Tolstoy’s characterization of Napoleon as lawless brigand (Putin)

One of Leo Tolstoy’s characteristic beliefs about history in War and Peace is the idiocy of the notion of “great men” who make history. In this light his characterization of Napoleon as a lawless, aimless, and murderous brigand is revealing. And his description is oddly striking when we consider the current world’s tinpot Napoleon seeking dominion over a European country — Vladimir Putin. This extended passage is taken from the first epilogue of War and Peace. I will simply highlight the passages that seem apt today in application to Putin. 

A man without convictions, without habits, without traditions, without a name, and not even a Frenchman, emerges—by what seem the strangest chances—from among all the seething French parties, and without joining any one of them is borne forward to a prominent position. 

The ignorance of his colleagues, the weakness and insignificance of his opponents, the frankness of his falsehoods, and the dazzling and self-confident limitations of this man raise him to the head of the army. The brilliant qualities of the soldiers of the army sent to Italy, his opponents’ reluctance to fight, and his own childish audacity and self-confidence secure him military fame. Innumerable so called chances accompany him everywhere. The disfavor into which he falls with the rulers of France turns to his advantage. His attempts to avoid his predestined path are unsuccessful: he is not received into the Russian service, and the appointment he seeks in Turkey comes to nothing. During the war in Italy he is several times on the verge of destruction and each time is saved in an unexpected manner. Owing to various diplomatic considerations the Russian armies—just those which might have destroyed his prestige—do not appear upon the scene till he is no longer there. 

On his return from Italy he finds the government in Paris in a process of dissolution in which all those who are in it are inevitably wiped out and destroyed. And by chance an escape from this dangerous position presents itself in the form of an aimless and senseless expedition to Africa. Again so-called chance accompanies him. Impregnable Malta surrenders without a shot; his most reckless schemes are crowned with success. The enemy’s fleet, which subsequently did not let a single boat pass, allows his entire army to elude it. In Africa a whole series of outrages are committed against the almost unarmed inhabitants. And the men who commit these crimes, especially their leader, assure themselves that this is admirable, this is glory—it resembles Caesar and Alexander the Great and is therefore good. 

This ideal of glory and grandeur—which consists not merely in considering nothing wrong that one does but in priding oneself on every crime one commits, ascribing to it an incomprehensible supernatural significance—that ideal, destined to guide this man and his associates, had scope for its development in Africa. Whatever he does succeeds. The plague does not touch him. The cruelty of murdering prisoners is not imputed to him as a fault. His childishly rash, uncalled-for, and ignoble departure from Africa, leaving his comrades in distress, is set down to his credit, and again the enemy’s fleet twice lets him slip past. When, intoxicated by the crimes he has committed so successfully, he reaches Paris, the dissolution of the republican government, which a year earlier might have ruined him, has reached its extreme limit, and his presence there now as a newcomer free from party entanglements can only serve to exalt him—and though he himself has no plan, he is quite ready for his new role. 

He had no plan, he was afraid of everything, but the parties snatched at him and demanded his participation. 

He alone—with his ideal of glory and grandeur developed in Italy and Egypt, his insane self-adulation, his boldness in crime and frankness in lying—he alone could justify what had to be done. 

He is needed for the place that awaits him, and so almost apart from his will and despite his indecision, his lack of a plan, and all his mistakes, he is drawn into a conspiracy that aims at seizing power and the conspiracy is crowned with success.

He is pushed into a meeting of the legislature. In alarm he wishes to flee, considering himself lost. He pretends to fall into a swoon and says senseless things that should have ruined him. But the once proud and shrewd rulers of France, feeling that their part is played out, are even more bewildered than he, and do not say the words they should have said to destroy him and retain their power. 

Chance, millions of chances, give him power, and all men as if by agreement co-operate to confirm that power. Chance forms the characters of the rulers of France, who submit to him; chance forms the character of Paul I of Russia who recognizes his government; chance contrives a plot against him which not only fails to harm him but confirms his power. Chance puts the Duc d’Enghien in his hands and unexpectedly causes him to kill him—thereby convincing the mob more forcibly than in any other way that he had the right, since he had the might. Chance contrives that though he directs all his efforts to prepare an expedition against England (which would inevitably have ruined him) he never carries out that intention, but unexpectedly falls upon Mack and the Austrians, who surrender without a battle. Chance and genius give him the victory at Austerlitz; and by chance all men, not only the French but all Europe—except England which does not take part in the events about to happen—despite their former horror and detestation of his crimes, now recognize his authority, the title he has given himself, and his ideal of grandeur and glory, which seems excellent and reasonable to them all.

Paris, the ultimate goal, is reached. The Napoleonic government and army are destroyed. Napoleon himself is no longer of any account; all his actions are evidently pitiful and mean, but again an inexplicable chance occurs. The allies detest Napoleon whom they regard as the cause of their sufferings. Deprived of power and authority, his crimes and his craft exposed, he should have appeared to them what he appeared ten years previously and one year later—an outlawed brigand. But by some strange chance no one perceives this. His part is not yet ended. The man who ten years before and a year later was considered an outlawed brigand is sent to an island two days’ sail from France, which for some reason is presented to him as his dominion, and guards are given to him and millions of money are paid him.

Napoleon, according to Tolstoy’s telling, was a lying, opportunistic, amoral, and phenomenally lucky tyrant who by massive misadventure was empowered to play a role in producing continent-wide mayhem. He was not a strategic and tactical genius, manipulating the pieces on the face of Europe like a chess grand master, but more like an Inspector Clouseau bumbling through a collapsing building and miraculously avoiding destruction. And this sounds a great deal like Vladimir Putin, except Putin has an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

But perhaps the comparison to Napoleon — even Tolstoy’s amoral, bumbling outlaw Napoleon — does not quite hit the mark. The better comparison is to one of Putin’s most important role models, Joseph Stalin, in his conduct of the war against Germany. Stalin was a murderer without scruples — like Putin — and was responsible for the massacre at Katyn Forest of over 20,000 Polish officers and prisoners of war at the hands of the NKVD — the very Soviet secret police organization that eventually became Putin’s training ground as a KGB officer. It now seems likely that the innocent civilians killed in Ukraine exceeds the number of murders at Katyn Forest in 1940. Putin’s war crimes begin to approach the magnitude of those committed by Stalin. And Stalin presents an apt comparison to Putin in another way as well: Stalin’s mismanagement of military strategy was a great disaster for the Red Army in 1941 and 1942, leading to massive unnecessary deaths and encircled armies. Eighty years later, Putin’s misperceptions of the determination and strength of his foe have led to similar military disasters.

