It is evident that human beings create evil; but human beings are often driven and dominated by totalitarian ideologies that make great evils possible.
One of those ideologies of the last century was Stalinism — the view that the success of Soviet Communism is the highest good; any sacrifice is justified; those who stand in the way must be destroyed; and those whose sacrifice may aid the achievement of Communism shall be sacrificed as well. This is the central insight of Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Koestler revealed the moral “logic” of the Moscow Show Trials through his account of the interrogation and trial of the loyal revolutionary functionary Rubashov, and the twisted logic of confession, guilt, lies, and sacrifice that Rubashov’s interrogation involved.
We now know that Stalin was a master political criminal, focused on extending and maintaining absolute power and using violence and terror to extend his power. But what about his predecessors, Lenin and Trotsky? The judgment of history indicts both leaders. In his very good book Humanity on the origins of evil, Jonathan Glover argues that Stalin’s views extend back to Lenin and Trotsky as well, and long before the success of the Bolshevik Revolution:
There was indifference to the individual people who might be destroyed by the new policies. This view came from Lenin, who had written in 1908 that the Paris Commune had failed because of the ‘excessive generosity’ of the proletariat, who ‘should have exterminated its enemies’ instead of trying ‘to exert moral influence on them’. In 1917, when Lenin opposed the abolition of capital punishment for deserters at the front, Trotsky quoted him as saying, ‘Nonsense, how can you make a revolution without executions? … It is a mistake, impermissible weakness, pacifist illusion, and so on.’ (255)
Glover’s central insight is that propaganda and faith in an ideology drive atrocity. He argues that much of the propaganda, language, and behavior of the Soviet state were based on systematic lies, designed to destroy the moral instincts of ordinary Soviet citizens. He highlights the use by Soviet propagandists of fundamentally dehumanizing terms used for the “enemies” of socialism: “parasites”, “filthy dogs”, “reptiles”, and “kulaks”. This is a kind of moral education — creation of “new Soviet Man”, and cultivation of a willingness to countenance the humiliation and murder of the “enemy”. It is important to register the exact parallel between these words and Nazi propaganda and behavior.
Glover makes it plain that lies are the tools of totalitarianism, and a commitment to trying to see and express the truth is one of the “moral resources” that constitutes and defends our humanity.
So what about the lies? Here is an important example. New York Times journalist Walter Duranty was an apologist for Stalin during the 1930s and an influential thought-leader about the Soviet Union in the United States as well. And, shamefully, Duranty obscured and justified Stalin’s massive crimes to a broad public in the United States through his position at the New York Times. In 1932 Duranty published a poem called ‘Red Square’ in the New York Times, which included the lines:
Russians may be hungry and short of clothes and comfort
But you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” …. This phrase is fundamentally odious and dehumanizing. It subsumes in a few words the moral reversal represented by totalitarianism: rather than society existing for the freedom and wellbeing of the citizens, the citizens exist as raw materials for the success of the state. And indeed, the phrase was to be used frequently by Stalin’s supporters and eventually those of the Great Navigator, Chairman Mao.
Vasily Grossman captures each aspect of these features of Stalinist totalitarianism in his last major novel, Everything Flows (1961), and this novel is more explicit and damning about the Gulag and Stalin’s other crimes than would have been thought possible during Stalin’s life. The novel captures the situation of ordinary Soviet citizens faced with moral dilemmas and difficult choices between complicity, ideological conviction, personal self-interest, honest recognition of the facts, and shame. Here are the reflections of the comfortable scientist, Nikolay Andreyevich:
He remembered how in 1937, at a meeting called in connection with the Moscow Trials, he had voted in favor of the death penalty for Rykov and Bukharin. He had not thought about those meetings for seventeen years….
But now—now Nikolay Andreyevich remembered that there had been doubt; his certainty of Bukharin’s guilt had been a pretense. …
He believed, after all, that a socialist society, a society without private property, had been constructed for the first time in history, and that socialism required the dictatorship of the State. …
Could this really be socialism—with the labor camps of Kolyma, with the horrors of collectivization, with the cannibalism and the millions of deaths during the famine? Yes, there were times when a very different understanding had found its way into the borderlands of his consciousness: that the Terror really had been very inhuman, that the sufferings of the workers and peasants had been very great indeed. (29-33)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes the psychology of ordinary people under Stalinist totalitarianism in similar terms:
The mildest and at the same time the most widespread form of betrayal was not to do anything bad directly, but just not to notice the doomed person next to one, not to help him, to turn away one’s face, to shrink back. They had arrested a neighbour, your comrade at work, or even your close friend. You kept silence. You acted as if you had not noticed. Gulag, 25
There are two key insights here. First, “totalizing” ideologies that persuade ordinary human beings of the supreme moral importance of the state are prolific catalysts to great evil. “True believers” are willing to do atrocious things to their fellow human beings — especially when their own careers and wellbeing depend upon it. And second is the crucial importance of revealing the truth about atrocities. In that light, Timothy Snyder’s recent post on Documenting Ukraine is important and timely. Russia’s current atrocities in Ukraine — deliberate, cruel, and deadly — are inexcusable. And, as Snyder argues, it is essential to document these actions of state against innocent civilians. History must judge Vladimir Putin and his fellow Russian rulers for the atrocities they have ordered and executed.
Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Machiavelli in Against the Current is penetrating and detailed, valuable both for the specialist and the general philosophical reader. Berlin demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of the range of interpretations and criticisms that have been offered for the ideas presented in The Prince and the many wildly contradictory interpretations that have arisen. Was Machiavelli an amoral political realist? Is The Prince intended to be a value-free “science of politics”? Did he write The Prince simply as a user’s manual for the rulers of states in his own time and the future? Was he indifferent to the appeal to bloody violence and deception by the ruler for the sake of maintaining power? What was his attitude towards Christian morality? Was Machiavelli’s position “humanist”? Berlin dissects the competing answers that have been given to these questions for several hundred years, and his account makes for fascinating reading. More impressive, though, is Berlin’s effort to provide a coherent interpretation of the “originality of Machiavelli” that makes sense of the texts and also shows the weaknesses of historic claims about Machiavelli’s intentions. Berlin provides an intellectual-moral location for Machiavelli’s short essay that provides answers to these questions. And his answers are profoundly disturbing. Berlin believes that Machiavelli’s text contains the makings of a fundamental “impossibility” theorem for political philosophy, as radical as the wave-particle dichotomy in fundamental physics.
Key to Berlin’s interpretation is his view that Machiavelli has a particular political ideal in mind in writing The Prince. It is the ideal of a republic or polis, well regulated by a strong government, and consisting of citizens embodying courage, virtue, and intelligence. Periclean Athens, the Roman Republic, and certain periods of the Roman Empire provide the key exemplars. “The only freedom [Machiavelli] recognises is political freedom, freedom from arbitrary despotic rule, that is, republicanism, and the freedom of one State from control by other States, or rather of the city or patria … The need for absolute centralised power (if not for sovereignty) is taken for granted” (47).
And the need for ruthless exercise of power follows from the need to maintain the effective centralized state:
In order to cure degenerate populations of their diseases, these founders of new States or Churches may be compelled to have recourse to ruthless measures, force and fraud, guile, cruelty, treachery, the slaughter of the innocent, surgical measures that are needed to restore a decayed body to a condition of health. (55)
But according to Berlin, this does not mean that Machiavelli dismisses moral values when he analyzes political necessity. Instead, his reasoning is justified by a conception of the kind of politics the ruler is seeking to create for the citizens of the state. According to Berlin, Machiavelli’s central discovery was that “pagan” (Roman) values and “Christian” values were fundamentally incompatible, and this incompatibility is irresolvable.
One is the morality of the pagan world: its values are courage, vigour, fortitude in adversity, public achievement, order, discipline, happiness, strength, justice, above all assertion of one’s proper claims and the knowledge and power needed to secure their satisfaction; that which for a Renaissance reader Pericles had seen embodied in his ideal Athens, Livy had found in the old Roman Republic, that of which Tacitus and Juvenal lamented the decay and death in their own time. These seem to Machiavelli the best hours of mankind and, Renaissance humanist that he is, he wishes to restore them. (56)
The ideals of Christianity are charity, mercy, sacrifice, love of God, forgiveness of enemies, contempt for the goods of this world, faith in the life hereafter, belief in the salvation of the individual soul as being of incomparable value – higher than, indeed wholly incommensurable with, any social or political or other terrestrial goal, any economic or military or aesthetic consideration. (57)
And, Berlin argues, the second set of values makes the republic constituted by the first set of values impossible to achieve:
But if history, and the insights of wise statesmen, especially in the ancient world, verified as they have been in practice (verità effettuale), are to guide us, it will be seen that it is in fact impossible to combine Christian virtues, for example meekness or the search for spiritual salvation, with a satisfactory, stable, vigorous, strong society on earth. Consequently a man must choose. To choose to lead a Christian life is to condemn oneself to political impotence: to being used and crushed by powerful, ambitious, clever, unscrupulous men; if one wishes to build a glorious community like those of Athens or Rome at their best, then one must abandon Christian education and substitute one better suited to the purpose. (58)
The general effect of Christian teaching has been to crush men’s civic spirit, and make them endure humiliations uncomplainingly, so that destroyers and despots encounter too little resistance. Hence Christianity is in this respect compared unfavourably with Roman religion, which made men stronger and more ‘ferocious’. (59)
Christians as he knew them in history and his own experience, that is, men who in their practice actually follow Christian precepts, are good men, but if they govern States in the light of such principles they lead them to destruction. Like Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, like the well-meaning Gonfalonieri of the Florentine Republic, like Savonarola, they are bound to be defeated by the realists (the Medici or the Pope or King Ferdinand of Spain), who understand how to create lasting institutions; build them, if need be, on the bones of innocent victims. (62)
But now let us draw out the implications of the view. What does this line of thought lead to? It leads to totalitarianism; it provides a justification for Stalinism.
