FACING THE EXTREME by Tzvetan Todorov

Phoenix 2000. ISBN 0-75380-950-8 (Original title, Face à l'extrême, Editions du Seuil 1991)

Todorov's book is an exceptionally good exploration of Totalitarianism in its fascist and communist variants. Whatever cause it claims to serve, Totalitarianism completely transforms society.

It violently opposes Democracy and shows a familiar set of salient features:

- The autonomy of the individual is removed in the name of some "Great Ideal". It is removed by fear and terror and the "Great Ideal" could be almost anything from the racial purity and the "lebensraum" destiny of the German Hitlerites, the Communist machine state of the Stalinists, cosmic religious projects or even the "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" of the French revolution.

- The state takes the role of intermediary between the the individual and his values. In effect the "Great Ideal" replaces humanity as a standard to distinguish good and evil. Children are instructed to inform on their parents and concentration camp guards quickly accept state instructions as justification for the worst inhumanity.

- Agitprop (agitation and propaganda) consisting of fabrications and smears designed to further the politics of the "Great Ideal". The truth doesn't figure in this scheme of things and Hitler admiringly states in Mein Kampf that his followers must emulate the methods of Communist propaganda.

- The idea of permanent mobilisation and war against an internal (and frequently external) enemy. Fear and terror are rationalised by emergency and any citizen can be labelled an enemy and removed without legal recourse for anti - you name it - activites.

- A detailed control of  individual existence covering what work a person does, where they live, their freedom of movement, their ownership rights (often none), their education and leisure. Under the "will to power" of Totalitarianism the individual is a small part of a military style machine with the requirement to simply follow orders.

- The high status of a feared elite military group that carries out combined internal military/political/police roles such as Hitler's SS and Stalin's NKVD, OGPU, KGB cultivating cults of loyalty and toughness in opposition to "humanist nonsense".

- Constant talk about Heroism and claims to Heroic activity. The dictators and their favoured followers are heroes with large and numerous statues, Stakhanovite worker heroes, Communist Pioneers or Hitler and the SS reincarnating the Teutonic Knights and drawing inspiration from mythic German Gods and Imperial Rome.

As Todorov says," Totalitarian doctrines can thus properly be called antihumanist. Humanistic philosophy, as I take that term to mean, considers the individual an ultimate end." He accepts  (top)

that at times individuals must inevitably be treated as means; but they not be considered solely as that.

The book is especially interesting as he allows an understanding of   morality to grow out of the accounts of the surviving victims of Totalitarianism.  

Margarete Buber-Neumann was unfortunate enough to arrested by the KGB and imprisoned for 2 years in the Stalin's Gulag only to be turned over to the Gestapo in 1940 and spend 5 more years in Ravensbrück. As she said in the 1950 David Rousset trial (a libel action against fashionable French Communists denying Stalin's gulag), "It is hard to decide which is the least humane - to gas people in five minutes or to strangle them slowly, over the course of three months, by hunger."

In any event the number killed in totalitarian repression between 1914 - 1945 was enormous with Stalin heading the list with the murder of 22 million people in the Gulags and a further 6 million in the Ukrainian terror famine (1932-33).

Survivor accounts speak of the value of kindness and the ordinary (non heroic) virtues. Auschwitz survivor Szymon Laks says that he owes his survival to, "my encounters with a few countrymen with a human face and a human heart" and Todorov quotes the Soviet Jewish writer Vasily Grossman, saying that aside from good and evil, there exists, "everyday human kindness. The kindness of an old woman carrying a piece of bread to a prisoner, the kindness of a soldier allowing a wounded enemy to drink from his water-flask, the kindness towards age, the kindness of a peasant hiding an old Jew in his hayloft."

It is the kindness of one individual towards another, kindness without ideology, without thought or speeches or justifications, a kindness that does not ask that its beneficiary deserve it. This kindness is, "what is most truly human in a human being" and it will endure as long as the human race exists. But it must never be made a rallying cry: "Kindness is powerful only while it is powerless. If Man tries to give it power, it dims, fades away, loses itself, vanishes..".

He does not want this to be confused with pacifism. Hitler fed on the weakness of his enemies and the world needed a Churchill rather than a Chamberlain to undertake a sturdy defence of Democracy.

Nevertheless the book emphasises the ordinary virtues represented for example in the life of Milena Jesenska, written by her fellow inmate Margarete Buber-Neumann, a book unique in the literature of the camps in that it is the story not of her own life but of another's.

Todorov finally suggests that it is as easy to do good as to do evil and turn Arendt's "banality of evil" into "the banality of good".

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