What will it take for the Russian people to remove this dangerous, murderous, and isolated zealot from power?

Tolstoy’s philosophy of history

Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox is a particularly interesting combination of philosophical analysis and literary criticism. Berlin is a brilliant interpreter of nineteenth-century Russian thought, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace is one of the most important novels of that period. In “The Hedgehog and the Fox” Berlin provides a close study of the philosophy of history that is interwoven into War and Peace. Berlin has a deep appreciation of Tolstoy’s philosophical insights and rigorous logical thinking; he clearly thinks that there is a substantive and important philosophy of history embedded in this great novel.

And yet there is surely a paradox here. Tolstoy’s interest in history and the problem of historical truth was passionate, almost obsessive, both before and during the writing of War and Peace. No one who reads his journals and letters, or indeed War and Peace itself, can doubt that the author himself, at any rate, regarded this problem as the heart of the entire matter – the central issue round which the novel is built…. No man in his senses, during this century at any rate, would ever dream of denying Tolstoy’s intellectual power, his appalling capacity to penetrate any conventional disguise, that corrosive scepticism in virtue of which Prince Vyazemsky tarred War and Peace with the brush of netovshchina (negativism) – an early version of that nihilism which Vogüé and Albert Sorel later quite naturally attribute to him. (8)

Berlin constructs Tolstoy’s philosophy of history around two related themes: first, that large historical events are all but incomprehensible, being the sum of a vast number of separate actions and events that cannot be perceived or synthesized into a simple causal account. So historical “knowledge” must be understood in a very modest way, as an inherently incomplete and partial empirical study of some of the happenings constituting the historical event of interest. Here are a few passages expressing the first point:

History, only history, only the sum of the concrete events in time and space – the sum of the actual experience of actual men and women in their relation to one another and to an actual three-dimensional, empirically experienced, physical environment – this alone contained the truth, the material out of which genuine answers – answers needing for their apprehension no special sense or faculties which normal human beings did not possess – might be constructed. (12)

Worst of all, in Tolstoy’s eyes, were those unceasing talkers who accused one another of the kind of thing ‘for which no one could in fact have been responsible’; and this because ‘nowhere is the commandment not to taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge so clearly written as in the course of history. Only unconscious activity bears fruit, and the individual who plays a part in historical events never understands their significance. If he attempts to understand them, he is struck with sterility.’ To try to ‘understand’ anything by rational means is to make sure of failure. Pierre Bezukhov wanders about, ‘lost’ on the battlefield of Borodino, and looks for something which he imagines as a kind of set piece: a battle as depicted by the historians or the painters. But he finds only the ordinary confusion of individual human beings haphazardly attending to this or that human want. (17)

Both Tolstoy and Maistre think of what occurs as a thick, opaque, inextricably complex web of events, objects, characteristics, connected and divided by literally innumerable unidentifiable links – and gaps and sudden discontinuities too, visible and invisible. It is a view of reality which makes all clear, logical and scientific constructions – the well-defined, symmetrical patterns of human reason – seem smooth, thin, empty, ‘abstract’ and totally ineffective as means either of description or of analysis of anything that lives, or has ever lived. (66)

And second, Tolstoy is fundamentally critical and skeptical about claims to understanding the large historical event as the expression of large historical forces or movements. He regarded such attempts as indefensible metaphysical fictions rather than credible historical hypotheses:

With it went an incurable love of the concrete, the empirical, the verifiable, and an instinctive distrust of the abstract, the impalpable, the supernatural – in short an early tendency to a scientific and positivist approach, unfriendly to romanticism, abstract formulations, metaphysics. Always and in every situation he looked for ‘hard’ facts – for what could be grasped and verified by the normal intellect, uncorrupted by intricate theories divorced from tangible realities, or by other-worldly mysteries, theological, poetical and metaphysical alike. (9)

According to Berlin, Tolstoy’s antagonism to “metaphysical” explanations in history extended to the idea that there were historical laws to which events in history could be subsumed:

No matter how scrupulous the technique of historical research might be, no dependable laws could be discovered of the kind required even by the most undeveloped natural sciences. (14)

Tolstoy’s bitterest taunts, his most corrosive irony, are reserved for those who pose as official specialists in managing human affairs, in this case the Western military theorists, a General Pfuel, or Generals Bennigsen and Paulucci, who are all shown talking equal nonsense at the Council of Drissa, whether they defend a given strategic or tactical theory or oppose it; these men must be impostors, since no theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behaviour, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record. Those who affect to be able to contract this infinite multiplicity within their ‘scientific’ laws must be either deliberate charlatans or blind leaders of the blind. (20)

History is plainly not a science, and sociology, which pretends that it is, is a fraud; no genuine laws of history have been discovered, and the concepts in current use – ‘cause’, ‘accident’, ‘genius’ – explain nothing: they are merely thin disguises for ignorance. (22)

So: history’s fabric is granular and heterogeneous, there are no grand historical laws, there is no teleology or direction in history. Does this mean that it is impossible to explain historical outcomes of interest? I don’t believe it does; because I believe we can locate our historical research at a meso-level of causal explanation through which it is possible to analyze and explain particular historical events (linklinklink). Through concrete historical research we can identify some of the causal mechanisms and conditions that made certain historical events likely in their contexts — without imagining that there are general laws and grand theories that could be discovered that allow reduction of history to a formula.

