Bandera, Shukhevych, and memory debates about the Ukrainian nationalist movement

When in 2007 Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko designated Roman Shukhevych as a Hero of Ukraine, he brought new heat into the debate in Ukraine and in the international community about the role played by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) during the Nazi invasion and occupation of Ukraine from 1941 forward. Yushchenko also honored radical OUN leaders Iaroslav Stets’ko in 2007 and Stepan Bandera in 2010 for their roles in Ukrainian nationalist activism. Shukhevych is a flashpoint because he was both a leader of the OUN and, from 1941 to 1943, an officer in German military units (battalion Nachtigall and Schutzmannschaft battalion 201). His activities during this period provide additional evidence for the view that the OUN actively collaborated with Nazi military, and participated in mass murder against Jews and other atrocities. Per Anders Rudling provides a detailed account of Shukhevych’s history in “The Cult of Roman Shukhevych in Ukraine: Myth Making with Complications” (link).

The effort to rehabilitate Ukrainian nationalism was a terrible mistake, because the record of OUN(B) is a shameful one. It involves wholehearted collaboration with the Nazi regime in Ukraine and Belarus, participation in mass killings of Ukrainian Jews, and a murderous campaign of ethnic cleansing against Poles in Volhynia and Galicia (link). And the ideology from which the OUN emerged in the 1930s is well documented: it embraced extreme nationalism, anti-Semitism, and fascism. Rudling describes the OUN in these terms: “Iushchenko’s ambition of building national myths around the OUN was controversial. Founded in 1929, the OUN was the largest and most important Ukrainian far-right organization. Explicitly totalitarian, the movement embraced the Führerprinzip, a cult of political violence, racism, and an aggressive anti-Semitism” (31).

Rudling makes it clear that existing historical research cannot support the “innocent” interpretation of Shukhevych’s collaboration with the Nazi military (38 ff.). “Current research points to the intimate link between the ‘anti-partisan warfare’ of the German forces and their local auxiliaries, and mass violence against the local population in occupied Belarus” (39). And as the prospects of German defeat at Stalingrad became more certain in 1943, “the men of the Schutzmannschaft Battalion 201, who had crossed over from Belarus to Volhynia came to constitute the hard core of the OUN(b) security service, the Sluzhba Bezpeki, or SB” (42-43). This trained force became the heart of the newly organized Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary UPA, which almost immediately turned to a program of violent ethnic cleansing against Poles in Volhynia (as well as small groups of Jews sheltering in the forests). Rudling notes that “The most detailed studies of the OUN-UPA mass murders of Poles estimates the OUN and UPA’s Polish victims to range between 70,000 and 100,000, their Jewish victims in the thousands” (44).

President Yushchenko took the step of glorifying the OUN and its leaders. But the effort depended on historical “research” that could serve to sanitize the behavior of this organization during the Nazi occupation. Rudling singles out Volodymyr V’iatrovych as the “most influential promoter of Banderite heritage in Ukraine” (51). V’iatrovych was the “driving force” of TsDVR (The Center for the Study of the Liberation Movement), and was later appointed by Yushchenko as director of HDA SBU (Central Archives of the Ukrainian Security Services) in 2008 (51) — positions that gave V’iatrovych credibility in intervening in the “history” debates.

Rudling concludes his essay with a very reasonable appeal:

Much as both sides in the controversy squabbled over caricatures which are a legacy of Soviet and nationalist propaganda, the designation of Shukhevych as a national hero is best understood as continuing this tradition. Ironically, the controversy took place at a time when recent scholarship raised very serious question about the suitability of the OUN and UPA as symbols of an aspiring democracy. Rather than more myth making, Ukrainian society may arguably be better served by critical inquiry and critical engagement with the difficult episodes of it recent past. (65)

Let’s turn now to the ideology that gave rise to the OUN in the 1930s and found deadly expression in the 1940s. Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe provides a detailed and damning account of the “fascist kernel” of Ukrainian nationalism in his monograph, The Fascist Kernel of Ukrainian Genocidal Nationalism (link). This piece is worth reading by anyone who wants to understand the ideology and dynamics of Ukrainian nationalism in the past, and possibly in the present. R-L documents the close ideological relationships that existed between Ukrainian nationalism, Italian fascism, and German national socialism. He describes the thinking of Mykola Stsibors’kyi:

The prominent OUN member Mykola Stsibors’kyi invented in two documents—a treatise from 1935 and a draft of a constitution from 1939—a political system called natsiokratiia or the “dictatorship of the nation.” Stsibors’kyi’s writings were especially interesting because they explained in detail how the OUN would rule its state and also briefly how the OUN would create it. Stsibors’kyi’s attitude to fascism was typical of the Ukrainian nationalists. On the one hand, he rejected the idea of sympathizing with fascism, and, on the other, he invented a political system that is best described as a Ukrainian form of fascism…. For Stsibors’kyi, fascism was the highest stage of political progress: “Fascism came and tore out from democracy’s hands the handicapped ideal of the nation and raised it to an unprecedented level placing in its vital achievements its ardent splendor and pathos of youthful creativity.” (14)

R-L describes the political goals, ruthlessness, and actions of Stepan Bandera, leader of the radical branch of OUN (designated as OUN-B):

In 1931, Bandera became the director of the propaganda apparatus of the homeland executive. In 1932, he became the deputy leader of the national executive, and in 1933 its leader, a position that he retained until his arrest on 15 June 1934. During this period, the OUN killed more and more Ukrainians who were accused of treason, and performed several assassinations of Polish and Russian politicians. Bandera was a devoted revolutionary and fanatical ultranationalist; he became the symbol of his generation. During the two trials against the OUN in Warsaw and Lviv in 1935 and 1936, the younger generation celebrated him as their Providnyk. After escaping from prison in early September 1939, Bandera became the leader of the young OUN faction, whose members were known as Banderites, and who attempted to establish a Ukrainian state and make Bandera the leader of this state. (20)

OUN nationalist ideology was premised on racism (“Ukraine for the Ukrainians”) and anti-Semitism.The Ukrainian national poet and writer Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861) portrayed Jews in his poem “Haidamaky” as the agents of Polish landowners and the brigands who killed Jews as national heroes.113 This was not an exception, but rather a common understanding of the relationship between Jews and Ukrainians, which was familiar to most members of the UVO, OUN, and UPA. (25)

Racist antisemitism appeared in Ukrainian nationalist discourses in the late 1920s and began to dominate in the second half of the 1930s. In the article “Jews, Zionism and Ukraine,” first published in 1929 in the OUN paper Rozbudova Natsiї, Iurii Mylianych discussed how to “solve the Jewish problem” in Ukraine while insisting that it “must be solved.” Mylianych calculated that “more than 2 million Jews who are an alien and many of them even a hostile element of the Ukrainian national organism live in the Ukrainian territories,” stating that it “is impossible to calculate all those damages and obstructions that the Jews caused to our liberation struggle.” (26)

And this explicit racism had deadly consequences, because it laid the basis for coordinated and deliberate actions against other groups (principally Poles and Jews):

This kind of racism extensively impacted the ideology and policies of the OUN and later the UPA, whose members and soldiers read Mikhnovskyi’s and Rudnytskyi’s writings and adapted their content to their own needs. It also significantly influenced the mass violence conducted by Ukrainian nationalists before, during, and after the Second World War. OUN member Mykola Sukhovers’kyi, who lived in Chernivtsi, recalled in his memoirs that the student fraternity Zaporozhe forbade its members to marry “an alien girl—a non-Ukrainian” after reading Mikhnovs’kyi’s Decalogue. (24)

On 22 June 1941, after several months of careful preparations, the OUN-B began the “Ukrainian National Revolution.” Mass violence against Jews, Poles, Russians, Soviets, and Ukrainian political enemies was a central aim of the revolution, along with the plan to establish a Ukrainian state. During this uprising, the OUN-B, and especially its militia, organized pogroms together with Germans, during which they incited ordinary Ukrainians to murder Jews. The OUN-B militia also supported the Einsatzkommandos during the first mass shootings. Alexander Kruglov estimated that in July 1941, between 38,000 and 39,000 Jews were killed in pogroms and mass shootings in western Ukraine. (40)

Rossoliński-Liebe notes that a good deal of the mythologizing and rehabilitating of Bandera and the OUN that has occurred over the past twenty years has originated (or at least been amplified) by diaspora communities of Ukrainians displaced to North America after World War II. In Defending History he documents this source of political myth-making in Canada in an article called “Celebrating Fascism and War Criminality in Edmonton” (link). The article presents R-L’s view of Bandera’s deep culpability and then documents the efforts by diaspora communities to recast history in a more favorable light:

The community of the banderites (mainly, but not exclusively consisting of former members of the OUN-B) had the strongest ideological roots. They acted radically and gained increasing numbers of members who became enthusiastic about the OUN-B’s plan to liberate Ukraine from the Soviets and to clear its territory of ›enemies‹. The banderites established influential centers in Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada. In the United Kingdom they took over the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain. In Canada, on December 25, 1949, they founded the LVU (League for the Liberation of Ukraine – Liga Vyzvolennia Ukraїny). The League established some 20 community centres for its more than 50 branches in Canada. The most important medium that the banderites used to spread their ideas and to influence the mindset of Canadian Ukrainians was the newspaper Ukrainian Echo, published in Toronto. (4)

The deeper meaning and main purpose behind the organizational activities of the banderites was to prepare their children for an eventual battle for an independent Ukrainian state. This battle would be the continuation of the fascist Ukrainian revolution of the summer of 1941 and the struggles of the UPA between 1943 and 1953. For this purpose, in 1962 a monument to the heroes of Ukraine was erected at a newly opened recreation camp in Ellenville located in upstate New York. The monument consisted of a giant spear with the Ukrainian trident on it and the busts of Symon Petliura and Ievhen Konovalets’, as well as Roman Shukhevych and Stepan Bandera, on either side of the spear. Ukrainian children of the diaspora congregated in front of the monument to recite poems glorifying the Ukrainian heroes or to perform folkloric dances. (5)

The myth-making and propagandistic purposes of these activities are evident; this is an effort to tell a “just-so” story about the OUN that removes the anti-Semitism, ethnic cleansing, fascism, and totalitarianism, and highlights the national liberation struggle. The piece is a microanalysis of myth-making in process.

The debate over Stepan Bandera is an extensive one in Ukraine and central Europe. Rossoliński-Liebe’s biography Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist: Fascism, Genocide, and Cult has itself stimulated a great deal of discussion, and some of that debate is captured in a special issue of the Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, De-Mythologizing Bandera: Towards a Scholarly History of the Ukrainian Nationalist Movement(2015 1:2; link). The editor, Oleksandr Zaitsev, makes a number of important points in his introduction to the volume. “Who was Stepan Bandera: an uncompromising revolutionary, a freedom fighter, or a fascist and an ideologue of ‘genocidal nationalism’? Not only historians, but also ordinary Ukrainians diverge radically in their answers to this question. As opinion polls demonstrate, of all historical figures about whom respondents are asked, Bandera divides Ukrainians most of all (the figures who most unite Ukrainians in negative attitudes are Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin)” (42). Zaitsev notes that R-L makes a sustained case for the “dark” interpretation of Bandera — as racist, fascist, and organizer of mass killings of civilians (412); but he also notes that R-L’s account is solidly grounded in historical evidence. His primary critical point is whether “fascist” is the right category for describing the authoritarian, racist nationalism advocated by Bandera and the OUN.

