The historian Timothy Snyder has published an impressive article in The Guardian. Those who feel morally superior or very distant from the worst disasters of humanity should read it. Here's a selection:
"It was 20 years after I chose to become a historian
that I first saw a photograph of the woman who made my career possible.
In the small photograph that my doctoral supervisor, her son, showed me
in his Warsaw apartment, Wanda J radiates self-possession, a quality
that stood her in good stead during the Nazi occupation. She was a
Jewish mother who protected herself and her two sons from the German
campaign of mass murder that killed almost all of her fellow Warsaw Jews.
When her family was summoned to the ghetto, she refused to go. She
moved her children from place to place, relying upon the help of
friends, acquaintances and strangers. When first the ghetto and then the
rest of the city of Warsaw were burned to the ground, what counted, she
thought, was the “faultless moral instinct” of the people who chose to
Most of us would like to think that we possess a “moral instinct”.
Perhaps we imagine that we would be rescuers in some future catastrophe.
Yet if states were destroyed, local institutions corrupted and economic
incentives directed towards murder, few of us would behave well. There
is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the
Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s, or for that matter less vulnerable to
the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realised. A
historian must be grateful to Wanda J for her courage and for the trace
of herself that she left behind. But a historian must also consider why
rescuers were so few. It is all too easy to fantasise that we, too,
would have aided Wanda J. Separated from National Socialism by time and
luck, we can dismiss Nazi ideas without contemplating how they
functioned. It is our very forgetfulness of the circumstances of the Holocaust
that convinces us that we are different from Nazis and shrouds the ways
that we are the same. We share Hitler’s planet and some of his
preoccupations; we have perhaps changed less than we think.(...)
States should invest in science so that the future can be calmly
contemplated. The study of the past suggests why this would be a wise
course. Time supports thought, thought supports time; structure supports
plurality, and plurality, structure. This line of reasoning is less
glamorous than waiting for general disaster and dreaming of personal
redemption. Effective prevention of mass killings is incremental and its
heroes are invisible. No conception of a durable state can compete with
visions of totality. No green politics will ever be as exciting as red
blood on black earth.
But opposing evil requires inspiration by what is sound rather than
by what is resonant. The pluralities of nature and politics, order and
freedom, past and future, are not as intoxicating as the totalitarian
utopias of the last century. Every unity is beautiful as image but
circular as logic and tyrannical as politics. The answer to those who
seek totality is not anarchy, which is not totality’s enemy but its
handmaiden. The answer is thoughtful, plural institutions: an unending
labour of differentiated creation. This is a matter of imagination,
maturity and survival".
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