The Holocaust: Laurence Rees explains “Nazi logic” in racism

As I am currently reading Laurence Rees‘ so far brilliant brand-new book “The Holocaust: A New History“, I’m drawing some obvious and horrid comparisons with how Donald Trump works, and also in regards to how extreme right-wing associations, such as the Sverigedemokraterna party in Sweden has become the third biggest political party.

As Rees shows in his book, there was no single ‘decision’ to start the Holocaust – there was a series of escalations, most often when the Nazi leadership interacted with their grassroots supporters.

The quotes below show how inconsistent, illogical and xenophobically insane the Nazis were when trying to decide who was a ‘Jew’ and who was a ‘Gypsy’. While it’s easy to scoff at this, and perhaps think ‘Oh, this happened almost a hundred years ago, we’ve evolved!’, really think about it – and then know that this is happening over and over; trying to find easy solutions while stopping to think critically is, at the base of the thinking process, what strung us on to the deaths of millions during the Holocaust.

In 1895, Alfred Ploetz, a German supporter of eugenics, or ‘race hygiene’ as he called it, raised the possibility of doctors deciding whether babies should live or die based on their racial worth. He also said that ‘Advocates of racial hygiene will have little objection to war since they see in it one of the means whereby the nations carry on the struggle for existence.’ He even suggested that during a battle ‘inferior’ people could be used as ‘cannon fodder’ and placed in positions of particular danger.

Many of the pioneers in the eugenics movement were not anti-Semites — Ploetz, for instance, thought the Jews were ‘racial Aryans’ — but their teaching were of enormous use to those who were. The idea that ‘racial hygiene’ was central to the health of a nation, combined with Houston Chamberlain’s notion that the Jews were a racial threat to ‘Aryan’ people, added a potentially catastrophic element to the anti-Semitic brew. Traditional anti-Semitism had been based on religion. If the Jews converted to Christianity then they had a chance of escaping persecution. But the idea that ‘Jewishness’ was something inherent in an individual — that it was present, as the Nazis came to believe, in the blood — meant that there was no escape. Your ‘race’, over which you had no control, was your destiny. You could be the kindest, most generous person imaginable, but if your ‘race’ was assessed as inferior or dangerous then you were at risk of persecution.

Hitler explicitly stated in his September 1919 letter that ‘the Jews are definitely a race and not a religious community.’ This was fundamental to his anti-Semitic belief. It meant, for him, that if the question of what religion ‘Jews’ practised scarcely mattered, since ‘there is hardly a single race whose members belong exclusively to one particular religion.’

However, despite a desperate search to identify a test for Jewish ‘blood’, the Nazis — not surprisingly — never managed to find a scientific way of telling whether or not an individual was a member of the Jewish ‘race’ or not. As a result, once the Nazis started to persecute and eventually exterminate Jews, they had to rely on a ‘Jewishness’ test that was religious. They assessed whether or not you were a Jew according to how many of your grandparents had practised the Jewish faith. Nonetheless, the Nazis still believed that the Jews were a ‘race’ and not a ‘religion’. The primacy of ‘race’ in human history was so central to Hitler’s worldview that he would never let the small matter of science get in the way of his belief.

In 1935 the Nazis created and implemented the Nuremberg laws.

Then there was the continuing problem, for the Nazis, of working out who was a Jew and who was not — information that was vital in order to enforce the new legislation. But despite the opening sentence of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour declaring that ‘purity of German blood’ was ‘essential’ for the ‘continued existence of the German people’, the Nazis could not tell by examining ‘blood’ just who was a Jew and and who was not, and there was no other definition of ‘Jewishness’ anywhere in the Nuremberg legislation. As a consequence the laws as passed on 15 September 1935 were unenforcable. Only in the middle of November 1935 were regulations finally announced which defined who was a ‘Jew’. This document talked about ‘Jewish blood’ and ‘racially full Jews’, but it had to resort to a religious definition to describe who was Jewish and who was not. It stated: ‘A Jew is anyone who is descended from at least three grandparents who are racially full Jews.’ But then it said that a ‘grandparent shall be considered as full-blooded if he or she belonged to the Jewish religious community’. So the Nazis determined your ‘race’ by the religious affiliation of your grandparents.

