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Book Review September 4, 2004
 
Anne Applebaum, Professional Mourner
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 2
 
The comparison to post-1945 Germany is the crucial one, the one by which contemporary Russia keeps disappointing and annoying righteous Westerners like Applebaum. This is yet another case of the "Hitler Standard," by which the Nazis are the gold standard of evil, and the painful rehabilitation of Germany after 1945 the gold standard of recovery.

And of course this version of what happened in Germany in 1945 requires a suppression of memory at least as great as that involved in Russia's apathy towards Stalin's crimes. In the first place, it's not the case that Germany's crimes, in general, made much of an impression on "people's minds." Germany's crimes against Russians, in particular, were little noticed nor long remembered in the West -- despite the fact that the majority of the Wehrmacht's victims were Slavs.

Most massacre victims are the sort of people not likely to be remembered. This is one of those almost-tautologies that's still worth saying, like the old evolutionary biologists' joke that most of us are descended from people who didn't die before puberty.

And as another cynical French wit put it, we are all very good at bearing the sufferings of others.

Only when a massacre is unusually dramatic and interesting, and/or involves people to whom we feel particularly close, do most of us feel anything. In other words, the Christian-derived premise that there is some Enlightenment moral sense in each of us, which reacts with instinctive horror at any mass suffering, is simply nonsense. There is no such sense -- and a quick look at the archives of a Tory magazine like the Spectator, for which Applebaum proudly toiled, would reveal that fact a million times over. Ever hear of the "Black Hole of Calcutta"? Of course you did. That terrible overheated room in which some English prisoners were kept during the Indian Mutiny, so stifling that some of them actually died! Now, let's do the math: what is the ratio of Indians killed during the British occupation to British prisoners stifled in the Black Hole? Few of you will have any idea, because those millions of dead never registered with us.

Applebaum would not have been capable of accepting a position with a vile publication like the Spectator unless her own consciousness contained at least one huge, highly adaptive amnesiac blob where all the crimes of the Empire should have been filed. So vast and horrific were these crimes, so long did they continue, that you could pretty much spin a globe, jab a finger at it blindfolded, and land on a spot where some Imperial force committed some sort of atrocity. (Unless, of course, you landed on ocean -- though the Royal Navy would do its best to provide you with material even there.)

The crimes of history are optional. We mix, match and discard according to taste and convenience. It's useful for Applebaum's Tory backers to remember Stalin's crimes because they can still use them to bash anyone who might want to beef up the National Health system with higher taxes. "Today an extra 1% VAT on my Jag convertible, tomorrow Kolyma!" is a very familiar war cry from these crusaders for human rights. Other massacres are dim stats, to be dredged up when necessary. Take, for example, all the tens of millions of dead in the Japanese occupation of China. They are rarely invoked in the West, because we don't need them. The Japanese are thoroughly spent, neither a threat nor a bad example of anything we worry about at the moment. The Chinese are more of a worry, making the invocation of their dead a dangerous concession. And in the Tory mind, those dead are connected with ignominy: the surrender of Singapore without a fight, the sinking of the Repulse and Prince of Wales...and so it goes, with a huge number of tangential mental associations determining which of the billions of corpses clogging the earth will be dug up and flung at one's opponents at any particular moment.

In this context, the Russians' lack of interest in Stalin's victims seems quite natural and healthy. It's Applebaum's arduous disinterment of them that ends up seeming forced, disingenuous and surprisingly dull.

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