This position seems compatible with the framework that Berlin attributes to Tolstoy on the question of historical knowledge. However, it would appear that Berlin sides in the end with the “incomprehensibility of history” interpretation as the best reading of Tolstoy’s view. Only the most local facts can be known, and the effort to knit together a coherent narrative of a complex event — as a result of deliberate actions, causal mechanisms, and conjunctural conditions — is purely illusory and subjective. Our minds force a kind of order on the past; but this order is a fiction, not a fact.

Berlin seems to insist on something like this feature of framework-dependence in discussing Tolstoy’s view of “understanding an individual’s actions”:

Sometimes Tolstoy comes near to saying what it is: the more we know, he tells us, about a given human action, the more inevitable, determined it seems to us to be. Why? Because the more we know about all the relevant conditions and antecedents, the more difficult we find it to think away various circumstances, and conjecture what might have occurred without them; and as we go on removing in our imagination what we know to be true, fact by fact, this becomes not merely difficult but impossible. Tolstoy’s meaning is not obscure. We are what we are, and live in a given situation which has the characteristics – physical, psychological, social – that it has; what we think, feel, do is conditioned by it, including our capacity for conceiving possible alternatives, whether in the present or future or past. Our imagination and ability to calculate, our power of conceiving, let us say, what might have been, if the past had, in this or that particular, been otherwise, soon reaches its natural limits, limits created both by the weakness of our capacity for calculating alternatives – ‘might have beens’ – and (we may add by a logical extension of Tolstoy’s argument) even more by the fact that our thoughts, the terms in which they occur, the symbols themselves, are what they are, are themselves determined by the actual structure of our world. Our images and powers of conception are limited by the fact that our world possesses certain characteristics and not others: a world too different is (empirically) not conceivable at all; some minds are more imaginative than others, but all stop somewhere. (80)

Or, as Berlin summarizes Tolstoy’s treatment of the battle of Austerlitz:

Nikolay Rostov at the battle of Austerlitz sees the great soldier Prince Bagration riding up with his suite towards the village of Schöngrabern, whence the enemy is advancing; neither he nor his staff, nor the officers who gallop up to him with messages, nor anyone else, is, or can be, aware of what exactly is happening, nor where, nor why; nor is the chaos of the battle in any way made clearer either in fact or in the minds of the Russian officers by the appearance of Bagration. Nevertheless his arrival puts heart into his subordinates; his courage, his calm, his mere presence create the illusion of which he is himself the first victim, namely, that what is happening is somehow connected with his skill, his plans, that it is his authority that is in some way directing the course of the battle; and this, in its turn, has a marked effect on the general morale around him. The dispatches which will duly be written later will inevitably ascribe every act and event on the Russian side to him and his dispositions; the credit or discredit, the victory or the defeat, will belong to him, although it is clear to everyone that he will have had less to do with the conduct and outcome of the battle than the humble, unknown soldiers who do at least perform whatever actual fighting is done, that is, shoot at each other, wound, kill, advance, retreat and so on. (17)

The battle is fundamentally chaotic; and yet the historians have created a narrative around the causal influence of the arrival of Bagration. But for Tolstoy “it is clear to everyone that he will have had less to do with the conduct and outcome of the battle than the humble, unknown soldiers who do at least perform whatever actual fighting is done”.

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

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

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

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

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

Rudling concludes his essay with a very reasonable appeal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange defeat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De-mythologizing Ukraine under Nazi occupation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rudling summarizes his findings and recommendations in these terms:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bauman on the Holocaust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Vasily Grossman on Treblinka

Vasily Grossman was an important Soviet writer and journalist from the 1930s through his death in 1964. He was a Ukrainian Jew born in 1905, and his mother died in a mass execution of Jews in Berdichev, Ukraine, in 1941. He was a man of the “bloodlands”, in Tim Snyder’s term. During World War II he became one of the best-respected war correspondents in the Soviet Union, and he accompanied the Red Army through many of the bloodiest battles of the war against Hitler, including the battles of Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin. He was also present with the Red Army at Babi Yar in Kiev in 1943. His writings under a totalitarian state and throughout the Holocaust present an unusual example of courage and independence in a time in which the forces of dictatorship and repression were supremely powerful across both Nazi and Soviet spheres. His greatest work was Life and Fate, a thousand-page novel aimed at expressing the human and political realities of the battle of Stalingrad. The novel was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988 and 1989 because of its supposed anti-Soviet tendencies, long after Grossman’s death.

After the Soviet victory at Stalingrad Grossman accompanied the Soviet 62nd Army into Poland, and was the first journalist to visit the site of the the recently-destroyed extermination camp of Treblinka in September 1944. Treblinka was a place specifically designed for mass murder, only sixty kilometers from Warsaw in Poland. Grossman’s 1944 documentary essay on Treblinka, “The Treblinka Hell” (link), is detailed, grim, and unblinking; it should be an essential element of our efforts to understand the realities of the Holocaust. Grossman’s article is one of the first extensive reports on the details of Nazi extermination of the Jews. It is brutally honest and explicit, and — unlike the preferred Soviet narrative — it is explicit in recognizing that this was an extermination camp for Jews, along with a small number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs. The article is a remarkable piece of documentary journalism and historical reportage. Further, as Zsuzsa Hetenyi notes in “Facts and Fiction in Vasily Grossman’s Prose” (link), the piece also has much of the narrative evocativeness and empathy that Grossman displays in his fiction writing. It is a powerful piece of contemporary witness reportage of the realities of the Shoah.