The question of what to do about those Germans who had mixed ancestry occupied a great deal of the drafters’ time. Some Germans who were ardent nationalists — and appeared to be living an ‘Aryan’ life — had two Jewish grandparents. Yet other people with two Jewish grandparents were, to Nazi eyes, obviously Jews. The solution the Nazi officials devised was complex. It relied, once again, on examining the religious affiliation of the individuals concerned. So if you had two grandparents who were Jewish — by the definition of the decree — but you yourself had not married a Jew and were living a non-Jewish religious life, then you were not Jewish. However, if you had two Jewish grandparents and had married a Jew, or were worshipping as a Jew, then you were Jewish.

It was a mess. What the decree exposed was the utter fallacy of a blood or racial definition of Jewishness. For if the Nazis were serious in their racial beliefs, how could one person who had two Jewish grandparents be considered not Jewish, whereas another who had two Jewish grandparents be considered Jewish? Their background ought to mean that the same amount of ‘Jewish blood’ flowing within their veins was exactly the same.

Nonetheless, Hitler proclaimed the Nuremberg Laws a success and called for the nation not to ‘stray from the straight and narrow path of the law’. He clearly saw these anti-Semitic measures not only as an ideological statement of the values of the Third Reich, but also as a means of restraining the wilder elements in the party who sought to pursue their own attacks. The day after the laws were passed, he reminded the party faithful that they should ‘continue to refrain’ from ‘taking independent action’ against Jews.

The Sinti and Roma were persecuted in Germany since long before Hitler, but…

Hitler, however, did not appear to be much concerned about the Sinti and Roma — they are not even mentioned in Mein Kampf. Only gradually did measures directed explicitly at the Sinti and Roma population come to be implemented by the Nazis. One reason for this lack of urgency was almost certainly that many Sinti and Roma were already often caught up in moves against ‘beggars’ or ‘antisocials’. Only as an afterthought were they included within the Nuremberg Laws. Wilhelm Frick, the Interior Minister, stated in a decree of 26 November 1935 that the Nuremberg Law prohibiting Jews from marrying ‘pure’ Germans also extended to a ban on Gypsies marrying them. Frick subsequently clarified this restriction on 3 January 1936 by saying that if an individual Gypsy had a ‘quarter or less of alien blood’ then he or she could marry an ‘Aryan’ German.

By this legislation the Nazis created another immense definitional problem for themselves. It was all very well to talk theoretically of percentages of ‘Gypsy blood’, but in practice there was no way of implementing such an idea — for the simple reason that it was impossible to work out how much ‘Gypsy blood’ any individual possessed. We have seen how, since they couldn’t find a racial way of distinguishing between Jews and non-Jews, the Nazis fell back on a religious-based definition of ‘Jewishness’. But such a method could not be used in the case of the Sinti and Roma, since those that practiced a religion were overwhelmingly Christian.

In the wake of this extension of the Nuremberg laws, the Nazis urgently needed to find a way of determining the percentage of ‘Gypsyness’ in an individual, just as they had previously needed to assess the percentage of ‘Jewishness’. To this end a new research organisation was created early in 1936 within the Reich Health Office under the leadership of Dr Robert Ritter. He and his team now set out to create a vast card index containing information on every potential Sinti and Roma in Germany — eventually around 30,0000 people would be detailed. Ritter and his colleagues decided who was and who was not a Gypsy by inspecting birth and family records, and by investigating the lifestyle of each individual.

The above register is wholly compatible with the illegal register of thousands of Roma that Swedish police maintained for a long time – until it was discovered in 2013. Nobody has been charged for this crime.

To continue from the last quoted paragraph:

Ritter’s conclusions about the nature of Gypsy life informed the first pronouncement from Himmler on the subject, a circular entitled Combating the Gypsy Plague, issued on 8 December 1938. The document stated that the ‘Gypsy problem’ should be treated as a question of ‘race’ and called for both ‘settled and non-settled Gypsies’ to be registered with the police. The life of Gypsies needed to be ‘regulated’, said Himmler, not least in order to prevent ‘further intermingling of blood’.

One of the many curious aspects of Himmler’s circular was the statement that ‘experience shows that part-Gypsies play the greatest role in Gypsy criminality’. This strange assertion was based on Dr Ritter’s belief that the small minority of ‘racially pure’ Gypsies who carried on the traditional wandering life, travelling from village to village in horsedrawn caravans, were less dangerous than Gypsies who had decided to settle in one place and marry into the ‘Aryan’ German population. Though there was no reliable empirical evidence to support this proposition, Ritter maintained that the distinction was important. The theory was that some ‘pure Gypsies’ might be considered as a type of ‘Aryan’, since they had originated in the Indian sub-continent. But because large numbers of Gypsies had intermarried with non-Gypsies, they had ‘polluted their blood’ and so were especially dangerous. This convoluted logic led to the bizarre situation — implied in the circular on Combating the Gypsy Plague — that ‘pure-blood’ Gypsies were less of a problem to the Nazi state than ‘mixed-blood’ Gypsies. This state of affairs was precisely the reverse of the one in which the Jews found themselves, where the more Jewish an individual was perceived to be the more he or she was at risk. In practice, once the war began and the persecution of the Sinti and Roma escalated, the distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘non-pure’ Gypsies was to have little practical effect, but it nonetheless remains a valuable insight into the mentality of the perpetrators.