But if a man chooses, as Machiavelli himself has done, the second course, then he must suppress his private qualms, if he has any, for it is certain that those who are too squeamish during the remaking of a society, or even during the pursuit and maintenance of its power and glory, will go to the wall. Whoever has chosen to make an omelette cannot do so without breaking eggs…. Once you embark on a plan for the transformation of a society you must carry it through no matter at what cost: to fumble, to retreat, to be overcome by scruples – this is to betray your chosen cause. (74)
Anything is permitted for the eventual achievement of socialism in one country.
From the vantage-point of the great social objectives in the name of which these (prima facie wicked) acts are to be performed, they will be seen (so the argument goes) as no longer wicked, but as rational – demanded by the very nature of things – by the common good, or man’s true ends, or the dialectic of history – condemned only by those who cannot or will not see a large enough segment of the logical, or theological, or metaphysical, or historical pattern; misjudged, denounced only by the spiritually blind or short-sighted. At worst, these ‘crimes’ are discords demanded by the larger harmony, and therefore, to those who hear this harmony, no longer discordant. (79-80)
And Berlin explicitly draws this conclusion on Machiavelli’s behalf:
To Dostoevsky’s famous question ‘Is everything permitted?’1 Machiavelli (who for Dostoevsky would surely have been an atheist) answers ‘Yes, if the end – that is, the pursuit of a society’s basic interests in a specific situation – cannot be realised in any other way.’ (81)
What is surprising to me is that Berlin fails to comment directly on the seeds of totalitarianism and fascism in the Machiavelli he decodes — even though his own life spanned the rise and fall of both Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, the Soviet Terror and the purges, and the Gulag. If the fundamental line of thought in The Prince is that the state can use whatever means it chooses to pursue its goals and the transformation of society, then it is a founding document of totalitarianism, not of republican humanism. Even the metaphor of “breaking eggs” mentioned in the quote above from p. 74 is specific to the vile defenses that were offered of Soviet violence against its own citizens in the 1930s.
It is also worth noting that the dichotomy between pagan boldness and Christian passivity — the central value-system dichotomy that Berlin attributes to Machiavelli — does not capture the full normative space for political morality. Is a binding constitutional protection against arbitrary arrest and execution a “Christian” requirement, reflecting timidity and passivity? It is not, because there is a third option: civic constitutionalism, a robust commitment by both rulers and citizens to the rule of law and the protection of rights and liberties, and a commitment to social progress through constitutional means only. Both John Stuart Mill and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. provide examples of activists for liberty and equality that reject passivity while also rejecting the violent and illegal actions of the state.
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 (link, link) 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.)
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)
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.)
A central question in the past year or so in Understanding Society is how historians and philosophers should confront the evils of the twentieth century. It seems clear that studying these processes fully and honestly is a key part of the answer, both for scholars and for ordinary citizens. We need to confront the truth about ugly facts about our history. In his documentary article “Treblinka as Hell” Vasily Grossman tries to express why it is important to speak honestly about the facts of mass murder and genocide.
It is the duty of a writer to tell the truth however gruelling, and the duty of the reader to learn the truth. To turn aside, or to close one’s eyes to the truth is to insult the memory of the dead. The person who does not learn the whole truth will never understand what kind of enemy, what sort of monster, our great Red Army is waging battle against to the death. (399)
But telling the truth about acts of genocide, atrocities, and state crimes is not easy. This is partly true for reasons of psychology and identity — as LaCapra has argued, the horrors of the Holocaust are locations of trauma, and trauma is difficult to confront (link). But there is a more material barrier to truth-telling when it comes to genocide and state repression: the states and groups that commit or collaborate in these atrocities are very interested in preventing knowledge of their crimes to become public. And they are generally very willing to use coercion, violence, and massive deception against those who attempt to learn the truth and make it public. Truth-telling, therefore, can be career-ending or life-ending.
This situation was especially acute during the years of Soviet dictatorship in the USSR and its dependent states in Eastern Europe, and most pointedly for writers. Anyone who lived in these countries in the 1930s through the 1980s knew a great deal about the facts of dictatorship, arbitrary arrest, state lies, and the prison camps in the Gulag. But writing openly and honestly about these facts — or even whispering about them to trusted friends — could lead to arrest and imprisonment or death. So how could gifted and principled authors deal with this contradiction during Soviet times?
