Sunday, June 12, 2005

Orwell and Pope Benedict

Just before Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was chosen as Pope Benedict XVI, he gave a sermon in which he cautioned, "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires." It seemed to me a harsh statement at the time, but an article in the June 3 edition of Commonweal magazine has helped me to understand it better. In "No Restorationist," Christopher Ruddy interprets Benedict's statement as stemming from his years living under the Nazi regime. Benedict, in short, did not learn from his experience to hate absolutism and to embrace relativism -- as so much of the world did in the years after World War II. He certainly learned the evils of totalitarianism and rejected them, but he learned that such things come about when a dictator, regime, or nation rejects standards of truth and chooses not to live under standards anymore, preferring simply their own desires and the contest of strong against weak.

Most of us know that Nazi Germany embraced such a contest. We do not typically think of that regime as embracing relativism, because Hitler's absolutism is so famous. His will was law. But think for a moment how such a thing comes about. When there is no law, "one's own ego and one's own desires" will come to the fore. Seeing that little now stands in the way of fulfilling your desires, you will try to fulfill them, provided you are not prevented from doing so by stronger forces. Anarchy could be one result of such lawlessness. Another is dictatorship -- the natural next step in any society suffering anarchy. Hitler promised to ease the anarchy of Germany's economy and of its general situation; he inserted his will, joined it to those who trusted him, and imposed it on everyone else. His law then became the only law. Nazi truth became the only truth. When Jewish communities were exterminated, it was not set in record that they had been extinguished: the record was doctored to say that such-and-such Jewish community had never existed.

Enter George Orwell. In 1984 and elsewhere, Orwell describes how the totalitarian regimes of his time, in Germany and communist Russia, distinguished themselves from all other absolutists of the past by denying not just that objective truth was attainable, but that it even existed. In "Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War" he writes this:

I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history COULD be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that 'facts' existed and were more or less discoverable. And in practice there was always a considerable body of fact which would have been agreed to by almost everyone. If you look up the history of the last war in, for instance, the ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA, you will find that a respectable amount of the material is drawn from German sources. A British and a German historian would disagree deeply on many things, even on fundamentals, but there would still be that body of, as it were, neutral fact on which neither would seriously challenge the other. It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys. Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as 'the truth' exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as 'Science'. There is only 'German Science', 'Jewish Science', etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but THE PAST. If the Leader says of such and such an event, 'It never happened'--well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five--well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs--and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement.

Benedict knew that Nazi society was based on lies because he lived through it, even more so than the previous pope. John Paul II had lived in wartime Poland, broadly speaking, as a victim; he knew how brutal Nazi Germany was, and the lies it was capable of. But Benedict grew up in Germany, and was asked to serve in Hitler's wartime army, which he did before deserting; and Germans, unlike Jews or Poles, were persuaded by lies rather than force, relatively speaking; they were spoken to, rather than exterminated, comparatively speaking. Germans received, and were expected to believe, a very large encyclopedia of lies. This is what Benedict knew personally.

I read 1984 recently, which is why I now think the primary attribute of any totalitarian society is not its external power, but its attack on the mind: its brainwashing, its lies, its ruthless persuasion; its attack on the past -- all those things described in 1984. That is why I think Orwell and Benedict are denouncing the same thing, in different forms.

Sometimes we speak of historically totalitarian societies as if we were heading toward one today. And I grant that the path to a war with Iraq, and the arguments for that war since then, have been dishonest in many ways; there are lies in this society, just as Orwell granted that there were very serious lies in the Western democracies that he championed in their death-struggle with Germany. But Hitler was quite different from George Bush, Jr. in many ways. Some are not so relevant in this discussion: for instance the friendliness between Bush and American or Israeli Jews; or the increase under Bush of funding to combat AIDS and wartime illness in black Africa; or Bush's embrace of free market capitalism, and his effort with other countries to cancel Africa's debts. One difference between the two men is clearly relevant, and that is Bush's Christian faith. Flawed as that faith may be, and even if were entirely hypocritical (which it is not), Hitler did not even pretend to be following anything like the Christian truths. He had open contempt for Christian teachings about mercy toward the weak. He could speak with some admiration for the Church's strength, but there is little doubt that National Socialism, as a socialist doctrine, was committed to ending religious faith such as that which Christianity represented; this was going to be done after Judaism and Jews had been exterminated (a project never completed). In any case, under German occupation the Church was not allowed to say or do anything except what favored the Nazi regime (which is one reason why Church wartime statements seem to us on balance more pro-German than they really were). Hitler despised religion, but particularly those religions that stemmed from Judaism. The farther away from Judaism a religion was, the more he was likely to tolerate it, which is why he admired Islam more than Christianity, and actually forged an alliance (albeit a tactical one) with Buddhist and Shinto Japan.

However this argument goes, at least one thing is certain: Hitler did not believe in Christian truths, and only tolerated Christian strength. He did not believe in any Truth, as Orwell attests. He believed only in German strength -- it was strength that would make things true. Had he tried on any level to embrace a Christian denomination's truth, as George Bush has, he would have found some things friendly to him (for instance, Christian anti-Semitism), but would also have found too much standing in the way of his desires. To have anything standing in his way would be too much work for him -- too much to tolerate for a man who was certainly after uninhibited power.

George Bush is not another Hitler; we would do better to compare America to the old Roman Empire, or the British Empire; and finally to acknowledge that all historical movements are unique and not reducible to any single event from the past. The only way to deal with our present situation is to see it clearly, but if we're busy seeing only how it resembles Nazi Germany, or any other historical episode, we will almost surely spend less time trying to understand other things which we need to understand. For instance, we may be facing a kind of Christian absolutism, but even so it would not look like any Christian absolutism that has existed in the past, because American society is so modern and unique.

In any case, now I have a partial answer for a question I asked in an earlier post, "Atheism and Communism": why have repressive atheist nations produced death tolls so many times higher than repressive societies that did not overthrow religion?

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