The Uyghurs and cultural genocide

In the last several weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the twentieth century and its unimaginable crimes against humanity on an almost inconceivable scale. The Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag, the mass starvation of prisoners of war, the executions and murders of vast numbers of innocent people; the reckless, unbounded cruelty of totalitarian states against their own citizens and innocent people who fell within their grasp; and largely, the world’s indifference and willful ignorance of these state-authored crimes while they were underway. These are nightmares from the twentieth century, and a central thrust of the posts in the past two months has been the urgent need for honest, careful study of these periods of human history. (Quite a long time ago I wrote a post called “Koestler’s nightmares” that described Arthur Koestler’s personal integrity in trying to see and record honestly the horrors that surrounded him in the 1930s; link. Here was my summary opinion of Koestler: “I am drawn to Koestler’s writings — both his fiction and his autobiographical writings — in part because he provides such a powerful example of an engaged mind attempting to make sense of the history around him. Much of his work is a first-person effort to “understand society” — to make sense of the social forces and individual behavior that the twentieth century presented.”)

We might like to think that deliberate state policies to extinguish a whole ethnic population within its borders is thankfully a thing of the terrible past. But today the world is forced to contemplate the systematic and brutal efforts the Chinese government is making to subdue, confine, and reduce the Muslim population of western China, the Uyghurs. Using mass surveillance, forced sterilization, confinement in “reeducation camps”, and other tools of repression, the Chinese government is engaged in an all-out effort to suppress the Uyghur population of Xinjiang. This campaign has been called a policy of “cultural genocide” — an effort to erase the culture and identity of this people. Sean Roberts’ forthcoming book The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority promises to provide a great deal of detail about China’s illegal campaign of persecution against its Muslim citizens. (Here is an interview with Roberts in The Diplomat (link).)

Human Rights Watch curated a major report on the war against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in 2018 (link). Here is a haunting summary:

This report presents new evidence of the Chinese government’s mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and details the systemic and increasingly pervasive controls on daily life there. These rampant abuses violate fundamental rights to freedom of expression, religion, and privacy, and protections from torture and unfair trials. More broadly, governmental controls over day-to-day life in Xinjiang primarily affect ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities, in violation of international law’s prohibitions against discrimination.

Mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment; pervasive controls on daily life; violation of fundamental rights to freedom of expression, religion, and privacy … these are horrific conclusions by a world-respected voice in support of human rights worldwide. And their conclusions are supported by interviews and other direct empirical evidence.

A few lines later the report provides more summary devastating observations:

The human rights violations in Xinjiang today are of a scope and scale not seen in China since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. The establishment and expansion of political education camps and other abusive practices suggest that Beijing’s commitment to transforming Xinjiang in its own image is long-term.

It is also evident that China does not foresee a significant political cost to its abusive Xinjiang campaign. Its global influence has largely spared it from public criticism. And its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council means that it can deflect international action, whether sanctions imposed by the council or criminal prosecutions brought at the International Criminal Court, to which China is not a party.

This is a detailed, rigorous, and evidence-based report about China’s “Strike Hard Campaign”. It presents a devastating picture of China’s brutal repression of Uyghur people.

Since 2018 it has been widely reported that China holds at least one million Uyghur and Turkic Muslim people in detention and re-education camps (link). In February 2019 Freedom House issued a joint appeal calling for urgent investigation of these reports, representing 19 human rights organizations around the world (link). Here are the opening paragraphs of that appeal:

We, a diverse set of human rights and civil society organizations, urge the United Nations Human Rights Council to urgently adopt a resolution establishing an international fact-finding mission to investigate credible allegations that up to one million Turkic Muslims are being arbitrarily detained in “political education” camps across Xinjiang, a region in northwest China.

Over recent months, UN officials, human rights organizations, and independent journalists have painted an alarming picture of the conditions endured by ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. According to these reports, the Chinese authorities have detained people outside any legal process in “political education” camps for their perceived disloyalty to the government and Chinese Communist Party. In these camps they are subjected to forced political indoctrination, renunciation of their faith, mistreatment, and in some cases torture. They are denied contact with family members.

It is important to notice what is in common between this twenty-first century war against a large ethnic minority and those of the 1930s and 1940s: an all-powerful authoritarian state with ample ability to impose its will against powerless men, women, and children within its reach. Like Stalin’s Soviet Union, China today is an authoritarian communist state. But it is its authoritarianism and unrestrained single-party rule rather than its communism that fosters its lawless treatment of the Uyghur minority. Communism has little meaning in China today. But authoritarian rule is alive and well. The regime has political goals, and there are virtually no limits on its use of the power of the state in pursuit of those goals. In some ways its powers of repression are greater than those available to Stalin or Hitler — constant electronic and video surveillance, control of the internet, inspection of communications and social media, …. Crimes against humanity and repression of its own people are the result. The Chinese state is not murdering the Uyghurs in vast numbers; but it is repressing and controlling them in a completely remorseless, tyrannical, and purposeful way. It is endeavoring to extinguish the culture, freedoms, and identity of this minority population. The world must take notice.

The Human Rights Watch report quoted above closes with detailed recommendations to the Chinese government, other governments, and businesses and non-profits that have relationships in Xinjiang. Here are the recommendations from Human Rights Watch to the Chinese government:

To the Government of the People’s Republic of China

  • Close immediately all political education camps in Xinjiang, and release all individuals held;
  • Cease immediately the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” in Xinjiang, including the “fanghuiju” teams, “Becoming Family” and other compulsory programs aimed at surveilling and controlling Turkic Muslims;
  • Respect the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, religion, and culture to ensure that Turkic Muslims are able to engage in peaceful activities and raise concerns and criticisms;
  • Impartially investigate Party Secretary Chen Quanguo and other senior officials implicated in alleged abusive practices associated with the Strike Hard Campaign, and appropriately hold those responsible to account;
  • Review all cases of those detained or imprisoned on state security, terrorism, or extremism charges and drop all wrongful charges, and seek fair retrials in cases in which those convicted did not receive trials that met international due process standards;
  • Suspend the collection and use of biometrics in Xinjiang until there is a national and comprehensive law that protects people’s privacy; delete biometric and related data that has already been collected under current policies;
  • Refrain from the collection and use of biometrics unless according to law and demonstrated as necessary and proportionate for legitimate government aims;
  • Cease the operation of the big data program, Integrated Joint Operations Platform;
  • Return immediately passports to Xinjiang residents and cease the policy of recalling passports;
  • Stop pressuring Turkic Muslims abroad to return or collecting information about them. Stop pressuring host governments to forcibly return Turkic Muslim nationals abroad unless pursuant to an extradition request for legitimate law enforcement purposes;
  • Provide prompt and adequate compensation, including medical and psychological care, for people arbitrarily detained and mistreated under the Strike Hard Campaign; and
  • Grant access to Xinjiang as requested by several United Nations special procedures.

These recommendations have direct parallels with the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. China is a signatory to the UDHR and participates in United Nations human rights organizations; but it shows little evidence of conforming its behavior to the principles expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his review of Ann Kent’s China, the United Nations, and Human Rights: The Limits of Compliance Greg Moore offers a very careful summary of China’s history of relationships with the United Nations and international human rights regimes; link. This 2012 Chatham House report by Sonya Sceats with Shaun Breslin provides insight into China’s relationship to the UN human rights regime; link.

Mass murder in the borderlands

The facts of mass murder in eastern Europe in the 1930s through the 1950s are simply too horrific to fully absorb. These decades include the mass killings of millions of Jewish men, women, and children by the Nazi state and military and their collaborators in territories they conquered in eastern Europe — the Holocaust. And they include the murder by Stalin and the deliberate policies of the Soviet state of further millions of peasants, Poles, and other ethnic minority populations in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states — the Holodomor. Anne Applebaum’s recent Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine chronicles Stalin’s war of starvation against the small farmers of the Ukraine and the deaths by hunger of almost four million people, the Holodomor. Applebaum’s Gulag: A History provides a vivid and horrific account of the story of Stalin’s prison camps and labor camps where his regime sent millions of “class enemies” to labor and often to die (link).

An earlier post discussed Tim Snyder’s 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which treats the almost unlimited mass killings of eastern Europe. Alexander Prusin’s 2010 book The Lands Between: Conflict in the East European Borderlands, 1870-1992 treats roughly the same region over a longer time period (1870-1992), largely the same regimes of killing, and a somewhat different historiographic orientation.

Prusin describes his historical methodology in these terms.

The main methodology employed in this study can be dubbed ‘integral’ — namely, it neither attempts to provide a detailed description of each borderland region, nor to illuminate all political and socio-economic changes that transpired in the borderlands as a whole. Rather it intends to create a larger synthetic narrative and analytical framework that encompasses all the borderlands as a specific region, giving it the appearance of a particular zone, within a specific time-frame and across whatever arbitrary and usually quite provisional international borders that had been determined by external or internal forces. (7)

Thus Prusin (like Snyder) defines his subject matter as a region rather than a nation or collection of nations. The national borders that exist within the region are of less importance in his account than the facts of ethnic, religious, and community disparities that are evident across the region. He chooses the concept of “borderlands” to capture the region he treats.