When capture by the Red Army appeared imminent, the Germans at Treblinka made every effort to destroy all the evidence of what had taken place there:

Early in the morning of July 23, the guards and SS men took a stiff drink and set to work to wipe out all trace of the camp. By nightfall all the inmates had been killed and buried. Only one man survived — Max Levit, a Warsaw carpenter, who was only wounded and lay beneath the bodies of his comrades until nightfall, when he crawled off into the forest. He told us how as he lay there at the bottom of the pit he heard a group of some thirty young lads singing a popular Soviet song, “Vast is my Native Land,” before being shot down; heard one of the boys cry out: “Stalin will avenge us!”; heard the boys’ leader, young Leib, who had been everyone’s favourite in the camp, scream after the first volley: “Panie Watchman, you didn’t kill me! Shoot again, please! Shoot again!” 373

Grossman and other Red Army investigators learned a great deal about the workings of the camp, including the names of the commander and many guards. Prisoners in Camp 1, the labor camp, received a food ration of 170-200 grams of bread — less than 530 calories, a starvation diet. Random murders by the guards were frequent, including murders of children. Conditions in Camp 1 were hellish. And yet Camp 2 was much, much worse. Camp 2 of Treblinka was a death camp. “Everything in this camp was adapted for death.” Train after train arrived in the camp every day, and no one departed. “For thirteen months or 396 days, the trains returned empty or loaded with sand; not a single one of those who were brought to Camp No. 2 ever returned.” And who were these people? “Who were the people brought here by the trainload? Mainly Jews, and to a lesser extent Poles and Gypsies” (377).

By the spring of 1942 almost the entire Jewish population of Poland, Germany and the western districts of Byelorussia had been rounded up in ghettos. Millions of Jewish workers, artisans, doctors, architects, engineers, teachers, art workers, and other professionals together with their wives and children, mothers and fathers lived in the ghettos of Warsaw, Radom, Czestochowa, Lublin, Bialystok, Grodno, and dozens of other smaller towns. In the Warsaw ghetto alone there were about 500,000 Jews. Confinement to the ghetto was evidently the first, preparatory stage of the Hitler plan for the extermination of the Jews. (377)

The trains that came to Treblinka from the West-European countries — France, Bulgaria, Austria and others — were another matter entirely. These people had not heard of Treblinka and up to the last minute they believed they were being sent to work. The Germans painted alluring pictures of the pleasures and conveniences of the new life awaiting the settlers. Some trains brought people who thought they were being taken to some neutral country. Victims of a gruesome hoax, they had paid the German authorities large sums of money for passports and foreign visas. (377)

Some of Grossman’s prose is haunting and poetic, and contributes to a more human understanding of the evil and grief of the Shoah —

Anything up to 20,000 people passed through Treblinka every day. Days when only six or seven thousand came out of the station building were considered wasted. The square was filled with people four and five times a day. And all of these thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people with the frightened, questioning eyes, all these young and old faces, these pretty dark-haired and fair-haired girls, the stooped and baldheaded old men, the timid youngsters — all of them merged into a single flood that swept away reason, human knowledge, maidenly love, childish wonder, the coughing of old men and the throbbing hearts of living human beings. (380)

Grossman goes through every step of the journey from disembarkment from the train to killing in the gas chamber, and the indignities and brutality — and murder — that occurred in between. The gas chambers at Treblinka made use of carbon monoxide generated by large engines to asphyxiate the victims, or pumps that evacuated the oxygen from the chamber, leading once again to asphyxiation.

Grossman reflects as a human being on this sequence of monstrous inhumanity:

Great is the power of humanity; humanity does not die until man dies. And when there comes a brief but terrifying period in history, a period in which the beast triumphs over man, to his last breath the man slain by the beast retains his strength of spirit, clarity of thought, and warmth of feeling. And the beast who slays the man remains a beast. In this immortal spiritual strength of human beings is a solemn martyrdom, the triumph of the dying man over the living beast. Therein, during the darkest days of 1942, lay the dawn of reason’s victory over bestial madness, of good over evil, light over darkness, of the power of progress over the power of reaction; an awesome dawn breaking over a field of blood and tears, an ocean of suffering, a dawn breaking amid the screams and cries of perishing mothers and infants, amid the death rattle of the aged. The beasts and the philosophy of the beasts foreshadowed the end of Europe, the end of the world; but people remained people. They did not accept the morals and laws of fascism, fighting with all the means at their disposal against them, fighting with their death as human beings. (389-390)

And how many were there of these innocent victims? Grossman tries to estimate the dead in different ways, based on the frequency of train arrivals and the capacity of the ten gas chambers. He estimates that three million men, women, and children were murdered at Treblinka in the 13 months of its operations. This is probably an over-estimate; the camp was not as efficient in killing as Grossman believed. The article on Treblinka published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum gives an estimate of 925,000 Jews and an unknown number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs (link). But whether three million victims or one million, Treblinka was a place of unspeakable evil.

And what about the guards and executioners? What was their psychology? Grossman has a view on this question as well, and it stands in counterpoint to Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil.

It must be noted here that these creatures were by no means robots who mechanically carried out the wishes of others. All witnesses speak of a trait common to all of them, namely, a fondness for theoretical argument, a predilection for philosophizing. All of them had a weakness for delivering speeches to the doomed people, for boasting in front of their victims and explaining the “lofty” meaning and “importance” for the future of what was being done in Treblinka. They were profoundly and sincerely convinced that they were doing the correct and necessary thing. They explained in detail the superiority of their race over all other races. (400)

Grossman describes the uprising at Treblinka, which, according to Grossman’s account, was surprisingly successful. Prisoners succeeded in burning much of the camp and killing some of the guards and executioners, and about 300 prisoners escaped. Most were subsequently tracked and killed, but about a third survived to tell their story. The mutiny and the German defeat at Stalingrad appear to have led to the Germans’ efforts at erasing Treblinka completely in 1943. Grossman reflects on the Nazi efforts at erasing Treblinka:

What was the object of all this destruction? Was it to hide the traces of the murder of millions of people in the hell of Treblinka? But how did they expect to do this? Did they really think it possible to force the thousands who had witnessed the death trains moving from all corners of Europe to the death conveyor to keep silent? Did they believe they could hide that deadly flame and the smoke which hung for eight months in the sky, visible by day and by night to the inhabitants of dozens of villages and small towns? Did they think they could make the peasants of the Wulka village forget the fearful shrieks of the women and children which lasted for thirteen long months and which seem to ring in their ears to this very day? (405)

