Fascist populism and the threat to democracy

What features of a political regime contribute to political loyalty and commitment on the part of its citizens? Can a fascist dictatorship inspire political political loyalty and commitment from the mass of society? And what about liberal democracy; can a liberal democratic regime maintain mass support?

We have the makings of an answer to the first question. A fascist dictatorship like that of Mussolini can indeed maintain passionate support through a powerful (often mendacious) ideology and value scheme — fatherland, church, family, scapegoating of “enemies of the people”; a social program that finds support (repression of immigrants and ethnic minorities); and a demonstration of competent governance (“the trains run on time”). This story identifies several factors — ideology and values, scapegoating, implementation of popular policies of repression, and efficient adminstration of government (economic growth. jobs, stable prices, …).

So what about liberal democracy: a maximal, extensive, and equal system of rights; and a legislative process implementing equal democratic rights to set law and policy. Does this system provide a basis for eliciting loyalty and commitment from all or most citizens? In particular, does it support a compelling value statement, a real principle of tolerance, and the capacity for achieving “good government” (efficient management of the public good)? Can the values of equal worth, tolerance of difference, and majoritarian decision-making lead to loyalty and commitment? Can a Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton create an inspiring vision of the future that mobilizes most citizens in support?

The prospects don’t appear to be very good. Anti-liberal political opportunists can always create a counter-narrative that directly or tacitly rejects equality and tolerance and seeks to create a basis for minority rule. Right-wing populism has shown itself to be insidious and virulent — very capable of winning support from large groups of anti-liberal activists and followers. The politics of division and hate are indeed powerful. Fascist ideology, values, and programs have great strength in the space of contemporary mass politics. The currents of hate, fear, racism, xenophobia, and the political maneuver of “group supremacy” have shown themselves to be highly potent bases for political mobilization.

There seem to be two levels of support for a regime that are in question. First is “rational/reasonable consideration” of which regime best suits my longterm interests. The second is “emotional/passionate mobilization” around the call to action by a highly persuasive leader — a Tucker Carlson or Mussolini. The first is a deliberative “all things considered” choice of a regime; the other is political marketing and propaganda.

What then are the prospects for continuing stable support for liberal democracy? First, it is clear that this kind of support is not automatic. There are powerful and compelling anti-liberal voices in the space of liberal democracy. Liberal democrats must compete vigorously or they will lose. They must articulate the value of liberal democracy and the very real dangers of the rise of populist extremism.

Second, liberal democracy needs to make credible the belief that liberal democratic government can succeed in creating laws and policies that genuinely enhance justice, equality, and opportunity.

And third, defenders of liberal democracy need to ensure that the institutions of the state continue to guarantee the rights of all citizens. The willingness of the far-right to use violent threats and actions against our institutions must be rebutted. January 6 is a dangerous and sobering precedent; so are the kidnapping plot against Michigan Governor Whitmer, the brandishing of semi-automatic weapons in state houses around the country, and the intimidation of public health officials during the pandemic. Violence and intimidation are inherently toxic to liberal democracy.

It seems very clear: Citizens must actively assert themselves in support of our liberal democracy, or we will go the way of Hungary.

Snyder’s big idea about genocide: state smashing

Tim Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning is an exceptional and innovative history of the Holocaust, and of the mass killings that occurred during the Second World War in the territories he refers to as the Bloodlands.

There are tormenting questions raised by the facts of the Holocaust and the deliberate killing of six million Jewish men, women, and children. Some of these questions are obvious, but Snyder argues that we haven’t asked the most important questions yet. We have not yet understood the Holocaust in the ways we need to if we are to honor the victims and prepare humanity for a future in which genocide does not recur.

The most difficult question is that of historical causation: what factors caused the massive genocide that occurred in 1941 and following years? The conventional answers to this question revolve around familiar factors: the aftermath of the First World War, the extensive realities of anti-Semitism, Hitler’s single-minded ideology, and the successful efforts by Germany to build a military and police apparatus that was very efficient in waging war and massacring vast civilian populations. But Snyder doesn’t believe that these conventional ideas are correct. They are all relevant factors in the rise and power of the Nazi regime, but they do not by themselves suffice to explain the ability of the regime to kill millions of innocent people in a matter of months.

The dominant stereotype of Nazi Germany is of an all-powerful state that catalogued, repressed, and then exterminated an entire class of its own citizens. This was not how the Nazis achieved the Holocaust, nor how they even thought about it. The enormous majority of the victims of the Holocaust were not German citizens; Jews who were German citizens were much more likely to survive than Jews who were citizens of states that the Germans destroyed. 337

Rather, Snyder argues that the most fundamental factor that facilitated the Holocaust was the “state smashing” that occurred through Nazi military aggression and Soviet occupation of many of the countries of Central Europe. Snyder refers to the “double occupation” that was part of the period of the 1930s and 1940s: occupation by the Soviet Union of the Baltic countries, the Ukraine, half of Poland, and much of the remainder of central Europe; and then the conquest of these same territories by German military and police forces, beginning in 1939 in the rapid conquest of Poland and in 1941 in the rapid military conquest of much of the territory between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, extending to the outskirts of Moscow.

Snyder puts forward a powerful thesis: the Holocaust and the annihilation of six million Jews resulted most importantly from the destruction of state institutions in the countries that were occupied by USSR and Nazi Germany. It was the destruction of state institutions, systems of law, and rules of citizenship that led to the mortal peril of Jews in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and parts of the Soviet Union itself. Hitler’s war on the Jews was the ideological driver of his policies. But his ability to carry out his plans of mass murder depended on the smashing of the states of the countries it attacked, defeated, and occupied. And in this destruction the Soviet Union and the NKVD had played a crucial role during the 1930s.

Why were state institutions so important? Not because they consistently came to the support of persecuted minorities. They were important rather because states establish systems of law, rights, and citizenship. And states establish institutions, bureaucracies, and judicial systems that preserve those rights of citizenship. States provided a basis for oppressed groups to defend themselves within the institutions and bureaucracies of the state. The experience of the attempt in Germany in the 1930s to remove citizenship rights from its own small Jewish population — less than 1% of the population — was illustrative: it took years to succeed. Statelessness was a crucial feature of the deadly vulnerability of the Jews of Eastern Europe.

The state stood at the middle of the story of those who wished to kill Jews, and of those who wished to save them. Its mutation within Germany after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and then its destruction in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in 1938 and 1939 transformed Jews from citizens into objects of exploitation. The double assault upon state institutions in the Baltic states and eastern Poland, at first by the Soviet Union in 1939 and 1940 and then by Nazi Germany in 1941, created the special field of experimentation where ideas of a Final Solution became the practice of mass murder. 320

Why did both Germany and the USSR undertake such deliberate efforts to destroy the states of the territories they occupied, and the political elites who had played roles in those states? Both Nazi and Soviet states sought to create absolute political dominion in the territories they controlled. This meant killing the “political elites” in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, … This motivation explains the Soviet atrocity of the massacre by the NKVD of over 20,000 Polish military officers at Katyn Forest in 1940; they sought to decapitate any possible Polish political alternative to Soviet rule in the portion of Poland they had occupied (Surviving Katyn: Stalin’s Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth). And it meant destroying the civic and political institutions of these states. Both Nazi and Soviet murder machines were entirely ruthless in killing potential sources of political opposition. Mass killings of civil servants, mayors, governors, judges, and politically engaged citizens occurred, first by the Soviets and the NKVD and then by the Nazi occupiers.

Snyder offers the case of Denmark as support for this position. Denmark too was occupied by Nazi forces, and the Nazi regime was interested in destroying Danish Jews. However, he argues that the survival of its political institutions made extermination of Denmark’s Jews impossible. Snyder discusses the efforts of Rudolf Mildner, Gestapo chief in Denmark, in attempting to carry out genocide against Denmark’s Jews. “He was confronted in Copenhagen with institutions that had been abolished further east: a sovereign state, political parties with convictions and support, local civil society in various forms, a police force that could not be expected to cooperate” (216). And when that citizenship protection failed, Jews in Denmark were killed. “The Jews who were denied state protection in Denmark shared the fate of Jews who lacked state protection in Estonia or, for that matter, everywhere else: death” (217).

Snyder argues that the bureaucracies of a modern state work to protect the individuals and groups who fall within their scope. “Citizenship in modern states means access to bureaucracy. Bureaucracy has the reputation of killing Jews; it would be closer to the truth to say that it was the removal of bureaucracy that killed Jews. So long as state sovereignty persisted, so did the limits and possibilities afforded by bureaucracy” (221).

This point is highly consequential for our reading of the nature of totalitarian murder. And in fact, Snyder believes that the centrality of “state smashing” in the Holocaust is the clue to preventing genocide in the future. We need to build and defend the institutions of law, judiciary, and citizenship; these institutions are the bulwark against horrifying atrocities in the future.

If we are serious about emulating rescuers, we should build in advance the structures that make it more likely that we would do so. Rescue, in this broad sense, thus requires a firm grasp of the ideas that challenged conventional politics and opened the way to an unprecedented crime. 320

Mass killings generally take place during civil wars or regime changes. It was the deliberate policy of Nazi Germany to artificially create conditions of state destruction and then steer the consequences towards Jews. Destroying states without such malign intentions produces more conventional disasters. 336

This concern by Snyder for the persistence of resilient institutions of state also helps explain the passion and seriousness he brings to his concerns about the degradation of the institutions of democracy that has occurred in the United States and Europe in the past decade (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century). It is not merely that we care about democracy; it is that the institutions of state are themselves the most important bulwark against atrocities directed against individuals and groups by the powerful. When Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, or Donald Trump work deliberately to undermine the judiciary, the institutions of voting, the citizenship rights of minority groups in Brazil, Hungary, or the US, these actions are not just undesirable in a generic sense. They are highly dangerous for the future. They leave the citizens of their states with diminishing protections against arbitrary power, violence, vilification, and sometimes murder.

