Vasily Grossman on good and evil

Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate was long delayed in its publication because of Soviet censorship but has come to be recognized as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Grossman was a complex and appealing intellectual. Born in 1905, he was raised in a secular Jewish family in Berdichev, Ukraine. He was educated as a chemical engineer, but his vocation was writing and literature. When Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 Grossman became a war correspondent in the Red Army, and quickly emerged as one of the most active and popular observers of the chaos and murder of the German invasion throughout the war. He was present through much of the battle of Stalingrad, he was the first journalist to observe and write about the Treblinka death camp, and he maintained extensive notebooks recording his experiences and observations throughout the war and genocide. Alexandra Popoff’s biography Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century offers a masterful account of his life and writings. Grossman began Life and Fate in the 1950s and completed it for publication in 1960. However, the manuscript and supporting materials were confiscated (“arrested”) by the KGB and the novel was not published until 1980 (in Switzerland) — sixteen years after Grossman’s death.

The novel is riveting and complex. It represents an important piece of literary creation, a contribution to the history of the Holocaust and the German-Soviet war, and a prolonged critique of Stalinism. What is of special interest on this day in February, 2022 — today, the first day of Russia’s inexcusable and criminal aggressive war against Grossman’s homeland, the Ukraine — is Grossman’s willingness to occasionally put the narrative aside and engage in philosophical-historical reflection. One such moment is in part 2, chapter 15, where Grossman presents a series of striking ideas about the nature of good and evil in history.

The theory is presented in a convoluted way. The old Bolshevik Mikhail Mostovskoy is a prisoner in a German concentration camp, and is brought for interrogation or conversation with Liss, a high Gestapo officer and student of Hegel. Liss has an unusual and surprising thesis to discuss with Mostovskoy: that both the Nazi officer and the loyal Bolshevik are involved in the same business — service to an insane leader and a totalitarian ideology. Liss argues that the ideologies are remarkably similar. And secretly, Mostovskoy has come to see that the Soviet system is not so different from the Nazi system. He muses:

With all the strength of his soul, with all his revolutionary passion, he would have to hate the camps, the Lubyanka, bloodstained Yezhov, Yagoda, Beria! More than that …! He would have to hate Stalin and his dictatorship! More than that! He would have to condemn Lenin …! That was the edge of the abyss. (399)

The discussion of good and evil in this chapter is conveyed through the semi-coherent writings of another prisoner, the holy fool Ikonnikov. It is Ikonnikov whose shabby document on scraps of paper reflects on the history of good and evil. But the main lines of the view are Grossman’s.

So what is the substance of this conception? To begin, the Ikonnikov manuscript rejects the idea that good and evil can be defined in general religious or philosophical terms. Religious doctrines in particular have given rise to great suffering, and Ikonnikov denies that religious figures or texts give humanity a true understanding of good and evil. He also denies that “good” is a universal concept, as perhaps a philosopher might hold:

People struggling for their particular good always attempt to dress it up as a universal good. They say: my good coincides with the universal good; my good is essential not only to me but to everyone; in achieving my good, I serve the universal good. (405)

Many books have been written about the nature of good and evil and the struggle between them … There is a deep and undeniable sadness in all this: whenever we see the dawn of an eternal good that will never be overcome by evil — an evil that is itself eternal but will never succeed in overcoming good — whenever we see this dawn, the blood of old people and children is always shed. Not only men, but even God himself is powerless to lessen this evil. (406)

And most pertinent, Ikonnikov (and Grossman) link this critique of “universal theory of the good” to the evils of Soviet actions in the 1930s in Ukraine:

I have seen the unshakeable strength of the idea of social good that was born in my own country. I saw this struggle during the period of general collectivization and again in 1937. I saw people being annihilated in the name of an idea of good as fine and humane as the ideal of Christianity. I saw whole villages dying of hunger; I saw peasant children dying in the snows of Siberia; I saw trains bound for Siberia with hundreds and thousands of men and women from Moscow, Leningrad and every city in Russia — men and women who had been declared enemies of a great and bright idea of social good. This idea was something fine and noble — yet it killed some without mercy, crippled the lives of others, and separated wives from husbands and children from fathers. (406-407)

Here Ikonnikov refers to the Holodomor, the terror and purges, and the Gulag — all created by the deliberate purposes of the Soviet state. It is the utopian ideas of Marxist communism, and the grim realities of the Holodomor, the Stalinist terror, and the Gulag that Grossman is bringing into focus through Ikonnikov. Utopian socialism led to the Holodomor, the NKVD, and the Gulag — all in pursuit of “socialism in one country.” (No wonder the book was “arrested” in 1962; it is surprising that Grossman himself was not shot on the grounds of this passage alone.)

Here, the critique — whether of religion or of Communism or of Nazism — is a thorough rejection of the notion of sacrificing human beings to an idea or a future utopia.