The essay has moments of poetic transcendence. Here are Grossman’s words describing his own entrance into Treblinka as part of the Stalingrad Red Army:

We enter the camp. We are treading the soil of Treblinka. The lupine pods burst open at the slightest touch, burst open by themselves with a faint popping sound; millions of tiny peas roll on the ground… The earth ejects crushed bones, teeth, bits of paper and clothing; it refuses to keep its awful secret. These things emerge from the unhealed wounds in the earth. (406)

And here are the closing words of the article, Grossman’s own assessment of this great evil:

Every man and woman today is in duty bound to his conscience, to his son and his mother, to his country and to mankind to examine his heart and conscience and reply to the question: what is it that gave rise to racism, what can be done in order that Nazism, Hitlerism may never rise again, either on this or the other side of the ocean, never unto eternity.

The imperialist idea of national, race, or any other execeptionalism led the Hitlerites logically to Majdanek, Sobibor, Belzec, Oswiecim and Treblinka.

We must remember that racism, fascism will emerge from this war not only with bitter recollections of defeat but also with sweet memories of the ease with which it is possible to slaughter millions of defenseless people.

This must be solemnly borne in mind by all who value honour, liberty and the life of all nations, of all mankind. (408)

There is a strong moral voice in Grossman’s writings. Here Grossman tries to express why it is important to speak honestly about the facts of mass murder and genocide. He believes profoundly that the Holocaust, mass extermination, and totalitarianism must be confronted honestly and without fear.

It is the duty of a writer to tell the truth however gruelling, and the duty of the reader to learn the truth. To turn aside, or to close one’s eyes to the truth is to insult the memory of the dead. The person who does not learn the whole truth will never understand what kind of enemy, what sort of monster, our great Red Army is waging battle against to the death. (399)

Grossman is one of the most important and passionate contemporaneous observers of the Shoah (and the crimes of Stalinism as well), and his texts and novels demand our attention. In collaboration with Ilya Ehrenberg, Grossman compiled a massive set of documents offering witness to the crimes committed against the Jews, by the Nazis and by the Stalinists, in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry. The manuscript was complete by 1944, but characteristically, Soviet censors never permitted publication of the massive compilation. A Russian edition was published in Kiev in 1991.

Socrates the hoplite

An earlier post considered the Melian massacre and the Athenian conduct of war during the Peloponnesian War (link). Since we know that Socrates served as an armored infantry soldier during that war (a hoplite), it is reasonable to ask whether Socrates would have carried out atrocious orders involving the execution of prisoners, enslavement of women and children, and other acts of retaliation and punishment against the enemies of Athens.

In particular, would Socrates the hoplite have obeyed the order to slaughter the innocent? Ancient historian Mark Anderson offers a detailed analysis of the known context of Athenian warfare and Socrates’ military history, and concludes that Socrates did not express moral opposition to these acts of war (link). Anderson argues at length that Socrates was a hoplite during exactly these kinds of campaigns of retaliation, and that he never expressed any moral objection to them. Against the arguments of Gregory Vlastos and other scholars of Athenian philosophy, Anderson argues that the historical record of Socrates’ military service is fairly clear, and it is evident that his participation was voluntary, courageous, extended, and supportive. Anderson argues on the basis of these facts that Socrates did not offer moral objections to this dimension of Athenian military strategy.

Consider first the argument by Gregory Vlastos that Socrates offered a “moral revolution” on these topics. Vlastos is one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated scholars of ancient philosophy, and his book Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher is a much-respected study of Socrates. 

Much of the book is relevant to the question considered earlier of the changing nature of morals and values over time (link). Vlastos appears to accept the view advocated several times here that humanity creates its moral framework through long human experience. Here is what Vlastos writes about the morality of a time and place:

By the morality of a society I understand those norms of right and wrong, rules of conduct or excellences of character, publicly acknowledged within it, whose function it is to foster human wellbeing. The sense of justice centers in the concern that those norms be applied impartially. (179)

Here is a clear expression of the idea that values are created over time rather than discovered as timeless truths.

Protagoras in that speech propounds a comprehensive theory of the origins of culture which views all cultural institutions, including morality, as inventions through which men win the struggle for existence against wild beasts. (187)

Further, Vlastos believes that Socrates was one of those thinkers who succeeded in challenging and changing the moral culture of his time. According to Vlastos, Socrates rejected retaliation on very strong philosophical grounds. And this would involve the rejection of the strategy of exterminating the populations of cities in rebellion against Athens.

Vlastos’ central aim is to show that Socrates rejected the Athenian moral idea of retaliation against those who have wronged you (lex talionis). This traditional Athenian view of the moral acceptability of retaliation comes to bear in concrete detail when, as reported by Thycydides, the Athenian Assembly of citizens is asked to consider the extermination of Mytilene for rebellion (exactly the fate that befell Melos several years later):

… that rebellious Mytilene, now subdued, should be exterminated, all its adult males executed without trial, and all its women and children sold into slavery. In the speech for the proposal Cleon invokes justice on its behalf and, as we might expect, it is the justice of the talio. (184)

Vlastos works hard to distinguish between punishment and revenge: punishment is morally justified, whereas revenge is motivated by abiding hate. “The distinction of punishment from revenge must be regarded as one of the most momentous of the conceptual discoveries ever made by humanity in the course of its slow, tortuous, precarious, emergence from barbaric tribalism” (187).

Crucially, Vlastos believes that Socrates alone among his contemporaries recognizes the moral repugnancy of revenge. “So far as we know, the first Greek to grasp in full generality this simple and absolutely fundamental moral truth is Socrates” (190).

