Though it seems to most of us almost impossible to fathom, there are times in a nation’s history when it engages in such self-destructive policies that its very future is in doubt.
Three of the most horrific examples in the 20th century were driven by ideologies gone mad, and they almost ruined Germany, Russia and China.
The case that first comes to mind is the Holocaust, the murder by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany of some six million Jews, as well as millions of Roma, gays, the disabled, Soviet prisoners of war, and other so-called “undesirables.”
This genocide involved the construction of hundreds of concentration camps and extermination centres, the use of railways to bring victims to their deaths, and it required the services of hundreds of thousands of guards, functionaries, police and other murderers — all this, while Germany was fighting a world war.
Even after 1943, when it became clear the country would be defeated, the mass murders continued, right up to the very days of surrender in 1945.
Hitler’s racial ideology cost the Nazis a tremendous amount of brainpower, as Jewish chemists, physicists, mathematicians, and others fled the country or were murdered, and the country’s universities lost their pre-eminent place in the world.
Albert Einstein is the most famous of these scientists, but Reinhard Siegmund-Schultze’s book “Mathematicians Fleeing from Nazi Germany” describes the flight of more than 140 other mathematicians, mostly to the United States. The influx of these brilliant thinkers made America the leader in mathematics research.
In the Soviet Union, the paranoid Communist dictator Joseph Stalin unleashed the Great Terror in 1936, purging, in waves, all Soviet institutions and at all levels of society, from the highest echelons of administrative, cultural, and scientific life, to the engineers and apparatchiks, down to the factory workers and peasants. Millions died or would spend decades in gulags.
In a series of show trials he also decimated the high command of the Red Army. With his best generals dead or in prison camps, the country was in such a weakened state that it lost millions of people, and hundreds of thousands of square kilometres, when the Nazis invaded in 1941.
Even as the war raged on, the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, shot or imprisoned officers and large numbers of other mostly loyal citizens, at a time when military expertise was in desperately short supply. This further extended the war against the other fanatic, Hitler, and by the time it ended in 1945 at least 27 million Soviet citizens had perished.
In the mid-1960s, Mao Zedong unleashed the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in China. The Communist ruler, believing that certain liberal bourgeois elements of society continued to threaten the Communist framework, encouraged groups of young people known as the Red Guards to wreak havoc against the state itself.
Chaos reigned in much of the nation, and millions were persecuted, as the schools in China were closed and intellectuals living in cities were ordered to the countryside where they performed hard manual labour, in order to be “re-educated” by the peasants,.
Last August, Chen Xiaolu, the son of Chen Yi, a founder of Communist China and its long-time foreign minister, apologized for his role in the madness. A student leader in his Beijing high school in 1966, he had ordered teachers to line up in the auditorium, dunce caps on their bowed heads, as thousands of students howled abuse at the teachers. Then, suddenly, a posse stormed the stage and beat them until they crumpled to the floor, blood oozing from their heads.
An article by Evan Osnos, “Confucius Comes Home,” in the Jan. 13 issue of the New Yorker magazine documented one particularly poignant case. On August 23, 1966 in Beijing, a group of teenage Red Guards attacked 67-year-old Lao She, one of the China’s most famous writers, and himself a Communist. They denounced him as a “counter-revolutionary” and whipped him with leather belts. The next morning, barely alive, he walked to a nearby lake and drowned himself.
There were many such stories. Estimates of deaths range from 1.5 million to three million across China from 1966 to 1976. The country lost an immense amount of learning and culture during that terrible decade.
All three of these examples (and many others, such as today’s North Korea and Cambodia in the 1970s) demonstrate the horrors of an ideology creating a form of mass hysteria and opening the way for unmitigated, yet sanctioned, evil by many of its “true believers.”
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.