A substantial number of writers during the Soviet era became willing accomplices in the ideology, propaganda, and crimes of Stalinism (and the Leninist regime that preceded). But some did not. And many who did not, did not survive the purges of 1938 and later years.
There were a few noteworthy exceptions — writers who maintained a degree of independence and honesty, but whom good fortune permitted to survive. Consider for example Mikhail Sholokhov, a highly prominent writer from the Cossack region of the Ukraine whose Don novels became among the most popular fiction throughout the period; who became a close confidant of Stalin; and yet who persisted in expressing the suffering of the peasants of the Ukraine (his neighbors) during the 1930s collectivization and the war of starvation that Stalin waged against them. Sholokhov maintained a degree of independence and integrity, even as he navigated censorship and the NKVD. (Brian Boeck’s biography of Sholokhov, Stalin’s Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov, is an excellent source on Sholokhov’s life and writing. Sholokhov won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965.) Sholokhov was not entirely admirable — he is accused of sharing the anti-Semitism of the Stalinist period more generally (including sometimes his comments about Vasily Grossman). And he never wrote or spoke publicly against the genocide of the Jews during World War II, the mass exterminations that occurred across the Ukraine, or the resurgence of Soviet anti-Semitism following the end of the war. For example, his 1943 short story about Nazis at war, “The Science of Hatred,” does not mention atrocities against the Jews and other innocent people; link. But he was willing to speak some of the truth of the failures and criminality of Soviet persecution of the peasants of the Ukraine — and that was a considerable political risk.
But consider another singular and important case in point: the life and writings of Vasily Grossman (link). (Alexandra Popoff’s biography of Grossman, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, is an excellent treatment of his life and work.) Grossman was born as a Jew in the Ukraine in 1905 (the same year as Sholokhov), and in early adulthood he became a writer. He gained a degree in chemistry and worked for several years in a coal mine and a factory. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 he attempted to volunteer for military service, but was rejected for health reasons. He was accepted as a war journalist, and he traveled with the Red Army through its most desperate fighting, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad. His journalism from the front was among the most highly respected in the Soviet Union. It was honest, penetrating, and very sensitive to the conditions of life for the average Soviet soldier in combat.
Grossman was personally aware of the program of extermination that the invading German army was waging in the western territories of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries through his active combat experience with the Red Army. Grossman’s mother had remained in their home city, Berdichev, and in 1941 the Jews of Berdichev were rounded up and massacred. Here is Grossman’s account from about 1944 about the massacre of Berdichev (link), included in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry. In a period of only two days over 20,000 Jewish children, women, and men were killed by gunfire, rifle butt, and brutal beatings — including Grossman’s mother. (Estimates range from 20,000 to 38,536 Jewish victims during the summer of 1941.) The Communist Party and the Stalinist government of the USSR were unwilling to provide an honest account of the campaign of murder and extermination against the Jews of Eastern Europe during 1941 and subsequent years, and Grossman’s directness and honesty in his journalism and in Life and Fate are exceptional. As noted in the earlier post, Grossman was the first journalist to provide extensive details about the workings of any Nazi death camp, as a result of his arrival at the site of Treblinka with the Soviet 62nd Army in 1944. His essay, “Ukraine without Jews,” is an enormously important contribution to the effort to understand the true significance of the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Grossman’s experience in the Ukraine before the war and with the Red Army gave him a dramatic view of the crimes committed by the Soviet state. He witnessed the forced collectivization of agriculture and campaign of starvation in the Ukraine in the early 1930s, the crushing terror of the late 1930s, and the creation of the Gulag in the 1940s. He thus witnessed the massive totalitarian atrocities committed by Stalin’s apparatus in the name of communism and the total power of the Communist Party, resulting in the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens and hundreds of thousands of writers, engineers, functionaries, and other “enemies of the people”.
During his years as a war correspondent Grossman continued to have great respect and admiration for ordinary Red Army soldiers, but the command staff and political officers soon became contemptible to him.
Grossman wrote two important novels based on his experience at Stalingrad. Both were massively long — well over 1,000 pages. The first, Stalingrad, was published in the USSR under the title For a Just Cause in 1943 but was quickly withdrawn from the public by Soviet censors. The second, a masterpiece of world literature, was Life and Fate, and had a much more grim view of the Soviet state and of Stalinism. In 1961 the manuscript was seized (“arrested”) and Grossman was told that it could not be published for 250 years. He was expelled from the Writers Union — his primary source of income — and his health began to decline. He wrote several other novels, but died of stomach cancer in 1964 at the age of 59.