Where do we find “good”, then, if not in universal principles of religion or philosophy or utopian doctrine? Ikonnikov is very clear about this question: good is found in the concrete actions of ordinary human beings. Ikonnikov’s and Grossman’s conception of the good is particular to human beings as they exist in specific times and places; it is not adherence to a set of principles, visions of the future, or prescriptions for the ultimate “good” of society. Good is found in concrete humanity in its particular historical circumstances.

Yes, as well as this terrible Good with a capital ‘G’, there is everyday human kindness. The kindness of an old woman carrying a piece of bread to a prisoner, the kindness of a soldier allowing a wounded enemy to drink from his water-flask, the kindness of youth towards age, the kindness of a peasant hiding an old Jew in his loft. The kindness of a prison guard who risks his own liberty to pass on letters written by a prisoner not to his ideological comrades, but to his wife and mother. (407-408)

And what is “kindness”, the constant refrain of Grossman’s optimism about the future? It is the simple human fact of compassion, the fact that human beings are often able to recognize the reality and the humanity of others around them, and to see that human reality as a concrete impulse to action. It is —

The private kindness of one individual towards another; a petty, thoughtless kindness; an unwitnessed kindness. Something we could call senseless kindness. A kindness outside any system of social or religious good. (408)

This kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being. It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil! This kindness is both senseless and wordless. It is instinctive, blind. (409)

But Mostovskoy the disillusioned Bolshevik is not persuaded by Ikonnikov:

Yes, the man who had written this was unhinged. The ruin of a feeble spirit! The preacher declares that the heavens are empty … He sees life as a war of everything against everything. And then at the end he starts tinkling the same old bells, praising the kindness of old women and hoping to extinguish a world-wide conflagration with an enema syringe. What trash! (410)

So whose view of good and evil is this — the holy fool or Grossman himself? I believe it is Grossman’s view, or at least an important part of his view. The theme of kindness is very deep in Grossman, and it is fundamental to his humanism and his faith in the future. Take this vignette from “The Old Teacher”:

Then six-year-old Katya, the daughter of Weissman, the lieutenant who had been killed, came up to him in her torn dress, shuffling along in galoshes that were falling off her dirty, scratched little feet. Offering him a cold, sour pancake, she said, “Eat, teacher!”

He took the pancake and began to eat it, looking at the little girl’s thin face. As he ate, there was a sudden hush in the yard. Everyone—the old women, the big-breasted young women who could no longer remember their husbands, the one-legged lieutenant Voronenko lying on a mattress under a tree—was looking at the old man and the little girl. Rosenthal dropped his book and did not try to pick it up—he was looking at the little girl’s huge eyes, which were intently, even greedily, watching him as he ate. Once again he felt the urge to understand a wonder that never ceased to amaze him: human kindness. Perhaps the answer was there in the child’s eyes. But her eyes must have been too dark, or maybe what got in the way were his own tears—once again he saw nothing and understood nothing. (The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays)

And later, when the Jews of the village are being forced to the ravine to be slaughtered, the old teacher and the girl Katya are united again:

“How can I comfort her? How can I deceive her?” the old man wondered, gripped by a feeling of infinite sorrow. At this last minute too, there would be no one to support him, no one to say what he had longed all his life to hear— the words he had desired more than all the wisdom of books about the great thoughts and labors of man.

The little girl turned toward him. Her face was calm; it was the pale face of an adult, a face full of tolerant compassion. And in a sudden silence he heard her voice.

“Teacher,” she said, “don’t look that way, it will frighten you.” And, like a mother, she covered his eyes with the palms of her hands. (The Road)

A similar compassion and love for the particular human beings who died there is found in the closing lines of “The Hell of Treblinka”:

Great is the power of true humanity. Humanity does not die until man dies. And when we see a brief but terrifying period of history, a period during which beasts triumph over human beings, the man being killed by the beast retains to his last breath his strength of spirit, clarity of thought, and passionate love. And the beast that triumphantly kills the man remains a beast. This immortality of spiritual strength is a somber martyrdom—the triumph of a dying man over a living beast. It was this, during the darkest days of 1942, that brought about the beginning of reason’s victory over bestial madness, the victory of good over evil, of light over darkness, of the forces of progress over the forces of reaction. A terrible dawn over a field of blood and tears, over an ocean of suffering—a dawn breaking amid the cries of dying mothers and infants, amid the death rattles of the aged.

The beasts and the beasts’ philosophy seemed to portend the sunset of Europe, the sunset of the world, but the red was not the red of a sunset, it was the red blood of humanity—a humanity that was dying yet achieving victory through its death. People remained people. They did not accept the morality and laws of Fascism. They fought it in all ways they could; they fought it by dying as human beings. (The Road)

It is Grossman, then, not simply the holy fool Ikonnikov, who finds enduring value chiefly in ordinary human compassion and kindness. This is the thrust of the closing lines of Ikonnikov’s scraps of paper. And this is the heart of Grossman’s concrete, intuitive humanism.

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer. (Life and Fate, 410)

The Holodomor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massive famine ensued, on a region-wide level:

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

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

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

Mass starvation accelerated in the spring of 1933. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bauman on the Holocaust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vasily Grossman on Treblinka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.)

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