These Men Must Be Monsters


Poster from the Spanish Civil War by Manuel Monleón

by Alexander McGregor

Following World War II, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote, “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch”: to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Adorno wasn’t speaking literally. It is perhaps more helpful to understand Adorno’s comment, itself poetical, as a final rejection of Romanticism. For Adorno, a return to bucolic fantasies of the pre-Shoah world (say, fetishising a lazy Sunday afternoon punting along the Cam for example) would be an unacceptable indulgence: a case of purposeful amnesia. No, Adorno thought, we must stare at the burning remnants of our European history. We must sear into our minds the trauma of what a highly technocratic, educated society did to itself. In short, Adorno argued that we must infuse what he described as negative thinking into the way we understand our history and ourselves. He wasn’t the only contemporary thinker advocating an end to Europe’s self-satisfied, intellectual Panglossism. It is not a coincidence that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings ends with Frodo Baggins so traumatised from his experiences that despite the ultimate success of his quest, he in a sense chooses a liberating suicide rather than submit to a Hobbiton threatening to bury his trauma under a thin soil of merriment and idle gardening. For Frodo, there could be no return to the Shire and its tranquil smallness. It had been spoilt by the unconquerable bigness of his experience and, moreover, the undeniable knowledge of that experience: knowledge he must “carry with him for the rest of his days”. For Tolkien, there could be no poetry after Auschwitz.

Adorno and Tolkien were arguing that history had now to be understood differently: that its study should be primarily concerned with culture, psychology and meaning. By definition this new understanding could only develop within a change in the way history was taught. This was also the central motif of much of George Orwell’s writing. Conventional wisdom may hold that the author of Animal Farm and 1984 was an enthusiastic history student: after all, in so many ways he became a remarkably important historian. In reality, Orwell was bitterly opposed to the contemporary pedagogy that reduced the study of the past to what he described as an orgy of dates and names without any pause given to what meaning might lie behind those facts. Indeed, a powerful strand of DNA running through the body of Orwell’s writing suggests a passion to see history become the study of the culture and the collective trauma that shapes civilisations.

This theme is evident in Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s 1938 memoir of his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War. During one passage Orwell ruminates on his revolutionary left-wing militia’s need to debate each order before accepting it. He was impressed with the egalitarianism and sometimes marveled at the militia’s attempt to put the ideas of its revolutionary movement into real and actual practice. However, he was also frustrated. Was he frustrated by the inefficiency endless debate caused because he reasoned that defeating Franco required an implacable solidarity? Or was he frustrated because as an Old Etonian, who had served as a policeman in Burma, he had been culturally educated to believe that the English model of organisation was the only viable model? Somewhat glibly, Orwell concludes that his frustration was in fact due both to his acquired Englishness and his own critical analysis. Imagine if such questions were woven into each history syllabus and every history class. Imagine history programmes producing generations of Orwells. Imagine if the descriptor “Orwellian” referred not to dystopian futures but to a sort of critical brilliance considered the intellectual standard of our day. Imagine the dynamism of a society whose discourse is fully informed by a sophisticated understanding of how culture and trauma influence history.

Instead, history is commonly taught as a serious of barely connected events located uniquely in the exalted realm of High Politics and Personality. As a result the past has been hijacked, in Umberto Eco’s words, by “adventurous men, long on charisma, with a highly developed instinct for their own interests, who have pursued personal power – bypassing parliaments and constitutions, distributing favours to their minions, and conflating their own desires with the interests of the community”. And what is the outcome for our understanding of history? Orwell has already forewarned: “The most effective way to destroy people”, he wrote, “is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

Ask the average high school student, “What is history?” and more commonly than not one receives a sullen answer that invariably includes the mumbled complaint: just memorisation of dates and names. This is cliché and few historians would ever accept that such is true in her or his classroom. After all, we’ve all seen Dead Poets Society. However, political history remains the dominant brand taught in schools today and history syllabi continue to wallow in the mire of Eco and Orwell’s High Politics and Personality. And whilst there is importance to be found here, as well as many fascinating stories, reducing history to High Politics merely reinforces the Great Man theory. History becomes Hitler, Stalin, Napoleon, Bismarck. History becomes Churchill, Nelson, Lincoln and Elizabeth. History becomes the clumsy rear-projection of Important Individuals, usually rich, heterosexual, white men. If there is any durable theme beyond chronology, it is that history is a progressive march forward in which Good triumphs over Evil. Needless to say, this is hardly history at all. At best it is perhaps folklore but more commonly it is biography and poor, self-serving biography at that. Ultimately, isn’t there something quite tragic that in the 21st Century, Caesar enjoys greater historiographical celebration than the Roman Senate?

Is this essay’s argument a straw man? Indeed, recent trends toward incorporating aspects of women’s history into externally examined high school programmes are to be applauded. The International Baccalaureate commonly features a question on its final exam on the role of women under dictatorships. However, does this not feel somewhat tokenistic? One question out of 24 hardly seems proportionate to the actual role of women under dictatorships. In fact, by labeling women’s history as anything other than history merely reinforces the myth that the pasty is in reality the study of Great Men And What They Do. Sure, at the tertiary level this problem is less pronounced. Cultural history in particular is increasingly well represented amongst many universities. The very real and significant problem is that most people don’t study history at university. But as Orwell pointed out, everyone is under history’s influence regardless. In other words, it is high schools that have the greater responsibility to imbue their history syllabi with a significant cultural element. This is arguably the most important question facing historians teaching today, whether they administer the IB, AP, A-Level, French Baccalaureate, hold a university Chair or publish independently.

History is mistaken for, or misappropriated as, the exclusive story of Great Men and the nation state. We must wrestle control of it back. History is not a science to prove the naturalness of chauvinism and nationalism. Rather, history is the study of trends, movements and ideas. For the wider health of modern civilization, what is taught in schools needs to reflect this. Imagine I want to teach someone how to build a wall. I could take a pile of bricks and arrange them one on top of the other until I have my wall built to a predetermined length and height: the length and height that was taught to me during my own apprenticeship. I then proudly proclaim that this is a wall and instruct my students that if they too wish to master wall building then they need to learn about my wall, which is all walls, and reproduce it. This would be akin to teaching history solely as the achievements of a pantheon of political heroes. All one will achieve is teaching students to reproduce your wall and call it their own. They will have no concept of what a wall means or of what it does. Could they recognise a wall that conformed to different dimensions than their/your own? Could they explore the wall in abstraction asking whether it keeps something in or keeps something out? It is unlikely. Moreover, their wall will doubtless fall down during the first bout of inclement weather, so what use is it after all? However, if we teach students geometry, the importance of mortar, the role of bricks and how to make them we can then watch as they construct walls of diverse shapes, sizes, functions and meanings. In other words, teaching students how to understand the nature of a society and how to recognise its collective traumas will enable students to write diverse histories that question orthodoxies and seek to develop a subject whose primary function is no longer to celebrate the achievements of a powerful elite but rather to express empathy with a people perhaps at once so different and yet so similar to their own.

So how do we achieve this? Historians are not psychologists. The two disciplines have different methodologies and in many ways different aims. But perhaps there is a First Principle historians can borrow from their cousins. As a result of the popularisation of psychology we have a distinct social appreciation of how trauma influences an individual’s state of mind, their choices, fears and prejudices. Could we extrapolate a person to a people? The writer Jean-Claude Carrière once asked the neurologist Oliver Sacks, “What constitutes a normal human being?” Sacks replied, “For us, a normal human being is someone who can tell his own story. That is to say”,

Someone who knows where he’s coming from, who has a past, who is situated within time. He remembers his life and everything he has learnt. He has a present, too, not just in the sense that he lives at a particular time, but in that he has an identity. The moment he speaks to you, he is capable of telling you correctly his name, address, profession, etc. And finally he has a future, i.e things he plans to do, and he hopes he won’t die before he’s done them. For he also knows that he is going to die.

