Can one do evil without being evil? This was the puzzling question that the philosopher Hannah Arendt grappled with when she reported for The New Yorker in 1961 on the war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi operative responsible for organising the transportation of millions of Jews and others to various concentration camps in support of the Nazi’s Final Solution.
Tag Archives: History
The ramparts of the Portuguese Castle of the Moors – “Castelo dos Mouros” – fell to the Christians of the Second Crusade in 1147, a bunch of thieves and drunkards, according to local reports, which included a fair number of Brits. There’s a story that a huge fortune in gold and coins still lies beneath the castle’s broken and much-restored walls, hidden there by the Moors when Afonso Henriques’ thugs were climbing the hills above Sintra. My guess is there’s none. Our relations with the Muslims have always revolved, it seems to me, around money and jealousy. Besides, the Crusaders looted their way across Lisbon – after a solemn agreement with the King that they could do so – and then massacred and raped their way through the panic-stricken Muslim population.
It was the only victory the Second Crusade achieved – things went badly wrong for it in the real Middle East. After that – and the 15th-century expulsion of the Muslims – Portugal’s conflict with the region was economic rather than military, trying to grab the Indian trade routes from Yemeni Arabs. When Vasco da Gama “discovered” India and reached Calicut (Kozhikode) on 20 May 1498 – this story comes from Warwick Ball’s Out of Arabia – he was greeted by an Arab from Tunisia with the words “May the devil take you! What brought you here?”
At the trial of Antonio Gramsci in 1928, the prosecutor declared: “We must stop this brain from working for 20 years.” Gramsci, the former leader of the Italian Communist Party and a gifted Marxist theoretician and journalist, was sentenced to two decades’ imprisonment by Benito Mussolini’s fascist government.
Yet confinement marked the flowering, rather than the decay, of Gramsci’s thought. He embarked on an epic intellectual pursuit with the aim of an enduring legacy. His Prison Notebooks, as they became known, comprised 33 volumes and 3,000 pages of history, philosophy, economics and revolutionary strategy. Though permitted to write, Gramsci was denied access to Marxist works and was forced to use code to evade the prison censors. In 1937, having long been refused adequate health care (his teeth fell out and he was unable to digest solid foods), Gramsci died, aged 46.
Almost 140 years ago, a wave of bombs exploded in London. Though they killed a relatively small number of people, they attracted a lot of attention.
The work of Irish extremists hoping to shift public opinion and political thinking about the future of their nation lasted several years. In October 1883, one of their bloodiest attacks injured 40 people on a tube train pulling out of Paddington station. Other targets included the offices of the The Times newspaper, Nelson’s Column, the Tower of London and Scotland Yard.
Throughout the decade, there were other bombings elsewhere in Europe perpetrated by various extremist groups and hitting theatres, opera houses, the French parliament and streetside cafes. In 1920, Wall Street itself was bombed. The wave of attacks prompted concern about new technologies, such as timers and dynamite, which was said to be “cheap as soap and common as sugar”, and drew debate as to how to protect cities and mass transit systems from violence.
Nearly 150 years later, a spate of recent attacks in major European cities have led to similar warnings. Experts tell us how easy it is to construct a viable explosive device with instructions from the internet, and warn of how we can, or can’t, protect our public spaces from the new tactic of using vehicles as murderous rams. After a truck was driven into a crowd at a Christmas market in Berlin last year, the police chief, Klaus Kandt, pointed out that with so many potential targets – 2,500 such markets in Germany and 60 in the city alone – it was impossible to reduce the risk to zero.
I covered the war in El Salvador for five years. It was a peasant uprising by the dispossessed against the 14 ruling families and the handful of American corporations that ran El Salvador as if it was a plantation. Half of the population was landless. Laborers worked as serfs in the coffee plantations, the sugar cane fields and the cotton fields in appalling poverty. Attempts to organize and protest peacefully to combat the huge social inequality were met with violence, including fire from machine guns mounted on the tops of buildings in downtown San Salvador that rained down bullets indiscriminately on crowds of demonstrators. Peasant, labor, church and university leaders were kidnapped by death squads, brutally tortured and murdered, their mutilated bodies often left on roadsides for public view. When I arrived, the death squads were killing between 700 and 1,000 people a month.
Lenin knew that revolution wouldn’t happen overnight – we must bear this in mind as capitalism fails us today
Perhaps the key achievement of Lenin was that he silently dropped the orthodox Marxist notion of revolution as a necessary step in historical progress. Instead he followed Louis Antoine Saint-Just’s insight that a revolutionary is like a seaman navigating in uncharted territories.
