Confronting the great men of history

(Published in Village Magazine, June 2016)

That there was something altogether more disturbing about Hitler’s Germany than Stalin’s Russia is often assumed. Perhaps it comes from the idea of Germany, the most intellectually and industrially-advanced country of its time, being led by an individual whose core belief was the annihilation of a substantial ethno-religious minority. By comparison the aspirational ends of Stalinism are, superficially at least, universal and even Utopian.
The case of Germany suggests that intellectual progress does not dovetail with moral development. But at least the defeat of Nazism has consigned Far Right ideology in Germany and the rest of Europe to the political periphery since World War II. The Cold War ended when Mikhail Gorbachev unilaterally stopped projecting Soviet power and the populations of its empire rose up to gain independence. But the descent into anarchy of some of these territories has engendered a conviction, prevalent in Russia, that aspects of the ruthless means employed by Stalin are always required for stability and prosperity. The conduct of the West, both in its approach to Russia and a wider flouting of international law, has doused oil on the flames.
This is not to suggest that anything approximating the scale of state-sponsored terror is being unleased in Russia today but there is nonetheless evidence of an attitude to human rights that departs from values ascendant in most of the rest of Europe.
A case can be made for Stalinism being more terrifying than Hitler’s Nazism, precisely because the former emerged as victor in the apocalyptic struggle between the two monsters. It was a victory of a system that embraced industrial development and rationality, over one that advocated a primitive way of life for a chosen people fusing cultish spirituality with juvenile biology.
There were of course unforgivable excesses on the Allied side too, in particular the fire-bombing of Dresden and the unnecessary use of the Atomic bomb against Japan which was on the brink of surrender as laid out by Gar Alperowitz in his book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (1995). The political elites of America and Britain have not confronted their wicked pasts – America still refuses to apologise for Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and their foreign policies in recent decades are connected to an historical amnesia that foreshadowed the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 which Noam Chomsky recently described as ‘the crime of the century’. Instructively George W. Bush installed a bust of Winston Churchill inside his White House office as he embarked on his ‘crusade’ against terror, reaching into history for vindication. Churchill himself had ordered the use of poison gas against Iraqis in the 1920s.
Of course the schemes of Hitler and his Nazi party were more diabolically hair-brained than his opponents. Leading Nazis sought Lebensraum in order to restore the Germanic people to the soil in what was a rejection of urban modernity. In Hitler’s Mein Kampf George Orwell found: ‘a horrible brainless Empire in which, essentially, nothing ever happens except the training of young men for war and the endless breeding of fresh cannon-fodder.’
Hitler’s primary lieutenant and SS leader Heinrich Himmler’s notions were particularly eccentric believing that Aryans were not evolved from monkeys or apes like other races, but had come down to earth from the heavens, where they had been preserved in ice from the beginning of time. He established a meteorology division which was given the task of proving this cosmic ice theory. It would be funny if he wasn’t a mass murderer.
The Nazis came very close to winning the war. Britain could easily have been brought to heel if Churchill had not stood firm against a vacillating Tory party. Hitler’s decision not to complete his victory – after the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in France in May 1940 – before turning his attention to the Eastern Front was a flabbergasting blunder, as was declaring war on the isolationist United States after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941.
If Hitler had been victorious the plight of all of Europeans would have been insufferable for a time at least. In all likelihood the Holocaust would surely have been completed and many more enslaved. But perhaps before that contradictions would emerged among the Nazis especially as Hitler had allowed competing agencies including the SS, the army and the Party to develop. Blind loyalty to the Fuehrer might have dissipated as the spoils were devoured.
The triumph of a profoundly irrational ideology could have brought chaos in the absence of wartime exigencies especially if a policy of compulsory re-ruralisation was rolled out. Hitler certainly harnessed Germany’s industrial might, especially through Alfred Speer planning agency, but only when defeat loomed. With victory theories about ‘cosmic ice’ might have become ascendant and the Nazis empire could have been beset by slave revolts. The dormant humanity of the German people might have awoken. A more dynamic society and economy such as the United States’ would surely have surpassed the Nazi Empire and there was no sign that Germany was close to developing Atomic technology which required the employment of over a million men at enormous expense in the United States.
We know that Stalin and his no less unsavoury predecessor Lenin d.1924 (not to mention Trotsky who was equally ruthless) also liquidated vast numbers to advance their cause, more than the Nazis even. One estimate is that in the seventy years after 1917, the Soviet regime killed 61, 911, 000 people.
State terror was evident from the start. In August 1918 Lenin issued the following order:

1.) Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.
2.) Publish their names.
3.) Take all their grain away from them.
4.) Identify hostages as we described in our telegram yesterday.
Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks. Cable that you have received this and carried out [your instructions]. Yours, Lenin
P.S. Find tougher people.
This was not simply a reaction to the life and death struggle of the Russian Civil War, but policy. As far back as 1908 he wrote that the Paris Commune had failed because of the ‘excessive generosity’ of the proletariat who ‘should have exterminated its enemies’ instead of trying to exert moral influence on them.
Yet if we compare France and Russia only the former absorbed socialist ideas into its shared set of national values. Over the long term an ideology is accepted not by physical force (as George W. Bush should have realised in Iraq) but by persuasion. As soon as the constraints of the Communist regime in Russia were lifted the society became ultra-capitalist. In the end the ideas of the Communards endured much longer in France than the Bolshevik’s in Russia.
A revolution may not succeed but it is often how participants (or victors) conduct themselves that defines the acceptance of noble ideas. In the case of Germany after World War II the occupiers were able to draw on a long history of liberal democracy that the Nazis did not succeed in wiping out and had learnt from the mistakes of Versailles after World War I.
The Communist ideology as implemented by Lenin and Stalin was based on perfection of man by the revolutionary triumph of the proletariat. Lives, millions if necessary, could be sacrificed for the sake of final victory.
In his book The Economics of the Transition Period (1920), Nikolai Bukharin used the phrase: ‘the manufacturing of Communist man out of the human material of the capitalist age.’ In his copy Lenin underlined that phrase and wrote ‘exactly’ in the margin. There was no choice in the matter no respect for individuality, just blind adherence to the ideal with the great leader, soon to be Stalin, at the helm.
For many intelligent young Europeans of the period their Communist conviction was akin to religious devotion. Eric Hobsbawm in his Autobiography wrote: ‘For young revolutionaries of my generation mass demonstrations were the equivalent of papal masses for devout Catholics.’ This devotion allowed Stalin to build his power.
Individual Communists were even willingly to sacrifice their own lives for the cause, not least Bukharin who agreed to the necessity of his own death in a show trial, a psychological drama brilliantly conveyed in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon.
It was the conviction of Communists, no less than of Nazis, that allowed many of them to carry out some of the worst crimes of the twentieth century. As the dissident writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn puts it: ‘Shakespeare’s villains stopped short at ten or so cadavers. Because they had no ideology.’
There also emerged a cult of the leader that is captured vividly by Solzhenitsyn once again. He describes how at a Party conference in one Moscow province a tribute to Stalin was called for. The audience stood up and began to applaud but nobody wanted to be seen as the first to stop. After eleven minutes the director of a paper factory had had enough and sat down allowing the remainder of the audience to desist. Not long afterwards he was arrested and given a ten year prison sentence.
Stalin hardened a society in a way vividly described by Nadezha Mandelstam who was herself in perpetual fear of arrest: ‘For our generation, kindness was an old-fashioned quality, and its exponents were as extinct as the mammoth. Everything we have seen in our time – the dispossession of the kulaks, class warfare, the constant ‘unmasking’ of people the search for an ulterior motive behind every action – all this has taught you to be everything you like except kind.’ Empathy became a failing as a base and sullen survival instinct took hold.
This survival instinct is also evident in Mikhail Bulgakov’s dark satire on Stalinism The Master and Margarita. The poet Ivan Nikolayevich and his friend Berlioz encounter the devil Woland in a Moscow park where the latter predicts that Berlioz will lose his head in a matter of minutes. True to his word Berlioz is decapitated after slipping under a tram. The encounter drives Ivan mad as he attempts to track down and bring Woland to justice. Eventually he winds up in a mental institution.
But at last he comes to terms with Berlioz’s loss: ‘I wonder why I go so excited about Berlioz falling under a tram? The poet reasoned, ‘After all he’s dead and we all die some time. It’s not as if I were a relation or a really close friend either, when you think about it I didn’t even know the man very well.’ Only by hardening himself to Berlioz’s plight can Ivan avoid insanity, the same could probably be said for many Russians who under Stalin had become as tough as Lenin had wished.