In “Bandera’s Tempting Shadow” André Härtel’s view of R-L’s main contribution is substantive and sensible: the depth and credibility of R-L’s case for the facts of Nazi collaboration, murderous ethnic cleansing, and willing collaboration in the mass killings of Jews. “The central contribution of the book is however the deep study, evidence, and coherent interpretation Rossoliński-Liebe provides on the mass atrocities committed by members of the OUN-B, the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), and other Ukrainian radical nationalist and paramilitary formations during the Second World War” (423). And this is key: the OUN-B (and Bandera) cannot be rehabilitated, because the organization and the leader did in fact commit unforgivable atrocities.

Notwithstanding the OUN’s prior quest for national liberation, neither its most important ideologists nor Bandera himself ever left any doubt that a future Ukrainian state should be a totalitarian dictatorship based on fascist principles. For those aims, ethnic cleansing and genocide were seen as legitimate means by the “Providnyk” and the rest of the OUN/UPA leadership. (426)

Härtel also raises the question of the relevance of the “memory debate” for contemporary politics in Ukraine:

Almost inevitably, Rossoliński-Liebe’s book is also a valuable contribution to debates among political scientists interested in post-Maidan Ukraine, in the increasingly heterogeneous development of the post-Soviet space, and in the still highly interconnected politics of memory and identity formation of the region. For example, it raises the question of the degree to which contemporary Ukrainian voters are still attracted by radical right-wing ideologies and parties such as the Svoboda Party, or how Ukrainian nationalist debates were affected by the experience of independence in 1991, by the transformation of the modern Ukrainian state ever since, and finally by the war against Russian-supported separatism since 2014. (427)

Given the virulence and spread of extremist populist nationalisms in other parts of Europe, this is a critical question: can Ukraine choose a liberal democratic path, or will populist nationalists play the cards of racism and nationalism that were potent in the 1930s and the 2010s? And, as Härtel observes, the legacy of Bandera and the OUN is deeply divisive between eastern Ukraine and western Ukraine today — further complicating the task of creating a cohesive Ukrainian polity.

The final contribution to the issue is a long essay by Yuri Radchenko, “From Staryi Uhryniv to Munich”. Radchenko has many criticisms of R-L’s book, often having to do with sources R-L did not consult. (In his introduction Zaitsev addresses this point and takes much of the air out of it, noting correctly that no study can consult all the relevant sources.) Radchenko also takes issue with several points in R-L’s indictment of OUN in the period 1941-43. He doesn’t like R-L’s use of the concepts of fascism, genocidal nationalism, or national-conservatism, because he finds them under-specified; he is unclear how important “biological racism” was to OUN doctrines (434); he thinks the Second Great Congress in Krakow March 1941 (435) was more nuanced on the question of the relationship of OUN to the Nazis; he takes issue with R-L’s account of OUN’s actions in Galicia and Volhynia (438); and so on for a number of relatively small points. Most substantive of Radchenko’s criticisms is his point that R-L focuses on OUN in western Ukraine, whereas

Rossoliński-Liebe writes little about the OUN-M’s actions in central Ukraine (pp. 242–45) or about the Banderites’ service in the ranks of the Ukrainian auxiliary policy (pp. 256–60), and he does not touch at all on the topic of the participation of members of “expedition groups” in the creation of police and self-government organs in east and south Ukraine. In some cities of east Ukraine Banderites were so well entrenched in police and self-government organs that they remained in place there until the end of the German occupation. True, it was necessary for them to conceal their party affiliation (this applies to the Banderites from autumn 1941, and the Melnykites from winter 1941–42). (438)

This point about the regional focus of R-L’s work seems accurate, and it would indeed be very interesting to know more about the actions of OUN-B units and personnel in eastern Ukraine (closer to Soviet control and the Red Army).

Least convincing of Radchenko’s criticisms is his suggestion that R-L’s claims about OUN-UPA involvement in mass killings of Jews are uncertain (438). Radchenko seems to concede the point himself, and yet he casts doubt on R-L’s evidence for the claim. Here is Radchenko’s own statement: “There is no doubt that the Banderite UPA took part in such actions, and that in 1944 it killed ‘its own’ Jewish doctors because the Security Service (SB) suspected them of sympathizing with the Soviet regime. It is significant that for the Ukrainian rebels who initiated the struggle against the Germans, Jews remained ideological enemies” (438). Why then does Radchenko suggest that R-L’s case is unproven? Evidently because survivors of these massacres were unable to accurately identify their attackers; were they “Banderites” or just “Ukrainians”?

These academic contributions to the “memory debate” are very important if we believe that telling the truth about the past is crucial for a people. Myth-making and lies are not intellectually or morally acceptable means for creating a collective identity. But here is a final point: Ukraine is not unified in its national memory. The regional divisions within Ukraine are evident in this electoral map from the 2004 Presidential Election.

Generally speaking, the population of western Ukraine is more oriented towards the European Union, while eastern and southern parts of Ukraine are more inclined toward Russia. The Holodomor affected the two regions differently, leaving longterm differences in memories and blame. Yushchenko was elected on the basis of overwhelming support from western Ukraine, while Yanukovych received overwhelming support from eastern and southern Ukraine. And it would appear that western Ukraine is more susceptible to the myths of a rehabilitated nationalist political identity (OUN without the racism and anti-Semitism) than is eastern Ukraine — this is presumably why Yushchenko took the steps of honoring Bandera and Shukhevych in the first place. People in eastern Ukraine, by contrast, have been influenced by Soviet and Russian myths of their own about the “fascist pro-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists” since 1941, and the successor to the Ukrainian Communist Party remains strong in these regions. The issues of Ukrainian nationalism, then, divide the country deeply. Mykola Borovyk focuses on these differences of memory across Ukraine — across region and across generation — in his contribution to The Burden of the Past: History, Memory, and Identity in Contemporary Ukraine, “(In)different Memory: World War II in the Memory of the Last War’s Generation in Ukraine”.

Strange defeat

One of the consequential puzzles of the Second World War was the sudden, catastrophic collapse of the French army following German invasion in 1940. This is the subject of Marc Bloch’s Strange Defeat, written in 1940, and it is an event of major historical importance and mystery. The mystery is this: France was a powerful military force, it had declared war against Germany following the Nazi invasion of Poland, it had ample warning that Germany would wage war against it soon following the invasion of Poland, and it had invested heavily in defensive materiel against an anticipated German attack. And yet when the attack came in May 1940, France was surprised, French armies were quickly defeated, and France capitulated after only six weeks of fighting.

Most people who have written on Bloch’s account have focused on the high-level hypotheses to be found in the book: incompetence in the French high command, political dysfunction within the French elite, and a predilection for “Hitler rather than Blum” among the elites. However, upon rereading, it is evident that Bloch has other ideas about the failure of the French military besides these large conflicts within French politics and society. As a staff officer with responsibilities for the organization of logistics, Bloch had ample opportunity to observe the behavior and decision-making of line officers and staff officers. And he focuses a great deal of attention on issues having to do with the mindset and expectations of French military men: what they understand about the battle situation, how they anticipate future needs, and how they communicate with other important actors.

The ‘thinking oneself into the other fellow’s shoes’ is always a very difficult form of mental gymnastics, and it is not confined to men who occupy a special position in the military hierarchy. But it would be foolish to deny that staff officers as a whole have been a good deal to blame in this matter of sympathetic understanding. Their failure, when they did fail, was, however, due–I feel pretty sure–not so much to contempt as to lack of imagination and a tendency to take refuge from the urgency of fact in abstractions. (34)

So cognitive and mental framework shortcomings rise to the very top in Bloch’s analysis of French army failures in the conduct of the war:

What drove our armies to disaster was the cumulative effect of a great number of different mistakes. One glaring characteristic is, however, common to all of them. Our leaders, or those who acted for them, were incapable of thinking in terms of a new war. In other words, the German triumph was, essentially, a triumph of intellect — and it is that which makes it so peculiarly serious. (36)

These limitations of imagination and worldview issues were worsened by what Bloch identifies as a crippling organizational deficiency in the French army — the strict separation between line officers and staff officers. This led to a very large separation in their worldviews, expectations, and ways of thinking about military matters between line and staff officers. Neither group knew what the other group was thinking or presupposing about the complex conditions of war in which they operated.

One simple and obvious remedy for this state of affairs would have been to establish a system which would have made it possible for small groups of officers to serve, turn and turn about, in the front line and at H.Q. But senior generals dislike having the personnel of their staffs changed too often. It should be remembered that in 1915 and 1916 their opposition to any reform along these lines led to an almost complete divorce between the outlook of the regimental and the staff officer. (35)

Associated with these cognitive framework failures was the French military’s failure to adjust to the new “tempo of war” created by German tactics. Bloch recognized through his own experience that the German strategy relied on a tempo of action that outpaced the ability of the French high command and army to react effectively. “From the beginning to the end of the war, the metronome at headquarters was always set at too slow a beat” (43).

This “tempo” problem was not restricted only to the high command:

But it would not be fair to confine these criticisms to the High Command. Generally speaking, the combatant troops were no more successful than the staff in adjusting their movements or their tactical appreciations to the speed at which the Germans moved. (47)

This too can be unpacked into an organizational point: the line officers throughout the chain of command had too little training and readiness for initiative and adaptation; and when plans went wrong, chaos ensued. “They [the Germans] relied on action and on improvisation. We, on the other hand, believed in doing nothing and in behaving as we always had behaved” (49). Bloch is explicit in recognizing that initiative and improvisation could have substantially improved the French position:

That is why the Germans, true to their doctrine of speed, tended more and more to move their shock elements along the main arteries. It was, therefore, absolutely unnecessary to cover our front with a line extending for hundreds of kilometres, almost impossible to man, and terribly easy to pierce. On the other hand, the invader might have been badly mauled by a few islands of resistance well sited along the main roads, adequately camouflaged, sufficiently mobile, and armed with a few machine-guns and anti-tank artillery, or even with the humble 75! (50-51)

And the battlefield consequences of the French military’s organizational discouragement of initiative and adaptation were severe:

But I am very much afraid that where this sort of self-government and mutual understanding did not exist, contacts between units and their senior formations, or, on the same level, between one unit and another, left a good deal to be desired. I have more than once heard regimental officers complain that they were left too long without orders, and it is very certain–as I have already shown by citing notorious examples–that the staff was imperfectly informed about what was happening on their section of the front. (66)

Bloch’s account has many other strands of organizational observation concerning features of the French army that led to poor performance — about “discipline of troops”, about the intelligence organization, and about the poor liaison relationships that had been developed between French and British army staff.

There is an important lesson to draw here: Bloch’s account is usually read as an indictment of French politics and society in the 1930s, but not as a detailed military and organizational study of failure. And yet, it is clear that Bloch has provided a great deal of content that contributes to exactly this kind of micro-level analysis of military dysfunction. Bloch, it turns out, was an astute organizational observer.

There is an interesting parallel between the collapse in 1940 and the comparably dramatic collapse of French armies in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian war (link). In both wars there was an obstinate rigidity in the French general staff that impeded adaptiveness to the changing and unexpected circumstances of the war that quickly engulfed them. Michael Howard’s excellent history, The Franco-Prussian War provides extensive details about the sources of military failure in 1870.

