Robert Conquest, perhaps the finest historian of the Soviet Union’s underside, has recently written another book: Reflections on a Ravaged Century. In contrast to his detailed histories, this book is a series of essays and explorations of ideologies, mass murder, and the lame reactions to these phenomena in Western cultural circles. In reading the book one can find oneself musing about two of the greatest types of villain in the 20th Century: these being the murderous criminal who embraces an ideology so that he can exercise his furies on the helpless, and the moronic salon revolutionary who excuses or justifies these behaviors.
The first is all too easily found, and may be lurking in every society waiting his chance. The goon exercising his (or her) “democratic” right to protest at a G-8 or WTO conference by rioting is a case in point. So too is the apologist for same that insists a “lack of access” by protestors is what provokes the violence. What is actually evident is the old partnership between the angry intellectual who doesn’t dare to get his hands dirty but who admires those who do; and the violent criminal who has found that embracing a “cause” can give a validation for violence. Both can feed off each other, with the revolutionary gaining access to the electric excitement of the mob, and the criminal gaining license to act.
This partnership was first evidenced in the French Revolution. The Jacobins and their leaders like Robespierre and Saint Just were excited by violence and encouraged it by creating the conditions that allowed the Terror to emerge and become a blueprint for other authoritarian ideologues in coming centuries. Robespierre harped on ‘Civic Virtue’ and an ideal society on one hand, while encouraging the elimination of all rival powers among the Revolutionaries. His bloodthirstiness was purely intellectual, for when it came time to display physical courage during his arrest in August 1794, it was readily apparent that he had none. He botched his own suicide and screamed and whimpered all the way to the Guillotine.
The agents of the Terror were usually the angriest and most vicious of the criminals from the Parisian underworld. Execution is normally a dispassionate affair, and most executioners are either professionals or pariahs (often both) isolated from society by their calling. The Tribunals of the French Revolution were content to let the executioners handle the ‘normal’ workload from their exertions, but when intensive work was called for, out came the criminals. These were the men and women capable of the prison massacres in which hundreds of inmates (of all kinds) were murdered with clubs and pikes – often having been raped or otherwise brutalized first. Executioners, in the traditional sense, are seldom capable of behaving with such viciousness.
In defence of hangmen, it must be pointed out that most of the professional executioners of history found that an enthusiasm for their work was immensely self-destructive. They also discovered that most of the rest of humanity had little time for them, and so often remained as perpetual exiles within their own societies. They tend to be reserved and dispassionate instruments of the hindquarters of the legal system (or whatever might pass for one). Enthusiasm for murder and mayhem comes from the mob and the criminal elements within it.
Conquest points out that the Soviets and the Nazis were alike in recruiting criminals in the early days of their movement, and were quick to unleash them when they achieved power. The Bolsheviks admired the revolutionary authenticity of a good bank robber (such as the young Stalin) and happily excused his less sterling qualities. Hitler often admired the tough street brawlers of the Brownshirts – at least before and after the years in which Ernst Rohm had become a real rival. Many were promoted far beyond their meager abilities in the German Reich, and tended to get better access to Hitler’s sympathies than more educated Nazis did.
Yet these thugs were more cruel than mere street brawlers and bank robbers. Conquest (although not in the essays of Reflections) and many other historians have reported on the eruption of criminal violence that attended the Bolshevik and Nazi seizures of power. Dachau, the Nazi’s inaugural concentration camp, was run in its first months with a direct and vicious hands-on sadism by some of its staff – something which was also a feature of the sundry “wild camps” springing up around Germany in 1933-34. Even the Nazis found this to be slightly disagreeable and later would take pains to produce a degree or two of isolation between the SS Concentration Camp staff and the inmates – letting other inmates undertake most of the personalized cruelty within the camp system.
The Cheka (later the OGPU and still later the NKVD) was also quick to bring violent and cruel criminals into its ranks – and to use them to staff its prisons and interrogation centres. Again, like the Nazis, the NKVD eventually used prisoners within their camps to add the final refinements of cruelty to other camp inmates, but the true nature of the NKVD would frequently emerge at other times.
In 1992, a Russian archeological team took advantage of the chaos attendant on the collapse of the Soviet Union to investigate a boneyard in a forest near Smolensk. The site had been the place where hundreds of prisoners were executed before they could face the dubious liberation offered by the advancing Germans in 1941. The archeologists noted that the uppermost layer of skeletons in the pits consisted of unclothed young females, and were able to deduce how the execution squad kept itself amused between arrivals of truckloads of other prisoners. Given some of the tales from Gulag inmates, this may have been typical behaviour.
This wedding between ideologues and violent criminals has also been observed in almost every other revolutionary episode of mass murder in the 20th Century.
It might seem far-fetched (to some) to compare the rioters of Seattle to Genoa to Brown-Shirts, NKVD execution squads or the thugs of Pol Pot, Idi Amin, or Saddam Hussein. Likewise, the articulate cause-pushers who also attend these demonstrations do not seem to be in the same league as the ideologues who backed or excused their more murderous brethren.
However, very few people are born to be killers. It takes a fair amount of work or conditioning to be able to murder strangers on a point of principle. It takes even more to be able to kill with abandon. The best starting point for a person who wants to be able to club strangers to death, is to work oneself into a rage while convincing oneself that those we would kill are less than human and only the mere representatives of an abstraction that should be hated. Street punch-ups and vandalism are good working up exercises for this sort of thing. From all accounts, it would seem that the Anti-Summit protestors are off to a good start in this direction. One cannot doubt that a few of them will go far indeed.