Daniel Little is a philosopher of social science with an extensive interest in Asia. He has written books on social explanation, Marx, late Imperial China, the philosophy of history, and the ethics of economic development. Little has come to see that understanding social processes is in many ways more difficult than understanding the natural world. Social phenomena are heterogeneous, plastic, and contingent, and understanding the social world requires a plurality of methods and theories. Little is currently interested in understanding some of the organizational causes of large technology failures.
Democracy is at risk in the United States. Why do leading political observers like Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) fear for the fate of our democracy? Because anti-democratic forces have taken over one of America’s primary political parties — the GOP; because GOP officials, governors, and legislators openly conspire to subvert future elections; because GOP activists and officials work intensively in state legislatures to restrict voting rights for non-Republican voters, including people of color and city dwellers; and because the Supreme Court no longer protects the Constitution and the rights that it embodies.
Here is how Levitsky and Ziblatt summarize their urgent concerns about the future of our democracy in a recent Atlantic article (link):
From November 2020 to January 2021, then, a significant portion of the Republican Party refused to unambiguously accept electoral defeat, eschew violence, or break with extremist groups—the three principles that define prodemocracy parties. Because of that behavior, as well as its behavior over the past six months, we are convinced that the Republican Party leadership is willing to overturn an election. Moreover, we are concerned that it will be able to do so—legally. That’s why we serve on the board of advisers to Protect Democracy, a nonprofit working to prevent democratic decline in the United States. We wrote this essay as part of “The Democracy Endgame,” the group’s symposium on the long-term strategy to fight authoritarianism.
Any reader of the morning newspaper understands how deadly serious this threat is. Many residents of Michigan find it absolutely chilling that the most recently appointed GOP canvasser for Wayne County has said publicly that he would not have certified the election results for the county in 2020 — with no factual basis whatsoever (link). With GOP officials in many states indicating their corrupt willingness to subvert future elections, how can one have a lot of hope for the future of our democracy?
So, tragically, it is very timely to consider this difficult question: what might an anti-democratic authoritarian system look like in the United States? Sinclair Lewis considered this question in 1935, and his portrait in It Can’t Happen Here was gloomy. Here is a snippet of Lewis’s vision of a fascist dictatorship in America following the election of the unscrupulous populist candidate Berzelius Windrip and his paramilitary followers, the Minute Men:
At the time of Windrip’s election, there had been more than 80,000 relief administrators employed by the federal and local governments in America. With the labor camps absorbing most people on relief, this army of social workers, both amateurs and long-trained professional uplifters, was stranded.
The Minute Men controlling the labor camps were generous: they offered the charitarians the same dollar a day that the proletarians received, with special low rates for board and lodging. But the cleverer social workers received a much better offer: to help list every family and every unmarried person in the country, with his or her finances, professional ability, military training and, most important and most tactfully to be ascertained, his or her secret opinion of the M.M.’s and of the Corpos in general.
A good many of the social workers indignantly said that this was asking them to be spies, stool pigeons for the American OGPU. These were, on various unimportant charges, sent to jail or, later, to concentration camps—which were also jails, but the private jails of the M.M.’s, unshackled by any old-fashioned, nonsensical prison regulations.
In the confusion of the summer and early autumn of 1937, local M.M. officers had a splendid time making their own laws, and such congenital traitors and bellyachers as Jewish doctors, Jewish musicians, Negro journalists, socialistic college professors, young men who preferred reading or chemical research to manly service with the M.M.’s, women who complained when their men had been taken away by the M.M.’s and had disappeared, were increasingly beaten in the streets, or arrested on charges that would not have been very familiar to pre-Corpo jurists. (ch xvii)
But perhaps this is extreme. Foretelling the future is impossible, but here are several features that seem likely enough given the current drift of US politics, if anti-democratic authoritarian politicians seize control of our legislative and executive offices.
Undermining of constitutional liberties
weakening of freedom of the press through additional libel-law restrictions, bonds, and other “chilling” legal mechanisms
weakening of freedom of thought and speech through legislation and bullying concerning critical / unpopular doctrines — “Critical Race Theory”, “Queer Studies”, “Communist/anarchist thought”, …
weakening of freedom of association through extension of police surveillance, police violence, “anti-riot” legislation limiting demonstrations, vilification by leaders, trolls, and social media of outspoken advocates of unpopular positions
Further restrictions on voting rights and voter access to elections
extreme gerrymandering to ensure one-party dominance
unreasonable voter ID requirements
limitations on absentee voting
voter intimidation at the polls
The imposition of laws and mandates that are distinctly opposed by the majority of citizens by minority-party-dominated legislatures
repressive and unconstitutional anti-abortion legislation
open-carry firearms legislation
Implementation of an anti-regulation agenda that gives a free hand to big business and other powerful stakeholders
weakening of regulatory agencies through reduction of legal mandate and budget
Intimidation of dissenters through violent threats, paramilitary demonstrations, and the occasional murder
encouragement of social violence by followers of the authoritarian leader
persecution through informal and sometimes formal channels of racial and social minorities — immigrants, people of color, Asians, LGBTQ and transgender people, …
threats of violence and murder against public officials, journalists, and dissidents
These are terrible outcomes, and taken together they represent the extinction of liberal democracy: the integrity of constitutionally-defined equal rights for all individuals, and the principle of majoritarian public decision-making. But what about the extremes that authoritarian states have often reached in the past century — wholesale persecution of “enemies of the state”, imprisonment of dissidents, forcible dissolution of opposition political organizations, political murder, and wholesale use of paramilitary organizations to achieve the political goals of the authoritarian rules? What about the secret police, the Gulag, and the concentration camps? What are the prospects for these horrific outcomes in the United States? How likely is the descent imagined by Sinclair Lewis into wholesale fascist dictatorship?
One would like to say these extremes are unlikely in the US — that US authoritarianism would be “soft dictatorship” like that of Orban rather than the hard dictatorship of a Putin involving rule by fear, violence, imprisonment, and intimidation. But actually, history is not encouraging. We have seen the decline of one after another of the “guard rails of democracy” in just the past five years, and we have seen the actions of a president who clearly cared only about his own power and will. So where exactly should we find optimism for the idea that an American Mussolini or Windrip would never commit the crimes of the dictators of the twentieth century? Isn’t there a great deal of truth in Acton’s maxim, “power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? Here is Acton’s quote in its more extended context; and it is very specific in its advice that we should not trust “great leaders” to refrain from great crimes:
If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
Would any of us want to trust our fate as free, equal, and dignified persons to the kindness and democratic values of a Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, or Donald Trump?
The best remedy against these terrible outcomes is to struggle for our democracy now. We must give full and deep support to politicians and candidates who demonstrate a commitment to democratic values, and we must reject the very large number of GOP politicians who countenance the subversion of our democracy through their adherence to the lies of the Trump years. This is not a struggle between “liberals” and “conservatives”; it is a struggle between those who value our liberal democracy and those who cynically undermine and disparage it. And perhaps we will need to take the example and the courage of men and women in Belarus, Myanmar, Thailand, and Hong Kong in their willingness to stand up against the usurpation of their democratic rights through massive peaceful demonstrations.
Some philosophers and others have imagined that human beings are largely fixed in their most fundamental capacities — their “human nature”. Along with this idea is the notion that there are fundamental ethical and moral principles that are unchanging and serve always as guides to human action — and, perhaps, that philosophical ethics or theology help to identify these principles.
We can begin by asking, what is involved in a conception of “human nature”?
A conception of what human beings want; what motivates them
A conception of how human beings think; rationality and reason? Emotion? Passion? Sympathy? Compassion? Hatred? Fear? Envy? Indifference?
A view of the ways that human beings think about and interact with individuals and groups around them. Egoism and altruism; self-interest and commitment
A view of the effectiveness of normative systems
Against these views of permanence, I want to argue for the idea that human nature and human values are malleable and are best understood as a “self-creation” — a positing by generations over time about what human beings ought to be and to care about. Human beings create “cultures”, and these cultures orient individuals’ self-understandings, motivations, and moral ideas.
On this view, human beings have generalizable capacities for thinking, acting, and creating that permit us to create cultural systems that orient and underlie our behavior (link). And we have the ability to change those systems over time.
There is an intriguing resonance of this view with Sartre’s view that individual human beings define themselves through their freedom and their actions. This is his view that “existence precedes essence” for human beings. Steven Crowell describes this view in his SEP article on existentialism (link):
Sartre’s slogan—“existence precedes essence”—may serve to introduce what is most distinctive of existentialism, namely, the idea that no general, non-formal account of what it means to be human can be given, since that meaning is decided in and through existing itself. Existence is “self-making-in-a-situation” (Fackenheim 1961: 37). Webber (2018: 14) puts the point this way: “Classical existentialism is … the theory that existence precedes essence,” that is, “there is no such thing as human nature” in an Aristotelian sense. A “person does not have an inbuilt set of values that they are inherently structured to pursue. Rather, the values that shape a person’s behavior result from the choices they have made” (2018: 4). In contrast to other entities, whose essential properties are fixed by the kind of entities they are, what is essential to a human being—what makes her who she is—is not fixed by her type but by what she makes of herself, who she becomes. The fundamental contribution of existential thought lies in the idea that one’s identity is constituted neither by nature nor by culture, since to “exist” is precisely to constitute such an identity. It is in light of this idea that key existential notions such as facticity, transcendence (project), alienation, and authenticity must be understood. (Crowell, “Existentialism”)
But there is a wrinkle: Sartre’s view concerns the idea of the “self definition” of an individual human being, whereas the view I am exploring here concerns the idea of the self-creation of human normative and symbolic cultures. Communities over time created their systems of values and social practices that define their social behavior and their subjective identities. Greek cultures were in the process of making themselves through the centuries that separated Homer from Socrates and across the cultural differences separating Sparta from Athens. Deep as Sartre’s thinking about existentialism was, this view seems even more fundamental about the moral situation of humanity.
This is not a new idea. Johannes Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) offered a historicist view of human nature, advocating the idea that human nature is itself a historical product and that human beings act differently in different periods of historical development. (Michael Forster’s essay in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides an excellent exposure to Herder’s philosophy; link.) Herder’s ideas are expressed in numerous works, including especially Ideen Zur Philosophie Der Geschichte Der Menschheit, Volume 1 (1791). Here is a representative passage from Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (Book XV, chapter 2) (included in German History in Documents and Images):
2. The progress of history shows, that, as true humanity has increased, the destructive demons of the human race have diminished in number; and this from the inherent natural laws of a self- enlightening reason and policy.
