Friday, December 13, 2013

1945: Violence and Vengeance

Humans are clearly capable of violence. Murder and mayhem have been common from the beginning of recorded history. It has been of recurring interest to contemplate the source of our murderous tendencies. Are we reluctantly violent when we believe it necessary, or are we violent because we are predisposed towards violence?

It is tempting to look back at what we know of our history and draw conclusions. Given nearly nonstop wars and atrocities it is easy to draw a bleak picture of human nature. Those trying to extrapolate back further in our evolution have often resorted to analogies with animal behavior where conflict between individuals and between groups of individuals over territories and females provides a convenient segue into violent human traditions. Can the frequent ethnic conflicts among humans be explained by a million or so years of evolution that favored violent response to encroachment on territory or resources by other humans?

Some argue that the animal analogy is overdrawn. It is suggested that a more fruitful approach to understanding prehistory is to explore the behavior of peoples whose current or recent societies closely match the type of existence we are presumed to have experienced for many thousands of generations as hunter-gatherers. When people record observations of hunter-gatherer societies they frequently observe behavior towards other bands that might best be described as "sociable." One observes elaborate gift-giving rituals designed to form bonds between different families and different groups. In facing good times as well as bad in terms of necessary resources, evolution could just as easily have developed a tendency to support sharing between groups as a survival mechanism. Violence in this case would be rare and require some sort of provocation.

World War II, with associated fatalities estimated as high as 85 million, would seem to support the former hypothesis. Most of the casualties were civilian, and much fighting and killing was orthogonal to the major war campaigns, taking place between ethnic groups with a history of enmity.

In 1945, the war was winding down. Previously occupied countries were being liberated, groups that had been effectively in a state of civil war since before the war were free to resume killing each other, and the Russian army was furiously racing eastward bent on revenge. The violence and killing would continue for some time, only coming to an end when the allied forces separated the various ethnic groups and herded them back within national boundaries: Germans would return to Germany; the Poles finally made Poland Polish; Soviet citizens were forcibly sent home; and Jews gradually, but inexorably, tried to make their way to Palestine to form their own homeland. Is this evidence of some primitive drive to repel "the other"—anyone who is not one of us—that was exposed by the breakdown in the veneer of civilization?

Ian Buruma, in Year Zero: A History of 1945, provides some insight into what was taking place in that year when the official fighting ended, but the violence continued. Buruma does not delve into theories of genetically wired performance. He finds plenty of familiar social and cultural means by which violence could be encouraged.

Hate and the desire for revenge are familiar emotions to us all. But what happens when you are given permission, or are even ordered to kill the offending individuals. That is essentially what happened in the fighting in Eastern Europe and Russia.

The German master plan was to quickly defeat Russia, control the food supply and let as many people as possible starve to death. Some of those who survived would be kept as slave labor and the rest transported to Siberia, including all the Jews of Europe, where they would presumably starve, or freeze, and die. German soldiers were instructed before the invasion to kill anyone in a governmental position, or who might be a threat to the German mission. Any captured soldiers were to be killed by starvation. Given those marching orders, and the subsequent behavior, is it any wonder that the Soviet forces were in a nasty mood as they began pushing the Germans back towards their homeland?

"The figures are hard to imagine. More than 8 million Soviet soldiers died, of whom 3.3 million were deliberately starved to death, left to rot in open air camps, in midsummer heat or wintry frost."

"Murder and starvation went together with constant degradation and humiliation. Russians, like other Slavs, were less than fully human in Nazi German eyes. Untermenschen, whose only role would be to work as slaves for their German masters. And those unfit to work as slaves did not deserve to be fed. Indeed, Nazi Germany had a policy, called the Hunger Plan, of starving Soviet peoples to provide Germans with more living space….and food. If fully carried out, this monstrous economic plan would have killed tens of millions."

Soviet leaders made it quite clear that soldiers were expected to have their revenge on the Germans.

"….once the Germans were forced to retreat from the Soviet Union, the Red Army troops were explicitly told to do their worst as soon as they entered German lands. Road signs on the border said in Russian: ‘Soldier, you are in Germany: take revenge on the Hitlerites.’ The words of propagandists, such as Ilya Ehrenburg, were drummed daily into their heads: ‘If you have not killed at least one German a day, you have wasted that day….If you kill one German, kill another—there is nothing funnier to us than a pile of German corpses.’ Marshal Georgy Zhukov stated in his orders of January 1945: ‘Woe to the land of the murderers. We will get our terrible revenge for everything’."

