Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mass Murder For Food

Timothy Snyder, in his fascinating article on the mass killing of civilians in Europe during the 30s and 40s, connects 'then' with 'now' in this way:

Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union followed a path to economic
self-sufficiency, Germany wishing to balance industry with an agrarian utopia in
the East, the USSR wishing to overcome its agrarian backwardness with rapid
industrialization and urbanization. Both regimes were aiming for economic
autarky in a large empire, in which both sought to control Eastern Europe. Both
of them saw the Polish state as a historical aberration; both saw Ukraine and
its rich soil as indispensable. They defined different groups as the enemies of
their designs, although the German plan to kill every Jew is unmatched by any
Soviet policy in the totality of its aims. What is crucial is that the ideology
that legitimated mass death was also a vision of economic development. In a
world of scarcity, particularly of food supplies, both regimes integrated mass
murder with economic planning.

They did so in ways that seem appalling and obscene to us today, but
which were sufficiently plausible to motivate large numbers of believers at the
time. Food is no longer scarce, at least in the West; but other resources are,
or will be soon. In the twenty-first century, we will face shortages of potable
water, clean air, and affordable energy. Climate change may bring a renewed
threat of hunger.

If there is a general political lesson of the history of mass killing,
it is the need to be wary of what might be called privileged development:
attempts by states to realize a form of economic expansion that designates
victims, that motivates prosperity by mortality. The possibility cannot be
excluded that the murder of one group can benefit another, or at least can be
seen to do so. That is a version of politics that Europe has in fact witnessed
and may witness again. The only sufficient answer is an ethical commitment to
the individual, such that the individual counts in life rather than in death,
and schemes of this sort become unthinkable.

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