American “disappearance,” though you wouldn’t know it from reading “Barbed Wire.” Still, Razac is correct to point out that barbed wire severely affected Native American life.

He’s also correct to note that this wasn’t the last time that barbed wire became an implement of war. During World War I, for example, barbed wire became as common as the trenches it protected. With up to 19 barbs per meter as opposed to the seven spikes found on Glidden’s design, the wartime wire tended to be more dangerous. It was an ideal form of defense — invisible from afar, immune to artillery, easily fixed or replaced — and every army made wide use of it. But barbed wire also created new kinds of casualties and psychological harms. People who died in barbed wire near the trenches often remained there as immobile, pungent symbols of war. They became “fish in a net,” Razac points out, and for many soldiers, the sight of such corpses was just too much. They often risked their lives to unhook a dead comrade.

But the most telling example of barbed wire’s violent political uses and effects came in World War II. The Nazis made barbed wire a staple of their cold, cruel organization. It appeared in the cities that they conquered as a way to manage and ghettoize the defeated, and in concentration camps. Indeed, these ghastly cities of death couldn’t have existed without barbed wire. At Buchenwald and other camps, the fences were the first structure built and the most vital, Razac reports. They separated women from men, Jews from other prisoners — and everyone inside from the Nazi officers and outside world. It was an electrified “burning frontier,” as one prisoner put it, which acted a constant, horrible reminder of Nazi power. “Everywhere was the sinister tight iron grip,” wrote Primo Levi, who Razac quotes at length. “We never saw where the barbed wire fences ended, but we felt their malign presence which separated us from the world.”

Because the Nazis made such strong use of barbed wire, Razac argues, it has become “the symbol of the worst catastrophe of the century.” A picture of barbed wire alone conjures up images of extreme captivity and pain. Those who live behind barbed wire know that they are somehow less than human; beasts who are to be worked, removed or slaughtered. More than any other barrier, Razac writes “[barbed wire] has become a graphic symbol for incarceration and political violence.”

It’s hard to disagree with such an assertion. Who hasn’t seen barbed wire and been afraid of what lies behind it? But where Razac goes wrong is in assuming that this was purely the result of his three chosen examples. Even if barbed wire had nothing to do with the Native American diaspora or World War I, and even if the Nazis never used it for concentration camps, barbed wire would still symbolize a loss of freedom. This is because it’s so ubiquitous. Traditional prisons have been using barbed wire for generations. Old factories and anything else with “No Trespassing” signs are also fenced off with gobs of tangled barbed wire. At this point, the public’s association with barbed wire is more closely aligned with a clear and present physical or legal danger than with an old form of political or wartime violence.

And yet, this conventional association is exactly why “Barbed Wire” is a fascinating read. Sure, there are serious flaws. Razac spends far too much time emphasizing the psychological effects of barbed wire and not nearly enough time showing how it has spread and developed. His prose tends to be too academic and the chapter linking barbed wire to today’s more modern forms of virtual surveillance is an unwarranted stretch that should have been avoided. But Razac’s book ultimately succeeds because it manages to cast barbed wire in an entirely new light. By reminding us all that barbed wire has been used as a political force, Razac has made an old item new. No one who reads “Barbed Wire” will look at the stuff the same way again. And while this may be only a minor achievement — other authors have done a better job bringing an old, overlooked item up to date — it’s still a task that deserves to be lauded.

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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