Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hell On Earth (1)

I’ve been reading Hell On Earth, Brutality and Violence Under the Stalinist Regime, by Ludwik Kowalski, 2008. On page 23 he quotes a Mark Kramer article comparing the way various nations have dealt with their atrocities:

“. . . but it was not until the 1960s and afterward that most Germans truly acknowledged the enormity of Nazi Germany’s crimes.

“In France today, many citizens are still reluctant to look closely at the Vichy period; in Austria many people still pretend that their country was a victim of Nazi aggression; and in Japan political leaders still frequently downplay the atrocities committed by Japanese troops in China, Korea, and Manchuria in the 1930s and 1940s. In the United States, too, many tragic aspects of history – the enslavement of blacks, the campaigns against American Indians, and the internment of Japanese-Americans at the start of World war II – have often been glossed over. Difficult as the process of historical reckoning may be for these Western countries, it is even more onerous in Russia. . . .”

As reprehensible as the acts of other nations were, nothing compares to the enormity of the atrocities committed during the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. The magnitude of the slaughter is beyond comprehending. Perhaps as much as anything, Kowalski is concerned about the fact that so little is being said about the Soviet crimes. It is too soon to get past this period because it has never been properly dealt with. The Nazi crimes have become neat and tidy by comparison. We have book after book about the “final solution.” We know who was responsible at almost every level. We have philosophical speculation about why it happened. I think especially of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, the Banality of Evil. . But we seem to know only bits and pieces about the Soviet atrocities. Survivors tell their tales, mass graves are speculated about, leaders who once followed Stalin subsequently denounce him, but there is no soul searching such as there has been in Europe. Granted many still don’t want to think about what their parents and relatives did during the Nazi period, but others are speculating and trying to come to terms with what happened? Why did it happen? Why did they go along with the Nazis? Why did they become complicit? One can understand why the ordinary members of new generations don’t want to dwell on such matters, but someone must strive to understand. For if we don’t understand why we engaged in the evil of the past, what assurance do we have that our descendants won’t succumb to something similar in the future?

Marcel Gauchet wrote The Disenchantment of the World, a very interesting book that I seem to have speculated about endlessly, e.g., . He argues, as others have, that the West could not have come into existence except through the Church. Gauchet is no Christian engaged in evangelism. He is a secularist and an atheist. Yes, the Christian Church brought the West into existence and established its value system and ideals, he argues, but now the Church needs to back off and let the more efficient secularists handle the future.

Gauchet’s book was published as part of the Princeton series entitled “New French Thought.” This new thought began with the Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, French Philosophy of the Sixties, An Essay on Antihumanism, 1985. After the defeat of the Nazis, French intellectuals developed a love affair with Communism, but the evils of Stalinism eventually became well enough known that the conscientious among them turned from Communism and began looking for something new. The New French thought series includes new courses of thought. I’ve read several of these books and they seem somewhat positive and optimistic. Communism was a failure, but we have our French history to draw upon and surely we can find ways to progress and succeed. They agonized over their Vichy period long enough. Time now to move ahead.

However, while Gauchet has provided a valuable history of the creation of the West out of the Church, his solution doesn’t necessarily follow. The introduction to the American addition by Charles Taylor argues that Christianity doesn’t need to be abandoned. A recent article by Dinesh D’Sousa ( ) makes an argument that comes to the same conclusion.


The West had a set of standards authorized by the Church. God was considered the one who created those standards. He was the ultimate authority for them. When we go back and deplore the Nazis and Stalinists, we do so with a Church-created understanding. Maybe we are not Christian, but we inherited Christian ideals. It is no longer good to do what any self-respecting pre-Christian emperor would do and slaughter all potential enemies without giving the matter a second thought. We are now all faced with “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” We can argue as many of us do that this commandment doesn’t apply to self-defense, and that it is necessary to kill in a just war, and that there is a difference between “killing” in war and murder, but we are still dealing with the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” We can’t ignore it as the Nazis and Stalinists did.

We can compare Hitler to Nebuchadnezzar. He declared himself equal to God. Okay, we might say, if we are objective enough, you have given yourself god-like powers, Hitler. It is you now who decides what is good and evil and not the Christian God. Let’s see how well you do. In retrospect we must say that Hitler didn’t do at all well. Many of his presuppositions were based upon shoddy science. He had a wrong conception of racial differences and the uniqueness of the Germans, and his political and military systems were too oppressive to be borne for long. Nice try, Hitler, but you set your sights too high. You never became equal to God.

Stalin was a slightly different matter. He didn’t think himself equal to God. He thought his “system” was superior to Christianity – or Marx and Lenin did before him and he accepted their philosophies. All he had to do was manage the “system” and the Proletarian revolution would be a great success. Individuals, even large groups of them were not as important as the Communist system.

The Communist vanguard started out small; so its tactics needed, Stalin believed, to be ruthless. Killing or banishing those who might eventually disagree with Communism, was, he thought, only prudent. The Katyn Massacre is a perfect example of this thinking. Any opposition would be likely to come from the Polish officer corps so let’s not dilly dally waiting to see what happens. Kill all the officers. One could do that sort of thing if one had the perfect system and if that system was superior to and superseded Christianity. Christian rules of right and wrong were no longer valid. All that mattered was the perpetuation and progress of the Communist agenda.

No comments: