“It Is Not Truth Which Matters, But Victory”

In general, I don’t think it’s fruitful to spend a lot of time trying to figure Adolf Hitler out.

I certainly understand the impulse: when we discover monsters in our midst, we are strongly motivated to examine them carefully.  Partly, this is prurient – they are fascinating.  But partly, this is survival: we must learn to spot them, so that we can stop them sooner in the future.

But to stop them, we don’t really need to understand them; we just need to be able to recognize them.  Which is lucky for us, because the truth is that we will never really be able to understand them.

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Hitler at Nuremberg in 1934.  From iwm.org.uk

Hitler is the best and most important example of this incomprehensibility. Oceans of ink have been spilled examining and psychoanalyzing Hitler through his books, his speeches, his relationships, and his actions, but he remains a cipher.  Why did he do the things he did?  Was he an evil mastermind? An ordinary megalomaniac who happened to be at the right place at the right time?  Did he really believe all the things he preached, or was he merely manipulating the people around him?  How are we to understand his contradictions?

The question which has always most troubled me is: did Hitler understand that any of his actions were wrong?  Let’s take, for example, the attempted extermination of the Jewish people: did he understand that most people would think that was evil?  He employed euphemisms, which implies that he did.  

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What, then, did he make of that?  Did he believe that he acted for good but that he alone in the world saw the truth?  Did he believe that everyone secretly agreed with him (i.e. that the world would be better without Jews) and that only he had the courage to admit it?  Or did he fail to trouble himself with questions of right and wrong at all?

As I’ve said before, I don’t usually trouble myself too much with these questions, since I believe that they are essentially unanswerable.  We will never know what Hitler “really” believed – it is enough to know what he definitely did.

But I recently read Albert Speer’s memoir, ‘Inside the Third Reich’, and it got me grasping again after this old question.  Speer was Hitler’s architect and then his Minister of Armaments.  He spent quite a lot of time in Hitler’s company, and in his memoirs, he mentions something that Hitler said to him in 1936:

“There are two possibilities for me: to win through with all my plans, or to fail.  If I win, I shall be one of the greatest men in history.  If I fail, I shall be condemned, despised, and damned.” (p. 101)

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Speer with Hitler in 1937, designing the World’s Fair German Pavilion.  From historytoday.com

Despite my own good advice, I have become fixated on this quotation because it implies that Hitler was aware that other people would consider his actions atrocious.  He may have considered the atrocity negotiable – he seemed to believe that victories would justify him – but he was cognizant of the fact that, in the world he inhabited, his plans were unacceptable.  He saw that he needed to remake the world in order to make himself righteous.

I am particularly struck by his use of the word ‘damned’.  Damnation is total; it describes the unredeemed.  His use of it suggests that he knew that his actions would be considered not merely bad, but in fact evil.  And, to be frank, I sort of quail in front of a mind which can see the evil it is about to do as evil and still do it.

Even if this quote offers a glimpse into Hitler’s darkness, maybe it’s better not to peer too hard after it.  Ultimately, Hitler will never satisfy those of us who want to understand evil – he will never yield up his own true beliefs.  Maybe it will suffice to say that, in this one case, Hitler was ultimately correct: he did fail, and so he is condemned, despised, and damned.

The title of this post is a quote from Hitler, from a speech before the Reichstag in Berlin in January, 1939 – it is not the opinion of the author.

Featured image from biography.com

Make America Cynical Again

     Recently, during a discussion of current events, my own beloved father looked at me gloomily and said, “You’ve become cynical.  That makes me very sad.”

     “Why?” I asked.

     “Because if you’re cynical, it means you aren’t hopeful about people,” he said.

     I was surprised, and for two reasons.  The first was his use of the word ‘become’.  Whether I am, as he says, cynical, or whether I am, as I would argue, realistic, I have certainly always seen the world through this lens.  It is familiar by now.  I have always been this way – I have never been optimistic.

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Quick, what color are all these people?

     (Although, in my father’s defense, it is true that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America jarred me and, perhaps, sharpened the edge on my cynicism.  I had not believed my countrymen would be willing to elect a man that xenophobic – I was wrong.  I don’t intend to overestimate them again.)

     But I was also surprised by his juxtaposition of cynicism and hopefulness.  He seemed to feel that these were necessarily opposite conditions – I don’t believe that they are.

     ‘Cynical’ can mean several things.  My father, in this context, probably meant ‘distrustful of human sincerity or integrity’.  I suppose I am that.  It’s not that I don’t believe that humans lack either sincerity or integrity, or even that those qualities are rare.  However, I believe that those qualities co-exist, in all humans, with cowardice, malevolence, and a facility for dishonesty, and that, therefore, those virtues are unreliable in any individual or population over time.

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The Annual rally at Nuremberg in 1936

     As I have said before (several times), I believe that all peoples, in all places, at all times, are capable of evil.  That this capacity for evil, like our capacity for good, defines us as a species.  That we will never outgrow it, evolve past it, or become too smart for it, and that we must be ever vigilant against it.  I believe that the data, both historical and contemporary, support my conclusion.  I believe that this conclusion, to put it plainly, is true.

