Never Again? Why Not?

January 31, 1995|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- The 50th anniversary last week of Auschwitz's liberation coincided with a peculiarly horrible act of terrorism in Israel, the metaphorical sowing of salt by Russian troops in Grozny as war in Chechnya spreads, and a drift toward renewed war and atrocity in Yugoslavia. This is to speak only of Europe, Russia -- and the Mediterranean basin, where Western civilization began.

Auschwitz is, of course, the unique item on the list because what happened there was the product of an abstract theory. The others express the blind human passion that goes into struggles over land and national identities. Auschwitz's was a calculated program of human extermination carried out with impersonal efficiency by the bureaucracy of a highly civilized Western nation -- because of a theory.

It was not an affair of blind hatred of Jews. Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians -- all were identified as lesser beings, obstacles to the eventual emergence and universal rule of a superior race of beings. It was an exercise in eugenics, the alleged improvement of the race, an idea very much in the intellectual air between the time of Darwin and the Second World War.

Eugenics was not particularly a German idea. Its principal theoreticians were English, although English and American eugenicists would have been appalled by the idea of Auschwitz. Nonetheless, at the start of the Second World War, 30 American states allowed, or required, the sterilization of individuals deemed genetically unfit -- mainly the insane.

The idea survives today; an American notable of the Mensa society (made up of people with high IQs) suggested this month that the homeless be put down ''like unwanted kittens.'' It is not completely inconceivable that one day this might be done. After all, Auschwitz itself was ''inconceivable.''

The other events on my list possess a quality of blind hatred, although recreating an independent Palestine, or creating a Greater Serbia, or enforcing the indivisibility of Russia, are rational political projects (an official of the State Department, when Chechnya's invasion began, helpfully compared it to McDowell's march on Richmond, when the South seceded). They are intellectually defensible projects embellished by inherited or acquired blind hatred. Hitler's program was criminal from the start, but rational.

It seems worth talking about these things together because to do so emphasizes how insecure our world actually is. Since the Second World War, the Western countries have lived in an exceptional condition of intellectual and emotional security. The professionals worried about Berlin-crisis scenarios and nuclear sufficiency or overkill, but most people did not believe there was going to be a war, and for them life was very good.

People in the West lived well, grew steadily more prosperous, saw their children do better and better. Most of all they were sure of themselves and of their countries. Most people believed the great international cause of the Cold War a just one. Its great moral scheme reassured them. Victory in the Cold War in 1989 vindicated what they had previously believed. But with that victory, the great and reassuring scheme of things vanished.

This coincided with the beginning of a general decline of middle- and working-class security and living standards in the Western countries, a result both of objective economic factors and of Western politicians' new enthusiasm for the unregulated marketplace. Life was no longer getting better.

However, the most important factor in this dawning uneasiness was intellectual. The political and moral scheme of the Cold War was gone. The instabilities inherent in international relations were freed from the Cold War prison in which they had been kept for 40 years. The Soviet Union had brutally controlled the turbulent ethnic states of Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the old Czarist empire. In the West there had been a self-imposed, and to a degree American-imposed, discipline, and effort to create new international structures.

These important institutional changes had justified a belief that the post-Cold War world would be less dangerous than before. A very high level of intergovernmental cooperation existed among the democracies, in NATO, OECD, the Group of Seven, the international lending agencies. The advanced economies had become all but inseparable. Finance and corporate business had been entirely internationalized, as had intellectual life, scholarship, popular communications.

Most important of all was the West European nations' political and economic integration in the Community, now become the European Union. All of this by 1989 had created in the West a conviction that we lived in a solid, peaceful, strong, cooperative community, which would keep us safe.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.