In proportion as reason increases among mankind, man must learn from their infancy to perceive, that there is a nobler greatness, than the inhuman greatness of tyrants; and that it is more laudable, as well as more difficult, to form, than to ravage a nation, to establish cities, than to destroy them. The industrious Egyptians, the ingenious Greeks, the mercantile Phoenicians, not only make a more pleasing figure in history, but enjoyed, during the period of their existence, a more useful and agreeable life, than the destroying Persians, the conquering Romans, the avaricious Carthaginians. The remembrance of the former still lives with fame, and their influence upon Earth will continue eternally with increasing power; while the ravagers, with their demoniacal might, reaped no farther benefit, than that of becoming a wretched, luxurious people, amid the ruins of their plunder, and at last quaffing off the poisoned draught of severe retaliation. Such was the fate of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans: even the Greeks received more injury from their internal dissensions, and from their luxury in many cities and provinces, than from the sword of the enemy. Now as these are fundamental principles of a natural order, which not only shows itself in particular cases of history, or in fortuitous instances; but is founded on its own intrinsic properties, that is, on the nature of oppression and an overstretched power, or on the consequences of victory, luxury and arrogance, as on the laws of a disturbed equiponderance, and holds on coeternally with the course of things: why must we be compelled to doubt, that this law of Nature is not as generally acknowledged as any other, and does not operate, from the forcibleness with which it is perceived, with the infallible efficacy of a natural truth? What may be brought to mathematical certainty, and political demonstration, must be acknowledged as truth, soon or late; for no one has yet questioned the accuracy of the multiplication table or the propositions of Euclid. (link)
Herder is “historicist” about human nature. The logical implication of historicism is that human individuals become specific culturally instantiated persons through their immersion in a culture at a time. This casts doubt on all forms of “essentialism” about human nature and about the characteristics of a people or a culture. Cultures and their value systems are contingent; and the human individuals to whom they give rise are contingently different from their predecessors and successors in other generations. Or, in other words, human beings create themselves through history by creating cultures, norms, and schemes of thinking. It also has a radical implication for the possibility of change in humanity: our histories change us, and we change the histories we make. It also implies a radical anti-essentialism about social identities: there is nothing essential about being an Armenian, a Spaniard, a Buddhist, or a Jew. National and cultural identities have a certain stability over time. But they also change over time. National and cultural identities are themselves historically located and historically malleable.
Sonia Sikka’s Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference: Enlightened Relativism is an excellent and detailed discussion of this aspect of Herder’s philosophy: culture, nation, “a people”, and a historicist approach to the concept of human nature. She argues that Herder endorses the anti-essentialism about “peoples” and identities described here.
Herder is actually not as strong a cultural essentialist as is sometimes thought. He explicitly acknowledges that cultures are not internally uniform, that they fuse to form new combinations, and that their evolution is shaped by interaction with one another. On the latter point, far from holding the view that cultures should shun foreign influence, Herder largely sees cultural interaction as a good thing, as long as it is not the result either of violence or of imitation arising purely from a sense of cultural inferiority. Sikka, 7
This historicist view of human nature stands in opposition to —
Philosophical fundamentalism — human nature is fixed and unchanging
Moral foundationalism — there is one permanent and unchanging set of moral principles that are binding at all times
Biological fundamentalism — human behavior is governed by a “code” created by the evolutionary history of our species
Against these ideas, this view holds that human beings are “general-purpose culture machines” capable of creating cultural and moral innovations that permit them to live better and more harmoniously together.
So what about biology? Has evolution made us into a certain kind of social animal after all, with pre-coded moral motivations and norms? some sociobiologists have imagined so. but philosopher Allan Gibbard provides a more plausible view in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings.
Human cooperation, and coordination more broadly, has always rested on a refined network of kinds of human rapport, supported by emotion and thought. A person sustains and develops this network, draws advantages from it, and on occasion keeps his distance from it. He does these things only in virtue of a refined configuration of emotional and cognitive dispositions….. (27)
We evolved as culture emerged through our evolving. We evolved to have flexible genetic propensities — propensities to be affected profoundly in response to culture. We evolved to interact with others, in response to culture, in ways that themselves constitute having a culture. We acquired not a shapeless capacity for culture, but perhaps a whole configuration of adaptations to the kinds of cultures humans form and sustain. (28)
So Gibbard’s view is that the evolutionary history of hominids took place in a setting of social groups, where psychological capacities supporting cooperation were favored (possessed selection advantage). Gibbard’s view, then, is that the evolutionary history of hominids (including homo sapiens) resulted in a species that had a range of psychological “tools” or capacities that could be activated or deployed in a wide variety of ways. This prepared homo sapiens to become “cultural animals”, capable of creating and living within social groups and cultural systems. And this process of creation had a great deal of flexibility — as human technological and linguistic capabilities also demonstrated great flexibility.
These ideas provide an important naturalistic basis for interpreting human morality and meaning: we human beings have created the cultural and normative systems in which we live, sometimes with deeply admirable effect and sometimes with monstrous effect. And we have the collective capacity to change our cultures.
Further, this historicist / existentialist understanding of the human being within human culture is encouraging when it comes to the topic of “confronting evil”. It provides a basis for the idea that we are capable of changing our values and expectations of each other. And equally importantly, learning of the capacity of “ordinary men” to do horrible things can lead us to attempt to create new values and new institutions that make atrocities like genocide, mass enslavement, and state oppression less likely. Confronting the evil of the twentieth century with unflinching honesty, then, can change humanity.
A rapidly rising percentage of the Chinese population is living in high-rise apartment buildings in hundreds of cities around the country. There is concern, however, about the quality and effectiveness of fire-safety regulation and enforcement for these buildings (as well as factories, warehouses, ports, and other structures). This means that high-rise fires represent a growing risk in urban China. Here is a news commentary from CGTN (link) in 2010 describing a particularly tragic high-rise fire that engulfed a 28-story building in Shanghai, killing 58 people. This piece serves to identify the parameters of the problem of fire safety more generally.
It is of course true that high-rise fires have occurred in many cities around the world, including the notorious Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017. And many of those fires also reflect underlying problems of safety regulation in the jurisdictions in which they occurred. But the problems underlying infrastructure safety seem to converge with particular seriousness in urban China. And, crucially, major fire disasters in other countries are carefully scrutinized in public reports, providing accurate and detailed information about the causes of the disaster. This scrutiny creates the political incentive to improve building codes, inspection regimes, and enforcement mechanisms of safety regulations. This open and public scrutiny is not permitted in China today, leaving the public largely ignorant of the background causes of fires, railway crashes, and other large accidents.
It is axiomatic that modern buildings require effective and professionally grounded building codes and construction requirements, adequate fire safety system requirements, and rigorous inspection and enforcement regimes that ensure a high level of compliance with fire safety regulations. Regrettably, it appears that no part of this prescription for fire safety is well developed in China.
The CGTN article mentioned above refers to the “effective” high-level fire safety legislation that the central government adopted in 1998, the Fire Control Law of the People’s Republic of China (link), and this legislation warrants close study. However, close examination suggests that this guiding legislation lacks crucial elements that are needed in order to ensure compliance with safety regulations — especially when compliance is highly costly for the owners/managers of buildings and other facilities. Previous disasters in China suggest a pattern: poor inspection and enforcement prior to an accident or fire, followed by prosecution and punishment of individuals involved in the occurrence of the disaster in the aftermath. But this is not an effective mechanism for ensuring safety. Owners, managers, and officials are more than ready to run the small risk of future prosecution for the sake of gains in the costs of present operations of various facilities.
The systemic factors that act against fire safety in China include at least these pervasive social and political conditions: ineffective and corrupt inspection offices, powerful property managers who are able to ignore safety violations, pressure from the central government to avoid interfering with rapid economic growth, government secrecy about disasters when they occur, and lack of independent journalism capable of freely gathering and publishing information about disasters.
In particular, the fact that the news media (and now social media as well) are tightly controlled in China is a very serious obstacle to improving safety when it comes to accidents, explosions, train wrecks, and fires. The Chinese news media do not publish detailed accounts of disasters as they occur, and they usually are unable to carry out the investigative journalism needed to uncover background conditions that have created the circumstances in which these catastrophes arise (ineffective or corrupt inspection regimes; enforcement agencies that are hampered in their work by the political requirements of the state; corrupt practices by private owners/managers of high-rise properties, factories, and ports; and so on). It is only when the public can become aware of the deficiencies in government and business that have led to a disaster, that reforms can be designed and implemented that make those disasters less likely in the future. But the lack of independent journalism means leaving the public in the dark about these important details of their contemporary lives.
The story quoted above is from CGTN, a Chinese news agency, and this story is unusual for its honesty in addressing some of the deficiencies of safety management and regulation in Shanghai. CGTN is an English-language Chinese news service, owned and operated by Chinese state-owned media organization China Central Television (CCTV). As such it is under full editorial control by offices of the Chinese central government. And the government is rarely willing to have open and honest reporting of major disasters, and the organizational, governmental, and private dysfunctions that led to them. It is noteworthy, therefore, that the story is somewhat explicit about the dysfunctions and corruption that led to the Shanghai disaster. The article quotes an article in China Daily (owned by the publicity department of the CCP) that refers to poor enforcement and corruption:
However, a 2015 article by China Daily called for the Fire Control Law to be more strictly enforced, saying that the Chinese public now “gradually takes it for granted that when a big fire happens there must be a heavy loss of life.”
While saying “China has a good fire protection law,” the newspaper warned that it was frequently violated, with fire engine access blocked by private cars, escape routes often blocked and flammable materials still being “widely used in high buildings.”
The article also pointed at corruption within fire departments, saying inspections have “become a cash cow,” with businesses and construction companies paying bribes in return for lax safety standards being ignored.
So — weak inspections, poor compliance with regulations, and corruption. Both the CCTV report and the China Daily story it quotes are reasonably explicit about unpalatable truths. But note — the CGTN story was prepared for an English-speaking audience, and is not available to ordinary Chinese readers in China. And this appears to be the case for the China Daily article that was quoted as well. And most importantly — the political climate surrounding the journalistic practices of China Daily has tightened very significantly since 2015.
Another major institutional obstacle to safety in China is the lack of genuinely independent regulatory safety agencies. The 1998 Fire Control Law of the People’s Republic of China is indicative. The legislation refers to the responsibility of local authorities (provincial, municipal) to establish fire safety organizations; but it is silent about the nature, resources, and independence of inspection authorities. Here is the language of the first several articles of the Fire Control Law:
Article 2 Fire control work shall follow the policy of devoting major efforts into prevention and combining fire prevention with fire fighting, and shall adhere to the principle of combining the efforts of both specialized organizations and the masses and carry out responsibility system on fire prevention and safety.
Note that this article immediately creates a confusion of responsibility concerning the detailed tasks of establishing fire safety: “specialized organizations” and “the masses” carry out responsibility.
