Heroism Under Tyranny – Apathy Under Freedom
December 7, 2009
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The following remarks are excerpted from a series of leaflets produced by a Christian based anti-war group at Manchester University:
“Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct.”
“If the British people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in lawful order of history; if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass – then, yes, they deserve their downfall.”
“Tennyson speaks of the British as a tragic people, like the Jews and the Greeks, but today it would appear rather that they are a spineless, will-less herd of hangers-on…”
“Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure!”
I wonder how these words strike the reader. Perhaps they seem harsh, condemnatory and surely likely to alienate the average reader. I have a little experience of writing campaign leaflets and I don’t believe I was ever the co-author of anything with such a stern tone, nor have I have ever read anything of a similar character produced by any anti-war group in the country. Perhaps the reader might find themselves preparing rebuttals to such blanket accusation – given the impact of the mass media in dulling critical faculties and insinuating lies the public cannot be considered wholly to blame for its apathy and so on…
However, there’s a simple reason for the unusual tone of these excerpts: they weren’t produced in Manchester at all. Rather, these words are from the work of the White Rose: the German anti-Nazi student group that operated during World War II at the University of Munich. I have simply swapped Britain for Germany and had Tennyson stand in for Goethe. The most famous members of the group were Hans and Sophie Scholl who, along with another activist – Christoph Probst, were tried for treason and executed by a Nazi ‘people’s court’ in 1943.
If the tone seems harsh when the intended audience is believed to be British, it seems vastly more so when we consider that the audience were people living under the rule of the most vicious and cruel dictatorship the world has ever seen, a regime that reacted to dissent with the most extreme brutality – decapitation in the case of the White Rose group, hanging from meat hooks in the case of the anti-Nazi generals, and the slaughter of most of the population of the Czech town of Lidice in the case of Reinhard Heydrich’s assassins.
The White Rose group could hardly have been unaware of the cruelty of the regime they opposed and yet the group did not shy from exhorting, in fact demanding that their fellow citizens take action to against the Nazi state. They took it to be a sacred duty of all people to oppose violence and authoritarianism regardless of the personal cost:
“Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right – your moral duty – to eliminate this system?”
I would suggest that the reason the text of the leaflets appears so alien is that the heroism of groups such as the White Rose is largely alien to contemporary Britain. The British historian Mark Curtis estimates that since World War II, the UK has borne significant responsibility for the deaths of at least ten million people around the world. Those include the victims of direct aggression: the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; the murderous sanctions imposed upon pre-invasion Iraq that have been all but airbrushed from history; the arming and supporting of authoritarian regimes the world over, from Pinochet’s Chile, Suharto’s Indonesia (the author of perhaps the worst case of genocide by proportion of population since 1945 in East Timor) and Putin’s Russia, to the colonial settler society of Israel amongst many others. Not included in these figures are the casualties resulting from the West’s economic relations with the third world, which have inflicted deliberate underdevelopment in order that those countries might remain little more than resource extraction zones for Western corporations and dumping grounds for Western products and waste. We could also add to the list the victims of the economic ‘shock therapy’ imposed upon the former Soviet bloc that led to precipitous declines in life expectancy and other health indicators across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Today Britain is embroiled in two wars, it is the seventh largest arms dealer in the world and it is a supporter of some of the worst human rights abusers in the world, including Colombia, the most violent and oppressive regime in the western hemisphere, Nigeria, Uzbekistan (where the favoured form of torturing dissidents is immersion in boiling water), the Saudi theocracy and Israel amongst others.
While Britain can hardly compare to the monstrous depredations of the Third Reich, many of its practices abroad, as well as those of its allies, are not wildly dissimilar. (Muzafar Avazov was probably little comforted as he was tortured to death by our Uzbek allies by the fact that his captors were not members of the Gestapo or the SS. And it is unlikely to be much of a consolation for an Afghan family to be bombed by the RAF rather than the Luftwaffe).
Unlike Germans living under the Nazis, punishment for dissent in the UK is slight, especially for relatively affluent, educated people such as myself. In dissenting what do people like myself risk? Career prospects maybe, the disapproval of others perhaps, at worst getting tear gassed and beaten at a demonstration – but unlike the White Rose and present-day activists in countries such as Colombia, China or Saudi Arabia, people like me generally do not risk their necks through their political activities. One might imagine that given the freedom of our society and how much blood is on the hands of our leaders, Britain would be a country in a constant tumult of radical political activity, and yet that is transparently not the case. Principled radical dissent remains a marginal presence in our culture. One could of course provide reasons and excuses for that lack and there is some force to those reasons: our educational system and the mass media, it is true, breed little more than cynicism and deceit. However, that cannot offer an explanation for the political apathy of our society. There are simply too many people who know all too well about the crimes they are complicit in but who do nothing or close to nothing to retard and stop those crimes. If I think of my friends and family in the UK they are all, almost without exception, left-wing and progressive, opposed to war, opposed to injustice. And yet I can count on one hand the number of people I know who are actively doing something more than bemoaning the state of the world.
A similar situation pertains with my American friends. Almost without exception they are politically progressive and yet they also do little to act upon those convictions. The one political ‘activity’ my American friends do engage in is bashing the Republican party and its Christian fundamentalist allies. My friends seem to genuinely believe that it is the political right that is the problem: if only the Republicans and Christian extremists would vanish, all would be right with America and the world. But I would like to respectfully suggest to my friends that it is they who are the problem. They are the problem and people like them are the problem – good, progressive, relatively privileged and educated individuals who aside from voting for the liberal hero of the hour every four years consider themselves to have no moral duty to take political action. I don’t say this with much sense of moral superiority – I consider myself to be part of the problem too. Having immersed myself in radical politics I have perhaps fewer illusions about my country than many others and yet my political activity has often been half-hearted and infrequent – for the past two years I have done virtually nothing aside from produce a few articles – instead, like so many I have prioritised hedonistic consumption and my own private psychodramas over more worthwhile concerns.
Even in the most twisted and evil of ideologies there can sometimes be found little kernels of truth that are worth contemplating. Take Muslim fundamentalism for instance. There are many factors in the rise of militant Islam but I would aver that one of the reasons for its appeal is that fundamentalists have sensed something true about us – they have recognised that for all our beautiful words, for all our talk of human rights and democracy, and despite whatever faith we may profess, our real guiding philosophy is a kind of chronic hedonism. Instead of reaching for the heroism of the Scholl siblings we routinely put our careers or our dreams of consumption or our personal travails above the lives of others.
Here are some more harsh words from the White Rose group:
“Why do German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race? …The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals; they give them the opportunity to carry on their depredations; and of course they do so. Is this a sign that the Germans are brutalized in their simplest human feelings, that no chord within them cries out at the sight of such deeds, that they have sunk into a fatal consciencelessness from which they will never, never awake? It seems to be so, and will certainly be so, if the German does not at last start up out of his stupor, if he does not protest wherever and whenever he can against this clique of criminals, if he shows no sympathy for these hundreds of thousands of victims. He must evidence not only sympathy; no, much more: a sense of complicity in guilt. For through his apathetic behaviour he gives these evil men the opportunity to act as they do; he tolerates this ‘government’ which has taken upon itself such an infinitely great burden of guilt; indeed, he himself is to blame for the fact that it came about at all! Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!”
What on earth would the White Rose have said about us?