It is worth observing that the defeat of France was not the only “strange defeat” that occurred between 1939 and 1941. Poland’s very weak defense against Hitler’s invasion in 1939, Stalin’s unconvincing effort to invade Finland in 1939, and the stunning successes of Hitler’s Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 all represent military catastrophes that were on their face unlikely. In the Barbarossa case, much of the explanation falls on Stalin directly: his murderous purges of the Red Army officer corps in 1937, his mulish refusal to accept intelligence about a likely German invasion in summer 1941, his disastrous interference in strategy, placement of armies, and his unconditional orders that made maneuver impossible all combined to produce catastrophe in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Russia itself in the first six months of the invasion. This suggests that perhaps explaining successful largescale military undertakings is harder than explaining failure and defeat. There are many ways to fail in a large, complex and highly coordinated activity like an invasion, and only a few ways to succeed.

Inclusivity as a democratic goal

Many organizations express the goal of embracing diversity and inclusiveness. This is an admirable goal, but it is often only weakly pursued in practical terms. Efforts towards this end will be stronger in enhancing diversity and inclusiveness if we think carefully about what we have in mind when we think of that better future we are trying to create. Let’s think about the inclusive university in particular.

We are a multi-racial, multi-cultural society. The legacies of race and discrimination are heavy upon us. We want the twenty-first century university to be genuinely multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic. We want these “multi’s” because our country itself is multicultural, and because we have a national history that has not done a good job of creating an environment of equality and democracy across racial and ethnic lines. And we want the universities to change, because they are key locations where the values and skills of our future leaders and citizens will be formed. So if universities do not succeed in transforming themselves around the realities of race and difference, we cannot expect the larger society to succeed in this difficult challenge either.

Universities are social environments. We bring with us the stereotypes and attitudes of the society in which we live, which often embody negative assumptions about other groups. And yet we wish to create a community in which students, faculty, and staff are actively accepting of one another, actively interested in learning from each other, and eager to work together on important projects.

We can change the culture and practices of the university in ways that enhance inclusiveness and equality. And if we succeed, our society will become more inclusive and equal as well.

We are creating the future, for better or worse. We have to create the kind of democratic, embracing society we want to live in. We want community, mutual respect, compassion for each other, and a civic culture that values all of us. But this is rarely true in America today.

What is inclusion? It is a social environment that deliberately and actively embodies the idea of mutual respect and concern. It values engagement with others, and it actively facilitates the creation of environments of learning and interaction in which every member feels welcome, equal, and valued. It is an environment that cultivates social trust.

Inclusiveness is more than diversity. It is an institution and culture in which people from all social groups — race, nationality, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity — are fully embraced and respected. It is an environment in which every individual is afforded the opportunity and space to do his or her best work, unimpeded by stereotype or discriminatory arrangements.

The challenge of creating a truly inclusive university is a difficult one for a variety of reasons. Important among these is the difficulty of overcoming limitations of perspective from the various groups, including especially the majority group. Practices that seem innocuous and neutral to majority group members are often experienced as demeaning and limiting by non-majority group members — what some students now refer to as “micro-aggressions”. In order to improve our university culture we must listen to each other with humility and respect, and we must craft new shared values and new ways of working together across the lines of race, ethnicity, wealth, religion, and gender and sexuality that so often divide us.

A university can be a very different place in twenty years — more democratic, more inclusive, and more diverse. But to achieve these goals we must embrace new thinking about the challenges that we ourselves create for achieving these ideals. We must be honest and humble in recognizing these challenges.

Working towards these goals is important for many reasons. But perhaps at this time in our history, one of the most important reasons has to do with the currents of racism, xenophobia, and bigotry that have become so prominent in American politics and society in the past decade. Our democracy is weakened by hatred and intolerance. It can be strengthened by a genuine change of collective values — values that allow us to embrace diversity and inclusion, and to embrace the strengths of our multicultural society.

De-mythologizing Ukraine under Nazi occupation

Ukraine was quickly and violently occupied by the Nazi military in 1941 in the onset of Hitler’s Barbarossa plan for defeat of the Soviet Union, and the most intense and extensive period of the campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe quickly ensued. Massacres of the Jewish populations of villages, towns, and cities throughout the Ukraine occurred within weeks and months, from Miropol (link) to Kiev and Babi Yar. The Ukrainian people suffered enormously during the years of fighting from 1941 to 1944. But it is also clear from history that Ukrainian people participated in Nazi atrocities and war goals in numerous ways. Since the 1990s there have been major efforts by Nationalist parties in Ukraine to sanitize its World War II history, and to provide a mythical and heroic narrative for nationalist Ukrainian military organizations and units including the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). (OUN was a far-right, pro-fascist organization. The UPA was created in 1942 as the paramilitary arm of the OUN-B (the radical wing of OUN led by Stepan Bandera).)

Anna Wylegala is one of the historians who has made a serious effort to come to grips with the politics of memory in Ukraine since the 1990s. Her co-edited volume (Wylegala and Glowacka-Grajper, The Burden of the Past: History, Memory, and Identity in Contemporary Ukraine), provides an important contribution to a better and more honest rendering of Ukraine’s history during 1941-44. As the editors make clear in their introduction, Ukraine’s history during World War II has been subject to two different kinds of lies and myth-making efforts: the Soviet effort to paint Ukraine as thoroughly pro-Nazi and fascist from 1941 to 1944, and the post-Soviet Ukrainian nationalist effort to paint Ukrainian militia and military formations as purely nationalist and defensive. And the memory of these events in different regions of Ukraine became indistinct following the end of the war: “After the war, the memory of some of these atrocities became hidden or even forbidden during the communist era, which itself has also generated a new set of tragic memories” (Wylegala and Glowacka-Graijper, p. 2). Further, the ultra-nationalist parties that have gained dominance in Ukraine, including Svoboda, have a very distinctive interest in securing their view of the facts in the public memory. What is difficult to reconstruct is the historical truth of the matter.

The situation in Ukraine during World War II was undeniably complex. As Snyder emphasizes frequently, it was subject to “double occupation”, eventually triple occupation, under Stalin, Hitler, and Stalin again. It had been devastated by the effects of forced collectivization, mass starvation, and mass deportations by the Stalinist regime only a few years earlier. And — again paraphrasing Snyder — it was subject to “state smashing”, with almost no functioning institutions of state by the time of the Nazi invasion. Serhii Plokhy notes the strategic alliance that was possible between the Nazis and the OUN nationalists in The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. “Many in Ukraine welcomed the German advance in the summer of 1941, hoping for the end of the terror unleashed by the Soviet occupation authorities in the years leading up to the war. This was true not only for the recently occupied regions of western Ukraine but also for central and eastern Ukraine, where the population never forgave the regime for the horrors of the famine and collectivization” (264). So there was an existing basis of potential support among Ukrainians for the invading Nazi forces, along the lines of the wisdom, “the enemy of our enemy is our friend”. And OUN-B, soon after its split from the smaller and more moderate faction of OUN, quickly formed common cause with the Germans: “In February 1941, they [Bandera’s faction] made a deal with the leaders of German military intelligence (Abwehr) to form two battalions of special operations forces from their supporters. One battalion, Nachtigall, was among the first German troops to enter Lviv on June 29. The next day it took part in the proclamation of Ukrainian independence by members of the Bandera faction of the OUN. This spelled the end of German cooperation with Bandera’s followers” (Plokhy, 264).

So it is true — the history of Ukraine in 1940-44 is complicated. And yet it is crucial to confront the realities of Ukrainian actions during the war honestly. Honestly confronting its history, as Vasily Grossman insisted, is the only possible foundation for a nation’s creating a better future for itself. Here are a few important contributions from several historians who have attempted to do exactly this.Timothy Snyder was one of the earliest English-speaking historians to examine Ukrainian complicity in atrocities in 1943 in his 2003 “The Causes of Ukrainian-Polish Ethnic Cleansing 1943” (link). This article was one of the earliest expressions of the line of argument that Snyder developed later in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

The ethnic cleansing carried out by the OUN-B against Poles in 1943 was a deliberate strategy aimed at securing an ethnically pure post-war Ukraine:

Yet by April 1943, after three and a half years of war, the Ukrainian nationalist Mykola Lebed’ proposed ‘to cleanse the entire revolutionary territory of the Polish population’. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukrains’ka Povstans’ka Armiia, UPA) then cleansed the Polish population from Volhynia. Ukrainian partisans killed about fifty thousand Volhynian Poles and forced tens of thousands more to flee in 1943. (202)

The OUN-B, true as ever to its radicalism, interpreted the party programme in a more decisive fashion than OUN-M, and followed a more ruthless strategy. It meant to pre-empt the return of Polish statehood by expelling the Poles from west Ukraine before the war was over. (213)

Snyder describes the rapid process through which OUN-B formed the paramilitary UPA in March 1943 and initiated violent ethnic cleansing almost immediately. It is interesting to note that Plokhy expresses an agnostic position on the violence that occurred in Volhynia in 1943: “Ukrainian and Polish historians still argue over whether the OUN leadership sanctioned Ukrainian attacks on Polish villages and, if so, on what level. There is no doubt, however, that most victims of the ethnic cleansing were Poles. Estimates of Ukrainians killed as a result of Polish actions in Galicia and Volhynia vary between 15,000 and 30,000, whereas the estimates for Polish victims are between 60,000 and 90,000 — two to three times as high” (276). Plokhy’s book was published in 2015 — twelve years later than Snyder’s article. So his agnostic stance about the role of OUN is puzzling; does he disagree with Snyder’s reasoning and historical scholarship? 

John-Paul Himka provides additional historical detail concerning the murderous ethnic cleansing of Poles and Jews conducted by the UPA / OUN during 1943 in “Former Ukrainian Policemen in the Ukrainian National Insurgency: Continuing the Holocaust outside German Service” (link). Himka demonstrates that a significant portion of the paramilitary forces involved in these actions were Ukrainian policemen who had deserted en masse from German police units within the preceding months, and had already had extensive training and experience in annihilating villages. UPA and its political leadership in OUN-B pursued strategies of murderous ethnic cleansing against Poles and Jews using these and other paramilitary forces. Himka reports testimony from a Ukrainian prisoner: “In addition to continuing to murder Poles while ostensibly tolerating national minorities, OUN and UPA remained largely antisemitic. Responding to Soviet interrogators, Ukrainian prisoner Volodymyr Porendovsky stated that in 1941-1942, OUN openly preached a racist ideology, called for the annihilation of the Jews, and took part in their murder” (144).

Himka provides extensive evidence of the killings of Jews and Poles by UPA forces in the forests of Volhynia. Here is testimony from a Jewish survivor from the forests of Volhynia: “Vera Shchetinkova recalled how she hid with about eighty-five other Jews in the general vicinity ofSarny, a raion capital in Rivne oblast, in mid-January 1944. The Banderites discovered their bunkers and decided to destroy all the Jews who lived in them. In her view, the Banderites wanted no witnesses left when the Soviets came” (145). And another account of witness testimony: “Many Jews found refuge in the houses abandoned by the Poles, while others hid in the nearby forest. Jasphy estimated that there were several hundred Jewish refugees in the vicinity in the fall of 1943. They made contact with the Banderites, who said that they would not kill Jews, so the surviving Jews of the area went to work for them. This lasted until early January 1944. On the 4th of the month, she learned that all the Jews living near the former Polish houses had been killed by the Ukrainians (she in the meantime had moved to another part of the forest). She and a few others hid in the hay in a barn. The next day, some Ukrainians came searching for them with pitchforks, but missed them by a meter. She stayed in that barn for eight days. In her opinion, the Banderites had deliberately gathered the Jews together to kill them” (145).