The term ‘borderlands’ here is applied in a geographical rather than in an ethnographic sense and implies as a spatial concept, a zone of overlapping, co-habitation, and contact between different polities, cultures, and peoples. In comparison, the more ideological term ‘frontier’ would denote a fluid zone within or outside of the state-organized society, even if bounded by clearly marked political boundaries. (10)

By the turn of the twentieth century approximately 16,352,000 people lived in the borderlands, including 10,809,000 on the Russian and 5,542,000 on the Austro-Hungarian side of the border. Situated on the fringes of the empires, the borderlands were ‘incomplete societies’, where modernity coexisted with the outdated socio-economic structures and socio-economic inequalities coincided with ethno-cultural categories, often defined in terms of religion. (38)

Snyder emphasizes the breakdown of state institutions in these “borderland” nations as a crucial determinant of the regimes of mass killing that ensued. Prusin too looks to the states — Germany and the USSR — and argues that these states, and their leaders and bureaucracies of killing, were the “main instigators of violence”. The two views are complementary: when intact, state institutions in Ukraine, Poland, or Lithuania had some autonomous ability to subvert or ignore the murderous policies of the Nazi and Soviet states. Once destroyed, the local impulses of lethal anti-Semitism and the organized strategies of the German military occupiers spelt doom for millions of Jews and other victims.

The Soviet and German rule in the borderlands followed the same methods of eradicating ‘class-enemies’ or the racially ‘inferior’ ethnic groups. Both states greatly facilitated internal conflicts by encouraging latent hostilities and creating an environment in which inter-communal violence was conceived as a legitimate means and could assume a genocidal character. This study, accordingly, accentuates the role of the state as the main instigator of violence. (Prusin, 5)

Here is Prusin’s map of the borderlands in 1920-1939:

Snyder’s map of the bloodlands picks out essentially the same region as the “borderlands” delineated by Prusin.

Image: Snyder, Bloodlands

Prusin gives a great deal of attention to the ethnic groups and relationships (as well as antagonisms) that existed across each of the national jurisdictions of these borderland nations (“the amazing heterogeneity of the borderlands”; 15), as well as the empires (Russian and Austrian, and earlier, the Ottoman) that dominated the region for a century prior to the shattering associated with the end of the Great War into the 1930s. Prusin finds that the borderlands were exceptionally violent when it came to war and largescale conflict:

The frontier wars displayed the appalling combination of extreme violence such as pogroms, massacres, the murder of prisoners of war, and collective reprisals. Violence thrived within and without clear ideology foundations and it was committed in the name of ideology as well as base human instincts. Its most disturbing aspect, and arguably its most profound cause, was that in many instances the state structure ceased to exist. (87)

Mass killings and pogroms were familiar in the borderlands. But the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941 led to killings of many groups, including especially Jews, on a huge scale.

Since the mechanisms of the Holocaust in the different regions of the borderlands are discussed in numerous studies, this chapter focuses on the attitudes of the local population towards the situation of the Jews…. Local volunteers constituted a fraction of the populations in which they lived, but their involvement cut across social status, educational level, creed, and age, and entailed a variety of motives. While the political aspirations of the nationalist groups that were particularly active in the initial stages of the war diverged from the Nazi ideological objectives, their interests effectively converged in the elimination of the Jews as ideological enemies or socio-economic rivals. (150)

Writ large, Prusin’s account of German invasion and occupation mirrors that of Jan Gross in Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (link). He notes, for example, that the mass executions of prisoners and class enemies committed by the Soviets as they retreated in face of the German armies were attributed to the Jews, and led to horrific reprisal mass killings of Jews. Prusin believes that the massive killings of Jews that occurred in the region were the result of the intersection of Nazi strategic aims (elimination of the Jews) and local antagonisms towards the Jewish population in these countries that could be triggered into a frenzy of mass killings.

It can be argued, however, that the combination of these factors was at the core of the pogroms. Since the annihilation of Jews was inseparable from the Nazi military and ideological preparations for the war, the invasion of the Soviet Union created a particularly murderous environment — aptly named the ‘Jedwabne state’ by a prominent Polish historian — whereby anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence were officially structured and integrated into the emerging pattern of the Holocaust. Where the Germans and Romanians did not partake directly in the pogroms, they acted as organizers and overseers, guiding and encouraging native-driven violence as long as it was directed against the specific target — Jews. (154)

The initial period of “spontaneous” attacks on Jewish communities was followed in areas of Nazi occupation with organized systems for mass killing. These systems depended upon German leadership and organization, but also depended on large numbers of local volunteers who populated units assigned to eliminating Jews.

With the front moving eastward, the offices of the security and the Order Police commanders oversaw the reorganization of the native police forces that were to be deployed for regular duties, anti-partisan operations, and ultimately for the liquidation of Jews…. The constant shortage of German manpower was but one problem that the native auxiliaries helped resolve. As important was their ability and willingness to carry out the murder of thousands of men, women, and children, at least partially reducing the psychological stress and physical fatigue endured by the German police and security functionaries deployed in carrying out such tasks. Indeed, in any place where the ‘Final Solution’ was carried out, the role of the native policemen was crucial…. Some of the native police details smoothly mutated into proficient and zealous killing squads such as the notorious Arājs commando, which drove through Latvia and murdered at least 26,000 Jews.” (169-170)

There is one striking topic where Prusin’s book differs from Snyder’s Bloodlands: the mass starvation in Ukraine in 1932-33 created by Stalin as a way of destroying “class enemies of the Soviet state” — the Holodomor. This is a central topic in Bloodlands, but it receives no meaningful treatment in The Lands Between. Why is this? It seems as though it is a result of the way that Prusin defines his topic. Prusin’s book addresses mass killing in the borderlands region; but its primary focus is on mass-killing and extermination as policies by states at war. Prusin provides detail about the wartime policies and actions of the Nazi military and the Soviet Union and Red Army in its treatment of the peoples of the Baltics, Ukraine, Poland, and the other parts of this tormented region, but the internal use of mass killing through starvation by Stalin is not part of his definition of the scope of the book — apparently because at the time of this event, the people and territory were part of the Soviet Union. Prusin refers to a later period of famine in Ukraine caused by German military commanders (166), but he refers to the much larger Soviet famine of 1932-33 in just a single sentence: “By controlling food supplies, the state had at its disposal a powerful weapon to combat potential resistance, and in the early 1930s the Soviet government demonstrated its willingness to use this weapon to starve millions to death” (215). Here is a map of the extent of starvation in 1932-33:

The omission is perplexing. This region falls squarely within the borderlands that are the focus of Prusin’s book. So why was it not part of the story that Prusin tells? Apparently simply because it was at that time a part of a powerful nation, the USSR, and not the result, directly or indirectly, of inter-state war. Ukraine was no longer a borderland but a national possession.

Prusin’s book is an important contribution, and it is a good complement to Snyder’s Bloodlands. In a very real sense each book sheds light that the other does not choose to discuss at all.

*    *    *
Prusin offers a quotation from Nicholai Bukharin, leading figure/victim in the Moscow show trials, that is grimly ironic eighty years later:

In the words of a prominent Soviet theoretician, Nicholai Bukharin, “however paradoxical it sounds, proletarian oppression (принуждение) in all its forms from executions to forced labour, is a method of the separating and forging the communist humankind from the capitalist epoch.” (141)

So tovarishch [comrade] Bukharin, you pronounced your own death sentence under the banner of принуждение … a term that is also translated as compulsion, coercion, constraint, duress, and forcing. In Moscow 1938 it meant a bullet in the back of the neck (link).

The Gulag

The ruthless authoritarianism and tyranny of Stalinist rule depended on a leader, a party, and a set of institutions that worked to terrorize and repress the population of the USSR. The NKVD (the system of internal security police that enforced Stalin’s repression), a justice system that was embodied in the Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38, and especially the system of forced labor and prison camps that came to be known as the Gulag were the sharp end of the stick — the machinery of repression through which a population of several hundred million people were controlled, imprisoned, and repressed. And, like the Nazi regime, Stalin used the slave labor of the camps to contribute to the economic output of the Soviet economy.

Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History is a detailed and honest history of the Gulag and its role in maintaining Soviet dictatorship. Here is her summary description of the Gulag:

Literally, the word GULAG is an acronym, meaning Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration. Over time, the word “Gulag” has also come to signify not only the administration of the concentration camps but also the system of Soviet slave labor itself, in all its forms and varieties: labor camps, punishment camps, criminal and political camps, women’s camps, children’s camps, transit camps. Even more broadly, “Gulag” has come to mean the Soviet repressive system itself, the set of procedures that prisoners once called the “meat-grinder”: the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated cattle cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary deaths. (kl 133)

Here is a map of the locations of thousands of camps in the Gulag, according to the Gulag.online museum (link). (This site is worth visiting and exploring.) It is remarkable how many of the camps are in the borderlands or bloodlands of eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Baltic states as defined by Prusin and Snyder.

