On the Holocaust, Genocide, and Evil

December 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

I’m reading Terry Eagleton’s brilliant pamphlet, On Evil. (This came out in 2010, the ever-prolific Eagleton has churned out 4 books since then).  It is, as you’d expect, a meditation on evil, what evil is, what it looks like, how it functions.  And as you’d expect from a literary theorist, Eagleton looks at various examples from literature and the real world.  This includes 20th century fascism.

I’ve always been disappointed with explanations of the Holocaust (or any other genocide) that reduces the motivation of the génocidaires down to “evil,” as in Hitler (or Pol Pot, the Young Turks, the Serb military leadership, etc.) were simply evil and that’s all there is to it.  This is a cop out explanation.  It’s reductionist and absurd.  Genocides, and other horrible acts, are perpetrated by human beings.  Indeed, this was Hannah Arendt’s point about Adolf Eichmann in her monumental Eichmann in Jerusalem: that Eichmann wasn’t a raving anti-Semite, evil excuse for a man. Rather, he was “just doing his job.”  She went on to argue against this idea that evil is responsible for the horrid acts humanity has visited upon itself, that, rather, these horrid acts arise out of rationality.

And certainly, the Holocaust is one of those events.  Eagleton notes that the Holocaust was exceptional, though not due to the body count.  As he notes, both Stalin and Mao killed more people than did Hitler.  Rather,

[t]he Holocaust was unusual because the rationality of modern political states is in general an instrumental one, geared to the achievement of specific ends.  It is astonishing, then, to find a kind of monstrous acte gratuite, a genocide for the sake of genocide, an orgy of extermination apparently for the hell of it, in the midst of the modern era. Such evil is almost always confined to the private sphere.

Eagleton is both right and wrong here.  What makes the Holocaust perhaps more horrifying than other genocides is the sheer rational organisation of it.  What happened in Rwanda in 1994 was arguably more vile and disgusting, as 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were hacked to death in a 100-day spree.  But Rwanda was largely wanton violence and indiscriminate killing.  In many ways, it was the more evil event.  But the Holocaust was organised by the state, it was rational, and it was far-reaching.  In short, it was the Enlightenment taken to a horrifying extreme. By the state; the modern state, of course, is based upon these same Enlightenment ideals.

But the Holocaust was not an acte gratuite, as Eagleton argues, it wasn’t a genocide for the hell of it.

But he is right that such organised, rational terror is usually smaller scale, and in the private sphere, simply because it is easier for a serial killer to organise himself than it is to organise an entire state machine dedicated to the eradication of a group of people from the face of the earth.

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The Long View vs. The Immediate View in History

September 13, 2013 § 7 Comments

When I was doing my PhD at Concordia University in Montréal, I TA’d for one of my favourite profs there, Norman Ingram.  Norman is a French historian and in the Western Civ class I TA’d for him, he had what I still consider to be a brilliant assignment.  He had the students read and compare two books written about the Fall of France in June 1940 during the Second World War.  The first book was by eminent French historian, and member of the résistance (and Jew, which is how Bloch ended up being tortured and shot by the Gestapo in June 1944, as the Allies were swiftly re-conquering France), Marc Bloch, the founder of the Annales School.  The second book was written in 1996 by an historian at the University of Winnipeg, Robert Young.

Strange Defeat was written by Bloch, a captain in the French Army, in the summer of 1940, immediately following the Fall of France.  It is a searing book, almost painful to read, written by a fierce French patriot stunned and shocked his nation collapsed in defeat at the hands of the Nazis.  Bloch blames France’s political and military leaders for failing to have prepared for modern warfare.  And while Bloch remains an annaliste in writing Strange Defeat, the immediacy of the events he’s describing and his anger and fury are clear.

Young’s France and the Origins of the Second World War was, obviously, written some 50+ years after the fact, with the benefit of a half-century of hindsight, other historical views, as well as archival sources.  It is dispassionate, though eminently readable.

The students were then asked to compare and contrast the two books, the immediate view versus the long view.

I think of Norman’s assignment often, both in my own teaching career, as a public historian, and, quite often, on Twitter.  When I worked for a now-defunct web magazine based in London, any time we published anything to do with the Bosnian Genocide, without fail, we would get attacked almost immediately by people arguing that there was no genocide, that the suggestion there was a genocide is just Western imperialism and further proof of a conspiracy against Serbia and the Serbian people.  It was almost like clockwork.

So, yesterday, when I posted this piece commenting on a New Yorker profile of the Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, I expected more of the same.  As you can see from the comments, my expectations were met.  I also got something a bit different, however. I was indeed assailed on Twitter, by a woman who says she’s from Bosnia, who seemed to be arguing that there was no genocide in Bosnia at all, and that she should know, because she was there.  Upon further argument, she was saying something slightly different, that there was a lot of killing going on in Bosnia in the early-to-mid 90s, involving Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians as both aggressors and victims.  That was certainly true.

However, it is indisputable that what happened at Srebrenica was a genocide.  It is indisputable that the VRS, the Bosnian Serb Army, committed ethnic cleansing in Bosnia as a whole in the 1992-95 period.  This has been established by countless experts in the field, it has been confirmed by the ICTY in The Hague.

As the argument carried on, I began to think back to Norman’s assignment, and to think about the difference between the immediate view of the spectator and the big picture view of the analyst.  I’m not convinced that it wasn’t clear that the VRS was engaging in ethnic cleansing and genocide.  But I am convinced that whatever side of the ethnic divide one was on in Bosnia/Herzogovina in the period from 1992-95, it was something close to hell.  And so I am back pondering the difference in what we see based on where we’re standing (there is, of course, also the fact that metric tonnes of ink have been spilled in the past twenty years by journalists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and historians about the events).  I reject the view that there was no genocide, but I do find myself wondering about what someone who was Bosnian Serb would have seen on the ground in that era.

When I lived in Vancouver in the late 90s, I talked to this guy, Dragan, a refugee from Sarajevo, at the local café.  He wouldn’t say what side of the divide he was from, just that he was Yugoslavia.  He was deeply traumatised by the war and genocide.  Vancouver had an international fireworks competition in those days, and we lived in the West End, where the fireworks were.  On those nights, if Dragan was at the café, he’d flinch, noticeably, with every loud noise from the fireworks.  I don’t know what he did in Sarajevo before he escaped in 1995, and I didn’t want to ask.  I don’t know if he was a perpetrator, a victim, or both.  But I often think of how he described the outbreak of war in his cosmopolitan Yugoslav city in 1992.  He said that, quite literally, neighbours of twenty or thirty years turned on each other, that families collapsed in spasms of violence if there was inter-ethnic mixing.  And, as Dragan noted, that was very common in a city like Sarajevo.  The entire world, he said, fell down, everything that had held up his universe collapsed.  He knew very bad things happened in his homeland.  I kind of suspected he might have played a role in his steadfast refusal to say anything, and the cold, steely glare that passed over his eyes when the subject came up, which was often, given he talked about home a lot.

And so, as I was arguing with my interlocutor on Twitter yesterday, I thought about Dragan and I thought about Norman’s assignment.  I thought about the chaos of war and the view on the ground as opposed to the view from the sky, the micro vs. the macro, and I thought how much they could vary.  I don’t have any real answers here, other than the obvious, but I did find the discussion and all it brought up for me rather interesting.

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