Very ordinary people being very evil

The world saw our humanity at its worst in France in events giving rise to Robespierre and Napoleon, in Russia in events giving rise to Lenin and Stalin, and in Germany in events giving rise to Hitler.  In each there was not just a violent regime change, but a violent destruction of a whole system of government, and the rise of a government that practised if not subsisted on terror, and which we now characterise as totalitarian.  Each of those sequences of events therefore comes four-square within the meaning of ‘revolution’ – but for some reason, I don’t know what – we apply that term only to the French and Russian convulsions, not the German.

Each nation saw great harm suffered by people as a result of great evil.  On each occasion, history shows us humanity at its worst or lowest.  Yet two of those nations, France and Germany, were seen, at least in Europe, as two exemplars of civilisation – of Europe, or more broadly, the West. 

Russia was not and is not part of Europe.  Since that nation has never known what the West knows as the rule of law, most in the West do not regard it as civilised.  Russia has a different view of its standing in the world, and it tends to regard any tenet of the West as prima facie wrong.

Which of those national collapses entailed the most evil is an opinion on which reasonable minds may differ.  It is a question that is in my view well beyond us.  As I see it, only two kinds of people would assert a capacity a capacity to give a reasoned answer to allow a judgment to that question – those who think that morality can be resolved by arithmetic; and those who think they are God.

But there is I think a general impression that humanity could not sink any lower than the Germans did under Hitler.  I refer to an ‘impression’ because that is all I think that it can amount to – like Monet trying to give an impression of light upon water. 

But I wonder to what extent that impression derives from the availability of film shot at the time, and the relentless reproduction of television documentaries on the subject – and the fact that one of the war crimes of Nazi Germany was on a scale so gross and beyond precedent that the world saw fit to create a new nation for the primary victims.

Those people who catalogue these crimes against humanity, like Timothy Snyder of Yale, are acutely conscious that the mere placement of numbers may annihilate our sense of humanity – and so cause us to forget that each single person in the many millions – every last boy or girl – had his or her own worth or dignity.  That dignity arises from the mere fact that every person is human.

Well, at least that is the view of those nations that we regard as civilised.  For example, the German constitution begins: ‘Human dignity shall be inviolable.  To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.’ 

That is not so in nations that have not known the rule of law, but have always been subject to despots of one colour or another ruling by armed force and fear.  We call regimes that say that all human rights are subject to the demands of the State ‘totalitarian’.  The three nations we refer to descended to that level.

The arithmetic can be unhingeing as well dehumanising.  About, say, seven million Germans died during World War II.  About, say, twenty million Russians.  The Poles suffered a greater population percentage loss.  Merely to mention figures that way is to flirt with a kind of blasphemy.

Elsewhere, I said this.

If you accept as an article of faith that each of us has our own dignity or worth just because we are human, then it is wrong for anyone to treat anyone else as a mere number.  We are at risk of doing just that when we seek to compile numbers of the victims of the three regimes that we have been looking at. 

The essential crime of both Hitler and Stalin was that they degraded humanity by denying the right to dignity, by denying the very humanity, of people beyond count by denying the humanity of one man, woman, and child multiplied to our version of infinity.  Every one of those victims – every one – had a life and a worth that came with that life that was damaged or extinguished.  In his book Bloodlands, Richard Snyder endorsed the proposition that ‘the key to both National Socialism and Stalinism was their ability to deprive groups of human beings of their right to be regarded as human,’ and when we descend to statistics, we might do the same. 

Stalin and Hitler murdered fourteen million people between them over twelve years.  Nearly 700,000 were shot in Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937 to 1938.  Some four million Soviet citizens were in the Gulag when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.  As we saw, the NKVD massacred many of their own prisoners as the Germans advanced in order to stop the Fascists getting their hands on more forced labour.  The Soviets sentenced a further two and a half million people to the Gulag during the war.  The NKVD remained active anywhere that the Fascists did not reach including Leningrad under siege where those poor wretches were starving to death.  More than half a million deaths were recorded in the Gulag in two years.  They all died without grace or dignity.  The Germans killed about three million Soviet prisoners of war, which is about the number of Ukrainian peasants that were starved to death by the Soviets in 1932–1933.  The total Russian casualties of that war, civil or military, were of the order of twenty million which is more than two and half times greater than the casualties of all nations for the First World War.

My own impression is that those who think that the lowest depths of humanity were plumbed by the Germans are not sufficiently acquainted with the horrors – the bestiality – that occurred during what are known as the French and Russian revolutions.  Some have a general awareness that both Stalin and Mao probably murdered more people than Hitler.  But have they seen how we got right back to the primal slime elsewhere?

Here are some citations from Carlyle on The French Revolution.

One begins to be sick of ‘death vomited in great floods’.  Nevertheless, hearest thou not, O Reader (for the sound reaches through centuries), in the dead of December and January nights, over Nantes town, – confused noises, as of musketry and tumult, as of rage and Lamentation; mingling with the everlasting moan of the Loire waters there?  Nantes Town is sunk in sleep; but the Representant Carrier is not sleeping, the wool-capped Company of Marat is not sleeping.  Why unmoors that flat-bottomed craft, that gabarre; about eleven at night; with Ninety Priests under hatches?  They are going to Belle Isle?  In the middle of the Loire stream, on signal given, the gabarre is scuttled; she sinks with all her cargo.  ‘Sentence of deportation’, writes Carrier, ‘was executed vertically.’  The Ninety Priests, with their gabarre coffin, lie deep!  It is the first of the Noyades, what we call Drownages, of Carrier; which have become famous forever.

Here is a part of the infamous September Massacres.

Man after man is cut down; the sabres need sharpening, the killers refresh themselves from wine-jugs.  Onward and onward is the butchery; the loud yells wearying into base growls.  A sombre-faced, shifting multitude looks on; in dull approval; in dull approval or dull disapproval; in dull recognition that it is a Necessity.

This is how Stefan Zweig described the execution of revolutionary justice at Lyon.  The whole city was to be liquidated – that is, wiped off the face of the earth.  As Hitler would do to the village of Lidice in reprisal for the assassination of one of the most brutal killers known to man, Reinhard Heydrich.

Early that morning, sixty young fellows are taken out of prison and fettered together in couples.  Since, as Fouché puts it, the guillotine works ‘too slowly’, they are taken to the plain of Brotteaux, on the other side of the Rhone.  Two parallel trenches, hastily dug to receive their corpses, show the victims what is to be their fate, and the cannon ranged ten paces away indicate the manner of their execution.  The defenceless creatures are huddled and bound together into a screaming, trembling, raging, and vainly resisting mass of human despair.  A word of command and the guns loaded with slugs are ‘fired into the brown’.  The range is murderously close and yet the first volley does not finish them off.  Some have only had an arm or leg blown away; others have had their bellies torn open but are still alive; a few, as luck would have it, are uninjured.  But while blood is making runnels of itself down into the trenches, at a second order, cavalrymen armed with sabres and pistols fling themselves on those who are yet alive, slashing into and firing into this helpless heard, of groaning, twitching and yelling fellow mortals until the last raucous voice is hushed.  As a reward for their ghastly work, the butchers are then allowed to strip clothing and shoes from the sixty warm bodies before these are cast naked into the fosses which await them.

Bystanders, solid citizens all, applauded.

One further citation from Carlyle will serve to link the horrors of the French during these times with those of the twentieth century when mass murderers defiled their victims even in death: 

One other thing, or rather two other things, we will still mention, and no more:  the blond perukes; the Tannery at Meudon.  Great talkers of these Perruques Blondes: O reader, they are made from the Heads of Guillotined Women; the locks of a Duchess, in this way, may come to cover the scalp of a cordwainer, her blonde German Frankism his black Gaelic poll, if it be bald.  Or they may be work affectionately, as relics, rendering one suspect?  Citizens use them, not without mockery; of a rather cannibal sort.  ….  Still deeper into one’s heart goes that Tannery at Meudon; … ‘There was a tannery of Human Skins; such of the Guillotine as seem worthy flaying: of which perfectly good wash-leather was made; for bleaches and other uses.  The skin of the men, he remarks, was superior in toughness (consistance) and quality of shamoy; that of the women was good for almost nothing, being so soft in texture …’  Alas, then, is man’s civilisation only a wrappage, through which the savage nature in him can still burst, infernal as ever?  Nature still makes him: and has an Infernal in her as well as a Celestial.

