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The banality of tyranny

Barbed_wireI am reading Imperium by the late Ryszard Kapuscinski. It is a collection of reportage about Kapuscinski’s journeys in the Soviet Union. I do not blog about Russia. I am a guest here and it would not be polite. The Soviet Union, however, is a different matter. Thanks to the courage of Lech Walesa, the integrity of Karol Wojtyla and the political skills of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, it is no more. Not to mention the key contribution of Socialism itself, which collapsed there (as it always must) under the weight of its economic idiocy.

Kapuscinksi, like all the best reporters, has a knack of shedding light by acute observation of  tangential fact. This passage (written in 1989) is an example:

...the surface of the Imperium measures more than twenty-two million square kilometres, and its continental borders are longer than the equator and stretch for forty-two thousand kilometres.

Keeping in mind that wherever it is technically possible, these borders were and are marked with thick coils of barbed wire ... and that this wire, because of the dreadful climate, quickly deteriorates and therefore must often be replaced across hundreds, no thousands, of kilometres, one can assume that a significant proportion of the Soviet metallurgical industry is devoted to producing barbed wire.

For the matter does not end with the wiring of borders! How many thousands of kilometres of wire were used to fence in the gulag archipelago? Those hundreds of camps, staging points, and prisons scattered through the territory of the entire Imperium!

How many thousands more kilometres were swallowed up for the wiring of artillery, tank and atomic ranges? And the wiring of barracks? ...                                                             

If one were to multiply all this by the number of years the Soviet government has been in existence, it would be easy to see why, in the shops of Smolensk or Omsk, one can buy neither a hoe nor a hammer, never mind a knife or a spoon, such things could simply not be produced, since the necessary raw materials were used up in the manufacture of barbed wire.

And that is still not the end of it! After all, tons of this wire had to be transported by ships, railroad, helicopters, camels, dog teams, to the farthest, most inaccessible corners of the Imperium, and then it all had to be unloaded, uncoiled, cut, fastened.

It is easy to imagine those unending telephone, telegraphic and postal reminders issued by the commanders of the border guards, the commanders of the gulag camps, and prison directors following up on their requisitions for more tons of barbed wire, the pains they would take to build up a reserve supply of this wire in case of a shortage in the central warehouses.  And it is equally easy to imagine those thousands of commissions and control teams dispatched across the entire territory of the Imperium to make certain that everything is properly enclosed, that the fences are high and thick enough, so meticulously entangled and woven that even a mouse cannot squeeze through.  It is also easy to imagine telephone calls from officials in Moscow to their subordinates in the field, telephone calls characterised by a constant and vigilant concern expressed in the question “Are you all really properly wired in?”

As I imagined so many engaged in banal tasks of oppression, I remembered sitting before an archivist at the museum in Oswiecim (Auschwitz) at the side of a Jewish friend. Before us lay typed documents, which the archivist had found. On them was the name of one of my friend’s relatives; a woman whose fate had been unknown. She had been taken by train from Berlin to Auschwitz. There was no record of her admission to the camp, which suggests she was selected for immediate gassing. She was young and strong and - by the evil logic of the National Socialists - could have been usefully worked to death. On the banal document was the likely reason why that had not happened; the name of her infant daughter, of whom my friend’s family had not known. A baby could neither be enslaved, nor marched to the gas chamber alone. And so her mother had to carry her to both their deaths.

I remember focussing on the neatness of the typed documents. I had a mental image of a secretary in Berlin, sitting erect at a typewriter, carefully preparing a list of fellow-humans to be transported to their deaths. What went through her mind as she put on her coat to walk home that night? Had you asked her, she would probably have said she was doing important work for the greater good of her country, “the Reich” or some other political abstraction. The Soviet factory workers making barbed wire would probably have given similar answers. I am certain they no more thought of prisoners suffering and dying in the gulag, than my imagined secretary thought of a murdered child dying in her mother’s arms.

They say “the Devil is in the details.” Sometimes, so is God. Statists, Socialists, right-wing paternalists - all those who think of humanity in terms of classes, races and masses - need constantly to be confronted with such stories and images. They claim to love humanity; everything they do is for “Society” or “the greater good.”  These are the merest of abstractions. A good human loves and cares for other humans around him; for actual, individual specimens with all their faults and weaknesses.

Next time you hear an appealing abstraction weighed against the interests of an individual or a family, please picture a man making barbed wire to imprison his uncle or my neat little secretary typing a death list. They served abstractions too.

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