Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Totalitarianism and Obedience
by Sarah Meyer
My thoughts to publish this writing by Vasily Grossman followed the story, UPDATE: ‘Wash’ Post joins ‘NYTimes’ in Trumpeting “Anonymous Claims on Iranian Weapons, published by Editor and Publisher on 12 February 2007. Juan Cole is on the case in New York Times Falls for Bogus Iran Weapons Charges.
Grossman's superb analysis of totalitarian government expresses my horror at the vast number of politicians, press and people in both the U.S. and UK who, like stoats, DO nothing in the glare of present Iraq and forthcoming Iran disasters.
“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 …
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 ot 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 prisoners but were even guarded by them.
And it wasn’t merely tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, but hundreds of millions of 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.
There was, of course, resistance; there were acts of courage and determination on the part of those who had been condemned; there were uprisings; there were men who risked their own lives and the lives of their families in order to save the life of a stranger. But the obedience of the vast mass of people is undeniable.
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 soul 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.
The instinct for self-preservation is supported by the hypnotic power of world ideologies. These call people to carry out any sacrifice, to accept any means, in order to achieve the highest of ends: the future greatness of the motherland, world progress, the future happiness of mankind, of a nation, of a class.
One more force co-operated with the life-instinct and the power of great ideologies terror at the limitless violence of a powerful State, terror at the way murder had become the basis of everyday life.
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? That in view of this they were ready to take their own children to be executed – ready to carry out the sacrifice once demanded of Abraham? How else can one explain the case of a gifted, intelligent poet, himself a peasant by birth, who with sincere conviction wrote a long poem celebrating the terrible years of suffering undergone by the peasantry, years that had swallowed up his own father, an honest and simple-hearted labourer?
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.
The Warsaw Rising, the uprisings at Treblinka and Sobibor, the various mutinies of brenners, were all born of hopelessness. But the utter hopelessness engenders not only resistance and uprisings but also a yearning to be executed as quickly as possible.
People argued over their place in the queue beside the blood-filled ditch while a mad, almost exultant voice shouted out, ‘Don’t be afraid, Jews. It’s nothing terrible. Five minutes and it will all be over.’
Everything gave rise to obedience – both hope and hopelessness.
It is important to realise what a man must have suffered and endured in order to feel glad at the thought of his impending execution. It is especially important to consider this if one is inclined to moralize, to reproach the victims for their lack of resistance to conditions of which one has little conception.
Having established man’s readiness to obey when confronted with limitless violence, we must go on to draw one further conclusion that is of importance for an understanding of man and his future.
Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom? The fate of both man and the totalitarian State depends on the answer to this question. If human nature does change, then the eternal and world-wide triumph of the dictatorial State is assured; if his yearning for freedom remains constant, then the totalitarian state is doomed.
The great Rising in the Warsaw ghetto, the uprisings in Treblinka and Sobibor; the vast partisan movement that flared up in dozens of countries enslaved by Hitler; the uprisings in Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, and in the labour-caps of Siberia and the Far East after Stalin’s death; the riots at this time in Poland, the number of factories that went on strike and the student protests that broke out in many cites against the suppression of freedom of thought; all these bear witness to the indestructibility of man’s yearning for freedom. This yearning was suppressed but it continued to exist. Man’s fate may make him a slave, but his nature remains unchanged.
Man’s innate yearning for freedom can be suppressed but never destroyed. Totalitarianism cannot renounce violence. If it does, it perishes. Eternal, ceaseless violence, overt or covert, is the basis of totalitarianism. Man does not renounce freedom voluntarily. This conclusion holds out hope for our time, hope for the future.”
"I do not really understand what those Americans are doing because now they are just like an elephant in a china shop, and everything they do is terribly wrong as if they are committing suicide," Talib Ahmad, a lawyer and human rights activist in Najaf told IPS. Quoted in IRAQ: Iran 'Fooling' U.S. Militaryby Dahr Jamail and Ali al –Fadhily.
Reprinted with permission from Random House (Harvill Press), London, pp. 214 – 216, Man and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, 1985.
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