There is a long tradition of the victorious men humiliating the losers by raping their women while they watch helplessly. Soviet propagandists primed their troops by describing Nazi women as being just as bad as the men, and as having grown wealthy and fat off of stolen Soviet treasures. To these soldiers, the Germans they encountered did appear incredibly wealthy.

"What shocked the soldiers, some of whom had barely seen functioning electricity, let alone such luxury items as wristwatches, was the relative opulence of German civilian life, even in the miserable conditions of bombed cities and wartime shortages. Greed, ethnic rage, class envy, political propaganda, fresh memories of German atrocities, all this served to quicken the thirst for vengeance."

"Raping German women, especially those who appeared to have unlimited wealth, and especially in front of the emasculated ex-warriors of the ‘master race,’ made the despised Untermenschen feel like men again."

Masculine humiliation was a potent force in generating violence even for those who had physically suffered little in the course of the war. Buruma cites the conditions in France after liberation as an example.

"During the so-called wild purge….in France, which took place in 1944, before the war was even over, about six thousand people were killed as German collaborators and traitors by various armed bands with links to the resistance, often communists. Double that number of women were paraded around, stripped naked, their heads shaven, swastikas daubed on various parts of their anatomy. They were jeered at, spat on, and otherwise tormented. Some were locked up in improvised jails, and raped by their jailers. More than two thousand women were killed. Similar scenes, though not nearly on the same scale, took place in Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and other countries liberated from German occupation."

"….popular wrath fell disproportionately, and most publicly, on women accused of ‘horizontal collaboration.’….The submission of France by superior German force was often described in sexual terms. The rampant German army, representing a powerful, virile nation, had forced weak, decadent, effeminate France to submit to its will. Horizontal collaboration….was the most painful symbol of this submission. And so it was the women who had to be punished with maximum disgrace."

Buruma then adds another factor that can contribute to violence: guilt.

"The most enthusiastic prosecutors of filles de Boches were usually not people who had distinguished themselves in acts of courage during the war. Once liberation came to formerly occupied countries, all kinds of men managed to present themselves as members of resistance groups, strutting around with newly acquired arm bands and Sten guns, disporting themselves as heroes as they hunted for traitors and bad women. Vengeance is one way of covering up a guilty conscience for not standing up when it was dangerous. This too appears to be a universal phenomenon, of all times."

The most troubling tale provided by Buruma involves the Poles and the Jews. In 1945, many of the Jews who had survived the war and tried to return to their homes in Poland were set upon by the Poles and had to flee—incredibly—to Germany for safety. Greed, guilt, and official connivance can explain much, but some of what transpired in Poland can only be explained by long-standing ethnic hatred.

There were a number of instances where Poles attacked Jews who had just the day before been living peaceably as neighbors. Some were quite willing to do the work of the Nazis.

"In July 1941, the Jews in Radzilaw were locked up in a barn and burned alive while their fellow citizens ran around filling their bags with loot. An eyewitness remembers: ‘When the Poles started rounding up and chasing Jews, the plundering of Jewish houses began instantly….They went mad, they were breaking into houses….they’d just load up their sacks, run home and come back with an empty sack again."

Greed was certainly a powerful motive. Buruma is careful to point out that many Poles acted differently and helped their Jewish neighbors to survive the war. However, that was not an act that they were expected to express pride in.

"People who had protected Jews from being murdered were well advised not to talk about it. Not only because of God’s wrath for helping ‘the killers of Christ,’ but because of the suspected loot. Since Jews were assumed to have money, and their saviors were expected to have been richly compensated, anyone who had admitted to have hidden Jews was vulnerable to plunder."

When the few Jews left tried to return to their homes they discovered that everything they possessed had been confiscated by someone who resented their reappearance.

"A contemporary Polish weekly paper, Odrodzenie, put it succinctly in September 1945: ‘We knew in the country an entire social stratum—the newborn Polish bourgeoisie—which took the place of murdered Jews, often literally, and perhaps because it smelled blood on its hands, it hated Jews more strongly than ever."

Buruma’s recounting of the horrors that occurred in that tumultuous year is, in fact, comforting. There is nothing in his description that suggests we are genetically damaged in such a way that we are inherently susceptible to violent behavior. The murders and bloodshed that occurred on such a massive scale can be explained by rather common factors: following orders, greed, guilt, masculine pride, and culturally-created prejudices.

But, let us hope that the constraints of civilization remain in place forevermore.

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