Power speaks its own language: Can historiography (generally, the writing of history featuring standard language usage) teach us anything of value with regard to extreme violence?
What are historians capable of saying about extreme, massive violence?
Beyond Totalitarianism (2009)
With regard to relatively recent research about this topic, I have been highly impressed by Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism (2009) edited by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Michael Geyer.
The book features an informative and engaging set of essays addressing similarities and differences between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia with a focus on the 1930s and 1940s. Each chapter is a co-authored essay.
In each case, a historian who has established a solid profile regarding the history of Stalinist Russia is paired with a colleague who possesses a comparable profile with regard to research about Nazi Germany.
The introduction to the book is also an essay, co-authored by editor Michael Geyer with assistance of editor Sheila Fitzpatrick.
Among the topics explored is the relationship between humiliation and violence.
The essays in this noteworthy book have vastly increased my understanding of the circumstances in which mass murder has occurred in history.
Detailed, evidence-based contrasts and comparisons are valuable, in any reading of history.
Precision with regard to conceptual frameworks, that are brought into play in the analysis of history, is also valuable.
The essays make a point of underlining that it’s helpful to go beyond the framework of totalitarianism, as a concept, if you want to get a sense of how events unfolded in Germany and Russia in the 1930s and 1940s.
A point that has also stayed with me, in particular from my reading of the book’s introduction, is that there are limitations to what historiography can achieve, with regard to understanding mass murder. The existence of such limitations is well worth underlining. From this book, I’ve learned many things about mass murder, and I’ve also learned there are limitations to what a person can learn from historiography – from the writing of history.
A previous post regarding this book is entitled:
Nazism and Stalinism: What if anything did they have in common?
The Devils of Loudun (1952)
The Devils of Loudun (1952) by Aldous Huxley also addresses violence.
Power speaks its own language. In such a language, standard meanings of words may be reversed. Big becomes small, small become big, and so on. A corollary is that if people can get away with telling lies, in some cases they will tell lies all the time.
Such language usage proceeds unless and until there is an opposing power that is capable of proceeding with its own take on how language is to be used. Such an approach may involve restoring language to its standard usage, or it may involve a new version of “big is small, small is big, inside is outside.”
This is a concept regarding language usage that has occurred to many people. George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and many others have explored this concept.
Among other ways, power readily expresses and consolidates itself through the abuse of language (such as through lies, misrepresentations, and the like), structural violence, and physical violence.
In The Devils of Loudon (1952), physical violence takes the form of the burning at the stake of the pastor of the town of Loudun in France in 1634.
The idea that power speaks its own language is a concept that has occurred to me, at a level based on anecdotal observation, as an insight that grew out of blogging about the culture of land-use decision making in Ontario. Language usage at land-use hearings and other meetings has at times been characteristically abused and distorted, in service of particular ends.
The OMB Reform process has sought to restore standard language usage to land-use decision making in Ontario. How things work out remains to be seen.
When we think of standard language usage, we tend to make a distinction between statements that appear to be based upon evidence, and assertions that ignore it.
In the language which power speaks, in some cases (especially in the short-term) evidence does not matter.
To express it another way political history, including world military history, underlines that lies can lead to seizure of power, and lies can be used to maintain it.
If language usage is questioned under such circumstances, it may be the case that critics and “truth-to-power” commentators are subjected to a demonstration of how power is capable of making its presence known – through the murder of journalists, historians, and everyday citizens, for example.
History also underlines that in some cases, as in the outcome of the Second World War, reality may eventually obtrude – may in time make its presence known, in a most powerful and compelling way.
Reality and evidence-based practice, including with reference to military leadership, which entails the effective management of organized violence, on occasion wins out in the end.
A previous post about Loudun in the early 1600s is entitled:
Aldous Huxley concludes The Devils of Loudun (1952) with bibliography of previous accounts of “diabolic drama” at which Loudun pastor was burned at stake
The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973 (2013)
With regard to the reading of history, a book entitled The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973 (2013) is among the key academic sources that have underlined, for me, the concept that power speaks its own language. A blurb for the latter study notes that its author, Kathleen J. Frydl, demonstrates “that the war on drugs advanced certain state agendas, such as policing inner cities or exercising power abroad.”