Applebaum estimates that roughly two million prisoners inhabited the camps at a time in the 1940s, and that as many as 18 million people had passed through the camps by 1953 (13). And the economic role of the Gulag was considerable:

By that time the camps had come to play a central role in the Soviet economy. They produced a third of the country’s gold, much of its coal and timber, and a great deal of almost everything else. In the course of the Soviet Union’s existence, at least 476 distinct camp complexes came into being, consisting of thousands of individual camps, each of which contained anywhere from a few hundred to many thousands of people. The prisoners worked in almost every industry imaginable—logging, mining, construction, factory work, farming, the designing of airplanes and artillery—and lived, in effect, in a country within a country, almost a separate civilization. (13)

Applebaum makes a crucial and important point about historical knowledge as she frames her attempt to put together the history of the Gulag: the inherent incompleteness of historical understanding and the mechanisms of overlooking and forgetting that get in the way of historical honesty. She notes that public knowledge of the camps outside the Soviet Union was available, but was de-dramatized and treated as a fairly minor part of the reality of the USSR.

Yet although they lasted as long as the Soviet Union itself, and although many millions of people passed through them, the true history of the Soviet Union’s concentration camps was, until recently, not at all well known. By some measures, it is still not known. Even the bare facts recited above, although by now familiar to most Western scholars of Soviet history, have not filtered into Western popular consciousness. “Human knowledge,” once wrote Pierre Rigoulot, the French historian of communism, “doesn’t accumulate like the bricks of a wall, which grows regularly, according to the work of the mason. Its development, but also its stagnation or retreat, depends on the social, cultural and political framework.” (16)

The reality — that the USSR embodied and depended upon a massive set of concentrations camps where millions of people were enslaved and killed — was never a major part of the Western conception of the USSR. She comments, “far more common, however, is a reaction of boredom or indifference to Stalinist terror” (18), and she quotes the odious Jean-Paul Sartre, apologist for Stalinism to the end:

“As we were not members of the Party,” he once wrote, “it was not our duty to write about Soviet labor camps; we were free to remain aloof from the quarrels over the nature of the system, provided no events of sociological significance occurred.” On another occasion, he told Albert Camus that “Like you, I find these camps intolerable, but I find equally intolerable the use made of them every day in the bourgeois press.” (18)

It is interesting though not surprising to know that there were a number of major rebellions in large camps in the Gulag, which Applebaum describes in a chapter called “The Zeks’ Revolution”. The largest of these was the Kengir uprising in Kazakhstan. This rebellion occurred in spring 1954 (after the death of Stalin) and was put down some 40 days later by overwhelming military force, including tanks. Solzhenitsyn provided an extensive description of this uprising in the third volume of Gulag Archipelago in a chapter titled “The forty days of Kengir” (link). (Here is an analysis of the Kengir uprising by Steven Barnes in Slavic Reviewlink.)

Wide knowledge in the West of the scope and specific human catastrophe of the Gulag was first made available by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago, first published in Russian and English in 1973. And he wrote, not as an investigative journalist, but as a former prisoner, a zek. While serving in the Red Army in 1945 Aleksandr Isayevich was convicted of anti-Soviet propaganda under Article 58 and sentenced to eight years of forced labor. He spent the full eight years in several different camps in the Gulag, from 1945 to 1956. Following his release he lived in internal exile in Kazakhstan for several years before being pardoned by Nikita Khrushchev.

Here are the opening lines of The Gulag Archipelago:

How do people get to this clandestine Archipelago? Hour by hour planes fly there, ships steer their course there, and trains thunder off to it-but all with nary a mark on them to tell of their destination. And at ticket windows or at travel bureaus for Soviet or foreign tourists the employees would be astounded if you were to ask for a ticket to go there. They know nothing and they’ve never heard of the Archipelago as a whole or of anyone of its innumerable islands.

Those who go to the Archipelago to administer it get there via the training schools of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Those who go there to be guards are conscripted via the military conscription centers.

And those who, like you and me, dear reader, go there to die, must get there solely and compulsorily via arrest.

Arrest! Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? That it is an unassimilable spiritual earthquake not every person can cope with, as a result of which people often slip into insanity?

The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: “You are under arrest.”

If you are arrested, can anything else remain unshattered by this cataclysm?

In 1978 — thirty-three years after his own arrest at the German front while serving as a decorated combat officer in the Red Army — Solzhenitsyn gave the commencement address at Harvard University, and he offered these important words about hard truths:

Harvard’s motto is “VERITAS.” Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.

A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.

Political and intellectual functionaries exhibit this depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements, and even more so in their self-serving rationales as to how realistic, reasonable, and intellectually and even morally justified it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And the decline in courage, at times attaining what could be termed a lack of manhood, is ironically emphasized by occasional outbursts and inflexibility on the part of those same functionaries when dealing with weak governments and with countries that lack support, or with doomed currents which clearly cannot offer resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.

The primary truths that Solzhenitsyn addressed that afternoon in Cambridge concerned the realities of colonialism and the Cold War and the moral failures of Western intellectuals and political leaders to confront authoritarianism and injustice. These are important words for us in the United States today; both truth and courage are called for. But beyond the present, these ideas underline the importance of the honest historical writings of scholars like Snyder, Judt, Applebaum, Gross, and Prusin in describing the catastrophes of the twentieth century. Solzhenitsyn himself demonstrated that courage and that commitment to revealing the truth about a gigantic and secret system of repression.

source: Russia Beyond

New thinking about European genocide and the Holocaust

Image: names of Holocaust victims

It sometimes seems that some questions in history are resolved, finished, and understood. At various times the industrial revolution, the outbreak of World War I, and the French war in Indochina fell in this category. And then a new generation of historians comes along and questions the assumptions and certainties of their predecessors, and offers new theories and interpretations of these apparently familiar historical happenings. the narrative changes, and we understand the historical happenings differently. Sometimes it is a matter of new evidence, sometimes it is a reframing of old assumptions about the time and place of the happening, and sometimes it is a shift from agency to structure (or the reverse). And sometimes it is the result of new thinking about the concepts and methods of history itself — how historians should proceed in researching and explaining complex events in the past.

The occurrence and causes of the Holocaust seem to fall in this category of important historical realignment in the past twenty years. After a period of several decades in which the central facts of Nazi war against Europe’s Jews were thought to be understood — horrible as those facts are — but beyond any serious doubt about causes, extent, and consequences. Perhaps Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, first published in 1961, captured that postwar historical consensus; Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945 (1975) falls in that early wave of scholarship as well. But recent historians have offered new ways of thinking about the Nazi plan of extermination, and important new insights have emerged.

Where did the Holocaust take place?

One of those groundbreaking historians is Tim Snyder, with his books Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. Snyder argues that the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews has been importantly misunderstood — too centered on Germany, when the majority of genocide and murder occurred further east, in the lands that he calls the “bloodlands”; largely focused on extermination camps, whereas most killing of Jews occurred near the cities and villages where they lived, and most commonly by gunfire; insufficiently attentive to the relationship between extermination of people and destruction of the institutions of state in subject countries; and without sufficient attention to Hitler’s own worldview, within which the  Nazi war of extermination against Europe’s Jews was framed. And perhaps most striking, Snyder links the mass killings of Jews with the almost equally numerous mass killings by the Soviet state of peasants, Poles, Ukrainians, and other non-Russians in the same region. Here is Snyder’s delineation of the bloodlands and the re-centering that he proposes for the way that we think about the Holocaust:

The bloodlands were where most of Europe’s Jews lived, where Hitler and Stalin’s imperial plans overlapped, where the Wehrmacht and the Red Army fought, and where the Soviet NKVD and the German SS concentrated their forces. Most killing sites were in the bloodlands: in the political geography of the 1930s and early 1940s, this meant Poland, the Baltic States, Soviet Belarus, Soviet Ukraine, and the western fringe of Soviet Russia. Stalin’s crimes are often associated with Russia, and Hitler’s with Germany. But the deadliest part of the Soviet Union was its non-Russian periphery, and Nazis generally killed beyond Germany. The horror of the twentieth century is thought to be located in the camps. But the concentration camps are not where most of the victims of National Socialism and Stalinism died. These misunderstandings regarding the sites and methods of mass killing prevent us from perceiving the horror of the twentieth century. (kl 444)

Here is a map in which Snyder indicates the scope of the bloodlands of slaughter.

Snyder’s approach to the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews in Bloodlands is striking and original, but the approach it takes is not unique. Alexander Prusin’s The Lands Between: Conflict in the East European Borderlands, 1870-1992conceptualizes the topic of mass murder in the period 1933-1945 in much the same geographical terms. Here is the abstract of Prusin’s book:

ABSTRACT The book traces the turbulent history of the borderlands that before World War constituted the frontier‐zones between the Austro‐Hungarian, German, and Russian empires and in the course of the twentieth‐century changed hands several times. It subscribes to the notion that internal socio‐economic cleavages and ethnic rivalries — the most common patterns to the East European landscape — were at the root of conflicts in the borderlands. However, its dominating thrust is predicated upon the notion that the borderlands’ ethno‐cultural diversity was in basic conflict with the nationalizing policies of the states that dominated the region. In peacetime, when the state’s control over all forms of social relations was unchallenged, it acted as the highest arbitrator, manipulating the conflicting claims of rival groups and maintaining relative stability in its domain. But in the time of crisis, when the state’s resources became strained to the limit, suspicions of the groups deemed less loyal to the state blurred the concept of internal and external enemies and entailed the persecution of allegedly ‘corrosive’ ethnic elements. Simultaneously, state‐violence was sustained and exacerbated by popular participation and acquired its own destructive logic, mutating into a vicious cycle of ethnic conflicts and civil wars.

