How will Russia’s fascist aggression end?

Ukraine has demonstrated a truly singular level of competence and commitment in its armed resistance to Russia’s war since February 24. Much credit goes to President Zelenskyy. And much of the world — including especially the NATO partners — have been decisive and forthcoming in material support for Ukraine’s ability to continue to resist, and to successfully destroy a remarkable fraction of Russia’s military forces. Powerful economic sanctions are playing a key role as well, putting meaningful economic pressure on Russia for its continuing aggression and atrocious acts of violence in Ukraine. 

It is plain that Russia’s longterm interests have already been very badly harmed by this war. There will be greater European energy independence, reducing a major source of Russian exports; there is a greatly strengthened commitment among NATO members for collective defense — as well as the possibility of Finland and Sweden’s accession to the organization; the economic relationships that have been broken with western companies will be hard or impossible to restore; and Russia has been shamed by an almost worldwide condemnation for its atrocious and aggressive war. Russia’s manufacturing sector has shown itself to be incapable of producing the high-technology components needed for its devices and weapons; and yet western sanctions are likely to make import of these components difficult for years to come. Russia is much worse off today than it was on February 23.

And yet it is difficult to see how this war will end. There is really only one satisfactory end: the withdrawal of Russian military forces from all Ukrainian territory, an end of the maritime blockade of Ukraine’s ports, and permanent ceasing of air, rocket, and artillery attacks agains targets in Ukraine. Some level of reparations for war damage to Ukraine’s cities would also be appropriate. Russia should not be rewarded in any way for its aggression; and Ukraine should not be forced to surrender territory to Russia to provide a face-saving exit for Russia’s leaders. 

However, it is all but inconceivable that Vladimir Putin would ever willingly decide to simply give up the war without some kind of military gain that can be described as a victory.

The plain truth seems to be that Putin is largely immune from pressure and consequences as a result of this war. He plainly does not care about the massive casualties suffered by his own forces — “cannon fodder”. He is content to write off the losses of tanks, artillery pieces, rockets, drones, and other materiel of war as simply the cost of pursuing important “national” goals. And Russian territory and population have been largely immune from the consequences of the war. Russia is not suffering attacks against its own cities, towns, military bases, airfields, or (with a very few exceptions) fuel depots. Russia is in a position to bring the catastrophic sufferings of war to the Ukrainian people through long-range artillery, missiles, and air strikes in a way that is without any possible reply for the Ukrainian forces. So the logic of reciprocity and deterrence does not find a foothold in this conflict: Russia’s horrific actions against Kiev, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and other towns and cities have no reciprocal cost for Russia. The war does not exist for most Russian citizens, and therefore Russian citizens do not care very much about the war.

Here is the most basic point: the forces that make costly war difficult to sustain in an institutionalized democracy are entirely lacking in the contemporary Russian political and economic system. Russia is a dictatorship, and Vladimir Putin is its uncompromising dictator. (Timothy Snyder provides an accounting of the ways in which contemporary Russia is a fascist state; link.) Fundamental decisions about the war rest with Putin alone — in fact, recent reports suggest that Putin even attempts to manage mid-level tactical decisions as well. There are no effective institutional restraints on Putin’s decision-making. He appears to have secure control of the military and the security services, and there is almost no evidence of open disagreement or opposition with the military or political elites about Putin’s actions. It does not seem likely that senior generals have the power to compel Putin to change course; and the political institutions of the Russian Federation plainly leave Putin entirely unfettered. Just as Hitler terrorized and dominated the senior commanders of the Wehrmacht, so Putin seems to have complete and unilateral power over his generals.

So the kinds of processes that have led to a change of direction in decisions of war and peace in other countries — for example, President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, whose conduct of the war in Vietnam led to mass political protest and rising opposition among legislators in his own party, and who was brought down as president by these forces — those processes of public opinion and independent centers of political power do not exist in Russia. Having crushed the institutions and organizations of civil society, Putin is unhampered in his decision-making. Russian public opinion will not end the war; independent media will not end the war; independent powerful political figures will not end the war; and it is now apparent that the oligarchs will not end the war. 

So it comes back to Putin: what could motivate or incentivize Putin to make the decision to end the war and withdraw? He has plainly invested his prestige, reputation, and self-image (hyper-masculine bare-chested warrior) in being successful in this war. He is determined to be perceived as a successful historical figure changing the role of his country in world affairs. He plainly refuses the humiliation that would follow from defeat. So no considerations of “costs and benefits of continuing the war” will influence him. Rather, his decisions have to do with his own interests, property, and self-image. Putin’s psychology seems to be similar to Hitler’s when it comes to making decisions about war and peace.

But is there a “Godfather” strategy available? Is there any group of powerful figures in Russia, behind the scenes, who could make an offer that Putin cannot refuse? If so, then possibly we might imagine a change of direction. Here is how it might play out in the Netflix miniseries: “We have a choice for you, Vladimir. You can step down as president and keep your wealth (in the Western idiom, perhaps you are resigning to spend more time with your family); or we will depose you, prosecute you for the many acts of corruption that you have committed, and strip you of your wealth. You may even go to prison. So here is the choice: exit now and take the golden parachute; or refuse, and lose everything.” We might call this the “Marcos” strategy.

The problem with this scenario is evident. It requires a coalition of individuals who are collectively more powerful than Putin, and who can credibly threaten to remove him. And at present, that seems all but impossible.

Another scenario is more feasible but grossly less acceptable: Russian forces manage to occupy and secure a larger portion of eastern and southern Ukraine; the Ukrainian government decides that the continuing suffering of its citizens must be brought to an end and therefore accepts a territorial settlement; and Putin announces a historic victory. Putin’s self-esteem is saved; many thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed or maimed, and many thousands of civilians and soldiers in Ukraine have been killed; vast swaths of destruction have been inflicted on Ukraine during months of atrocious fighting; and Ukraine loses part of its sovereign territory. Not a very good outcome, from any point of view except Putin’s.

Is there a third possible scenario — unambiguous military victory for Ukraine? Given the imbalance of population and national wealth between the two countries, it is hard to see how Ukraine can continue to wage a war of attrition indefinitely, to the point where Russia is forced to withdraw unilaterally. However, there is a precedent in the Soviet Union’s abrupt exit from Afghanistan. (The analogy is not entirely apt, given that the USSR was then led by Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, a figure quite unlike Vladimir Putin.) The current rate of destruction of Russian military forces is unsustainable for the Russians; so it is not entirely inconceivable that Russia would turn its positions over to friendly “militias”, declare victory, and withdraw its regular military forces. 

Incitement of violence by far-right media networks

The sickening tragedy of Buffalo yesterday — the racist attack on a group of African-American shoppers and workers by an 18-year-old white supremacist man in body armor, carrying a military-style weapon — is simply too much to absorb. This is indisputably an act of domestic terrorism; and yet our police and federal counter-terrorism agencies are still woefully behind in taking the threats of racist violence seriously. Where is Homeland Security when it comes to protecting African-Americans, Muslims, Asian-Americans, Latinos, and Jewish people against a rising tide of racist attacks? (Here is a Brookings report on the state of right-wing terrorism in America; link.) We are forced to ask ourselves, how many other “true believers” in the Great Replacement theory and other memes of white supremacy are out there, contemplating their own acts of racist violence?

But here is a question that must be confronted: how did violent white supremacy become mainstream in America? How did racist antagonism and fear-mongering become something more than shameful and marginal mutterings by fringe extremists? And more specifically, what role do Fox News and Tucker Carlson play in the shameful tragedy that took place in Buffalo this week?