That is to say, the rhetoric associated with the War on Drugs in America, from 1940 to 1973, was at variance with the fact the war advanced agendas which had no direct connection with the rhetoric.
This is an instance where power speaks its own language.
When the power to tell lies, and get away with it, is readily available, it will in many cases be utilized.
I’ve explored this topic at previous posts including:
Falsehoods penetrate further, faster, and deeper than accurate information on Twitter: Massive MIT study
A previous post regarding drug wars is entitled:
The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973 (Kathleen J. Frydl, 2013)
We are fortunate that in Canada, and in some other jurisdictions, a state of war with regard to psychoactive drug usage – at least with regard to cannabis – is no longer extant.
The war, fuelled by powerful fossil-fuel interests against the planet’s environment, also comes to mind. The evidence regarding the causes of climate change, and what must be done to address it, is strong. Yet powerful interests continue to demonstrate the capacity to specify that up is down, and down is up.
Ordinary Men (1992)
In reading about the Second World War, I have been impressed with the work of many writers including Richard J. Evans and Christopher R. Browning. I have highlighted Browning’s work at a post entitled:
Holocaust history and postwar testimony are explored in Christopher Browning’s 2003 study of Adolf Eichmann’s self-portrayal in Jerusalem
I am currently reading Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (2017).
Based on what I’ve read of Browning’s other work, I know this study will be a valuable read.
A blurb (which I have broken into shorter paragraphs) for the book reads:
Summary/Review: In the early hours of July 13, 1942, the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, a unit of the German Order Police, entered the Polish Village of Jozefow. They had arrived in Poland less than three weeks before, most of them recently drafted family men too old for combat service – workers, artisans, salesmen, and clerks.
By nightfall, they had rounded up Jozefow’s 1,800 Jews, selected several hundred men as “work Jews, ” and shot the rest – that is, some 1,500 women, children, and old people. Most of these overage, rear-echelon reserve policemen had grown to maturity in the port city of Hamburg in pre-Hitler Germany and were neither committed Nazis nor racial fanatics.
Nevertheless, in the sixteen months from the Jozefow massacre to the brutal Erntefest (“harvest festival”) slaughter of November 1943, these average men participated in the direct shooting deaths of at least 38,000 Jews and the deportation to Treblinka’s gas chambers of 45,000 more – a total body count of 83,000 for a unit of less than 500 men.
Drawing on postwar interrogations of 210 former members of the battalion, Christopher Browning lets them speak for themselves about their contribution to the Final Solution – what they did, what they thought, how they rationalized their behavior (one man would shoot only infants and children, to “release” them from their misery).
In a sobering conclusion, Browning suggests that these good [sic] Germans were acting less out of deference to authority or fear of punishment than from motives as insidious as they are common: careerism and peer pressure.
With its unflinching reconstruction of the battalion’s murderous record and its painstaking attention to the social background and actions of individual men, this unique account offers some of the most powerful and disturbing evidence to date of the ordinary human capacity for extraordinary inhumanity.
An Oct. 18, 2019 Daily Hampshire Gazette article is entitled: “Guest column Andrea Ayvazian: Lying and its unrelenting damage.”
An excerpt reads:
Bok’s words burrowed deep inside me — her book about lying is one of the seminal books that shaped my thinking as a 20-something. One line from her conclusion made a particularly strong impression on me: “Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity.”
I clung to the Bok book through my many moves as a young adult, packing and unpacking it as I relocated from state to state and apartment to apartment. But somewhere along the way I lost the book. This week I went to the library and took the Bok book off the shelf.
There was everything I remembered — the chapter headings, the quotes from Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, Bonhoeffer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Freud, the discussions of white lies, excuses, lies in a crisis, lying to liars, lying to enemies, lies to protect peers and clients, lies for the public good and lies to the sick and dying.
When I first read the Bok book in 1979, I was not a stranger to the idea of political deception because I had been in college during the Vietnam War. The web of lies that entangled so many elected officials during that war and eventually brought down a president were familiar to me, and part of my coming of age as an activist.
But Bok’s book stirred something new inside me. Her words and examples page after page made me realize the deeply corrosive nature of lying and lies. Like the drip, drip, drip of acid on metal, lying eats away at trust, confidence, faith and resilience between and among individuals, families, communities, and even an entire country.