Christian Gerlach reviews the two books together in American Historical Review (link).

Large factors that have been overlooked

In Black Earth Snyder offers another kind of re-centering of the Holocaust, this time by attempting to identify the consistent worldview through which Hitler came to put the extermination of the Jews (of the entire world) as his most important goal. Snyder refers to this as Hitler’s anti-scientific “ecological” theory of race, in which Hitler attributes everything bad in the world to the Jewish people. He places Hitler’s ideas about “Lebensraum” into the context of this batty ecological thinking. So Snyder makes a point about anti-Semitism: was Hitler just another instance of a European anti-Semite, carried to a lunatic extreme? And Snyder’s view is that the truth is much more horrible. Hitler’s war on the Jews derived from a deeply held worldview, not a superficial cultural attitude.

Snyder also introduces a new line of interpretation of the causes of the Final Solution by emphasizing that mass murder by the Nazi regime depended crucially on destroying the state institutions of other countries that might otherwise have interfered with the mass murder of their Jewish citizens.

In 1935, German Jews had been reduced to second-class citizens. In 1938, some Nazis discovered that the most effective way to separate Jews from the protection of the state was to destroy the state. Any legal discrimination would be complicated by its unforeseen consequences for other aspects of the law and in bureaucratic practice. Even matters that might seem simple, such as expropriation and emigration, proceeded rather slowly in Nazi Germany. When Austria was destroyed, by contrast, Austria’s Jews no longer enjoyed any state protection and were victimized by a majority that wished to distance itself from the past and align itself with the future. Statelessness opened a window of opportunity for those who were ready for violence and theft. (Black Earth, pp. 84-85). 

Snyder believes that these attempts at refocusing the way we understand the Holocaust lead to a conclusion: bad as we thought the Holocaust was, it was much, much worse. Referring to the Red Army photographs and films of German concentration camps that reached the West, he writes: “Horrible though these images were, they were only hints at the history of the bloodlands. They are not the whole story; sadly, they are not even an introduction” (Bloodlands, kl 476). 
Both of Snyder’s books have been controversial in the field of Holocaust studies. Some critics are concerned that Snyder diminishes the significance of Nazi extermination of the Jewish people by intermingling his treatment with Stalin’s campaigns of mass murder against peasants, Poles, and other enemies (e.g. Thomas Kühne’s excellent review in Contemporary European Historylink). Kühne also faults Snyder for subscribing to the “Great Man” theory of history, while paying little attention to the agency of ordinary people in the conduct of mass murder. Kühne writes, “The two Great Men who made the history of the ‘bloodlands’ are Hitler and Stalin, of course.” Others have criticized Black Earth for a leaving a sort of disjunct between the theoretical claims of the opening chapters and the actual historical narrative in the substantive center of the book (e.g. Mark Roseman’s review in American Historical Reviewlink).

Ordinary perpetrators

Kühne’s point about “agency” within mass murder identifies another important theme in Holocaust scholarship since 1980 or so — the motivations of the ordinary people who participated in the machinery of mass murder. A number of historians and sociologists who have asked fundamental questions: who were the “front-line workers” of the machinery of murder? What were their motives? Were they Nazi ideologues? Were they coerced? Was there some other basis for their compliance (and eagerness) in the horrible work of murder? Kühne’s own book The Rise and Fall of Comradeship: Hitler’s Soldiers, Male Bonding and Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century takes up this theme. And a major field of research into ordinary behavior during the Holocaust was made possible by the availability of investigative files concerning the actions of a Hamburg police unit that was assigned special duties as “Order Police” in Poland in 1940. These duties amounted to collecting and massacring large numbers of Jewish men, women, and children. Thomas Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992) made extensive use of investigatory files and testimonies of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 and came to fairly shocking conclusions: very ordinary, middle-aged, apolitical men of the police unit picked up the work of murder and extermination with zeal and efficiency. They were not coerced, they were not indoctrinated, and they were not deranged; and yet they turned to the work of mass murder with enthusiasm. A small percentage of the men of the unit declined the shooting assignments; but the great majority did not.

At Józefów a mere dozen men out of nearly 500 had responded instinctively to Major Trapp’s offer to step forward and excuse themselves from the impending mass murder. Why was the number of men who from the beginning declared themselves unwilling to shoot so small? In part, it was a matter of the suddenness. There was no forewarning or time to think, as the men were totally “surprised” by the Józefów action. Unless they were able to react to Trapp’s offer on the spur of the moment, this first opportunity was lost. As important as the lack of time for reflection was the pressure for conformity—the basic identification of men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out. (74)

Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) used mostly the same materials but came to even more challenging conclusions — that a deep and historically unique kind of anti-Semitism in Germany underlay the entire structure of mass murder.

It is my contention that [explaining their actions] cannot be done unless such an analysis is embedded in an understanding of German society before and during its Nazi period, particularly of the political culture that produced the perpetrators and their actions. This has been notably absent from attempts to explain the perpetrators’ actions, and has doomed these attempts to providing situational explanations, ones that focus almost exclusively on institutional and immediate social psychological influences, often conceived of as irresistible pressures. (7)

There is not a very large difference in substance between the books by Browning and Goldhagen: ordinary men did horrible things, knowing that they were horrible. But these books created a large debate among historians. (Here is a symposium organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum including extensive contributions by Goldhagen and Browning; link.)

Another important example of research on “ordinary people committing mass murder” is Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Gross provides a case study of a single massacre of Jews in a small Polish town during the Nazi occupation, but not ordered or directed by the German occupation. Instead, it was a local, indigenous action by non-Jewish residents in the town who gathered up their Jewish neighbors, forced them into a barn, and burned the barn, killing about 1600 Jewish men, women, and children. What were their motives? Gross refers to a culture of anti-Semitism at the local level; but he also refers to an eagerness on the part of non-Jewish townspeople to expropriate the property of the Jewish victims. (Here is a valuable article in Slavic Review by Janine Holc (link).) Gross raises the question of individual responsibility, but as Hole observes, he is ambiguous about how he views individual, collective, and national responsibility in this case, or in the larger tragedy of the extermination of Poland’s Jewish population (456).

So what do these new contributions to the historical study of the Holocaust matter? For all of us, they matter because they promise to provide a deeper, more nuanced understanding of how this horrific part of our recent past came to be — the institutional, political, ideological, and local circumstances that facilitated the mass murder of the majority of Europe’s Jewish population. And there are contemporary consequences that should be considered: does the extremism that is found in radical populism in so many countries, including the United States, create the possibility of horrific actions by states and peoples in the twenty-first century as well? Snyder apparently believes so, at least insofar as a slide from democracy into authoritarian government based on nationalistic ideologies is a possibility (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century).

These new developments in the field of Holocaust history also create an important reminder for historians: historical events are large, complex, multifaceted, and conjunctural. This means that our understanding of these events, both large and small, can always be improved, and sometimes progress in our understanding involves large shifts in perspective and analysis. We see things differently after reading some of these historians. For example, we may be led to think of the occurrence in different spatial or temporal terms. Was the story of the extermination of Europe’s Jews a German story or a story located on a large, multinational map? Is it best told through national histories or a more synthetic approach? Are extermination camps the most important parts of the story, or are the many thousands of sites at which organized killing occurred more important? Can the story be told in broad strokes at a high level, or does it depend crucially on the micro-processes through which it came about? How much do we need to know about the motivations of participants at the high level and the street level?

Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) undergo paradigm shifts, following which we view the natural world differently and investigate it with different tools. Current developments in historical research on the Holocaust support the idea that historical thinking too undergoes paradigm shifts.

(An interesting resource on the topic of new research on the Holocaust is the Defending History website (link). Based in Lithuania, this site is dedicated to maintaining high-quality historical understanding of the Holocaust and resisting the resurgence of new forms of extremist rightwing anti-Semitism.)

Fascist attacks on democracy

The hate-based murders of at least nine young people in Hanau, Germany this week brought the world’s attention once again to right-wing extremism in Germany and elsewhere. The prevalence of right-wing extremist violence in Germany today is shocking, and it presents a deadly challenge to democratic institutions in modern Germany. Here is the German justice minister, quoted in the New York Times (link):

“Far-right terror is the biggest threat to our democracy right now,” Christine Lambrecht, the justice minister, told reporters on Friday, a day after joining the country’s president at a vigil for the victims. “This is visible in the number and intensity of attacks.”

Extremist political parties like the Alternative for Germany and the National Democratic Party (linklink) have moved from fringe extremism to powerful political organizations in Germany, and it is not clear that the German government has strategies that will work in reducing their power and influence. Most important, these parties, and many other lesser organizations, spread a message of populist hate, division, and distrust that motivates some Germans to turn to violence against immigrants and other targeted minorities. These political messages can rightly be blamed for cultivating an atmosphere of hate and resentment that provokes violence. Right-wing populist extremism is a fertile ground for political and social violence; hate-based activism leads to violence. (Here is an excellent report from the BBC on the political messages and growing political influence of AfD in Germany (link).)

