25 June, 2005

Trial and death of Stalin, Pt. 4

Obviously the exclusion of God from Jacobin, Communist, and Nazi society did not bring about their extinction. Rather, it brought about the extinction of an endless number of human beings.

The final part of Eugenio Corti's book Trial and Death of Stalin is titled, "Western Culture's Responsibility for the Great Massacres of the Twentieth Century." (Previous discussion here, here, and here.) The point should be obvious: after examining the conditions surrounding the appalling massacres in Eastern, communist-led nations throughout the twentieth century, Corti turns his eye on the influence of Western society's laicized and increasingly anti-religious atmosphere.

Corti begins with France, and dwells on it a while. (He also takes swipes at his own nation, and at the United States.) He draws a parallel between the Communist massacres and the Jacobin terror, highlighting an episode of the French Revolution that has been largely overlooked by history: the war against Vendée. A brief summary: the citizens of Vendée were not terribly pro-Royalist, but they were pro-Church. They drew the line at the Republic's attempt to replace churchmen with those of their liking, and took up arms. A brief revolt against the Revolutionaries enjoyed only temporary success; in response, the Republican government dispatched twelve columns of troops with the mission of raping, torching, and murdering everyone and everything in sight. Corti cites casualty rates at over 30% of the population in some areas.

Corti reminds the reader that many of the 20th century's communist revolutionaries, and all of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, were educated in French universities. He recalls the Cambodian leaders' rationalization that their nation only required one million citizens to operate effectively, and compares it to a remark of Rousseau's that there were too many people in France at the time.

In conclusion we can thus affirm that the West furnished the Eastern populations, which had few cultural defenses, not only with the tragic utopias that generated these massacres, but by covering them up, has also favored their actualization.

Besides the ideas Western culture instilled in their minds, Corti also discusses the Western media's determination to ignore their crimes. Again, during the late 1970s Corti reports how Italian papers ran thousands of articles detailing Pinochet's oppression, while ignoring (or very nearly) the contemporary extermination in Cambodia. Corti argues for a pattern: Italian media also discounted, ignored, or even mis-reported long periods of massacre and forced starvation in China and the Soviet Union.

While not mentioned in Corti's book, to my knowledge the most infamous example of this in the United States would have to be the New York Times reporter Walter Duranty, who reported from Moscow in the early 1930s that there was no famine in the Ukraine, even while millions of Ukrainian peasants were in fact starving to death, prohibited from eating food they had grown themselves. Duranty won a Pulitzer prize for this exercise in "truth-telling", a prize which has not been revoked despite the subsequent revelations that he did no investigation whatsoever, reporting only what his friends in the Communist Party told him. I mention this because Corti has recorded in two other works (I più non ritornano and Il cavallo rosso) his memory that many Ukrainians welcomed the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union precisely because they viewed the Nazis as liberators. As they soon learned, however, the Nazis were the worse of two evils: Hitler's racist ideology viewed Ukrainians, like all Slavs, as an inferior race whose purpose was to serve the Aryans.

As I have mentioned before, Corti sees in these tragedies empirical evidence for the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin: that all people are born selfish, and we cannot be made good without the intervention of God. Communism, to the contrary, declares that men can remake human nature into that of a "new good man"; that a "new society", an earthly paradise, is within our grasp, and can be brought about through the workers' revolution.

Moreover, argues Corti, what occurred during the centuries of the Middle Ages, and what has occured during the centuries of the Enlightenment, especially the 20th century, validates St. Augustine's notion of the two cities. Augustine's idea is that history consists of the alternation between the City of Man (which excludes God) and the City of God (which seeks to build itself according to God's teachings).
Augustine warns: the builders of the "earthly city" — regardless of their intentions — always end up behaving in the manner of the "prince of this world" as described by the Gospel. That means, like it or not, that they behave in the manner of the demon. We now know from the Gospel that the specific attributes of the demon are those of being a murderer, a liar, and an ape of God.
What did we witness in many settings during the 20th century? a building of the "city of man": the left-wing settings of communism, and the right-wing setting of Nazism.