People who think that they can measure that sort of evil have a problem.  Carlyle was reduced to speaking of the madness in the hearts of all men.

There is a related problem. 

Some like to think, or dream perhaps, that ordinary people, decent people – the kind of automaton that does not exist, but which is conjured up by vacuous politicians as a substitute for policy, or even thought – are not capable of that kind of evil.  We saw it with the film Downfall.  Hitler was kind to his secretary and his dog.  People said they made him look human.  What should they have done – put horns on his head? 

Of course he was human.  It is simply wrong to say that his kind of evil is inhuman.  It is even worse to say that Hitler was evil in a way that only a German could be.  To brand a whole people as evil takes you right back to where we all started.  That is precisely the evil of which Hitler was guilty – as were all of those who followed him in that course.

During what the Americans call the War of Independence, there was a civil war between Patriots and Loyalists that saw humans behaving like beasts.  There were, Churchill said, ‘atrocities such as we have known in our day in Ireland.’ An American historian said that the ‘war in the lower south became a series of bloody guerrilla skirmishes with atrocities on both sides’.  During the Russian civil war, women covered themselves in their own shit in vain attempts to forestall rape, and if a child went missing, the immediate fear was cannibalism.

I wish to cite three distinguished writers on the issue of the evil that may inhere in us all.

Hannah Arendt got up a lot of people’s noses for what she said in Eichmann in Jerusalem.  Curiously, what I regard as the most significant parts of a most valuable collection of insights did not arouse so much antipathy.

Elsewhere, I said:

In the book, Arendt said this about the banality of evil.

When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to the phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial.  Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing could have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain’.  Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.  And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post.  He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realised what he was doing….  He was not stupid.  It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.  And if this is ‘banal’, and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace

Arendt had previously said to the same effect: ‘The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are terribly and terrifyingly normal.’  In other words, Eichmann was no devil or demon; he was just human, and the trouble for us is that he was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’. 

The phrase ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’ has always seemed to me to be far for more pregnant with meaning than that of ‘the banality of evil,’ even if they are related.  At least as it appears to me, those who do not accept that Eichmann was just human, and that there is a little bit of Eichmann in all of us, are seeking to impose on us some kind of Procrustean bed, and are at risk of falling into the error that fed the derangement of people like Stalin and Hitler.  That is what I see as the real point of the book, and that is what I think makes it a great book.  And as with other great books, the reaction to it is almost as instructive as the book itself.

That observation of Arendt is well known now.  When I wrote about it, I was equally familiar with the remarks of Macaulay about the massacre at Glencoe.  This was a ghastly, perfidious action – aktion in German – of ethnic cleansing – extirpation – carried out in Scotland under a royal warrant signed in London.  An armed detachment was sent to the Highlands to accept the hospitality of the proscribed clan and then to murder them – in cold blood, man, woman, and child – in the name of the law.  Some of the killers got queasy and they botched the massacre, allowing some of the clan to escape – and face death in the cold.

Macaulay sweated on his account of this frightful crime against humanity.  And then he sought to understand it.

We daily see men do for their party, for their sect, for their country, for their favourite schemes of political and social reform, what they would not do to enrich or avenge themselves…. virtue itself may contribute to the fall of him who imagines that it is within his power, by violating some general rule of morality, to confer an important benefit on a church, on a commonwealth, on mankind.  He silences the remonstrances of conscience, and hardens his heart against the most touching spectacles of misery, by repeating to himself that his intentions are pure, that he is doing a little evil for the sake of great good.

