Let’s Not Make a Deal

BildeDavid Runciman reviews Avishai Margalit's On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, in The National:

The idea that the Second World War was the definitive “good” war, in which radical evil was confronted and vanquished, has always run up against the problem of what happened on the Eastern Front. As the British historian Max Hastings has put it, the story of how Stalin’s Red Army defeated Hitler’s Third Reich is “not for anyone with a weak stomach”. Stalin was utterly ruthless in his disregard for the lives of his own subjects, which he tossed away by the million. The only people who fared worse were his enemies (which included many of his own subjects) against whom he unleashed campaigns of unimaginable vindictiveness. His was a truly horrible regime. So what does it say about the moral integrity of the western democracies that they were only able to defeat someone as unspeakable as Hitler by throwing in their lot with someone as vile as Stalin?

This is the question that underpins Avishai Margalit’s important and troubling new book about the nature of political compromise. Margalit keeps coming back to the great laboratory of wickedness that was the Second World War, which he describes as being to morality “what the supercollider is to physics: extreme moral experiences and observations emerged out of the high energy clashes”. He thinks we need to have an answer to the question of why it is acceptable to choose Stalin over Hitler – or, as he puts it, why Munich was a “rotten” compromise, but siding with Stalin was a necessary one. The answer he provides is unashamedly grounded in morality. He believes that it is a mistake to try to distinguish between these two regimes in terms of how evil they were in degree (this invariably leads to the futile and miserable business of counting up their dead). Instead, he argues that Stalin’s evil was of a different kind from Hitler’s. The reason it is never acceptable to compromise with someone like Hitler is because Nazism negated the very idea of morality, by repudiating the notion of a shared humanity. The Nazis wanted to dismiss great swathes of the human race from moral consideration altogether. Stalin, by contrast, believed in a shared human future, even if his route for getting there was monstrously callous. So any compromise with Hitler is a rotten compromise, because it contaminates everything it touches. Getting into bed with Stalin, for all the squeamishness it provokes, belongs to a world in which morality at least remains a possibility.

This is an admirably forthright answer, but it is fraught with difficulties.