Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Hitler

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

May 09, 2005

Sixty years is a long time, more than a lifetime for many people. Sixty years is how long ago the Second World War in Europe ended, sixty years after six years of difficult and often brutal warfare.

Fourteen years is a much shorter span of time, and it is the space between the end of the war and the year of my birth. When I was young the span seemed infinite, but now, at the sixty year mark, the converse seems true, and I realize how closely my own history is tied to the history of that conflict. After fourteen years, the memories were still fresh, the wounds still open.

When I was the age of sixteen, I went on a high school trip to England and Scotland (my next overseas trip would be in 2001, to Australia). I remember seeing bombing damage from the war, somewhat overgrown but still there (it was pointed out to us). I remember visiting the Cathedral at Coventry and thinking that the ruins, still fresh, seemed like ancient history. Last year, when I visited Vienna, I could see the new 60s style buildings that had replaced bombed-out apartments. And just this year I visited Palermo and could see for myself the gaping holes that remain in the city. Even after all these years.

In a column commemorating the end of the war, Canadian author Gwynne Dyer took pains to point out that the Second World War wasn't anything like the second such conflict. The Thirty Years War, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Seven Years War, and the Napoleonic Wars all qualify as world wars, in the sense that they took their conflicts to the four corners of the Earth. Canada's history has been written in such wars, from the fall of Quebec to the expulsion of the Acadians to our first major victory, at Vimy Ridge. Go to Australia and you will see the same history written, albeit through Australian eyes.

Dyer makes the point, well taken, that such conflicts not only occurred on a regular basis (approximately once a lifetime) but also that they have the same essential structure: that the balance of power between two alliances of major powers collapsed, and that therefore the alliances that had preserved the peace made a total conflict inevitable. What characterizes all of the wars listed above is that all of the great powers were involved. What also characterizes them, as Dyer notes, was the widespread descriuction and loss of life on inhuman scales.

In another column over the weekend I read about the need not to forget the lessons of the war. The lessons, not surprisingly, centered around Adolph Hitler, and the fear expressed by the author is that as living memory of the man fades, he will become an artificial figure, something no more than Julius Caesar or Napoleon. One of our months is named after the former, and the memory of the latter is today celebrated in his home country, and the danger is that Hitler, too, may be regarded in this light, as something less than pure evil.

If this is the lesson - that Hitler was evil - that is to be remembered from the Second World War, then it is the wrong lesson. It's not that Hitler wasn't evil; the man whose name is today synonymous with evil certainly qualifies under any definition of the term. No, the mistake lies in fostering the belief that Hitler was somehow unique, that he stands alone as a personification of evil. But even using Hitler's own behaviour as a standard, he is far from alone. The lesson to be learned, and what is most distressing, is that Hitler's brand of evil is appallingly common. Common enough, we should add, to ensure a regular succession of wars. Including, once a lifetime or so, a world war.

Indeed, in the span of years since the fall of Hitler there has been no shortage of leaders determined to emulate the quality, if not the scale, of Hitler's dark side. Stalin certainly qualifies. Mao, in his Cultural Revolution days, qualifies. Idi Amin, who single-handedly depopulated Uganda, qualifies. Pol Pot qualifies. The twentieth century saw no shortage of bloody dictators bent on terror, genocide (or as we call it these days, ethnic cleansing), murder and massacre. What distinguishes Hitler from this mob is not his own peculiar brand of evil, but that he was able to leverage it into a conflict between the great powers.

Even moving outside the realm of world leaders, we can see such evil instantiated. One wonders, for example, what Charles Manson would have done given control of a world power. Or Ed Gein. Or Osama bin Laden. Or Timothy McVeigh. Or any of the hundreds other, thousands other, some of whome have been caught and imprisoned, others of whom continue to roam the streets. Or some of those who have not manifest their evil but have stood within a whisper of power and therefore, the capability to unleash their will on the world.

What we should have learned, but manifestly did not, is that war is no longer an effective means of solving disputes between the great powers. We should have learned, but manifestly did not, that the cost of war, even in victory, far outweighs the rewards. Look, even, at the recent conflict in Iraq, where the most heavily armed nation in history took on an essentially unarmed nation and occupied the country in the space of a few days. The cost of the war, in the hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of American war dead, illustrate clearly that any conflict against a significant foe would be devastating to both victor and vanquished.

What sets the pieces in motion, what makes it possible for a world war to break out, is the calculation by one side or another that a war will solve the problems of the day, whether foreign or domestic. This mood well entrenched in the population, it then becomes only a matter of time before someone more closely aligned with evil than with good tips the scale and pushes us over the brink. The cause of wars is and always will be the belief that wars can be successful.

As Dyer notes, in the horrified aftermath of the Second World War world leaders realized that the next war would be even more devastating, and they swallowed their significant distaste for each other long enough to set up an institution that essentially outlawed wars. Not that it prevented wars; far from it. But the institution represented the collective statement that no country would be allowed to profit from a war, that the territorial and other gains so common in previous wars would not be allowed to stand.