There were several themes which drew Grossman into conflict with the Stalinist censors, and with Stalin himself. First was the fact that Grossman understood very well that Hitler’s genocidal plans of extermination were directed primarily against the Jews of Europe — not random victims of war. But the Soviet party line was to refrain completely from “separating” Jewish victims from other “Soviet citizens” who died at the hands of the Nazis. This was an ideological principle, but it also derived from resurgent anti-Semitism in the USSR as well. This accounts for the Soviet, and later Ukrainian, refusal to place a memorial at Babi Yar in honor of the tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children killed there in 1941.
Second, Grossman wrote honestly about ordinary workers and soldiers, including their shortcomings. He was not primarily interested in making heroes of coal miners or infantrymen, and was very explicit about alcohol and other forms of “anti-socialist behavior” among workers. The censors, in contrast, wanted to see novels and stories in which workers were portrayed heroically.
The third line of conflict had to do with the totalitarian and murderous grip of Soviet rule itself. Grossman was especially aware of the massive harms created by Stalin’s decimation of the Red Army officer corps through purges before the war and his pig-headed interference with military strategy in the conduct of the war, leading to several million unnecessary casualties and prisoners of war. Grossman was revolted at the behavior and abuses of the state and its functionaries during the conduct of World War II, and he found ways of expressing these views in his writings — most clearly in Life and Fate. Grossman was a critic of Stalinism before it was either fashionable or safe to do so. Here is a passage from Life and Fate on the Gulag and the political prisons:
In other times, before the war, Krimov often walked past the Lubyanka at night and wondered what was happening behind the windows of that sleepless building. Those arrested were locked up in prison for eight months, a year, a year and a half, while the investigation was ongoing. Then his relatives received letters from the fields, they discovered new names: Komi, Salekhard. Norilsk, Kotlas, Magadan, Vorkutá, Kolymá, Kuznetsk, Krasnoyarsk, Karaganda, Nagayevo Bay … But thousands of people who were imprisoned in the inner Lubyanka prison disappeared forever. The prosecution informed the relatives that they had been sentenced to “ten years without the right to correspondence”, but there were no such sentences in the camps. Ten years without the right to correspond almost certainly meant that they had been shot. (853)
Consider finally the case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago exposed in great detail the horrendous crimes and scope of suffering created by Stalin’s reign of terror through secret police and prison camps. Born in 1918 near Stavropol in the North Caucasus, Solzhenitsyn’s experience of the Soviet Union came a decade or more later than that of Grossman and Sholokhov. He served in the Red Army as an artillery captain, and was arrested by Stalin’s NKVD in 1945 for critical comments about Stalin that he had included in a private letter to a friend. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years of labor in the Gulag. He was cleared of charges in 1956.
Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag is a massive documentation of the experience of life in a labor camp in the extreme north, the tundra and the forest, of the USSR. It begins with the arrest and progresses through the many hardships and deprivations created for the prisoners by the state. The aftermath of the arrest:
For those left behind after the arrest there is the long tail end of a wrecked and devastated life. And the attempts to go and deliver food parcels. But from all the windows the answer comes in barking voices: “Nobody here by that name!” “Never heard of him!” Yes, and in the worst days in Leningrad it took five days of standing in crowded lines just to get to that window. And it may be only after half a year or a year that the arrested person responds at all. Or else the answer is tossed out: “Deprived of the right to correspond.” And that means once and for all. “No right to correspondence”—and that almost for certain means: “Has been shot.”
And the helpless desire that it might have been possible to resist:
And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward. (Gulag Archipelago)
Telling the truth — as Grossman and Solzhenitsyn did remarkably well throughout their careers, and Sholokhov did in a partial way — is enormously hard in a totalitarian society. When the state is willing to send its critics to deadly labor camps, or to shoot them out of hand, it is virtually impossible to imagine many writers striving to tell the truths that they know. And in any case, since the state controls the means of publication, the critical writer cannot publish his or her work in any case. During the Soviet period, many writers wrote “for the desk drawer” — manuscripts that could only be published in the distant future. And, knowing the likelihood of hidden manuscripts, the NKVD was very careful in its searches of the apartments of suspected critics and its other victims; correspondence, files, and unpublished manuscripts were routinely burned. In the somewhat less repressive period of post-Stalinist USSR there was a period of Samizdat (self-publishing) — writings that were distributed as typescripts, hand-written documents, mimeographed documents, and eventually photocopies. Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was published as Samizdat to a limited readership. But truthful description, diagnosis, and criticism — these forms of expression were almost entirely impossible within the Stalinist regime. And yet it is impossible for a society to repair its most dehumanizing features if it is impossible to speak openly about those crimes.