We may laugh at the crude and vile caricatures that were spread through Nazi propaganda before and during WW2, but remember that many Germans who willingly joined the Nazis were first just as discerned and disgusted by those images as many of us are, today; it’s a question of never letting the abhorrent become the norm. How? I believe that we have to apply critical thinking everywhere, and point out what we think is wrong. Don’t let people get away with xenophobic idiocies; let’s confront them, discuss their ideas and make them see that every human has equal value.

I’ll finish this post as Charlie Chaplin played out in “The Great Dictator“:

Transcript of the speech:

I’m sorry but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black men, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each others’ happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

Greed has poisoned men’s souls; has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge as made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in man; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all.

Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say “Do not despair.” The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.

Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder! Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men—machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have a love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural.

Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it’s written “the kingdom of God is within man”, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power.

Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.

Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!

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Movies I've watched recently:

  • T2 Trainspotting (2017) - IMDb 6/10

    2017-02-22 22:58
    * * * * * *

    This is more a film, I think, which is about aging and repeating your past than anything else. Sure, the characters are older, but I cringe a lot as Boyle has chosen to have them repeat some of their "fave lines" from the first film, 21 years later, for no apparent reason. The slow parts move best, for example, where Renton visits his father, despite that one being sappy. The "new girl", basically a Renton, doesn't bring much to the table. However, Robbie Carlyle steals the show; where Ewen Bremner's "Spud" previously did, by being a comedic maestro with his movements and druggy cadence, he is now converted into a caricature of himself - and yes, I am aware that druggies who have been on dope for more than two decades tend to turn into caricatures in more ways than one - while Begbie offers more. A lot more. Carlyle's acting is so strong that even Begbie's most obvious characteristics - e.g. as displayed where his son stands up against him by wanting to go to college to learn hotel management instead of joining his dad in a life of crime - turn interesting. He's a tour de force. Still, while this film is interesting and entertaining, it is too much of a parody of itself to become a truly interesting introspective. And the plot turn at the end was really a bit too tell-tale and boring to me.

  • Medicinen (2014) - IMDb 1/10

    2016-12-12 19:00

    A car crash where your newborn child dies would be a less hurtful experience than watching this film. I'm kidding, but there is some truth lodged in that statement. This film is very "inspired" by "The Devil Wears Prada". By this I mean Nutley and his writer cohorts have concocted a story about an abhorrent person - played by Bergström, despite many doubts on my site as to what "playing" could be, according to herself - who starts ingesting a medicine that seems to change her life. Naturally, this medicine is a sugar pill. The medicine is also the only thing which is sweet about this film. The script is so poorly written that any, and I repeat, _any_ breathing thing - or dead - could easily excrete something which would improve and best this depressing piece of scatological experience, which all should avoid at all costs. Actually, I could go on forever about how bad everything from the direction to casting, acting, the soundtrack and segues are, but I will not. I refuse to. This is on par with Nutley-Bergström's "Angel", which also marked a new milestone in the string of eulogies to Swedish cinema that seems to be their goal. I'm angry to know the couple seem to use films as an excuse to a) go abroad and senselessly film scenes that have none or very little function for a film and b) have Bergström cry and copulate. Don't see this, even for "fun", which was why I saw it. I will never, ever see this film again, and I hope Bergström-Nutley never, ever make another film, write one nor act in one for the sake of humanity.

  • Yakuza Apocalypse (2015) - IMDb 4/10

    2016-11-26 17:10
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    This film stretches beyond a regular action film and even really dips into the true meaning of the word apocalypse, but that's the most positive thing about it. Miike has been taking some major leads from Shakespeare, considering he lived a few hundred years ago, this film is truly not very original. Having said that, it's missing in atmosphere. It doesn't pace well and lost me a bit after 30 minutes and did not win the loss back. Having been Shakespearian before that, this film segues into being laughable and filled with fight (as most films by Miike are). Not recommendable to anyone who doesn't want to dabble in martial arts action-cum-half-assed weird dreaming, having fallen asleep with "Macbeth" on your face.