Article 3 The State Council shall lead and the people’s governments at all levels be responsible for fire control work. The people’s government at all levels shall bring fire control work in line with the national economy and social development plan, and ensure that fire control work fit in with the economic construction and social development.
Here too is a harmful diffusion of responsibility: “the people’s governments at all levels [shall] be responsible …”. In addition a new priority is introduced: consistency with the “national economy and social development plan”. This implies that fire safety regulations and agencies at the provincial and municipal level must balance economic needs with the needs of ensuring safety — a potentially fatal division of priorities. If substituting a non-flammable cladding to an 80-story residential building will add one billion yuan to the total cost of the building — does this requirement impede the “national economy and development plan”? Can the owner/managers resist the new regulation on the grounds that it is too costly?
Article 4 The public security department of the State Council shall monitor and administer the nationwide fire control work; the public security organs of local people’s governments above county level shall monitor and administer the fire control work within their administrative region and the fire control institutions of public security organs of the people’s government at the same level shall be responsible for the implementation. Fire control work for military facilities, underground parts of mines and nuclear power plant shall be monitored and administered by their competent units. For fire control work on forest and grassland, in case there are separate regulations, the separate regulations shall be followed.
Here we find specific institutional details about oversight of “nationwide fire control work”: it is the public security organs that are tasked to “monitor and administer” fire control institutions. Plainly, the public security organs have no independence from the political authorities at provincial and national levels; so their conduct is suspect when it comes to the task of “independent, rigorous enforcement of safety regulations”.
Article 5 Any unit and individual shall have the obligation of keeping fire control safety, protecting fire control facilities, preventing fire disaster and reporting fire alarm. Any unit and adult shall have the obligation to take part in organized fire fighting work.
Here we are back to the theme of diffusion of responsibility. “Any unit and individual shall have the obligation of keeping fire control safety” — this statement implies that there should not be free-standing, independent, and well-resourced agencies dedicated to ensuring compliance with fire codes, conducting inspections, and enforcing compliance by reluctant owners.
It seems, then, that the 1998 Fire Control Law is largely lacking in what should have been its primary purpose: specification of the priority of fire safety, establishment of independent safety agencies at various levels of government with independent power of enforcement, and with adequate resources to carry out their fire safety missions, and a clear statement that there should be no interference with the proper inspection and enforcement activities of these agencies — whether by other organs of government or by large owner/operators.
The 1998 Fire Control Law was extended in 2009, and a chapter was added entitled “Supervision and Inspection”. Clauses in this chapter offer somewhat greater specificity about inspections and enforcement of fire-safety regulation. Departments of local and regional government are charged to “conduct targeted fire safety inspections” and “promptly urge the rectification of hidden fire hazards” (Article 52). (Notice that the verb “urge” is used rather than “require”.) Article 53 specifies that the police station (public security) is responsible for “supervising and inspecting the compliance of fire protection laws and regulations”. Article 54 addresses the issue of possible discovery of “hidden fire hazards” during fire inspection; this requires notification of the responsible unit of the necessity of eliminating the hazard. Article 55 specifies that if a fire safety agency discovers that fire protection facilities do not meet safety requirements, it must report to the emergency management department of higher-level government in writing. Article 56 provides specifications aimed at preventing corrupt collaboration between fire departments and units: “Fire rescue agencies … shall not charge fees, shall not use their positions to seek benefits”. And, finally, Article 57 specifies that “all units and individuals have the right to report and sue the illegal activities of the authorities” if necessary. Notice, however, that, first, all of this inspection and enforcement activity occurs within a network of offices and departments dependent ultimately on central government; and second, the legislation remains very unspecific about how this set of expectations about regulation, inspection, and enforcement is to be implemented at the local and provincial levels. There is nothing in this chapter that gives the observer confidence that effective regulations will be written; effective inspection processes will be carried out; and failed inspections will lead to prompt remediation of hazardous conditions.
The Tianjin port explosion in 2015 is a case in point (link, link). Poor regulations, inadequate and ineffective inspections, corruption, and bad behavior by large private and governmental actors culminated in a gigantic pair of explosions of 800 tons of ammonium nitrate. This was one of the worst industrial and environmental disasters in China’s recent history, and resulted in the loss of 173 lives, including 104 poorly equipped fire fighters. Prosecutions ensued after the disaster, including the conviction and suspended death sentence of Ruihai International Logistics Chairman Yu Xuewei for bribery, and the conviction of 48 other individuals for a variety of crimes (link). But punishment after the fact is no substitute for effective, prompt inspection and enforcement of safety requirements.
It is not difficult to identify the organizational dysfunctions in China that make fire safety, railway safety, food safety, and perhaps nuclear safety difficult to attain. What is genuinely difficult is to see how these dysfunctions can be corrected in a single-party state. Censorship, subordination of all agencies to central control, the omnipresence of temptations to corrupt cooperation — all of these factors seem to be systemic within a one-party state. The party state wants to control public opinion; therefore censorship. The party state wants to control all political units; therefore a lack of independence for safety agencies. And positions of decision-making that create lucrative “rent-seeking” opportunities for office holders — therefore corruption, from small payments to local inspectors to massive gifts of wealth to senior officials. A pluralistic, liberal society embodying multiple centers of power and freedom of press and association is almost surely a safer society. Ironically, this was essentially Amartya Sen’s argument in Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, his classic analysis of famine and malnutrition: a society embodying a free press and reasonably free political institutions is much more likely to respond quickly to conditions of famine. His comparison was between India in the Bengal famine (1943) and China in the Great Leap Forward famine (1959-61).
Here is a Google translation of Chapter V of the 2009 revision of the Fire Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China mentioned above.
Chapter V Supervision and Inspection
Article 52 Local people’s governments at all levels shall implement a fire protection responsibility system and supervise and inspect the performance of fire safety duties by relevant departments of the people’s government at the same level.
The relevant departments of the local people’s government at or above the county level shall, based on the characteristics of the system, conduct targeted fire safety inspections, and promptly urge the rectification of hidden fire hazards.
Article 53 Fire and rescue agencies shall supervise and inspect the compliance of fire protection laws and regulations by agencies, organizations, enterprises, institutions and other entities in accordance with the law. The police station may be responsible for daily fire control supervision and inspection, and conduct fire protection publicity and education. The specific measures shall be formulated by the public security department of the State Council.
The staff of fire rescue agencies and public security police stations shall present their certificates when conducting fire supervision and inspection.
Article 54: Fire rescue agencies that discover hidden fire hazards during fire supervision and inspection shall notify relevant units or individuals to take immediate measures to eliminate the hidden hazards; if the hidden hazards are not eliminated in time and may seriously threaten public safety, the fire rescue agency shall deal with the dangerous parts in accordance with regulations. Or the place adopts temporary sealing measures.
Article 55: If the fire rescue agency discovers that the urban and rural fire safety layout and public fire protection facilities do not meet the fire safety requirements during the fire supervision and inspection, or finds that there is a major fire hazard affecting public safety in the area, it shall report to the emergency management department in writing. Level People’s Government.
The people’s government that receives the report shall verify the situation in a timely manner, organize or instruct relevant departments and units to take measures to make corrections.
Article 56 The competent department of housing and urban-rural construction, fire rescue agencies and their staff shall conduct fire protection design review, fire protection acceptance, random inspections and fire safety inspections in accordance with statutory powers and procedures, so as to be fair, strict, civilized and efficient.
Housing and urban-rural construction authorities, fire rescue agencies and their staff shall conduct fire protection design review, fire inspection and acceptance, record and spot checks and fire safety inspections, etc., shall not charge fees, shall not use their positions to seek benefits; they shall not use their positions to designate or appoint users, construction units, or Disguisedly designate the brand, sales unit or fire-fighting technical service organization or construction unit of fire-fighting equipment for fire-fighting products.
Article 57 The competent housing and urban-rural construction departments, fire and rescue agencies and their staff perform their duties, should consciously accept the supervision of society and citizens.
All units and individuals have the right to report and sue the illegal activities of the housing and urban-rural construction authorities, fire and rescue agencies and their staff in law enforcement. The agency that receives the report or accusation shall investigate and deal with it in a timely manner in accordance with its duties.
* * * * *
(Here is a detailed technical fire code for China from 2014 (link).)
Let’s think about the intellectual influences that have shaped philosophers of science over the past one hundred years or so: Vienna Circle empiricism, logical positivism, the deductive-nomological method, the Kuhn-Lakatos revolution, incorporation of the sociology of science into philosophy of science, a surge of interest in scientific realism, and an increasing focus on specific areas of science as objects of philosophy of science investigations. And along these waypoints it would be fairly easy to place a few road signs indicating the major philosophers associated with each phase in the story — Ayer, Carnap, Reichenbach, Hempel, Nagel, Hanson, Hesse, Kuhn, Lakatos, Putnam, Boyd, Quine, Sellars, Bhaskar, Sober, Rosenberg, Hausman, Epstein …
So we might get the idea that we’ve got a pretty good idea of the “space” in which philosophy of science questions should be posed, along with a sense of the direction of change and progress that has occurred in the field since 1930. The philosophy of science is a “tradition” within philosophy, and we who practice in the field have a sense of understanding its geography.
But now I suggest that readers examine Wojciech Sady’s excellent article on Ludwik Fleck in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link). Fleck (1896-1961) was a Polish-Jewish scientist and medical researcher who wrote extensively in the 1930s about “social cognition” and what we would now call the sociology of science. His biography is fascinating and harrowing; he and his family survived life in Lvov under the Soviet Union (1939-1941) after the simultaneous invasion of Poland by Germany and the USSR; occupation, pogroms, and capture by the Germans in Lvov; resettlement in the Lvov ghetto; transport to Auschwitz and later Buchenwald; and survival throughout, largely because of his scientific expertise on typhus vaccination. Fleck survived to serve as a senior academic scientist in Lublin. In 1957 Fleck and his wife emigrated to Israel, where their son had settled.
Fleck is not entirely unknown to philosophers today, but it’s a close call. A search for articles on Fleck in a research university search engine produces about 2,500 academic articles; by comparison, the same search results in 183,000 articles on Thomas Kuhn. And I suspect that virtually no philosopher with a PhD from a US department of philosophy since 1970 and with a concentration in the philosophy of science has ever heard of Fleck. 100% of those philosophers, of course, will have a pretty good idea of Kuhn’s central ideas. And yet Fleck has a great deal in common with Kuhn — some three decades earlier. More importantly, many of Fleck’s lines of thought about the history of concepts of disease in medicine are still enormously stimulating, and they represent potential sources of innovation in the field today. Fleck asked very original and challenging questions about the nature of scientific concepts and knowledge. Thomas Kuhn was one of the few historians of science who were aware of Fleck’s work, and he wrote a very generous introduction to the English translation of Fleck’s major book in the sociology and history of science, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (1979/1935).