Here are the closing lines of Black Earth:

Understanding the Holocaust is our chance, perhaps our last one, to preserve humanity. That is not enough for its victims. No accumulation of good, no matter how vast, undoes an evil; no rescue of the future, no matter how successful, undoes a murder in the past. Perhaps it is true that to save one life is to save the world. But the converse is not true: saving the world does not restore a single lost life. The family tree of that boy in Vienna, like that of all of the Jewish children born and unborn, has been sheared at the roots: “I the root was once the flower / under these dim tons my bower / comes the shearing of the thread / death saw wailing overhead.” The evil that was done to the Jews—to each Jewish child, woman, and man—cannot be undone. Yet it can be recorded, and it can be understood. Indeed, it must be understood so that its like can be prevented in the future. That must be enough for us and for those who, let us hope, shall follow. 343

Snyder has made a very important contribution to how we understand the genocide of the Holocaust, and how we can best strive to prevent such moments in the future.

(Here is a powerful piece of memory in music and video, for the tragedy of Babi Yar; link.)

A Socratic morality of war?

An earlier post raised the question of whether Socrates had participated, directly or indirectly, in atrocities in war during his celebrated service as hoplite in numerous campaigns in the Peloponnesian War. And, further, it seems that Socrates never explicitly criticized the practice of massacring and enslaving the defeated foe (as was practiced by Cleon). Several readers offered useful suggestions about other places in the Platonic corpus where moral ideas about the conduct of war are discussed by Socrates. There are a few passages in the Republic, Book 5, that are relevant to the moral limits on the conduct of war, and the first Alcibiades dialogue has some relevance as well. Here I want to consider those passages to see if these passages provide principles that are relevant to violence against the innocent — massacres, slaughter of prisoners, enslavement of women and children, devastation of cities. Here the question is not “what circumstances justify a state’s decision to go to war against an antagonist”, but rather the moral limits that govern acts and targets of violence in war — the difference between legitimate acts of war and atrocities.

Here are a few relevant lines of dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon from Republic, Book 5 (link):

“But again, how will our soldiers conduct themselves toward enemies?” “In what respect?” “First, in the matter of making slaves of the defeated, do you think it right for Greeks to reduce Greek cities to slavery, or rather that so far as they are able, they should not suffer any other city to do so, but should accustom Greeks [469c] to spare Greeks, foreseeing the danger of enslavement by the barbarians?” “Sparing them is wholly and altogether the better,” said he. “They are not, then, themselves to own Greek slaves, either, and they should advise the other Greeks not to?” “By all means,” he said; “at any rate in that way they would be more likely to turn against the barbarians and keep their hands from one another.” “And how about stripping the dead after victory of anything except their weapons: is that well? Does it not furnish a pretext to cowards [469d] not to advance on the living foe, as if they were doing something needful when poking about the dead? Has not this snatching at the spoils ere new destroyed many an army?” “Yes, indeed.” “And don’t you think it illiberal and greedy to plunder a corpse, and is it not the mark of a womanish and petty spirit to deem the body of the dead an enemy when the real foeman has flown away and left behind only the instrument with which he fought? [469e] Do you see any difference between such conduct and that of the dogs who snarl at the stones that hit them but don’t touch the thrower?” “Not the slightest.” “We must abandon, then, the plundering of corpses and the refusal to permit their burial.” “By heaven, we certainly must,” he said.

And a few lines later:

“And in the matter of devastating the land of Greeks and burning their houses, how will your soldiers deal with their enemies.” “I would gladly hear your opinion of that.” “In my view,” [470b] said I, “they ought to do neither, but confine themselves to taking away the annual harvest. Shall I tell you why?” “Do.” “In my opinion, just as we have the two terms, war and faction, so there are also two things, distinguished by two differentiae. The two things I mean are the friendly and kindred on the one hand and the alien and foreign on the other. Now the term employed for the hostility of the friendly is faction, and for that of the alien is war.” “What you say is in nothing beside the mark,” he replied. “Consider, then, [470c] if this goes to the mark. I affirm that the Hellenic race is friendly to itself and akin, and foreign and alien to the barbarian.” “Rightly,” he said. “We shall then say that Greeks fight and wage war with barbarians, and barbarians with Greeks, and are enemies by nature, and that war is the fit name for this enmity and hatred. Greeks, however, we shall say, are still by nature the friends of Greeks when they act in this way, but that Greece is sick in that case and divided by faction, [470d] and faction is the name we must give to that enmity.” “I will allow you that habit of speech,” he said. “Then observe,” said I, “that when anything of this sort occurs in faction, as the word is now used, and a state is divided against itself, if either party devastates the land and burns the houses of the other such factional strife is thought to be an accursed thing and neither party to be true patriots. Otherwise, they would never have endured thus to outrage their nurse and mother. But the moderate and reasonable thing is thought to be that the victors [470e] shall take away the crops of the vanquished, but that their temper shall be that of men who expect to be reconciled and not always to wage war.” “That way of feeling,” he said, “is far less savage than the other.” “Well, then,” said I, “is not the city that you are founding to be a Greek city?” “It must be,” he said. “Will they then not be good and gentle?” “Indeed they will.” “And won’t they be philhellenes, lovers of Greeks, and will they not regard all Greece as their own and not renounce their part in the holy places common to all Greeks ?” “Most certainly.” “Will they not then regard any difference with Greeks [471a] who are their own people as a form of faction and refuse even to speak of it as war?” “Most certainly.” “And they will conduct their quarrels always looking forward to a reconciliation?” “By all means.” “They will correct them, then, for their own good, not chastising them with a view to their enslavement or their destruction, but acting as correctors, not as enemies.” “They will,” he said. “They will not, being Greeks, ravage Greek territory nor burn habitations, and they will not admit that in any city all the population are their enemies, men, women and children, but will say that only a few at any time are their foes, [471b] those, namely, who are to blame for the quarrel. And on all these considerations they will not be willing to lay waste the soil, since the majority are their friends, nor to destroy the houses, but will carry the conflict only to the point of compelling the guilty to do justice by the pressure of the suffering of the innocent.” “I,” he said, “agree that our citizens ought to deal with their Greek opponents on this wise, while treating barbarians as Greeks now treat Greeks.” “Shall we lay down this law also, then, [471c] for our guardians that they are not to lay waste the land or burn the houses?” “Let us so decree,” he said, “and assume that this and our preceding prescriptions are right.”

Several moral ideas about limits on the use of violence in warfare are evident here. First, there is the distinction between waging war against other Greeks and against barbarians (non-Greeks). And second, there is a principle of moderation applied, first to acts within war against Greeks, and then partially extended to non-Greeks.

The first passage is concerned with the case of war between Greeks. Socrates is explicit in saying that vanquished Greeks should not be enslaved; vanquished Greek cities should not be burned and annihilated; and (by implication) surrendered Greek soldiers should not be massacred. Despoiling the dead is also considered and rejected. These claims are limited to the case of war between Greek parties. They seem to express an idea of “Hellenic patriotism” over and above loyalty and obligation to one’s own polity (city). The primary rationale that Socrates provides in the first passage for these limits on the conduct of war is prudential: Greek enemies will fight differently if they are confident they will not be massacred or enslaved, and will be more likely to fight the barbarians than the Athenians. But the second passage raises a different consideration: war between Greeks should not be considered to be total or irresolvable, but should be conducted in such a way that a peaceful future can be imagined on both sides — “… their temper shall be that of men who expect to be reconciled …”. It should be seen as a matter of faction rather than war, of measured disagreement rather than unlimited efforts at annihilation of the antagonist. Eventual reconciliation should be the goal. This is the “pan-hellenism” that Socrates and Glaucon both seem to endorse.

An even more important distinction is introduced in the second passage, though not by name: the distinction between combatant and non-combatant. And the principle that is articulated is, essentially, that violence should be restricted to combatants and not aimed at non-combatants. “They will not admit that in any city all the population are their enemies, men, women and children, but will say that only a few at any time are their foes, those, namely, who are to blame for the quarrel.” Or in more modern terms, the violence of war should be used only against those who provoked and conducted war, not those who simply inhabit the city that is at war. This is a significant limit on the conduct of war as practiced by Cleon. As we saw in the previous posts, Cleon’s proposed treatment of Mytilene was an instance of annihilation rather than eventual reconciliation.

The only statement about war against non-Greeks in these passages is this: “our citizens ought to deal with their Greek opponents on this wise, while treating barbarians as Greeks now treat Greeks.” But since Greek warfare against Greeks during the Peloponnesian War involved massacre of adult men, destruction of cities, and enslavement of women and children, this passage appears to permit these practices against “barbarians”. Moreover, the sharp distinction that Socrates draws between “fellow Greek” and “alien barbarian” is ominous, suggesting that in war against barbarians there are essentially no moral limitations. “I affirm that the Hellenic race is friendly to itself and akin, and foreign and alien to the barbarian.” “Rightly,” he said. “We shall then say that Greeks fight and wage war with barbarians, and barbarians with Greeks, and are enemies by nature, and that war is the fit name for this enmity and hatred.” Enemies by nature … enmity and hatred. These are phrases that lead to the legitimacy of wars of annihilation.