Here is a very interesting piece of historiographic reasoning by Himka to rebut the Ukrainian nationalist claim that it was the Germans who committed these acts of murder against the Jews in the forest:

However, overriding Friedman’s doubts and Shankovsky’s defensive explanation are at least two key arguments: the testimonies generally refer to a time after the summer of 1943, when the German offensive was said to have occurred; and more testimonies of the liquidation of the labor camps and the luring of Jews from hiding have come to light, indicating a pattern of activity. We do not have testimonies, on the other hand, from Jews who survived the UPA labor camps and witnessed no attempt at liquidation; nor do we have any survivor testimonies indicating that the Germans liquidated UPA camps in the crucial period of winter 1943-1944. (150)

Here is Himka’s assessment of the survivor testimony evidence: “Considering the context, the number of testimonies that are extant is impressive and indicates that these systematic murders of Jews must have been a widespread feature of the Holocaust in Volhynia. I see no reason to doubt the essential story that these testimonies tell” (149). Himka acknowledges that there is a wide range of uncertainty concerning the number of Jewish victims of these campaigns, ranging from a few thousand to a few tens of thousands. But the intentions and willingness of UPA-M were clear: to continue a campaign of mass murder against Jews and Poles even after the Germans had lost their military foothold in Ukraine.

Swedish historian Per Anders Rudling addresses a different part of Ukraine’s troubled history: the collaboration of Ukrainian military and paramilitary forces with the Nazi occupiers of Ukraine. In particular, Rudling focuses on the military goals and activities of the Ukrainian Waffen-SS Galizien unit. Rudling elucidates the historical realities that are concealed by current attempts by nationalist politicians in Ukraine to sanitize the Waffen-SS Galician. His account, “‘They Defended Ukraine’: The 14.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS(Galizische Nr. 1) Revisited”, is published in The Journal of Slavic Military Studies (link). (Here is a short account of Rudling’s findings about new efforts at mythologizing the Waffen-SS in Ukraine and Estonia, posted in Defending Historylink.) Nationalists have tried to represent the Waffen-SS Galician as a Ukrainian self-defense force. However, Rudling demonstrates in great detail that it was fully incorporated into (and loyally committed to) Nazi war aims and plans. (Snyder also refers briefly to the formation of a Galician Waffen-SS division (link; 214).) Rudling goes into substantial detail about the history and behavior of this unit. He documents several crucial and historically well established facts: The Ukrainian Waffen-SS division was recruited specifically in support of Hitler and his war goals agains the USSR; the unit actively conveyed Nazi ideology, ethnic cleansing, and anti-Semitism through training of its soldiers and officers; and the Ukrainian Waffen-SS committed mass killings and atrocities against Ukrainian Jews and Poles.

The organizers of the Waffen-SS Galizien emphasized the importance of the unit for Hitler’s New Europe and a Nazi victory: ‘All call-ups to Ukrainians for the Division have been geared towards their planned deployment, not for Ukraine or Ukrainian culture, but rather as the contribution of the Ukrainian ethnic group in the battle to defend against Bolshevism and for a new Europe.’ (338-339)

Rudling makes it clear that the effort to romanticize the Ukrainian Waffen-SS as a purely nationalist military organization devoted to securing the independence of Ukraine is simply unsupportable. Here is just one well-documented atrocity committed by the Ukrainian Waffen-SS: the massacre of Poles and Jews at the Polish village of Huta Pieniacka, near Lviv:

A 2003 investigation by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance into the massacre concluded that:

“the crime was committed by the 4th battalion of the 14th division on February 28. On that day, early in the morning, soldiers of this division, dressed in white, masking outfits, surrounded the village. The village was cross-fired by artillery. SS-men of the 14th Division of the SS “Galizien” entered the village, shooting the civilians rounded up at a church. The civilians, mostly women and children, were divided and locked in barns that were set on fire. Those who tried to run away were killed. Witnesses interrogated by the prosecutors of the Head Commission described the morbid details of the act. The crime was committed against women, children, and newborn babies.”

In 2005, the Institute of History at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences arrived at the same conclusion—that the 4th SS Police regiment indeed killed the civilian inhabitants in Huta Pieniacka. (347)

In addition to the atrocities committed by the Waffen-SS Galizien troops, Rudling provides evidence showing that UPA bands participated in the murders that took place during those two days of wanton killing:

The participants from the UPA bands, who at that time had arrived in the village . . . together with the commander of the Volhynian band also surrounded the village and did that, what the Germans did, that is burned houses and various buildings, and drove the residents into the Roman Catholic Church. Those who tried to hide were shot on the spot, and shots were fired at those running. After that, as the ring that encircled the village was dissolved and the operation came to an end, the residents were being convoyed to the barn and the houses, locked up, and burned. There were four or five barns, filled with the residents of Huta Pieniacka, about 700–750 people, all of whom were burned. The above mentioned pogrom continued from eight in the morning until two or three in the afternoon. (351-352)

Rudling provides documentation of other atrocities committed by the Waffen-SS Galician in eastern Poland, including the burning of villages and murder of all inhabitants. And he documents the engagement of the division in Slovakia, conducting similar “pacification” campaigns against Slovak nationalist activism, including repression of the Slovak National Uprising.

Rudling summarizes his findings and recommendations in these terms:

While not claiming to provide a full and complete account of the unit’s history, this essay sets out some of the problems associated with the partial rehabilitation of the unit. Issues such as the unit’s institutionalized racism and anti-Semitism, its commitment to Adolf Hitler and the victory of Nazi Germany, and the involvement of officers, soldiers, and affiliated police regiments in atrocities call for more research and further inquiry into the unit’s past. The problem it raises are not only historical, but also political and ethical. (368)

Here again it is interesting to consider Plokhy’s treatment of the Waffen-SS Galician division of Ukrainians in The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. Here too he takes a less critical view than one might expect (as was noted above with respect to the responsibility of OUN-B for murderous Polish ethnic cleansing). Plokhy does not emphasize the Nazi ideology of the division or the atrocities in which it was involved. “Backed by mainstream Ukrainian politicians and presented to Ukrainian youth as an alternative to going to the forest to join the Bandera insurgents or staying under imminent Soviet occupation, enrollment in the division seemed a lesser evil to parents who sent their sons to join its ranks. Most would soon have reason to regret their choice. Trained and commanded by German officers, the division got its baptism by fire in July 1944 near the Galician town of Brody” (279). This interpretation seems to line up more closely with the “rehabilitationist” line than the “face the dark facts of history” line.

In light of the real and documented history of the Waffen-SS Galician division, its loyalty to the war aims and person of Adolph Hitler, and its involvement in multiple atrocities against civilians in Ukraine, Poland, and Slovakia, the “rehabilitation” of the organization is roughly as repellent as the rehabilitation of the Nazi Party itself. These were not “freedom fighters”; they were willing auxiliaries within Hitler’s unrestrained campaigns of murder and extinction. This history needs to be remembered in its painful details.

None of these sources have shed light on another form of Ukrainian responsibility during the Holocaust, the role of Ukrainian Auxiliary Police to carry out the transport, confinement, and murder of Jews. Gabriel Finder and Alexander Prusin address this question in “Collaboration in Eastern Galicia: The Ukrainian police and the Holocaust” (link). Finder and Prusin look at the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police (UAP) as the “institutional epicentre of Ukrainian collusion with the Nazis in this region in the destruction of the Jews” (95). They believe that the readiness of Ukrainians to enter the UAP and to serve as facilitators of mass murder of Jews derived from the nationalist ideology demanding ethnic purity in Ukraine, and (like Jan Gross) an economic impulse to take advantage of the sacking of Jewish property and lives, on the other hand. “An intended consequence of this partnership was the eradication of the region’s Jews, in which the Ukrainian police actively took part” (96). “When Germans expelled Jews from their apartments and shops in Lwów in conjunction with the Ukrainian auxiliary police, Ukrainians as well Germans moved into them” (97). 

Here is the description of UAP roles in the execution of mass killings of Jews in Ukraine, as described by Finder and Prusin:

From its inception, the Ukrainian police played an integral part in the German destruction of the Jews in eastern Galicia, especially in ghetto clearances (Aktionen). They would form a cordon around ghettos on the threshold of mass deportations to discourage and impede escape. They apprehended and herded Jews to the edge of town for mass executions or to the tracks of railway stations, which they guarded while Jews were being killed or loaded into trains. During these operations they did not recoil from acts of violence, including killing. On a number of occasions Ukrainian policemen often implored their German superiors to allow them to kill Jews during Aktionen. Their role in the destruction of east Galician Jewry was not, however, limited to Aktionen. They maintained surveillance in Jewish neighbourhoods. They demanded their share of spoils from defenceless Jews. They kidnapped Jews off the streets for shipment to labour camps, which they helped guard. They pursued Jews in hiding, including those hidden by fellow Ukrainians. They combed the surroundings of labour camps for Jewish escapees from the camps. They joined raids into the forests in pursuit of Jewish partisans. They frequently killed Jews on their own initiative. (106-107)

Several fundamental facts about Ukraine’s World War II history today seem undeniable. (1) There was substantial collaboration between Ukrainian nationalist parties in 1941 and the Nazi occupation, and Ukrainian nationalists regarded the Red Army as being as much of a threat to Ukrainian interests as the Nazi armies. (2) The OUN was committed to violent ethnic cleansing and anti-Semitism throughout its history. This included the explicit intention of expelling the Polish population from the region. (3) The formation of the Waffen-SS Galizische division represented a full engagement between volunteer Ukrainian forces and Nazi military and genocidal aims. (4) Ukrainian nationalist parties — the OUN — were strongly engaged in the goal of driving Poles out of western Ukraine, and in 1943 OUN-B forces engaged in a merciless campaign of ethnic cleansing in Volhynia to that end. These efforts included organized attempts to kill the surviving Jews taking refuge in the forests of Volhynia. (5) The “triple occupation” of Ukraine created surprising configurations and alliances, and as Snyder documents, many Ukrainian police and administrators who had served the Soviet system prior to the German invasion, also served the German military administration.

Greenblatt’s new historicism

Stephen Greenblatt is a pathbreaking literary critic. But since the 1990s I’ve also looked at Greenblatt as a genuinely innovative and insightful contributor to the historical social sciences as well. He poses questions that are enormously important for anyone trying to make sense of humanity in history. What is a cultural identity? How do background social, cultural, and ideological conditions shape the individual’s mental frameworks? 

Greenblatt’s advocacy and formulation of the “New Historicism” is an important contribution to literary criticism. But it is likewise a very important contribution to a topic of current interest to me, the question of the making of human cultures in concrete and heterogeneous terms. Nasrullah Mambrol does an excellent job of providing an exposition of the main ideas of the new historicism in a series of essays in Literary Theory and Criticism, including “New Historicism” (2020; link), “New Historicism: A Brief Note” (2016; link), and “Stephen Greenblatt and New Historicism” (2017; link).)