The revolutionary murderousness of the early Communist period gave way to slow-drip cruelty during the post-War years especially after the death of Stalin in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev’s denouncement some years later. But victory in the Second World ensured that Stalinism spread beyond the Soviet Union into Eastern and Central Europe, and the recent indifference of much of the population there to the plight of refugees might be attributed in part to the absence of kindness that Mandelstam observed.
Under Vladimir Putin in Russia today the reputation of Stalin is enjoying a measured rehabilitation. The grandson of Stalin’s cook and former KGB operative opines that ruthless methods were crucial to Soviet victory and argues that Stalin never attempted to kill entire ethnic groups. The latter claim is quite groundless not least considering the Holodmor or terror-famine that may have killed as many as the Holocaust was carried out to suppress Ukrainian nationalism.
The narrative is not monolithic. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has been outspoken in his criticism of Stalin, but Putin’s line has become official policy reflected in school history textbooks where scant attention is devoted to the one and a half million Chechens forcibly removed to Central Asia by Stalin in 1941. In 2007 the Putin government directed an initiative to restructure the national curriculum, teaching schoolchildren that Stalin’s actions were ‘entirely rational’.
In 2009 a Moscow subway station was refurbished with large inscriptions reading ‘Stalin reared us on loyalty to the people. He inspired us to labour and heroism’, a direction quotation from the pre-1977 Soviet anthem. Meanwhile this year a statue was unveiled in Yalta, formerly in Ukrainian Crimea, of Stalin alongside Roosevelt and Churchill.
Putin has said that ‘we can criticize the commanders and Stalin all we like, but can we say with certainty that a different approach would have enabled us to win the war?’ The sacrifices of present-day Russia are situated within a deeper historical narrative. Democracy, a free press and human rights are subservient to the reassertion of order and Russia’s territorial claims and ‘sphere of influence’.
According to Reporters Without Borders between 2012 and 2014 Russia was placed 148th on a list which ranks countries’ performances in the areas of media pluralism and independence, respect for journalists’ safety and freedom, and media-related legislation, among other criteria. Putin is now de facto dictator of Russia and a free press will not be allowed to interfere with that. Defenders of Putin point to the chaos in Russia under Yeltsin but how will Russia ever become a democratic and tolerant society if this Hobbesian narrative is endlessly trotted out?
Thankfully Putin’s Russia is not resurrecting a murderous ideology, and it is also important to point out that Putin’s reassertion of Russia’s Great Power status has been to some extent a reaction to the eastward expansion of NATO. But failure to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine’s borders, directly in Crimea and indirectly in Donbass, is inexcusable as has been the steadfast support for Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
We confront an international order where international law is increasingly an instrument of foreign policy rather than a set of collective human values. The US President, a constitutional lawyer, sends drones on weekly missions to commit extra-judicial murder. Guantanamo Bay remains an affront to US values.
All of the victors of the Second World War exhibit a self-righteousness that permits excesses. The invasion of Iraq was the twenty-first equivalent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But in Russia the stain of Stalinism runs deeper as people endured far more than simply the Propaganda model identified by Chomsky as ‘manufacturing consent’, but had their very humanity ‘manufactured’ as Lenin underlined and Stalin carried out.
All countries must expose the limitations of their ‘great men’, even Gandhi needs to be subjected to greater scrutiny in India. Where a country has had a particularly unfortunate experience with one, as Russia certainly has, this process is all the more necessary and salutary. One need only look at the achievements of Germany in this regard which has emerged as an unsteady ‘conscience of Europe’.
Unfortunately, it would appear that Putin’s regime in Russia is doing little to encourage this process, in fact the opposite appears to be occurring with abuses of human rights domestically and reckless foreign adventures justified by Stalinist pragmatism.
The development of atomic weapons during the Second World War made warfare between Great Powers unthinkable but not impossible. That should be remembered. Since Mutually Assured Destruction became possible it became vital to establish shared values for humanity that will foster kindness among people and nations. Instead of esteeming toughness like Lenin we should prize sensitivity. The world needs more political leaders like Gorbachev whose show of weakness revealed an optimistic belief in human nature.

