Saturday, May 29, 2010

Those Crazy Genocidal Maniacs!

I submit to you that most of the brutal dictators and architects of genocide throughout history—Ghenghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Mobutu, Saddam Hussein—were not insane. All of them commingled a pragmatic opportunism with a social utopianism, some inclining in one direction more than the other. Some were more sadistic, and others seemingly dispassionate. I tend to see Hitler, for instance, as an ordinary person who indeed had some peculiarities but whose rise to power resulted from luck, accident, and ambition. In the immediate aftermath of World War I he happened to discover a particular talent for inspiring listeners with a passionate speaking style. The unanswered question in my mind is to what extent Hitler was truly exceptional. Both Hitler-admirers and those who subscribe to the Hitler-was-Satan-incarnate thesis answer this question in the affirmative. I disagree with their points of view. The one group has bought into the well-cultivated Führer Myth hook, line and sinker. Hitler’s followers already started to nurture this myth in the early 1920s, linking Hitler with destiny: he was the right man at just the right time and seemed to possess divinely-ordained courage, insight and wisdom. The other group cannot come to terms with Hitler’s evil without divesting him of his humanity.

When we dehumanize a mass murderer for the purpose of safeguarding our belief in the basic goodness of humanity, especially our own self-image as a good and decent person, we inhibit an honest appraisal of the historical circumstances and consequently arrive at no conclusion that could lead to solutions or offer warning signs for the future. It’s a self-defense mechanism. Any right-thinking person like you and I would never do such a thing; yet, history is replete with murderous dictators and serial killers, who, by all appearances, were ordinary men (women in some rare cases), and, for the most part, they were. That’s the hard truth about humanity. But I’m getting into the arena of opinion and do not want to suggest that this perspective is the proper historical viewpoint. It’s a matter of interpretation that draws upon the historical record as well as our beliefs, fears and hopes about our capabilities and nature this side of paradise. The horror, the horror.