A normal human being, Carrière concluded, is therefore someone capable of telling his own story and consequently of situating himself in time. Replace “he” with society and the definition works equally as well for us historians.

Such understanding is not wholly absent from the study of history. Ironically, whilst the study of Nazi Germany is the most obvious example of the slavish adherence to the Great Man theory, the study of Weimar Germany that immediately preceded Hitler’s rise to power acknowledges the social humiliation felt by the German people. This sense of cultural trauma led to social polarisation, which saw the bulk of the German populace divorce itself from liberalism, considered a failure, and made extremism on both the left and right appear as common sense. However, instead of arguing exploring this students are still taught that Hitler brainwashed everyone. And even where students are not taught that Hitler brainwashed everyone it remains the received wisdom, does it not? But which explanation is more plausible? Did one man hypnotise the entirety of Europe’s most educated society? Or did the trauma of fighting World War I, the terms of the Versailles peace that literally wrought their country asunder, the subsequent invasion by the French, the inability to defend itself, the shock of hyperinflation, the total reliance upon US capital, profound fear of Bolshevism and the effects of the Great Depression deepen pre-existing mittel-European prejudices creating fertile soil for a party that promised a restoration of previous glories? My guess is that if you live in a country that experiences 376 political assassinations within a two-year period, you live in a traumatised country. If we fail to acknowledge the role of cultural trauma, we reduce Nazism to the actions of a single man. If we do that then we’ll obfuscate the root causes for Nazism’s development. And if the study of history has any practical purpose at all then surely it is to act as an early warning system for the return of fascism. The obvious objection here is that de-personalising history essentially excuses the individual of his or her criminality. We certainly need to be weary of historical apologias. However, rising from the ashes of the Great Man theory will be a more nuanced and subtle understanding of personal and social accountability. After all, if one man was not solely responsible then there must have been several who were.

So what might this reformation look like? I mentioned Orwell’s Spanish Civil War experiences above. One of the many complaints of students who study the Spanish Civil War is that it is a confusing morass of the inexplicable and the incomprehensible. It is an understandable complaint. How do students grasp the relationship between all those presidents and prime ministers over so short a period of time? How do students grasp the relationship between the urban and rural areas; between the different regions with their languages and customs; between socialism, communism, anarchism and republicanism on the left and monarchism, fascism, nationalism and conservatism on the right? As a result of this confusion, the Spanish Civil War often finds itself shunted back up for universities to teach or it is simplified to the point of reductionism. Indeed, Orwell’s memoir baffles the reader unless one approaches its pages already possessing a dynamic understanding of what caused the Spanish Civil War. So how to provide lucidity to this quixotic endeavor? In order to appreciate the cultural trauma from which the Spanish Civil War germinated we should begin our study centuries earlier. Yes, you could start in 1936. Yes, you could simply tell students that the monarchist General Franco was angry that the republican Azana won the general election and organised a military coup. And if we have taught students only to build one type of wall with only the bricks we have given them, then no one will pose any problematic questions and we can push on. The only problem is that we have singularly failed to teach anything of any value. Students may pass an exam but to what end? How can they hope to participate in the intellectual development of their society armed only with the skill to pile together bricks upon bricks?