Here are Fleck’s central ideas, as summarized by Sady. Understanding the world around us (cognition) is a collective project. Individuals interacting with each other about some aspect of the world constitute a “thought collective” — “a community of persons mutually exchanging ideas or maintaining intellectual interaction” (Sady, sect. 3). A thought collective forms a vocabulary and crafts a set of concepts that are mutually understood within the group, but misunderstood by persons outside the group. A “thought collective” forms a “collective bond” — a set of emotions of loyalty and solidarity which Fleck describes as a “collective mood”. There are no “objective facts”; rather, facts are defined by the terms and constructs of the “thought collective”. And the perceptions, beliefs, and representations of different “thought collectives” concerned with ostensibly the same subject matter are incommensurable.
So it is not possible to compare a theory with “reality in itself”. It is true that those who use a thought style give arguments for their views, but those arguments are of restricted value. Any attempt to legitimize a particular view is inextricably bound to standards developed within a given style, and those who accept those standards accept also the style. (Sady, sect. 7)
And scientific knowledge is entirely conditional upon the background structure of the “thought collective” or conceptual framework of the research community:
As Fleck states in the last sentence of (1935b), “’To see’ means: to recreate, at a suitable moment, a picture created by the mental collective to which one belongs”. (Sady, sect. 5)
Thus, it is impossible to see something radically new “simply and immediately”: first the constrains of an old thought style must be removed and a new style must emerge, a collective’s thought mood must change— and this takes time and work with others. (Sady, sect. 5)
These ideas plainly correspond closely to Imre Lakatos’s idea of a research community and Thomas Kuhn’s idea of a paradigm. They stand in striking contrast to the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle being developed at roughly the same time. (And yet Sady notes that Moritz Schlick offered to recommend publication of Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact in 1934.)
Upon first exposure to Fleck’s ideas from the Sady article I initially assumed that Fleck was influenced by Communist ideas about science and knowledge (as were Polish sociologists and philosophers in the 1950s). The “collective thoughts” that are central to Fleck’s account of the history of science sound a lot like Engels or Lenin. And yet this turns out not to be the case. Nothing in Sady’s article suggests that Fleck was influenced by Polish Communist theory in the 1920s and 1930s. Instead, his ideas about social cognition seem to develop out of a largely central European tradition of thinking about thinking. According to Sady, Fleck’s own “thought collectives” (research traditions) included: (1) medical research; (2) the emerging field in Poland of history of medicine (Władysław Szumowski, Włodzimierz Sieradzki, and Witold Ziembicki); (3) the Polish “philosophical branch” of mathematical-philosophical school (minor); (4) sociology of knowledge (Levy-Bruhl, Wilhelm Jerusalem; but not Max Scheler or Karl Mannheim; also minor). Sady also emphasizes Fleck’s interest in the debates that were arising in physics around the puzzles of quantum mechanics and relativity theory.
So there is a major irony here: one of Fleck’s central ideas is that individual thinkers can achieve nothing by themselves as individuals. And yet Fleck’s ideas as developed in his history of the medical concept of syphilis appear to be largely self-generated — the results of his own knowledge and reflection. The advocate of the necessity of “thought collectives” was himself not deeply integrated into any coherent thought collective.
This story has an important moral. Most importantly, it confirms to me that there are always important perspectives on a given philosophical topic that have fallen outside the mainstream and may be forever forgotten. This suggests the value, for philosophers and other scholars interested in arriving at valuable insights into difficult problems, of paying attention to the paths not taken in previous generations. There is nothing in the nature of academic research that guarantees that “the best ideas of a generation will become part of the canon for the next generation”; instead, many good and original ideas have been lost to the disciplines through bad luck. This is largely true of Fleck.
But here is another, more singular fact that is of interest. How did Sady’s article, and therefore Fleck himself, come to my attention? The answer is that in the past year I’ve been reading a lot about Polish and Jewish intellectuals from the 1930s with growing fascination because of a growing interest in the Holocaust and the Holodomor. That means a lot of searches on people like Janina Bauman, Leszek Kołakowski, and Vasily Grossman. I’ve searched for the histories of places like Lvov, Galicia, and Berdichev. And in the serendipity of casting a wide net, I’ve arrived at the happy experience of reading Sady’s fascinating article, along with some of Fleck’s important work.
Here is the prologue to Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. It expresses very concisely Fleck’s perspective on science, concepts, and facts.
What is a fact?
A fact is supposed to be distinguished from transient theories as something definite, permanent, and independent of any subjective interpretation by the scientist. It is that which the various scientific disciplines aim at. The critique of the methods used to establish it constitutes the subject matter of epistemology.
Epistemology often commits a fundamental error: almost exclusively it regards well-established facts of everyday life, or those of classical physics, as the only ones that are reliable and worthy of investigation. Valuation based upon such an investigation is inherently naive, with the result that only superficial data are obtained.
Moreover, we have even lost any critical insight we may once have had into the organic basis of perception, taking for granted the basic fact that a normal person has two eyes. We have nearly ceased to consider this as even knowledge at all and are no longer conscious of our own participation in perception. Instead, we feel a complete passivity in the face of a power that is independent of us; a power we call “existence” or “reality.” In this respect we behave like someone who daily performs ritual or habitual actions mechanically. These are no longer voluntary activities, but ones which we feel compelled to perform to the exclusion of others. A better analogy perhaps is the behavior of a person taking part in a mass movement. Consider, for instance, a casual visitor to the Stock Exchange, who feels the panic selling in a bear market as only an external force existing in reality. He is completely unaware of his own excitement in the throng and hence does not realize how much he may be contributing to the general state. Long-established facts of everyday life, then, do not lend themselves to epistemological investigation.
As for the facts of classical physics, here too we are handicapped by being accustomed to them in practice and by the facts themselves being well worn theoretically. I therefore believe that a “more recent fact,” discovered not in the remote past and not yet exhausted for epistemological purposes, will conform best to the principles of unbiased investigation. A medical fact, the importance and applicability of which cannot be denied, is particularly suitable, because it also appears to be very rewarding historically and phenomenologically. I have therefore selected one of the best established medical facts: the fact that the so-called Wassermann reaction is related to syphilis.
HOW, THEN, DID THIS EMPIRICAL FACT ORIGINATE AND IN WHAT DOES IT CONSIST?
Nathan Stoltzfus’s Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany has a remarkable and startling thesis: though the Nazi regime used absolutely unconstrained violence and coercion in its conquest, domination, and annihilation of its enemies (Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, the USSR), its approach to ruling Germany was strikingly different. Stoltzfus maintains that Hitler and the Nazi regime sought to cultivate broad support among Germans for its war and extermination aims, while building a strong consensus around ideology and values in the German homeland.
Except for a tiny fraction of the population, consisting of Jews, political dissidents, social outsiders, and the congenitally “incurable,” National Socialism strove to bring all Germans into line with the thinking that they should be the master of others. The effort to extract the maximal effort of the people in conquering the continent and killing millions outright was conducted with concern for the “German-blooded” people. Nazi propaganda directed German women to become the mothers of the nation through appeals to love of Nazi leaders and heroes, as well as for their own children. The National Socialist People’s Welfare (NSV) was an enormous agency dedicated to benefiting productive, racially valuable Germans. kl 54
In fact, Stoltzfus suggests that post-war Germany has fallen for a myth of its own wartime history: the myth of a violent, coercive dictatorship that compelled the German people to carry out his evil purposes.
The Germans have earned high praise for facing the crimes of their past, showing more reluctant countries how to do it. Still today there are signs of a retrenchment among some historians, as well as in the official commemorations in Germany, in the comforting belief that Hitler ruled his own “race” of people by intimidation and terror more than by incentives and rewards, that the Gestapo crushed all opposition, and that the dictatorship set its course according to its ideology and proceeded in a straight path toward it, steamrolling any obstacles with brute force. kl 102
But according to Stoltzfus, this is a myth. On the homefront, Stoltzfus appears to argue, Hitler was a calculating politician, aiming at creating a supportive and contented public, rather than a ranting dictator using murder, torture, and imprisonment to coerce his nation to his goals. And the German public was largely willing to support his policies.
Hitler wanted to create a dictatorship, but he also wanted the support of the people. The most important thing he could do to win them over was to solve the massive unemployment problem. Although it is clear that his regime beat the Great Depression faster than any of the Western democracies, it still took time.
The new regime made no bones about using coercion in many forms against its declared enemies, but it also sought the consent and support of the people at every turn. As I try to show in the book, consent and coercion were inextricably entwined throughout the history of the Third Reich, partly because most of the coercion and terror was used against specific individuals, minorities, and social groups for whom the people had little sympathy. (kl 195)
Thus, the Nazis did not act out of delusional or blind fanaticism in the beginning, but with their eyes wide open to the social and political realities around them. They developed their racist and repressive campaigns, by looking at German society, history, and traditions. The identification and treatment of political opponents and the persecution of social and racial outsiders illustrated the kind of populist dictatorship that developed under Hitler. (kl 264)
And Gellately argues that the German public was aware of many of the details of the violence of the secret police and the use of concentration camps and rejects the view that these facts were withheld from the German public:
This book challenges these views. It shows that a vast array of material on the police and the camps and various discriminatory campaigns was published in the media of the day. In the 1930s the regime made sure the concentration camps were reported in the press, held them up for praise, and proudly let it be known that the men and women in the camps were confined without trial on the orders of the police. kl 299
The most compelling evidence of this interpretation of Hitler’s populist dictatorship, for Stoltzfus, is the fact that there were occasional signs of public disapproval of Nazi actions, including resistance by Germany’s churches to euthanasia, protests against imprisonment of Jewish husbands of non-Jewish wives, and public protests over other issues; and the Nazi regime sought to change its behavior to conform better to the expectations of the public. These are the compromises in the title of Stoltzfus’s book.
