Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Barbaric Modern Age


Which people were more inhumane and barbaric: a) the Soviet Union and Nazis during World War II or b) the Romans during the time of the Empire?

Easy answer: a.

I just completed The Fall of Berlin 1945 by Anthony Beevor which shocked me and convinced me the Romans have nothing over the modern age as far as inhumane treatment of human beings.

Actually, I’d put the Soviets a step ahead of the Nazis if you really want to know.

Perhaps you know the history. Hitler rose to power when the German people were forced to choose between the Nazi party and the Communist Party (some choice!). In Hitler’s schizophrenic paranoid mind, the future of Germany depended on resisting all those who would suppress German nationalism. In order to fire up the German people to his purpose, Hitler blamed all Germany’s problems on the Communists and Jews as the agents who were working toward Germany’s destruction. Hitler vowed that it was Germany’s right and responsibility to resist and destroy the communist menace.

Once Western Europe was beaten, Hitler turned his attention to attacking the Soviet Union. He believed that as long as the Slavs remained powerful, they could come to the aid of Western Europe. With Russia destroyed, America and Britain would be isolated and Germany could retain her hold over Europe.

On June 22, 1941 Germany launched its attack on the Soviet Union. Once it had moved forward by several hundred miles, an occupation political apparatus, intent on exploitation of the Soviet people, was put into place. Thousands of Soviet citizens were murdered in an attempt to remove all leaders who could organize resistance against the Germans. Before the war ended, twelve to fourteen million Russian civilians had been killed in addition to nine million military deaths.

Of course, the German occupation would not hold thanks to Mother Russia’s size and climate. Hitler had made the same foolish mistake as those before him thinking that Russia could be physically conquered. After the Germans failed to take Stalingrad in 1943, the tide turned and they were forced to retreat. By January 1945, the Russians were advancing into German annexed Poland, killing everyone in their path. The Nazi genocide had been based on the German notion of race superiority. Russian genocide was pure revenge. Towns were wiped out, every woman raped, and every child killed. The Russians even killed their own people who had been captured by the Germans at the beginning of the war, assuming they had become disloyal. By the end of the war, the Germans suffered two million civilian deaths in addition to five million military deaths.

With the outcome of the war a certainty, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met in Yalta February 4-11 1945 to decide how Europe should be rebuilt in the post war period. Roosevelt, with two months to live, appeared weak to the others. Churchill considered Stalin a “devil-like tyrant” who couldn’t be trusted but Roosevelt insisted on being the one to negotiate directly with him, based on a na├»ve notion that he understood Stalin’s motives and could control him. Roosevelt should have applied a rule learned in antiquity – never trust the tyrant. Instead he allowed his desire to get Stalin to declare war on Japan and join the United Nations to cloud his judgment. Stalin agreed to attack Japan ninety days after a German defeat, which turned out to be only seven days before Japan surrendered. With respect to the United Nations, Stalin had secretly negotiated a veto power format designed to protect his interests, unknown to Roosevelt, so his resistance to joining was in fact a ruse.

So we have the arguably the two worst human beings of the twentieth century destroying each other without any consideration for the lives of innocent people. Why has man not progressed morally in two thousand years? Because man is man and when he is a part of a group, his behavior often takes on an evil character freed from responsibility.


Scott Manning said...

I agree with you that Hitler and Stalin were responsible for greater atrocities than the Romans. However, the concept of being more "inhumane and barbaric" needs to be weighed against the capability. Hitler and Stalin were responsible for more deaths than virtually every other figure in history due to their willingness, but also due to their technological capability in the killing department and the number of people available to kill.

It was not as if others had not tried in the past. The Romans certainly displayed their capacity for destruction when they razed Carthage (146 BC). Obviously, Carthage is but one incident. Yet, if the Romans had the capability to kill more efficiently in the frontier lands, would they not do it? When the Byzantines discovered how to wield Greek fire, they used it where possible. If their Roman ancestors could have implemented that technology in Gaul, do you think they would have?

Mike Anderson said...


I pondered the same question before I wrote the post. If the Greeks and Romans would have had more destructive power would they have used it?

I guess my point is that we have to work very hard to move beyond the dark side of our humanity. We're supposed to be more humane now than our ancestors were, so in my opinion we have less of an excuse.

Geoff Carter said...

Hi Mike,
This is precisely the moral and historical relativism that concerns me.
My part of the world was regularly subject to attempts at genocide at the hands of groups of people who are otherwise admired for their achievements. I am from the North of England, so as barbarians, a lower race, we can be legitimately killed and dispossessed of our land in the interest of the superior cultures to the south.
Hadrian, one of the more cultured of Roman emperors, deployed almost a third of his legions in trying to wipe-out the Jewish population.
Genocide was simply less efficient and more labour-intensive in this period.

Mike Anderson said...


I agree.

This problem is widespread in culture stratification. Any culture with power is able to express that power over another culture by saying it is superior.

From an anthropological standpoint this is merely men fearing those not like them on a grand scale. Example: One person is uncomfortable around Jews because they are different but keeps quiet. A mob who is uncomfortable kills those same Jews.

Geoff Carter said...

I would spin it from the other direction, people define their identity & culture by difference from neighboring groups.
"men fearing those not like them" as you put it, is an inevitable of men creating any distinct identity.
I think in terms early agricultural societies, 'stratification' is an equally important dimension, in that it creates distinct and extreme identities/differences within a society.
Some races/groups may be perceived less human, but equally perverse is that some individuals were seen as more divine.

Dwight said...

I just finished Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and it sounds like there is a lot of overlap with Beevor's book. Snyder's book is a brutal read. I would slightly qualify the "without any consideration for the lives of innocent people" statement--the innocents were considered if (and only if) they could be of some benefit to the state...usually in labor camps/gulags (even then, only if food supplies were not a concern). Obviously a minor quibble when you look at the scope of deliberate targeting innocents.

Thanks for the mention of Beevor's book.