This article from Slate magazine, discovered at New Advent, includes some disturbing information which I cannot recommend for the squeamish. However, what struck me more was the serial obtuseness of its author.
Ron Rosenbaum writes in response to a recent work by historian Timothy Snyder about the deep horror of Stalin’s Soviet Union and the famine imposed by him on the Ukraine from 1932-1933 known today as the Holodomor. Mr. Rosenbaum enters into this topic by rightly noting the rather odd tolerance that exists for the former USSR while intolerance of the Nazi dystopia is pretty much universal. The point is made well, I think, that our youth view Soviet paraphernalia as quaint kitsch. We have all seen the hero-making images of Ernesto Che Guevera everywhere. There is apparently a nightclub in New York called “KGB.” American figure skater Jonny Weir wore a warm-up jacket with CCCP on it. Rosenbaum’s point is that the Soviet Union was responsible for the mass murder of millions, indeed far more millions than Hitler’s regime was, yet naming a pub “KGB” is okay while naming one “Gestapo” would probably have you run out of town.
In Snyder’s book to which Rosenbaum refers, we are told just how intentional the Ukrainian famine actually was. This was not just bad policy on the part of Stalin’s team, not just incompetent husbandry. This was a concerted effort to destroy the will of the Ukrainian people, a people Russians had abused for millennia. The six to seven million deaths during that time is just part of the total Soviet guilt. All told, the regime could have murdered tens upon tens of millions of souls, reduced many millions more to brutal subjugation, and touched off a world-wide revolution of Marxist-Leninist ideology that exported death and violence and saw millions more lives snuffed out. To this, our youth have only to respond that the hammer and sickle on red field looks cool.
Rosenbaum attempts to try to explain this discrepancy between society’s reaction to the Nazis and the Soviets this way:
But quantity [of genocidal deaths] probably shouldn’t be the only measure. There is also intent. To some, Stalin’s murders are not on the same plane (or at the same depth), because he may have believed however dementedly that he was acting in the service of the higher goal of class warfare and the universal aspirations of the oppressed working class. As opposed to Hitler, who killed in the service of a base, indefensible racial hatred.
Sadly, I think Rosenbaum is right. We have as a society largely accepted the strange calculus that says killing in the name of racial purity is the highest kind of evil, “indefensible” even, but killing in the name of socio-economic purity is just misapplied zeal. I’ve simply never understood why blindly violent hatred towards the rich is any more justifiable than hatred against the black or the Latino or the Jew.
All of that said, however, Rosenbaum’s reaction to reading the gut-wrenching details of cannibalism in the Ukraine during the famine and his struggle to make sense of it all has struck me as ridiculous bordering on irresponsible. He writes the following:
I’ve read things as horrifying, but never more horrifying than the four pages in Snyder’s book devoted to cannibalism. In a way I’d like to warn you not to read it; it is, unfortunately, unforgettable. On the other hand, not to read it is a refusal to be fully aware of what kind of world we live in, what human nature is capable of. The Holocaust taught us much on these questions, but alas, there is more to learn. Maybe it’s better to live in denial. Better to think of human history Pollyanna-like, as an evolution upward, although sometimes I feel Darwin spoke more truly than he knew when he titled his book The Descent of Man. Certainly one’s understanding of both Stalinism and human nature will be woefully incomplete until one does read Snyder’s pages.
To not read these pages is to refuse “to be fully aware” of what mankind is capable of. I’m sorry, but that’s just assinine. I know from personal experience and the gift of a liberal arts education of what man is capable. I can see into my own soul with clarity and enough sobriety to know the corrupt nature of the human condition, and I can see in it the elephantine fact that man is indeed capable of anything and everything. I’ve also been treated to the writings of Neitzsche, Marx, Hume, Rousseau, et alia, as well as the accounts of the ancient wars and atrocities of history. Why should I need to read the details of horrific acts by this starving people in order to truly understand the stakes?
Mr. Rosenbaum is correct that the Holocaust and the crimes of the Soviet Union ought to dispel from us any notion of an automatic human progress, of “an evolution upward.” But this is just what I mean. I would argue that any well educated person tempted to think mankind to be misunderstood angels hasn’t been paying attention to history or themselves. After reeling from the revelations of cannibalism in the Ukraine, Rosenbaum writes:
Must we readjust radically downward our vision of human nature? That any human could cause or carry out such acts must mean many are capable of it.
Ummm, well yes. Exactly. This is news to you? Did you read Dante? Have you not read Dostoevsky? Has the story of mankind in Sacred Scripture never passed your purview? Heck, didn’t you ever see the movie “Se7en”? This is precisely what the Church has been saying for centuries. Any one of us is capable of radical sin. Not even the baptized are totally free from corruption. This is why St. Paul warns us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. This is why St. Francis said, as the criminal was led past him, “There but for the grace of God go I.” This is why the Church exists, to mollify and heal the broken and base spirits within us. Again, this is news to you?
Rosenbaum’s analysis gets worse though. He ends his article with some “very preliminary thoughts”:
—There are some distinctions, but no real difference, between Hitler’s and Stalin’s genocides. Once you get over 5 million, it’s fair to say all genocidal monsters are alike.
Finally, the only other conclusion one can draw is that “European civilization” is an oxymoron. These horrors, Nazi and Communist, all arose out of European ideas, political and philosophical, being put into practice. Even the Cambodian genocide had its genesis in the cafes of Paris where Pol Pot got his ideas. Hitler got his ideas in the cafes of Vienna.
Okay, so the first thought here could be tongue and cheek in which case it’s horribly inappropriate. If it’s meant seriously it’s idiotic. The fact that he characterizes this as a “very preliminary thought” is astounding. Why, exactly, is he so tentative about asserting that those responsible for millions of deaths are equally monstrous? Was this in doubt? Are these the sorts of debates that are had at liberal, New York cocktail parties? Do they argue about the number of millions dead necessary for the title “genocidal monster,” or are they, while sipping manhattans, debating the use of a whole ranking system for such monsters? Perhaps this is why murder for class warfare is politically correct, while murder over race is “evil.”
The second thought is so steeped in ignorance – perhaps intentional – it should be included in one of those anthologies of the worst things ever written. While he is absolutely correct that the ideologies that drove Nazism and Communism were born of European minds, what he totally ignores is that these ideologies were crafted by Europeans who had actively rejected the patrimony of the Christian European civilization dominant for a thousand years but now referred to as the Dark Ages. Rousseau, Diderot, Montesquieu, Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Hobbes, Hegel, Darwin, Feuerbach, Marx, Sartre, Nietzsche all of them, and I mean all of them, vociferously rejected the Western, Christian tradition. All of them taught and believed in the natural evolution or progress of mankind to higher states of being. All of them taught that the only measure of truth was one’s own experience and mind. All of them reviled Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular and along with us the civilizing tenets of Christian doctrine, tenets such as that every human person is made in the image and likeness of God.
European civilization is not an oxymoron. What is oxymoronic, or just plain moronic, is the notion that Mr. Rosenbaum and the post-modern mass of mankind that rejects objective truth can believably object to horrors like the Nazis and the Communists. The Enlightenment and its ideas of near-total moral relativism created the stuff of Hitler and Stalin. At one point Rosenbaum writes “[C]an one really separate an ideology from the genocides repeatedly committed in its name?” Mr. Rosenbaum would seem to say no. I would agree, which is why we ought to note the culpability of the Enlightenment and ought to reject its worst presumptions. This is also why the salve that is the Christian ethos ought to be reaffirmed. Christ is still the answer.
Reestablishing this ethos has been the project of Pope Benedict XVI. So in closing, let me quote from his glorious encyclical Caritas in veritate:
Truth opens and unites our minds in the lógos of love: this is the Christian proclamation and testimony of charity. In the present social and cultural context, where there is a widespread tendency to relativize truth, practicing charity in truth helps people to understand that adhering to the values of Christianity is not merely useful but essential for building a good society and for true integral human development. A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance. In other words, there would no longer be any real place for God in the world.
And “Without God,” as Dostoevsky wrote, “all things are permitted.” Long live Christ the King.