During 1943 as well, Hitler preferred to appease rather than repress two spectacular street protests by women, even as the People’s Court increased sentences for treason. By mid-1943, complaints and jokes about the regime leaders were so prevalent that prosecutors thought that singling one person out for punishment on such an offense was untenable, and the SD was concerned about an inner collapse on the home front. kl 512
Taken separately, each instance of regime compromise might be explained as an exception that it made for specific sectors of Germans: workers, the churches, women. Taken together, the various cases of the dictatorship’s willingness to compromise in ruling the people illuminate a pattern of response to social dissent, regardless of which group was dissenting. The regime’s willingness to make concessions to the working class in order to assuage its dissatisfactions is well documented.51 But it also preempted or ameliorated signs of sustained opposition in public by other social groups as well, an approach that is hardly surprising considering its earnest manipulation of demonstrations and rallies in an effort to influence opinion and “nationalize the people.” kl 566
In this respect, if Stoltzfus and Gellately are correct, the domestic dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin were radically different. Stalin treated the population of his nation as the enemies of socialism and of the regime, and his tools of control were entirely drawn from the war chest of arrest, terror, imprisonment, and murder. Soviet citizens were terrified into submission — with the partial exception of support for the “Great Patriotic War” and Comrade Stalin’s brilliant generalship. If there is such a thing as a “scale” of totalitarianism, this suggests that the Soviet Union under Stalin was a vastly more fully totalitarian state than the domestic Nazi state in Germany.
The reason this argument by Stoltzfus is especially important today is that it is not just about history — about Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Rather, it seems to suggest a playbook for contemporary “wannabe” autocrats and dictators, including a recent president of the United States. The strategy that Hitler pursued, according to Stoltzfus, was to put forward a compelling nationalist ideology affirming the German nation, a powerful and vitriolic racism against Jews and Slavs, and an assurance that “the leader” can achieve the national interest by leading the nation and waging merciless war against its racial enemies. This is the stuff of radical right-wing populism today. Stoltzfus appears to recognize this continuity:
While his dictatorship murdered millions in the name of ideology, Hitler managed the relationship with the Germans of the Reich in ways that place him among those whom scholars now identify as “soft” dictators, who prefer the tactics of persuasion, enticement, cooptation, and compromise to work their will. These scholars associate “soft” tactics with dictatorships of the twenty-first century by contrasting them in one fell swoop with caricatures so gross they characterize both Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes. kl 204
Had he not been aiming to reshape the Germans into a Nazi national community, with a new Nazi superego, Hitler could have relied more fully on terror. But he was convinced that the existing German mythos could only be replaced by edging it out with another ideology the people found acceptable. In Nazi practice, as Hitler foresaw it, force could be deployed to secure the people’s worldview once a majority was behind it, as he continued toward winning all but the fringe. kl 230
“Soft dictatorship” at home, with a willingness to compromise when public opinion appears to demand it, along with consistent planning and action in support of the underlying racist ideology — that is a very different understanding from the traditional view of Nazi dictatorship. And yet it is a worrisome illustration of the power that charismatic, malevolent leaders can exercise over a mass society.
Vasily Grossman was an important Soviet writer and journalist from the 1930s through his death in 1964. He was a Ukrainian Jew born in 1905, and his mother died in a mass execution of Jews in Berdichev, Ukraine, in 1941. He was a man of the “bloodlands”, in Tim Snyder’s term. During World War II he became one of the best-respected war correspondents in the Soviet Union, and he accompanied the Red Army through many of the bloodiest battles of the war against Hitler, including the battles of Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin. He was also present with the Red Army at Babi Yar in Kiev in 1943. His writings under a totalitarian state and throughout the Holocaust present an unusual example of courage and independence in a time in which the forces of dictatorship and repression were supremely powerful across both Nazi and Soviet spheres. His greatest work was Life and Fate, a thousand-page novel aimed at expressing the human and political realities of the battle of Stalingrad. The novel was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988 and 1989 because of its supposed anti-Soviet tendencies, long after Grossman’s death.
After the Soviet victory at Stalingrad Grossman accompanied the Soviet 62nd Army into Poland, and was the first journalist to visit the site of the the recently-destroyed extermination camp of Treblinka in September 1944. Treblinka was a place specifically designed for mass murder, only sixty kilometers from Warsaw in Poland. Grossman’s 1944 documentary essay on Treblinka, “The Treblinka Hell” (link), is detailed, grim, and unblinking; it should be an essential element of our efforts to understand the realities of the Holocaust. Grossman’s article is one of the first extensive reports on the details of Nazi extermination of the Jews. It is brutally honest and explicit, and — unlike the preferred Soviet narrative — it is explicit in recognizing that this was an extermination camp for Jews, along with a small number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs. The article is a remarkable piece of documentary journalism and historical reportage. Further, as Zsuzsa Hetenyi notes in “Facts and Fiction in Vasily Grossman’s Prose” (link), the piece also has much of the narrative evocativeness and empathy that Grossman displays in his fiction writing. It is a powerful piece of contemporary witness reportage of the realities of the Shoah.
When capture by the Red Army appeared imminent, the Germans at Treblinka made every effort to destroy all the evidence of what had taken place there:
Early in the morning of July 23, the guards and SS men took a stiff drink and set to work to wipe out all trace of the camp. By nightfall all the inmates had been killed and buried. Only one man survived — Max Levit, a Warsaw carpenter, who was only wounded and lay beneath the bodies of his comrades until nightfall, when he crawled off into the forest. He told us how as he lay there at the bottom of the pit he heard a group of some thirty young lads singing a popular Soviet song, “Vast is my Native Land,” before being shot down; heard one of the boys cry out: “Stalin will avenge us!”; heard the boys’ leader, young Leib, who had been everyone’s favourite in the camp, scream after the first volley: “Panie Watchman, you didn’t kill me! Shoot again, please! Shoot again!” 373
Grossman and other Red Army investigators learned a great deal about the workings of the camp, including the names of the commander and many guards. Prisoners in Camp 1, the labor camp, received a food ration of 170-200 grams of bread — less than 530 calories, a starvation diet. Random murders by the guards were frequent, including murders of children. Conditions in Camp 1 were hellish. And yet Camp 2 was much, much worse. Camp 2 of Treblinka was a death camp. “Everything in this camp was adapted for death.” Train after train arrived in the camp every day, and no one departed. “For thirteen months or 396 days, the trains returned empty or loaded with sand; not a single one of those who were brought to Camp No. 2 ever returned.” And who were these people? “Who were the people brought here by the trainload? Mainly Jews, and to a lesser extent Poles and Gypsies” (377).
By the spring of 1942 almost the entire Jewish population of Poland, Germany and the western districts of Byelorussia had been rounded up in ghettos. Millions of Jewish workers, artisans, doctors, architects, engineers, teachers, art workers, and other professionals together with their wives and children, mothers and fathers lived in the ghettos of Warsaw, Radom, Czestochowa, Lublin, Bialystok, Grodno, and dozens of other smaller towns. In the Warsaw ghetto alone there were about 500,000 Jews. Confinement to the ghetto was evidently the first, preparatory stage of the Hitler plan for the extermination of the Jews. (377)
The trains that came to Treblinka from the West-European countries — France, Bulgaria, Austria and others — were another matter entirely. These people had not heard of Treblinka and up to the last minute they believed they were being sent to work. The Germans painted alluring pictures of the pleasures and conveniences of the new life awaiting the settlers. Some trains brought people who thought they were being taken to some neutral country. Victims of a gruesome hoax, they had paid the German authorities large sums of money for passports and foreign visas. (377)
Some of Grossman’s prose is haunting and poetic, and contributes to a more human understanding of the evil and grief of the Shoah —
Anything up to 20,000 people passed through Treblinka every day. Days when only six or seven thousand came out of the station building were considered wasted. The square was filled with people four and five times a day. And all of these thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people with the frightened, questioning eyes, all these young and old faces, these pretty dark-haired and fair-haired girls, the stooped and baldheaded old men, the timid youngsters — all of them merged into a single flood that swept away reason, human knowledge, maidenly love, childish wonder, the coughing of old men and the throbbing hearts of living human beings. (380)
Grossman goes through every step of the journey from disembarkment from the train to killing in the gas chamber, and the indignities and brutality — and murder — that occurred in between. The gas chambers at Treblinka made use of carbon monoxide generated by large engines to asphyxiate the victims, or pumps that evacuated the oxygen from the chamber, leading once again to asphyxiation.
Grossman reflects as a human being on this sequence of monstrous inhumanity:
Great is the power of humanity; humanity does not die until man dies. And when there comes a brief but terrifying period in history, a period in which the beast triumphs over man, to his last breath the man slain by the beast retains his strength of spirit, clarity of thought, and warmth of feeling. And the beast who slays the man remains a beast. In this immortal spiritual strength of human beings is a solemn martyrdom, the triumph of the dying man over the living beast. Therein, during the darkest days of 1942, lay the dawn of reason’s victory over bestial madness, of good over evil, light over darkness, of the power of progress over the power of reaction; an awesome dawn breaking over a field of blood and tears, an ocean of suffering, a dawn breaking amid the screams and cries of perishing mothers and infants, amid the death rattle of the aged. The beasts and the philosophy of the beasts foreshadowed the end of Europe, the end of the world; but people remained people. They did not accept the morals and laws of fascism, fighting with all the means at their disposal against them, fighting with their death as human beings. (389-390)
And how many were there of these innocent victims? Grossman tries to estimate the dead in different ways, based on the frequency of train arrivals and the capacity of the ten gas chambers. He estimates that three million men, women, and children were murdered at Treblinka in the 13 months of its operations. This is probably an over-estimate; the camp was not as efficient in killing as Grossman believed. The article on Treblinka published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum gives an estimate of 925,000 Jews and an unknown number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs (link). But whether three million victims or one million, Treblinka was a place of unspeakable evil.
And what about the guards and executioners? What was their psychology? Grossman has a view on this question as well, and it stands in counterpoint to Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil.
It must be noted here that these creatures were by no means robots who mechanically carried out the wishes of others. All witnesses speak of a trait common to all of them, namely, a fondness for theoretical argument, a predilection for philosophizing. All of them had a weakness for delivering speeches to the doomed people, for boasting in front of their victims and explaining the “lofty” meaning and “importance” for the future of what was being done in Treblinka. They were profoundly and sincerely convinced that they were doing the correct and necessary thing. They explained in detail the superiority of their race over all other races. (400)
Grossman describes the uprising at Treblinka, which, according to Grossman’s account, was surprisingly successful. Prisoners succeeded in burning much of the camp and killing some of the guards and executioners, and about 300 prisoners escaped. Most were subsequently tracked and killed, but about a third survived to tell their story. The mutiny and the German defeat at Stalingrad appear to have led to the Germans’ efforts at erasing Treblinka completely in 1943. Grossman reflects on the Nazi efforts at erasing Treblinka:
What was the object of all this destruction? Was it to hide the traces of the murder of millions of people in the hell of Treblinka? But how did they expect to do this? Did they really think it possible to force the thousands who had witnessed the death trains moving from all corners of Europe to the death conveyor to keep silent? Did they believe they could hide that deadly flame and the smoke which hung for eight months in the sky, visible by day and by night to the inhabitants of dozens of villages and small towns? Did they think they could make the peasants of the Wulka village forget the fearful shrieks of the women and children which lasted for thirteen long months and which seem to ring in their ears to this very day? (405)
The essay has moments of poetic transcendence. Here are Grossman’s words describing his own entrance into Treblinka as part of the Stalingrad Red Army:
We enter the camp. We are treading the soil of Treblinka. The lupine pods burst open at the slightest touch, burst open by themselves with a faint popping sound; millions of tiny peas roll on the ground… The earth ejects crushed bones, teeth, bits of paper and clothing; it refuses to keep its awful secret. These things emerge from the unhealed wounds in the earth. (406)
And here are the closing words of the article, Grossman’s own assessment of this great evil:
Every man and woman today is in duty bound to his conscience, to his son and his mother, to his country and to mankind to examine his heart and conscience and reply to the question: what is it that gave rise to racism, what can be done in order that Nazism, Hitlerism may never rise again, either on this or the other side of the ocean, never unto eternity.
