Sunday, February 27, 2011

Dispatch from the Bloodlands

Ideology cannot function without economics.
-Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
Snyder adds:
Ideologies also tempt those who reject them. Ideology, when stripped by time or partisanship of its political and economic connections, becomes a moralizing form of explanation for mass killing, one that comfortably separates the people who explain from the people who kill. It is convenient to see the perpetrator just as someone who holds the wrong idea and is therefore different for that reason. It is reassuring to ignore the importance of economics and the complications of politics, factors that might in fact be common to historical perpetrators and those who later contemplate their actions. It is far more inviting, at least today in the West, to identify with the victims than to understand the historical setting that they shared with perpetrators and bystanders in the bloodlands. The identification with the victim affirms a radical separation from the perpetrator. The Treblinka guard who starts the engine or the NKVD who pulls the trigger is not me, he is the person who kills someone like myself. Yet it is unclear whether this identification with victims brings much knowledge, or whether this kind of alienation from the murderer is an ethical stance. It is not at all obvious that reducing history to morality plays makes anyone moral.
Unfortunately, claiming victim status does not itself bring sound ethical choices. Stalin and Hitler throughout their political careers to be victims. They persuaded millions of other people that they, too, were victims: of an international capitalist or Jewish conspiracy. During the German invasion of Poland. a German soldier believed that the death grimace of a Pole proved that Poles irrationally hated Germans. During the famine, a Ukranian communist found himself beleagureed by the corpses of the starved at his doorstep. They both portrayed themselves as victims. No major war or act of mass killing in the twentieth century began without the aggressors or perpetrators first claiming innocence and victimhood. In the twenty-firsr century, we see a second wave of aggressive wars with victim claims, in which leaders not only present their peoples as victims but make explicit references to the mass murders of the twentieth century. The human capacity for subjective victimhood is apparently limitless, and people who believe they are victims can be motivated to perform acts of great violence. The Austrian policeman shooting babies at Mahileu imagined what the Soviets would do to his children.
The victims were people; a true identification with them would involve grasping their lives rather than grasping at their deaths. By definition the victims are dead, and unable to defend themselves from the use that others make of their deaths. It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by identifying with the victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim, but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander [italics added]. It is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding. Outstanding intellectuals and politicians -- for example, Edward Benes and Ilya Ehrenburg -- yielded to this temptation during the war. The Czechoslovak president and the Soviet-Jewish writer were justifying revenge upon the Germans as such. People who called others subhuman were themselves subhuman. Yet to deny a human being his human character is to render ethics impossible.
To yield to this temptation, to find other people to be inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.


Roy said...

Yup. That's exactly the point I've been making about the religious right for years. They scream persecution and violation of their First Amendment rights every time someone points out to them that it's illegal and unconstitutional to (a) force their dogma and theology on the rest of the population, and (b) to punish/persecute those who don't believe as they do. Who's the enemy who's persecuting them? Secular humanists, liberals, and the GLBT community, the very people they wish to persecute. This goes all the way back to the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The myth of the brave Puritans coming to America to escape persecution back in England is just that - a myth. They came here because they weren't being allowed to persecute and punish their neighbors in England for not believing as they did. So they came here and set up a colony where they could do as they like, and they set right in on the persecution - Native Americans who wouldn't convert, Quakers, Baptists, you name it. It's disgusting how David Barton and his predecessors have managed to create the myth of the poor, persecuted victims.

K. said...

In an article about Newt Gingrich's expected run for the presidency, the recent convert to Catholicism (like Augustine, only after he had his fun), claims that "religion is being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized America." The conservatives will play the victim over and over, and why not? It get's plenty of traction and it allows them to dehumanize everyone who Not Them as cultural elites, godless liberals, etc.