Under Yeats’s Shadow

(Published in Village Magazine June 2015)

In Ireland literary deities hover over us like US Presidents carved into Mount Rushmore. It is a stirring thought that it isn’t philosophers, engineers, chefs, painters or even composers that summoned the Irish nation and gave us international renown, but poets. Yet conversely their looming presence barely registers; just as most contemporary Florentines scurry about unmoved by Brunelleschi’s dome, few here look to the sky in awe.

Poets build bridges of a more indeterminate kind than engineers. As W.H. Auden writes in a poem occasioned by the death of W. B. Yeats: ‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. / Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, / For poetry makes nothing happen.’

Auden goes too far with that dismissal of poetry – whatever about his contemptuous view of Ireland – correcting himself by acknowledging a few lines later: ‘it survives / a way of happening, a mouth.’ This ‘way of happening’ is in the realm of quantum uncertainty where the extraordinary occurs: coincidences beyond logic, or the ill-defined emotion generated by a sight of great aesthetic beauty. Poetry does not fit with classical renderings of reality, the routines of life and the seemingly static laws of nature are defied. It is unsurprising that poets, Yeats foremost, should dabble in the occult and mysticism, scouring every system of thought, even the eccentric, for explanations for the mysteries they encounter.

June 13th 2015 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Butler Yeats. Born in Sandymount on the Ballsbridge side of the DART tracks he spent much of his adult life in London, moved permanently to Ireland after the War of Independence, purchasing a former tower house Thoor Ballylee in Co. Galway where he ‘paced upon the battlements and stared’ at the birth pangs of the Irish state.

Yeats will always be identified with County Sligo, the home of many of his ancestors. Innisfree on Lough Gill, Lissadell, ‘far off Rosses’, Knocknarea and Ben Bulben under which he is buried form the mythical backdrop to his Romantic musing. The stunning landscape triggered imaginative contemplation perhaps unsurpassed in the English language: ‘Come away oh Human Child / To the waters and the wild / With a fairy hand in hand / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.’ The enchanting surroundings engendered Yeats’ poetry but simultaneously he made that landscape poetic. When we view stunning Ben Bulben we are to some extent honouring the Songlines that brought its majesty into being. But for all his evocations of that county, in his descriptions the people are more ethereal than real, moulded in the fairy-realm of his imagination. A far cry from the gritty characters in Joyce’s Dubliners.

Like rebellious children questioning the authority of their father, most of the Irish literary pantheon have had a difficult relationship with their homeland, often preferring exile and ruminating on it from afar. Beckett went so far to write in French to escape the excesses of Irish speech. But Yeats stayed and grew embittered that the nation did not accord him the accolades he felt his due. Perhaps he aspired to a presidential role similar to that bestowed on Vaclav Havel’s when the Czechs gained their independence after the fall of the Iron Curtain. But even then he probably would have found ample material to fulminate against. Politics is the art of the possible, its grubby affairs a torment to the idealist.

Long before independence Yeats was bemoaning a Romantic Ireland dead and gone and castigating those that fumbled in their greasy till. But the lofty aspiration he had for his country were always doomed to failure, like his enduring affection for Maud Gonne which he finally consummated in later life and soon afterwards proposed to her daughter. Independent Ireland could never reach his expectations, a romantic relationship has ultimate failure encoded in its DNA.

Crucially Yeats came from the Protestant Ascendancy ‘the men of Burke and of Grattan’ and to many among the ascendant Catholic nation who inherited the independent state he had only a shallow claim to being Irish. This separation worked both ways as the poet who initially embraced and breathed life into Irish nationalism through the cultural revival and plays such as Cathleen ni Houlihan, later identified himself with an aristocracy that he saw as providing a natural leadership for a Creole nation.

Here he fought a losing battle against the enduring tradition of republicanism that rejected aristocracy and prized equality and democracy. He also contended with the powerful force of sectarianism that would not contemplate Yeats and his caste at the helm. For many hard-bitten Catholics who retained a collective memory of the privations of the Penal Laws and the Famine, independence was an opportunity to build a Catholic state for a Catholic people.

