FACING EVIL: Fear and evasion


My blog posts are fragmented and probably quite confusing, though it amuses me to write as I do. My writing turns into an adventure, a stroll through a maze where I can only guess what might turn up after the next bend.

Recently, I browsed through Michel de Montaigne's Essays. Even if he wrote them more than four hundred years ago their intimate voice makes him appear as if he is almost a contemporary. My style and thoughts can obviously not compete with a champion like Montaigne, but I recognize something of myself when he writes, “I desire therein [the Essays] to be viewed as I appear in mine own genuine, simple, and ordinary manner, without study and artifice: for it is myself I paint.” He adds that his essays lack a definite shape, that he wants “the accidental” to create context and balance.

When Montaigne presents his opinions like that he reminds me of Emile Zola, who wrote that “art is a corner of reality seen through a temperament” (from My Hatreds). In most of his texts Montaigne took himself as a point of departure. Time and again he made it clear that it was Michel de Montaigne and no one else who was responsible for the insights and ideas of his essays. I assume he was right ‒ everything we write is subjective and thus distorted. Montaigne even described his texts as monstrous and fantastic, an assertion that should not be interpreted as if he despised his work. His readers soon discover that Montaigne was fascinated by things that in his opinion were abstruse and strange.

While I read Montaigne I feel as if I have met him personally. He appears as a good, old friend in the sense that even after a long acquaintance he surprises me. Montaigne seems to be a wise and sober person, but occasionally he gets carried away, exposing strange quirks and opinions. His way of writing thus gives the impression of a long, nocturnal conversation winding from one subject to another. Occasionally he falls into what seems to be rather disheveled thoughts, which suddenly may turn into well-structured and didactic accounts. Montaigne talks to his reader, it is as if during an ongoing discourse he observes the reaction of the one listening to him.

According to Montaigne life is unsettled. “The world is but a perennial see-saw. All things in it are in constant motion — the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt — both with the common motion and with their own. Stability itself is nothing but a more languid movement back and forth. I cannot keep my subject still.” The word “essay” seems to be correlated to Montaigne´s see-saw, apparently it comes from Medieval French and is associated with the Latin exagium, “to weigh”. Montaigne was the first writer who used the word as title for a book and it is probably not unreasonable to regard his essays as a method to compare thoughts and lessons learned in order to arrive at a balanced view.

Maybe it is something like that I intend to do in my blogs ‒ describing things that interest me while I try to find a position that could serve as a starting point for a conversation. In imitation of Montaigne´s approach I would like to consider my blogs as “reflections”, descriptions of what I have encountered within my life´s labyrinth.

As a child I was obsessed with images. I remember the giddy feeling that occasionally grabbed me while I was studying the illustrations I found in my father´s and grandfather's books. Of course there was Doré's Bible illustrations, like an image of the Great Flood where a mighty tiger with one of her cub  in the jaws sits on a lonely rock in the middle of a troubled sea. Around her are crawling infants who apparently have been placed there by a couple of naked parents who is about to slide down into the ocean depth.

Like so many other children before me, I was absorbed by Doré's outlandish worlds and other Bible illustrations were also nailed into my mind. Particularly the illustrations of a certain William Hole who had illustrated a Childrens´ Bible given to me by my grandfather, shortly after I had learned how to read and which I soon devoured from cover to cover. A picture that caught my attention was titled The prophet Isaiah is walking among Jerusalem's carefree inhabitants and showed how a serious, white-clad and barefooted Isaiah, with a scroll in one hand, is walking between haggling men and women in exotic robes. Skinny, with deep-set eyes, bald head, long, auburn hair and beard Isaiah reminds me of Rasputin. Then I, like most children, was teased by nasty schoolmates, or inconsiderately reprimanded by unsympathetic teachers, I often thought of the image of Isaiah ‒ the man who grimly walked erect through a crowd of chattering, tedious people, absorbed by his own thoughts.

It could happen that I became terrified by the pictures I found, like a spider about to devour a bird in Alfred Brehm's Life of Animals, or even worse - Arachne, half spider/half-human, who unexpectedly appeared among Doré´s illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy).

Such encounters became fuel for nightmares, but they were nothing compared to the photographs from the Warsaw ghetto I was confronted with in one of my father's books Eichmann: The Man and His Crimes. I was struck by them when I was seven years old and even became physically ill. What were these photographs taken of people doing unspeakably horrible things?