Nathan Stoltzfus’s Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany has a remarkable and startling thesis: though the Nazi regime used absolutely unconstrained violence and coercion in its conquest, domination, and annihilation of its enemies (Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, the USSR), its approach to ruling Germany was strikingly different. Stoltzfus maintains that Hitler and the Nazi regime sought to cultivate broad support among Germans for its war and extermination aims, while building a strong consensus around ideology and values in the German homeland.
Except for a tiny fraction of the population, consisting of Jews, political dissidents, social outsiders, and the congenitally “incurable,” National Socialism strove to bring all Germans into line with the thinking that they should be the master of others. The effort to extract the maximal effort of the people in conquering the continent and killing millions outright was conducted with concern for the “German-blooded” people. Nazi propaganda directed German women to become the mothers of the nation through appeals to love of Nazi leaders and heroes, as well as for their own children. The National Socialist People’s Welfare (NSV) was an enormous agency dedicated to benefiting productive, racially valuable Germans. kl 54
In fact, Stoltzfus suggests that post-war Germany has fallen for a myth of its own wartime history: the myth of a violent, coercive dictatorship that compelled the German people to carry out his evil purposes.
The Germans have earned high praise for facing the crimes of their past, showing more reluctant countries how to do it. Still today there are signs of a retrenchment among some historians, as well as in the official commemorations in Germany, in the comforting belief that Hitler ruled his own “race” of people by intimidation and terror more than by incentives and rewards, that the Gestapo crushed all opposition, and that the dictatorship set its course according to its ideology and proceeded in a straight path toward it, steamrolling any obstacles with brute force. kl 102
But according to Stoltzfus, this is a myth. On the homefront, Stoltzfus appears to argue, Hitler was a calculating politician, aiming at creating a supportive and contented public, rather than a ranting dictator using murder, torture, and imprisonment to coerce his nation to his goals. And the German public was largely willing to support his policies.
Hitler wanted to create a dictatorship, but he also wanted the support of the people. The most important thing he could do to win them over was to solve the massive unemployment problem. Although it is clear that his regime beat the Great Depression faster than any of the Western democracies, it still took time.
The new regime made no bones about using coercion in many forms against its declared enemies, but it also sought the consent and support of the people at every turn. As I try to show in the book, consent and coercion were inextricably entwined throughout the history of the Third Reich, partly because most of the coercion and terror was used against specific individuals, minorities, and social groups for whom the people had little sympathy. (kl 195)
Thus, the Nazis did not act out of delusional or blind fanaticism in the beginning, but with their eyes wide open to the social and political realities around them. They developed their racist and repressive campaigns, by looking at German society, history, and traditions. The identification and treatment of political opponents and the persecution of social and racial outsiders illustrated the kind of populist dictatorship that developed under Hitler. (kl 264)
And Gellately argues that the German public was aware of many of the details of the violence of the secret police and the use of concentration camps and rejects the view that these facts were withheld from the German public:
This book challenges these views. It shows that a vast array of material on the police and the camps and various discriminatory campaigns was published in the media of the day. In the 1930s the regime made sure the concentration camps were reported in the press, held them up for praise, and proudly let it be known that the men and women in the camps were confined without trial on the orders of the police. kl 299
The most compelling evidence of this interpretation of Hitler’s populist dictatorship, for Stoltzfus, is the fact that there were occasional signs of public disapproval of Nazi actions, including resistance by Germany’s churches to euthanasia, protests against imprisonment of Jewish husbands of non-Jewish wives, and public protests over other issues; and the Nazi regime sought to change its behavior to conform better to the expectations of the public. These are the compromises in the title of Stoltzfus’s book.
During 1943 as well, Hitler preferred to appease rather than repress two spectacular street protests by women, even as the People’s Court increased sentences for treason. By mid-1943, complaints and jokes about the regime leaders were so prevalent that prosecutors thought that singling one person out for punishment on such an offense was untenable, and the SD was concerned about an inner collapse on the home front. kl 512
Taken separately, each instance of regime compromise might be explained as an exception that it made for specific sectors of Germans: workers, the churches, women. Taken together, the various cases of the dictatorship’s willingness to compromise in ruling the people illuminate a pattern of response to social dissent, regardless of which group was dissenting. The regime’s willingness to make concessions to the working class in order to assuage its dissatisfactions is well documented.51 But it also preempted or ameliorated signs of sustained opposition in public by other social groups as well, an approach that is hardly surprising considering its earnest manipulation of demonstrations and rallies in an effort to influence opinion and “nationalize the people.” kl 566
In this respect, if Stoltzfus and Gellately are correct, the domestic dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin were radically different. Stalin treated the population of his nation as the enemies of socialism and of the regime, and his tools of control were entirely drawn from the war chest of arrest, terror, imprisonment, and murder. Soviet citizens were terrified into submission — with the partial exception of support for the “Great Patriotic War” and Comrade Stalin’s brilliant generalship. If there is such a thing as a “scale” of totalitarianism, this suggests that the Soviet Union under Stalin was a vastly more fully totalitarian state than the domestic Nazi state in Germany.