This was Lenin’s answer to the big problem of western Marxism: how is it that the working class does not constitute itself as a revolutionary agent? Western Marxism, at the time, was in a constant search for other social agents who could play the role of the revolutionary agent, as the understudy replacing the indisposed working class: third-world peasants, students and intellectuals; and the excluded … up to the refugees hailed today by some desperate leftists as “nomadic proletarians”.
The court rooms of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague have seen many a drama in the last twenty-four years, however nothing compared to the televised suicide of a defendant. And yet, this is what happened on 29 November 2017, at the end of the trial of six Bosnian Croats for crimes committed in Bosnia between 1992 and 1994. The judge, Carmel Agius, had just finished reading his verdict to the former general Slobodan Praljak, sentencing him to twenty years in prison, when the tall and imposing Praljak stood up, shouted at the judges and drank something from a small vial. One could see the other two defendants sitting next to him looking up in surprise, and the judge glancing over his reading glasses. At first, everyone took it as a typical case of the defendant causing a brief commotion before sitting back down or being accompanied out of the court room – like what happened recently with the Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladić. But soon a curtain was drawn and the court proceedings were interrupted. Live television transmission was suspended and Praljak was taken to hospital.
Daniel Gascón: You have described the Russian Revolution as the biggest experiment in social engineering in history, and have also argued that it was the weakness of Russia’s democratic culture that enabled Bolshevism to take root. How do you link the two?
Orlando Figes: You could say that the Utopian nature of the revolution developed out of the idea of Russia being a tabula rasa, a blank canvas onto which revolutionaries could project their utopian ideals of human transformation. That was part of a tradition in Russian revolutionary thinking – not just for the Bolsheviks and anarchists, but more importantly for populists in the 19th century, who thought that because Russia was not developed, in a western sense, with political institutions, civil society, an advanced economy, it could sort of ‘leap over’ the West by becoming a new form of democracy or socialism. That idea is in Alexander Herzen’s writing in the 1860s. And part of that utopian thinking that gets superimposed onto Russia in the 19th century and into the 20th century is also the religious aspect, the idea that Russia had some sort of messianic mission in the world, a mission to save humanity.
These days, uprisings should be studied with a cold eye and there’s a fine little exhibition on in Paris about the 1917 Russian revolution which casts a dark reflection on the Arab “awakening” we’ve all been observing in the Middle East. It’s an extraordinary display from the “revolution which changed the world”, including posters, photographs and – amazingly – some documents which show just how much the Mencheviks (and the Russian Provisional Government) and then the Bolsheviks tried to enlist the Muslim world – and the Armenians – in their destruction of the Romanov dynasty.
Haskell County, Kansas, lies in the southwest corner of the state, near Oklahoma and Colorado. In 1918 sod houses were still common, barely distinguishable from the treeless, dry prairie they were dug out of. It had been cattle country—a now bankrupt ranch once handled 30,000 head—but Haskell farmers also raised hogs, which is one possible clue to the origin of the crisis that would terrorize the world that year. Another clue is that the county sits on a major migratory flyway for 17 bird species, including sand hill cranes and mallards. Scientists today understand that bird influenza viruses, like human influenza viruses, can also infect hogs, and when a bird virus and a human virus infect the same pig cell, their different genes can be shuffled and exchanged like playing cards, resulting in a new, perhaps especially lethal, virus.
We cannot say for certain that that happened in 1918 in Haskell County, but we do know that an influenza outbreak struck in January, an outbreak so severe that, although influenza was not then a “reportable” disease, a local physician named Loring Miner—a large and imposing man, gruff, a player in local politics, who became a doctor before the acceptance of the germ theory of disease but whose intellectual curiosity had kept him abreast of scientific developments—went to the trouble of alerting the U.S. Public Health Service. The report itself no longer exists, but it stands as the first recorded notice anywhere in the world of unusual influenza activity that year. The local newspaper, the Santa Fe Monitor, confirms that something odd was happening around that time: “Mrs. Eva Van Alstine is sick with pneumonia…Ralph Lindeman is still quite sick…Homer Moody has been reported quite sick…Pete Hesser’s three children have pneumonia …Mrs J.S. Cox is very weak yet…Ralph Mc-Connell has been quite sick this week…Mertin, the young son of Ernest Elliot, is sick with pneumonia,…Most everybody over the country is having lagrippe or pneumonia.”