Heroism Under Tyranny – Apathy Under Freedom

The following remarks are excerpted from a series of leaflets produced by a Christian based anti-war group at Manchester University:

Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct.

If the British people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in lawful order of history; if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass – then, yes, they deserve their downfall.

Tennyson speaks of the British as a tragic people, like the Jews and the Greeks, but today it would appear rather that they are a spineless, will-less herd of hangers-on…

Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure!

I wonder how these words strike the reader. Perhaps they seem harsh, condemnatory and surely likely to alienate the average reader. I have a little experience of writing campaign leaflets and I don’t believe I was ever the co-author of anything with such a stern tone, nor have I have ever read anything of a similar character produced by any anti-war group in the country. Perhaps the reader might find themselves preparing rebuttals to such blanket accusation – given the impact of the mass media in dulling critical faculties and insinuating lies the public cannot be considered wholly to blame for its apathy and so on…

However, there’s a simple reason for the unusual tone of these excerpts: they weren’t produced in Manchester at all. Rather, these words are from the work of the White Rose: the German anti-Nazi student group that operated during World War II at the University of Munich. I have simply swapped Britain for Germany and had Tennyson stand in for Goethe. The most famous members of the group were Hans and Sophie Scholl who, along with another activist – Christoph Probst, were tried for treason and executed by a Nazi ‘people’s court’ in 1943.

If the tone seems harsh when the intended audience is believed to be British, it seems vastly more so when we consider that the audience were people living under the rule of the most vicious and cruel dictatorship the world has ever seen, a regime that reacted to dissent with the most extreme brutality – decapitation in the case of the White Rose group, hanging from meat hooks in the case of the anti-Nazi generals, and the slaughter of most of the population of the Czech town of Lidice in the case of Reinhard Heydrich’s assassins.

The White Rose group could hardly have been unaware of the cruelty of the regime they opposed and yet the group did not shy from exhorting, in fact demanding that their fellow citizens take action to against the Nazi state. They took it to be a sacred duty of all people to oppose violence and authoritarianism regardless of the personal cost:

Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right – your moral duty – to eliminate this system?

I would suggest that the reason the text of the leaflets appears so alien is that the heroism of groups such as the White Rose is largely alien to contemporary Britain. The British historian Mark Curtis estimates that since World War II, the UK has borne significant responsibility for the deaths of at least ten million people around the world. Those include the victims of direct aggression: the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; the murderous sanctions imposed upon pre-invasion Iraq that have been all but airbrushed from history; the arming and supporting of authoritarian regimes the world over, from Pinochet’s Chile, Suharto’s Indonesia (the author of perhaps the worst case of genocide by proportion of population since 1945 in East Timor) and Putin’s Russia, to the colonial settler society of Israel amongst many others. Not included in these figures are the casualties resulting from the West’s economic relations with the third world, which have inflicted deliberate underdevelopment in order that those countries might remain little more than resource extraction zones for Western corporations and dumping grounds for Western products and waste. We could also add to the list the victims of the economic ‘shock therapy’ imposed upon the former Soviet bloc that led to precipitous declines in life expectancy and other health indicators across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Today Britain is embroiled in two wars, it is the seventh largest arms dealer in the world and it is a supporter of some of the worst human rights abusers in the world, including Colombia, the most violent and oppressive regime in the western hemisphere, Nigeria, Uzbekistan (where the favoured form of torturing dissidents is immersion in boiling water), the Saudi theocracy and Israel amongst others.

While Britain can hardly compare to the monstrous depredations of the Third Reich, many of its practices abroad, as well as those of its allies, are not wildly dissimilar. (Muzafar Avazov was probably little comforted as he was tortured to death by our Uzbek allies by the fact that his captors were not members of the Gestapo or the SS. And it is unlikely to be much of a consolation for an Afghan family to be bombed by the RAF rather than the Luftwaffe).

Unlike Germans living under the Nazis, punishment for dissent in the UK is slight, especially for relatively affluent, educated people such as myself. In dissenting what do people like myself risk? Career prospects maybe, the disapproval of others perhaps, at worst getting tear gassed and beaten at a demonstration – but unlike the White Rose and present-day activists in countries such as Colombia, China or Saudi Arabia, people like me generally do not risk their necks through their political activities. One might imagine that given the freedom of our society and how much blood is on the hands of our leaders, Britain would be a country in a constant tumult of radical political activity, and yet that is transparently not the case. Principled radical dissent remains a marginal presence in our culture. One could of course provide reasons and excuses for that lack and there is some force to those reasons: our educational system and the mass media, it is true, breed little more than cynicism and deceit. However, that cannot offer an explanation for the political apathy of our society. There are simply too many people who know all too well about the crimes they are complicit in but who do nothing or close to nothing to retard and stop those crimes. If I think of my friends and family in the UK, they are all, almost without exception, left-wing and progressive, opposed to war, opposed to injustice. And yet I can count on one hand the number of people I know who are actively doing something more than bemoaning the state of the world.

A similar situation pertains with my American friends. Almost without exception they are politically progressive and yet they also do little to act upon those convictions. The one political ‘activity’ my American friends do engage in is bashing the Republican party and its Christian fundamentalist allies. My friends seem to genuinely believe that it is the political right that is the problem: if only the Republicans and Christian extremists would vanish, all would be right with America and the world. But I would like to respectfully suggest to my friends that it is they who are the problem. They are the problem and people like them are the problem – good, progressive, relatively privileged and educated individuals who aside from voting for the liberal hero of the hour every four years consider themselves to have no moral duty to take political action. I don’t say this with much sense of moral superiority – I consider myself to be part of the problem too. Having immersed myself in radical politics I have perhaps fewer illusions about my country than many others and yet my political activity has often been half-hearted and infrequent – for the past two years I have done virtually nothing aside from produce a few articles – instead, like so many I have prioritised hedonistic consumption and my own private psychodramas over more worthwhile concerns.

Even in the most twisted and evil of ideologies there can sometimes be found little kernels of truth that are worth contemplating. Take Muslim fundamentalism for instance. There are many factors in the rise of militant Islam but I would aver that one of the reasons for its appeal is that fundamentalists have sensed something true about us – they have recognised that for all our beautiful words, for all our talk of human rights and democracy, and despite whatever faith we may profess, our real guiding philosophy is a kind of chronic hedonism. Instead of reaching for the heroism of the Scholl siblings we routinely put our careers or our dreams of consumption or our personal travails above the lives of others.

Here are some more harsh words from the White Rose group:

Why do German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race? …The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals; they give them the opportunity to carry on their depredations; and of course they do so. Is this a sign that the Germans are brutalized in their simplest human feelings, that no chord within them cries out at the sight of such deeds, that they have sunk into a fatal consciencelessness from which they will never, never awake? It seems to be so, and will certainly be so, if the German does not at last start up out of his stupor, if he does not protest wherever and whenever he can against this clique of criminals, if he shows no sympathy for these hundreds of thousands of victims. He must evidence not only sympathy; no, much more: a sense of complicity in guilt. For through his apathetic behaviour he gives these evil men the opportunity to act as they do; he tolerates this ‘government’ which has taken upon itself such an infinitely great burden of guilt; indeed, he himself is to blame for the fact that it came about at all! Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!

What on earth would the White Rose have said about us?

Alex Doherty has written for ZNet, Counterpunch, and the New Standard. He can be reached at: alexjamesdoherty@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alex, or visit Alex's website.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on December 6th, 2009 at 12:15pm #

    People have been conditioned by kings, priests, princes, high and low nobles to accpet their ‘inferiority’ as actually factual,necessary, etc., just like the dog by pavlov.

    Our ancestors have accepted these ‘teachings’ just as we do now. Present-day kings, high and low priests, princes, lords, earls, amirs, boyars, sultans, other nobles teach us what the ancient nobles taught us some 10k yrs ago.

    That’s why we have ‘schooling’ today and that’s why ‘schooling’ is mandatory.
    Private ‘schooling’ ‘teaches’ us that there are indeed several classes of people: low, middle, high and topmost.
    Nature cld care less ab classes. It does not recognize classes of people. It does not create classes.
    Only the ruling class creates divisions among us so that they can rule over us in perpetuity! tnx

  2. Michael Kenny said on December 6th, 2009 at 12:36pm #

    A large part of the reason why people shy away from the anti-war movement is that it seems peopled so largely by looney extremists like Mr Doherty! I can’t even tell if he belongs to the looney left or the looney right (if there’s a difference!). The idea of placing a country like Russia, a Member State of the Council of Europe like Britain and subject, like Britain, to the European Convention on Human Rights and the compulsory jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, in the same boat as dictators like Pinochet is just absurd! By going off topic like that, he just turns people off and shoots himself in the foot by undermining his own message! The anti-war movement will have a chance when loonies like Mr Doherty stop shouting and leave the running to reasonable people.

  3. Don Hawkins said on December 6th, 2009 at 12:44pm #

    I see these high and topmost on TV and they all have one thing in common they all seem to have a new book. They also seem to be not to bright but maybe they talk different when not on TV. I used to meet them ever now and then and now once in a great while and still try and transcend the bullshit.

  4. Alex Doherty said on December 6th, 2009 at 12:45pm #

    In listing the various unpleasant regimes Britain has supported in the post WWII period I am not suggesting that such regimes are identical with each other and certainly the (pretty flawed) democracy existing in Russia is preferable to the Pinochet dictatorship. However in its external behaviour the record of Russia is far worse than Pinochets Chile – most obviously with regard to Russias war in Chechnya for which the UK provided arms and diplomatic cover:

    here is an article I wrote on the topic:

    http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/7606

    PS Branding people you disagree with as “loonies” is unlikely to aid you in being seen as one of “the reasonable people”…

  5. Boyd R. Collins said on December 6th, 2009 at 1:56pm #

    Thank you, Alex, for this well-wrought, passionate and eminently rational response to our current oppression. I find your words directly on target regarding the affluent politically progressive class in the West. Their ability to maintain distance between their stated convictions and their actual behavior enables the Pinochets and now the golpistas in Honduras to succeed. The American “left” often wanders in the fog of vague New Agism and debilitating conspiracy theories that serve to drain off the power of effective resistance.

    Our allergic reaction to “ideology” masks a lack of inner seriousness about the issues as a whole. If we are really progressive, then we should be sponsoring and supporting those who are willing to do the serious work of social analysis which can result in a fact-based strategic vision. To some extent this is taking place and one can point to centers of radical thought such as Monthly Review and many others. Comments on the many engaging articles in Dissident Voice could act as starting points for drawing out the finer points of views such as your own and start the process of creating a unified radical vision for social change.

  6. Charlie said on December 6th, 2009 at 2:34pm #

    There are many reasons (or excuses perhaps) for the ingrained apathy we see in both Britain and America–although being an American, I am much more familiar with the politics here rather than in the UK. One of the most prominent, I believe, is shown in Mr. Kenny’s comment, which self-evidently demonstrates not only a comprehensive misreading of Mr. Doherty’s article but also the obsession with branding even mild dissent as a form of lunacy.

    Russia is subject to a human rights court? So what? Russia also agreed to a number of treaties and agreements banning ocean dumping, but continued to dump high level nuclear waste, including nuclear reactor cores, in the Arctic Ocean. Russia’s outright lies about it were ignored by European governments until the problem became so obvious and so environmentally destructive that not even the Russians could hide it anymore and not even the previously and conveniently blind Europeans could deny seeing it. Membership in any organization or agreement to any treaty is no guarantee of human rights. And abuses of human rights are not brought to light in any court unless those who see the crimes are outraged and courageous enough to challenge the abusers.

    America, for instance, with all its high-toned rhetoric about freedom and human rights, is credibly believed to have tortured minors in secret prisons in the Middle East and at Gitmo, and now has in the White House an apologist for the thugs who committed these reprehensible crimes and refuses to prosecute them. Commenters such as Mr. Kenny would apparently have us temper our outrage about, for example, Abu Ghraib until evil achieves the level of the Holocaust. Mr. Kenny, I would suggest, would do well to contemplate whether the Holocaust would have happened at all if the Nazi’s lesser evils had been challenged and exposed rather than tolerated by a complacent citizenry.

    My father was a B-17 pilot in WWII. He saw first-hand the horrors the Nazis inflicted on millions of people. To his dying day (in 2007), he never forgave the Germans for their willful blindness, and he spoke to me often and passionately about the responsibility we all bear to stop outrages before they become national evils. Many outrages have arisen from the misnamed War on Terror, and I often think of my father’s warnings when I hear of them.

    I was involved in the anti-war movement of the late 60′s and early 70′s. I was not what many would call a radical, but I had the passion and convictions of youth, and I believed deeply that the Vietnam War was immoral and unnecessary. I realized in later years that my generation unknowingly taught the warmongers and politicians two valuable lessons: Don’t let the citizens see the war (and the war dead) on TV and keep to a minimum the number of citizens who feel even indirectly affected by it.

    Any discontent about America’s current wars is based solely on feelings and beliefs, not a sense of threat or self-preservation. As a result, if you want to see a popular uprising against the Af-Pak nonsense, reinstate the draft. Put America’s white, middle and upper class kids in line to go to war, and support for the warmongers will crumble. Allow no exceptions like those that kept Bush and Cheney comfortably away from danger and the support will vanish even more quickly. Best of all, pass a law that automatically drafts the relatives of members of Congress into front-line battle and the war will end overnight.

    I’ve heard several pundits say that Afghanistan is Obama’s Vietnam. No it isn’t. It will become Obama’s Vietnam only when Americans peek inside the body bags and then turn to wave goodbye to their children shipping out to face a determined and brutal foreign force–a force made angry by America’s arrogant and ignorant meddling in that region and its unflinching support of some of the most brutal and corrupt governments the world has seen.

  7. Mary said on December 6th, 2009 at 2:34pm #

    Take no notice Mr Docherty. Michael Kenny is usually the first on a new article here making critical and acerbic comments. I wonder if he is capable of writing such a fine article as yours which is spot on in describing our present dire situation. I am ashamed of my country Britain and the atrocities that it has committed and is still committing. Read The Blood Never Dried by John Newsinger for some horror stories from the ‘Empire’.

    It is probably a cop out to say that they have not been committed in my name and in that of many friends but that is the truth. We feel that there is a change taking place as more and more people get to know the truth. The internet is largely responsible for this. Sisters and brothers are waking up from their anaesthetics and the lies that the mainsteam press and the box in the corner of every living room have been administering for too long.

  8. russell olausen said on December 6th, 2009 at 6:52pm #

    The King who married Mrs. Wallace in the 30′s was a nazi sympathiser. If that was in fact the case, the second great European War of the twentieth century may not have been any more high minded, than to see who was going to stick it to the rest of the world. I had the honor of starting my working life with former soldiers of both camps and high flying rhetoric was not spoken,at all. Peace and goodwill are the preserve of idealists not pugs who only want to procreate for their greater glory and the feel good thing that goes along.Little people don’t get to use proxies and that is why they appear so spineless.

  9. Annie Ladysmith said on December 6th, 2009 at 7:16pm #

    RE: The Spineless British Masses. It sounds just about right to me and the Yanks are right behind them! SHAME, SHAME, SHAME. Into captivity you shall go like sheep for the slaughter. You lukewarm wishy-washy people, He’ll spew you out of His mouth.

  10. Annie Ladysmith said on December 6th, 2009 at 7:29pm #

    AND P.S. Don’t be naive, the German people were behind their Hitler, German’s believe they were the master race, ARE YOU KIDDING ME, those stupid generals didn’t act until the war was almost over, they were trying to save some German’s to fight another day. O! please, have you never read “The Painted Bird”. German’s love military authority, they are made for war, they will do it again. AND EVEN IF THEY NEVER DID IT AGAIN, they have done enough FOR ALL ETERNITY! Don’t even get me started on those people!

  11. greybeard said on December 6th, 2009 at 10:10pm #

    “Those people”. Also an interesting phrase, as if they are outside the “Pale” of tolerable people, while ‘we’ are inside. Not so. The deep tragedy, as Pogo decades ago observed, is that “they is us”.
    It is widely said that physical courage is common in a war, but moral courage is rare indeed. We are engaged in a war, not with an external enemy, but with internal conditioning and brain-washing. Informing and educating is the beginning of the revolution.

  12. Annie Ladysmith said on December 7th, 2009 at 1:43am #

    To GREYBEARD, dear Sir you are full of shit! The phrase “Those people” was used by General Robert E. Lee himself when he spoke of Yankees. It is a wonderful phrase full of knowledge and wisdom. SORRY, old man but they ain’t me, i’d have to pass on the lot of them. The US is having so many problems today because we gave the NAZI SCUM rocket scientists a free haven in American instead of trying them and hanging them for war crimes. Don’t be a fool! It’s a special race of people who can produce a maniac like Mengele, and of course we gave him a job also. We’re reaping our just deserts. You obviously don’t have a clue to human events if all you can come up with is, “informing and education is the beginning of revolution. What does this stupid, trite, statement have to do with anything, especially since your living in a world that is not informed and we all know about the “education”. Better go back to lawn bowling and keep your opinions to the wiggle and wag of the balls. The WAR does have a flesh and blood oponent, or have you not heard of Iraq, you perhaps had a tornament that year. i’d be surprized if there are more than 144,000 in the entire earth that stands up for the truth.