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Monday, August 11, 2008

Something to think about

I am reading Vassily Grossman's "Life and Fate" which is about Stalinist Russia during World War II. I am about a fourth of the way through the tome and came across these paragraphs that are worth reading and thinking about:

The first half of the twentieth century may be seen as a time of great scientific discoveries, revolutions, immense social transformations and two World Wars. It will go down in history, however, as the time when - in accordance with philosophies of race and society - whole sections of the Jewish population were exterminated. Understandably, the present day remains discreetly silent about this.

This is an important, if somewhat obvious, paragraph. Yet, Vassily goes on to describe something that has always struck me as an imponderable in the context of the Holocaust:
One of the most astonishing human traits that came to light at this time was obedience. There were cases of huge queues being formed by people awaiting execution - and it was the victims themselves who regulated the movement of these queues. There were hot summer days when people had to wait from early morning until late at night; some mothers prudently provided themselves with bread and bottles of water for their children. Millions of innocent people, knowing that they would soon be arrested, said goodbye to their nearest and dearest in advance and prepared little bundles containing spare underwear and a towel. Millions of people lived in vast camps that had not only been built by the prisoners but were even guarded by them.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (who recently passed) described similar behavior in his Gulag Archipelago trilogy.

Grossman continues by extending his discussion of obedience of the victims to the obedience of all others:

And it wasn't merely tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, but hundreds of millions wof people who were the obedient witnesses of this slaughter of the innocent. Nor were they merely obedient witnesses; when ordered to, they gave their support to this slaughter, voting in favour of it amid a hubbub of voices. There was something unexpected in the degree of their obedience.

This is the under-appreciated aspect of terror states, whether they be Socialist, Fascist, or Communist - the obedience of the individual has always been shocking to me and it clearly shocked Grossman.

Grossman goes on a few paragraphs later:
What does this tell us? That a new trait has suddenly appeared in human nature? No, this obedience bears witness to a new force acting on human beings. The extreme violence of totalitarian social systems proved able to paralyse the human spirit throughout whole continents.

A man who has placed his should in the service of Fascism declares an evil and dangerous slavery to be the only true good. Rather than overtly renouncing human feelings, he declares the crimes committed by Fascism to be the highest form of humanitarianism; he agrees to divide people up into the pure and worthy and the impure and unworthy.

We have a hard time thinking about this psychological phenomenon in the United States because, while we have an intrusive government in many areas of life, it is not a state that has "limitless violence" such that "murder had become the basis of everyday life."

However, this is where Grossman hits on something that I have never understood (and I am sure I still don't understand fully) - the passivity by which it seemed the victims of the Holocaust and the Purges and the Show Trials accepted their fate:
The violence of a totalitarian State is so great as to be no longer a means to an end; it becomes an object of mystical worship and adoration. How else can one explain the way certain intelligent, thinking Jews declared the slaughter of the Jews to be necessary for the happiness of mankind?


Another fact that allowed Fascism to gain power over men was their blindness. A man cannot believe that he is about to be destroyed. The optimism of people standing on the edge of the grave is astounding. The soil of hope - a hope that was senseless and sometimes dishonest and despicable - gave birth to a pathetic obedience that was often equally despicable.


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