Ed Driscoll

The Banality of Justifying Evil

In “Stalin, Sane,” National Review Online’s Andrew Stuttaford links to Anne Applebaum’s review of a new biography of Joseph Stalin:

Writing in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum reviews the first volume of what looks like an interesting new biography of Stalin (it takes the story up until 1928). Critically, its author, Stephen Kotkin, appears to dispense with glib ‘psychological’ alibi (tough childhood and so on) for what Stalin became, replacing it with the more sinister explanation that his actions were, in one sense, perfectly rational:

 His violence was not the product of his subconscious but of the Bolshevik engagement with Marxist-Leninist ideology. This ideology offered Stalin a deep sense of certainty in the face of political and economic setbacks. If policies designed to produce prosperity created poverty instead, an explanation could always be found: the theory had been incorrectly interpreted, the forces were not correctly aligned, the officials had blundered. If Soviet policies were unpopular, even among workers, that too could be explained: antagonism was rising because the class struggle was intensifying.

And if you think that that sounds a lot like a true believer trying to square the teachings of his faith with perennially inconvenient reality you would be right. The frontier between avowedly atheistic communism, a “political religion” (as it has often been described) and more conventional religious belief is not as clearly defined as is so often imagined. Trying to understand why Stalin was attracted to such a creed thus raises unsettling questions—over what we want to believe, and why— that go far beyond the motivation of a series of communist fanatics.

As Glenn Reynolds likes to say, “Communists are just Nazis with better PR”; those engaging in PR spin to defend Stalin and his crimes go far beyond the Russians themselves to include numerous academics in both the US and England (including venerated British historian Eric Eric Hobsbawm, a true believer to the very end), crazed filmmakers such as Oliver Stone, and more than a few journalists in places such as the New York Times. But note how similar the “Stalin was a hideously deformed monster” theories dovetail with those who wish to whitewash their nation of the crimes of another murderous tyrant. Or as Ron Rosenbaum, the author of Explaining Hitler wrote in 2006:

As I tried to point out in Explaining Hitler, so called “psycho-historical” theories of Hitler have long been justly discredited, but still attract those who find some kitschy thrill in contemplating the sexual and personal perversities of Nazis.

Psycho-historical theories have been discredited both for lack of credible evidence and for flawed notions of causation. Here, for instance, it sounds like the director has blindly accepted the dubious, contradicted hearsay that Hitler’s father beat him, promoted strenuously without corroboration by psychoanalyst Alice Miller (who, again without corroboration “explains” Hitler’s anti-semitism by claiming Hitler’s father beat him because the father was upset that he, the father, might have “Jewish blood”–a concatenation of unproven, unprovable old wives tales). Even if it were true that Hitler’s father beat him this does not support the notion that therefore Hitler became a mass murderer because he resented Daddy. All too many children are beaten by their fathers, true, but only Hitler became Hitler because his exterminationist impulses had the enthusiastic support of hundreds of thousands of “ordinary” Germans and other Europeans.

Second, the focus on Hitler’s alleged personal peculiarities, de-historicizes the causes of the Holocaust; making it some kind of outgrowth of personal revenge and perversion rather the culmination of centuries of murderous anti-semitic hatred in Europe carried out by hundreds of thousands of non bed-wetting accomplices to Hitler. It de-politicizes the genocidal hatred in an utterly trivializing way. The Holocaust was not the product of one man’s personal peccadilloes, but of a powerful historical, theological and racial ideology that a juvenile comic focus on “bed-wetting” utterly obscures and in effect denies.

In his recent article “Arendt, Banality, and Benhabib: A Final Rejoinder,” Richard Wolin of the Jewish Review of Books writes:

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt viewed Nazism as a manifestation of “radical evil,” insofar as, as she explains in her preface, its crimes could “no longer be deduced from humanly comprehensible motives.”

Actually, the motives of Nazism and Bolshevism, those twin “heresies of socialism,” as Richard Pipes has dubbed them, flow logically and inexorably from the rhetoric of those whom Martin Marty dubbed “The Bearded God Killers” of the 19th century, and the “Progressives” such as H.G. Wells and Margaret Sanger who followed them in the early 20th century.  And they certainly can be deduced from humanly comprehensible motives.

At least by those who wish to make the effort.