The reason this argument by Stoltzfus is especially important today is that it is not just about history — about Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Rather, it seems to suggest a playbook for contemporary “wannabe” autocrats and dictators, including a recent president of the United States. The strategy that Hitler pursued, according to Stoltzfus, was to put forward a compelling nationalist ideology affirming the German nation, a powerful and vitriolic racism against Jews and Slavs, and an assurance that “the leader” can achieve the national interest by leading the nation and waging merciless war against its racial enemies. This is the stuff of radical right-wing populism today. Stoltzfus appears to recognize this continuity:
While his dictatorship murdered millions in the name of ideology, Hitler managed the relationship with the Germans of the Reich in ways that place him among those whom scholars now identify as “soft” dictators, who prefer the tactics of persuasion, enticement, cooptation, and compromise to work their will. These scholars associate “soft” tactics with dictatorships of the twenty-first century by contrasting them in one fell swoop with caricatures so gross they characterize both Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes. kl 204
Had he not been aiming to reshape the Germans into a Nazi national community, with a new Nazi superego, Hitler could have relied more fully on terror. But he was convinced that the existing German mythos could only be replaced by edging it out with another ideology the people found acceptable. In Nazi practice, as Hitler foresaw it, force could be deployed to secure the people’s worldview once a majority was behind it, as he continued toward winning all but the fringe. kl 230
“Soft dictatorship” at home, with a willingness to compromise when public opinion appears to demand it, along with consistent planning and action in support of the underlying racist ideology — that is a very different understanding from the traditional view of Nazi dictatorship. And yet it is a worrisome illustration of the power that charismatic, malevolent leaders can exercise over a mass society.
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.
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.
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!
Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) was an influential voice in the world of sociological theorizing. In the second part of his career — following his expulsion as a dissident and a Jew from Poland in 1968 — he came to be recognized as a non-conventional thinker about “modernity” and the modern world. His idea of “liquid modernity” (link), late in his career, was a very interesting and original way of thinking about the twentieth century. But Bauman was not just a theorist; he was a participant in history — the subject of anti-Semitic mistreatment and bullying as a child in Poland, a refugee, a socialist and communist activist, a Soviet-trained soldier and political officer in the Soviet-installed Polish army, a stateless person again after his expulsion from Poland in 1968 during the major “state pogrom” of that year, and eventually a critic of Stalinist Communism. He was a thinker, a doer, and a contributor to sociological theory.
A particularly interesting question is whether we can connect the life and the sociological writings and theories that Bauman created during his long career. Did his life experiences give him the some of the intellectual resources necessary to comprehend the catastrophes of genocide, mass enslavement, and totalitarianism? It will be surprising to find that the answer seems largely to be, no. There is little of the historical realities that Bauman observed and participated in to be found in his writings. (The Bauman Institute at the University of Leeds has a comprehensive bibliography of Bauman’s writings throughout his career; link.)
Izabela Wagner’s thoughtful and thorough Bauman: A Biography is an excellent source for trying to answer the question: how did Bauman become Bauman? (And, we might add, when?) What experiences and conditions helped to create the sociological imagination of this singular man, and how did his personal history contribute to the creation of such an exceptional and original intellectual?
Several features of character were evident in the young Bauman and persisted through the end of his career: intellectual curiosity, independence of mind, courage, humor, and measured cautiousness. His intellectual training — first in the USSR and then in Warsaw — was deeply embedded within an especially dogmatic ideological framework — the strictures of dialectical materialism and Marxist-Leninist thought as embodied in official Soviet ideology. And yet as a young sociology PhD student in Warsaw in the 1950s Bauman was exposed to a “dissident” strand of sociological thinking that contributed to a broader perspective on the regime that he served. Out of that chemistry came a surprising mix — a sociology that expressed itself in Marxist-Leninist terms, an openness to sociological research from Europe and the United States, and a view of society and the state that reflected a more “humanist” and democratic view (like that of Leszek Kołakowski). But here is the surprise for an intellectual historian: none of this seems to reflect the concrete historical life circumstances that Bauman experienced; rather, it is very similar to the kind of trajectory a talented graduate student takes through engagement with a number of intriguing philosophical perspectives.