The answer seems to be: a very extensive role. Carlson’s advocacy of the supposed catastrophe of “the Great Replacement” has reverberated throughout this country and in other parts of the world. As the recent and rigorous New York Times study documents (link), Carlson’s program is deliberate in its stoking of racial fear and hatred among its three million viewers. Here is part of the assessment offered in the Times series:

To channel their fear into ratings, Mr. Carlson has adopted the rhetorical tropes and exotic fixations of white nationalists, who have watched gleefully from the fringes of public life as he popularizes their ideas. Mr. Carlson sometimes refers to “legacy Americans,” a dog-whistle term that, before he began using it on his show last fall, appeared almost exclusively in white nationalist outlets like The Daily Stormer, The New York Times found. He takes up story lines otherwise relegated to far-right or nativist websites like VDare: “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has featured a string of segments about the gruesome murders of white farmers in South Africa, which Mr. Carlson suggested were part of a concerted campaign by that country’s Black-led government. Last April, Mr. Carlson set off yet another uproar, borrowing from a racist conspiracy theory known as “the great replacement” to argue that Democrats were deliberately importing “more obedient voters from the third world” to “replace” the current electorate and keep themselves in power. But a Times analysis of 1,150 episodes of his show found that it was far from the first time Mr. Carlson had done so. (link)

The alleged Buffalo assailant’s manifesto seems to follow this script of “great replacement” and white supremacy very closely. The manifesto is explicit on these points (link). So the connection seems evident — message disseminated, message received, violence committed.

Milan Obaidi, Jonas Kunst, Simon Ozer and Sasha Y. Kimel make a strong sociological argument for the connection between “great replacement” myths and racist violence in “The ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy: How the perceived ousting of Whites can evoke violent extremism and Islamophobia” (link). These researchers document the role this meme has played in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim populism in European states:

In recent years, the “Great Replacement” conspiracy has not only gained prominence among right-wing extremists but has also found a foot- hold among right-wing populist political parties in Europe. For example, while evoking anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment, such ideas have been espoused by the former leader of the Danish People’s Party Pia Kjærsgaard, the Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán, the Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, and the leader of the far-right movement Rassemblement National Marine Le Pen (Alduy, 2017; Kingsley, 2019; Kjærsgaard, 2020). Various conservative intellectuals and far-right organizations have also utilized language that stokes fear about the decline of the “White race” and “White identity.” For instance, in an interview in the Wall Street Journal in 2006, Mark Steyn, a prominent proponent of “Eurabia” (i.e., a term coined to describe an alleged Islamization and Arabization of Europe), claimed that by the year 2025 “Europe will be 40 percent Muslim and much of what we loosely call the Western world will not survive this century” (Steyn quoted in Carr, 2006; see also Steyn, 2005). Meanwhile, anti-Muslim organizations such as the German PEGIDA movement and the European White-nativist movement Generation Identity (GI) have espoused similar views. For example, GI—one of Europe’s fastest growing far-right movements that advocates for an ethnically and culturally homogenous Europe—portrays immigrants as invaders while playing a prominent role in promoting, popularizing, and disseminating the “Great Replacement” conspiracy (Cox & Meisel, 2018; Feder & Maplestone, 2019). (link)

Based on their survey-based study, they find that there is a causal connection between perceived replacement and willingness to act violently against members of the other group.

Perceived replacement of the autochthonous population was positively correlated with willingness to violently persecute Muslims, violent intentions, Islamophobia, as well as symbolic and realistic threat perceptions (see Table 1). Moreover, both types of threats were related to Muslim persecution and Islamophobia. However, only symbolic threat was associated with violent intentions. (link)

Now–back to America. Tucker Carlson now finds it expedient to use the “Great Replacement” meme to crystallize the fears and antagonisms of his followers — again, a finding well documented in the New York Times series cited above. It seems all too obvious that this is a potent causal factor in the rise of activist white supremacist individuals and organizations. And, coincidentally, our country is witnessing a horrifying rise in violent attacks on people of color.    

What are some of the means available to those who care about democracy and equality for combatting this resurgent white supremacy and the violence it so recklessly engenders? Electing politicians who demonstrate their commitment to our democratic values is one response, but not a very rapid or targeted cure.

Is there another possibility deriving from civil liability? Is it possible to make use of civil lawsuits against the purveyors of false and hateful theories that inspire other individuals to commit acts of violence? In the Lawfare blog Alexander Vindman raises the possibility of using civil lawsuits to prevent the harms purveyed by right-wing media and personalities, including defamation and (one might speculate) encouragement of violence (link). Consider the example of the lawsuit successfully undertaken by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1981 against United Klans of America for the murder of Michael Donald by two klansmen. Success in this lawsuit led to bankruptcy and dissolution of this branch of the Ku Klux Klan (link).

Can the victims and their survivors of the Buffalo atrocity hold Tucker Carlson and Fox News at least partially responsible for the racist murders committed on May 14? Would $1 billion be an appropriate civil damage finding for the harm done by this reckless and immoral racism on a highly influential media channel? Would Fox News then find it prudent to eliminate the racist hatred it channels on its network if it were faced with such a judgment?

And what about the advertisers who continue to provide millions in ad revenue to Fox News? Can these companies at last be brought to recognize the shame of their support for racist hate mongering, and withdraw their support? If not, should not consumers look at these companies as complicit in the rising tide of racist violence in America? Here is a call for “defunding Fox News” (link) that identifies the top advertisers on Fox: GlaxoSmithKline, Liberty Mutual, General Motors, Procter & Gamble, Intuit, NortonLifeLock, Nestle, Kraft Heinz, Progressive, Charles Schwab, Toyota, and Subaru. GM, P&G, Subaru — do you really want to align yourself with racism and anti-democratic lies and the rising tide of violence that accompanies these pathologies?

(Here is a New York Times article on the background of segregation in Buffalo; link.)

Evil consequences of totalitarian ideologies

It is evident that human beings create evil; but human beings are often driven and dominated by totalitarian ideologies that make great evils possible.

One of those ideologies of the last century was Stalinism — the view that the success of Soviet Communism is the highest good; any sacrifice is justified; those who stand in the way must be destroyed; and those whose sacrifice may aid the achievement of Communism shall be sacrificed as well. This is the central insight of Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Koestler revealed the moral “logic” of the Moscow Show Trials through his account of the interrogation and trial of the loyal revolutionary functionary Rubashov, and the twisted logic of confession, guilt, lies, and sacrifice that Rubashov’s interrogation involved.

We now know that Stalin was a master political criminal, focused on extending and maintaining absolute power and using violence and terror to extend his power. But what about his predecessors, Lenin and Trotsky? The judgment of history indicts both leaders. In his very good book Humanity on the origins of evil, Jonathan Glover argues that Stalin’s views extend back to Lenin and Trotsky as well, and long before the success of the Bolshevik Revolution:

There was indifference to the individual people who might be destroyed by the new policies. This view came from Lenin, who had written in 1908 that the Paris Commune had failed because of the ‘excessive generosity’ of the proletariat, who ‘should have exterminated its enemies’ instead of trying ‘to exert moral influence on them’. In 1917, when Lenin opposed the abolition of capital punishment for deserters at the front, Trotsky quoted him as saying, ‘Nonsense, how can you make a revolution without executions? … It is a mistake, impermissible weakness, pacifist illusion, and so on.’ (255)

Glover’s central insight is that propaganda and faith in an ideology drive atrocity. He argues that much of the propaganda, language, and behavior of the Soviet state were based on systematic lies, designed to destroy the moral instincts of ordinary Soviet citizens. He highlights the use by Soviet propagandists of fundamentally dehumanizing terms used for the “enemies” of socialism: “parasites”, “filthy dogs”, “reptiles”, and “kulaks”. This is a kind of moral education — creation of “new Soviet Man”, and cultivation of a willingness to countenance the humiliation and murder of the “enemy”. It is important to register the exact parallel between these words and Nazi propaganda and behavior.

Glover makes it plain that lies are the tools of totalitarianism, and a commitment to trying to see and express the truth is one of the “moral resources” that constitutes and defends our humanity.

So what about the lies? Here is an important example. New York Times journalist Walter Duranty was an apologist for Stalin during the 1930s and an influential thought-leader about the Soviet Union in the United States as well. And, shamefully, Duranty obscured and justified Stalin’s massive crimes to a broad public in the United States through his position at the New York Times. In 1932 Duranty published a poem called ‘Red Square’ in the New York Times, which included the lines:

Russians may be hungry and short of clothes and comfort

But you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” …. This phrase is fundamentally odious and dehumanizing. It subsumes in a few words the moral reversal represented by totalitarianism: rather than society existing for the freedom and wellbeing of the citizens, the citizens exist as raw materials for the success of the state. And indeed, the phrase was to be used frequently by Stalin’s supporters and eventually those of the Great Navigator, Chairman Mao.