Why not start in 1492? Marking the discovery of the Americas in the name of Queen Isabella, Spain’s possession of the New World saw it become arguably the richest empire of Europe with mastery of the sea and the slave trade. 1492 was also the date of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and marks the successful conclusion of the Reconquista in which the purity of Catholic blood was asserted over the Iberian Peninsula. In other words, at the turn of the 16th century we have a Spain in which its monarchy and the Catholic Church fashioned a Golden Age of power and prosperity. However, these twin pillars upon which was built Spanish greatness were also the same conservative, reactionary forces that denied it the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution and the enlightenment. Therefore, the same factors that brought Spain its Golden Age were also responsible for its eventual decline. Spanish hubris summed its nemesis. This decline was revealed fully to the Spanish only after 1898 when it was humiliated in war with the US. This defeat rocked the very foundations upon which Spanish identity was built. In reaction, a new generation was created from this trauma arguing that Spain must modernise. From the Generation of 1898 came Picasso, Lorca, Unamuno, Gaudi and the Modernist Republican movement that so threatened traditionalist values. And so, at the start of the 20th century Spain was a body possessed by two souls: an Old and a New. Each believed itself to be the only true savior of Spain and each believed the other threatened the very existence of the nation. From such primordial soup, civil wars are made. If students can understand that the long-term cause of the Spanish Civil War was a traumatic, five-century struggle between Old Spain and New Spain then the conflict will have been demystified. Subsequently, everything else will fall into place. Suddenly, the fact that in 1930, 50 per cent of Spanish high school students were taught in state schools and the rest were taught in Catholic schools ceases to be mere information, and instead becomes a symbol invested with meaning.

Introducing the concept of cultural trauma into our mainstream historical discourse comes with serious challenges. Firstly, for such a transformation to occur there would need to be an equal shift in the way history is assessed. If exam essay questions ask for an understanding of cultural trauma then we shall have to provide it. But this is the least of our problems. The memorisation of dates and names requires a gargantuan effort but very little by way of high function skills in skepticism, empathy and compassion. It is simple and orderly and as such there is an undeniable appeal in alphabetising the past. Moreover, one can certainly understand why students default to this comforting methodology when we consider how hard it is to reconcile in our mind history’s more obscene horrors. We wouldn’t be human if our immediate reaction to suffering wasn’t one of rage, anger, confusion and stupefaction. As a result, beyond resorting to the alphabetisation of history, our more knee-jerk reaction is to embrace the very Good versus Evil model we’re looking to problematise. Take for example, the Rape of Nanking that occurred in 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese war. One of modern history’s most appalling episodes, the invading Japanese army committed atrocities against Chinese civilians on a scale almost dwarfing academic comprehension. One eyewitness, the Reverend James McCallum wrote,

I know not where to end.

Never have I heard or read of such brutality. Rape! Rape! Rape! We estimate at least 1,000 cases a night, and many by day. In cases of resistance or anything that seems like disapproval, there is a bayonet stab or a bullet… People are hysterical… Women are being carried off every morning, afternoon and evening. The whole Japanese army seems to be free to go and come as it pleases, and to do whatever it pleases.

In the face of such actions, it is understandable that we describe the perpetrators of such historical crimes as evil. And by logical extension those that oppose these crimes become good. This feels intuitively correct, doesn’t it? You’ve asked me to excavate history beyond dates and names and I have done that. My conclusion? These men must be monsters. Surely, these men must be monsters. The problem now is that we have created a binary paradigm wherein the past must be squeezed into our all-prevailing Good versus Evil worldview. History becomes myth. But fighting an enemy that is evil does not make you good. That someone acts monstrously does not make him or her less human. This binary paradigm thus becomes an act of simplification to the point where it propagates dangerously misleading conclusions: a sort of pseudo-history sitting in a loveseat snuggling the bosom of pseudoscience. Human beings perpetrated the Rape of Nanking: to argue anything else is to deny the truth. Whilst it may help us to sleep at night, as historians we owe it to those who can’t speak for themselves not to reduce history in this fashion. Instead, we have to take a deep breath an accept that history will not always flow in crystal clear waters but will perhaps forever remain opaque and contradictory.