We might say that Socrates’ moral universe was fundamentally constrained by a “philosophical anthropology” that we would today describe as xenophobic, racist, or imperialist. It was a worldview that systematically regarded other groups as sub-human and less worthy of moral consideration than one’s own group. But once “barbarians” are recognized as fully and equally human, the arguments given above for moderation in war between Greek adversaries apply with equal force to war between Greek and non-Greek adversaries. The distinction between combatants and non-combatants is just as compelling to the case of warfare against Persians or Phoenicians. And the case for moderation and reconciliation in war is just as valid as well. It is shared humanity rather than shared “Hellenic race” that is a legitimate basis for moderation and reconciliation. But the virulence of the Greek concept of “barbarian” and its fundamental contrast with “Hellenic” presents a huge barrier to the creation of a universalist human morality — a morality based on the traits of the human being rather than the Persian, the Greek, or the Egyptian. 

There is a basis, then, for thinking that the seeds of a more universal theory of moral limitations on the conduct of war exist in these Socratic ideas. What is missing is a recognition of the shared humanity of all social groups and civilizations — and their equal worthiness to being treated with compassion, equality, and consideration. But clearly, Plato and Socrates have not come to that insight.

The relevance of the Alcibiades dialogue (link) is more limited, because it concerns almost exclusively the question of what considerations of prudence and virtue should underlie a decision for a city to go to war against an adversary. This dialogue has relevance for the question of “just causes for war”, but almost nothing specific to say about “moral limitations on actions and strategies within war”.

Therefore neither the passages from the Republic nor the Alcibiades dialogue shed a great deal of light on the question of “Socrates and atrocity”. There is no strong statement about the fundamental moral unacceptability of the massacre of the men of a city or the enslavement of the children and women of the conquered city as human beings. Rather, there is a much weaker argument about the harmful consequences of harsh treatment towards fellow Greeks (permanent enmity and resistance) and the beneficial consequences of limits on violence (eventual reconciliation). But this is far from a clear and principled rejection of the use of massacre and enslavement as a tool of coercion in war — let alone a rejection of these uses of violence against “alien enemies”. To the charge of “participant in atrocity” we might then add the charge of “xenophobe!” to our critique of the historic Socrates. If only Glaucon had had the moral sense to press Socrates along these lines:

Glaucon: “But Socrates, when a Greek general orders the massacre of a Persian city, does he not in that act do great injustice by condemning innocent human beings to death?” Socrates: “But these are barbarians; they do not have the moral standing of Greek citizens.” Glaucon: “Do these Persian men and women not feel pain, love their children, and flourish in their freedoms?” Socrates: “What you say is true, dear Glaucon. But they are not Greek.” Glaucon: “But, dear Socrates, have you not taught that sentience, reason, language, and social feeling are the features that distinguish the Greek adult from the animal?” Socrates: “Yes, of course.” Glaucon: “And have you not agreed that Persian men and women, like the Greeks, feel, think, speak, and love one another?” Socrates: “Yes, that is obviously true, why do you repeat it?” Glaucon: “Are you not forced to agree, then, that the Persian is just as worthy of our moral consideration as the Athenian?” Socrates: “Now that you express yourself so clearly, Glaucon, I see your meaning. I am forced to agree.” Glaucon: “And so we agree, Socrates, my teacher, that all human beings must be treated virtuously, not just Greeks.” Socrates: “It is so.” Glaucon: “So, then, Socrates, we are in agreement that armies must never massacre the innocent or enslave the women and children.” Socrates: “That is the requirement of virtue.”

(Norwegian philosopher Henrik Syse has written several very interesting articles on Plato’s contributions to the theory of the morality of war herehere, and here.)

Probing atrocity in Miropol

photo: execution site at Babi Yar, Kiev, Ukraine, September 1941

It is challenging to form a mental picture of the significance and reality of the events and enormity of the Holocaust. Many of the summary facts that we “know” about the Nazi plan for extermination of the Jewish people are both inadequate to capture the human meaning of this period, and misleading or inaccurate, as Tim Snyder argues (Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning). How can we gain a better and more personal understanding of these horrible events from the 1940s?

First-person accounts and oral histories represent one form of access to the realities of the mass killings that occurred across Europe, and especially in Eastern Europe. But an especially powerful recent book takes a somewhat different approach. This is Wendy Lower’s The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, a book that proceeds from a single photograph of a single instant of brutality and murder, and helps the reader develop an extensive understanding of the human realities that led to this moment. The photograph is taken in the midst of a mass killing outside the town of Miropol in the Ukraine in October, 1941. The Jews of Miropol were forced to walk into the forest, were gathered at a previously prepared shooting pit, and were murdered by rifle fire. The photograph is unusual in that it is at close range and captures identifiable faces of both the murderers (two German soldiers and two Ukrainian militiamen) and the victim, a mother holding a child by the hand as she is shot. Lower wants to understand the photograph in detail, and to learn the identities of the individuals involved.

Lower combines the skills of an experienced historian, a resourceful crime investigator, and a compassionate observer of family tragedy in a time of mass killing. Her goal is ambitious: she would like to uncover the identity of the victims in the photograph, the killers, the photographer, and the possibility of holding the responsible persons to account in the present. And she accomplishes much of this set of goals. She gains a great deal of detailed knowledge about the Ukrainian and German personnel who were present. She forms an educated guess about the family identity of the victims in the photograph. And she learns a great deal about the photographer. Along the way she provides enough detail about the context of German military and Final Solution activity in 1941 to give the reader a fairly good idea about how this event relates to the larger orchestrated Aktions against the Jews of Eastern Europe from 1941 to 1944 — the bulk of the killing during the Holocaust.

Miropol was a small town in occupied Ukraine in the fall of 1941. It is some 220 kilometers west of Kiev, the site of the massacre at Babi Yar in September 1941. In Miropol in October several hundred Jewish men, women, and children were exterminated by gunfire. This is the Aktion recorded in the photograph at the center of The Ravine. In Kiev only a few weeks earlier, the largest massacre of Jews in the Holocaust in the occupied Ukraine and Soviet territories occurred, involving the murder over a few days of over 34,000 human beings. In 1943 the Nazis made an effort to conceal the evidence of the massacre, and the Soviets concealed the fact that the victims were Jewish, preferring instead to refer to “Soviet civilians”. No memorial was created for the Jewish dead at Babi Yar until 1991, fifty years after the massacre. There appears to be no memorial for the Jewish dead at Miropol; the handful of photographs by Škrovina alone serve as memorial. But The Ravine represents a different kind of memorial. The reader comes away with a sober and human recognition of these many hundreds of innocent victims of murder, and the lives that were stolen from them.

Lower begins with this particular photograph — a photograph of several German soldiers and Ukrainian militia men in the act of shooting a Jewish mother holding a child at the edge of a burial pit. It is a haunting photograph. But Lower goes much beyond this particular photo, including archival evidence, more photographs, interviews with witnesses and participants, and records from both Nazi and Soviet sources. She is a resourceful, talented, and determined researcher, and her ability to unearth many of the details of this atrocity is continually surprising. She brings the skills and concentration of a forensic investigator to her work.

Especially interesting is Lower’s treatment of the role of photographs in this kind of investigation. She is very clear that photography is purposive and intentional. It is not generally a “flat representation of what occurred”; instead, the photographer has a story he or she in interested in discovering and telling. So photography is creative and “subjective”. And this proves to be true of the photographer of this particular image, a Slovak named Lubomir Škrovina, who had a narrative he was recording through a series of exposures. But at the same time, photographs prove to be a source of remarkable insight into the human realities of the moment captured in the negative — details that were invisible to the photographer. And Škrovina himself turns out to be different from how he first appears. Initially Lower takes him to be an accomplice or collaborator, but eventually discovers that he was a dissident and a supporter of the Slovak resistance movement, and was interested in recording the atrocities he witnesses under German occupation for the outside world. Lower writes of Škrovina as a moral human being and his subsequent actions during and after the war:

But being there certainly shaped his subsequent choices and the risks he undertook, which affected him and his family. He refused to stay on the front, feigned illness, spent months in a nerve clinic, then resumed contact with Jews in his town, including sheltering some in the attic of his family home. He helped Dr. Gotthilf secure a place in the forest with his comrades in the Slovak National Resistance, although Škrovina ultimately could not save him or his wife and child. Škrovina was antifascist and anti-Soviet. He had felt no pride wearing any government-issued uniform. He hated the war. (91)

Several specific and important insights emerge from Lower’s narrative. First is the importance of doing what we can to recognize and remember the individuals and families who were extinguished there. Lower’s point about the killing of families is especially poignant: fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, sons, and daughters, all destroyed. Second is the important reminder that Nazi violence was carried out by its allies in occupied countries — Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine — and that these armed groups and police units were merciless and remorseless towards their Jewish neighbors. What Lower uncovers at Miropol is a microcosm of Babi Yar.