Vasily Grossman captures each aspect of these features of Stalinist totalitarianism in his last major novel, Everything Flows (1961), and this novel is more explicit and damning about the Gulag and Stalin’s other crimes than would have been thought possible during Stalin’s life. The novel captures the situation of ordinary Soviet citizens faced with moral dilemmas and difficult choices between complicity, ideological conviction, personal self-interest, honest recognition of the facts, and shame. Here are the reflections of the comfortable scientist, Nikolay Andreyevich:

He remembered how in 1937, at a meeting called in connection with the Moscow Trials, he had voted in favor of the death penalty for Rykov and Bukharin. He had not thought about those meetings for seventeen years….

But now—now Nikolay Andreyevich remembered that there had been doubt; his certainty of Bukharin’s guilt had been a pretense. …

He believed, after all, that a socialist society, a society without private property, had been constructed for the first time in history, and that socialism required the dictatorship of the State. …

Could this really be socialism—with the labor camps of Kolyma, with the horrors of collectivization, with the cannibalism and the millions of deaths during the famine? Yes, there were times when a very different understanding had found its way into the borderlands of his consciousness: that the Terror really had been very inhuman, that the sufferings of the workers and peasants had been very great indeed. (29-33)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes the psychology of ordinary people under Stalinist totalitarianism in similar terms:

The mildest and at the same time the most widespread form of betrayal was not to do anything bad directly, but just not to notice the doomed person next to one, not to help him, to turn away one’s face, to shrink back. They had arrested a neighbour, your comrade at work, or even your close friend. You kept silence. You acted as if you had not noticed. Gulag, 25

There are two key insights here. First, “totalizing” ideologies that persuade ordinary human beings of the supreme moral importance  of the state are prolific catalysts to great evil. “True believers” are willing to do atrocious things to their fellow human beings — especially when their own careers and wellbeing depend upon it. And second is the crucial importance of revealing the truth about atrocities. In that light, Timothy Snyder’s recent post on Documenting Ukraine is important and timely. Russia’s current atrocities in Ukraine — deliberate, cruel, and deadly — are inexcusable. And, as Snyder argues, it is essential to document these actions of state against innocent civilians. History must judge Vladimir Putin and his fellow Russian rulers for the atrocities they have ordered and executed.

Can Nietzsche support a decent political philosophy?

Nietzsche’s anti-moralism is a key theme in his philosophy and civilizational criticism. He regarded traditional European morality as “herd morality”, the deplorable consequence of Christian values of subordination and ressentiment. It is hard enough to find in Beyond Good and Evil or Genealogy of Morals a basis for criticizing even the most grotesque examples of interpersonal brutality and violence, and Nietzsche is contemptuous of the values of kindness and compassion. And it is virtually impossible to find an explicit consideration of the question, are there moral limitations on the behavior of states? To put the point simply: does Nietzsche have the philosophical stuff to condemn the Holocaust or the Holodomor?

How would Nietzsche respond if he were time-transported to the MSNBC studio and interviewed by Rachel Maddow? The session might begin along these lines: “Mr. Nietzsche, welcome to the program. I’d like to ask you the most pressing question today: The armed forces of the Russian Federation are torturing, raping, and murdering civilians in Ukraine today in an effort to defeat Ukraine in its war of aggression. Can you condemn these acts as war crimes and atrocities against the innocent, given your statements about “morality” and the “will to power” in your celebrated work, Beyond Good and Evil?”

It would of course be very interesting to have this conversation with Nietzsche. But today all we have are his texts and letters, and they are unpromising in this context. Given his pervasive anti-moralism, any contemporary reader of Nietzsche is forced to ask: can Nietzsche have a political philosophy?

Two discussions of this question have been noteworthy in the past decade or so. Tamsin Shaw’s 2007 monograph Nietzsche’s Political Skepticism provides an extended argument about why it is philosophically difficult for Nietzsche to offer a political philosophy. And the essays in Barry Stocker and Manuel Knoll’s edited volume Nietzsche as Political Philosopher are insightful as well.

The painful pill presented by Nietzsche’s writings to anyone who loves liberal democracy is that Nietzsche’s attack on humanistic morality suggests ugly possibilities: the acceptance of totalitarianism and dictatorship, the unfettered use of state power to oppress the citizens of the state, and moral indifference to aggressive war by a powerful state against a weak state. If citizens do not have morally defensible rights against each other and the state; if there are not morally compelling reasons for believing in and entrenching the equality of all citizens; and if there are no morally compelling principles regulating the use of the instruments of war by a state against another state or people — then there is no basis for criticizing the Gulag, genocide, and brutal aggressive war. So we seem to step directly from Nietzsche to Putinism.

Rolf Zimmermann’s essay “The ‘Will to Power'”, included in the Stocker and Knoll volume, addresses this issue directly, with a conclusion that may surprise the reader. Zimmermann argues that Nietzsche’s framework is compatible with both a liberal state and an authoritarian state. It all depends on what we want (that is, what set of primary values about ourselves and our interactions with others we have adopted, as a nation).

Political implications, on the collective level, can be discussed with regard to two conceptions that may be explicated in the sense of a liberal and an authoritarian ideal type. At the same time, we must face the problem as to whether Nietzsche’s anti-egalitarianism could be consistently integrated into a constitutional democracy of whatever kind. (Zimmerman in Stocker and Knoll 39)

Zimmermann offers a very interesting Nietzschean interpretation of the atrocious regimes of the twentieth century. His basic view is that Nietzsche insists on historicizing “civilizational” systems of values (and takes satisfaction in finding disagreeable features of their genealogies). So Zimmermann’s view is not that the totalitarian ideologies of Hitler or Stalin were inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophy or his moral nihilism, but rather they are comprehensible as the emergence of new moral-value frameworks following the demise of traditional Christian morality.

My own perspective, however, is quite different. I propose, first of all, to read the radical movements of the 20th century, especially Bolshevism and National Socialism (NS), in terms of their own new moralities that gained force in actual history in order to build socio-political formations. In doing so, these movements verified in a systematically relevant way Nietzsche’s paradigm of moral philosophy that is defined by insight into the appearance of divergent moralities in history conflicting with each other – divergent “wills to power”. This very insight of Nietzsche can be vindicated quite independently of critical objections to his moral-political philosophy in detail. In systematic terms, therefore, it is much more relevant to interpret developments of actual history within a conceptual frame set forth by Nietzsche in an arguable general sense, instead of searching for “influences” of Nietzsche on actual history dozens of years after his lifetime. (Zimmermann in Stocker and Knoll 48-49)

Zimmermann makes a very interesting point here: that the horrific regimes of the twentieth century can be interpreted within a Nietzschean “civilizational” framework, but not as an expression of Nietzschean values or anti-values.

Now, given the comparative descriptions of egalitarian universalism, Nazi-morality and Bolshevist-morality, we come to see the moral history of the 20th century clearly in Nietzschean terms, namely as a history of divergent moralities in conflict with each other, a history of divergent “wills to power” realizing themselves in socio-political forms without precedence, and thereby showing the value-forming capacity of man in disastrous results. (Zimmermann in Stocker and Knoll 55)

Most critically, Zimmermann believes it is consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas to defend a liberal-egalitarian-constitutional theory of the state, along the lines described by JS Mill in On Liberty. But, crucially, “we would have to speak of egalitarian universalism equally as a historical phenomenon, in short as ‘historical universalism’, specifically related to the history of human rights since the 18th century” (55). Or in other words: real human beings and groups would have to struggle to secure and establish these values as the foundation of their polities.

This conclusion brings us to the central argument offered by Tamsin Shaw. Shaw believes that Nietzsche is profoundly doubtful of the ability of a nation to coalesce around a liberal-democratic consensus. Shaw too has a contribution in the Stocker and Knoll volume, comparing Nietzsche and Weber. But her central ideas on a possible political morality in Nietzsche’s thought are conveyed in Nietzsche’s Political Skepticism.

