A Century of Horrors

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Century of Horrors: Communism, Nazism, and the uniqueness of the Shoah, by Alain Besancon

I've been putting off writing this review. I'm not sure why: I raved about this book to anyone who would listen. Despite its subject matter, I raced through reading it, but maybe now it's catching up with me. After a long day, tired Rachel just doesn't feel like curling up in bed and thinking about... a century of horrors.

It really was a fantastic book though. It evaluates Nazism and Communism, especially how they relate to the Holocaust (or "Shoah" if you're Jewish). The author avoided the grisly details of both ideologies to instead evaluate the bigger issues: physical destruction, moral destruction, the destruction of political life, theology, and memory.

Have you ever wondered why Nazism is considered evil incarnate, and communism just brings to mind "McCarthyism" and badly dressed dictators? According to the author, we have "hypernesia" of the former and amnesia of the latter, even though communism killed more people by over a factor of ten. The best analysis, I think, can be summed up from the following quote from "Physical Destruction" (chapter 1).

  • The mode of killing is not a criterion of evaluation. The temptation to judge one death as innately more terrible than another must be resisted: no death can be seen from the inside. No one can know what a child experienced while inhaling Zyklon B gas or while starving to death in a Ukrainian isba. Because people were killed without any form of justice, one must exclaim that they all perished terribly--one person as much as the next--because they were innocent. (p. 11)

This quote references premeditated "famines" in Ukraine by Stalin, who simply decided to eliminate some Slavic people. Just because.

I would like to read this book again someday. It was concise but powerful. It's been a long time since I've read philosophy, and I would probably comprehend more if I were better-read. I haven't heard references to Hegel, Hume, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, or Trotsky since high school. The chapter on Memory was particularly over my head, probably because the author reference French politics and wrote from a Jewish perspective. As a Christian, I disagreed with a few minor points about Christianity, but he "gets" it, what Christianity is really about.

I was struck by Chapter 4 in particular, "Theology." He argued that both Nazism and Communism hated Christianity and Judaism because their gods were jealous. Fundamentally they are both evangelistic worldviews: Nazis thought the world would be redeemed through the "Aryan" people, and communism thought the world would be saved through their new definition of morality. They both tried to destroy God because they were/are His enemies, and they couldn't abide a God greater than them.

I highly recommend this book.