The inter-war period (1918-39) were terrible years of fear, poverty and continued conflict in Europe that foreshadowed the cataclysm of World War II. In the immediate aftermath of World War I Yeats wrote prophetically: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,’. In response to what he perceived as the failings of democracy he chose a reactionary Right as opposed to an egalitarian Left which, as he saw it, would brutally sweep aside an aristocratic elect and usher in a doomed era of materialism. This made Yeats sympathetic to fascism and perhaps even Nazism.

In his exploration of what the ill-defined ideology of fascism the historian Roger Eatwell writes: ‘Fascism has become a latter-day symbol of evil, like the Devil in the Middle Ages. Demonising all aspects of fascism, a founding form of Political Correctness, has its uses. But failure to take fascism seriously as a body of ideas makes it more difficult to understand how fascism could attract a remarkably diverse following in some countries.’ We might therefore talk of Fascisms, and see it in historical context: a reaction to the chaos unleashed by the Great War and the responsibility of rampant capitalism for the Great Depression as well as the shocking excesses of triumphant Marxism in Russia. To many inter-war intellectuals democracy was failing and the utilitarian philosophy of Communism did not respect the individual. Also, it should not necessarily be conflated with anti-Semitism, especially the genocidal character it assumed, which had a far longer history and was not initially a feature of Mussolini’s approach.

A recent biography of Yeats Blood Kindred: W.B. Yeats, The Life, The Death, The Politics by W.J. McCormack outlines aspects of Yeat’s fascist sympathies. He provides details of Yeats’s letter of thanks to Freidrich Krebs, Oberburgmeister of Frankfurt, acknowledging receipt of an award in 1934, his public approval of Nazi legislation depriving Jews of their property in 1938, and aspects of his anti-Semitism. McCormack concludes that Yeats was a fellow traveller: ‘on occasion. He did not travel early, and he did not travel often” but he “gave comfort to democracy’s enemies, to decency’s enemies’.

We might then justifiably criticise Yeats for that but we should judge him not on what happened subsequently but based on Europe in the 1930s where a stark choice seemed to be offered between Right and Left. Of course there were intellectuals such as George Orwell who rejected the extremes of both, and it is instructive to consider his views on Yeats which we find contained in a review of an early biography written in 1943 at the height of the war.

Orwell is surprisingly unimpressed by Yeats’s poetry, and we hear similiar anti-Irish prejudices to those found in Auden’s work. He writes that ‘one seldom comes on six consecutive lines of his verse in which there is not an archaism or an affected turn of speech’. To an extent this criticism can be attributed to that writer’s affection for sparse, attenuated language which he spells out in his essay The Politics of the English Language. His attitude is encapsulated in his evaluation of one poem that: ‘It would probably have been deadlier if it had been neater.’

Nonetheless even Orwell swoons at some poems: ‘Yeats gets away with it, and if his straining after effect is often irritating, it can also produce phrases (“the chill, footless years”, “the mackerel-crowded seas”) which suddenly overwhelm one like a girl’s face seen across a room.’

Not surprisingly, Orwell lambasts Yeats’s occult dabbling: ‘As soon as we begin to read about the so-called system we are in the middle of a hocus-pocus of Great Wheels, gyres, cycles of the moon, reincarnation, disembodied spirits, astrology and what not.’ These he links to reactionary leanings: if everything is indeed cyclical then the kind of society based on equality and democracy that Orwell prized was in some sense Sisyphean, a doomed effort. Orwell concludes that ‘Yeats’s tendency is fascist.’

For any devotee of Yeats it is difficult to confront the fairly compelling body of evidence for this tendency, but as has been stressed these sympathies came at a time when the horror of Nazism was not apparent; when Communism might have seemed more contemptuous of human life and when the few remaining democracies were in the midst of the Great Depression. Yeats was wedded to archaic notions of aristocracy and fascism appeared to fit with his prescriptions. He failed to recognise the genocidal evil that lurked there.

Moreover, he was never implicated politically in any fascist movement. In fact the political campaigns that Yeats became involved in during his lifetime: the Irish Cultural Revival in the early 1900s and the campaign to retain divorce in the 1920s were progressive in character.

We find a flawed character in W.B. Yeats, like Orwell himself who informed on his former political brethren, but one who produced poetry perhaps unsurpassed in the English language in the twentieth century. But that does not diminish his greatness. We may bask in his words without subscribing to his political views. Once a poem is written, the chord attaching it to the author is broken, and it assumes a life of its own.