The Realities of Evil

By Theodore Dalrymple (Sept. 2006)


One of the reasons that I worked for many years as an ill-remunerated doctor in a prison, and used earlier in my life to visit countries torn by civil war, is that extreme situations help to clarify what is important in life. I never arrived in the prison but I wondered how I would react to incarceration, whether I would be a stoic and retreat into myself or be someone who kicked against the traces and made trouble for the authorities just to assert my own continuing humanity.


Of course, the prison in which I worked was nothing in point of inhumanity to the great political prisons and camps of the Twentieth Century. True, there was the odd sadist who worked in my prison, because prison work is always attractive to sadists. I remember one prison warder who became angry when a prisoner had an epileptic fit in my presence.


‘Don’t you do that in front of the doctor!’ he ordered the unconscious man, and I have little doubt that he would have kicked him hard and often – in short, given him what used to be called in prison warders’ parlance ‘the black aspirin,’ which is to say the prison warder’s boot – if I had turned my back for an instant.


Like most of the sadists working in prison, this man was extremely crafty, and took advantage of the labour laws that require concrete evidence of wrongdoing before dismissal. Though long suspected by everyone of cruelty towards the prisoners, suspicions alone were not enough for him to be dismissed. Eventually, he was caught infusing someone’s eye with noxious chemicals, and went to prison himself. But it was the infrequency of such gross cruelty that struck me, not its frequency. 


A recent anthology, entitled From the Gulag to the Killing Fields, edited by Paul Hollander, and published by ISI Books, reminds us of how far man’s inhumanity to man can go, and on what scale. It is a selection from the prison and other memoirs of victims of communist repression in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba and Ethiopia.


Professor Hollander, who provides a long introductory essay, is the author of the now-classic Political Pilgrims, a history of the way in which western intellectuals were duped, and wanted to be duped, by their visits to communist countries into believing that some kind of paradise was under construction and was already partially built: in sharp contrast, of course, to the living hells of their homelands.


Hollander knows whereof he speaks, since he spent some of his childhood in Hungary hiding from the Nazis and then escaped from the communists – but only after the window of opportunity to escape in the immediate aftermath of the revolution of 1956 had closed. These experiences no doubt serve to put the less pleasant aspects of daily life in the west into some kind of perspective.


When you read the accounts of the victims of the repression, you begin to feel that all other subject matter for writing is trivial or self-indulgent. Indeed, a single line can provide more illumination (provided you use your imagination a little) than reams of academic discourse.


For example, when Evgenia Ginzburg, author of the brilliant and terrible memoir, Into the Whirlwind, leaves her apartment to go to the local headquarters of the NKVD, having been called there for a supposedly friendly chat about someone she knows, her husband says to her, ‘Well, Genia, we’ll expect you back for lunch,’ and she replies, ‘Goodbye, Paul dear. We’ve had a good life together.’ She knows, as he does, that she is never going to see him again this side of the afterlife: which is to say never. Thus a fathomless world of pain and sorrow is expressed in those few simple words that shames our vociferous complaints about nothing very much.


We are not dealing here with an isolated case or two, such as the victims of the sadist who worked in the prison in which I also worked. The pain and sorrow as Evgenia Ginzburg expressed was a mass, everyday phenomenon. I remember what a professor told me when I visited the Baltic States just before the Soviet Union collapsed about his childhood in the late 40s: that he never went to bed other than fully-dressed, so that he would have clothes to travel in if the secret police came to the door in the early hours of the morning (they always came in the early hours of the morning). And another professor told me he remembered the trucks that would draw up at his school, whereupon names would be called out of those children who were to get in them and never be heard of again. A tenth of the population of the Baltic States was deported in those years.


Murders and deportations on the scale practised in the communist countries could not have taken place without the co-operation and even the enthusiasm of large numbers of people. Compared with the question of how radical evil on so large a scale became (and could once again become) possible, all other historical and sociological questions seem rather unimportant, especially as we cannot be certain that such radical evil will never again appear in the world. On the contrary.


In his introduction, Professor Hollander quotes Solzhenitsyn. According to Solzhentitsyn, the sine qua non of mass murder as a way of life, or as an industry, is ideology. Before the advent of ideology, people only did harm within a relatively restricted circle, for example in the ruthless furtherance of their own careers. Macbeth is a very bloody play, but only those who in some way stood between Macbeth and the throne had much to fear from him. Ordinary people, at least, could stand aside in the conflict.


