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Trivializing Barbarity
Article by Archbishop Józef Życiński

[The following is an unofficial translation by Peter K. Gessner of the article which appeared in the March, 2001, issue of Więż and was reprinted in the Warsaw daily, Rzeczpospolita, on March 6, 2001 -- A large collections of Polish language articles published about Jedwabne by the Warsaw daily, Rzeczpospolita can be reached by clicking on the banner.]

In 1990 when I came to Tarnów as the diocesan bishop, there existed there the beautiful memory of Otto Schimk, a soldier of the Wermacht executed in the Tarnów area for insubordination during the Second World War. In the romantic version of his death it was said that, seeing the amoral character of the war let loose by the Nazis, he refused to shoot at Poles and paid for this with his own life.

During the period of marshal law, the figure of Schimk inspired youth in their protests against the despotism of the authorities of that era.. Pilgrimages from distant parts of Poland came to Schimk's presumed burial place, so as to express their respects for the young soldier who so highly valued the voice of conscience that in conditions of contempt for moral principals was able to clearly perceive the dividing line between honor and barbarity.

Some dreamed at the time of starting the beatification process for Schimk and to show, using his example, that strong characters can use conscience as a guide even in difficult saturations when human rights are trampled. It was however necessary to give up that intention when I received documentation justifying the verdict of the field tribunal which condemned Schimk to death. If one is to believe documents generated for the internal use of the Wermacht, the reason for the death sentence was significantly less exalted than his fame suggested. It was notorious vagrancy contemptuous of all principals of military discipline.

Conditioned by popular tales, the longing for just one righteous individual in Sodom proved both beautiful yet distant from reality. In that longing though, we find an important expression of our search for such examples of human nobility, in which even aggressive eruptions of barbarity are unable to destroy feelings of elementary human solidarity.

Godot instead of Schimk

The people of Jadwabne were not capable of matching the exemplars that popular opinion ascribed to Schimk. We know not of documents according to which on that tragic day they might have been trying to exhibit an elementary solidarity with their Jewish brother in humanity. One can discuss interminably to what degree the barbaric event was the result of Nazi provocation and what degree it was an expression of the individual feelings of the Polish inhabitants of Jedwabne. It does not change the fact that waiting in Jadwabne for Schimk's style, as it became represented in popular legend, proved in the end to be waiting for Godot.

I am inclined to believe that on that memorable day in Jedwabne, among the crowd of onlookers who watched the terrified figures squirming with pain among the flames of the fire, there were present a variety of feelings. Some saw among the dying recent sympathizers of the Bolshevik authorities, others - local representatives of small business, who until recently shone with economic success. Probably there was also no lack of those whose feelings of bewilderment were coupled to helplessness in the overarching fatalism of events on which the inhabitants of small townships have little influence. Efforts at mathematical definitions of the proportions of these various feelings are destined to be unsuccessful. They would moreover add little to the moral judgment of the event, since it would be lunatic to suggest that there could exist any reason justifying the mass burning of human beings in barns.

Attempts to reconstruct mechanisms of mob psychology that might be able to mitigate the significance of the drama of that situation, change little, for by invoking mob psychology one can mitigate the most disconcerting of behaviors. The community of Jedwabne was not, after all, an anonymous mob of onlookers who carried in their psyche the traces of earlier grudges and prejudices. Its cultural environment ought also to be defined by the principals of Christian ethic. Living by those principals, Saint Maksymilian Kolbe was able, in the conditions of Auschwitz, to give his life for a brother in humanity who had been condemned to death. It true that we cannot expect those living in a small provincial township to practice daily heroism, as taught by the example of the great saints. But there were reasons to expect, in that context, a basic human solidarity which proved lacking.

In an era of programmatic dissolution of many values, the line between heroism and bestiality proves resistant to immediate definition. The case of Jedwabne is warning for all those who, as masters of relativism, would like to dissolve in a programmatic way these lines of distinction. Even if the demarcation between good and evil is more difficult that we used to believe, the example of Jedwabne presents a situation of moral evil in which indifference, for which explanations of powerlessness are advanced, causes embarrassment and feelings of shame.

To tame barbarity?

Hopeless acceptance of barbarity as a method of behavior causes both a feeling of powerlessness and the question: why it is possible so easily to accept and become used to primitive manifestations of aggression against another human being. This question has been tackled by many persons inquiring into the mechanism of trivialization of evil. Simon Wiesenthal struggled with it on the pages of The Sunflower. In the environment he described of small frightened conformist, the average German in the thirties stifled the voice of consciousness on the basis of a pragmatic rule: we must somehow come to terms with Hitler since millions of people do so. The neighbors are watching us. The watching of neighbors, who constituted an unthinking mass, made easier the stifling of the voices of consciousness, at least in the short run. Only years later, in the hour of their deaths, the "good boys" from middle class families would conclude: "I was not born a murderer, they made me a murderer . . ." The anonymous "made" readily brings to mind the Heideggerian "man." It erases the nature of the personal responsibility of those who could effectively proclaim the ideology of hatred, taking advantage of the convenient indifference of their closest environment.

Situations exist in which the psychologically easy indifference turns out to be a crime. To be able to derive some precepts from the painful spread of barbarism it is necessary to hold the moral responsibility of the individual above the anonymous mentality of the mob wherein, instead of moral values, emerges the thoughtless copying of the conformism of our neighbors. Acceptance of barbarism can touch average people, who by no means intend to justify genocide or destroy humanistic culture. Wiesenthal recalls specific SS men who loved the music of Bach, Grieg and Wagner. Even SS-Untersturmfuhrer Richard Rokita, known for his sadism and cruelty, wiped the moisture from his eyes when listening to the "Funerary tango in E sharp major."

So it wasn't that the lunatic plan for the extermination of the Jews arose ex nihilo as a product of someone deseased psyche. It didn't arise either from simple contempt of the cultural heritage of Europe. It took a much more refined shape in which the defenders of the maniacal ideas could even sometimes portray themselves as intellectuals, citing intellectual philosophers regarded as symbols of courage and creative exploration of new avenues. Thus they cited not only Gobineau, but also the great works of Heidegger or Nietzsche's superman, the rhetoric of which continues to fascinated many minds today. The arena for their plans was supplied by the large circle of conformists who basked in the tides of facile optimism that Hitler would do the dirty work and then would be cast aside since the Germans are too great a people to entrust their future to a psychopath for long. Concurrently, influential intellectual circles created a climate in which absurdity, barbarity and sadism lost the connotations associated with them hitherto and could become the foundations of a new world erected by the bermensch liberated from both elementary logic and morality as traditionally understood.

In the end, the spread of barbarity impinged on the inhabitants of provincial townships, who calmly stifled their consciences, on the authority of those who portrayed themselves as the ultimate experts with regard to the "Jewish problem." Genocide generated a chain reaction the reach of which extended beyond the confines of political systems and cultural traditions. The current pollution of the intellectual environment by the disregard of truth and moral responsibility has created a climate for the ready development of all kinds of pathologies, including the rationalization of barbarity in the environment of small townships whose previous acquaintance with barbarity came solely from reading of newspapers.

Empirical Anthropology

The tragedy of Jedwabne speaks bitter truths about humanity. It is particularly bitter for those who would like to treat the barbarity of Nazism as only a local freakish manifestation of genocide, terrifyingly foreign to the rest of the human family. It turns out that the truth about human nature is much more complex. The victims of violence, experiencing barbaric aggression, can readily become accustomed to it, so as to use it against innocents. The spiral of evil knows no ethnic confines and we must not treat any environment as immune to the spread of primitivism. This bitter truth protects against intellectual delusions in which some hold to bonds of blood or cultural communality. It is inappropriate to treat such values as contemporary idols, since the tendency of human nature for evil exceeds all confines ready classifications.

Does the experience of this bitter truth have to lead to pessimism or even relativism that undermines our faith in humans. I believe not. We can learn about the bitter truth of the complexity of human nature from the biblical story of King David. King David, the author of psalms so full of poetry, was not able to use the voice of his conscience when he caught sight of Bathsheba (Samuel II, 11.) His world span around and in the experience of the limiting situation, the whole edifice of his previously adhered to values lay in ruins. The spread of evil, in a chain reaction, caused him to intrigue, the result of which cost Bathsheba's husband, Uriah, his life (Samuel II, 11, 15-17). How many Uriahes would David have to destroy, that we might look at his tragic action in a similar manner as we look at Jedwabne?

The essential component of David's comportment was that he was able to recognize his guilt. David said to Nathan: "I have sinned against the Lord." Nathan said to David: "The Lord forgives you your sin." What is significant is that David does not attempt to find mitigating circumstances for his deed. He does not advance arguments that he found himself in a qualitatively different situation that caused him to be confused and lose the elementary moral responsibility. His statement "I have sinned against the Lord" remains a clear sign of moral responsibility accepted in a manly manner. It liberates from the illusion that there exist persons, or maybe even whole nations, which are exclusively crystalline embodiments of moral goodness.

In our real world, goodness is mixed with evil, as in the life of King David. This does not however, free one from moral responsibility nor does it make indifference in the face of evil a virtue. Hence, let us not look for some imaginary historical documents which could change the tragedy of Jedwabne into a trivial episode. Such documents cannot exist, for the death of innocent beings cannot be ever reduced to an episode.

Today it is necessary that we pray for the victims of that slaughter, showing that solidarity of spirit which was lacking in hour of their departure form the country of their ancestors, the land where they lived. It is necessary that we - in the name of the community that looked with indifference at their death - repeat David's concise statement "I have sinned against the Lord," regardless of whether any protests by observers could have been effective in that situation.

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