Especially disturbing for the fate of democracy in Germany is the fact that there is a rising level of violence and threat against local elected officials in Germany over their support for refugee integration. (Here is a story in the New York Times (2/21/20) that documents this aspect of the crisis; link.) The story opens with an account of the near-fatal attack in 2015 on Henriette Reker, candidate for mayor of Cologne. She survived the attack and won the election, but has been subject to horrendous death threats ever since. And she is not alone; local officials in many towns and municipalities have been subjected to similar persistent threats. According to the story, there were 1,240 politically motivated attacks against politicians and elected officials (link). Of these attacks, about 33% are attributed to right-wing extremists, about double the number attributed to left-wing extremists. Here is a summary from the Times story:

The acrimony is felt in town halls and village streets, where mayors now find themselves the targets of threats and intimidation. The effect has been chilling. 

Some have stopped speaking out. Many have quit, tried to arm themselves or taken on police protection. The risks have mounted to such an extent that some German towns are unable to field candidates for leadership at all. 

“Our democracy is under attack at the grass-roots level,” Ms. Reker said in a recent interview in Cologne’s City Hall. “This is the foundation of our democracy, and it is vulnerable.” 

This is particularly toxic for the institutions of democratic governance, because the direct and obvious goal is to intimidate government officials from carrying out their duties. This is fascism.

What strategies exist that will help to reduce the appeal of right-wing extremism and the currents of hatred and resentment that these forms of populism thrive on? In practical terms, how can liberal democracies (e.g. Germany, Britain, or the United States) reduce the appeal of white supremacy, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia while enhancing citizens’ commitment to the civic values of equality and rule of law?

One strategy involves strengthening the institutions of democracy and the trust and confidence that citizens have in those institutions. This is the approach developed in an important 2013 issue of Daedalus (link) devoted to civility and the common good. This approach includes efforts at improving civic education for young people. It also includes reforming political and electoral institutions in such a way as to address the obvious sources of inequality of voice that they currently involve. In the United States, for example, the prevalence of extreme and politicized practices of gerrymandering has the obvious effect of reducing citizens’ confidence in their electoral institutions. Their elected officials have deliberately taken policy steps to reduce citizens’ ability to affect electoral outcomes. Likewise, the erosion of voting rights in the United States through racially aimed changes to voter registration procedures, polling hours and locations, and other aspects of the institutions of voting provokes cynicism and detachment from the institutions of government. (McAdam and Kloos make these arguments in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America.)

Second, much of the appeal of right-wing extremism turns on lies about minorities (including immigrants). Mainstream and progressive parties should do a much better job of communicating the advantages to the whole of society that flow from diversity, talented immigrants, and an inclusive community. Mainstream parties need to expose and de-legitimize the lies that right-wing politicians use to stir up anger, resentment, and hatred against various other groups in society, and they need to convey a powerful and positive narrative of their own.

Another strategy to enhance civility and commitment to core democratic values is to reduce the economic inequalities that all too often provoke resentment and distrust across groups within society. Justin Gest illustrates this dynamic in The New Minority; the dis-employed workers in East London and Youngstown, Ohio have good reason to think their lives and concerns have been discarded by the economies in which they live. As John Rawls believed, a stable democracy depends upon the shared conviction that the basic institutions of society are working to the advantage of all citizens, not just the few (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement).

Finally, there is the police response. Every government has a responsibility to protect its citizens from violence. When groups actively conspire to commit violence against others — whether it is Baader-Meinhof, radical spinoffs of AfD, or the KKK — the state has a responsibility to uncover, punish, and disband those groups. Germany’s anti-terrorist police forces are now placing higher priority on right-wing terrorism than they apparently have done in the past, and this is a clear responsibility for a government with duty for ensuring the safety of the public (link). (It is worrisome to find that members of the police and military are themselves sometimes implicated in right-wing extremist groups in Germany.) Here are a few paragraphs from a recent Times article on arrests of right-wing terrorists:

BERLIN — Twelve men — one a police employee — were arrested Friday on charges of forming and supporting a far-right terrorism network planning wide-ranging attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and Muslims, the authorities said.

The arrests come as Germany confronts both an increase in violence and an infiltration of its security services by far-right extremists. After focusing for years on the risks from Islamic extremists and foreign groups, officials are recalibrating their counterterrorism strategy to address threats from within.

The arrests are the latest in a series of episodes that Christine Lambrecht, the justice minister, called a “very worrying right-wing extremist and right-wing terrorist threat in our country.”

“We need to be particularly vigilant and act decisively against this threat,” she said on Twitter. (link)

The German political system is not well prepared for the onslaught of radical right-wing populism and violence. But much the same can be said in the United States, with a president who espouses many of the same hate-based doctrines that fuel the rise of radical populism in other countries, and in a national climate where hate-based crimes have accelerated in the past several years. (Here is a recent review of hate-based groups and crimes in the United States provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center; link.) And, like Germany, the FBI has been slow to place appropriate priority on the threat of right-wing terrorism in the United States.

(This opinion piece in the New York Times by Anna Sauerbrey (link) describes one tool available to the German government that is not available in the United States — strong legal prohibitions of neo-Nazi propaganda and incitement to hatred:

“There is the legal concept of Volksverhetzung,” the incitement to hatred: Anybody who denigrates an individual or a group based on their ethnicity or religion, or anybody who tries to rouse hatred or promotes violence against such a group or an individual, could face a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Because of virtually unlimited protection of freedom of speech and association guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, these prohibitions do not exist in the United States. Here is an earlier discussion of this topic (link).)

Shakespeare on tyranny

Stephen Greenblatt is a literary critic and historian whose insights into philosophy and the contemporary world are genuinely and consistently profound. His most recent book returns to his primary expertise, the corpus of Shakespeare’s plays. But it is — by intention or otherwise — an  important reflection on the presidency of Donald Trump as well. The book is Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, and it traces in fascinating detail the evolution and fates of tyrants through Shakespeare’s plays. Richard III gets a great deal of attention, as do Lear and Macbeth. Greenblatt makes it clear that Shakespeare was interested both in the institutions of governance within which tyrants seized power, and the psychology of the tyrant. The parallels with the behavior and psychology of the current US President are striking.

Here is how Greenblatt frames his book.

“A king rules over willing subjects,” wrote the influential sixteenth-century Scottish scholar George Buchanan, “a tyrant over unwilling.” The institutions of a free society are designed to ward off those who would govern, as Buchanan put it, “not for their country but for themselves, who take account not of the public interest but of their own pleasure.” Under what circumstances, Shakespeare asked himself, do such cherished institutions, seemingly deep-rooted and impregnable, suddenly prove fragile? Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to? How does a figure like Richard III or Macbeth ascend to the throne? (1)

So who is the tyrant? What is his typical psychology?

Shakespeare’s Richard III brilliantly develops the personality features of the aspiring tyrant already sketched in the Henry VI trilogy: the limitless self-regard, the lawbreaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency. He is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it. He hates it because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of the public good that he holds in contempt. He divides the world into winners and losers. The winners arouse his regard insofar as he can use them for his own ends; the losers arouse only his scorn. The public good is something only losers like to talk about. What he likes to talk about is winning. (53)

One of Richard’s uncanny skills—and, in Shakespeare’s view, one of the tyrant’s most characteristic qualities—is the ability to force his way into the minds of those around him, whether they wish him there or not. (64)

Greenblatt has a lot to say about the enablers of the tyrant — those who facilitate and those who silently consent.

Another group is composed of those who do not quite forget that Richard is a miserable piece of work but who nonetheless trust that everything will continue in a normal way. They persuade themselves that there will always be enough adults in the room, as it were, to ensure that promises will be kept, alliances honored, and core institutions respected. Richard is so obviously and grotesquely unqualified for the supreme position of power that they dismiss him from their minds. Their focus is always on someone else, until it is too late. They fail to realize quickly enough that what seemed impossible is actually happening. They have relied on a structure that proves unexpectedly fragile. (67)

One of the topics that appears in Shakespeare’s corpus is a class-based populism from the under-classes. Consider Jack Cade, the lying and violent foil to The Duke of York.

Cade himself, for all we know, may think that what he is so obviously making up as he goes along will actually come to pass. Drawing on an indifference to the truth, shamelessness, and hyperinflated self-confidence, the loudmouthed demagogue is entering a fantasyland—“ When I am king, as king I will be”—and he invites his listeners to enter the same magical space with him. In that space, two and two do not have to equal four, and the most recent assertion need not remember the contradictory assertion that was made a few seconds earlier. (37)

And what about the fascination tyrants have with secret alliances with hostile foreign powers?