The imperialist idea of national, race, or any other execeptionalism led the Hitlerites logically to Majdanek, Sobibor, Belzec, Oswiecim and Treblinka.
We must remember that racism, fascism will emerge from this war not only with bitter recollections of defeat but also with sweet memories of the ease with which it is possible to slaughter millions of defenseless people.
This must be solemnly borne in mind by all who value honour, liberty and the life of all nations, of all mankind. (408)
There is a strong moral voice in Grossman’s writings. Here Grossman tries to express why it is important to speak honestly about the facts of mass murder and genocide. He believes profoundly that the Holocaust, mass extermination, and totalitarianism must be confronted honestly and without fear.
It is the duty of a writer to tell the truth however gruelling, and the duty of the reader to learn the truth. To turn aside, or to close one’s eyes to the truth is to insult the memory of the dead. The person who does not learn the whole truth will never understand what kind of enemy, what sort of monster, our great Red Army is waging battle against to the death. (399)
Grossman is one of the most important and passionate contemporaneous observers of the Shoah (and the crimes of Stalinism as well), and his texts and novels demand our attention. In collaboration with Ilya Ehrenberg, Grossman compiled a massive set of documents offering witness to the crimes committed against the Jews, by the Nazis and by the Stalinists, in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry. The manuscript was complete by 1944, but characteristically, Soviet censors never permitted publication of the massive compilation. A Russian edition was published in Kiev in 1991.
What features of a political regime contribute to political loyalty and commitment on the part of its citizens? Can a fascist dictatorship inspire political loyalty and commitment from the mass of society? And what about liberal democracy; can a liberal democratic regime maintain mass support?
We have the makings of an answer to the first question. A fascist dictatorship like that of Mussolini can indeed maintain passionate support through a powerful (often mendacious) ideology and value scheme — fatherland, church, family, scapegoating of “enemies of the people”; a social program that finds support (repression of immigrants and ethnic minorities); and a demonstration of competent governance (“the trains run on time”). This story identifies several factors — ideology and values, scapegoating, implementation of popular policies of repression, and efficient adminstration of government (economic growth. jobs, stable prices, …).
So what about liberal democracy: a maximal, extensive, and equal system of rights; and a legislative process implementing equal democratic rights to set law and policy. Does this system provide a basis for eliciting loyalty and commitment from all or most citizens? In particular, does it support a compelling value statement, a real principle of tolerance, and the capacity for achieving “good government” (efficient management of the public good)? Can the values of equal worth, tolerance of difference, and majoritarian decision-making lead to loyalty and commitment? Can a Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton create an inspiring vision of the future that mobilizes most citizens in support?
The prospects don’t appear to be very good. Anti-liberal political opportunists can always create a counter-narrative that directly or tacitly rejects equality and tolerance and seeks to create a basis for minority rule. Right-wing populism has shown itself to be insidious and virulent — very capable of winning support from large groups of anti-liberal activists and followers. The politics of division and hate are indeed powerful. Fascist ideology, values, and programs have great strength in the space of contemporary mass politics. The currents of hate, fear, racism, xenophobia, and the political maneuver of “group supremacy” have shown themselves to be highly potent bases for political mobilization.
There seem to be two levels of support for a regime that are in question. First is “rational/reasonable consideration” of which regime best suits my longterm interests. The second is “emotional/passionate mobilization” around the call to action by a highly persuasive leader — a Tucker Carlson or Mussolini. The first is a deliberative “all things considered” choice of a regime; the other is political marketing and propaganda.
What then are the prospects for continuing stable support for liberal democracy? First, it is clear that this kind of support is not automatic. There are powerful and compelling anti-liberal voices in the space of liberal democracy. Liberal democrats must compete vigorously or they will lose. They must articulate the value of liberal democracy and the very real dangers of the rise of populist extremism.
Second, liberal democracy needs to make credible the belief that liberal democratic government can succeed in creating laws and policies that genuinely enhance justice, equality, and opportunity.
And third, defenders of liberal democracy need to ensure that the institutions of the state continue to guarantee the rights of all citizens. The willingness of the far-right to use violent threats and actions against our institutions must be rebutted. January 6 is a dangerous and sobering precedent; so are the kidnapping plot against Michigan Governor Whitmer, the brandishing of semi-automatic weapons in state houses around the country, and the intimidation of public health officials during the pandemic. Violence and intimidation are inherently toxic to liberal democracy.
It seems very clear: Citizens must actively assert themselves in support of our liberal democracy, or we will go the way of Hungary.
There are tormenting questions raised by the facts of the Holocaust and the deliberate killing of six million Jewish men, women, and children. Some of these questions are obvious, but Snyder argues that we haven’t asked the most important questions yet. We have not yet understood the Holocaust in the ways we need to if we are to honor the victims and prepare humanity for a future in which genocide does not recur.
The most difficult question is that of historical causation: what factors caused the massive genocide that occurred in 1941 and following years? The conventional answers to this question revolve around familiar factors: the aftermath of the First World War, the extensive realities of anti-Semitism, Hitler’s single-minded ideology, and the successful efforts by Germany to build a military and police apparatus that was very efficient in waging war and massacring vast civilian populations. But Snyder doesn’t believe that these conventional ideas are correct. They are all relevant factors in the rise and power of the Nazi regime, but they do not by themselves suffice to explain the ability of the regime to kill millions of innocent people in a matter of months.
The dominant stereotype of Nazi Germany is of an all-powerful state that catalogued, repressed, and then exterminated an entire class of its own citizens. This was not how the Nazis achieved the Holocaust, nor how they even thought about it. The enormous majority of the victims of the Holocaust were not German citizens; Jews who were German citizens were much more likely to survive than Jews who were citizens of states that the Germans destroyed. 337
Rather, Snyder argues that the most fundamental factor that facilitated the Holocaust was the “state smashing” that occurred through Nazi military aggression and Soviet occupation of many of the countries of Central Europe. Snyder refers to the “double occupation” that was part of the period of the 1930s and 1940s: occupation by the Soviet Union of the Baltic countries, the Ukraine, half of Poland, and much of the remainder of central Europe; and then the conquest of these same territories by German military and police forces, beginning in 1939 in the rapid conquest of Poland and in 1941 in the rapid military conquest of much of the territory between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, extending to the outskirts of Moscow.
Snyder puts forward a powerful thesis: the Holocaust and the annihilation of six million Jews resulted most importantly from the destruction of state institutions in the countries that were occupied by USSR and Nazi Germany. It was the destruction of state institutions, systems of law, and rules of citizenship that led to the mortal peril of Jews in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and parts of the Soviet Union itself. Hitler’s war on the Jews was the ideological driver of his policies. But his ability to carry out his plans of mass murder depended on the smashing of the states of the countries it attacked, defeated, and occupied. And in this destruction the Soviet Union and the NKVD had played a crucial role during the 1930s.
Why were state institutions so important? Not because they consistently came to the support of persecuted minorities. They were important rather because states establish systems of law, rights, and citizenship. And states establish institutions, bureaucracies, and judicial systems that preserve those rights of citizenship. States provided a basis for oppressed groups to defend themselves within the institutions and bureaucracies of the state. The experience of the attempt in Germany in the 1930s to remove citizenship rights from its own small Jewish population — less than 1% of the population — was illustrative: it took years to succeed. Statelessness was a crucial feature of the deadly vulnerability of the Jews of Eastern Europe.
The state stood at the middle of the story of those who wished to kill Jews, and of those who wished to save them. Its mutation within Germany after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and then its destruction in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in 1938 and 1939 transformed Jews from citizens into objects of exploitation. The double assault upon state institutions in the Baltic states and eastern Poland, at first by the Soviet Union in 1939 and 1940 and then by Nazi Germany in 1941, created the special field of experimentation where ideas of a Final Solution became the practice of mass murder. 320
Why did both Germany and the USSR undertake such deliberate efforts to destroy the states of the territories they occupied, and the political elites who had played roles in those states? Both Nazi and Soviet states sought to create absolute political dominion in the territories they controlled. This meant killing the “political elites” in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, … This motivation explains the Soviet atrocity of the massacre by the NKVD of over 20,000 Polish military officers at Katyn Forest in 1940; they sought to decapitate any possible Polish political alternative to Soviet rule in the portion of Poland they had occupied (Surviving Katyn: Stalin’s Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth). And it meant destroying the civic and political institutions of these states. Both Nazi and Soviet murder machines were entirely ruthless in killing potential sources of political opposition. Mass killings of civil servants, mayors, governors, judges, and politically engaged citizens occurred, first by the Soviets and the NKVD and then by the Nazi occupiers.
Snyder offers the case of Denmark as support for this position. Denmark too was occupied by Nazi forces, and the Nazi regime was interested in destroying Danish Jews. However, he argues that the survival of its political institutions made extermination of Denmark’s Jews impossible. Snyder discusses the efforts of Rudolf Mildner, Gestapo chief in Denmark, in attempting to carry out genocide against Denmark’s Jews. “He was confronted in Copenhagen with institutions that had been abolished further east: a sovereign state, political parties with convictions and support, local civil society in various forms, a police force that could not be expected to cooperate” (216). And when that citizenship protection failed, Jews in Denmark were killed. “The Jews who were denied state protection in Denmark shared the fate of Jews who lacked state protection in Estonia or, for that matter, everywhere else: death” (217).
Snyder argues that the bureaucracies of a modern state work to protect the individuals and groups who fall within their scope. “Citizenship in modern states means access to bureaucracy. Bureaucracy has the reputation of killing Jews; it would be closer to the truth to say that it was the removal of bureaucracy that killed Jews. So long as state sovereignty persisted, so did the limits and possibilities afforded by bureaucracy” (221).
This point is highly consequential for our reading of the nature of totalitarian murder. And in fact, Snyder believes that the centrality of “state smashing” in the Holocaust is the clue to preventing genocide in the future. We need to build and defend the institutions of law, judiciary, and citizenship; these institutions are the bulwark against horrifying atrocities in the future.
If we are serious about emulating rescuers, we should build in advance the structures that make it more likely that we would do so. Rescue, in this broad sense, thus requires a firm grasp of the ideas that challenged conventional politics and opened the way to an unprecedented crime. 320
Mass killings generally take place during civil wars or regime changes. It was the deliberate policy of Nazi Germany to artificially create conditions of state destruction and then steer the consequences towards Jews. Destroying states without such malign intentions produces more conventional disasters. 336
This concern by Snyder for the persistence of resilient institutions of state also helps explain the passion and seriousness he brings to his concerns about the degradation of the institutions of democracy that has occurred in the United States and Europe in the past decade (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century). It is not merely that we care about democracy; it is that the institutions of state are themselves the most important bulwark against atrocities directed against individuals and groups by the powerful. When Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, or Donald Trump work deliberately to undermine the judiciary, the institutions of voting, the citizenship rights of minority groups in Brazil, Hungary, or the US, these actions are not just undesirable in a generic sense. They are highly dangerous for the future. They leave the citizens of their states with diminishing protections against arbitrary power, violence, vilification, and sometimes murder.
Here are the closing lines of Black Earth:
Understanding the Holocaust is our chance, perhaps our last one, to preserve humanity. That is not enough for its victims. No accumulation of good, no matter how vast, undoes an evil; no rescue of the future, no matter how successful, undoes a murder in the past. Perhaps it is true that to save one life is to save the world. But the converse is not true: saving the world does not restore a single lost life. The family tree of that boy in Vienna, like that of all of the Jewish children born and unborn, has been sheared at the roots: “I the root was once the flower / under these dim tons my bower / comes the shearing of the thread / death saw wailing overhead.” The evil that was done to the Jews—to each Jewish child, woman, and man—cannot be undone. Yet it can be recorded, and it can be understood. Indeed, it must be understood so that its like can be prevented in the future. That must be enough for us and for those who, let us hope, shall follow. 343
Snyder has made a very important contribution to how we understand the genocide of the Holocaust, and how we can best strive to prevent such moments in the future.
(Here is a powerful piece of memory in music and video, for the tragedy of Babi Yar; link.)
An earlier post raised the question of whether Socrates had participated, directly or indirectly, in atrocities in war during his celebrated service as hoplite in numerous campaigns in the Peloponnesian War. And, further, it seems that Socrates never explicitly criticized the practice of massacring and enslaving the defeated foe (as was practiced by Cleon). Several readers offered useful suggestions about other places in the Platonic corpus where moral ideas about the conduct of war are discussed by Socrates. There are a few passages in the Republic, Book 5, that are relevant to the moral limits on the conduct of war, and the first Alcibiades dialogue has some relevance as well. Here I want to consider those passages to see if these passages provide principles that are relevant to violence against the innocent — massacres, slaughter of prisoners, enslavement of women and children, devastation of cities. Here the question is not “what circumstances justify a state’s decision to go to war against an antagonist”, but rather the moral limits that govern acts and targets of violence in war — the difference between legitimate acts of war and atrocities.
Here are a few relevant lines of dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon from Republic, Book 5 (link):
“But again, how will our soldiers conduct themselves toward enemies?” “In what respect?” “First, in the matter of making slaves of the defeated, do you think it right for Greeks to reduce Greek cities to slavery, or rather that so far as they are able, they should not suffer any other city to do so, but should accustom Greeks [469c] to spare Greeks, foreseeing the danger of enslavement by the barbarians?” “Sparing them is wholly and altogether the better,” said he. “They are not, then, themselves to own Greek slaves, either, and they should advise the other Greeks not to?” “By all means,” he said; “at any rate in that way they would be more likely to turn against the barbarians and keep their hands from one another.” “And how about stripping the dead after victory of anything except their weapons: is that well? Does it not furnish a pretext to cowards [469d] not to advance on the living foe, as if they were doing something needful when poking about the dead? Has not this snatching at the spoils ere new destroyed many an army?” “Yes, indeed.” “And don’t you think it illiberal and greedy to plunder a corpse, and is it not the mark of a womanish and petty spirit to deem the body of the dead an enemy when the real foeman has flown away and left behind only the instrument with which he fought? [469e] Do you see any difference between such conduct and that of the dogs who snarl at the stones that hit them but don’t touch the thrower?” “Not the slightest.” “We must abandon, then, the plundering of corpses and the refusal to permit their burial.” “By heaven, we certainly must,” he said.
And a few lines later:
“And in the matter of devastating the land of Greeks and burning their houses, how will your soldiers deal with their enemies.” “I would gladly hear your opinion of that.” “In my view,” [470b] said I, “they ought to do neither, but confine themselves to taking away the annual harvest. Shall I tell you why?” “Do.” “In my opinion, just as we have the two terms, war and faction, so there are also two things, distinguished by two differentiae. The two things I mean are the friendly and kindred on the one hand and the alien and foreign on the other. Now the term employed for the hostility of the friendly is faction, and for that of the alien is war.” “What you say is in nothing beside the mark,” he replied. “Consider, then, [470c] if this goes to the mark. I affirm that the Hellenic race is friendly to itself and akin, and foreign and alien to the barbarian.” “Rightly,” he said. “We shall then say that Greeks fight and wage war with barbarians, and barbarians with Greeks, and are enemies by nature, and that war is the fit name for this enmity and hatred. Greeks, however, we shall say, are still by nature the friends of Greeks when they act in this way, but that Greece is sick in that case and divided by faction, [470d] and faction is the name we must give to that enmity.” “I will allow you that habit of speech,” he said. “Then observe,” said I, “that when anything of this sort occurs in faction, as the word is now used, and a state is divided against itself, if either party devastates the land and burns the houses of the other such factional strife is thought to be an accursed thing and neither party to be true patriots. Otherwise, they would never have endured thus to outrage their nurse and mother. But the moderate and reasonable thing is thought to be that the victors [470e] shall take away the crops of the vanquished, but that their temper shall be that of men who expect to be reconciled and not always to wage war.” “That way of feeling,” he said, “is far less savage than the other.” “Well, then,” said I, “is not the city that you are founding to be a Greek city?” “It must be,” he said. “Will they then not be good and gentle?” “Indeed they will.” “And won’t they be philhellenes, lovers of Greeks, and will they not regard all Greece as their own and not renounce their part in the holy places common to all Greeks ?” “Most certainly.” “Will they not then regard any difference with Greeks [471a] who are their own people as a form of faction and refuse even to speak of it as war?” “Most certainly.” “And they will conduct their quarrels always looking forward to a reconciliation?” “By all means.” “They will correct them, then, for their own good, not chastising them with a view to their enslavement or their destruction, but acting as correctors, not as enemies.” “They will,” he said. “They will not, being Greeks, ravage Greek territory nor burn habitations, and they will not admit that in any city all the population are their enemies, men, women and children, but will say that only a few at any time are their foes, [471b] those, namely, who are to blame for the quarrel. And on all these considerations they will not be willing to lay waste the soil, since the majority are their friends, nor to destroy the houses, but will carry the conflict only to the point of compelling the guilty to do justice by the pressure of the suffering of the innocent.” “I,” he said, “agree that our citizens ought to deal with their Greek opponents on this wise, while treating barbarians as Greeks now treat Greeks.” “Shall we lay down this law also, then, [471c] for our guardians that they are not to lay waste the land or burn the houses?” “Let us so decree,” he said, “and assume that this and our preceding prescriptions are right.”
Several moral ideas about limits on the use of violence in warfare are evident here. First, there is the distinction between waging war against other Greeks and against barbarians (non-Greeks). And second, there is a principle of moderation applied, first to acts within war against Greeks, and then partially extended to non-Greeks.
The first passage is concerned with the case of war between Greeks. Socrates is explicit in saying that vanquished Greeks should not be enslaved; vanquished Greek cities should not be burned and annihilated; and (by implication) surrendered Greek soldiers should not be massacred. Despoiling the dead is also considered and rejected. These claims are limited to the case of war between Greek parties. They seem to express an idea of “Hellenic patriotism” over and above loyalty and obligation to one’s own polity (city). The primary rationale that Socrates provides in the first passage for these limits on the conduct of war is prudential: Greek enemies will fight differently if they are confident they will not be massacred or enslaved, and will be more likely to fight the barbarians than the Athenians. But the second passage raises a different consideration: war between Greeks should not be considered to be total or irresolvable, but should be conducted in such a way that a peaceful future can be imagined on both sides — “… their temper shall be that of men who expect to be reconciled …”. It should be seen as a matter of faction rather than war, of measured disagreement rather than unlimited efforts at annihilation of the antagonist. Eventual reconciliation should be the goal. This is the “pan-hellenism” that Socrates and Glaucon both seem to endorse.
An even more important distinction is introduced in the second passage, though not by name: the distinction between combatant and non-combatant. And the principle that is articulated is, essentially, that violence should be restricted to combatants and not aimed at non-combatants. “They will not admit that in any city all the population are their enemies, men, women and children, but will say that only a few at any time are their foes, those, namely, who are to blame for the quarrel.” Or in more modern terms, the violence of war should be used only against those who provoked and conducted war, not those who simply inhabit the city that is at war. This is a significant limit on the conduct of war as practiced by Cleon. As we saw in the previous posts, Cleon’s proposed treatment of Mytilene was an instance of annihilation rather than eventual reconciliation.
The only statement about war against non-Greeks in these passages is this: “our citizens ought to deal with their Greek opponents on this wise, while treating barbarians as Greeks now treat Greeks.” But since Greek warfare against Greeks during the Peloponnesian War involved massacre of adult men, destruction of cities, and enslavement of women and children, this passage appears to permit these practices against “barbarians”. Moreover, the sharp distinction that Socrates draws between “fellow Greek” and “alien barbarian” is ominous, suggesting that in war against barbarians there are essentially no moral limitations. “I affirm that the Hellenic race is friendly to itself and akin, and foreign and alien to the barbarian.” “Rightly,” he said. “We shall then say that Greeks fight and wage war with barbarians, and barbarians with Greeks, and are enemies by nature, and that war is the fit name for this enmity and hatred.” Enemies by nature … enmity and hatred. These are phrases that lead to the legitimacy of wars of annihilation.