So how does Vlastos understand Socrates’ moral reasoning when it comes to retaliation? He focuses on Socrates’ arguments in the Crito. There Vlastos singles out two moral conclusions:

II. “Therefore, we should never return an injustice.”

IV. “Therefore, we should never return evil for evil [to anyone].” (194)

So, Vlastos concludes, for Socrates, retaliation in the case of personal actions is always unjust and wrong. And this would imply, if appropriate equivalence could be maintained, that retaliation against Mytilene as was proposed to the Assembly, or against Melos, as was carried out, was wholly unjust and immoral. But there is a catch: Vlastos is not entirely convinced that what is wrong for the individual Athenian is also wrong for the state. As a philosopher and a man, Socrates cannot support the resolution to retaliate against Mytilene; indeed, he cannot be a party to the deliberation (195). But it is not clear that Socrates takes the additional step: if the state decides to retaliate against Mytilene or Melos, it lacks the authority to do so. Socrates does not invoke a duty of civil disobedience upon himself as a citizen; he does not assert that as a citizen he can challenge the state’s right to take actions it has duly deliberated.

So there we have Vlastos’s argument for Socrates’ moral philosophy when it comes to doing good, acting justly, and exacting retaliation. Can we conclude, then, that Socrates the hoplite would have rejected Cleon’s authority, duly authorized by the Citizen’s Assembly, to execute the male citizens of Mytilene or Melos?

Mark Anderson thinks not. In fact, he finds Vlastos’ treatment of Socrates’ moral ideas about massacre to be fundamentally flawed. It is unpersuasive because it is entirely based on the philosophical texts without serious attention to historical details documenting what is known about the military career that Socrates experienced as a hoplite. Socrates’ military experience was entirely voluntary — Anderson suggests that he must have had to struggle to be selected as a hoplite, given his age and poverty — and extensive, taking years of his life. Further, Anderson claims that Vlastos makes major and consequential errors about the nature of Socrates’ military life (274). And Anderson rejects Vlastos’ contention that Socrates had achieved a major moral revolution through his statement in Crito that one must never do injustice (275). In particular, he rejects the idea advanced by Vlastos in an earlier essay that “not doing injustice” has the implication of rejecting traditional Athenian “military culture” by Socrates (Gregory Vlastos, 1974, “Socrates on Political Obedience and Disobedience,” The Yale review 63:4).

[Vlastos] argues that Socrates would have refused to participate, for two reasons: first, the proposed punishment was unprecedented in its ferocity, nearly genocidal, and barbaric (Vlastos 1974, 33); second, it was indiscriminate inasmuch as it condemned the innocent democrats along with the renegade oligarchs. Vlastos concludes that Socrates, had he been commanded to do so, would have declined even to relay the orders to those charged with carrying out the executions (Vlastos 1974, 33-34).

But Anderson argues two important points: first, that Socrates did in fact participate as a hoplite in campaigns in which exactly these sorts of mass killings occurred; and second, that Socrates never expressed moral objection or dissent to these actions, whether in the Platonic dialogues or in other historical sources about Socrates.

Hardly a passive observer, Socrates actively supported Athens’ imperial war effort. As we shall see, he willingly fought with some of the men and on some of the very campaigns that the standard accounts assure us he would have condemned. Moreover, the extent of his military activity is much wider than anyone has recognized. The relevant evidence demonstrates that Socrates fought in many more battles than the three that are commonly acknowledged. On the Potidaean campaign alone he may have seen action at Therme, Pydna, Beroea, and Strepsa. Before returning to Athens he probably served at Spartolus and ‘other places’ (Thucydides ii 70.4). On the Amphipolitan expedition he served possibly at Mende, definitely (for a time, though perhaps for a very brief time only) at Scione, then at Torone, Gale, Singus, Mecyherna, Thyssus, Cleonae, Acroathos, Olophyxus, Stageira, Bormiscus, Galepsos, and Trailus. (277)

There is a record of Socrates on this [Potidaea] campaign. We know that during the long siege he stood out among the soldiers as something of an eccentric (Symp. 21ge-220e). We hear nothing, however, of his standing out as a moral revolutionary suggestively questioning his comrades about the justice of Pericles’ military aggression. That Socrates, so far as we know, raised no objections to serving on this campaign suggests that neither militarism nor imperialism violated his conception of the noble and good life. (279-280)

Socrates served in Cleon’s army, and he supported Cleon. But here is Cleon’s record of massacre:

Cleon was ruthless; he was brutal to rebellious cities; but Athens needed him. The empire in the north was crumbling; much of Thrace was in open rebellion. The Athenians were livid (iv 122.5, 123.3). The punishment from which they had spared the citizens of Mytilene they imposed upon the defeated Scionians, at Cleon’s insistence. They retaliated against Torone almost as severely. Thucydides did not record the sufferings of the many other cities that fell to Cleon’s army, but we may be sure that they too felt the bronze edge of the lex talionis. (281)

When Brickhouse and Smith 1994, 153-154 declare that Socrates never actively supported Athens’ ‘evil’ acts, they do so expressly in connection with the Athenians’ treatment of Scione. But Socrates may very well have been with the contingent that stormed Scione in the summer of 423. Or he may have sailed with Cleon the following summer. Either way, he served at Scione and he arrived there in full knowledge of the campaign’s objectives; he knew that the men were to be executed and the women and children enslaved. Thus the assertion that Socrates never participated in Athens’ ‘evil actions’ cannot be correct. If he were under a legal obligation to serve on these campaigns, then Brickhouse and Smith have gone wrong again. If, as I believe, he served willingly and eagerly, their error is compounded. (282)

In other words, it is Anderson’s contention that Socrates was an active participant in Cleon’s campaigns of retaliation against cities in rebellion, involving the massacre of the men and the enslavement of the women and children. And further, there is no record of moral objections raised by Socrates to these actions — viewed at close hand as a combatant — in any of the Socratic corpus. This implies, to Anderson anyway, that Socrates did not have a moral objection to these military and imperial tactics.