Shaw puts the weight of her argument on two points that she believes Nietzsche would accept: that a modern state requires a fairly high degree of “moral” consensus among its citizens about the actions and requirements of the state, and that modern society is largely incapable of arriving at such a consensus. Instead, the coercive power of the state is used to create a moral and normative consensus, through indoctrination, propaganda, education, and public festivals. This amounts to two core premises:

One concerns the nature of modern states and in particular the fact that their ability to rule a society requires convergence, in that society, on some shared normative beliefs. The other concerns the inability of secular societies to generate the required convergence through noncoercive means. (kl 131)

When religious institutions and beliefs had a powerful grip on the people of a nation, the values inculcated by those institutions provided an independent source of consensus which put some constraints on the nature and actions of the state. But with the collapse of religious identities (the death of God), there was no longer a point of convergence that could provide a basis for consensus. This leaves an open field for the coercive state to establish its own ideological institutions — whether those of Hitler, Stalin, or Orbán. And, according to Shaw, this makes the normative foundations of a liberal democracy all but impossible:

So legitimacy in this sense requires that political institutions conform to the accepted norms of those over whom they rule, and that acceptance of these norms be uncoerced, at least by the political institutions that they purport to legitimate. But although this weak notion seems helpfully unambitious in demanding conformity to the professed normative beliefs of a population, rather than to the right norms, it presupposes precisely the kind of uncoerced convergence that Nietzsche thinks secularism is making increasingly unlikely. (kl 209)

She refers to this as “political skepticism”, and she believes it is ineliminable from Nietzsche’s thought.

Nietzsche’s political skepticism, then, consists in the view that we simply cannot reconcile our need for normative authority with our need for political authority. Given [Nietzsche’s] own historical situation, as we shall see, he was vividly aware of the fragility of any apparent compromise between these demands. He does, in the later writings, occasionally seem inclined to give up on one or the other. But the real challenge that his skepticism presents to modern politics is somehow to find a way of not giving up on either. (kl 284)

This point is philosophically interesting. But more importantly, it is highly relevant to the politics of liberal democracies today. Anti-liberal, hate-based populists are gaining the narrative upper-hand, and there appears to be a steep decline in support for the traditional civic values of liberal democracy: rule of law, constitutional protections of rights, equality of all citizens. Further, this decline seems to coincide with rising support for authoritarian parties and candidates. There are numerous mechanisms that help to explain the rise of authoritarian and racist political values — the solid hold that right-wing cable networks have on the “base”, the targeted messaging of messages of hatred and distrust by social media platforms, and the increasing boldness of fascist-sounding elected officials. But maintaining strong and nearly universal support for the values of a liberal democracy is increasingly challenging.

Perhaps we need a modern-day Nietzsche to de-mystify the rantings of the far-right, and to help western democracies regain their sane and decent commitment to peace, equality, and freedom.

Here are several prior posts that address the threats to maintaining a democratic consensus (linklinklinklink).

Silence about the Holocaust after 1945

Image: Holocaust memorial at Camp Westerbork, The Netherlands

Each of the great evils of the twentieth century — the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag — was shrouded in silence and concealment for decades after information became available to the world. In the case of the Gulag, the Soviet government exercised great effort to keep the facts of the prison camp system quiet, and the Communist parties of Western Europe minimized or obfuscated the facts that were publicly available. (Anne Applebaum documents much of this shameful record of secrecy and obfuscation in Gulag: A History.) A similar story of secrecy and lies can be told about the Holodomor.

Most inexcusable is the silence that greeted the facts of the Final Solution after the end of hostilities in 1945. The evidence of mass killing was everywhere — extermination camps, burial pits in Poland and Ukraine, first-person observations, the writings of contemporary observers like Vasily Grossman, and the Nuremberg trials. And yet there was little public recognition or discussion of the magnitude of the evil committed by the Nazi extermination plan, and their national collaborators, until the 1960s and 1970s.

Stimulated by discussions beginning in 1988 in Michigan at the first Holocaust Memorial Center in the United States, a group of scholars undertook to write a set of country studies on the reception of the Holocaust across Europe, North America, and Japan. The results are presented in a massive 1996 volume edited by David Wyman, The World Reacts to the Holocaust, which is highly relevant for our project of “confronting evil in history”. Most of the countries surveyed in this volume did not confront history honestly; rather, they constructed more comfortable narratives that minimized the involvement of their own citizens in the Holocaust, and sometimes minimized and “normalized” the mass killings of Jews themselves. In his introduction David Wyman writes that during the 1950s “the most difficult and sensitive questions about the Holocaust had barely been raised. These issues included … questions about the guilt of the German people, complicity and collaboration in the countries under German occupation, the failure of non-Jews to attempt to save their Jewish neighbors, and the very limited rescue efforts on the part of the outside world. Nor were these issues confronted during the 1950s; instead, in that decade the Holocaust all but disappeared from public consciousness in most of the world” (xix).

Here is the table of contents and list of countries studied:

The book demonstrates an important feature of Holocaust history — the fact that much of the killing, and many of the documents, took place in Eastern Europe, in countries that came under Soviet control during and after the war. The Soviet government was slow to make available to the public records and documents that could provide a reasonably full understanding of the Holocaust in Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland. Wyman writes, “Until the later 1980s these [Soviet bloc] countries all followed the Soviet Union’s approach to the Holocaust: they universalized it and forced it into a Communist ideological mold. The destruction of the Jews was seen as merely a small part of racist fascism’s murder of millions of Eastern European civilians” (xxi).

A number of the essays make the point that media events played an important role in Western European and North American countries in bringing awareness of the Holocaust to a broad audience. These include the US television series Holocaust (1978), Marcel Ophuls’ two-part French documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), and Claude Lanzmann’s French documentary film Shoah (1985).

Here I will provide highlights from three of the country studies, to give a sense of the depth and detail of the essays. There is still much to be learned about the Holocaust and the way that various publics and governments have been willing to face the truth about their pasts honestly.

France, David Weinberg

David Weinberg’s article on documents the French government’s desire to “sanitize” the history of the Vichy years and the circumstances of the deportation of sixty to seventy thousand Jews from France to Nazi extermination camps. The issue of return of spoliated property — homes, businesses, other forms of pre-war wealth — was highly contentious in France in the postwar years. Further, thousands of Jewish children had been separated from their parents, and the task of reuniting families was both logistically and socially difficult. But most significant was the political interest that postwar governments had in concealing or distorting the collaboration that had occurred during the German occupation and the Vichy regime. “For much of the early postwar period the tragic events surrounding French involvement in the Final Solution were masked by governmental concerns with reconstruction and reconciliation…. The result was the gradual emergence of a national myth that viewed the overwhelming majority of Frenchmen during World War II as resisters to Nazism and portrayed the Vichy regime as an aberration whose traitorous deeds resulted from the venality and fanaticism of a crazed few” (18). One result was a resurgence of the far right in France: “Government amnesties brought many collaborators back to France after years in exile, and in the early fifties there was a noticeable increase in neo-fascist and neo-Nazi activity on the part of the extreme Right” (19). Weinberg also documents a resurgence of anti-Semitism in French society and politics in the 1950s. He describes the highly convoluted development of French political culture during the 1960s and 1970s, in which anti-colonialism converged to some degree with anti-Zionist, or anti-Israel, sentiment among activist youth. An important event in shifting French public awareness of the Holocaust and the Vichy years was the capture and trial in 1983 of Klaus Barbie, the chief of the Gestapo in Lyons and the prime mover in the deportation of French Jews. Barbie was also a notorious murderer of captured members of the Resistance (including Marc Bloch). Preparations for trial created a great deal of debate in France, and Barbie was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison, dying in prison in 1991. (Here is a detailed treatment of the Barbie trial; link.) Weinberg closes on a pessimistic note: French leaders as recently as Mitterrand preferred to remain silent about the crimes and collaborations of the Vichy years (35), and there has not yet been a clear and honest reckoning of the war years.