     And the truth is never cynical.  No belief, no matter how rosy it may seem, if it is not premised on the truth, can be really hopeful.

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     The belief that we are better than our ancestors or the people of other nations, this is a self-flattering lie, a delusion which is easier to bear than hard truth.  And lies are never really hopeful; they are, in fact, a surrender to a much darker cynicism than I am capable of: that it is better to believe yourself good than to acknowledge your own capacity for evil and so avoid doing it.  That it is better to seem than to be.

     I believe that it is far more hopeful to be a cynic who looks out for ordinary evils than an optimist who insists that evil is always freakish, because only the cynic will see the evil coming far enough away to stop it.  Only someone who believes in evil will trouble themselves to learn about it, and learning is the best way we can avoid it in ourselves.

     Any view of the human race which denies an essential and ineradicable part cannot be hopeful.  Hope is not hope which is premised on ignorance.  There can be no true hope without honesty first.

     So, no, Dad, I may be cynical, but I’m not hopeless.  On the contrary, Dad: I find that you have much less hope than I.  People who, confronted again and again with the wickedness of their fellow men, with their small-minded hatreds, their tribalisms and rages, people who nevertheless insist on finding them essentially good, they are hopeless.  People who are then always surprised when evil happens, they are hopeless.  People for whom the good opinion of each other means more than actually saving each other, they are hopeless.  If you must lie to yourself about man’s nature in order to accept him, that is hopeless.

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Memorial shrine in Ntarama for victims of the Rwandan genocide

     I believe I have seen man in all his despicability, and I still see a way forward for him.  He’s not a saintly ape, he is not basically good, but, with attention, he might learn.  And, as long as that is true, he will never be completely hopeless.  

     I’m trying to learn, and so I’m not hopeless.

Featured Image: This is a real product, sold on Amazon, ‘Election 2016 Donald Trump Make America Great Again Booty Shorts

“For He Makes His Sun Rise on the Evil and on the Good, and Sends Rain on the Just and on the Unjust”

     I’ve become a little obsessed with something Vladimir Putin once said.

     Putin has, of course, been much in the news lately here in the United States as various interested parties try to figure out exactly how involved he has been with our President.  And so I finally got around to reading a book I’ve been wanting to read since it came out: Masha Gessen’s ‘The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin‘.

My edition has two afterwords.  The second, a postscript written in 2014, concerns the autocrat’s violent anti-gay ideology.  Gessen is herself gay, and it was the persecution of homosexuals which finally drove her from her country, and so in a book with many emotionally difficult portions, it is one of the most upsetting.

     And, in it, Gessen quotes, among other things, Putin’s State of the Federation address to Parliament in 2013, in which he said,

     “Today many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures.  Society is now required not only to recognize everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil, strange as it seems, concepts that are opposite in meaning.” (p. 312)

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Putin entering the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow to give that State of the Federation address in 2013, from the Financial Times

     It is always fascinating to watch someone invoke the fight against evil in order to achieve evil.  It begs the question: do they know that they are about to commit an evil act?  If not (surely not), then why don’t they know?  If someone else committed that act, would they know it was evil?  Are they hypocrites interested only in the accumulation of their own power, or are they true believers?

     Vladimir Putin and I agree that evil exists, but we have very different notions of what it is, what it looks like, and who is doing it.  In fact, we probably believe that the other is a pretty near approximation of an evil actor.

     Putin believes (I am persuaded by Gessen on this) that evil is personified by liberal, democratizing, Westernizing forces which corrode the conservative, traditional power structures of his country.

     I believe that the evil person is one who seeks to accrete power, wealth, or to experience joy or relief, at the expense of the natural rights of other people: at the expense of their safety, health, freedom, or life.  I believe evil is that which requires that the rights of the other be sacrificed to achieve the goals of the self.

     So how can Vladimir Putin and I use the same word and mean such different things?  If ‘evil’ means ‘someone I disagree with very, very much’, or ‘someone who does something I find personally repugnant’, does it really have meaning worth preserving?  Is ‘evil’ just another level on our personal scale of badness, or is it another thing altogether, a distinct category of human behavior?  If it is the latter, shouldn’t we make sure that our use of that word is spare?  Shouldn’t we make sure not to dull its edge by overuse?

     Obviously, I cannot stop Putin from saying or doing whatever he pleases (apparently, no one can).  But I can object strongly to his use of that word, ‘evil’, which is incorrect and dangerous.

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Results of a 2013 Pew study asking the question “Should society accept homosexuality?’, broken down by nation, from pewglobal.org

     Whether you believe that homosexuality is right or wrong (and I would like to be clear and emphatic here: I believe that homosexuality is exactly as right, as normal, as healthy, and as natural as heterosexuality), surely we can agree that one person’s homosexuality does not deprive any heterosexual person of their natural rights, and, therefore, is not evil and should not be so called.  Tolerance of homosexuality, then, is not a commitment to neutrality in the battle between good and evil – that is a preposterous idea.