So like Fathers Merrin and Karras, we have to tackle Evil head on. As a historian, I’m unsure what evil really is but here’s where Adorno’s negative thinking becomes most applicable. Do I, the teacher, need to have that answer? Might it not be more powerful merely to pose the question? Is evil the presence of something? Is evil the absence of something? Is it in the things we do? Is it in the things we don’t? Can our thoughts be evil? If so, does that make us evil people for having evil thoughts? Are you ever fully in control of your thoughts? If not, and the above holds, are you ever fully in control of your evil? Let me put it this way: I think crystal meth is an evil. But people are much harder to categorise. This is the fragile beauty of history: it forces you to confront the fact that seemingly good people do appalling things and, just as importantly, vice versa. Hitler loved his Alsatian dog but encouraged genocide. Stalin was the first world leader to understand the full extent of threat posed by Nazism but arguably engineered a famine to entrench his regime. Eviscerated by historians for signing the Munich Agreement, poor old Neville Chamberlain committed a clear and obvious error, but I believe his primary intention was not to satisfy Hitler but to spare lives. Perhaps to help us combat the reductionist trend towards the Good versus Evil paradigm we need to weave into our thinking Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil, wherein she describes true evil as the bureaucratisation or systemisation of hate and violence: the normalisation of cruelty.

How would this apply to the Rape of Nanking? The key issue here is not to remove the essential “humanity” from the perpetrators. During the Second Sino-Japanese war perhaps 200,000 Korean women were sent to China to “comfort” the Japanese soldiers. There can be no excusing this. However, we have to place greater intellectual emphasis on understanding than judgement, as counter-intuitive as that may feel. After all, if we allow ourselves to dehumanise the Japanese perpetrators then we are engaging in a similar psychological process that enabled the Japanese to dehumanise the Chinese, thereby justifying their own actions. In order to understand this sense of Japanese exceptionalism we again have to turn to the long-term cultural trauma of the social and economic upheaval Japan underwent during the previous century: fear of Western penetration, cultural dissonance caused by the collapse of the feudal social system, a profound concern at the lack of self-sufficiency and the ability to feed then nation, outrage at the effects of the Great Depression and a desire, especially amongst the young, to restore a sense of national, cultural and racial pride. Or, to paraphrase Phillip Caputo, there was in Japan a violent, corrosive belief that “something had to be done”. Again, none of which excuses the Rape of Nanking. However, history at its most noble is about truth and reconciliation and this process requires not excuses but understanding. After all, as with history and fascism, if we understanding a catastrophe then we give ourselves a fighting chance to prevent it from happening again. If we merely use history to categorise, mythologise or demonise then we hang the sword of Damocles above our own heads.

Let us abandon the idea that you need to memorise one definitive history, comprised solely of dates, names, facts and statistics. Carl Sagan once wrote of his own high school education, “It was our job merely to remember what had been commanded. Get the right answer, and never mind that you don’t understand”. Equally, on our search for the culture and traumas that help us to explain the trends, movements and ideas of history we must be constantly vigilant lest we ourselves default to the narrow and rigid Good versus Evil paradigm. Let me put it this way: how often have you heard someone muse that if they had a time machine they’d travel back and kill Hitler? Here’s the problem: if you kill Hitler in 1933 or 1938 or 1942 can you be certain that you won’t simply make things a whole lot worse? If there’s no Hitler there’s still Himmler, Goering, Goebbels, Eichmann and Heydrich. What then if you kill Hitler as child? Well, then you become the murderer. And what is more, the murderer of an innocent child. Hitler hadn’t committed any crimes when he was a boy. Such is the danger of simplification, mythologising and the Good versus Evil paradigm. We have suddenly justified the murder of a child for a zealous notion of a greater cosmic good. Is that not the logic of some of history’s greatest ‘monsters’? Would it not be better to try to talk to him? To ask him questions? To help the boy understand the other paths open to him?

About the Author:


Alexander McGregor is the author of The Catholic Church and Hollywood (2013) and The Shaping of Popular Consent (2007). He was awarded a PhD in History from the University of East Anglia. Dr McGregor is the head of history at the United World College of South East Asia. His research interests include cultural theory, ideology, propaganda and education.