Poland, Michael Steinlauf

Poland’s postwar history was determined by the imposition of a Soviet-style Communist regime. Returning Jews were unwelcome in Poland, in large part because of conflict over spoliated properties. Numerous pogroms took place in the first two years following the end of the war, including the shocking pogrom at Kielce that resulted in the murder of at least 42 people (112). (Steinlauf gives some credence to the possibility that the NKVD may have deliberately provoked the violence at Kielce.) Steinlauf describes 1956 as an important turning point in Polish political history, the “Polish road to socialism”, resulting in an anti-Stalinist regime that was more pragmatic than its predecessors. But this change of regime also permitted a resurgence of anti-Semitic attitudes in society and within political elites. Largescale emigration from Poland to Israel and other countries took place, reflecting the conviction by the Jewish population that Poland would never be a welcoming home for them. The Communist government — before and after the change of orientation in 1956 — continued to ignore the Nazi extermination of Jews in favor of “Poles and citizens of other nationalities”. “Under Communism, Auschwitz became a monument to internationalism that commemorated the ‘resistance and martyrdom’ of ‘Poles and citizens of other nationalities,’ In consultation with the International Auschwitz Committee, a group of survivors and relatives of victims dominated by veterans of the largely Communist Auschwitz underground, barracks in the original work cam were turned over to twenty countries for use as ‘national pavilions.’ One of these structures became a ‘Jewish pavilion'” (117). Every part of this story represents denial: denial of the Jewish identities of the victims, erasure of the Nazi extermination goals of the camp, and inflation of the number of victims in order to suggest that comparable numbers of “Poles, Russian prisoners of war, and other non-Jews” were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. “Auschwitz could thereby emerge as the central symbol of Polish martyrdom, but within an inclusive internationalist framework” (117). Even the monument at Treblinka, where only Jews were killed and which is specific about the Jewish identities of the victims there, was publicly described in Poland as “800,000 citizens of European nations” (119).

This pattern of Soviet obfuscation resulted in a national narrative “whose effect was to marginalize, or ‘ghettoize,’ its subject” (120). Poland’s political history between 1956 and 1989 was complex and contentious, and anti-Semitism played a recurring role. 1968 manifested a student movement in Poland, state repression, and a serious official intensification of anti-Semitic actions and policies, in the form of an anti-Zionist campaign. (This is the period when Bauman and Kolakowski were force to leave Poland; linklink.) The period of the Solidarity movement, according to Steinlauf, produced greater honesty and openness about the tragedy of the extermination of the majority of Poland’s Jewish population. Steinlauf quotes an especially interesting literary exchange between Czesław Miłosz and the literary critic Jan Błoński, concerning Miłosz’s poem about the Warsaw ghetto “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto”; (link): “Błoński explained that Poles had blocked the memory of this part of their history because ‘when we consider the past, we want to derive moral advantage from it … we want to be completely clean. We want to be also — and only — victims.’ … Błoński suggested that the only remedy was to see the past fully, without defensiveness, and then to ‘acknowledge our own guilt, and ask for forgiveness'” (139).

Steinlauf depicts the period in Poland from 1989 to the mid-1990s as one in which the situation has improved. There is a greater willingness to speak openly about anti-Semitism in Poland — past and present. Historical memorials have been corrected to more accurately reflect the overwhelming majority of Jews killed in Sobibor and Treblinka (144). And Steinlauf records the decision by the Polish government in 1990 to correct the inscriptions at Auschwitz, replacing reference to “four million people” murdered at Auschwitz with this passage:Let this place remain for eternity as a cry of despair and a warning to humanity. About one and a half million men, women, children and infants, mainly Jews from different countries of Europe, were murdered here. The world was silent. Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1940-1945. (145)

Steinlauf concludes his article with these hopeful words (in 1996): “Half a century after witnessing the Holocaust, Poles are freely confronting the memory of the experience for the first time. It is far too soon, however, to speculate about the meaning of this confrontation. It will gradually assume a coherent form only in the decades to come” (145). The final qualification is prophetic, since in the past decade Poland has seen nationalist politicians and legislators seeking to — once again — silence honest acknowledgement of Polish responsibility during the time of the Holocaust.

Lithuania, Dov Levin

Dov Levin notes that the culpability of Lithuanians in the Final Solution is deep. Even before the German invasion began, murderous pogroms occurred in many communities in Lithuania. “Unlike the pogroms in Russia and Ukraine at the turn of the century, which had been organized mainly by the anti-Semitic and archconservative political vigilantes known as the Black Hundreds, in Lithuania, especially in the smaller towns, Jews were actually murdered by former neighbors, classmates, and customers” (333). Only days before the German invasion a massacre in Kaunas (Slobodka) of 1200 men, women, and children was undertaken by “armed Lithuanians who called themselves partisans”. 2000 more Jews were murdered in the same place in the next few days (333). After the arrival of German forces and Einsatzgruppe A, “Lithuanians were soon accepted … as auxiliaries attached to German units” (333). 90% of Lithuania’s Jews perished by the end of the Holocaust in Lithuania, the majority before December 1941.

Following the retreat of the German forces from Lithuania following the battle of Stalingrad, the Soviet Union re-established control over Lithuania. It enforced its party line concerning the Holocaust, especially concerning the deaths of Jews, emphasizing “innocent Soviet citizens” rather than Jews as the primary victims. A quantity of documentary evidence was collected by the Jewish State Museum in Vilnius, but the museum was only permitted to operate for four years. Upon closure its valuable materials and documents were stored in a variety of places, including “book depositories of the Lithuanian SSR, where it was inaccessible to scholars and other interested persons” (338). Soviet authorities soon became unwilling to pursue complaints about stolen property, collaborators, and other crimes that had occurred during the German occupation (337). “Although many war criminals were eventually arrested and tried, the authorities generally avoided dwelling on the widespread nature of Lithuanian wartime collaboration with the enemy” (339). Levin observes that conditions for the surviving or returning Jewish community improved in the post-Stalin period, and there was an increase in publication of books and articles about the experience of the Nazi period in the 1960s and 1970s (340). However, diaspora Lithuanian communities began a campaign of obfuscation concerning Lithuanian responsibility for the killings of Jews (342). Within Lithuania the situation was different, according to Levin; “by the end of 1987 and early 1988, articles began to appear in the Lithuanian press … severely criticizing past sins of both omission and commission in reference to the memory of the Holocaust” (343). After the collapse of Communist rule in Lithuania the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian Republic issued a statement in May 1990 signed by President Landsbergis, according to which the Supreme Council “unreservedly condemn[ed] the genocide committed against the Jewish people during the years of the Hitlerite occupation in Lithuania and state[d] with sorrow that among the henchmen who served the occupying power there were also citizens of Lithuania” (345). Levin notes the subsequent emergence of extreme anti-Semitic nationalists in Lithuania. He also highlights several important themes or myths that have taken hold in Lithuania that have the effect of misleading the current generation about the grim realities of the past: idealization of the past concerning Jewish-Lithuanian relations; symmetry between Jewish and Lithuanian behavior during World War II; tendentious exaggeration or distortion of proportions; reciprocity in punishment of war criminals; and euphoria about the present and utopian optimism for the future (347). 


These are just three of the fascinating country cases included in The World Reacts to the Holocaust. Every essay contains material that will be surprising to the non-specialist. There are common themes, however. Both in the Soviet bloc and in Western Europe there is a residual level of anti-Semitism that expresses itself periodically. In all parts of Europe there have been political and nationalistic reasons for concealing or obfuscating the past — for the sake of national unity, for the sake of economic progress, for a desire to move on. And yet each case makes it clear that no country can thrive if it is unwilling to honestly examine its past, to reckon with the inexcusable things that its citizens have done in prior decades, and to commit to a process of recognition, acknowledgement, and sorrow for the murders and atrocities committed in its name. Finally, it is important to recall that each of these narratives ends in the early 1990s. Much has happened in European politics that has given new force to right-wing nationalism, populism, and anti-Semitism that makes the overall cautious optimism of the volume quite uncertain. It would be highly interesting to see followup articles on these countries to see how things have developed in the twenty-six years since the volume was first published.

(A few examples of poetry relevant to the question of remembrance of the Holocaust are collected in a separate post; link. Powerful and evocative poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Russia), Wim Ramaker (Netherlands), Czesław Miłosz (Poland), and Vasily Grossman (Ukraine) are provided there.) 