Of special interest to current philosophy of social science is the heterogeneity and plasticity that the “New Historicism” presupposes concerning cultures and worldviews. Here is how Mambrol (2017) summarizes this idea:

In contrast with this earlier formalism and historicism, the New Historicism questions its own methodological assumptions, and is less concerned with treating literary works as models of organic unity than as “fields of force, places of dissension and shifting interests, occasions for the jostling of orthodox and subversive impulses.” New Historicism also challenges the hierarchical distinction between “literary foreground” and “political background,” as well as between artistic and other kinds of production. It acknowledges that when we speak of “culture,” we are speaking of a “complex network of institutions, practices, and beliefs.”

Mambrol highlights this feature of “world-view heterogeneity” in his “New Historicism” piece (2020):

Unlike the prewar historicists, they [the New Historicists] refused to assume that Renaissance texts mirrored, from a safe distance, a unified and coherent world-view that was held by a whole population, or at least by an entire literate class. (Mambrol, 2020)

Culture and worldview are not “unitary” entities; rather, there are important differences across a population and within a generation with respect to very important aspects of identity. This is relevant to the interpretation of literature because it implies that the critic needs to try to work out how the author related to “the complex network of institutions” of culture that were prevalent in his or her lifetime. Here is Mambrol:

[Greenblatt] argues that the scene in which his authors lived was controlled by a variety of authorities— institutions such as the church, court, family, and colonial administration, as well as agencies such as God or a sacred book—and that these powers came into conflict because they endorsed competing patterns for organizing social experience. From Greenblatt’s New Historicist perspective, the rival codes and practices that these authorities sponsored were cultural constructions, collective fictions that communities created to regulate behavior and make sense of their world; however, the powers themselves tended to view their customs as natural imperatives, and they sought to represent their enemies as aliens or demonic parodists of genuine order. (Mambrol 2020)

To put it simply, there was no unitary mentality of sixteenth-century English culture; rather, there were multiple narratives and texts with rather different implications for the individual. We might ask, though Mambrol does not, whether all such variants were equally powerful, or whether one or more were “hegemonic”; and the answer seems obvious: powerful institutions like the church and the state also had powerful means for conveying the lineaments of their preferred ideology. But hegemony does not imply univocal acceptance, and as Gramsci insisted, resistant voices and thoughts are possible even within “hegemonic” ideological forces. This means, as Greenblatt is very eloquent in discovering, that subversive and critical ideas in literature can emerge from a contentious set of ideologies, some of which are “hegemonic”. (See James Scott’s similar view about “hidden transcripts” in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcriptslink.)

Mambrol suggests that Greenblatt’s 1987 essay “Towards a Poetics of Culture” is an important place where readers can find clarification and amplification of the purpose and ideas of the New Historicism (link). The essay is published with a few minor changes as chapter one of H. Aram Veeser’s The New Historicism. Greenblatt is emphatic about several points. The New Historicism is not a new “theory” of criticism or of the relationship between literature and the social environment; it is not a manifesto. Instead, it is a call for recognition of the fluidity of culture and worldview, and the many-many relationships that exist between the many cultures of a time and the literatures and artistic creations of the time. Literature emerges from concrete social and mental arrangements in society; but the relationships that exist are not deterministic, and — crucially — different authors respond to different versions of the mental frameworks of their time. Here is Greenblatt:

I propose that the general question addressed by Jameson and Lyotard—what is the historical relation between art and society or between one institutionally demarcated discursive practice and another?—does not lend itself to a single, theoretically satisfactory answer of the kind that Jameson and Lyotard are trying to provide. Or rather theoretical satisfaction here seems to depend upon a utopian vision that collapses the contradictions of history into a moral imperative. (kl 370)

His critique of both Jameson (New Marxism) and Lyotard (Post-structuralism) is that both systems are flawed precisely because they hope that a single abstract theory of capitalism can answer the question of the relationship between literature and society. No! Rather, historical inquiry — inquiry that is sensitive to detail, to contingency, and to the heterogeneity of social and structural realities — will suffice to provide a partial answer to a question such as: How did Shakespeare’s cultural and mental world influence his plays? Historical research, not theoretical development and application, can allow for meaningful and illuminating answers to particular questions like these; and there are no general theoretical answers to the big question: How do social institutions influence or determine artistic and literary creation? 

These comments have to do with literary interpretation. But the point is relevant for social scientists for a similar reason: rather than asking, “how do white working class men think about Donald Trump?” or “how do Latina women relate to the Democratic Party?”, we need to be receptive to the idea that there is no single answer to the question. There is variation across each of these groups. At the same time, the ideological struggle between “white supremacy”, “Reaganite rejection of government power”, and “adherence to liberal democratic values” reflects a hugely important battleground of identities and mental frameworks in the contemporary United States. Greenblatt’s masterful analysis of the currents of authoritarianism in contemporary US politics, and the Trump presidency in particular, through his analysis of Shakespeare’s tyrants, is brilliant (link). And the aptness of Greenblatt’s treatment of Richard III as a foil for Donald Trump illustrates an important point: tyranny depends on shaping values and expectations in the public. And for mysterious reasons, it is hard to dispute the fact that Trump and his acolytes shifted the terms of public thinking about the state and political legitimacy. What seemed like unhinged bravado when candidate Trump uttered these words now seems only an obvious truth today (as quoted in The Guardian in 2018): “US Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is so confident in his support base that he said he could stand on New York’s Fifth Avenue “and shoot somebody” and still not lose voters.”

What is the relevance of “New Historicism” to the idea that humanity is self-creating when it comes to culture? The connection is straightforward. Greenblatt demonstrates in his criticism and his more reflective writings that literary creation emerges from an intellectual and moral world that is full of difference, change, and contradiction; that the ambient ideas of a time are sometimes horrible, sometimes dominant, but never univocal; and that writers like Shakespeare have the ability to create something new for human beings to contemplate as they consider morality, social existence, and the tasks of living together. This implies a capacity for creativity that extends beyond literature and into morality and narratives of identity.

Online mobilization strategies by right-wing extremists

graphic: White supremacist podcast network (SPLC link)


The surge of right-wing extremism has been evident in the United States for the past five years, including the spread of white supremacist language and activism, armed demonstrations by right-wing militia organizations, violent threats against public officials in health and education agencies, and — of course — the violent insurrection that took place in the US Capitol Building January 6, 2021. But how does this work? What are the processes through which movements and groups that had been on the extremist fringe in the US are now coming into mass politics and are being embraced by Republican leaders from local to national? Is this just organic growth, or is it more deliberate and intentional than that?

The Souther Poverty Law Center has provided information — increasingly alarming information — about the growth of racist and extremist groups around the country for decades, and its research provides very important for all citizens who care about democracy to study. SPLC researchers have also highlighted the fact that hate-based groups and activists make extensive use of the internet to spread their ideas and values. Crucially, Megan Squire and Hannah Gais have documented a very rapid rise in mobilization and proselytization strategies through podcasts — low-cost, readily disseminated productions that spew White Supremacist hate along with “shock radio” irony (link). They write that “the role of podcasts in the world of far-right extremism has been largely understudied.” Producers of these hate-based podcasts can rely on dozens of podcast outlets provided by Apple, Google, and dozens of other internet mainstays, and the hate-based podcast can generate its audience at almost no cost. The article demonstrates graphically how these networks of extremist podcasts have grown in a very short time. They summarize the use of a wide network of hate-based podcasts for extremist purposes in these terms:

Podcasts have been exploited by far-right extremists in three distinct ways. They represent an important vehicle for radicalization to extremism and recruitment into extremist groups. Podcasts are also a bridge from online to on-the-ground organizing, specifically in the context of the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Finally, extremists use podcasts to build contacts abroad and introduce their movements to leaders in other countries. (link)

Squire and Gais use a number of valuable analytical tools to describe the audiences of these podcasts and the important role that the podcast network has played in orchestrating events like Unite the Right. Through this research the SPLC report helps to capture the current structure of the White Supremacist movement today:

Both communities constituted two distinct poles within the white power movement, with Iron March representing its violent, terroristic ambitions and 504um typifying its efforts to build a white ethnostate through the existing political system. For a time, some users retained membership at both sites, while members of each site’s core leadership engaged in dialogue on their respective podcasts and occasionally republished one another’s work. However, after members of 8chan, a far-right image board popular with white supremacists and far-right conspiracy theorists, outed TRS leader Peinovich as married to a Jewish woman, the two communities fractured. “Slavros” and those groups, such as the Atomwaffen Division, that carried on the forum’s legacy of violence long after it disappeared from the web in fall 2017, expressed contempt for TRS and other factions of the alt-right. For “Slavros,” the alt-right represented “appeasement” to the current political order, as he argued in the September 2017 text “Zero Tolerance.”

Squire and Gais find a weird kind of narrative complexity in the stories of contemporary fascist beliefs that are represented in the various podcasts. This is important because it goes some way to explaining the virulence and appeal of these movements to some profiles of vulnerable individuals.

Another important angle that SPLC researchers have uncovered is the role played in hate organizations by cryptocurrencies (link). Michael Edison Hayden and Megan Squire show that cryptocurrency speculation has provided a very substantial source of funds in support of right-wing extremist mobilization. Here is a summary of their findings:

Hatewatch identified and compiled over 600 cryptocurrency addresses associated with white supremacists and other prominent far-right extremists for this essay and then probed their transaction histories through blockchain analysis software. What we found is striking: White supremacists such as Greg Johnson of Counter-Currents, race pseudoscience pundit Stefan Molyneux, Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer and Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer, and Don Black of the racist forum Stormfront, all bought into Bitcoin early in its history and turned a substantial profit from it. The estimated tens of millions of dollars’ worth of value extreme far-right figures generated represents a sum that would almost certainly be unavailable to them without cryptocurrency, and it gave them a chance to live comfortable lives while promoting hate and authoritarianism.

This research depends on the use of blockchain analysis software. Here is a definition of this kind of tool: “Blockchain analysis is the process of inspecting, identifying, clustering, modeling and visually representing data on a cryptographic distributed-ledger known as a blockchain. The goal of blockchain analysis is discovering useful information about the different actors transacting in cryptocurrency. Analysis of public blockchains such as the bitcoin and ethereum is often conducted by private companies. Bitcoin has long been associated with the trade of illegal goods on the dark web; this has been the case since bitcoin became the standard currency on the now closed ” (link). Tools like these provide a window into the magnitude and disbursements made by some of these specific individuals. Speculation in Bitcoin and other currencies created a great deal of wealth for many of the leaders of far-right extremist organizations. And these cryptocurrency platforms provide relatively anonymous vehicles for transfer of funds from donors to organizations and their leaders. 

Interesting and important as these analyses are, the job is still unfinished. We need a similarly detailed and technically sophisticated analysis of the use of Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms by very intelligent right-wing extremists in pursuit of their goals of fundraising, mobilization, proselytization, and activism. What volume of videos on Youtube, and how many viewers, are connected to right-wing extremism and racist ideologies? How are Facebook groups used to transmit and amplify hate-based messages to followers? How is Twitter subverted with lies about immigration, covid, or government action? And what about online video game communities — what role do these communities play in the amplification of hate-based values and beliefs? (Here is a New York Times piece about young teenagers being targeted in multi-player online games by neo-Nazi and white supremacist activists; link.)