     We may disagree about what is right and what is wrong, but we should not disagree about evil.  There are many things which are considered ‘wrong’ by some portion of the population but which we all ought to have the right and freedom to do: take the Lord’s name in vain, get a divorce, tell a lie, have a child out of wedlock, smoke marijuana, marry someone of the same gender, cheat on our spouse, work on the Sabbath.  You may think one or more of these things is wrong, but, if I do them, I do not violate your natural rights, and so my right to do them should be respected.  We can agree to disagree.

I don’t believe that we can afford to agree to disagree about evil – there are lives at stake.  And so I don’t believe that we should be using the word ‘evil’ when we mean ‘wrong’; I don’t believe we should use the word ‘evil’ except when we mean it.  Because we’re going to want to have that word at our disposal, potent and not diluted, when we need it (to, say, describe a man who is having opposition journalists killed).

     And we are going to need it.

 

Featured image from abc.com, anti-Putin protests in the UK sparked by the Russian crackdown on gay rights in 2014.

Peaceful, Evil Man

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!

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A ‘struggle session’ in Harbin in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, featuring public humiliation.  From scmp.com

     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.

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British soldiers looking for Mau Mau fighters in Kenya in 1954.  From guardian.com

     Or: what about the Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and the truly blood-curdling actions taken by the occupying forces there?  

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A Japanese soldier poses with decapitated heads in Nanking in 1937.  From ‘The Rape of Nanking’ by Iris Chang

     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?

Lynching
From atlantablackstar.com

     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

Chairman Mao Will Seat You Now

In 1918, a young Mao Zedong moved to Beijing and went to work as a junior librarian in the Beijing University Library.  He wrote later:

“My office was so low that people avoided me.  One of my tasks was to register the names of people who came to read newspapers, but to most of them I didn’t exist as a human being.  Among those who came to read, I recognized the names of famous leaders of the ‘renaissance’ movement, men…in whom I was intensely interested.  I tried to begin conversations with them on political and cultural subjects, but they were very busy men.  They had no time to listen to an assistant librarian speaking southern dialect.”

Mao was a nobody from Hunan province, and he was ignored by the prominent intellectuals he so admired.

This passage is excerpted very early in Philip Short’s biography of Mao, and I am well past what was, in the grand scheme of things, a brief episode in his life.  But this vignette has stuck with me more than any other from Mao’s life.

Mao Zedong would go on to rule the most populous country on earth.  He would preside over a regime that would kill tens of millions of people.  He would become, by some estimates, the most accomplished mass murderer in this history of humankind.

But in 1918, he was being snubbed by men history has forgotten, and this story has haunted me since I read it.

With how many people do you interact every week?  How many people serve you coffee, check out your items, pull your car around, pump your gas, see you to your table?

And those are the ones you see!  What about the people who clean up after you, fix what you break, prepare the food you eat, pick up your trash, deliver your packages?  How big is the army that serves you invisibly?  How many lives intersect with yours every day?

And what if one of them will become Mao?

There are two aspects of this idea I find disturbing.  The first, and the more ordinary, is the possibility of our unwitting proximity to evil.  It’s not pleasant, imagining that history’s next great killer might be taking your order.

But what frightens me even more is the thought that, perhaps, the clerk in the Beijing University Library wasn’t evil.  He would become Mao Zedong, we know now, but he had not yet.  And maybe, he need not have,

And if it is a question not of ‘When’, but of ‘If’, if he might but might not, then who else might?  Might one of my brothers?  My husband?  Might I?

There are two ways to see the future which lay ahead of that clerk: in one, he would find his way to his role, he would make space in history for himself.

But is it equally possible that history had an opening and that it would fill it?  Who is to say that Mao was the only man who might?  Perhaps many men might have done the job – perhaps most.  It may be that the murderers will out; it may also be that history could make murderers of us all, and she chooses.

This isn’t a lifetime movie: I don’t believe that Mao became a mass murderer because of those slights.  I don’t believe that, if one of these Chinese eminences had simply paid Mao Zedong the respect of answering him, the great storm of the Chinese Communist Party might have turned at the last moment and headed out to sea, that millions might have been saved.  And maybe this whole idea is wrong, and historical monsters aren’t borne of a diathesis-stress model: maybe Mao came into this world broken and dangerous and nothing was going to change that.

But isn’t it frightening to think that, perhaps, some large number of us carry the potential for great or terrible deeds inside us, and we wait only for the right combination of events to draw us into the open, where we become the stuff of statues and nightmares?

I don’t like my reflection in this mirror: I like to believe, as most of us do, that there are no accidents of fate which would twist me into shape to order millions of my fellows to their deaths.  There is no lower creature than a genocidaire – I choose to believe I could not become one.

But that anonymous clerk in the Beijing University Library is dogging me and now, I see the monsters of history everywhere I look, in the world all around me.  Because, if we are not monsters yet, who knows what we will become?

Featured image taken from Wikipedia.