Third, the political party determined to seize power at any cost makes secret contact with the country’s traditional enemy. England’s enmity with the nation across the Channel—constantly fanned by all the overheated patriotic talk of recovering its territories there, and fueled by all the treasure and blood spilled in the attempt to do so—suddenly vanishes. The Yorkists—who, in the person of Cade, had pretended to consider it an act of treason even to speak French—enter into a set of secret negotiations with France. Nominally, the negotiations aim to end hostilities between the two countries by arranging a dynastic marriage, but they actually spring, as Queen Margaret cynically observes, “from deceit, bred by necessity” (3 Henry VI 3.3.68).

How does the tyrant rule? In a word, badly.

The tyrant’s triumph is based on lies and fraudulent promises braided around the violent elimination of rivals. The cunning strategy that brings him to the throne hardly constitutes a vision for the realm; nor has he assembled counselors who can help him formulate one. He can count—for the moment, at least—on the acquiescence of such suggestible officials as the London mayor and frightened clerks like the scribe. But the new ruler possesses neither administrative ability nor diplomatic skill, and no one in his entourage can supply what he manifestly lacks. His own mother despises him. His wife, Anne, fears and hates him. (84)

Several things seem apparent, both from Greenblatt’s reading of Shakespeare and from the recent American experience. One is that freedom and the rule of law are inextricably entangled. It is not an exaggeration to say that freedom simply is the situation of living in a society in which the rule of law is respected (and laws establish individual rights and impersonal procedures). When strongmen are able to use the organs of the state or their private henchmen to enact their personal will, the freedom and liberties of the whole of society are compromised.

Second, the rule of law is a normative commitment; but it is also an institutional reality. Institutions like the Constitution, the division of powers, the independence of the judiciary, and the codification of government ethics are preventive checks against arbitrary power by individuals with power. But as Greenblatt’s examples show, the critical positions within the institutions of law and government are occupied by ordinary men and women. And when they are venal, timid, and bent to the will of the sovereign, they present no barrier against tyranny. This is why fidelity to the rule of law and the independence of the justice system is the most fundamental and irreplaceable ethical commitment we must demand of officials. Conversely, when an elected official demonstrates lack of commitment to the principles, we must be very anxious for the fate of our democracy.

Greenblatt’s book is fascinating for the historical context it provides for Shakespeare’s plays. But it is even more interesting for the critical light it sheds on our current politics. And it makes clear that the moral choices posed by politicians determined to undermine the institutions of democracy are perennial, whether in Shakespeare’s time or our own.

New perspectives on Chinese authoritarianism

The question of China’s political future is an important one and a difficult one. Will China evolve towards a political system that embodies real legal protections for the rights of its citizens and some version of democratic institutions of government? Or will it remain an authoritarian single-party state in which government and the party decide the limits of freedom and the course of economic and social policy?

Two recent books are worth reading in this context, and they seem to point to rather different answers. Ya-Wen Lei’s The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China makes the case for a broadening sphere of public discourse and debate in China, which seems to suggest the possibility of a gradual loosening of governmental control of thought and action. Wenfang Tang’s Populist Authoritarianism: Chinese Political Culture and Regime Sustainability on the other hand makes the case for a distinctive version of populist authoritarianism in China that may have the resources it needs to retain power for a very long time. Neither scholar is dogmatic about his or her findings, but they give rather different pictures of the evolution of China’s polity in the next several decades.

The two books use rather different kinds of data. Tang relies primarily on various surveys of Chinese public opinion, whereas Lei’s research relies on a range of qualitative and observational data about the contents of China’s legal system, media, and social media. She makes use of newspaper archives, legal texts, interviews, online texts from Internet forums, and survey data (lc 466).

Tang’s book begins with several paradoxical facts. One is that the Chinese state already embodies a kind of democratic responsiveness, which he refers to as “Mass Line” politics. According to this political ideology, the Party represents the interests of the masses, and it must be responsive to the interests and demands of workers and peasants. So the CCP is sometimes responsive to demands expressed through public demonstrations and protests. Here are a few of Tang’s comments about the Mass Line ideology: “Some observers see the totalitarian nature of the Mass Line…. Other scholars, however, see the empowerment of society under the Mass Line…. Others describe the Mass Line as a democratic decision-making process” (kl 357-388). But Tang’s own view appears to be that the Party’s adherence to the ideology of the Mass Line makes for a compelling imperative towards paying attention to the attitudes and interests of ordinary peasants and workers, and towards improving their material conditions of life.

The other paradoxical fact in Tang’s account is that China’s government commands support from a remarkably high percentage of its citizens. Using survey research, Tang reports that there are issues of concern to the Chinese public (corruption, environment, land use policy), but that the large majority of Chinese people support the single-party government of the CCP.

The 2005–2008 5th wave of the WVS [World Values Survey] coordinated by the University of Michigan further indicated that Chinese respondents expressed the strongest support for political institutions including the military, the police, the legal system, the central government, the Communist Party, the national legislature, and the civil service. (kl 712)

But Tang also notes that surveys indicate a low level of “happiness” and satisfaction by Chinese citizens. In the WVS 2005-2008 survey “China ranked at the very bottom of this happiness index (65). Above China were eastern Germany (65.5), Slovenia and South Korea (66), India (67), Taiwan and Spain (68), Italy and Chile (69),” along with many other countries. This presents a third paradox in Chinese political realities; low citizen satisfaction is often associated with low approval of government, but this is not the case in China at present. Tang observes, “there seems to be a contradiction between the low level of happiness and the high level of regime support” (kl 774).

Here is how Tang characterizes China’s particular version of “populist authoritarianism”. China’s particular version involves …

the Mass Line ideology, strong interpersonal trust and rich social capital, individual political activism and political contention, weak political institutions and an underdeveloped civic society, an often paranoid and highly responsive government, and strong regime support. (kl 240)

What strategies and mechanisms permit an authoritarian state to maintain its stability over time, beyond the exercise of force? Tang supports the “political culture” strand of thinking about politics; he believes that the beliefs, identities, and attitudes that citizens have are crucial for the way in which politics unfolds in the country. One factor that Tang rates as particularly favorable for regime stability in China is the high degree of nationalism that Chinese people share, according to survey data. Survey data support the finding that Chinese people have a high level of identification with the value and importance of China as a nation. And, significantly, the central government makes explicit efforts to reinforce popular nationalist sentiment.

While Chinese civilization is an ancient concept, Chinese nationalism is a relatively new idea in contemporary China. It is constructed by the CCP to incorporate a multi-ethnic state that was inherited from the Qing dynasty. It has been used by the CCP to justify its resistance to liberal democracy which is often associated with Western imperialist invasion of China in the 19th and early 20th centuries. More importantly, nationalism is an inseparable component of contemporary Chinese political culture that provides the soil for the CCP to nurture its legitimacy. (kl 1364)

So Tang’s conclusion about regime stability in China is tentative, but he leaves open the possibility that the CCP and single-party government has enough resources available to it to survive as a popular and populist government in China for an extended period of time. He suggests that populist authoritarianism is potentially a stable system of government — anti-democratic in the traditional western sense, but responsive enough to the demands and interests of ordinary citizens to permit it to maintain high levels of legitimacy and acceptance by the broad public over an extended period of time.

Now let’s look at the political dynamics described in Ya-Wen Lei’s very interesting 2018 book, The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China. Lei too regards China as an authoritarian state. And yet Chinese society possesses a surprising degree of public contestation over important social issues.

Authoritarian states, by definition, undermine civil society—the basis on which the public sphere is built—thus conventional wisdom tells us that the conditions for political life and a public sphere in such contexts are likely to be quite bleak and suffocating (Habermas 1996, 369). Yet, when I looked at what was going on in China, I saw lively political discussion, contention, and engagement—in short, the emergence of a vibrant public sphere, against all apparent odds. (kl 264)

In describing this “unruly sphere capable of generating issues and agendas not set by the Chinese state” (kl 278) Lei is primarily referring to the cell-phone supported social media world in China, within which Weibo is the primary platform. And Lei takes the position that the emergence of this public sphere in the early 2000s was an unintended consequence of “authoritarian modernization”.

I argue that the rise of China’s contentious public sphere was an unintended consequence of the Chinese state’s campaign of authoritarian modernization. The government desperately needed to modernize in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. To do so, the state institutionalized the double-edged instruments of modern law, marketized media, and the Internet. It sought to utilize but also contain these instruments, recognizing the potential risk each posed of empowering professionals and citizens and destabilizing political control. Nonetheless, the state’s choices set in motion complex and interconnected processes beyond its control. Building legal and media institutions and adopting information technologies, paired with political fragmentation and marketization, increased the capabilities of citizens and professionals, encouraged the formation of multiple overlapping social networks of collaboration, engendered widespread legal and rights consciousness, and created a space for contentious politics. Through everyday practices and the production of so-called public opinion incidents (yulun shijian), media and legal professionals, public opinion leaders, activists, NGOs, and netizens translated individual grievances into collective contention—and in so doing, facilitated the rise of a contentious public sphere. (kl 290)

Lei maintains that the state was aware of this risk and has taken measures to ameliorate it; but she also believes that the forces leading to open debate and social networks that are relatively free to engage in these kinds of discussions are more numerous than authoritarian censorship can manage to control. President Xi’s current crackdown on ideological deviation is the most recent version of the state’s effort at control; but the logic of Lei’s argument suggests that these repressive measures will not succeed in eliminating the emerging public sphere. She refers to this situation as the “authoritarian dilemma of modernization”:

Yet the Chinese state’s authoritarian modernization project has encountered what I call an “authoritarian dilemma of modernization.” On the one hand, the state has to build economic, legal, and political institutions to pursue socioeconomic development. The state also needs capable professionals and citizens to make institutions work, produce economic growth, and ultimately achieve the goal of modernization. These capable agents need to be educated and have knowledge, information, and even some autonomy to participate in the tasks designated by the state. (lc 354)

New legal institutions and new forms of information technology create opportunities for increasingly well-educated people to find new ways of pursuing debates and advocating for policies that the state would prefer not to have to consider.