Poetry in remembrance of the Shoah

Theodor Adorno wrote that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But there are good reasons not to agree with Adorno. There is a body of powerful, respectful, and penetrating poetry that has been written in reflection upon the Holocaust. And these works are another valid way for non-participants in the evils of the Holocaust to be brought to understand, respect, and reflect upon the suffering that occurred. Consider the beautiful, sorrowful, and indicting poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961, “Babi Yar”. Yevtushenko helps the reader 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. Wim Ramaker’s powerful elegy for the thousands of Dutch Jews who departed from Westerbork in The Netherlands to the extermination camps of Poland is equally powerful. And Czesław Miłosz’s poem “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto helps the reader to feel and think about the human loss and suffering that occurred in Warsaw and throughout Poland. Vasily Grossman was not a poet; but some of his passages in “Ukraine Without Jews” and “The Hell of Treblinka” are deeply poetic and expressive of a profound emotion that helps the reader to experience the depth of what has been lost. 

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Kiev, Ukraine
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
The Philistine
is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
Beset on every side.
spat on,

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
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
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—
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
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!


Westerbork, debarkation point for Dutch Jews

Wim Ramakar

Sta een ogenblik stil: Monumentenboek 1940/1945

The Netherlands

Who dares to raise his voice here?

Departure point of a whole people:

with known destination left for Auschwitz,

Sobibor, Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen, Kosel …

And nobody saved them

To be sure there was much waving when they passed by

A gesture that always touched the deported deeply

but nobody shifted the point to life,

or changed the track

Scores of trains have left from here,

according to schedule

often Tuesdays,

exactly on time, because no one was allowed to die too late

Stand for a moment …now the point of departure and arrival have almost caught up with 

each other

Here left a whole people:

more than one hundred and two thousand Jewish fellow citizens, children, mothers, fathers,

fathers, mothers, children

and also babies and those old of days

were gassed, shot, burned alive,

beaten to death, hanged

while we waved

At last the rails are shifted

of sadness twisted

and at the place where they were readied for their journey

stand telescopes

to amplify their silent whispering in the universe

and to wave again

when they wave.

A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto

Czesław Miłosz

Warsaw, Poland

Bees build around red liver,

Ants build around black bone.

It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,

It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel, silver, foam

Of gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls, crystals.

Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow walls

Engulfs animal and human hair.

Bees build around the honeycomb of lungs,

Ants build around white bone.

Torn is paper, rubber, linen, leather, flax,

Fiber, fabrics, cellulose, snakeskin, wire.

The roof and the wall collapse in flame and heat seizes the foundations.

Now there is only the earth, sandy, trodden down,

With one leafless tree.

Slowly, boring a tunnel, a guardian mole makes his way,

With a small red lamp fastened to his forehead.

He touches buried bodies, counts them, pushes on,

He distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor,

The ashes of each man by a different part of the spectrum.

Bees build around a red trace.

Ants build around the place left by my body.

I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.

He has swollen eyelids, like a Patriarch

Who has sat much in the light of candles

Reading the great book of the species.

What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,

Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus?

My broken body will deliver me to his sight

And he will count me among the helpers of death:

The uncircumcised.


Ukraine without Jews

Vasily Grossman


When our forces enter the villages of Left-bank Ukraine under a volley of fire and the din of hand grenades, domestic geese rise up into the air. Flapping their enormous white wings, they circle above peasant huts, above lakes covered in water lilies, above fields and gardens.

There is something worrisome and strange in the heavy, arduous flight, and the sharp, alarming and sorrowful cries of these domestic birds. It is as if they are calling the soldiers of the Red Army to witness heartbreaking and frightening images of life, as if they are rejoicing at the arrival of our forces, simultaneously weeping with joy and lamenting, screaming of great losses, and of the tears and blood that have aged and salted the soil of Ukraine.


And it occurred to me that just as Kozary is silent, so too are the Jews in Ukraine silent. In Ukraine there are no Jews. Nowhere—not in Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, not in Iagotin. You will not see the black, tear-filled eyes of a little girl, you will not hear the sorrowful drawling voice of an old woman, you will not glimpse the swarthy face of a hungry child in a single city or a single one of hundreds of thousands of shtetls.

Stillness. Silence. A people has been murdered. Murdered are elderly artisans, well-known masters of trades: tailors, hatmakers, shoemakers, tinsmiths, jewellers, housepainters, furriers, bookbinders; murdered are workers: porters, mechanics, electricians, carpenters, furnace workers, locksmiths; murdered are wagon drivers, tractor drivers, chauffeurs, cabinet makers; murdered are millers, bakers, pastry chefs, cooks; murdered are doctors, therapists, dentists, surgeons, gynecologists; murdered are experts in bacteriology and biochemistry, directors of university clinics, teachers of history, algebra, trigonometry; murdered are lecturers, department assistants, candidates and doctors of science; murdered are engineers, metallurgists, bridge builders, architects, ship builders; murdered are pavers, agronomists, field-crop growers, land surveyors; murdered are accountants, bookkeepers, store merchants, suppliers, managers, secretaries, night guards; murdered are teachers, dressmakers; murdered are grandmothers who could mend stockings and bake delicious bread, who could cook chicken soup and make strudel with walnuts and apples; and murdered are grandmothers who didn’t know how to do anything except love their children and grandchildren; murdered are women who were faithful to their husbands, and murdered are frivolous women; murdered are beautiful young women, serious students and happy schoolgirls; murdered are girls who were unattractive and foolish; murdered are hunchbacks; murdered are singers; murdered are blind people; murdered are deaf and mute people; murdered are violinists and pianists; murdered are three- year-old and two-year-old children; murdered are eighty-year-old elders who had cataracts in their dimmed eyes, cold transparent fingers and quiet, rustling voices like parchment; murdered are crying newborns who were greedily sucking at their mothers’ breasts until their final moments. All are murdered, many hundreds of thousands, millions of people.

The people have been murdered, trampled in the earth.

Frankl and Shalamov on existence in the camps

Image: Viktor Frankl

Image: Varlam Shalamov, NKVD photo
Viktor Frankl, born in Austria in 1905, had the tragic misfortune to be swept up into the maelstrom of the Final Solution. He was an impactful psychotherapist, both before and after the war, and his experience in Auschwitz and other Nazi camps had a deep impact on his view of the human being’s emotional life. Frankl invented the field of logotherapy. He expressed some of his Auschwitz experience — initially anonymously — in Man’s Search for Meaning.

Varlam Shalamov was born in 1907 in Vologda, Russia. He supported the Russian Revolution, but sided with Trotsky rather than Stalin. He became a victim of Stalin’s purges and spent 1937-1951 as a political prisoner — a zek — in various Kolyma slave-labor camps, the harshest part of the Gulag. After his release in 1951, and following another two years in Kolyma as a non-prisoner medical assistant, he began writing a series of stories capturing the experience of the slave labor camps of Kolyma. These writings were initially circulated as samizdat, then published abroad in translation in 1966, and finally published in Russian in 1978. Many of those stories are collected in Kolyma Stories, and they provide stark, unadorned still-life images of moments of cruelty and almost unendurable hardship in the camps in the far north, from the point of view of a long-serving zek

Frankl’s account of life in Auschwitz is detailed and grueling. He describes arrival at Auschwitz, labor, food, starvation, the cold, beatings by the guards, and severe physical suffering. Laconically he reports that of the 1500 prisoners in the train that brought him to Auschwitz, 90% were immediately consigned to the gas chambers. And he speaks honestly about the dehumanization created by existence in a death camp.

On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles–whatever one may choose to call them–we know: the best of us did not return. (19)

But this is not Frankl’s last word on dehumanization. He returns to the question late in the memoir, and finds that this descent into a brutish, dehumanized fight for existence was not universal. Rather, Frankl finds room for optimism about the capacity that human beings have for courage and for maintaining their ability to choose their responses to suffering.

It is worthwhile comparing Frankl’s descriptions with “lessons learned” by Shalamov in his years of forced labor in the prison camps of the Gulag. In his introduction to Kolyma Stories Donald Rayfield quotes a fragmentary text from 1961 in which Shalamov describes “what I saw and understood in the camps”. With these 45 terse observations Shalamov provides his most explicit statement about what the experience of Kolyma was for him.

