Were Genocidal Tyrants Especially Evil?
One of the peculiarities of living in a secular era is that our conceptualization of “good” and “bad” is now almost exclusively based in the behaviors and actions of other human beings- rather than stories and myths about gods, spirits or demons. The flip side of this change is that our understanding of “good” and “evil” is now linked to the identities of other human beings- who are as mortal as you or me. Today the image of evil is associated with people like Hitler, Stalin, Mengele, Pol Pot, Slave Traders, white people with southern accents wearing white hoods.. actually pretty much every conservative white person with a southern accent. But some manifestations of secular “evil” are more interesting than others and one category in particular elicits far more interest and curiosity than the rest.
Genocidal tyrants or rulers such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao are the most well-known, interesting and studied forms of secular “evil”. They have reached that hallowed spot because of the sheer scale and number of deaths due to their actions and decisions. They are the secular equivalent of ‘The Devil’ or ‘Satan’. It also helps that we have a lot of archival film footage and photographs which document (often in great detail) their lives, speeches, public appearances and the effect of their decisions and actions. Compare that to the very inadequate and fragmentary description of ‘Satan’ in Judeo-Christian literature. It also does not help that religious literature documents that ‘God’ killed many more people than ‘Satan’.
As many of you know, I do not believe in any explanation of “evil” based on it being somehow beyond the range of normal human behavior. In my opinion, labeling anything as “good” or “evil” says more about your viewpoint than the action, event or behavior. For example: Would the Jewish holocaust have been seen as evil, or even criminal, if the Nazis had won WW2? And was it really more evil than the genocide of a million something Armenians by Turks prior to WW1, or the slightly earlier genocide of tens of millions of black people in Belgian Congo? Or what about the tens of millions of Chinese who died in Japanese-occupied parts of China in the 1930s and 1940s? Then there is the issue about what happened to millions of indigenous people in the Americas after 1492, or the fate of slaves imported from Africa.
It appears that popular definitions of “good” and “evil” are based on subjective criteria such as race, money, skin color of the victims and presence or lack of photographic evidence of the events.
While a certain percentage of the population can handle the idea that “good” and “evil” are subjective, almost nobody wants to talk, let alone think, about the next logical question. If “evil” is subjective, is it also possible to label “good” or “neutral” as “evil”? What if people who are widely seen as “evil” not really that “evil”? This question has a peculiar connection to the issue of whether genocidal tyrants are “evil” because you can classify them into two groups based on their motivations.
The first groups contains those who did it to make themselves richer, more powerful, improving the lives of their kids, relatives, clans etc. The vast majority of tyrants fall into this category and pretty much every Arab Dictator, Mongol Warlord, Spanish Ruler of some new world colony, South and Central American Despot and many of the “beloved” presidents in American history fall into that category- as do people like Winston Churchill. The common thread that runs through all these leaders is they used their position almost exclusively for personal profit.
In contrast to the first group, the second contains far fewer individuals. However these people had a far greater impact on history (both in absolute terms and number of people killed) than almost anyone from the first group. Let us start with Hitler.. Can you really say that his actions or decisions were predominantly driven by the personal profit motive? Did any members of his family make out like bandits under his leadership? Was the guy living in 5 different palaces and constructing 10 more like some Arab Despot? Was all the money and gold seized from the conquered people going towards his clothes, residences or lavish party budget? I am not saying that he did not live well, but it is very clear that he did not spend on himself at anywhere near the level he could have.
Or take Stalin.. Given the absolute degree of his power, isn’t it a little odd that he did not live like the Tsars before him? Pretty much every Russian sovereign before him had lived in an extremely ostentatious fashion and it is unlikely that people would have noticed or spoken up even if he done so. Also note that he grew up in poverty and had every reason to go bling-crazy after he consolidated his power. But he did not.. I am not implying that he did not live well, but they guy was clearly not after money, ‘bling’ or comfort. Even his kids did not get any plum posts nor did they become super rich- and the same goes for his relatives. The guy was far more interested in seeing which factory did not meet its production quota than an endless supply of hot hookers and booze? Why?
My explanation for the somewhat odd behavior of a few but important such as Hitler and Stalin goes something like this- They were in it for the power and fulfillment of their vision. Personal profit was probably an afterthought- at best. The genocides they perpetrated were driven by ideology rather than any personal profit motive. While that does not immediately make their actions acceptable- it puts them in a very different category from those perpetrated by typical Arab, Mongol, White Hispanic, Black or WASP despot.
It also explains why their genocides ended up with such high body counts. People who kill for personal profit typically kill the bare minimum necessary for obtaining whatever they want- respect, money, women etc. But those who do it for implementing their personal ideology or vision will not be content until they have removed every single person who stands in the way of their ideological utopia. You might have noticed that both Hitler and Stalin were into heavily invested in destroying the previous order because they hated it with a passion. They wanted to get rid of anyone who represented the old power structures and institutions. This is very different from your typical despot, populist or not, who merely seeks to install himself and his family/friends at the top of the old structures and institutions.
What I am trying to say is that ideologically driven tyrants are not doing it for financial gain or personal comfort. They are therefore not “evil” in the same way as the far more common type of tyrant. Infact it could be argued that their actions, whether they ultimately failed or not, did result in a better world. Let us face it, the 20th century was so productive largely because of the direct and indirect actions of people like Hitler and Stalin.
What do you think? Comments?