the devil in history

Prisoners going to camps

Underlying academic debates about the adequacy of totalitarianism as a theoretical category, Tismaneanu suggests, is a question about evil in politics. Rightly, he does not ask which of the two totalitarian experiments was more evil – an approach that easily degenerates into an inconclusive and at times morally repugnant wrangle about numbers. There is a crucial difference, which he acknowledges at several points in The Devil in History, between dying as a result of exclusion from society and being killed as part of a campaign of terror and being marked out for death in a campaign of unconditional extermination – as Jews were by Nazis and their local collaborators in many European countries and German-occupied Soviet Russia. Numerical comparisons pass over this vital moral distinction. While the stigma of being a former person extended throughout families, it was possible to be readmitted into society by undergoing “re-education”, becoming an informer, and generally collaborating with the regime. When Stalin engineered an artificial famine which condemned millions to starvation and consigned peoples such as the Tatars and Kalmyks to deportation and death, he did not aim at their complete annihilation.

more from John Gray at the TLS here.