This is a densely argued and damning portrait of Socrates as soldier-citizen-philosopher. Anderson makes a compelling case that Socrates did not rebel against the prevailing Athenian military culture, he did not reject massacre and enslavement as instruments of retaliation in war, and he did not act on the basis of a moral theory of just war — Athenian or any other. “Nowhere in the dialogues does Socrates give any indication that he had moral objections to hoplite warfare. To the contrary, in the Protagoras he says it is ‘noble’ and ‘good’ to go to war” (287). “Socrates fought such battles and was such a man. He did not fight at Marathon himself, of course; but he stood proudly in the long line of hoplites that stretched back to those who did. He identified with these men and accepted that their way–the way of the hoplite–led most nearly to the good life” (288).

To our question above, then, it seems as though there is a reasonably clear answer: in his life choices and in his words, Socrates the hoplite did indeed support the campaigns of slaughter that we would today regard as atrocities.

Tony Judt on twentieth-century Marxism

Tony Judt was especially astute when it came to linking history and intellectuals. One strand of thought in his collection of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, is a critical engagement with several twentieth-century thinkers associated with Marxism (and sometimes anti-Marxism), including Althusser, Kołakowski, E.P. Thompson (briefly), Raymond Aron (briefly), and Eric Hobsbawm. With the exception of Kołakowski, Judt’s perspective on these thinkers is negative, usually because of their failure to honestly reckon with the crimes of Stalinism (Althusser, Hobsbawm). And there is often a disparaging tone to his rhetoric.

In the case of Althusser Judt’s tone and critique are especially harsh. He portrays Althusser as an ignorant pundit rather than a serious philosopher, he finds Althusser to be contemptible for his efforts to gloss over the crimes of Stalinism, and he has complete scorn for Althusser’s “structuralism” as an explication of Marx’s theories. On Althusser’s ignorance of history and philosophy:

He seems to know nothing of recent history (among his howlers is an indictment of the “Polish fascist” Pilsudski for starting World War II). He appears only late in life to have discovered Machiavelli and other classics of Western philosophy, and he even admits to a skimpy and partial acquaintance with Marx’s texts (something one might have inferred from his published work). He is also unsophisticated to the point of crudity in his political analysis. He seems to have learned nothing and to have forgotten nothing in the last twenty years of his life. Thus there is much talk of “the hegemony of bourgeois, imperialist capitalism”; and he is dismissive of the dissidents of the Soviet bloc (“cut off from their own people”) and contemptuous of writers like André Glucksmann for “putting around unbelievable horror stories of the Gulag.” Those words were written in 1985! (p. 113)

Judt believes there is no content to Althusser’s “theory of structural practices”. And this shortcoming dovetails with the issue of Althusser’s failure to confront Stalinism:

This subjectless theory of everything had a further virtue. By emphasizing the importance of theory, it diverted attention from the embarrassing defects of recent practice. In such an account, Stalin’s crime was not that he had murdered millions of human beings, it was that he had perverted the self-understanding of Marxism. Stalinism, in short, was just another mistake in theory, albeit an especially egregious one, whose major sin consisted of its refusal to acknowledge its own errors. (p. 108)

I am inclined to agree with Judt’s assessment of Althusser’s structuralism. My own assessment in The Scientific Marx (1986) of Althusser’s structuralist Marxism was negative as well:

A second important example of this “theoretist” approach to Capital can be found in structuralist Marxism, particularly that of Althusser and his followers. In this case, instead of an economic interpretation of Marx’s system, we find an effort to describe Capital as a general theory of the “structures” that define and animate the capitalist mode of production. For example, Hindess and Hirst hold that Capital is fundamentally an abstract theory of the capitalist mode of production that derives the “logic” of the system from the concept of the mode of production. Here too the aim is to portray Capital as a unified set of theoretical principles, with the rest of the work being treated as illustrative material or derived consequences. This account shows the same predisposition identified earlier to construe Capital as an organized theoretical system, and the same reductionist necessity to downplay those portions of the work which cannot be easily assimilated to the theoretical model. (Scientific Marx, 17)

Judt’s discussion of Leszek Kołakowski gives special attention to Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders – The Golden Age – The Breakdown and is much more favorable. 

It is quite impossible to convey in a short review the astonishing range of Kołakowski’s history of Marxist doctrine. It will surely not be superseded: Who will ever again know—or care—enough to go back over this ground in such detail and with such analytical sophistication? Main Currents of Marxism is not a history of socialism; its author pays only passing attention to political contexts or social organizations. It is unashamedly a narrative of ideas, a sort of bildungsroman of the rise and fall of a once-mighty family of theory and theorists, related in skeptical, disabused old age by one of its last surviving children. (132)

Judt believes that Kołakowski arrives at a fundamental insight about the role of Marxism in 20th-century history — the propensity of his followers to regard Marx’s writings as total theories encompassing both the present and the future. These forms of dogmatism laid the seeds of the totalitarianism of Communism as a political-economic system:

Solving the problems of mankind in one stroke; seeking out an all-embracing theory that can simultaneously explain the present and guarantee the future; resorting to the crutch of intellectual or historical “systems” to navigate the irritating complexity and contradictions of real experience; saving the “pure” seed of an idea or an ideal from its rotten fruit: Such shortcuts have a timeless allure and are certainly not the monopoly of Marxists (or indeed the Left). But it is understandably tempting to dismiss at least the Marxist variant of such human follies: Between the disabused insights of former Communists like Kołakowski and the self-righteous provincialism of “Western” Marxists like Thompson, not to speak of the verdict of history itself, the subject would appear to have self-destructed. (136)

Judt also provides an extensive discussion of E.P. Thompson’s polemic with Leszek Kołakowski:

The “Open Letter” was Thompson at his priggish, Little-Englander worst: garrulous (the letter runs to one hundred pages of printed text), patronizing, and sanctimonious. In a pompous, demagogic tone, with more than half an eye to his worshipful progressive audience, Thompson shook his rhetorical finger at the exiled Kołakowski, admonishing him for apostasy: “We were both voices of the Communist revisionism of 1956. . . . We both passed from a frontal critique of Stalinism to a stance of Marxist revisionism. . . . There was a time when you, and the causes for which you stood, were present in our innermost thoughts.” How dare you, Thompson suggested from the safety of his leafy perch in middle England, betray us by letting your inconvenient experiences in Communist Poland obstruct the view of our common Marxist ideal? (p. 136)

This portrait has much of the rhetorical excess from which Judt’s polemical essay “Clown in Regal Purple” (link) suffers in regard to Judt’s treatment of Charles Tilly (link), and seems to reflect intellectual animus as much as substantive critique. A clear indicator of the animus: after discussing Kołakowski’s response to Thompson, Judt writes a few lines later: “No one who reads it will ever take E. P. Thompson seriously again” (136). That is a bit hard, given that few historians would doubt the importance, rigor, and enduring insights of Thompson’s most important work, The Making of the English Working Class (link). 

Judt believes that Marxism was historically important in the twentieth century, but its importance was largely destructive. Judt believes that Marxism gave rise to social and political theories that led fairly directly to Communist totalitarianism. So he argues that it is of more than academic interest for us to try to understand the nature of Marxist thought throughout the first half of the century.

Marxism is thus inextricably intertwined with the intellectual history of the modern world. To ignore or dismiss it is willfully to misinterpret the recent past. Ex-Communists and former Marxists—François Furet, Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler, Leszek Kołakowski, Wolfgang Leonhard, Jorge Semprún, Victor Serge, Ignazio Silone, Boris Souvarine, Manès Sperber, Alexander Wat, and dozens of others—have written some of the best accounts of twentieth-century intellectual and political life. Even a lifelong anti-Communist like Raymond Aron was not embarrassed to acknowledge his undiminished interest in the “secular religion” of Marxism (to the point of recognizing that his obsession with combating it amounted to a sort of transposed anticlericalism). And it is indicative that a liberal like Aron took particular pride in being far better read in Marx and Marxism than many of his self-styled “Marxist” contemporaries. (137)

Marxism was important, Judt believes, because it gave a unified narrative that ordinary engaged people could understand about how society might move forward to a more just future.

The Marxist project, like the older Socialist dream which it displaced and absorbed, was one strand in the great progressive narrative of our time: It shares with classical liberalism, its antithetical historical twin, that narrative’s optimistic, rationalistic account of modern society and its possibilities. Marxism’s distinctive twist—the assertion that the good society to come would be a classless, post-capitalist product of economic processes and social upheaval—was already hard to credit by 1920. But social movements deriving from the initial Marxian analytical impulse continued for many decades to talk and behave as though they still believed in the transformative project. (138)

Most importantly, Marxism highlighted the features of contemporary capitalist society that were most visible and repellent to ordinary people: exploitation, alienation of ordinary life, inequality, and the indignities of class. However, for a number of years, the Marxist narrative appeared to be refuted by the postwar expansion in the standard of living, the accessibility of public education, and health and welfare protections.

Marxism, as the Polish historian Andrzej Walicki—one of its more acerbic critics—openly acknowledges, was the most influential “reaction to the multiple shortcomings of capitalist societies and the liberal tradition.” If Marxism fell from favor in the last third of the twentieth century, it was in large measure because the worst shortcomings of capitalism appeared at last to have been overcome. The liberal tradition—thanks to its unexpected success in adapting to the challenge of depression and war and bestowing upon Western democracies the stabilizing institutions of the New Deal and the welfare state—had palpably triumphed over its antidemocratic critics of Left and Right alike. A political doctrine that had been perfectly positioned to explain and exploit the crises and injustices of another age now appeared beside the point. (140)

But — as Judt recognizes in the final few pages of the essay on Althusser — twenty-first century capitalism persists in presenting humanity with many of the same crippling problems that Marx identified in the nineteenth century: staggering inequalities, extensive deprivation for working class and underclass men and women, and alienating forms of daily life. The seemingly unbridled power of corporations to have their way in the market and in public policy makes the language of civic equality seem hollow. And we now know the terrible potential of right-wing extremist movements — whether National Socialism in the 1930s or right-wing nationalist populism in the 2000s — to mobilize mass support for dictatorship and repression. The stability of liberal democracies is no longer assured; authoritarian leaders like Orban, Erdogan, and Trump have demonstrated their willingness to smash democratic institutions and norms. 

Judt argues that intellectuals and social change have always gone hand in hand; intellectuals help us think about the future and how to create a pathway of progress to better circumstances for humanity. Judt plainly rejected the notion that Marxism could play that role. But in the current moment, we have a deficit of convincing intellectuals and broad social movements that might help us envision and secure a more egalitarian democracy. We urgently need broad and appealing visions of a more palatable future for all members of society. Where are the social thinkers who will speak for progressive liberal democracy? Rejecting “Marxism” cannot be extended to intolerance of creative thinking by a range of democratic socialist theorists. Social democracy, democratic socialism, and non-Marxist socialist thought are broad and important ideas in our current context. Are there socialist thinkers in the past who gave greater attention to individual freedom and wellbeing whose work repays a rereading (for example, Alexander Chayanov, murdered by Stalin in 1937 (linklink))? Do contemporary thinkers like Erik Olin Wright and others associated with the Real Utopias project have important contributions to make in the current setting (link)? We need progressive public intellectuals who can speak to the disaffected in contemporary society; otherwise, the Orbans and the Trumps will pursue their politics of division and hate, and will determine our futures in quite ugly ways. (Quite a few earlier posts have addressed this problem — for example, linklinklink.)

(For what it is worth, the Democracy Index estimates that the most democratic nations in the world are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Ireland, Denmark, Canada, Australia, Switzerland. Significantly, the Nordic countries make up five of the top ten nations on this list — nations that have adopted strong versions of “social democracy” as a foundation for their social contract. This too is part of the progressive tradition of thought within which Marx did his work.)

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