  • Bridget Jones's Baby (2016) - IMDb 1/10

    2016-11-20 21:22

    David Foster Wallace once used the term "hellaciously unfunny" about something, which is a term clearly applicable for this clownboat. Not only is this a film that overflows with prejudice and crap, be it sexistic, nationalistic or racistic, but it's completely barren where jokes should be. I liked the first film. I didn't like the second film, but this one I really loathe. It shouldn't have been made.

  • I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016) - IMDb 4/10

    2016-08-29 09:24
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    This film is succinctly different from most others that are about serial killers in the sense that it's using silence and music well. Apart from that, this is a b-movie in several ways: apart from the two main actors, there's not much to use. The plot is quite simple, but at times I - a serial killer fan, so to speak - drifted away because the film didn't entice me more; the flow of the film feels contrived, making me feeling something that's very different to what often comes naturally when seeing works of directors such as Terrence Malick, Woody Allen and Richard Linklater. Also, the name-dropping of serial killers and such is more effect-seeking than anything else, more about trying to spook the viewer than create solid characters. Still, as a low-budget film, it works in creating a kind of solemn street-life atmosphere, the kind that came natural to director John Cassavetes, that very few high-budget films have. All in all this is not a particularly well-made film, but it's memorable.


Watch Einstürzende Neubauten’s entire “Elbphilharmonie”

Now, here’s something lovely: an entire recent Einstürzende Neubauten gig:

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My saved links (weekly)

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The power in messiness – Brian Eno and Oblique Strategies

From “Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives” by Tim Harford, on how David Bowie, Brian Eno and a slew of musicians went to Berlin, Germany, to make the first of Bowie’s brilliant trilogy of albums that he made there. Hyperlinks are courtesy of me:

As Visconti and Bowie struggled to find a new direction—not so much composing songs as carving them out of blocks of sound—Eno took to showing up at the studio with a selection of cards he called Oblique Strategies. Each had a different instruction, often a gnomic one. Whenever the studio sessions were running aground, Eno would draw a card at random and relay its strange orders. Be the first not to do what has never not been done before Emphasize the flaws Only a part, not the whole Twist the spine Look at the order in which you do things Change instrument roles For example, during the recording of the Lodger album, Carlos Alomar, one of the world’s greatest guitarists, was told to play the drums instead. This was just one of the challenges that Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards imposed, apparently unnecessarily.

The cards drove the musicians crazy. (This annoyance cannot have come as a surprise to Eno. During work on an earlier Eno album, Another Green World, the cards reduced Phil Collins, the superstar drummer from Genesis, to hurling beer cans across the studio in frustration.) Faced with one piece of card-inspired foolishness, Carlos Alomar told Eno that “this experiment is stupid”; the violinist Simon House commented that the sessions often “sounded terrible. Carlos did have a problem, simply because he’s very gifted and professional . . . he can’t bring himself to play stuff that sounds like crap.”

Yet the strange chaotic working process produced two of the decade’s most critically acclaimed albums, Low and “Heroes,” along with Iggy Pop’s most respected work, The Idiot and Lust for Life. Low was arguably the bravest reinvention in pop history—imagine Taylor Swift releasing an album full of long, pensive instrumentals and you get a sense of the shock. It’s hard to argue with such results, and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies now have a cult following in creative circles. The Berlin trilogy of albums ends with Bowie’s Lodger, a record with a revealing working title. It was originally called Planned Accidents.

Here‘s a minimal, online version of Oblique Strategies.

As long as you’re exploring the same old approaches, Brian Eno explains, “you get more and more competent at dealing with that place, and your clichés become increasingly clichéd.” But when we are forced to start from somewhere new, the clichés can be replaced with moments of magic.

I mention Adrian Belew, another fine guitarist, who was drafted into the David Bowie recording session where Carlos Alomar was ordered to play the drums. He didn’t really know what was happening, and had barely plugged in his Stratocaster when Eno, Visconti, and Bowie told him to start playing in response to a previously unheard track. Before he could ask why Carlos was on the drums, Belew was told that Alomar “would go one, two, three, then you come in.” “What key is it?” asked Belew. “Don’t worry about the key. Just play!” “It was like a freight train coming through my mind,” said Belew later. “I just had to cling on.”