1 The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

3 I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).

15 I realized that one can live on anger.

16 I realized that one can live on indifference.

17 I understood why people do not live on hope—there isn’t any hope. Nor can they survive by means of free will—what free will is there? They live by instinct, a feeling of self-preservation, on the same basis as a tree, a stone, an animal.

31 I am convinced that the camps—all of them—are a negative school; you can’t even spend an hour in one without being depraved. The camps never gave, and never could give, anyone anything positive. The camps act by depraving everyone, prisoners and free-contract workers alike.

44 I understood that moving from the condition of a prisoner to the condition of a free man is very difficult, almost impossible without a long period of amortization. (Kolyma Stories, introduction)

There are many similarities in the lives of prisoners in Auschwitz and Kolyma. Both Frankl and Shalamov focus on the extinction of ordinary human emotions of kindness and friendship under the conditions of an extermination camp or force-labor camp. Both describe the condition of an almost absolute empire of arbitrary and capricious power wielded by the guards. And both highlight the crucial centrality of the basics of human needs: food, shelter, a warm place to sleep. Here is an observation from Frankl that is reminiscent of the experience of Shalamov as well. After describing the prisoners who ladled soup to the starving prisoners Frankl recalls that most of them “favored their friends” with a potato or a ladle from the bottom of the pot. But occasionally there would be a soup provider who did not look at the prisoners and gave everyone the same. Frankl writes of the ones who showed favoritism, whom his readers might want to condemn:

But it is not for me to pass judgment on those prisoners who put their own people above everyone else. Who can throw a stone at a man who favors his friends under circumstances when, sooner or later, it is a question of life or death? No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same. (58)

Shalamov too talks about food and its centrality in the life of the starving prisoner:

Supper was over. Glebov took his time licking his bowl clean, then carefully raked the bread crumbs off the table into his left hand, which he lifted to his mouth so as to lick every crumb off his palm. Without swallowing them, he could feel the saliva in his mouth greedily covering the tiny lump of bread in a thick layer. Glebov could not have said whether it tasted good. Taste was something different, too weak compared with the passionate, oblivious feeling that food gave him. Glebov took his time before swallowing; the bread melted in his mouth and it melted quickly. (“At Night”)

And he refers to the crippling cold of life in Kolyma:

But there was no letup in the cold, and Potashnikov realized that he could not stand it anymore. Breakfast gave him the ability to endure an hour’s work at most, and then he was overcome by tiredness and the cold got to his very bones: an idiomatic expression that was literally true. All you could do, so as not to freeze to death by lunchtime, was to wave your pickax or spade about and hop from one leg to the other. The hot lunch, the notorious dumpling soup and two spoonfuls of porridge, did little to restore your strength, but it did warm you up. Once again, you had the strength to work for an hour, after which Potashnikov was overcome by a desire, if not to get warm, then just to lie down on the sharp edges of the frozen stones and die. But the day still came to an end and after supper, with a drink of water and a mouthful of bread, which all the workmen took back to the barracks, never eating it with the refectory soup, Potashnikov would immediately lie down to sleep. (“Carpenters”)

Shalamov’s observations about camp life are bleak. Few human emotions survive the Gulag; only anger, passivity, and opportunism survive. Frankl’s memoir leaves a different impression. He makes an observation about his inner life in the camp that it is entirely foreign to Shalamov:

The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. (49)


This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past. When given free rein, his imagination played with past events, often not important ones, but minor happenings and trifling things. (50)

Shalamov’s stories make us think that the Kolyma extinguished all humanity. But Frankl’s assessment of life in Auschwitz is different; the possibility of remaining human persists.

Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances? We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. (74)

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. (76)

These ideas about agency and choice play an important role in Frankl’s theories about logotherapy and “man’s search for meaning”. As Frankl puts it in the companion essay, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell”, “Logotherapy regards its assignment as that of assisting the patient to find meaning in his life” (108). And Frankl plainly believes that his observations in Auschwitz and his own personal experiences confirm that human beings can seek meaning in their lives under even the worst imaginable circumstances. Frankl acknowledges that only a minority of prisoners “kept their full inner liberty” (76); but the possibility exists for all of us.

Both Frankl and Shalamov faced long odds against survival from their experiences. Both survived. But their subsequent lives were very different. Even the photographs of the two men seem to suggest very different orientations towards life: Frankl almost always with a gentle smile, and Shalamov with a serious glare. Shalamov’s life was shattered. His physical health was ruined by Kolyma, his family disintegrated, and he lived in hard circumstances through the end of his life. He wrote poetry and stories, but it is hard to see from available biographical information that he took happiness and satisfaction from his life after his release. Frankl, on the other hand, seems to have survived as a remarkably whole human being. He describes in the final pages of the memoir the personal difficulties faced by survivors, but he seems to have transcended the horrors that he experienced in Auschwitz and other camps. He too had suffered physically from the great hardships, cold, and hunger of the years in Nazi death camps. His first wife Tilly, about whom he wrote movingly in the memoir, had died in Belsen Belsen concentration camp, and he also lost his father, mother, and brother in Nazi extermination camps. He had lost a great deal — family, friends, health — and had suffered great trauma. And yet he had a highly productive career following the end of the war and liberation of the camps, and he seems to have had a satisfying and happy life. 

One can ask an obvious question: did Frankl’s ideas about the importance of finding meaning in one’s life actually contribute to his own ability to go beyond the “depersonalization” experienced by survivors? 

The Holodomor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massive famine ensued, on a region-wide level:

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

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

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

Mass starvation accelerated in the spring of 1933. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Telling the truth about genocide and totalitarian terror

A central question in the past year or so in Understanding Society is how historians and philosophers should confront the evils of the twentieth century. It seems clear that studying these processes fully and honestly is a key part of the answer, both for scholars and for ordinary citizens. We need to confront the truth about ugly facts about our history. In his documentary article “Treblinka as Hell” Vasily Grossman tries to express why it is important to speak honestly about the facts of mass murder and genocide.

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)

But telling the truth about acts of genocide, atrocities, and state crimes is not easy. This is partly true for reasons of psychology and identity — as LaCapra has argued, the horrors of the Holocaust are locations of trauma, and trauma is difficult to confront (link). But there is a more material barrier to truth-telling when it comes to genocide and state repression: the states and groups that commit or collaborate in these atrocities are very interested in preventing knowledge of their crimes to become public. And they are generally very willing to use coercion, violence, and massive deception against those who attempt to learn the truth and make it public. Truth-telling, therefore, can be career-ending or life-ending.

This situation was especially acute during the years of Soviet dictatorship in the USSR and its dependent states in Eastern Europe, and most pointedly for writers. Anyone who lived in these countries in the 1930s through the 1980s knew a great deal about the facts of dictatorship, arbitrary arrest, state lies, and the prison camps in the Gulag. But writing openly and honestly about these facts — or even whispering about them to trusted friends — could lead to arrest and imprisonment or death. So how could gifted and principled authors deal with this contradiction during Soviet times? 

A substantial number of writers during the Soviet era became willing accomplices in the ideology, propaganda, and crimes of Stalinism (and the Leninist regime that preceded). But some did not. And many who did not, did not survive the purges of 1938 and later years. 

There were a few noteworthy exceptions — writers who maintained a degree of independence and honesty, but whom good fortune permitted to survive. Consider for example Mikhail Sholokhov, a highly prominent writer from the Cossack region of the Ukraine whose Don novels became among the most popular fiction throughout the period; who became a close confidant of Stalin; and yet who persisted in expressing the suffering of the peasants of the Ukraine (his neighbors) during the 1930s collectivization and the war of starvation that Stalin waged against them. Sholokhov maintained a degree of independence and integrity, even as he navigated censorship and the NKVD. (Brian Boeck’s biography of Sholokhov, Stalin’s Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov, is an excellent source on Sholokhov’s life and writing. Sholokhov won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965.) Sholokhov was not entirely admirable — he is accused of sharing the anti-Semitism of the Stalinist period more generally (including sometimes his comments about Vasily Grossman). And he never wrote or spoke publicly against the genocide of the Jews during World War II, the mass exterminations that occurred across the Ukraine, or the resurgence of Soviet anti-Semitism following the end of the war. For example, his 1943 short story about Nazis at war, “The Science of Hatred,” does not mention atrocities against the Jews and other innocent people; link. But he was willing to speak some of the truth of the failures and criminality of Soviet persecution of the peasants of the Ukraine — and that was a considerable political risk. 