We might say that Socrates’ moral universe was fundamentally constrained by a “philosophical anthropology” that we would today describe as xenophobic, racist, or imperialist. It was a worldview that systematically regarded other groups as sub-human and less worthy of moral consideration than one’s own group. But once “barbarians” are recognized as fully and equally human, the arguments given above for moderation in war between Greek adversaries apply with equal force to war between Greek and non-Greek adversaries. The distinction between combatants and non-combatants is just as compelling to the case of warfare against Persians or Phoenicians. And the case for moderation and reconciliation in war is just as valid as well. It is shared humanity rather than shared “Hellenic race” that is a legitimate basis for moderation and reconciliation. But the virulence of the Greek concept of “barbarian” and its fundamental contrast with “Hellenic” presents a huge barrier to the creation of a universalist human morality — a morality based on the traits of the human being rather than the Persian, the Greek, or the Egyptian.
There is a basis, then, for thinking that the seeds of a more universal theory of moral limitations on the conduct of war exist in these Socratic ideas. What is missing is a recognition of the shared humanity of all social groups and civilizations — and their equal worthiness to being treated with compassion, equality, and consideration. But clearly, Plato and Socrates have not come to that insight.
The relevance of the Alcibiades dialogue (link) is more limited, because it concerns almost exclusively the question of what considerations of prudence and virtue should underlie a decision for a city to go to war against an adversary. This dialogue has relevance for the question of “just causes for war”, but almost nothing specific to say about “moral limitations on actions and strategies within war”.
Therefore neither the passages from the Republic nor the Alcibiades dialogue shed a great deal of light on the question of “Socrates and atrocity”. There is no strong statement about the fundamental moral unacceptability of the massacre of the men of a city or the enslavement of the children and women of the conquered city as human beings. Rather, there is a much weaker argument about the harmful consequences of harsh treatment towards fellow Greeks (permanent enmity and resistance) and the beneficial consequences of limits on violence (eventual reconciliation). But this is far from a clear and principled rejection of the use of massacre and enslavement as a tool of coercion in war — let alone a rejection of these uses of violence against “alien enemies”. To the charge of “participant in atrocity” we might then add the charge of “xenophobe!” to our critique of the historic Socrates. If only Glaucon had had the moral sense to press Socrates along these lines:
Glaucon: “But Socrates, when a Greek general orders the massacre of a Persian city, does he not in that act do great injustice by condemning innocent human beings to death?” Socrates: “But these are barbarians; they do not have the moral standing of Greek citizens.” Glaucon: “Do these Persian men and women not feel pain, love their children, and flourish in their freedoms?” Socrates: “What you say is true, dear Glaucon. But they are not Greek.” Glaucon: “But, dear Socrates, have you not taught that sentience, reason, language, and social feeling are the features that distinguish the Greek adult from the animal?” Socrates: “Yes, of course.” Glaucon: “And have you not agreed that Persian men and women, like the Greeks, feel, think, speak, and love one another?” Socrates: “Yes, that is obviously true, why do you repeat it?” Glaucon: “Are you not forced to agree, then, that the Persian is just as worthy of our moral consideration as the Athenian?” Socrates: “Now that you express yourself so clearly, Glaucon, I see your meaning. I am forced to agree.” Glaucon: “And so we agree, Socrates, my teacher, that all human beings must be treated virtuously, not just Greeks.” Socrates: “It is so.” Glaucon: “So, then, Socrates, we are in agreement that armies must never massacre the innocent or enslave the women and children.” Socrates: “That is the requirement of virtue.”
(Norwegian philosopher Henrik Syse has written several very interesting articles on Plato’s contributions to the theory of the morality of war here, here, and here.)
It is challenging to form a mental picture of the significance and reality of the events and enormity of the Holocaust. Many of the summary facts that we “know” about the Nazi plan for extermination of the Jewish people are both inadequate to capture the human meaning of this period, and misleading or inaccurate, as Tim Snyder argues (Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning). How can we gain a better and more personal understanding of these horrible events from the 1940s?
First-person accounts and oral histories represent one form of access to the realities of the mass killings that occurred across Europe, and especially in Eastern Europe. But an especially powerful recent book takes a somewhat different approach. This is Wendy Lower’s The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, a book that proceeds from a single photograph of a single instant of brutality and murder, and helps the reader develop an extensive understanding of the human realities that led to this moment. The photograph is taken in the midst of a mass killing outside the town of Miropol in the Ukraine in October, 1941. The Jews of Miropol were forced to walk into the forest, were gathered at a previously prepared shooting pit, and were murdered by rifle fire. The photograph is unusual in that it is at close range and captures identifiable faces of both the murderers (two German soldiers and two Ukrainian militiamen) and the victim, a mother holding a child by the hand as she is shot. Lower wants to understand the photograph in detail, and to learn the identities of the individuals involved.
Lower combines the skills of an experienced historian, a resourceful crime investigator, and a compassionate observer of family tragedy in a time of mass killing. Her goal is ambitious: she would like to uncover the identity of the victims in the photograph, the killers, the photographer, and the possibility of holding the responsible persons to account in the present. And she accomplishes much of this set of goals. She gains a great deal of detailed knowledge about the Ukrainian and German personnel who were present. She forms an educated guess about the family identity of the victims in the photograph. And she learns a great deal about the photographer. Along the way she provides enough detail about the context of German military and Final Solution activity in 1941 to give the reader a fairly good idea about how this event relates to the larger orchestrated Aktions against the Jews of Eastern Europe from 1941 to 1944 — the bulk of the killing during the Holocaust.
Miropol was a small town in occupied Ukraine in the fall of 1941. It is some 220 kilometers west of Kiev, the site of the massacre at Babi Yar in September 1941. In Miropol in October several hundred Jewish men, women, and children were exterminated by gunfire. This is the Aktion recorded in the photograph at the center of The Ravine. In Kiev only a few weeks earlier, the largest massacre of Jews in the Holocaust in the occupied Ukraine and Soviet territories occurred, involving the murder over a few days of over 34,000 human beings. In 1943 the Nazis made an effort to conceal the evidence of the massacre, and the Soviets concealed the fact that the victims were Jewish, preferring instead to refer to “Soviet civilians”. No memorial was created for the Jewish dead at Babi Yar until 1991, fifty years after the massacre. There appears to be no memorial for the Jewish dead at Miropol; the handful of photographs by Škrovina alone serve as memorial. But The Ravine represents a different kind of memorial. The reader comes away with a sober and human recognition of these many hundreds of innocent victims of murder, and the lives that were stolen from them.
Lower begins with this particular photograph — a photograph of several German soldiers and Ukrainian militia men in the act of shooting a Jewish mother holding a child at the edge of a burial pit. It is a haunting photograph. But Lower goes much beyond this particular photo, including archival evidence, more photographs, interviews with witnesses and participants, and records from both Nazi and Soviet sources. She is a resourceful, talented, and determined researcher, and her ability to unearth many of the details of this atrocity is continually surprising. She brings the skills and concentration of a forensic investigator to her work.
Especially interesting is Lower’s treatment of the role of photographs in this kind of investigation. She is very clear that photography is purposive and intentional. It is not generally a “flat representation of what occurred”; instead, the photographer has a story he or she in interested in discovering and telling. So photography is creative and “subjective”. And this proves to be true of the photographer of this particular image, a Slovak named Lubomir Škrovina, who had a narrative he was recording through a series of exposures. But at the same time, photographs prove to be a source of remarkable insight into the human realities of the moment captured in the negative — details that were invisible to the photographer. And Škrovina himself turns out to be different from how he first appears. Initially Lower takes him to be an accomplice or collaborator, but eventually discovers that he was a dissident and a supporter of the Slovak resistance movement, and was interested in recording the atrocities he witnesses under German occupation for the outside world. Lower writes of Škrovina as a moral human being and his subsequent actions during and after the war:
But being there certainly shaped his subsequent choices and the risks he undertook, which affected him and his family. He refused to stay on the front, feigned illness, spent months in a nerve clinic, then resumed contact with Jews in his town, including sheltering some in the attic of his family home. He helped Dr. Gotthilf secure a place in the forest with his comrades in the Slovak National Resistance, although Škrovina ultimately could not save him or his wife and child. Škrovina was antifascist and anti-Soviet. He had felt no pride wearing any government-issued uniform. He hated the war. (91)
Several specific and important insights emerge from Lower’s narrative. First is the importance of doing what we can to recognize and remember the individuals and families who were extinguished there. Lower’s point about the killing of families is especially poignant: fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, sons, and daughters, all destroyed. Second is the important reminder that Nazi violence was carried out by its allies in occupied countries — Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine — and that these armed groups and police units were merciless and remorseless towards their Jewish neighbors. What Lower uncovers at Miropol is a microcosm of Babi Yar.
Theodor Adorno once said that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But here is a good reason not to agree with Adorno. Consider the beautiful, sorrowful, and indicting poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961, Babi Yar. Yevtushenko helps us to mourn and recognize these children, women, and men who were murdered at Babi Yar. And he points a finger of accusation against the continuing anti-Semitism rampant in the Soviet Union in which he lived. Wendy Lower’s book is not poetry, but it is just as eloquent in its evocation of the human realities of this tragic moment in Miropol, and in the great expanse of the bloodlands of Eastern Europe.
No monument stands over Babi Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid. Today I am as old in years as all the Jewish people. Now I seem to be a Jew. Here I plod through ancient Egypt. Here I perish crucified on the cross, and to this day I bear the scars of nails. I seem to be Dreyfus. The Philistine is both informer and judge. I am behind bars. Beset on every side. Hounded, spat on, slandered.
Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace stick their parasols into my face. I seem to be then a young boy in Byelostok. Blood runs, spilling over the floors. The barroom rabble-rousers give off a stench of vodka and onion. A boot kicks me aside, helpless. In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies. While they jeer and shout, ‘Beat the Yids. Save Russia!’ Some grain-marketer beats up my mother.
O my Russian people! I know you are international to the core. But those with unclean hands have often made a jingle of your purest name. I know the goodness of my land. How vile these antisemites— without a qualm they pompously called themselves the Union of the Russian People!
I seem to be Anne Frank transparent as a branch in April. And I love. And have no need of phrases. My need is that we gaze into each other. How little we can see or smell! We are denied the leaves, we are denied the sky. Yet we can do so much— tenderly embrace each other in a darkened room. They’re coming here? Be not afraid. Those are the booming sounds of spring: spring is coming here. Come then to me. Quick, give me your lips. Are they smashing down the door? No, it’s the ice breaking . . . The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar. The trees look ominous, like judges. Here all things scream silently, and, baring my head, slowly I feel myself turning grey. And I myself am one massive, soundless scream above the thousand thousand buried here. I am each old man here shot dead. I am every child here shot dead. Nothing in me shall ever forget! The ‘Internationale,’ let it thunder when the last antisemite on earth is buried for ever. In my blood there is no Jewish blood. In their callous rage, all antisemites must hate me now as a Jew. For that reason I am a true Russian!