To Tony Judt, With Humility and Apologies
There are minds so strong and lovely that one quails at the idea of disagreeing with them. The error must be yours, you think, because their thinking is so sure and clean and reliable.
When I find a discrepancy between my thinking and that of a greater mind, I usually retire, but every once and awhile, an admired intellect will assert something that I feel strongly is incorrect, and I find myself unable to give way.
That happened to me this week. I have been reading, with enormous pleasure, ‘When the Facts Change‘ by Tony Judt, the lucid, moderate, incisive historian of post-World War Europe. Judt is the sort of author is who is so reasonable and articulate that he is dangerously persuasive, and I find myself, usually, in total agreement with him.
So I was caught up short when I read something in this book with which I disagree pretty categorically:
“It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity. War – total war – has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era. The first primitive concentration camps were set up by the British during the Boer War of 1899-1902. Without World War I there would have been no Armenian genocide and it is highly unlikely that either Communism or Fascism would have seized hold of modern states. Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust. Absent the forcible involvement of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, we would never have heard of Pol Pot.” (p. 274)
These data are cherry-picked.
First of all, it is certainly coherent to lay the victory (though not the rise) of Communism in Russia at the feet of World War I, but to suggest that, for example, the millions of deaths in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) were a result most proximately of World War I is ridiculous – the People’s Republic wasn’t even established until 1949!
Or: perhaps the first British concentration camps in Africa were built because of the Boer War, but what about the detention camps they used for massive deportations of Kikuyu in Kenya in the 1950’s? Describing the “Mau Mau Uprising” as ‘total war’ seems like an enormous stretch, even when one considers how reluctant the British have been to be honest about it.
Or: what about the Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and the truly blood-curdling actions taken by the occupying forces there?
Or: if we must restrict ourselves to the treatment of African-Americans in modernity, what about the Jim Crow era in the United States, which was nothing if not atrocious?
There are more. The truth is, there is no limiting circumstance on human evil. To suggest that there is, is to indulge in optimism completely without cause.
Judt’s assertion offends me because it implies that, in the absence of war, people can be trusted not to lash out at each other genocidally, and this is clearly not the case. The arc of human history does not bear this out; the history of the twentieth century does not bear this out; neither the history of my nation or his bears this out.
Humans require no special context to commit evil. They do not require war to commit genocide. They do not need to be in extremis to commit atrocities. They do it in all places at all times whether or not they have war as an excuse.
This capacity to annihilate one another is not a limited or circumscribed capacity – it is a human capacity. If we keep looking for reasons why we could never have done the same terrible things as other people, if we keep looking for special circumstances which explain why cruelty and murder and evil are not universal, then we aren’t going to see the next evil coming.
We have to take responsibility, not for the evil we have or have not done, but the evil we are capable of doing. To say that only people in certain circumstances might commit atrocities is logic preliminary to explaining why we cannot commit them.
But every nation, people, or creed will have the opportunity to strike cruelly at another people, and, if they are convinced beforehand that they are not capable of it, then they will think less critically about what they do. It is only by acknowledging that we may all do terrible things unless we are careful that we will see the need to take care.
And we must take care.
Featured Image from law.georgetown.edu/library