There was no standing aside in the ideologised state: either you were for the government, the leader and the ideology, or you were against them. Indeed, once dialectics became the master science, being personally in favour of them was not enough; you had to be objectively in favour of them, that is to say to have no blemish on your record, such as a bourgeois birth, knowledge of anyone with such a birth, or intellectual interests. (An interesting history could be written of the murder or imprisonment during the twentieth century of people who wore glasses, merely because they wore glasses. Communists in particular were inclined to believe that people who wore glasses were their enemies, because – despite their own materialist conception of history, according to which the driving force of history is economic relations rather than ideas – shortsightedness is particularly prevalent among intellectuals, and intellectuals, at least outside the humanities of departments of western universities, have ideas that might cast doubt on the ultimate truth of communist ideology: a backhanded tribute to the fact that ideas ultimately rule the world. An interesting exception among eyeglass-phobic dictators was Macias Nguema, the first, democratically elected, president of Equatorial Guinea, subsequently overthrown by his nephew, the current president, who killed or drove into exile a third of the population, and who had a special animus against those who wore eyeglasses. His animus probably arose more from his uncertain personal claims to intellectual distinction than from the mixture of paranoia and gimcrack ideas about neo-colonialism that he picked up third-hand, which was the nearest he came to ideology.)


Where the means justify the end, as they do for most ideologies, mass murder becomes more likely, perhaps even inevitable in ideologised states. The capacity for cruelty, and the enjoyment of cruelty, that lies latent in almost every human heart, then allies itself to a supposedly higher, even transcendent purpose. Original sin meets social conditioning. A vicious circle is set up: and eventually, viciousness itself is taken to be a sign both of loyalty and of higher purpose.


It is curious how even now, after all the calamities of the twentieth century, the lengths to which people are prepared to go to pursue an end is taken by others as a sign of the worthiness if not of the end itself, at least of the motives of the extremists. The fact that people are prepared to blow themselves up in an attempt to murder as many complete strangers as possible is taken as proof of the strength of their humanitarian feelings and outrage at a state of injustice.


The greatness of a crime is thus a guarantee of the greatness of its motive: for who would order the deportation of whole nations, for example, cause famines, work millions to death, shoot untold numbers, unless he had some worthy higher purpose? And the more ruthlessly he did all these things, the higher his purpose must be to justify them. To participate in the worst of crimes is then to be the best of men. It was under communism (as well as Nazism) that Normal Mailer’s ethical injunction, to cultivate your inner psychopath, became government policy, as well as prudent.


Psychopaths there are, of course, in every time and every place. They are always dangerous, but in some circumstances they are more dangerous than in others. The very qualities that are loathsome at one time are praised as diligence, fervour, loyalty, honesty and so forth at others. Here is a description from the Professor Hollander’s book, written by a Cambodian physician who lived through the three years of Pol Pot’s regime:


   … a new interrogator, one I had not seen before, walked down

   the row of trees holding a long, sharp knife. I could not make

   out their words, but he spoke to the pregnant woman and she

   answered. What happened next makes me nauseous to think

   about. I can only describe it in the briefest of terms: He cut the

   clothes off her body, slit her stomach, and took the baby out. I

   turned away but there was no escaping the sound of her agony,

   the screams that slowly subsided into whimpers and after far

   too long lapsed into the merciful silence of death. The killer

   walked calmly past me holding the fetus by its neck. When he

   got to the prison, just within the range of my vision, he tied a

   string round the fetus and hung it from the eaves with the

   others, which were dried and black and shrunken.


The man who did thus was almost certainly imbued with a profound sense of purpose, given him by an ideology. By a terrible irony, the author, Dr Haing Nor, was shot dead in Los Angeles, where he had taken refuge, by a robber – a psychopath, presumably, of the ordinary sort, though possibly one influenced by the self-righteously angry intonation of modern pop music.


The worst brutality I ever saw was that committed by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru, in the days when it seemed possible that it might come to power. If it had, I think its massacres would have dwarfed those of the Khmer Rouge. As a doctor, I am accustomed to unpleasant sights, but nothing prepared me for what I saw in Ayacucho, where Sendero first developed under the sway of a professor of philosophy, Abimael Guzman. I took photographs of what I saw, but the newspapers deemed them too disturbing to be printed. Human kind at breakfast can bear very little reality. But I also found it difficult to persuade anyone by means of words of the reality of what I had seen: most people nodded and thought I had finally gone mad. On the plane back from Peru, I delighted a worker for Amnesty International when I described to him some of the bad behaviour of the Peruvian Army; but when I described what I had seen Sendero do, incomparably worse, I might as well have talked to him of sea monsters, and of giant squid that could drag nuclear submarines to the depths.


 I wish I could have given him Professor Hollander’s book. Perhaps then he would have caught a glimpse of what insensate cruelties can be inflicted in the name of utopias, and he would not have disbelieved me. In his introduction, Professor Hollander speculates as to why Nazi atrocities should, deservedly, be so well known and their lessons so well- absorbed, while those of communism, that are not exactly unknown, and on an even greater scale than Nazism’s (no thanks to Nazism for that, of course, because Nazism was stopped in mid-atrocity), have comparatively so little emotional resonance: an unfortunate fact which it is the purpose of his book to change. Perhaps the difference exists because elements at least of communism still exert an attraction for so many intellectuals, and no one wants to acknowledge that his ideals justified and in part motivated mass murder on an unprecedented scale. Who would not rather deny the meaning of scores of millions of deaths, than abandon his illusions?   




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