Theodor Adorno once said that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But here is a good reason not to agree with Adorno. Consider the beautiful, sorrowful, and indicting poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961, Babi Yar. Yevtushenko helps us to mourn and recognize these children, women, and men who were murdered at Babi Yar. And he points a finger of accusation against the continuing anti-Semitism rampant in the Soviet Union in which he lived. Wendy Lower’s book is not poetry, but it is just as eloquent in its evocation of the human realities of this tragic moment in Miropol, and in the great expanse of the bloodlands of Eastern Europe.

BABI YAR

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
        Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
                a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
                    Dreyfus.
The Philistine
                    is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
                    Beset on every side.
Hounded,
            spat on,
                    slandered.

Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
                        a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
                            ‘Beat the Yids. Save Russia!’
Some grain-marketer beats up my mother.

O my Russian people!
                        I know
                                    you
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites—
                                        without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
                    Anne Frank
transparent
                   as a branch in April.
And I love.
                  And have no need of phrases.
My need
                  is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
                               or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
                               we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much—
                                tenderly
embrace each other in a darkened room.
They’re coming here?
                                Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
                                spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
                                Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
                                No, it’s the ice breaking . . .
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
                        like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
                            and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
                            turning grey.
And I myself
                    am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
                each old man
                        here shot dead.
I am
                every child
                    here shot dead.
Nothing in me
                    shall ever forget!
The ‘Internationale,’ let it
                                thunder
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
                        I am a true Russian!

Socrates the hoplite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do norms and moral attitudes change over generations?

Moral philosophers have often written of ethical obligations, principles, and theories as if they were timeless and unchanging. Kant, for example, argued that moral obligations follow from the structure of rationality itself. The utilitarians — Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick — held that moral obligations are defined by the principle of maximizing happiness — whether in the time of Socrates or Neo (the protagonist in the Matrix).

But really — it is entirely unbelievable to imagine that philosophy and pure reason can discover an apriori, timeless system of moral truths. Values and norms are created by human beings living in concrete social circumstances. Rather, moral philosophy should be understood as a dialogue with the moral culture of a time and place, rather than an attempt to discover moral certainties valid beyond human experience. Seen in this way, the “reflective equilibrium” approach to moral epistemology advocated by John Rawls is the most plausible way of understanding the epistemic status of moral principles. This is a coherentist rather than a foundationalist epistemology, involving a back-and-forth adjustment of specific judgments and more general principles until a reasonable level of consistency is achieved. (Here is an earlier discussion of these ideas about moral reasoning; link.) And if human beings’ considered judgments change over time — if tormenting animals for entertainment is accepted in 1600 but largely rejected in 1900 — then the moral theory that corresponds to this system of judgments and principles will be different as well. 

Organized religions have advocated for fairly specific “codes of conduct” for practitioners (followers, or even all human beings). Religious codes of conduct are usually based on authority rather than philosophical argument — authority of the Koran or the Bible, authority of the founders, or authority of specialists who speak for the divine beings. But assuming a naturalistic view of the world, it is clear that the religious codes of a time are somehow an expression of the ambient moral attitudes of the time, perhaps with innovations introduced by charismatic teachers and leaders. Religious moral prescriptions rest upon the practical sets of social and interpersonal norms that exist in the communities in which these groups and bodies of doctrine emerged.

There is also an evolutionary question to be posed. What is it about the evolutionary history of primates and human beings that has led to the evolution of a central nervous system that is capable of normative behavior? Is there an evolutionary dimension to the moral emotions (or the underlying cognitive capacities that permit the embodiment of moral emotions)? Is an inclination to fairness or kindness “in our genes” in some way? This is a question that philosophers and psychologists have undertaken to investigate. Allan Gibbard’s analysis in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings is especially nuanced, and serves well as a rebuttal to crude forms of sociobiology (the idea that human behavioral characteristics are hard-wired as a result of our evolutionary history). (I discuss these issues in a 2010 post on the moral sentiments (link).) Significantly, Gibbard’s view leaves a great deal of room for “plasticity” in the moral emotions and the normative systems that are embodied in concrete social traditions and groups. So biology does not entail a particular moral system.

All of this means that we need to consider the question of “moral thinking and choice” in a historically and empirically specific way. We need to investigate the moral psychology or culture of moral attitudes that exist at a time and place. Plainly human beings do in fact have a capacity to act normatively — to make choices based on their moral emotions, moral perceptions, and moral reasons with regard to a situation. What are the particulars of this embodied set of psychologically real perceptions, motivations, and actions? What are the specifics of the normative “grammar” of a particular time and place? How do individual human beings acquire the moral competence that guides the moral perceptions and choices he or she is inclined to make in particular human circumstances? And how do these embodied complexes of moral competence change over time?

Two questions are evident when we reach this point. First, how is the moral psychology of a particular epoch created? What features of history, circumstance, and culture led to “village mentality” of medieval France? For example, what are the important influences that lead individuals in a time and place to pity animals, favor telling the truth, and want to take care of their children? And how much variation is there within a given cultural community, at a given time, in both the content and intensity of these features of moral psychology?

The second question is even more important. Are there processes through which the moral psychology of a time, the moral consensus, changes and — perhaps — improves? Is there a moment between generations when “sympathy for one’s kin” becomes more generalized and becomes “sympathy for one’s neighbors”, and eventually “sympathy for distant human beings”? Is it possible for a human population to “bootstrap” its way to a more benevolent and just way of living, through gradual change in the moral attitudes of individuals?

As a thought experiment, we might imagine a survey of practical moral questions that could be used to map the moral consciousness of human populations at various times and places — a survey of all of humanity, extending from Homeric peasants to men and women in India, China, Europe, Africa, and the Americas, over a 3,000-year period of time. (Think of it as an episode of The Good Place, but drawn from a long historical stretch of time. Lots of funding will be needed for the time-travel part of the research.) Here is a sample set of questions that might serve as a diagnostic tool for probing a moral worldview in a historical setting:

  1. Is it permissible to torment animals for entertainment?
  2. Is it permissible to enslave prisoners of war?
  3. Is it right to kill prisoners of war?
  4. Is it permissible to beat one’s children?
  5. Is it permissible to beat one’s spouse?
  6. Is it permissible to beat one’s neighbor when one is annoyed by his behavior?
  7. Do I have a reason to pay attention to the wellbeing of my neighbor’s children?
  8. Do I have a reason to pay attention to the wellbeing of distant and unknown children?
  9. Is it permissible to send one’s parents away to deprivation when they become old?
  10. Is it permissible to lie to one’s siblings about their inheritance?
  11. Is it permissible to lie to an unknown customer about the defects in a used car (or old horse)?
  12. Is it permissible to steal one’s neighbors’ sheep?
  13. Is it permissible to steal the sheep of people from a distant village?
  14. Is it permissible to tell lies about the practices of people from other groups?
  15. Do I have a duty to intervene when another person is behaving violently and immorally?
  16. Is it permissible and respectable to behave entirely self-interestedly?
  17. Do the powerful have a right of sexual coercion over less powerful individuals in their domain?
  18. Should one be generous to the poor?
  19. Should one be kind to strangers?
  20. Should one tolerate the non-conformity of one’s fellow villagers?
  21. Is it important to act rightly, even when no one is in a position to observe?
  22. Is it permissible to make fun of the gods in the privacy of one’s home?
  23. Is it permissible for an official to accept remunerations in order to provide a service?
  24. Is it permissible for landlords to collect rents from tenants during a time of severe consumption crisis?
  25. Is it permissible for the priests to live in luxury while ordinary people struggle for existence?

Of course this is just a thought experiment, though historians and anthropologists may be able to make some provisional guesses about how different social groups would have answered these questions. And even in the narrow cross-section of cultures that are alive and well in different places in the world today, it would seem likely that there are important differences across communities in the answers that are given to these questions.

Another way of probing the moral worlds of people in other cultures and times is through literature. Literature almost always revolves around the actions and motives of individuals in social groups — friendships, families, villages, armies, social classes, or nations. And often the drama of a novel or play derives from the author’s efforts at probing the reasoning and motivations of the various protagonists. So we might speculate that it is possible to triangulate to a “Shakespearean” ethical code, a “Tolstoyan” ethical code, or a “Flaubertian” ethical code — working backwards from the bad behavior of some of the actors and the admired behavior of others. Martha Nussbaum often emphasizes the moral insights made possible through literature (e.g., Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature). This too would be a very interesting exercise: what is the ordinary, day-to-day code of moral behavior that is presupposed in War and Peace?

All of this suggests a fairly high degree of plasticity in the moral frameworks and mentalities of people in different traditions and cultures.

But now, the crucial question: what kinds of effort and what kinds of lived experience might have the effect of improving the moral culture of a civilization in the making? Is it possible for humanity to become morally better over time? Can human communities learn from their mistakes? 

There seem to be at least two levers that might allow for moral learning. The first is an extension of empathy and compassion beyond its current borders. The moral intuitions of a community may change when individuals are brought to recognize in greater fullness the lived experience and capacities for happiness and suffering in other human beings; individuals may broaden their compassion for more distant strangers. And the second is the moral experience of fairness and cooperation as a crucial element of social life. No one wants to be treated unfairly; everyone wants a level of reciprocity from others. And social relations work best when there is a reasonably high level of confidence in the fairness of the institutions and behavior that prevails. Is slavery morally unacceptable? We might hope that a culture comes to see the misery and pain of the enslaved, and the fundamental unfairness of the master-slave relationship. “If our positions were reversed, I would fundamentally reject being enslaved; this gives me a reason to reject this system even when it advantages me.” This is the perspective of reciprocity (link).

This is the conclusion I wanted to reach in connection with the atrocities of the twentieth century: the possibility that a deepening of our culture’s understanding of the wrongs that occurred, the human suffering that was created, and the steps of social and political change that led to these outcomes, can lead as well to a meaningful change in our moral culture and behavior. By recognizing more fully the horror of the shooting pits, perhaps our political morality will change for the better, and we will have a heightened practical and moral resistance to the politicians and movements that led to murderous totalitarian dictatorships.

(Moral Psychology, The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness, Vol. 1, edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, provides extensive and stimulating discussions of naturalism as a setting for understanding human moral reasoning and action. Richmond Campbell’s article on Moral Epistemology in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an excellent review of the question of the status of moral beliefs; link.)

Evil and the philosophy of history

images: Two residents of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad)

Vast numbers of words have been written about the atrocities of the twentieth century — about the Holocaust, about Stalin’s war of starvation against Ukraine’s peasants, about the Gulag, and about other periods of unimaginable and deliberate mass suffering throughout the century. First-person accounts, historians’ narratives, sociologists’ and psychologists’ studies of perpetrators’ behavior, novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights, exhibition curators … all of these kinds of works are available to us as vehicles for understanding what happened, and — perhaps — why. So perhaps, we might agree with Zygmunt Bauman in an early stage of his development and judge that the job has been done: we know what we need to know about the terrible twentieth century.

I do not agree with that view. I believe another perspective will be helpful — even necessary — if we are to encompass this century of horror into our understanding of our human past and be prepared for a better future. This is the perspective of the philosopher — in particular, the philosopher of history. But why so? Why is it urgent for philosophy to confront the Holocaust? And what insight can philosophers bring to the rest of us about the particular evils that the twentieth century involved?

Let’s begin with the question, why does philosophy need to confront the Holocaust? Here there seem to be at least two important reasons. First, philosophy is almost always about rationality and the good. Philosophers want to know what conditions constitute a happy human life, a just state, and a harmonious society. And we usually work on assumptions that lead, eventually, back to the idea of human rationality and a degree of benevolence. Human beings are deliberative about their own lives and courses of action; they want to live in a harmonious society; they are capable of recognizing “fair” social arrangements and institutions, and have some degree of motivation to support such institutions. These assumptions attach especially strongly to philosophers such as Aristotle, Seneca, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel; less strongly to Hobbes and Nietzsche; and perhaps not at all to Heidegger. But there is a strong and recurrent theme of rationality and benevolence that underlies much of the tradition of Western philosophy. The facts about the Holocaust — or the Holodomor, or the Armenian genocide, or Rwanda — do not conform to this assumption of rational human goodness. Rather, rationality and benevolence fall apart; instrumental rationality is divorced from a common attachment to the human good, and rational means are chosen to bring about suffering, enslavement, and death to millions of individual human beings. The Holocaust, then, forces philosophers to ask themselves: what is a human being, if groups of human beings are capable of such destruction and murder of their fellows?

The two ideas highlighted here — rationality and benevolence — need some further explication. Philosophers are not economists; they do not and have not thought of rationality as purely a matter of instrumental cleverness in fitting means to achieving one’s ends. Rather, much of our tradition of philosophy has a more substantive understanding of rationality: to be rational is, among other things, to recognize the reality of other human beings; to recognize the reality of their aspirations and vulnerabilities; and to have a degree of motivation to contribute to their thriving. Thomas Nagel describes this view of rationality in The Possibility of Altruism; but likewise, Amartya Sen embraces a conception of reason that includes sociality and a recognition of the reality of other human beings.

Benevolence too requires comment. Benevolence — or what Nagel refers to as altruism — is a rational motivation that derives from a recognition of the reality of other people’s life — their life plans, their happiness and suffering, their fulfillment. To be benevolent is to have a degree of motivation to care about the lives of others, and to contribute to social arrangements that serve everyone to some degree. As Kant puts the point in one version of the categorical imperative in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, “treat others as ends, not merely as means”. And the point of this principle is fundamental: rationality requires recognition of the fundamental reality of the lives, experiences, and fulfillment of others. Benevolence does not mean that one must become Alyosha in the Brothers Karamazov, selflessly devoted to the needs of others. But it does mean that the happiness and misery, life and death, of the other is important to oneself. Nagel puts the point very strongly: strict egoism is as irrational as solipsism.

But here is the crucial point: the anti-Semitism of the Nazi period, the dehumanization of Jews, the deliberate and rational plan to exterminate the Jews from all of Europe, and the racism of European colonialism — all of this is fundamentally incompatible with the idea that human beings are invariably and by their nature “rationally benevolent”. Ordinary German policemen were indeed willing to kill Jews at the instruction of their superiors, and then enjoy the evening singing beer songs with their friends. Ordinary Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were prepared to serve as policemen, carrying out Nazi plans for Aktion against thousands of other residents of the ghetto. Ordinary Poles were willing to assault and kill their neighbors. Ordinary French citizens were willing to betray their Jewish neighbors. How can philosophy come to grips with these basic facts from the twentieth century?

The second reason that philosophy needs to be ready to confront the facts of the twentieth century honestly is a bit more constructive. Perhaps philosophy has some of the resources needed to construct a better vision of the world for the future, that will make the ideal of a society of rationally benevolent citizens more feasible and stable. Perhaps, by once recognizing the terrible traps that Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and Soviet citizens were led into, social and political philosophy can modestly contribution to a vision of a more stable future in which genocide, enslavement, and extermination are no longer possible. Perhaps there is a constructive role for political and social philosophy 2.0.

And there is another side of this coin: perhaps the history of philosophy is itself interspersed with a philosophical anthropology that perpetuated racism and anti-Semitism — and thereby contributed to the evils of the twentieth century. This is an argument made in detail by Michael Mack in German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses, who finds that negative assumptions about Jews come into Kant’s writings in a very deep way: Jews are “heteronomous”, whereas ethical life requires “autonomy”. These statements are anti-Semitic on their face, and Mack argues that they are not simply superficial prejudices of the age, but rather are premises that Kant is happy to argue for. Bernard Boxill makes similar claims about Kant’s moral philosophy when it comes to racism. Boxill believes that Kant’s deep philosophical assumptions within his philosophical anthropology lead him to a position that is committed to racial hierarchies among human beings (“Kantian Racism and Kantian Teleology”; link). These concerns show that philosophy needs to be self-critical; we need to ask about some of the sources of twentieth-century evil that are embedded in the tradition of philosophy itself. Slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, gender oppression, colonial rule, and violence against colonial subjects all seem to have cognates within the traditions of philosophy. (In an important article that warrants careful reading, Laurie Shrage raises important questions about the social context and content of American philosophy — and the discipline’s reluctance to engage in its social presuppositions; “Will Philosophers Study Their History, Or Become History?” (link). She writes, “By understanding the history of our field as a social and cultural phenomenon, and not as a set of ideas that transcend their human contexts, we will be in a better position to set a future course for our discipline”(125).)

There is a yet another reason why philosophy needs to engage seriously with evil in the twentieth century: philosophy is meant to matter in human life. The hope for philosophy, offered by Socrates and Seneca, Hume and Kant, is that the explorations of philosophers can contribute to better lives and greater human fulfillment. But this suggests that philosophy has a duty to engage with the most difficult challenges in human life, throughout history, and to do so in ways that help to clarify and enhance human values. The evils of the twentieth century create an enormous problem of understanding for every thoughtful person. This is not primarily a theological challenge — “How could a benevolent deity permit such atrocities?” — but rather a philosophical challenge — “How can we as full human beings, with our moral and imaginative capacities, confront these evils honestly, and have hope for the future?”. If philosophy cannot contribute to answering this question, then perhaps it is no longer needed. (This is the subtext of Shrage’s concerns in the article mentioned above.)

I’d like to position this question within the philosophy of history. The Holocaust and the Holodomor are events of history, after all, and history seeks to understand the past. And our understanding of history is also our understanding of our own humanity. But if this question belongs there, it suggests a rather different view of the philosophy of history than either analytic or hermeneutic philosophers have generally taken. Analytic philosophers — myself included — have generally approached the topic of the philosophy of history from an epistemological point of view: what can we know about the past, and how? And hermeneutic philosophers (as well as speculative and theological philosophers) have offered large theories of “history” (“Does history have meaning?” “Does history have direction?”) that have little to do with the concrete understandings that we need to gain from specific historical investigations. So the philosophy of history that considers the conundrum of the Holocaust and the pervasive footprint of evil in the twentieth century will need to be one that incorporates the best thinking by gifted historians, as well as reflective deliberation about circumstances of the human condition that made these horrible historical outcomes possible. It must join philosophy and history. But it is possible, I hope, that philosophers can help to formulate new questions and new perspectives on the great evils of the twentieth century, and assist global society in moving towards a more harmonious and morally acceptable world.

One additional point is relevant here: the pernicious role that all-encompassing ideologies have played in the previous century. And, regrettably, philosophy often gives rise to such ideologies. Both Stalinism and Nazism were driven by totalizing ideologies, subordinating ordinary human beings for “the attainment of true socialism” or “Lebensraum and racial purity”. And these ideologies succeeded in bringing along vast numbers of followers, leading to political ascendancy of totalitarian parties and leaders. The odious slogan, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, led to horrific sacrifices in the Soviet Empire and in China; and the willingness to subordinate the whole population to the will of the Leader led to the evils of the Nazi regime. Whatever philosophy can usefully contribute in the coming century, it cannot be a totalizing theory of “the perfect society”. It must involve a fundamental commitment to the moral importance and equality of all human beings and to democracy in collective decision-making. A decent human future can only be made piecemeal, not according to a comprehensive blueprint. The future must be made by ordinary human beings, not ideologues, revolutionaries, or philosophers. 