 Again and again I was drawn to the book and Isoon understood that it was the man on the front page who had been responsible for the terror revealed in the pictures. Soon Eichmann´s image became more terrifying than those inside the book. The cover portrait of Eichmann was cropped, all that was seen was the death skull on his uniform cap, his cruel eyes and pointed ears. For me Eichmann became a demon out of Hell, not an image of the Banality of Evil.

Much later I read Leonard Cohen's poem about Adolf Eichmann and understood that what had scared me as a child was the eerie commonplace quality of these photographs of mass burials and the fact that I in the street even could pass by a man like Eichmann.

All There is to Know About Adolph Eichmann


What did you expect?


Oversize incisors?

Green saliva?



Fear not in the form of a fairytale, but as reality. Eichmann was a human being, just like you and me and that was the horror of it all. To look at Eichmann´s image was to be like Dorian Gray when he confronted his vile portrait and realized that it was an image of his true self. Man as a monster.

I know by now that Adolf Eichmann was not directly responsible for the atrocities in the Warsaw Ghetto, it was the lawyer and SA General Ludwig Fisher, but that makes no difference, the general was a man as well. Since I learned to read I have been attracted by horror stories. Tales about things and behavior I do not understand. It is easier to imagine a victim's situation and feelings, than a perpetrator´s motivation and mindset.

Sometime during the winter of 1973, it was again time for a terrible encounter. I did my military service as a telegraphic operator and thus had occasional night duties. Within the attic of a deserted barrack I was sitting alone at a telegraphy apparatus, having to keep myself awake. I was smoking while I was leafing through a magazine. Military service was the only time in my life when I have smoked more or less regularly and I did it only during night shifts. I turned the page and was confronted with a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by the legendary war photographer Horst Faas. I froze inside. "In front of a crowd of people, guerrillas in the newly independent Bangladesh do on the 18th December 1971 use bayonets to torture and kill four men suspected of collaborating with Pakistani militia". Maybe a fair vengeance on evildoers, but the callous images have stayed with me and become a symbol of humanity's wretchedness. It was in particular the bystanders' interest that upset me. They stood quietly and watched how the militiamen pushed their bayonets through their victims' bellies.

It was four o'clock in the morning. I sat in my uniform within a small circle of light, surrounded by compact darkness. The smoke became nauseating; I stubbed out the cigarette and have since that moment hardly ever been smoking, in any case never alone. Cigarette smoke makes me remember that early morning more than forty years back in time. There was nothing unique about the image, similar acts of cold violence occur daily somewhere on earth. For many people, fear and anguish is their only reality.

More than any heroes, it is the scared man I identify myself with. The one who while worrying for his own life and well-being ends up far away from morality and compassion. I wonder how I would react if I was forced to make difficult choices impacting my own life and those of others. Would I like Josef Schulz, a German soldier in the Balkans, throw away my rifle and place myself among my intended victims? Of course he was shot, though his sacrificial death, like a similar one of the Austrian solider Otto Schmiek, has recently been put in doubt.

Or would I like the Italian carabiniere Salvo D'Aquisto, even if I was completely innocent, take the blame for a terrorist attack and by my death rescue 22 men from the death row? Would I like several Poles risk my own life by hiding a Jew? Unfortunately, I imagine I would not be able to make such sacrifices. I guess I would act just like one of the millions of scared men who have chosen the wrong side. Frankly, I see failure as being far more typical of the human race than heroism. That's probably why I'm reading about torturers and war criminals, seeking causes for their political, military and above all ‒ moral failures.

How do you describe an atrocity? Has there ever been such a thing as an objective statement? Sure, you can explain military strategies, strategic goals, troop movements, secure advances, long-term planning, reduction of own losses and punishment raids. There are numerous explanations for what in reality could not have been much more than terrified, bloodthirsty, power-drunk and armed men running amok. As in the German writer Ernst von Salomon´s description of how he and his comrades in a German Freicorps division withdrew from Latvia in 1921:

"We made our last push ... We hunted the Letts across the fields like hares, set fire to every house, smashed every bridge to smithereens and broke every telephone pole. We dropped the corpses into the wells and threw bombs after them. We killed everything that fell into our hands, we set fire to everything that would burn. We saw red; we lost every feeling of humanity. Where we had ravaged, the earth groaned under the destruction. Where we had charged, dust ashes and charred balks lay in the place of houses, like festering wounds in the open country. A great banner of smoke marked our passage. We had kindled a fire and in it was burning all that was left of our hopes and longings and ideas.”

This is just one of a million of similar examples available worldwide. As I write these lines, or when you read them, similar abuses are staged somewhere on Earth. Mad, young men murder, rape and destroy. Maybe they do so in the name of some religion or twisted ideology, or perhaps only by greed or self-assertion, most likely they act as victims of some form of collective insanity. Any example is arbitrary and there is an infinite number to choose from. In Paris a few years ago, I saw a shocking movie Nanking! Nanking! by the Chinese director Lu Chuan, it was called City of Life and Death in English and was one of several movies and a lot of books that commemorated a massacre that had taken place in 1937.

The Japanese Imperial Army captured Nanking on the13th December 1937, during six weeks following the conquest between 100 000 and 300 000 civilians and disarmed soldiers were killed in a mind-boggling mayhem. Despite the availability of reliable documentation the exact number of causalities has been intensely debated, as well as causes and guilt. Of the seven death sentences that the Tokyo Tribunal handed down in 1948, three were directed against politicians and officers deemed responsible for the unmitigated carnage in Nanking.

Even if similar war crimes were committed in several other Chinese cities, the Nanking massacre became particularly well known due in part to the fact that foreign nationals remained in the city's “safety zone” that soon was swamped with 250 000 IDPs. Long after the massacre, two detailed diaries written by foreigners were published, one by the German John Rabe and the other one by the American MinnieVautin, both meticulously describing a grotesque madness with mass rapes and unjustified mass killings of men, women and children.

In 1997, the American historian and journalist Iris Shun-Ru Chang wrote The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II and it is largely thanks to her that the story of the Nanking massacre was saved from oblivion, though it should be noted that it had definitely not been forgotten in China. The book became an international success, but was soon criticized from different quarters. The most common criticism was that Chang had been “careless with facts” and had a tendency to exaggerate the Japanese denial of the “incident”. The latter is, however, a fact that is difficult to ignore. Chang's book has not been published in Japan and in June 2007 more than 100 lawyers from Japan's ruling party, the Liberal Democrats, in an official letter denied that the massacre had taken place an so did Nagoya´s mayor in 2012, followed by Tokyo's governor a month later and in February this year the same opinion was reiterated by the director of Japan's state owned TV network.

It was mainly academics who criticized Chang's work. One of them wrote that it was characterized by “simple neglect, historical inaccuracies, and shameless plagiarism”, another stated that “she is not a trained historian, and by neglecting the richness of English and Japanese sources about the incident she has ended up on the wrong track by for example, greatly exaggerating Nanking's population “. After reading Chang's book I find such criticism to be overly narrow and some of it may even be considered as quite remarkable attempts to belittle a brutal genocide. Chang's already fragile psyche was affected by the attacks and in 2004 she took her own life, only 36 years old.

After all, maybe it was not 300 000 people who were massacred in Nanking, as some reserachers have claimed it might even have been only 40 000 victims. Only 40 000? Not more? During six weeks? Good to know that there were so few innocents who were beaten, shot and tortured to death. This type of comparative death statistics may be both correct and necessary, but should nevertheless not stand without comment. Does the number of victims reduce a crime? Can the slaughter of humans be quantified, like the number of soccer goals in the Champions League, or the tabulation of points during the Eurovision Song Contest? For sure, 40 000 massacred people are far less than 300 000 innocent victims, but do lower death rates reduce a crime? A legendary mass murderer like Henri Landru murdered ten widows, while Jack the Ripper was searched for five murders. In fact, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, the victims in a city like Shanghai around the same time amounted to well over 200 000, numbers that rarely have been denied.

What does a death toll imply? 40 000 people were killed during allied air raids on Hamburg between the 24th July and 3rd August 1943, the bombing of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe, between the10th  and 17th March 1945 claimed 300 000 lives. From the spring of 1943, 8 000 persons were murdered daily in Auschwitz, previously its killing industry had a capacity averaging 4 400 victims per day. All in all, one million Jews were executed in Auschwitz, plus 100 000 Poles, Roma and Soviet POWs, and this was just one of several extermination camps.

That the Japanese troops' operations in China were remarkably cruel has long been known and testimonies from individual Japanese soldiers are horrific, bordering on the unbearable. For example, the war veteran Azuma Shiro told the Dutch journalist Ian Buruma that “sexual desire is human. Since I had a sexually transmitted disease, I never did it with a Chinese woman [...], but the others did it with any woman who came in our way. It was not so bad in itself, but afterwards we killed them. You understand, rape was against regulations, so we had to destroy the evidence. When women were ravaged they were regarded as people, but when we killed them, they were just pigs. We felt no shame over it, no debt. If that had been the case we would not have been able to act as we did. The first thing we did every time we came into a village was to steal food, then we captured the women and raped them, finally we killed all the men, women and children to ensure that no one escaped to tell the Chinese troops where we were. Otherwise we would not have been able to sleep at night.” Azuma was present in Nanking as well, remembering what happened in the city as “scenes out of Hell”.

Even grimmer is what Masuyo Enomoto told the British journalist Laurence Rees. Through its repugnant detachment Masuyo´s story is akin to upsetting photographs taken of massacres and abuse: “She [the Chinese woman] did resist, but such resistance didn´t affect me whatsoever. I didn´t listen to what she was saying. [After the rape] I stabbed her with a sword - on television you see how a lot of blood flows out, but that's not the reality ... I´ve cut down people with swords, but you´re not covered with blood. Based on my experience you really don´t experience such things. It doesn´t splash you, like you see in the movies. If you cut the neck of someone you do see just a bit of blood, but it´s not like what you see in the films …” Masuyo was cold and hungry. During the Chinese campaign, he was constantly hungry. This time he and his companions had not eaten meat for nine days. The woman was dead. Why not eat her? Masuyo dismembered her: “I chose only those body parts where there was most meat.” Then he carried chunks of meat to his platoon and shared it with his comrades. Afterwards Masuyo reported what they had done to his commander, but he had no objections. “The meat was nice and tender. I think it was tastier than pork – at least that is what I felt at the time. Raping her, eat her, kill her – I didn´t feel anything about it.  And that went for everything I did [in China]. It was only afterwards that I really came to feel remorse.”

I will spare the reader from more testimonies from Japanese soldiers who participated in the Japanese campaign in China, but the evidence available about regular atrocities is repellent, such as those about the unimaginably ruthless chemical and biological experiments performed on humans within the context of the so-called unit 731 in Manchuria. All this is indescribably inhuman and worst of all is that it is difficult to use the word “inhuman”, because such atrocious behavior may, as in Nietzsche´s words, be “human, all too human”.

How could this happen? Are not the Japanese like other people? Sure, they are. That's exactly what is horrible. I assume we must constantly confront us with evil, not alienate us from it. It is often said: “Things like that cannot happen here”. What German could before the Second World War imagine that his descendants, or even he himself, would be partaking in spreading unimaginable violence in Eastern Europe? What do we know about what may come to haunt us in the future? What can we can do to avoid becoming part of atrocities, either as perpetrators or bystanders? It did not take many years before the Nazi madness got a whole nation in its violence and sent millions to war and suffering. Under far more than two hundred years, before the end of the 1870´s, Japan was considered as the world's most peaceful nation. The main inspiration for turning belligerent came from Bismarck´s Germany and the new aggressive Japanese politics were part of an agenda called  datsua nyūō, i.e. “dissociate from Asia and seek companionship in Europe”.

I do not think contemporary Japanese people are capable of committing such crimes as many members of previous generations became guilty of. I assume that most modern Japanese would have felt ill at ease if they had ended up in the midst of the fanaticism of what often is called kurai tanima, the dark valley, i.e. the years between 1930 and 1945. Many contemporary Japanese teachers are known for “leaning to the left” and educators have repeatedly tried to alert students to what happened during the War, though such initiatives have often been opposed by other forces. For example, during the nineties several documentary films depicting Japanese crimes against humanity were produced and presented in Japanese schools. Many pupils were shocked. A common reaction was described by a fourteen years old: “We often hear about the Nazis' gruesome ways to kill their victims, but the Japanese were quite awful as well. Those nasty smiles on Japanese faces while heads were cut off from the Chinese. How could they laugh like that while killing people? I wanted to look away when I saw those severed heads”.

Communities and people change. As Montaigne wrote “everything is rocking incessantly”. In Germany, under the Nazis, the Soviet Union under Stalin, China under Mao, Indonesia under Suharto, Kampuchea under Pol Pot and under many other degenerate regimes, it has been officially declared that there is a difference between man and man, some are worth more, others less, thus free reigns have been offered to ruthless behavior and eventually mass murder. Within such social systems insanity spreads like a plague. I think Nietzsche was right when he stated that “insanity in individuals is something rare ‒ but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule”.  This is precisely why we constantly must pay attention to and care about the individual; her/his needs, responsibilities, duties and experiences. Certainly, national characters, ideologies and religions do exist, though it is unfortunately within communal behavior and thought patterns that madness is rampant. Accordingly, we ought to avoid lumping people together in large groups and judge individuals on the basis of categoriestyhat have been  arbitrarily assigned to them. The Swedish school curriculum has since 1962 been amended no less than four times, but some excellent formulations remain, for example, that “the mission of the school is to encourage all pupils to discover their own capabilities and thereby actively participate in community life by giving their best to support responsible freedom. Schools should promote understanding of other people and the ability to empathize. "

In 1944, the American anthropologist Ruth Benedict did on request from the U.S. Office of War Information write a book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword to explain Japanese mentality to Americans. The result was a mechanistic and somewhat typical social anthropological analysis explaining thought patterns and behavior of an entire nation. According to Benedict shame, haji, has in Japanese ethics the same authority as “having a clear conscience” and “avoidance of sin” within Western ethics. Within a “shame culture”, like the one prevalent in Japan, individuals rely on and are subjugated to external sanctions for good behavior, while an individual in a “guilt culture” has an internalized conviction of what sin means. A “Westernized” individual has a conscience and is thus responsible for her/his own actions. After many years working as a teacher in comparative religion and trying hard to explain how Christians, Buddhists or Muslims think and act, I should not feel uncomfortable when I read how an anthropologist explains the thinking and behaviour of millions of people as if they were a single individual. Do I think and act like a Swede? What is a Swede? I really don´t know.

Sure, explanations like the one above might tell something about people living within the borders of a specific nation. Nevertheless, I cannot avoid assuming that succumbing to generalizations means running the risk of creating a dangerous mindset. It locks us up within fixed categories. I am convinced that it is quite risky to relate human beings to obscure categories such as “Swedes, Japanese, Muslims, Christians, Western, Eastern, White, Black, men, or women”.  I believe for example that Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations written in 1996, with its enhancement of differences between a “Muslim” and a “Non-Muslim” world has done far greater harm than good. The step between lumping together individuals and racism, prejudice and rejection is not a long stride.

Back to Montaigne. If I describe what I write as images of myself, I might just as well state that I also discern something of myself in pictures I watch. If I read about or watch Japanese atrocities, I would, if I was Japanese, probably be troubled by what had occurred in my name. It's also possible that I, against all proof and logic, would deny such atrocities. Like many Turks, against their better judgment, are denying that more than a million Armenians were killed in 1915, or a Hutu would deny massacres of Tutsis. We do know that there have always been individuals who, convinced by imaginary notions, have given themselves the right to kill other human beings and that they furthermore have convinced themselves that they are exempt from personal guilt and responsibility. Let us move away from brain dead categorizations and instead try to consider each and every one of us as an individual, as a responsible being. Someone may object and state “that such a notion is just an illusion as well”. I agree, but is it worse to believe in a benign notion than imagining oneself that a Swede is better than other people, or that women are better than men? Let us accept that existence is too diverse and complicated to be allowed to be circumscribed by prejudices and generalizations. In the name of the uniqueness of any personality we have to take responsibility for who we are and how we treat and judge others.

Montaigne, Michel de (1993), The Essays: A Selection. London: Penguin Classics. Cohen, Leonard (1964) Flowers for Hitler. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. Clarke, Comer (1960), Eichmann: The Man and His Crimes. New York: Ballantine Books. von Salomon, Ernst (2013) The Outlaws. London: Arktos Media. Chang, Iris (1997), The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.  New York: Basic Book. Some books about Japan I used for my essay were Bendict, Ruth (2006), The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Storry, Richard (1990), A History of Modern Japan. New York: Penguin Books, Buruma, Ian (2009), The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan. London: Atlantic Books, Rees, Laurence (2007), Their Darkest Hour: People tested to the extreme in WW II. London: Ebury Press, and Harris, Sheldon H. (1994), Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare 1932-45 and the American Cover-Up. Northridge: California State University.




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