When we consider the disproportionate role that false information, conspiracy theories, and outright lies about the coronavirus have played in the rapid incorporation of Covid into right-wing extremist grievances, the online networks described here are of great importance. These are some of the highways through which dangerous lies and mobilizing political narratives are conveyed by right-wing extremists. Hate-based extremists exist in real, concrete organizations and geographical locations; but they also exist in online communities. And the sophisticated data analysis provided by SPLC researchers is one of the tools we need if we are to fight effectively against the kinds of violent mobilization that occurred on January 6, 2021.

graphic: SPLC hate group map 2020 (link)

China’s food-safety governance system

Food safety is a very high-level concern for ordinary consumers. This is true because the food we eat can poison us or ruin our health, and yet consumers have little ability to evaluate the safety of the foods available in the marketplace. Therefore government regulation of food safety appears to be mandatory in any complex society. 

Regulation requires several things: science-based regulations on processes and composition of the products that are regulated, consistent and disinterested inspection, effective enforcement of regulations and violations, and oversight by a regulatory agency that is independent from the industry being regulated and insulated from the general political interests of the government within which it exists.

China has experienced many food-contamination scandals in the past twenty years, and food safety is ranked as a high-level concern by many Chinese citizens. In his 2012 post on food safety in China in the Council on Foreign Relations blog (link), Yanzhong Huang writes that “in the spring of 2012, a survey carried out in sixteen major Chinese cities asked urban residents to list ‘the most worrisome safety concerns.’ Food safety topped the list (81.8%), followed by public security (49%), medical care safety (36.4%), transportation safety (34.3%), and environmental safety (20.1%)”. And the public anxiety is well justified; (link). In 2012 Bi Jingquan, then the head of the China Food and Drug Administration, testified that “Chinese food safety departments conducted more than 15 million individual inspections in the first three quarters of the year and found more than 500,000 incidents of illegal behavior” (link). Especially notorious is the milk-melamine contamination scandal of 2008, resulting in hospitalization of over 50,000 affected children and at least six deaths of children and infants.

The question of interest here has to do with China’s governmental system of regulation of safety in the food system. What are the regulatory arrangements currently in place? And do these governmental systems provide a basis for a reasonable level of confidence in the quality and safety of China’s food products?

Liu, Mutukumira, and Chen 2019 (link) provide a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the evolution of food-safety regulation in China since 1949. This resview article is worth studying in detail for the light it sheds on the challenge of establishing an effective system of regulation in a vast population governed by a single-party state. The article is explicit about the food-safety problems that persist on a wide scale in China:

Food safety incidents still occur, including abuse of food additives, adulterated products as well as contamination by pathogenic microorganisms, pesticides, veterinary drug residues, and heavy metals, and use of substandard materials. (abstract)

The authors refer to a number of important instances of widespread food contamination and dangerous sanitary conditions, including “spicy gluten strips” consumed by teenagers.

Liu et al recommend “coregulation” for the China food system, in which government and private producers each play a crucial role in evaluating and ensuring safe food processes and products. They refer to the “Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system” that should be implemented by food producers and processors (4128), and they emphasize the need in China for a system that succeeds in ensuring safe food at low regulatory cost.

Increasing number of countries uses new coregulation schemes focusing on a specific type of coregulation where regulations are developed by public authorities and then implemented by the coordinated actions of public authorities and food operators or “enforced self-regulation” (Guo, Bai, & Gong, 2019; Rouvière & Caswell, 2012)…. Coregulation aims to combine the advantages of the predictability and binding nature of legislation with the flexibility of self-regulatory approaches. (4128)

Here is their outline of the chronology of food-safety regimes in China since 1949:

Previous posts have discussed some of the organizational dysfunctions associated with “coregulation” and its cognate concepts (link). The failures of design and implementation of the Boeing 737 Max are attributed in large part to the system of delegated regulation used by the Federal Aviation Administration (linklink). And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission too appears to defer extensively to “industry expertise” in its approach to regulation (link). The problems of regulatory capture and weak, ineffective governmental regulatory institutions are well understood in the US and Europe. And this experience supports a healthy skepticism about the likely effectiveness of “coregulation” in China’s food system as well. Earlier posts have emphasized the importance of independence of regulatory agencies from both the political interests of the government and the economic interests of the industry that they regulate. This independence appears to be all but impossible in China’s governmental structure and Party rule.

Another weakness identified in Liu et al concerns the level and organizational home of enforcement of food-safety regulations. “The supervision of food safety is mainly dependent on law enforcement departments” (4128). This system is organizationally flawed for several reasons. First, it implies a lack of coordination, with different jurisdictions (cities, provinces, counties) exercising different levels and forms of enforcement. And second, it raises the prospect of corruption, both petty and large, in which inspectors, supervisors, and enforcers are induced to look the other way at infractions. This problem was noted in a prior post on fire safety regulation in China (link). The localism inherent in the food safety system in China is evident in Figure 1:

And the authors highlight the dysfunction that is latent in this diagram:

The local government is responsible for food safety information. At the same time, the local government accepts the leadership of the central government and is responsible to the central government, which forms a principal-agent relationship under asymmetric information. Meanwhile, food producers are in a position of information superiority over local governments and are regulated by the local governments. Therefore, the relationship of the central government, local governments, and food producers is multiple principal-agent relationship. Under the standard of fiscal decentralization and political assessment, local governments are both food safety regulatory agencies and regional competitive entities, so the collusion between local governments, or different counties, and enterprises becomes a rational choice (Tirole, 1986). (4134)

It appears incontrovertible that “publicity” is an important factor in enhancing safety in any industry. If the public is informed about incidents — whether food safety, chemical plant spills, or nuclear disasters — their concerns can lead to full and rigorous accident investigation and process changes supporting greater safety in the future. Conversely, if government suppresses news media in its ability to provide information about these kinds of incidents, there is much less public pressure leading to more effective safety regulation. Chinese leaders’ determination to tightly control the flow of information is decidedly harmful for the goal of increasing food safety and other dimensions of environmental safety.

Liu et al describe the progression of food safety laws and policies over five decades, and they appear to believe that the situation of food safety has improved in the most recent period. They also note, however, that much remains to be done:

With the enactment of the 2015 FSL, China developed and reinforced various regulatory tools. However, there are areas of the law and regulation that need further work, such as effective coordination among government agencies, a focus on appropriate risk communication, facilitating social governance and responsibility, nurturing a food safety culture from bottom-up, and assisting farmers at the primary level (Roberts & Lin, 2016). (4131)

These areas for future improvement are fundamental for establishing a secure and effective safety regime — whether in the area of food safety or other areas of environmental and industrial safety. And to these we may add several more important factors that are currently absent: independence of regulatory agencies from government direction and industry capture; lack of freedom of information permitting the public to be well informed about incidents when they occur; and an enforcement system that fails to deter and ameliorate bad performance and process inadequacies.

The Holodomor

The Holodomor is one of the great evils of the twentieth century. The facts are grim and horrific. Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine was the first major historical account in English in 1986. Here is a brief summary of the history provided by Conquest to the US Congress; link. Conquest summarizes the basic facts in these terms:

The facts of the assault on the peasantry and on the Ukrainian nationality are complex. Essentially, it was a threefold blow. Dekulakization meant the deportation of millions of peasants. Collectivization meant the herding of the rest of them into collective farms. And in 1932-1933, the collectivized peasantry of Ukraine and adjacent regions was crushed in a special operation by the seizure of the whole grain crop and the starvation of the villages. We see no single and simply describable and assimilable event, but a complicated sequence.

Most important of all, a great effort was put into denying or concealing the facts. Right from the start, when the truth came out from a variety of sources, the Stalinist assertion of a different story confused the issue, and some Western journalists and scholars were duped or suborned into supporting the Stalinist version. Nor have the Soviet authorities yet admitted the facts. A recent novel published in the USSR briefly describes the terror-famine, and later notes “in not a single textbook in contemporary history will you find the merest reference to 1933, the year marked by a terrible tragedy.” (link)

Hungarian Communist, journalist, and writer Arthur Koestler (linklink) was an eye-witness to this evil. He was one of the earliest western journalists to travel in Ukraine in 1932-1933, and he describes some of his experiences in his 1954 autobiography, The Invisible Writing: 1932-1940.

The train puffed slowly across the Ukrainian steppe. It stopped frequently. At every station there was a crowd of peasants in rages, offering ikons and linen in exchange against a loaf of bread. The women were lifting up their infants to the compartment windows — infants pitiful and terrifying with limbs like sticks, puffed bellies, big cadaverous heads lolling on thin necks. I had arrived, unsuspecting, at the peak of the famine of 1932-33 which had depopulated entire districts and claimed several million victims. Its ravages are now officially admitted, but at the time they were kept secret from the world. The scenes at the railway-stations all along our journey gave me an inkling of the disaster, but no understanding of its causes and extent. My Russian travelling companions took pains to explain to me that these wretched crowds were kulaks, rich peasants who had resisted the collectivisation of the land and whom it had therefore been necessary to evict from their farms. (51)

Officially, these men and women were all kulaks who had been expropriated as a punitive measure. In reality, as I was gradually to find out, they were ordinary peasants who had been forced to abandon their villages in the famine-stricken regions. In last year’s harvest-collecting campaign the local Party officials, anxious to deliver their quota, had confiscated not only the harvest but also the seed reserves, and the newly established collective farms had nothing to sow with. their cattle and poultry they had killed rather than surrender it to the kolkhoz; so when the last grain of the secret hoard was eaten, they left the land which no longer was theirs. Entire villages had been abandoned, whole districts depopulated; in addition to the five million kulaks officially deported to Siberia, several million more were on the move…. Officially the famine did not exist. (56)

(A great deal of the ideological self-justification described by Anne Applebaum below can be detected in the words of “my Russian traveling companion” … and in the laconic words, “officially the famine did not exist”.)

Timothy Snyder treats the Holodomor as one part of the mass murder zone of central and eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. The deliberate waging of murderous policies against whole peoples occurred throughout the region, first by Stalin, and then by Hitler, leading to the deaths of more than ten million innocent and non-combatant people. He writes:

The mass starvation of 1933 was the result of Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan, implemented between 1928 and 1932. In those years, Stalin had taken control of the heights of the communist party, forced through a policy of industrialization and collectivization, and emerged as the frightful father of a beaten population. He had transformed the market into the plan, farmers into slaves, and the wastes of Siberia and Kazakhstan into a chain of concentration camps. His policies had killed tens of thousands by execution, hundreds of thousands by exhaustion, and put millions at risk of starvation. He was still rightly concerned about opposition within the communist party, but was possessed of immense political gifts, assisted by willing satraps, and atop a bureaucracy that claimed to see and make the future. That future was communism: which required heavy industry, which in turn required collectivized agriculture, which in turn required control of the largest social group in the Soviet Union, the peasantry. (24)

The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside, edited by Lynne Viola, V.P. Danilov, N.A. Ivnitskii, and Denis Kozlov, provides a detailed and closely documented narrative of the harsh period of collectivization and de-kulakization. (It should be noted that the term “kulak” itself is politically invidious: it was used by Soviet propagandists to paint ordinary peasant farmers of the Ukraine as disloyal enemies of the Revolution and deserving of extinction.) War Against the Peasantry includes a large collection of documents from Soviet archives from the period. The book and associated documentation make it clear that these actions were part of a “revolution from above” — an effort to impose collective ownership on agriculture throughout the territory of the USSR, to create communism in one country. But these actions and strategies were also a “war” against the peasantry — a deliberate effort to destroy and exterminate a whole people. In January 1930 the Central Committee of the Communist Party pushed forward a policy of intensification of the collectivization process, and added the goal of “liquidating the kulak as a class” (205). Violence by the OGPU (secret police) intensified under the direction of Genrikh Yagoda. “‘The kulak,’ he wrote, ‘must be destroyed as a class … [The kulak] understands perfectly well that he will perish with collectivization and therefore he renders more and more brutal and fierce resistance'” (206). Arrests and mass deportations to labor camps in the North ensured, leading to mass deaths. 

Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine provides an accurate and powerful account of the famine period of totalitarian murder in 1931-33. Applebaum reviews the history of forced collectivization before turning to the agrarian and political crisis of 1930-33. Collectivization had led to a crisis in agriculture and a growing level of resistance by Ukrainian peasants; and the 1931 harvest was smaller than the prior year. Applebaum provides a detailed account of the decisions, policies, and actions in 1932 and 1933 by central and Ukrainian party officials through which the Soviet government systematically extracted all food — grain and livestock — from the Ukrainian countryside, leading to massive and growing famine over the next eighteen months. 

In the spring of 1932 desperate officials, anxious for their jobs and even their lives, aware that a new famine might be on its way, began to collect grain wherever and however they could. Mass confiscations occurred all across the USSR. In Ukraine they took on an almost fanatical intensity. Visiting the Moldovan autonomous republic that was then part of Ukraine, a Pravda correspondent was shocked to discover the lengths to which grain procurement officials would now go.36 In a private letter to a colleague, he wrote of “openly counter-revolutionary attacks” on the peasantry: “The searches are usually conducted at night, and they search fiercely, deadly seriously. There is a village just on the border with Romania where not a single house has not had its stove destroyed.” … The use of violence, the smashing of walls and furniture in search of hidden grain—these were a harbinger of what was to come. (Applebaum, 168, 169)

Massive famine ensued, on a region-wide level:

In Ukraine the situation of several villages in Odessa province was so dramatic that in March the local party leaders in Zynovïvskyi district sent a medical team to investigate. The doctors were stunned by what they found. In the village of Kozyrivka half the inhabitants had died of hunger. On the day of their visit 100 households remained out of 365, and the rest “are emptying”: “Quite a few of the remaining huts are being taken apart, the window and door frames are being used as fuel.” The family of Ivan Myronenko—seven people, including three school-age children—were surviving “entirely on carrion.” When the team entered their hut, the Myronenkos were eating boiled horsehide together with a “stinking yellow liquid” made from the broth. Nearby, the inspectors met the Koval family that had four children. On entering the hut, they found Maria Koval boiling the bones of a dead horse. An elderly woman lay on a bed, asking for medicine “in order to die more quickly.” (169)

The cruelty and human indifference that Applebaum documents are difficult to absorb. Like the peasants of Jedwabne (link), fellow villagers in the villages and towns of Ukraine denounced their neighbors, leading to arrest, confiscation, torture, and death. She speaks of the power of Party propaganda and ideology to motivate young people to engage in these horrific actions, for the sake of “the revolution”. And — as Jan Gross finds in Jedwabne — self-interest was also a motivation:

Even those who didn’t openly steal hoped to gain some advantage. As noted, informers had an expectation of reward. In some districts, activists received a percentage of what they collected outright. The 2 December law on blacklists contained an order to “issue a directive on bonuses to activists who find hidden grain.” A decision from the Dnipropetrovsk provincial council in February 1933 recommended that brigade members be given “10–15 per cent” of what they collected outright, and other provinces issued similar instructions. (235)

Mass starvation accelerated in the spring of 1933. 

Some survivors specifically recalled the many diseases of starvation and their different physical side effects. Scurvy caused people to feel pain in their joints, to lose their teeth. It also led to night-blindness: people could not see in the dark, and so feared to leave their homes at night. Dropsy—œdema—caused the legs of victims to swell and made their skin very thin, even transparent. Nadia Malyshko, from a village in Dnipropetrovsk province, remembered that her mother “swelled up, became weak and looked old, though she was only 37. Her legs were shining, and the skin had burst.” Hlafyra Ivanova from Proskuriv province remembered that people turned yellow and black: “the skin of swollen people grew chapped, and liquid oozed out of their wounds.” (243)

An emaciated person can die very quickly, unexpectedly, and many did. Volodymyr Slipchenko’s sister worked in a school, where she witnessed children dying during lessons—“a child is sitting at a school desk, then collapses, falls down”—or while playing in the grass outside.17 Many people died while walking, trying to flee. Another survivor remembered that the roads leading to Donbas were lined with corpses: “Dead villagers lay on the roads, along the road and paths. There were more bodies than people to move them.” (243)

What was the result of these deliberate policies of the Soviet state, aimed at destroying the political will of Ukraine and its people? It was massive death, by the most prolonged and tortuous process imaginable. Murder by hunger. Holodomor.

The result was a catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger between 1931 and 1934 all across the Soviet Union. Among them were more than 3.9 million Ukrainians. In acknowledgement of its scale, the famine of 1932–3 was described in émigré publications at the time and later as the Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger—holod—and extermination—mor. (xxvi)

And it is crucial to recognize that this catastrophe was entirely the result of intentional policy. It could have been prevented; it could have been alleviated; it could have been stopped. But it was not.

(Vasily Grossman’s final and unfinished novel Everything Flows provides a great deal of powerful description of the conditions of cruelty and suffering in the Ukraine during these years of Holodomor in Ukraine, his home region.)

Herder’s philosophy of history and humanity

An earlier post attempted to express the idea that “humanity” and human culture are self-creators: there is no fixed and prior system of meanings, values, allegiances, and ways of acting that constitutes humanity. Instead, human beings have, through the history of millennia of culture formation, created frameworks of value, meaning, and social relationships that have structured human communities and individual lives in different epochs. This view can be described as “historicist”, in the sense that it places human nature and human values into contingent historical traces. 

Human beings bring something crucial to this epochs-long process that other living organisms do not (ants, rabbits, lions): a capacity for thinking, experiencing, reflecting, and feeling that leads them to adjust their value systems over time. Through ordinary experience, human relationships of love and hate, poetry and religion, philosophy and story telling, human communities shape their values over time. And sometimes there are revolutions of thought in which profound changes ripple through the value systems and systems of meaning of various human communities.

In reflecting on the history of western philosophy to identify thinkers who have advocated for ideas like these to explain the history of humanity, Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) stands out. He stands in contrast to his teacher Kant, but also to the British empiricists and to Platonic philosophy, in his strong philosophical conviction that human beings are fundamentally historical creatures. And in Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions Martha Nussbaum suggests that Rousseau offers a similar view in Emile (link). Michael Forster puts this feature of Herder’s philosophy at the center of his philosophy of history (SEP, Herder):

His most intrinsically important achievement arguably rather lies in his development of the thesis already mentioned earlier—contradicting such Enlightenment philosopher-historians as Hume and Voltaire—that there exist radical mental differences between different historical periods (and cultures), that people’s concepts, beliefs, values, sensations, and so on differ in deep ways from one period (or culture) to another. This thesis is already prominent in On the Change of Taste (1766) and it lasts throughout Herder’s career. It had an enormous influence on successors such as the Schlegel brothers, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dilthey. (Forster, SEP, Herder)

Herder makes the empirical exploration of the realm of mental diversity that this thesis posits the very core of the discipline of history. For, as has often been noted, he takes relatively little interest in the so-called “great” political and military deeds and events of history, focusing instead on the “innerness” of history’s participants. This choice is quite deliberate and self-conscious. Because of it, psychology and interpretation inevitably take center-stage as methods in the discipline of historiography for Herder. (Forster, SEP, Herder)

One way of interpreting this philosophy of history is as a developmental conception of civilization: human history is a sequence of civilizational systems that give way to their successors, with the suggestion that there is a direction or teleological structure to this sequence. That is the way that Hegel’s philosophy of history works: great historical epochs (civilizations) represent partial and one-sided ideas of freedom, to be superseded by complementary ideas in future epochs. 

But we can adopt the historicist view of human culture without any commitment whatsoever to directionality, progress, or unified movement. Instead, we can look at the process as contingent, path-dependent, and heterogeneous at any given moment in time.

Here are suggestive excerpts from Herder’s Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (link). Here is a very clear statement on the transitory nature of human cultural, civilizational monuments:

Thus everything in history is transient: the inscription on her temple is evanescence and decay. We tread on the ashes of our forefathers, and stalk over the entombed ruins of human institutions and kingdoms. Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, flit before us like shadows: like ghosts they rise from their graves, and appear to us in the field of history. (Book XV)

And here is an especially clear passage commenting on the “self-creation” of human beings:

Thus we everywhere find mankind possessing and exercising the right of forming themselves to a kind of humanity, as soon as they have discerned it. If they have erred, or stopped at the half way of a hereditary tradition; they have suffered the consequences of their error, and done penance for the fault they committed. The deity has in nowise bound their hands, farther than by what they were, by time, place, and their intrinsic powers. When they were guilty of faults, he extricated them not by miracles, but suffered these faults to produce their effects, that man might the better learn to know them. (Book XV, Chapter 1)

This line of thought about human beings, civilization, and history is historicist in a particular sense: human beings create themselves through actions and the process of living, using their consciousness as a way of attempting to understand and guide their actions. Human beings take shape through their histories. From this process emerge culture, norms, and ways of living.

Georg Iggers provides a helpful account of the meaning of “historicism” in his 1995 article, “Historicism: The History and Meaning of the Term” (link). And in his telling, only one of the several meanings this term has had in the past two centuries is relevant to my intended use in application to Herder. The meaning that I have in mind is synonymous with the idea of the “self-creation” of human cultures: no Ur-text of human values at the beginning, no necessary path of development, no uniform and homogeneous “world culture” at any point. Instead, there is only humanity, in the persons of specific communities and populations; and the systems of values their poets, philosophers, preachers, and fanatics have proliferated during a period of time. There is diffusion, dispersion, cross-fertilization, innovation, and back-tracking, as living human beings and their poets struggle forward in cooperation and competition in changing circumstances of nature, society, and technology. Sometimes communities emerge with what we would describe as deplorable values; and sometimes there are long stretches of time in which value systems prevail that support benevolence, fairness, and concern for others.

As Iggers points out, one of the criticisms of historicism was its supposed “relativism” — the idea that it implies that all moral and religious belief derives from a community’s social and natural circumstances, and that no moral or religious scheme is superior to any other. In a sense this conclusion follows from the view that there is no objective, rational, and extra-historical standard for comparing and judging competing moral systems in concrete human communities. But we can also take the view of “self-creation” very seriously, and can maintain that the struggle to live across time in typical human circumstances has resulted, for us, in a system of values that we can both endorse and continue to criticize and correct. We prefer to be beings who have compassion for each other and who treat other human beings fairly; therefore a moral system that favors benevolence, compassion, and justice is superior to one that favors cruelty, indifference, and exploitation. We are now the kinds of creatures who have defined ourselves partially in terms of those values; and we can judge ourselves, our ancestors, and our fellow human beings accordingly. There is no external “epistemic” basis for these values; rather, they are values we and our predecessors have created for ourselves; we have become (partially) the embodiment of those values. And when Klingons, Nazis, or NKVD officers fundamentally violate those values, we must oppose them if we can.

Sonia Sikka’s Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference: Enlightened Relativism is an excellent and detailed discussion of this aspect of Herder’s philosophy.