The Warsaw experience of Janina Bauman

Janina Bauman, along with her sister Sophie and her mother Alina, miraculously survived the slaughter of the Jews of Warsaw and the crushing of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in April, 1943. Born in 1926, Janina was only thirteen when the German army invaded Poland and besieged Warsaw. Her remarkable 1986 memoir, Winter in the Morning: A Young Girl’s Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond 1939-1945, conveys both the circumstances and some of the emotional consequences of this horrific experience. (The book is also available on the Open Library; link.) Janina had managed to preserve many of her diaries from those years, so the text is grounded in her own contemporaneous observations and thoughts. Her father and her uncle Josef were among the 14,500 victims of the Soviet massacre of Polish officers and prisoners of war at Katyn Forest in 1940. And most of her friends and family members were murdered during the Nazi terror and waves of Aktion in the Warsaw ghetto. Her family suffered from both Nazi genocide and Soviet atrocity, both arising from merciless totalitarian regimes. The survival of Janina, Sophie, and their mother Alina was the result of their own courage and resourcefulness, the aid they received from their extended family and non-Jewish friends from before the war (Auntie Maria), the willingness of a number of non-Jewish strangers to shelter them at critical moments, and a few moments of monumental good luck. (For example, Janina’s mother’s ability to speak German fluently saves their lives during transport to an extermination camp.)

Much of the book is factual and autobiographical in tone, sometimes even laconic. The text conveys a good deal of the texture of life in the ghetto — struggling to find food, to avoid capture and execution on the streets, to find secret ways of continuing school, and occasionally having friendships, even boyfriends. Here is a passage from fifteen-year-old Janina’s diary, from a time shortly after Janina’s family has been forced into the Warsaw ghetto (April 18, 1941). Their conditions are tolerable, but severe suffering and deprivation are all around them.

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

But Janina does find ways of helping others in these desperate conditions. She helps to organize a collective effort to grow vegetables for the destitute in the ghetto (she turns out to be very good at cultivating the garden), and she writes of her efforts to join the armed Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto. (She was excluded from the Home Army resistance group because she was Jewish.) (Zula and Hanka were her closest friends. Zula was later raped and murdered by German soldiers, while Hanka survived the war.)

Here is a passage describing the Aktion (mass removal of Jews from the ghetto to death camps) on July 22, 1942. 

The first three days of the Aktion I spent in the flat, following Julian’s firm instructions not to set foot in the street…. On the fourth day I could wait no longer, and, ignoring Mother’s pleas, set out to the ‘little ghetto’. At first the streets seemed uncannily quiet, almost deserted. I walked fast, not looking around, quick, quick along Leszno Street, until I plunged into the tangle of narrow lanes leading to Roman’s flat. There, all of a sudden, I found myself in the middle of a panic-stricken crowd. In a little square a score of men — both Jewish policemen and civilian helpers — tried to hold a swarm of screaming people inside a ring of tightly locked hands. Other policemen ran up and down the back alleys searching for more victims, pulling them violently along, pushing them by force into the ring. Just concealed behind a large building, two lorries waited for their human load. A couple of Nazi soldiers leant leisurely against them. Their guns ready to fire, they watched the round-up lazily, talking and laughing in the bright sunshine of the mid-summer day. 

I hardly had time to be frightened when one of the men forming the deadly enclosure broke away from the ring, rushed at me, seized my arm, and began to pull me, as if intending to force me into the ring. He was just pretending. I recognised him at once: he was Mr. N., Stefan’s friend. As an employee of the Jewish Council he had evidently been ordered to take an active part in the round-up. His face was white, twisted with fear and agony, his hands trembling. With feigned brutality he pushed me into a dark gate and whispered imploringly, ‘Run away, child, run back home as fast as you can!’ He showed me a narrow passage between two buildings. Terrified, I darted away without another word. (66-67)

The book is primarily a narrative account of the young Janina’s own experiences. But the author sometimes offers general observations about the experience as well. Several passages are especially meaningful —

During the war I learned the truth we usually choose to leave unsaid: that the cruellest thing about cruelty is that it dehumanises its victims before it destroys them. And that the hardest of struggles is to remain human in inhuman conditions. (preface)

And here is an expression of shame, or survivor guilt, at having escaped the ghetto to a temporary refuge with strangers on the Aryan side of the wall:

A torrent of bitter thoughts washed away the last trace of ecstasy. I was in an unknown place, facing an unknown future among strangers. My own cruel but familiar world where I belonged remained behind the walls. I had deserted it, running for my safety, for the luxuries of a fragrant bath and a soft bed. I had deserted my people, leaving them to their terrible fate. In the early hours of the night, flooded with tears of agony and guilt, I crept out of bed and stretched myself out on the carpet. There, cold and miserable, I finally fell asleep. (100-101)

It is very interesting that Zygmunt Bauman, the husband of Janina, writes that his own willingness to write about the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s was triggered by reading his wife’s personal experience through this book. Janina is explicit in saying that she had never previously shared her experience with him. Zygmunt too had never addressed the experiences of anti-Semitism, genocide, and totalitarianism that he had witnessed, until the 1980s. (It is interesting to note that Bauman directly addresses the question of “shame” in his discussion of the Holocaust in Modernity and the Holocaust (205).)

Several issues arise in Winter in the Morning that are important points of debate today: the role of Polish Catholics in supporting the Nazi extermination of Polish Jews, on the one hand, and their role in sheltering Jews, on the other; the role played by Ukrainian police and soldiers in enforcing Nazi commandments in the ghetto, including murder; and the role played by the Jewish Council and the men who served as Jewish policemen in the ghetto in carrying out the mandates of the Nazi regime. (Hannah Arendt raises the issue of the possible culpability of the Jewish Councils in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.) On the whole, Bauman’s stance towards the Jewish Council and the Jewish policemen is a measured one, and she mentions life-saving efforts by the Jewish Council and by individual Jewish policemen in the ghetto — as well as their collaboration in several waves of Aktion leading to the deaths of the majority of the Jews living in the ghetto. As an adolescent observer, she was not in a position to know about the activities of these organizations at a higher level; she saw only their local activities in the streets and urban destruction of the ghetto — including in the scene of terror during the July Aktion described above.

Janina Bauman’s memoir is an important contribution to later generations’ ability to address the Holocaust in a human way, with compassion and a degree of understanding of the horrific human experience it embodied for many millions of men, women, and children. Her narrative is part of our collective memory of that trauma.

Another important document about the Warsaw ghetto is Hanna Krall’s interview with Dr. Marek Edelman, published as Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation With Dr. Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Polish 1977; English translation 1986); available on Open Library (link). Edelman was a leader in the armed Jewish resistance during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and survived to become a leading cardiologist. Edelman’s recollections are stark and unblinking in his testimony to murder, rape, humiliation, and unmeasured cruelty to the Jews of the ghetto; and he is informative about the efforts made by the Jewish Combat Organization to gather arms and resist the final round of extermination undertaken by the Nazi regime.

Edelman demonstrates courage in his account. But his life also displays a significant and important level of understanding of the evil of the Holocaust. In their afterword to Shielding the Flame the translators quote an important set of comments by Edelman at the time of the Polish martial-law government’s 1983 commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising:

Forty years ago we fought not only for our lives. We fought for life in dignity and freedom. To celebrate our anniversary here where social life is dominated throughout by humiliation and coercion would be to deny our fight. It would mean participating in something contrary to its ideals. It would be an act of cynicism and contempt. I shall not participate in such arrangements or accept the participation of others who do so, regardless of where they come from or whom they represent. Far from these manipulated celebrations, in the silence of the graves and in people’s hearts, there shall live the true memory of the victims and the heroes, the memory of the eternal human striving for freedom and truth. (122)

Here Edelman makes an important point about history and memory, and the political use to which commemoration is all too often put. And his point is broad enough to encompass both the crimes of the Nazi occupation of Poland and the subsequent Soviet-backed dictatorship of Poland. Timothy Garton Ash makes a similar point about memory in his preface to the book:

The gulf between Poles and Jews today is not just a matter of physical separation. There has also been an extraordinary divorce of Polish and Jewish memory. A Polish child growing up in the 1970s learned next to nothing about the immense Jewish part in Polish history, let alone about the Polish part in Jewish history. (viii)

Again — memory, its importance, and its suppression.

A key question for me in the past year has been how historians should confront the evils of the twentieth century. Tim Snyder answers the question in one way, painting a very large canvas over the “bloodlands” of Central Europe. But — as Snyder insists — it is crucial to have a basis for empathy and compassion for the human beings who were tormented, humiliated, and destroyed by these massive and numbing atrocities. It is crucial to confront the personal memoirs of genocide and atrocity, like Bauman’s or Edelman’s, if we are to put a human face on the cold historical facts of the Holocaust, and to have a more acute understanding of the human realities of children, adults, and old people as they confronted cruelty, violence, humiliation, and extinction.