It is worth reflecting on Bauman’s history as a committed and sincere communist from his teenage years in the 1930s onward until the early 1960s. Writers like Judt and Orwell have criticized leftist intellectuals unforgivingly for their failure to observe and denounce the massive crimes of Stalin in the 1930s. But these are exactly the years in which Bauman gained his communist identity — briefly in Poland and then more deeply in exile as a high school student in the Soviet Union. Wagner spends a good deal of time on the formation of Bauman’s identity as a communist youth and eventually communist functionary. She argues that it is a perfectly intelligible journey for a young Polish Jew who cared about social justice and equality. A return to the political and social arrangements of pre-war Poland was not even remotely attractive to Bauman, given its profound anti-Semitism and the enormous social inequalities it embodied. Communism, Wagner argues, provided a coherent view of a future in which all citizens would be treated equally, anti-Semitism would not exist, and social inequalities would disappear. Of course that is not at all how things turned out — in Poland or in the USSR.
But the central point here — the question of the formation of the social imagination of Zygmunt Bauman — is that his historical experience in the 1930s and 1940s might have given him a particular and well-defined framework for understanding the potential for evil in modern totalizing states. It did not. Little of his life experience prior to 1945 seems to have had a profound influence on his sociological imagination, or on the topics that he chose to pursue as an academic sociologist. In particular, his early career in the 1950s and 1960s contains almost no reflection on the Holocaust, genocide, political murder, or the origins of totalitarianism. This is evident by examining the extensive bibliography of his writings compiled by the Bauman Center mentioned above.
As a rising sociologist and professor in Warsaw, Bauman chose a cautious path that nonetheless continued to adhere to the idea of “open Marxism” — a more humanist alternative to Stalinist doctrine. And in the early 1960s he became — once again, cautiously — an intellectual source of inspiration for students at the University of Warsaw who demanded greater freedom, greater democracy, and less bureaucracy in their government. Bauman, like other academics, was under constant surveillance by the secret service. The activities and activism of University of Warsaw students led to a major demonstration at the university in March 1968, violently suppressed by the regime, and followed quickly by a hate-based campaign by the Gomułka government placing all blame on “Jewish” elements in the university. This resulted in a massive purge of Jews from government jobs, including in the universities, and to the expulsion of many thousands of Jews (including Zygmunt and Janina and their children) from Poland.
Bauman’s experience in post-war Poland (1945-1968) demonstrated the profound failure of the Communist ideal as well as the insidious power of anti-Semitism in post-war Communist Poland, and these experiences did have an effect on his subsequent development as a social thinker. But it is unclear whether these experiences led to a profound change in the ways that Bauman undertook to understand the social world. (Significantly, his contemporary Leszek Kołakowski broke from support for the Communist regime in Poland a decade earlier than Bauman, and Kołakowski’s shift seems more profound than Bauman’s.)
The question posed above seems to have a fairly clear answer, then: Bauman’s life experience in the 1930s through 1950s (from his teenage years as a persecuted Jewish boy in Posnan through his service in the Polish Army and his appointments at the University of Warsaw) had surprisingly little influence on his worldview and his intellectual framework. His sociological imagination appears to be the result of his engagement with other academic sociologists rather than with the realities of social life in the horrific decades of war and genocide. Most significant were the intellectual and academic influences to which he was exposed — Marxist-Leninism, open Marxism, Western sociology — and his own creative imagination in raising questions within those various frameworks. Bauman contributed little to understanding the horrific realities of the twentieth century (unlike Hannah Arendt, for example), and he confined much of his writing to a level of abstract theorizing that offered little help in understanding totalitarianism, the Holocaust, or the criminality of Stalinism.
Even his signature ideas — modernity and liquid modernity — have little concrete engagement with the specifics of the totalitarian regimes of violence and murder that he experienced under Hitler and Stalin. In a later post I will discuss his 1989 book, Modernity and the Holocaust, which does indeed engage the genocidal regime of the Nazi period. Here are a few sentences:
It is not the Holocaust which we find difficult to grasp in all its monstrosity. It is our Western Civilization which the occurrence of the Holocaust has made all but incomprehensible — and this at a time when we thought we had come to terms with it and seen through its world-wide, unprecedented cultural expansion. If Hilberg is right, and our most crucial social institutions elude our mental and practical grasp, then it is not just the professional academics who ought to be worried. (84)
But note — this book was written and published in 1989 — a half century after the Nazi crimes that Bauman himself witnessed. In a surprising way, Bauman’s intellectual and scientific work seems always to be at a great distance from the historical realities that he himself experienced. And that is indeed surprising. The comparison is perhaps not a fair one, but think of Orwell, and the close parallels that existed between his lived experiences of poverty, class, war, colonialism, and fascism, and the depth and insight of his writings. Can we imagine Orwell without Catalonia? Not at all. But it is not at all difficult to imagine Bauman without Poznań, Majdanek, or the Red Army.
(Here is a recollection of Bauman by several of his colleagues in English sociology; link.)