In contrast to Tang’s “populist authoritarianism”, Lei refers to a “fragmented and adaptive authoritarianism” in China. And she argues that this fragmentation (through new institutions, new legal frameworks, and new ways of communicating and disseminating divergent opinions) has led to the possibility of social changes emerging that were not intended or sanctioned by the governing elites.

In an interesting way Lei’s view of fragmented authoritarianism has some themes in common with Fligstein and McAdam’s ideas of organizations as “strategic action fields” (link); different actors within the Chinese polity are able to gain resources and leverage to pursue their own concerns. Lei’s analysis emphasizes the shifting resources available to various actors within the field of politics, including new legal institutions and new opportunities for communications and interaction through the Internet. The strategic-action-field theory does not presuppose that “governors” or “insurgents” automatically have the upper hand; instead, it posits that change within a strategic action field is highly contingent, with a variety of possible outcomes. And this indeed seems like a very good description of Chinese politics.

(Here is an earlier post on Martin Whyte’s research on public opinions about social justice in China in Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China; link.)

Hofstadter on the American right

Richard Hofstadter opened his 1963 Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford with these prescient words:

Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. Behind such movements there is a style of mind, not always right-wing in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. (3)

This lecture became the title essay of The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Its emphasis on “uncommonly angry minds” is of obvious relevance to the politics of the right in the United States today. There is more that has a great resonance today:

But there is a vital difference between the para noid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac: although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggres sive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others…. His sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation. (4)

Hofstadter mentions the particular objects of paranoid wrath in the 1950s and 1960s: gun control, fluoridation of municipal water, and international Communist conspiracy. Most especially, the paranoid philosophy is nativist; it directs fear and hostility against “others” (in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States, Masons, Catholics, and Mormons, for example; 9). We can hear these same strands of thought to be expressed in current political bigotry against immigrants, Muslims, and transgendered people.

Hofstadter offers perspective on this strand of American political thought from an historian’s point of view. He takes up the American campaign against Illuminism and Masonry in the early part of the nineteenth century as an example.

The anti-Masonic movement of the late 1820’s and 1830’s took up and extended the obsession with conspiracy. At first blush, this movement may seem to be no more than an exten sion or repetition of the anti-Masonic theme sounded in the earlier outcry against the Bavarian Illuminati–and, indeed, the works of writers like Robison and Barruel were often cited again as evidence of the sinister character of Masonry.  But whereas the panic of the 1790’s was confined mainly to New England and linked to an ultra-conservative argument, the later anti-Masonic movement affected many parts of the northern United States and was altogether congenial to popu lar democracy and rural egalitarianism. (14)

So what about the content of paranoid politics in the twentieth century?

If we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing. we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country–that they were fending off threats to a still well-established way of life in which they played an important part. But the mod ern right wing. as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old Amer ican virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been de stroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major states men seated at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors discovered foreign conspiracies; the modem radical right finds that conspiracy also embraces betrayal at home. (23-24)

Hofstadter believed that mass media had a lot to do with the deepening influence of paranoid politics in the 1960s; it isn’t difficult to argue that social media takes that influence to an even greater pitch in the current environment.

He closes the essay with yet another astute observation very relevant to contemporary right-wing rhetoric:

In American experience, ethnic and religious conflicts, with their threat of the submergence of whole systems of values, have plainly been the major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but elsewhere class conflicts have also mobilized such energies. The paranoid tendency is aroused by a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular political interest–perhaps because of the very un realistic and unrealizable nature of their demands–cannot make themselves felt in the political process. Feeling that they have no access to political bargaining or the making of deci sions, they find their original conception of the world of power as omnipotent, sinister, and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power–and this through distorting lenses–and have little chance to observe its actual machinery. L. B. Namier once said that “the crowning attain ment of historical study” is to achieve “an intuitive sense of how things do not happen.” It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resist ance of his own, of course, to such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him. We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well. (39-40)

This is brilliant diagnosis of the political psychology of reaction, very much in line with Fritz Stern’s analysis of the politics of cultural despair in the context of Weimar Germany (link). What Hofstadter does not clearly distinguish here is the political psychology of followers and leaders.  But much about mass political mobilization turns on this point. Much of what seems to have transpired in the current political season is the artful orchestration of messages of fear, resentment, and antagonism along the lines of paranoid politics that Hofstadter describes. Antagonism and suspicion appear to be powerful motivators in a mass movement, and scapegoating of minority groups is a familiar and repugnant strategy. These messages have succeeded in motivating followers and voters in support of candidates espousing these messages. What is unclear is what political values actually motivate the candidates; and it is fair enough to speculate that there is a substantial degree of cynical manipulation at work in the message mills of the right in creating a movement around these hateful and suspicious themes.

These are important historical observations by Hofstadter, and they seem to shed a great deal of light on the political rhetoric and successes of the right in the United States over the past fifty years. They capture important insights into the mentality and rhetoric of the political passions that have animated a lot of political activity, both electoral and social, throughout the past half century. They point to the underpinnings of suspicion, hatred, and alienation which seem to drive the bus on the extreme right. And what was on the “extreme” right a decade ago has become mainstream conservatism today. It seems crucial for the future of our democracy to reawaken the political values of trust, mutual acceptance, and equality which are so fundamental to stable and sustainable civic peace within a mass democracy. Significantly, this was the core political message of Barack Obama in 2008.

(There is a thread here that I haven’t mentioned but may also be illuminating — Hofstadter’s analysis of American political consciousness seems to shed some indirect light on the Bernie Sanders phenomenon as well. Hofstadter notes several times above that class conflict has not been a prominent theme in American politics. But perhaps part of the appeal of the Sanders candidacy is exactly his ability to speak about the one percent in ways that resonate with younger voters; and this is a class-based message. Wouldn’t it be interesting if large numbers of young and poor voters in the United States became active in support of their longterm economic interests.)

High modernism and expert knowledge

James Scott is one of the really exceptional social scientists of his generation.  His contributions to peasant studies have been transformative — his ideas of the “moral economy of the peasant” and “weapons of the weak” are now part of the tool set that we all use in trying to make sense of agrarian societies (The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant ResistanceDomination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts).  And his historical and ethnographic accounts of peasant life and struggle have given us a strong basis for understanding these movements that were so important during the anti-colonial struggles of the mid-twentieth century.  (I’ve treated several of these contributions in earlier posts here, here, here, and here.)

What is particularly striking about Scott’s work is the range of his sociological imagination.  He is a genuinely creative thinker when it comes to making sense of some of some very complex human phenomena — peasant mobilization, agricultural modernization, and large-scale efforts to transform the world.  Each of his books introduces something new (for example, his treatment of Gramsci and hegemony in Weapons of the Weak, or his use of “hidden transcripts” in Domination and the Arts of Resistance).  He is a master at coming up with a concept, theory, or metaphor that can help to explain complex forms of social behavior, from the points of view of the actors.  And he does a great job of overcoming the dichotomy between “material circumstances” and “culture”; the peasant communities and movements that he treats are both materially situated and culturally specific.

A more recent book that makes a number of important new contributions is Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998).  Here Scott shifts focus in two ways.  His analysis here differs from his earlier books in that it is both more macro — he examines the ways that states think; and more micro — he also examines the nature of individually situated expert local knowledge.  Both parts of the analysis are interesting and novel.

The book explores what Scott calls “high modernism” — essentially, the effort to use science and theory to order and regularize the social world, and to use theories of the future to remake the present.  Scott defines high modernism in these terms:

It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its core was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature. (89)

Initially he puts the point in terms of the modern state’s agenda of “sedentarianization” — reducing the mobility and anonymity of nomadic peoples and organizing them into “legible” formations.

The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. (2)

Much of early modern European statecraft seemed similarly devoted to rationalizing and standardizing what was a social hieroglyph into a legible and administratively more convenient format.  The social simplifications thus introduced not only permitted a more finely tuned system of taxation and conscription but also greatly enhanced state capacity. (Introduction)

The core thesis of the book is the damage that states have done when they have attempted to implement antecedent theories of social change:

I believe that many of the most tragic episodes of state development in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries originate in a particularly pernicious combination of three elements.  The first is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, an aspiration that we have already seen at work in scientific forestry, but one raised to a far more comprehensive and ambitious level….  The second element is the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs.  The third element is a weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. (88-89)

High modernism was evident in agriculture; but it was also visible in urban planning.