*     *     *     *     *

Literary theorist Julia Hell provides a fascinating treatment of the relationship between Janina Bauman’s memoir and Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust, along with writings by W. G. Sebald and Peter Weiss, through the lens of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (“Modernity and the Holocaust, or, Listening to Eurydice”; link). It is a very interesting piece. Here is a brief summary of Hell’s approach:

Seen through this particular lens, Bauman’s texts, especially Modernity and the Holocaust (2000 [1989]) and related essays and lectures, emerge as deeply entangled in a cultural imagination that is obsessed with issues of representation, acts of looking, and the nature of human bonds in the wake of the Holocaust, a cultural imagination that tried to capture these topics by returning to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. (126)

And Hell attempts to identify traces of the Orpheus/Eurydice story in Janina’s narrative as well:

Let me gather the bits and pieces of the Orphic story that have surfaced so far: with respect to the Orphic topography, we have the frequent use of the inferno on the one hand; on the other hand, we have a river dividing the almost-dead from the living. That is, Janina Bauman’s story situates Eurydice in hell. And then we have the different figurations of Eurydice — the woman being led from the inferno by her mother and aunt or the woman waiting to be rescued ^ the Orphic topography of love and death, the underworld of the ghetto, the river dividing world and underworld, and the woman, who was doomed to die, the man who might or might not save her. What I want to draw attention to is the fact that Janina Bauman takes hold of particular moments in Eurydice’s story: the moment of danger when Eurydice is about to die, the moment of being about-to-be rescued, the moment of being rescued. (140)

This is an intriguing effort at explaining the narrative structure and language of Janina Bauman’s memoir. It gains plausibility when we recall from the text of Winter in Morning that Janina was a passionate reader of literature during the years of her adolescence in the terrors of Warsaw. She mentions reading most of Russian literature in one of the sanctuary apartments she and her sister and mother were able to find. It is entirely possible that Janina had read and absorbed The Divine Comedy in one half-illuminated cellar or another.

How Bauman became Bauman

Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) was an influential voice in the world of sociological theorizing. In the second part of his career — following his expulsion as a dissident and a Jew from Poland in 1968 — he came to be recognized as a non-conventional thinker about “modernity” and the modern world. His idea of “liquid modernity” (link), late in his career, was a very interesting and original way of thinking about the twentieth century. But Bauman was not just a theorist; he was a participant in history — the subject of anti-Semitic mistreatment and bullying as a child in Poland, a refugee, a socialist and communist activist, a Soviet-trained soldier and political officer in the Soviet-installed Polish army, a stateless person again after his expulsion from Poland in 1968 during the major “state pogrom” of that year, and eventually a critic of Stalinist Communism. He was a thinker, a doer, and a contributor to sociological theory.

A particularly interesting question is whether we can connect the life and the sociological writings and theories that Bauman created during his long career. Did his life experiences give him the some of the intellectual resources necessary to comprehend the catastrophes of genocide, mass enslavement, and totalitarianism? It will be surprising to find that the answer seems largely to be, no. There is little of the historical realities that Bauman observed and participated in to be found in his writings. (The Bauman Institute at the University of Leeds has a comprehensive bibliography of Bauman’s writings throughout his career; link.) 

Izabela Wagner’s thoughtful and thorough Bauman: A Biography is an excellent source for trying to answer the question: how did Bauman become Bauman? (And, we might add, when?) What experiences and conditions helped to create the sociological imagination of this singular man, and how did his personal history contribute to the creation of such an exceptional and original intellectual? 

Several features of character were evident in the young Bauman and persisted through the end of his career: intellectual curiosity, independence of mind, courage, humor, and measured cautiousness. His intellectual training — first in the USSR and then in Warsaw — was deeply embedded within an especially dogmatic ideological framework — the strictures of dialectical materialism and Marxist-Leninist thought as embodied in official Soviet ideology. And yet as a young sociology PhD student in Warsaw in the 1950s Bauman was exposed to a “dissident” strand of sociological thinking that contributed to a broader perspective on the regime that he served. Out of that chemistry came a surprising mix — a sociology that expressed itself in Marxist-Leninist terms, an openness to sociological research from Europe and the United States, and a view of society and the state that reflected a more “humanist” and democratic view (like that of Leszek Kołakowski). But here is the surprise for an intellectual historian: none of this seems to reflect the concrete historical life circumstances that Bauman experienced; rather, it is very similar to the kind of trajectory a talented graduate student takes through engagement with a number of intriguing philosophical perspectives.

It is worth reflecting on Bauman’s history as a committed and sincere communist from his teenage years in the 1930s onward until the early 1960s. Writers like Judt and Orwell have criticized leftist intellectuals unforgivingly for their failure to observe and denounce the massive crimes of Stalin in the 1930s. But these are exactly the years in which Bauman gained his communist identity — briefly in Poland and then more deeply in exile as a high school student in the Soviet Union. Wagner spends a good deal of time on the formation of Bauman’s identity as a communist youth and eventually communist functionary. She argues that it is a perfectly intelligible journey for a young Polish Jew who cared about social justice and equality. A return to the political and social arrangements of pre-war Poland was not even remotely attractive to Bauman, given its profound anti-Semitism and the enormous social inequalities it embodied. Communism, Wagner argues, provided a coherent view of a future in which all citizens would be treated equally, anti-Semitism would not exist, and social inequalities would disappear. Of course that is not at all how things turned out — in Poland or in the USSR. 

But the central point here — the question of the formation of the social imagination of Zygmunt Bauman — is that his historical experience in the 1930s and 1940s might have given him a particular and well-defined framework for understanding the potential for evil in modern totalizing states. It did not. Little of his life experience prior to 1945 seems to have had a profound influence on his sociological imagination, or on the topics that he chose to pursue as an academic sociologist. In particular, his early career in the 1950s and 1960s contains almost no reflection on the Holocaust, genocide, political murder, or the origins of totalitarianism. This is evident by examining the extensive bibliography of his writings compiled by the Bauman Center mentioned above. 

As a rising sociologist and professor in Warsaw, Bauman chose a cautious path that nonetheless continued to adhere to the idea of “open Marxism” — a more humanist alternative to Stalinist doctrine. And in the early 1960s he became — once again, cautiously — an intellectual source of inspiration for students at the University of Warsaw who demanded greater freedom, greater democracy, and less bureaucracy in their government. Bauman, like other academics, was under constant surveillance by the secret service. The activities and activism of University of Warsaw students led to a major demonstration at the university in March 1968, violently suppressed by the regime, and followed quickly by a hate-based campaign by the Gomułka government placing all blame on “Jewish” elements in the university. This resulted in a massive purge of Jews from government jobs, including in the universities, and to the expulsion of many thousands of Jews (including Zygmunt and Janina and their children) from Poland.

Bauman’s experience in post-war Poland (1945-1968) demonstrated the profound failure of the Communist ideal as well as the insidious power of anti-Semitism in post-war Communist Poland, and these experiences did have an effect on his subsequent development as a social thinker. But it is unclear whether these experiences led to a profound change in the ways that Bauman undertook to understand the social world. (Significantly, his contemporary Leszek Kołakowski broke from support for the Communist regime in Poland a decade earlier than Bauman, and Kołakowski’s shift seems more profound than Bauman’s.)

The question posed above seems to have a fairly clear answer, then: Bauman’s life experience in the 1930s through 1950s (from his teenage years as a persecuted Jewish boy in Posnan through his service in the Polish Army and his appointments at the University of Warsaw) had surprisingly little influence on his worldview and his intellectual framework. His sociological imagination appears to be the result of his engagement with other academic sociologists rather than with the realities of social life in the horrific decades of war and genocide. Most significant were the intellectual and academic influences to which he was exposed — Marxist-Leninism, open Marxism, Western sociology — and his own creative imagination in raising questions within those various frameworks. Bauman contributed little to understanding the horrific realities of the twentieth century (unlike Hannah Arendt, for example), and he confined much of his writing to a level of abstract theorizing that offered little help in understanding totalitarianism, the Holocaust, or the criminality of Stalinism.

Even his signature ideas — modernity and liquid modernity — have little concrete engagement with the specifics of the totalitarian regimes of violence and murder that he experienced under Hitler and Stalin. In a later post I will discuss his 1989 book, Modernity and the Holocaust, which does indeed engage the genocidal regime of the Nazi period. Here are a few sentences:

It is not the Holocaust which we find difficult to grasp in all its monstrosity. It is our Western Civilization which the occurrence of the Holocaust has made all but incomprehensible — and this at a time when we thought we had come to terms with it and seen through its world-wide, unprecedented cultural expansion. If Hilberg is right, and our most crucial social institutions elude our mental and practical grasp, then it is not just the professional academics who ought to be worried. (84)

But note — this book was written and published in 1989 — a half century after the Nazi crimes that Bauman himself witnessed. In a surprising way, Bauman’s intellectual and scientific work seems always to be at a great distance from the historical realities that he himself experienced. And that is indeed surprising. The comparison is perhaps not a fair one, but think of Orwell, and the close parallels that existed between his lived experiences of poverty, class, war, colonialism, and fascism, and the depth and insight of his writings. Can we imagine Orwell without Catalonia? Not at all. But it is not at all difficult to imagine Bauman without Poznań, Majdanek, or the Red Army.

(Here is a recollection of Bauman by several of his colleagues in English sociology; link.)