An objection from the reader: how, then, does Corti explain some of the massacres of the High and Late Middle Ages? I am speaking neither of the Inquisition nor of the witch trials, which despite their infamy do not even approach the demoniacal butchery that we have found in communist regimes. I am speaking instead of events like
  • Magdeburg, where a brutal massacre killed all but 400 of the inhabitants, giving rise to an ironic German expression: the mercy of Magdeburg;
  • Bèziers, during the Albigensian crusade, at which the legate of the pope himself remarked, Kill them all; God will know his own. In the massacre that followed, tens of thousands died so that the legate could be certain that 500 Cathars were eliminated.
My argument is not whether the massacres of the 20th century were really so bad; they do in fact dwarf anything accomplished by medieval Europeans. Rather, Corti seems to have romanticized the Middle Ages a bit much, placing the blame exclusively on an atheistic Enlightenment that took its cue from a "Rennaissance" overly enamored with paganism. He specifically fingers Macchiavelli as an example culprit: for Machiavelli teaches that the ends justify the means, and all is lawful to the man who would be a "good" prince. Of course, Corti also remarks that the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are inseparable from the thirteenth and fourteenth, so I could be overestimating his nostalgia for the Middle Ages.

I do find Corti's argument on the Augustinian vision of history very convincing, though; even during the Middle Ages, after all, people desired to build God's kingdom on earth, excluding God in practice if not in theory. My objection is simply that Corti gives the Middle Ages a pass. After all, the number of medieval reform orders, and the consistency of their message, is dizzying: Cistercians, Trappists, Carthusians, Norbertines, Dominicans, Franciscans... should I go on? As the Second Vatican Council itself said, the scandal of Christians who fail to follow the Gospel provides some explanation for the existence of atheism — and, if I may be permitted to extend it, provides some explanation as well for the massacres of the twentieth century. I add as a caution, though, what a wise seminary professor of mine once told our class: an explanation is not an excuse.

Let us return to Corti's argument. As a conclusion, Corti asks whether we are witnessing this anew in Western culture. To this day, Western culture has refused to abandon its philosophical materialism. It does not often look critically at its post-Rennaissance history; it sneers at the Middle Ages and glorifies an Enlightenment that, in Corti's words, have actually brought a darkness upon us. As examples of this darkness, Corti points to the poverty of our so-called arts in comparison to the glories of the sacred art from the Middle Ages; he points to Western culture's obsession with entertainment and consumerism. We are headed, he warns, towards a new imbestiamento dell'uomo: a making of man into a beast.

Is he wrong? Look around yourself in Western culture: look at the exclusion of God from ordinary life, the exclusion of God from personal life even by most people who call themselves "religious". Religion itself has been infected by materialist philosophy that values social justice more than conversion; as an example, Corti reports on the infection of Italian Catholicism by Marxism and materialism, and laments the immense number of "Cathocommunists" who cheered on the Maoist, Vietnamese, and Cambodian revolutions, and refused to open their eyes to the demon that was making beasts out of men.

Look at the way our culture insists on escaping the consequences of our actions; look how we demand an unrealistically low price for many, many goods and services, so that we can accumulate more and more worthless things that decorate us and our larger, emptier homes - as if we, with eternal souls created by God and destined to resemble him, need any further decoration!

Look at the glorification of pleasure and of income, and the disdain for a real education that completes a human being rather than manufacturing a worker; look at the approaching factories of human clones that will be used as meat for human vanity; look at the abundance of sex and the famine of love; look at all these things and ask yourself whether Corti's description of these revolutionary societies of mass murder may be an apt description of our own not-so-revolutionary society in the not-too-distant future. I don't know; it's just a thought that wanders into my mind.

Of course, these things have all existed in the past; "there is nothing new under the sun." In some cases these symptoms have been worse. The Enlightenment, however, has left us with two gifts that, as we saw in the twentieth century, bring a greater danger: thanks to technology, we possess immense power; with atheistic (or at least secular) societies, God is excluded from common life. As Dostevsky wrote, If God does not exist, all things are lawful. God must exist not only on our lips, but in our hearts as well. With power comes responsibility, but again: people demand more ways to avoid responsibility as ever.

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