The United Nations has failed in so many areas but in this at least it has been successful. The North Korean attempt to invade the south was repulsed. The Indonesian conquest of East Timor was never recognized and eventually repealed. The Israeli conquests of the Six Day War were never entrenched in law and have been slowly rolled back. China's occupation of Tibet is regarded, even fifty years later, as just that. South Africa was not permitted to maintain a permanent hold over Namibia.

There are certainly good reasons to argue about the failures of the United Nations. About the aforementioned Idi Amin, it did nothing. The Nigerian war against Biafra evoked commentary, but nothing more. About the slaughters a generation later in neighbouring Rwanda, it did far too little, far too late. The ethnic cleansings undertaken in Bosnia and Kosovo it just watched.

But what it did do is keep alive the lesson of the Second World War. Not merely the lesson that Hitler was evil, but that war itself is evil. That war itself is worse than any problem that might lead us into a war. That even apparently 'successful' wars, in the long run, cost us far more than we could ever hope to gain.

Right now, that dark side of humanity is riding high. It is a side that believes that, through the showering of a nation with bombs and with the exercise of military might, there can be successes. Iraq is a model, we are told. It shows that military force can be used to remove an evil and to instill the values of the victor (in this case, ostensively freedom and democracy) and to vanquish those that would stand in its way. That the resistance continues years later is viewed as a triviality. That the war pushed the alignment of great powers into a stand-off mode matters little. Nor is any note taken of the suggestion that other conflicts - such as, say, an invasion of Taiwan - could be successful.

Nor either are the costs being fairly calculated. War pushes the boundaries; it allows us to regard as less evil that which in peacetime we would condemn outright. A nuclear-armed dictatorship in an unstable region would normally be viewed as a threat in its own right, but Mussarif's Pakistan is instead courted as an ally. In peacetime a republic that tortured and killed its own people would be shunned, but in the current war it is showered with foreign aid. It is easy to slide down this path, isn't it, to slide down that thin line that separates those who fight evil with those who are evil.

It would today take very little to push us over the edge. It would, indeed, take nothing more than one evil person in one position of power. And whether that person is based in Washington of Beijing or Islamabad is increasingly a matter of chance. No, Bush - today's Bush, at least - isn't that man. He, like the architects of the other great powers, is merely setting the stage, putting into place out collecting unconsciousness, erasing the memory of the horrors of war, dismantling the institutions designed to prevent its eruption.

From time to time as I live my life in this interlude between the great wars I venture into a longstanding Canadian institution, the Canadian Legion. It is usually filled with old guys, their numbers decreasing with the years, so much so that they are staging membership drives in order to stay afloat. Pictures of bombers and battleships adorn the walls and the veterans sit around and play bingo and darts, drinking a glass of draft and complaining about the government.

Legions vary from region to region. The membership is different, the buildings are different, the atmosphere is different. Some have managed to make the transition to modernity, and as Canadian peacekeepers are experienced and decorated there is here and there a new youthful membership is emerging. But what strikes one about the Legions is not how they differ but in how they are the same. In how they each bear portraits of the Queen and Prince Charles. In how each demands respect for the men and women who fought. In how each is decorated with the battle flags and insignia of the Canadian Forces. And in how each one, somewhere on the wall, usually near the entrance, placed in a location nobody can avoid, the single two word slogan:

Never again.

I sometimes wonder whether we are capable of learning, whether we are capable of breaking out of this cycle of conflict that has wracked our civilization once a lifetime, whether we are capable of genuine peace. Not because I wonder whether evil can ever, finally, be eliminated, because I am not sure that it can. But because I wonder whether, somehow, we could ever manage to ensure that eveil cannot gain power, and even if it does gain power, cannot drive us over the brink. And I'm not so sure we can.

Because people forget. People forget about what Austria and Germany were before the most recent cycle of wars - they forget that these were not only centers of culture and learning, pinnacles of civilization, but also stable constitutional monarchies with more or less civilian governments, more or less democratic institutions, thoroughly modern nations in all respects, the envy of the world, the center of power and of commerce.

Nietzsche, writing at the height of this society, recalls a similar age: "Socrates guessed even more. He saw through the noble Athenians; he saw that his own case, his idiosyncrasy, was no longer exceptional. The same kind of degeneration was quietly developing everywhere: old Athens was coming to an end. And Socrates understood that the world needed him--his method, his cure, his personal artifice of self-preservation. Everywhere the instincts were in anarchy, everywhere one was within sight of excess: monstrum in animo was the common danger."

"The impulses want to play the tyrant," wrote Socrates, and we, today, see no shortage of the manifestations of such impulses. And if even Socrates could not save the Athenian people, and if even Nietzsche could not save the German people, who am I?

Memory is so short; it lasts only a human lifetime.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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