Experiencing war, genocide, and totalitarianism (Tony Judt)

photo: Manès Sperber

Tony Judt’s historical writings about the twentieth century are brilliant, and highly relevant to the research I’m pursuing on the evils of the twentieth century. His book of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, is a valuable part of this corpus. Most of the chapters take the form of discussions of a single intellectual figure from the twentieth century — Arthur Koestler, Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt, Eric Hobsbawm, Albert Camus, and many others. (There are also a handful of essays on several important events of the twentieth century.) Most of the essays are versions of pieces that appeared first in publications such as the New York Review of BooksNew Republic, and The Nation. These pieces are valuable, not because they are detailed and objective biographical studies of their subjects — they are not — but because they reflect Judt’s own original ideas about how intellectual work, personal life, and historical circumstances intersect. These are themes that recur in depth in Thinking the Twentieth Century through conversations between Judt and Tim Snyder (link), and they illustrate an important and deep truth: historical circumstances influence thinkers, and thinkers influence history. And there is great heterogeneity in each of the elements of this cycle — personal circumstances, individual intellectual/political development, and historical trajectories.

Of particular interest to me are Judt’s reflections on several thinkers who were most deeply engaged in understanding totalitarianism and the Holocaust — Arthur Koestler, Primo Levi, Manès Sperber, and Hannah Arendt. Judt describes the unique contribution of men and women like these: their ability to perceive and describe the currents of the histories through which they lived in original and non-conventional terms.

But there is another history of our era, a “virtual history” of the twentieth century, and it is the story of those men and women who lived through the century and also saw through it, who understood its meaning as it unfolded. There were not many of them. They did not need to wait for 1945, or 1989, to know what had happened and what it had meant, to see beyond the illusions. For various reasons, they saw across the veil earlier. (pp. 63-64)

The least known of these (to me, anyway) is Manès Sperber. Sperber was born as a Jew in Galicia in 1905 in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire, and wrote in German and French. Like Koestler, he was a Communist in the 1930s and a critic of Soviet Communism from the 1940s onward. Sperber was the author of Qu’une larme dans l’ocean, and published as a trilogy in English, beginning with Burned Bramble (Like a Tear in the Ocean, Vol 1). He published an autobiography as well, also published in three volumes in English, beginning with God’s Water Carriers (All Our Yesterdays, Vol 1).

Judt provides original insight on the question of the relationship between a particular person’s identity and history, and their ability to perceive and understand the large historical events to which they are witness. In the case of Sperber, Judt emphasizes the relevance of Sperber’s Jewishness in his personal intellectual-political development, and his family and life origins in eastern and central Europe. Language, family, religion, and the experience as living as an outsider in multi-ethnic cities such as Vienna and Paris came to play major roles in the development of Sperber’s understanding of the Holocaust. Sperber’s Jewish identity, Judt believes, is a deep part of his historical and political experience. Speaking of Sperber’s post-war memoirs, Judt writes:

The memoirs themselves do not directly discuss the impact of Auschwitz, which is the theme of a number of postwar essays by Sperber collected in a volume called Être juif. But if one reads Sperber’s “recovered” awareness of Jewishness back into his story of the years 1905-46, the narrative acquires a forceful new dimension. In what looks like just another twentieth-century European life, we find a distinctively Jewish story. (p. 69)

The essay sheds light on Judt’s own understanding of the relation that existed for many important European figures between their own Jewish origins, their German / Hungarian / Polish national identities, and the crimes of the Shoah. And, incidentally, it raises intriguing questions about the formation of Judt’s own historical identity.

Judt’s essay on Primo Levi is powerful and poignant. An Italian Jew who was trained as a chemist, Levi participated in anti-Nazi partisan fighting in Italy and was transported to Auschwitz. Levi survived his twenty months in Auschwitz, and his Survival In Auschwitz is a powerful testimony to his experience. The question of identities comes into Judt’s account of Levi:

Primo Levi had various identities and allegiances. Their overlapping multiplicity did not trouble him—though it frustrated his Italian critics and perplexes some of his readers in the American Jewish community— and he felt no conflict among them. In the first place, he was Italian, and proud of it. Despite the country’s embarrassing faults, he took pride in it: “It often happens these days that you hear people say they’re ashamed of being Italian. In fact we have good reasons to be ashamed: first and foremost, of not having been able to produce a political class that represents us and, on the contrary, tolerating for thirty years one that does not. On the other hand, we have virtues of which we are unaware, and we do not realize how rare they are in Europe and in the world.” (p. 48)

Judt tries to weave together these influences of Levi’s identity — his Jewishness, his origins in the Piedmont, his training as a chemist — to account for the voice that Levi creates in his writing.

Thanks to the war, Primo Levi’s Jewishness moved to the center of his being: “This dual experience, the racial laws and the extermination camp, stamped me the way you stamp a steel plate. At this point I’m a Jew, they’ve sewn the star of David on me and not only on my clothes.” This was in part a result of his encounter for the first time with other Jews—the Libyan Jews at Fossoli (exhibiting “a grief that was new for us”) and the Ashkenazim in Auschwitz. Jewishness posed difficulties for Levi, and not just because he had no religion; his concern with work, with Homo faber—man the maker—made him peculiarly sensitive to the etiolated, over-intellectual qualities of Jewish life: “If man is a maker, we were not men: we knew this and suffered from it.” (p. 53)

Levi’s experience as a survivor was also problematic for him:

As a survivor, Levi’s trajectory was quite representative. At first, people didn’t want to listen to him—Italians “felt purified by the great wave of the anti-Fascist crusade, by participation in the Resistance and its victorious outcome.” Giuliana Tedeschi, another Italian survivor of Auschwitz, had a comparable experience: “I encountered people who didn’t want to know anything, because the Italians, too, had suffered, after all, even those who didn’t go to the camps. . . . They used to say, ‘For heaven’s sake, it’s all over,’ and so I remained quiet for a long time.” In 1955 Levi noted that it had become “indelicate” to speak of the camps—“One risks being accused of setting up as a victim, or of indecent exposure.” Thus was confirmed the terrible, anticipatory dream of the victims, during and after the camps: that no one would listen, and if they listened they wouldn’t believe. (p. 54)

This is a theme in Levi’s experience that is especially important to Judt: given Judt’s insistence on the crucial role that honest confronting of the facts of the Holocaust and other historical evils, the effort to silence or modulate the testimony of participants is wholly abhorrent.

Judt also provides an insightful discussion of the political and historical thought of Hannah Arendt. He locates Arendt’s central contribution in her efforts to understand the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. “Hannah Arendt was throughout her adult life concerned above all with two closely related issues: the problem of political evil in the twentieth century and the dilemma of the Jew in the contemporary world” (pp. 73-74). Judt acknowledges the criticisms that have been formulated concerning Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism; but he believes she had fundamental intuitions about the totalitarianism and cruelty of the twentieth century that are of lasting importance. And he places her attempt to understand historical evil at the center of her contribution.

If Hannah Arendt understood something that so many others missed, it was because she was more concerned with the moral problem of “evil” than with the structures of any given political system; as she put it in “Nightmare and Flight,” first published in 1945 and reprinted in the Essays, “The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe—as death became the fundamental question after the last war.” (p. 77)

Her analysis of evil did not begin with her treatment of the Eichmann trial and the controversial concept of “the banality of evil” (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil); rather, it is a recurring part of her writing for the decade preceding — in essays included in Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism, for example. Judt especially recommends the essay “The Eggs Speak Up”; link. Here is a very nice statement by Arendt of the deadly danger of totalitarianism:

The one excellent reason for this strange behavior is the insight that, independent of totalitarian movements in any given country, totalitarianism as such constitutes the central political issue of our time. And it is unfortunately true that this country, which in many respects looks like a happy island to a world in turmoil, would spiritually be even more isolated without this “anti-totalitarianism”–even though the insistence of our fighters on the unqualified happiness of the happy island does not exactly form the best of all possible bridges. The point is that to state that totalitarianism is the central political issue of our time makes sense only if one also admits that all other evils of the century show a tendency eventually to crystallize into that one supreme and radical evil we call totalitarian government. (271)

Koestler, Arendt, Sperber, Levi — all were participants in the horrific events of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, as fighters, journalists, refugees, and prisoners. Each made his or her own efforts to articulate part of their experience in a way that contributes to a better geography of these dark times for us in the twenty-first century. And Arendt, a philosopher, attempted to provide explanation and theory that might help to reach a better understanding of the incomprehensible, through discussions of evil and totalitarianism. Two — Koestler and Sperber — were also members of the Communist Party in the 1930s, and were forced to confront the massive atrocities and crimes of Stalin. One, Arendt, had a close personal and love relationship with a committed Nazi philosopher, Martin Heidegger — a friendship she maintained through the end of her life. All were Jewish, and it is evident that their personal histories in Berlin, Zablotow, Budapest, Vienna, or the Piedmont refracted differently in forming their political and historical identities. What I find intriguing about Judt’s work in these essays and elsewhere is his effort to place various intellectual figures into their specific historical context, and his attempt to reconstruct the mental maps that they created on the basis of which to understand the world in which they lived. (Similar work on a very comparable figure is done by Jeremy Adelman in his outstanding biography of Albert Hirschman, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman (link).)

(Martin Heidegger’s Nazi affinities and the nature of Arendt’s relationship to Heidegger are both important topics. Elzbieta Ettinger’s Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger explores the Arendt-Heidegger relationship in detail. Farin and Malpas’s volume Reading Heidegger’s Black Notebooks 1931-1941 provides an extensive discussion of Heidegger’s Nazi and anti-Semitic beliefs.)