Appropriately for us now, the passage ends with Macaulay’s saying that we could not imagine that ‘Robespierre would have murdered for hire one of the thousands whom he murdered from philanthropy.’  And you see that Macaulay referred to the insidious incitement of ‘virtue’.  It was precisely this talisman that Robespierre and his henchman, Saint Just, sought to invoke – in Latin.

And we might conclude with observations on Robespierre and the others involved in the Terror – the people who gave us the word ‘terrorist’. 

The English historian J M Thompson began academic life as member of the cloth.  He turned to teaching history – European history, especially the French Revolution – and he wrote about it with singular charity and clarity.

We are often surprised, in studying the Revolution, to find that those who appear in public as violent demagogues, or bloodthirsty monsters, are at home the mildest of men.  With the reputation of kind husbands, indulgent fathers, and faithful friends.  To many of these men, their revolutionary activities were a business which they left behind at the committee room, or at the doors of the House; to a few they were a religion, which they kept for the altar of the country, or for the ministry of the guillotine.  If they were savage, they were savage officially.  They were no more addicted to bloodshed (speaking generally) than is a public executioner.  If they acted a part in the public eye, we cannot accuse them hastily of being hypocrites: all officialism and all professionalism, from that of religion downwards, stand in danger of the same judgment.

It is like an induced schizoid condition of split personality.  And we do know that when it comes to matters of state, or if there is real money on the table, the Sermon on the Mount goes clear out the window.

Thompson was speaking there of Jean Paul Marat, the sometime ‘doctor’, who embodies the truth that in times of unrest, the scum rises to the surface. 

And in speaking of people being savage ‘officially’, Thompson reminds us of that servant of the Reich – it may have been Eichmann – who was said to have gone to work with death in his briefcase.

We are speaking of ordinary people being bestial.  But when we are, we are worse than animals.  So far as we know, animals are not cruel intentionally, and they do not inflict or inspire terror as a matter of policy. 

And in all this, we are subject to one sovereign truth.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Take Robespierre – our foundation ‘terrorist’.  He was born to provincial parents.  He had to assume headship of his family when young.  Educated by the Jesuits and then trained in the law, he was reserved, but he had little in reserve, and like latterday would-be dictators, he had no real friends.  He gave up a valuable judicial post because he could not in Christian conscience pass a death sentence.  He argued firmly and with understanding against France going to war – in a manner beyond Messrs Blair and Bush.  He said, with complete truth, that no one likes ‘armed missionaries.’

Yet within a few years, he became a political murderer as cold and dedicated as Reinhard Heydrich.  With no prior instruction in the art of government, he was thrust into leading a nation that had collapsed internally and which was threatened externally with annihilation – and he was facing forces that would surely have killed him and others if they had lost power. 

Then faction dictated that you either killed or got killed.  Then, not surprisingly, Robespierre went out of his mind.  He decided that he could reinvent God; he dressed up like a fop; and he descended into mere gibberish.

You fanatics have nothing to hope from us.  To recall men to the worship of the Supreme Being is to deal fanaticism a mortal blow.  All follies fall to the ground before reason.  Without compulsion, and without persecution, all sects are to be merged in the universal religion of virtue.

Then the instinct of self-preservation took over in those around him, who were giggling so nervously, and Robespierre fell after a colleague – it was Fouché – who had been raised in an Oratorian seminary, who had commanded the slaughter at Lyon, and who would be chief of police under Napoleon, went around whispering into terrified ears: ‘I hear he has a list – and that your name is on it.’  Fouché was the ultimate survivor.

And that nice, kind, young man from Arras prefigured Joseph Stalin. 

As Miss C V Wedgwood remarked: ‘One common humanity can produce a Napoleon and a Buddha, the guards at Buchenwald and the nuns of Leper Island.’

The quest to understand evil is a prime function of history.  In that quest, we are subject to two fallacies.  One is that some of us can meaningfully adjudicate upon relative evil.  Another is that committing the worst evil is beyond most of us.  It is a sad mix of pride and prejudice.

History – French, Russian, and German revolutions – the nature of evil – the function of history – Arendt – Carlyle – Macaulay.

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