But consider another singular and important case in point: the life and writings of Vasily Grossman (link). (Alexandra Popoff’s biography of Grossman, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, is an excellent treatment of his life and work.) Grossman was born as a Jew in the Ukraine in 1905 (the same year as Sholokhov), and in early adulthood he became a writer. He gained a degree in chemistry and worked for several years in a coal mine and a factory. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 he attempted to volunteer for military service, but was rejected for health reasons. He was accepted as a war journalist, and he traveled with the Red Army through its most desperate fighting, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad. His journalism from the front was among the most highly respected in the Soviet Union. It was honest, penetrating, and very sensitive to the conditions of life for the average Soviet soldier in combat. 

Grossman was personally aware of the program of extermination that the invading German army was waging in the western territories of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries through his active combat experience with the Red Army. Grossman’s mother had remained in their home city, Berdichev, and in 1941 the Jews of Berdichev were rounded up and massacred. Here is Grossman’s account from about 1944 about the massacre of Berdichev (link), included in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry. In a period of only two days over 20,000 Jewish children, women, and men were killed by gunfire, rifle butt, and brutal beatings — including Grossman’s mother. (Estimates range from 20,000 to 38,536 Jewish victims during the summer of 1941.) The Communist Party and the Stalinist government of the USSR were unwilling to provide an honest account of the campaign of murder and extermination against the Jews of Eastern Europe during 1941 and subsequent years, and Grossman’s directness and honesty in his journalism and in Life and Fate are exceptional. As noted in the earlier post, Grossman was the first journalist to provide extensive details about the workings of any Nazi death camp, as a result of his arrival at the site of Treblinka with the Soviet 62nd Army in 1944. His essay, “Ukraine without Jews,” is an enormously important contribution to the effort to understand the true significance of the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Grossman’s experience in the Ukraine before the war and with the Red Army gave him a dramatic view of the crimes committed by the Soviet state. He witnessed the forced collectivization of agriculture and campaign of starvation in the Ukraine in the early 1930s, the crushing terror of the late 1930s, and the creation of the Gulag in the 1940s. He thus witnessed the massive totalitarian atrocities committed by Stalin’s apparatus in the name of communism and the total power of the Communist Party, resulting in the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens and hundreds of thousands of writers, engineers, functionaries, and other “enemies of the people”.

During his years as a war correspondent Grossman continued to have great respect and admiration for ordinary Red Army soldiers, but the command staff and political officers soon became contemptible to him.

Grossman wrote two important novels based on his experience at Stalingrad. Both were massively long — well over 1,000 pages. The first, Stalingrad, was published in the USSR under the title For a Just Cause in 1943 but was quickly withdrawn from the public by Soviet censors. The second, a masterpiece of world literature, was Life and Fate, and had a much more grim view of the Soviet state and of Stalinism. In 1961 the manuscript was seized (“arrested”) and Grossman was told that it could not be published for 250 years. He was expelled from the Writers Union — his primary source of income — and his health began to decline. He wrote several other novels, but died of stomach cancer in 1964 at the age of 59.

There were several themes which drew Grossman into conflict with the Stalinist censors, and with Stalin himself. First was the fact that Grossman understood very well that Hitler’s genocidal plans of extermination were directed primarily against the Jews of Europe — not random victims of war. But the Soviet party line was to refrain completely from “separating” Jewish victims from other “Soviet citizens” who died at the hands of the Nazis. This was an ideological principle, but it also derived from resurgent anti-Semitism in the USSR as well. This accounts for the Soviet, and later Ukrainian, refusal to place a memorial at Babi Yar in honor of the tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children killed there in 1941.

Second, Grossman wrote honestly about ordinary workers and soldiers, including their shortcomings. He was not primarily interested in making heroes of coal miners or infantrymen, and was very explicit about alcohol and other forms of “anti-socialist behavior” among workers. The censors, in contrast, wanted to see novels and stories in which workers were portrayed heroically.

The third line of conflict had to do with the totalitarian and murderous grip of Soviet rule itself. Grossman was especially aware of the massive harms created by Stalin’s decimation of the Red Army officer corps through purges before the war and his pig-headed interference with military strategy in the conduct of the war, leading to several million unnecessary casualties and prisoners of war. Grossman was revolted at the behavior and abuses of the state and its functionaries during the conduct of World War II, and he found ways of expressing these views in his writings — most clearly in Life and Fate. Grossman was a critic of Stalinism before it was either fashionable or safe to do so. Here is a passage from Life and Fate on the Gulag and the political prisons:

In other times, before the war, Krimov often walked past the Lubyanka at night and wondered what was happening behind the windows of that sleepless building. Those arrested were locked up in prison for eight months, a year, a year and a half, while the investigation was ongoing. Then his relatives received letters from the fields, they discovered new names: Komi, Salekhard. Norilsk, Kotlas, Magadan, Vorkutá, Kolymá, Kuznetsk, Krasnoyarsk, Karaganda, Nagayevo Bay … But thousands of people who were imprisoned in the inner Lubyanka prison disappeared forever. The prosecution informed the relatives that they had been sentenced to “ten years without the right to correspondence”, but there were no such sentences in the camps. Ten years without the right to correspond almost certainly meant that they had been shot. (853)

Consider finally the case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago exposed in great detail the horrendous crimes and scope of suffering created by Stalin’s reign of terror through secret police and prison camps. Born in 1918 near Stavropol in the North Caucasus, Solzhenitsyn’s experience of the Soviet Union came a decade or more later than that of Grossman and Sholokhov. He served in the Red Army as an artillery captain, and was arrested by Stalin’s NKVD in 1945 for critical comments about Stalin that he had included in a private letter to a friend. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years of labor in the Gulag. He was cleared of charges in 1956. 

Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag is a massive documentation of the experience of life in a labor camp in the extreme north, the tundra and the forest, of the USSR. It begins with the arrest and progresses through the many hardships and deprivations created for the prisoners by the state. The aftermath of the arrest:

For those left behind after the arrest there is the long tail end of a wrecked and devastated life. And the attempts to go and deliver food parcels. But from all the windows the answer comes in barking voices: “Nobody here by that name!” “Never heard of him!” Yes, and in the worst days in Leningrad it took five days of standing in crowded lines just to get to that window. And it may be only after half a year or a year that the arrested person responds at all. Or else the answer is tossed out: “Deprived of the right to correspond.” And that means once and for all. “No right to correspondence”—and that almost for certain means: “Has been shot.”

And the helpless desire that it might have been possible to resist:

And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward. (Gulag Archipelago)

Telling the truth — as Grossman and Solzhenitsyn did remarkably well throughout their careers, and Sholokhov did in a partial way — is enormously hard in a totalitarian society. When the state is willing to send its critics to deadly labor camps, or to shoot them out of hand, it is virtually impossible to imagine many writers striving to tell the truths that they know. And in any case, since the state controls the means of publication, the critical writer cannot publish his or her work in any case. During the Soviet period, many writers wrote “for the desk drawer” — manuscripts that could only be published in the distant future. And, knowing the likelihood of hidden manuscripts, the NKVD was very careful in its searches of the apartments of suspected critics and its other victims; correspondence, files, and unpublished manuscripts were routinely burned. In the somewhat less repressive period of post-Stalinist USSR there was a period of Samizdat (self-publishing) — writings that were distributed as typescripts, hand-written documents, mimeographed documents, and eventually photocopies. Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was published as Samizdat to a limited readership. But truthful description, diagnosis, and criticism — these forms of expression were almost entirely impossible within the Stalinist regime. And yet it is impossible for a society to repair its most dehumanizing features if it is impossible to speak openly about those crimes.

Human cultures as self-creating systems

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.

%d bloggers like this: