“Essentially an Evil Thing”

In the last few days, several European conversations converged for me in a troubling way.

Historic anniversaries played a role. This Saturday was the anniversary of V-E Day for most western nations. And the next day, which was Victory Day in Russia, Vladimir Putin delivered a speech that western media found threatening. In some pockets of social media, I found scattered debates about how to remember the Soviet Union’s outsized role in Nazi Germany’s defeat. Last Wednesday, meanwhile, had been the bicentenary of Napoléon Bonaparte’s death. Marking that day, Emmanuel Macron laid a wreath at the dictator’s grave, delivering a speech that lightly acknowledged some of Napoléon’s crimes yet also celebrated his “political will” and “taste for the possible”—as if murdering people on a continental scale were a self-actualization exercise.

In the Guardian yesterday, the columnist Kenan Malik—with one eye on recent British debates about how to remember the imperialist-but-antifascist Winston Churchill—brought together various conversations when he implicitly praised Macron’s speech as a refusal “to paint heroes and villains in black and white, to simplify the past as a means of feeding the needs of the present.”

Reading the text of Macron’s speech myself, though, I find that simplifying the past to feed the needs of the present is precisely what the French president was doing.

In commemorating Napoléon as he did, Macron praised him with faint damns to gratify the pride of his own state today. The speech was brined in gross platitudes about how, for example, “one man can change the course of history”—the sort of things older students write about the past in order to create a mood of appreciation while avoiding any expression actual ideas for which they might be held responsible.

Anyway, watching these various conversations converge this weekend, thinking about their resonances and silences, I was inspired to revisit some specific language from the judgment issued on October 1, 1946, by the Nuremberg Tribunal.

Judges’ bench at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, ca. 1946 (National Archives and Records Administration via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, public domain)

My sense is that when many people today—including many historians and history teachers—think about the past, they tend to fence off certain forms of mass violence (notably genocide and sometimes enslavement) as morally noteworthy, but treat warfare in general as something inherent to the human condition and therefore—after a certain amount of time passes—morally neutral.

That is, they treat mass killing, per se, as an implicitly legitimate basis for historical “greatness”: not necessarily something desirable, but something basically tolerable to the later observer if it contributes to things that please them.

But that was not the view of the judges at Nuremberg, issuing their verdict against modern world history’s most notorious criminals.

Although we usually don’t remember this, the chief Nazis standing trial at Nuremberg after World War II were accused not only of war crimes and crimes against humanity—that is, killing people the wrong ways or for the wrong reasons—but also “crimes against peace”: having “planned, prepared, initiated, and waged wars of aggression.” (This language is from the first charge of the indictment, found on page 29 of the official English text of the judgment.)

In the text of its verdict, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg made clear that these crimes against peace were at the heart of the matter.

“The charges in the Indictment that the defendants planned and waged aggressive wars,” the judges declared, “are charges of the utmost gravity.” As they explained,

War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent States alone, but affect the whole world.

To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.

p. 186

My view is that we would do well to take this part of the Nuremberg judgment—probably the most literal example of a “verdict of history”—seriously.

If we want to take seriously the value of human life across different times and cultures, we must take seriously the nature of war as a mass violation of it. Any other attitude invariably leads to nationalistic, racist, or other forms of ideological special pleading.

It’s far easier to maintain a consistent historicism if we simply assume that war is generally organized murder and work from there.

Of course, the concept of aggression, and thus the historical question of who initiated any given war, will often be contested—sometimes to the point of making specific judgments impossible today. But the crucial thing is for history communicators to avoid placing themselves in the position of deciding whether to present a particular state or person as the good kind of mass murderer. That’s true whether we’re talking about empires, colonies, nations, families, individuals, or anyone else who initiated wars of aggression.

All too often, invoking concepts like “greatness” and “progress” involves the deliberate obfuscation of large-scale crimes against human beings. To avoid “simplifying the past as a means to feed the needs of the present,” as Kenan Malik put it, we need to speak plainly about the gravity of what past humans did to each other.