Bauman on the Holocaust

There sometimes seems to be an important intertwining between personal biography and a person’s sociological and historical imagination. Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) was a Jew of the generation in Poland who were destined to die — most did in his generation of Polish Jews — and he was exposed at various times to the murderous regime that conducted this campaign of death. And by the 1960s Bauman had become a sociologist of global importance. It would seem apparent Bauman’s language and mental maps of the world were shaped by his experience in Poland, the Ukraine, and the Soviet Union during the searing decades of the 1930s and 1940s. Bauman had direct experience of the Nazi terror in Poland after 1939. As a Polish army officer in the Soviet Red Army he witnessed the Majdanek death camp and the horrors that it encompassed, and he witnessed the totality of the Nazi program of murder upon his return to Poland in 1945. And he served as a senior army intelligence and communications officer in the post-war Communist regime in Poland.

How did these life experiences influence Bauman’s sociological imagination and his interpretation of the events of the 1930s and 1940s in Poland and elsewhere in central Europe? Bauman’s personal life story involved direct experience of the Holocaust in Poland and the horrific tragedies, personally experienced, of German genocide and murderous warfare. Bauman himself witnessed and experienced some of the worst suffering of the Holocaust. And yet in his sociological writings in Poland through 1968 he never addressed the topics of genocide, totalitarianism, or the Nazi period. He turned to topics having to do with the fate of the Jews of Eastern Europe and the Holocaust only later in life — in the 1980s, when he was over sixty. It appears that he was led to write Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) only after reading his wife Janina Bauman’s powerful and moving account of her own experience in the Warsaw ghetto in Winter in the Morning: A Young Girl’s Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond 1939-1945 (1986; link). And, when he does turn to the Holocaust, it is through the lens of his critique of modernity and the cult of rationality. The book is not a profound contribution to understanding the realities or historical horrors of the Holocaust; in fact, the results are banal and not especially insightful.

The Holocaust was born and executed in our modern rational society, at the high stage of our civilization and at  the peak of human cultural achievement, and for this reason it is a problem of that society, civilization and culture…. The implication that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were a wound or a malady of our civilization — rather than its horrifying yet legitimate product — results not only in the moral comfort of self-exculpation, but in the dire threat of moral and political disarmament…. Modern civilization was not the Holocaust’s sufficient condition; it was, however, most certainly its necessary condition. Without it, the Holocaust would be unthinkable. It was the rational world of modern civilization that made the Holocaust thinkable. (x, xii, 13)

Here is Ali Rattansi’s summary of Bauman’s view of the Holocaust in Bauman and contemporary sociology: A critical analysis. Fundamentally Bauman sought to understand the Holocaust as an expression of modernity:

This truth could not, for Bauman, be denied by viewing the Holocaust as only a peculiarity of German history or Hitler’s evil personality and the cruelty, the moral decrepitude and sometimes the sheer indifference of those who in one way or another were implicated in such vile deeds. The effect of any such interpretation is to see the Holocaust as only something to do with Germany or Germanness, thereby absolving everyone else of responsibility, and, in particular, of shifting the blame away from the typical characteristics of modernity so widely taken for granted. For Bauman the factors involved were indeed ‘quite ordinary and common’; but they had come together in a historically unique encounter. The taken for granted civilisational framework which in fact harboured the seeds of the Holocaust consisted of the modern nation-state, the concentration and centralisation of the means of violence in its apparatuses and the adoption of a bold and sweeping project of social engineering by those in command of this immensely powerful state. The capacity of the leaders was enhanced by the dismantling of all sources of opposition and the possession of a particular modern apparatus of administration: a state bureaucracy. Science and modern technology had their own crucial role to play in the terrible sequence of events. It is in the combination of these common features of modern civilisation within a particular historical period that Bauman finds the basic causes of the Holocaust. (kl 753)

It is striking that Bauman’s diagnosis of the Holocaust seems to have had more to do with his own in-depth experience of a totalitarian state as a functionary and eventually a victim in post-war Poland than with his childhood and adult experience of Nazi extermination: “the concentration and centralization of the means of violence”, “a bold and sweeping project of social engineering”, the “capacity of leaders [being] enhanced by the dismantling of all sources of opposition”. This is a diagnosis that puts the responsibility for the Holocaust most fundamentally on the features of a totalitarian state.

Moreover, according to Bauman’s diagnosis, genocide is a circumstance that emerges within the conditions of modernity:

I propose that the major lesson of the Holocaust is the necessity to treat the critique [of modernity] seriously and thus to expand the theoretical model of the civilizing process, so as to include the latter’s tendency to demote, exprobate and delegitimize the ethical motivations of social action. We need to take stock of the evidence that the civilizing process is, among other things, a process of divesting the use and deployment of violence from moral calculus, and of emancipating the desiderata of rationality from interference of ethical norms or moral inhibitions. As the promotion of rationality to the exclusion of alternative criteria of action, and in particular the tendency to subordinate the use of violence to rational calculus, has been long ago acknowledged as a constitutive feature of modern civilization — the Holocaust-style phenomena must be recognized as legitimate outcomes of civilizing tendency, and its constant potential. (Modernity and the Holocaust, 28)

Modernity would not have got where it has if it had relied on things as erratic, whimsical and thoroughly unmodern as human passions. Instead, it relied on the division of labour, on science, technology, scientific management and the power to make a rational calculation of costs and effects — all thoroughly unemotional stuff. Stephen Trombley’s remarkable study does for the ‘execution industry’ what the work of Gotz Aly and Susanne Heim did for the murderous enterprise of the Nazis: it shows beyond reasonable doubt that the setting which in modern society which makes mass production and unstoppable technological rationalization possible. Aly and Heim documented the crucial role played by the medics, psychologists and countless others — in making mass extermination on a previously unheard-of scale feasible. (Modernity and the Holocaust, Afterword, 247)

But here is a crucial point to ponder: is the Holocaust a singular and evil event, or is it simply a manifestation of “modernity”? Bauman seems to be inclined down the road described by the second branch here; and that seems to be a mistake. To generalize the facts of the Holocaust to a few concepts characteristic of “modernity” rather than a particular period of suffering, evil-doing, and historical particulars seems to ultimately result in placing it beyond our reach. And yet, fundamentally, we want the generations prior to and following the Holocaust (including our own) to take responsibility for what occurred — not dismiss it as the inevitable consequence of the modern world.

Here is one of the more personal passages in Modernity and the Holocaust on the intriguing idea about the moral importance of shame rather than rationalization from the final chapter:

The issue is that only the liberating feeling of shame may help to recover the moral significance of the awesome historical experience and thus help to exorcise the spectre of the Holocaust, which to this day haunts human conscience and makes us neglect vigilance at present for the sake of living in peace with the past. The choice is not between shame and pride. The choice is between the pride of morally purifying shame, and the shame of morally devastating pride. (205)

The inhuman world created by a homicidal tyranny dehumanized its victims and those who passively watched the victimization by pressing both to use the logic of self-preservation as absolution for moral insensitivity and inaction. No one can be proclaimed guilty for the sheer fact of breaking down under such pressure. Yet no one can be excused from moral self-deprecation for such surrender. And only when feeling ashamed for one’s weakness can one finally shatter the mental prison which has outlived its builders and its guards. (205)

It is interesting to compare this abstract reflection with a passage from Janina Bauman’s wartime diary from the Warsaw ghetto, which she quotes in Winter in the Morning.

‘Don’t you think the way we live is highly immoral?’ I asked. ‘We eat our breakfast, lunch and supper, we occupy our minds with the French Revolution or Polish poetry, or just which one of us L. fancies the most; then we go to bed with a good novel and peacefully fall asleep. At the same time they are starving and dying.’ ‘There’s nothing we can do for them,’ said Zula sadly, ‘for the hundreds and thousands of them.’ ‘Of course not. But for some of them perhaps? Each of us for somebody?’ ‘Would you and your family be willing to take home these two begging boys?’ asked Hanka very seriously. ‘To share not only food but also beds with them, live with them for better or worse?’ I had no ready answer to her question, and the more I think about it now, the clearer I see the answer is ‘no’. (J Bauman, Winter in the Morning, 42)

Did Zygmunt Bauman himself have to face such choices — in Poland, in the USSR, or in Poland once again as a political officer and informant? Is the experience of shame that he describes here one that was for him also a current human situational emotion? Izabela Wagner raises the question of culpability in Bauman’s service as a political officer and informant in the Polish KBW (Internal Security Corps) during the imposition of Soviet-style dictatorship in Poland (Bauman: A Biography, 110-132); and she comes to a forgiving conclusion. Bauman did not inform meaningfully on others — either his own circle or others. But what about the implications that Bauman himself may have drawn — about an evil regime in whose service he was an active agent for several years? Did he experience this emancipating shame about his involvement in an authoritarian Communist regime in Poland?

Modernity and the Holocaust is an unsatisfying book, in that it fails to meaningfully address the historical and human specificity of the Holocaust. Bauman subordinates the Holocaust to a dimension of “Modernity” — an abstraction, and lacking the deliberation and compassion demanded of the particular experiences of so many millions of people throughout east and central Europe. But these ideas have little of the sharp and penetrating insight of memoirs of survivors like Primo Levy or the contemporaneous writings of Vasily Grossman.In 2009 Bauman wrote “Jews and other Europeans, old and new”, where he reflects on the situation of European Jews in the twentieth century; link. This piece is more specific about the circumstances of European Jews than anything included in Modernity and the Holocaust. But it continues to link the war on the Jews to the failure of the modernization project in Europe. The emphasis is on nationalism and spurious assimilation.

In the late nineteenth century the great European project of nation-building was set in motion. It was meant to end in a Europe of unified nation-states, each of with its own language, history, traditions and a people undivided in its loyalty. The local or ‘merely ethnic’ communities would be effaced, subsumed into the homogeneous nation. Assimilation was the means whereby outsiders would become insiders, strangers would become citizens.

The Second World War, and the Holocaust, brought this project to its tragic and murderous end, laying bare the contradiction at its heart. Outsiders could not be assimilated since their loyalty was, by definition, always voluntary and therefore always seen as untrustworthy. As the historical epitome of the European outsider, Jews accordingly remained suspect despite all their ingenious efforts to assimilate. They experienced first-hand the ambivalence of the assimilatory drive, which was, from their point of view, to become like everyone else, and, from their hosts’ point of view, to deepen belonging by emphasizing difference. (121)

But once again — all theory, no compassion, and no real “micro-sociology” of the historical circumstances of the Jews of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and the vibrant cultural and intellectual Jewish life that was part of the 1930s in central Europe. General sociological theory does not help to explain the Holocaust; instead, we need to trace the contingencies and pathways through which murder on a continent-wide scale came to be, and we need to reckon what we have lost. Grossman is more right than Bauman — “Ukraine without Jews” is a horrendous, tragic, and irreplaceable loss to humanity, and it cannot be subsumed under the arch of the sociological theory of modernity.

And how about the question of intellectual formation with which we began above? Do Bauman’s writings about the Holocaust reflect a worldview and sociological framework notably shaped through his lived experience? It seems clear that the answer is no. Bauman’s intellectual framework is one of pure sociological theory, and this he gained through his graduate education and professional activities as a professor of sociology in Warsaw. There appears to be a very sharp line between Bauman’s history as a Jewish teenager in Poland, a refugee in Molodechno, and an officer in the Red Army during the re-occupation of Ukraine and Poland, and his subsequent framing of the history he had lived through in Modernity and the Holocaust. (See this earlier post for more extensive discussion of Bauman’s intellectual development.)

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