Le Corbusier had no patience for the physical environment that centuries of urban living had created. He heaped scorn on the tangle, darkness, and disorder, the crowded and pestilential conditions, of Paris and other European cities at the turn of the century … He was visually offended by disarray and confusion. (106)

The French-inspired urban design of colonial-era Saigon is pictured above.

Scott’s view is that the central development disasters of the twentieth century derived from this toxic combination of epistemic arrogance and authoritarian power, including especially an excessive confidence in the ability of principles of “scientific management” to order and organize human activity.  He provides case studies of the creation of Brasilia as a completely planned city; Soviet collectivization of agriculture in 1929-30; villagization in Tanzania; and the effort to regularize and systematize modern agriculture (266).  And we could add China’s Great Leap Forward famine to the list.  In each case, the high-modernist ideology led to a catastrophic failure of social development.

In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for largescale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build. (5)

A constant contrast in the book is between the objectifying knowledge of modernist science — social and natural — and the particular knowledge systems of practitioners and locals about the nature of their local environment — what he calls “metis”.  “Throughout this book I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability” (6).  A particularly clear instance of these two perspectives comes in through Scott’s discussion of scientific forestry and the local knowledge of forest ecology possessed by villagers.  Beekeeping, traditional farming, and the cultivation of the mango tree (333) are other good examples.  Two forests are pictured below; the first is an old-growth forest, and the second is the result of scientific forestry. And Scott documents the ecological destruction that resulted when these principles of scientific forestry were exported from Germany to Southeast Asia.

Scott’s perspective here is not anti-scientific or anti-modern.  Instead, it is fundamentally anti-authoritarian: the high-modernist impulse coupled with the power of the modern state has led to massive human disasters.  And confidence in comprehensive, abstract theories — whether of forests, bees, or cities — has been an important element of these destructive endeavors.  So the conclusion is a moderate one: pay attention to local knowledge, be suspicious of totalizing experiments in transforming society or nature, and trust the people who are affected by policies to contribute to their design.

Scott’s arguments in Seeing Like a State provide some resonance with two other insightful writers discussed in earlier postings: Michael Polanyi (on the importance of tacit knowledge) and Karl Popper (on the hazards associated with comprehensive social engineering).

(Scott’s most recent book is The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.  Here is a very interesting working paper by Grant Evans reviewing Scott’s contributions; From moral economy to remembered village: The sociology of James C. Scott (Working paper / Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University).)

Who invented the totalitarian state?

 
The world has known ruthless, violent, and murderous rulers for centuries.  Queen Elizabeth ran a secret service that ruthlessly pursued her enemies in the Catholic underground.  Isabella and Ferdinand persecuted and expelled the Jews of Spain.  And the French government was perfectly ready to use deadly force against workers and rebels in Paris in 1848 and 1871.  But the totalitarian state was a creation of the twentieth century.  The fascist states of Italy, Spain, and Germany as well as the Soviet state seem to have been qualitatively different from even the most repressive of their nineteenth century predecessors. By comparison, Bismarck’s Prussia, Napoleon III’s France, Czar Alexander’s Russia, and Victor Emmanuel’s Italy were quaint amateur affairs when it came to organized coercion and mass politics.

The differences are striking — the apparatus of political prisons, the extensive secret police networks, the purposive use of violent organizations, the ideologies of national and ethnic purity.  Most fundamental, though, is the degree and depth of bureaucratic control that the modern totalitarian state achieved.  This is what made the modern fascist or soviet state “total” — an ability to monitor and intimidate civil society down to the street level.

The distinction between the realm of the state and the realm of civil society has been fundamental to political theory.  Civil society encompasses the private activities of individuals and their associations, and the realm of the state involves the political apparatus of law, enforcement, and coercion.  We can roughly estimate the degree to which the apparatus of the state is able to penetrate down into civil society.  And European states prior to the twentieth century were objectively limited in their capacity to rule civil society.  This is true for the imperial Chinese state in the nineteenth century as well; it was commonly said that the power of the Emperor ended at the yamen wall (or at the county level).  As Mark Allee puts it in Law and Local Society in Late Imperial China: Northern Taiwan in the Nineteenth Century,

The limited effectiveness of yamen runners as police prompted local administrators in Danshui and Xinzhu to search for ways to augment and supplement their runner cadre. In so doing, sub-prefecture and county heads aimed to create more intimate linkages to the people in their jurisdiction and to extend the reach of local government beyond the yamen wall into the countryside. (197)

Weak states have only a limited ability to enforce their will against the mass populations of city and countryside; mechanisms such as tax farming and collective tax liability are therefore called upon in order to secure the resources needed by the central authorities.  And the scope of law and the effective enforcement of laws and decrees is limited as well in a weak state.  European polities of the nineteenth century were generally weak states; Britain, France, Germany, and Italy had central governments with only limited administrative capacity and limited ability to impose their authority at the local level.  But there was a dramatic increase in the beginning of the twentieth century in the administrative capacity of the state and its ability to govern local society.  The scope of the political grew much broader, and the domain of civil society — the relatively safe and insulated zone of individual activity and choice — grew more limited.  The creation of the totalitarian state depended on this radical increase in state power and state coercive capacity.

A striking feature of the totalitarian states of the twentieth century is their aggressiveness and brutality towards all opposition.  These fascist states were ruthless and effective in their ability to attack and dismantle oppositional groups — including communists, labor unions, radical peasants, rent resistance organizations, liberals, and anarchists.  Chuck Tilly’s discussion of “trust networks” is relevant here; the balance of power between the trust networks of civil society and the central power of the state apparatus shifted profoundly with the advent of the modern dictatorship; Trust and Rule.

One index of the administrative and coercive capacity of the state is the degree to which it is successful in exacting a greater percentage of the national wealth in taxes.  Weak states are relatively inefficient at collecting taxes.  So careful historical study of systems of taxation is an important contribution to the topic of the power of the state.  Isaac Martin, Ajay Mehrotra, and Monica Prasad’s The New Fiscal Sociology: Taxation in Comparative and Historical Perspective provides a good exposure to the field of comparative fiscal sociology. With a foreword and article by Charles Tilly, it examines the ways in which states since the early modern period have intensified their ability to collect tax revenues.

One piece of this new capacity was organizational.  Fascist states in the 1930s created bureaucracies of surveillance, enforcement, punishment, and killing that went vastly beyond the capacity of nineteenth century state organizations.  The organizations of police and army in Italy, Spain, and Germany took major steps forward in size and complexity in the twentieth century.  The personnel of the forces of coercion — police and other armed state forces such as militias — were few in the early nineteenth century; but by the middle of the twentieth century these numbers had grown exponentially.

Improved communication and transportation were also key to the possibility of the totalitarian state.  The telephone and the railroad allowed fascist states to collect information quickly and to move their forces around the cities and countryside efficiently; functionally, this meant that rural groups and ordinary people were no longer buffered from the state by poor roads and rudimentary communication.

Another technological advance that was crucial for the totalitarian state was a substantial improvement in the technology of record keeping and retrieval.  James Scott argues that the modern state’s imperative to regiment and record its population is fundamental to its capacity to collect taxes and conscript soldiers  — and therefore fundamental to the nature of modern political power (Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed).  The technology of organized record keeping improved dramatically in the first several decades of the twentieth century — thus making the state’s goal of closely monitoring its subjects more attainable.  (Edwin Black describes the use of IBM punch card systems to manage National Socialist records of Jews and other enemies in IBM and the Holocaust.)  So communication, transportation, and record-keeping were crucial to the creation of the totalitarian state.

Of course greater state capacity is not synonymous with totalitarianism.  Liberal democratic states too increased their capacity to impose their will at the local level.  What distinguished totalitarian regimes was the set of ideological and political goals that fascist states sought to accomplish on the basis of their greater repressive capacity and the cult of violence that each embodied.  Other states took some of these sorts of steps forward in the twentieth century; the “reach of the state” increased dramatically in the United States, France, and Britain as well.  The administrative functions of the state and the ability to extract revenues through taxation increased exponentially.  It would be interesting to compare the total tax percentages in 1860 and 1930 for the United States and France; surely the increase is dramatic.  And likewise, the personnel of these states increased dramatically during the same time period as a percentage of population.  But this broad increase in state capacity did not lead to repression and dictatorship in these countries.

This topic is historically interesting; much turns on how we explain the power and human tragedies associated with Franco’s Spain or Mussolini’s Italy.  But it is also interesting today when we consider the undisguised efforts of the Iranian state, and its Republican Guard military organization, to dominate the whole of Iranian civil society.  Here too we see the use of surveillance, intimidation, mass arrests, forced confessions, and political murder as tactics in the effort to control civil society.

(There is quite a bit of scope for new comparative historical research on this topic.  Chuck Tilly has always emphasized these issues in his analysis of the development of the modern state.  Michael Mann’s findings in The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 2: The Rise of Classes and Nation States, 1760-1914 are certainly relevant as well to this line of thought.  But there isn’t much empirical detail available at present.  Simply attempting to measure the dimensions highlighted here for a number of countries — scale of tax collections, size of state apparatus, size and complexity of police organizations, and overall state capacity to regulate local society — requires research that doesn’t appear to exist at present. )

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