“Poor Adrian,” muses Eno. “He’s such a great player that he can handle this kind of thing.” Still, he adds, “I think I would have a bit of difficulty doing that experiment now. I didn’t really know enough about being a playing musician at that time . . . I didn’t know how disruptive that was to players.” Eno admits that his experiments with Belew, Alomar, and the other musicians in Berlin weren’t much fun for them. Used to finding a comfortable groove, their routines were “entirely subverted” as Eno pushed them through arbitrarily chosen chord sequences by pointing at different notes on a blackboard in the studio.

The eventual result of the freight train coming through Belew’s mind, sliced and spliced by Eno and producer Visconti, became a guitar solo that is the spine of Bowie’s single “Boys Keep Swinging.” The solo is now regarded as a classic. And from a creative point of view, the end may justify the means: when we listen to a Bowie album, we don’t see the mess and frustration of the recording session; we can just enjoy the beauty that it produced.

And then Eno says something that sheds a new light on the way I see the Oblique Strategies cards and the unplayable piano. “The enemy of creative work is boredom, actually,” he says. “And the friend is alertness. Now I think what makes you alert is to be faced with a situation that is beyond your control so you have to be watching it very carefully to see how it unfolds, to be able to stay on top of it. That kind of alertness is exciting.”

That alertness is Keith Jarrett onstage in Cologne. It’s Adrian Belew desperately trying to make sense of “Boys Keep Swinging.” And it is the effect that the cards can have on a creative project. The cards force us into a random leap to an unfamiliar location, and we need to be alert to figure out where we are and where to go from here. Says Eno, “The thrill of them is that they put us in a messier situation.”

Eno’s Oblique Strategies began as a tidy prototype: a checklist. Working on the first Roxy Music album in 1972, Eno and the rest of the band found themselves in a proper recording studio for the first time. That was intimidating. “It was a lot of money,” he says. “We were just working away and working away. And sometimes I would go home at night and remember, think back over the day’s work, and think, God, if we’d only remembered such-and-such a thing, some idea, that would have been better.”

Eno started making a list of ideas to remember in the high-pressure environment of the studio. The first was “Honor thy error as a hidden intention,” a reminder that sometimes what is achieved by accident may be much more worthy of attention than the original plan. The list of reminders grew, “sitting out on the control room desk.” But Eno soon found that the list didn’t work. It was too orderly. It was too easy to ignore the disruptive instructions. Your eye would run down the list and settle on exactly the item that would cause the least stress, something that felt safe. And so the idea emerged of turning the checklist into a deck of cards that would be shuffled and dealt at random. Eno’s friend, the artist Peter Schmidt, had a flip-book filled with similar provocations. The two men teamed up to produce the Oblique Strategies deck—a guaranteed method of pushing artists out of their comfort zones.

The poet Simon Armitage, fascinated by the cards, says their effect is “as if you’re asking the blood in your brain to flow in another direction.” That does not sound like a pleasant experience. Carlos Alomar, the guitar maestro who once told Eno his experiment was stupid, still remembers what it was like having to take orders from the cards. “I picked the card and the card simply said, ‘Think like a gardener,’” he recalls. “The immediate impact of the thought of course throws you off. I think that’s the purpose. It’s like when you’re feeling a pain in your foot and someone slaps you in the face, you’re not feeling the pain in your foot anymore. I started thinking, how would I make things grow. So it allowed me to look at the sessions a little bit differently. I kind of let my guitar parts develop into being what they were. You know. Plant something, nurture it, water it, let it grow.”

Most of us don’t like being slapped in the face. But it’s possible to take that slap and turn it into something remarkable. Useful diversions can come from anywhere: an error from some piano movers and a guilt trip from a German teenager; the randomness of an algorithmic search; a strange order from a deck of mysterious cards; the background noise that you can’t quite shut out; the side project that suddenly suggests a new solution. Or the annoying need to collaborate with other people, which is the subject of the next chapter. Over the years, Carlos Alomar came to realize that the cards he once dismissed as “stupid” have unexpected benefits. “I mean some of it worked, some of it didn’t,” he said a quarter of a century later. “But quite honestly it did take me out of my comfort zone and it did make me leave my frustration at what I was doing and totally look at it from another different point of view and although I didn’t like the point of view, when I came back, I was fresh.”

Alomar now teaches music at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, and he regularly resorts to the Oblique Strategies. His students will sometimes experience creative block, and “I need for them to see what I saw, and feel what I felt, and the dilemma that I had when I had to come up with something out of nothing.” He adds, “They’re very curious cards.” When I tell Brian Eno this, he laughs.

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My saved links (weekly)

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