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In his terrific book Hitler's Willing Executioners, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen provided us with a vital insight for analyzing the horrors of the Twentieth Century. The specific point that he made in the book was that Hitler would not have been able to perpetrate the Holocaust without significant levels of outright assistance and implicit support from vast segments of the German population. A more general point can, and should, be extrapolated from this : that the great tyrannies of the past hundred years have been in some disturbing sense dependent on the will of the people in those oppressive societies. As a democrat (small 'd') and a conservative, I am particularly drawn to this view by both my faith in the power of the people and by my skepticism about the capabilities of government. I simply find it impossible to believe that any government could long maintain itself in the face of general and spirited opposition from its citizenry.
The most troubling aspect of this is that it requires us to face the fact that regimes which we find horrific--the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Red China, etc.--were, and are, essentially expressive of popular will, perhaps not of the majority, but of at least a plurality. Here too conservative philosophy is a help, because it is based on a fairly pessimistic view of human nature. Where the idealism of the Left assumes that Man is fundamentally good and that Man in the State of Nature is peaceful and selfless, we of the Right assume that Man is fundamentally selfish and violent. We would not find it surprising that one segment of society would try to oppress, or even exterminate, another.
Now I'm not a complete pessimist : I do like to think that we (Americans) are different, and that we are sufficiently individualistic that would never tolerate totalitarianism here. Indeed, I maintain that much of American Literature is based on the premise of individuals resisting the soul deadening forces of oppressive society and that most of our greatest literary characters have been just such rugged individualists--from Huck Finn to Cool Hand Luke to RP McMurphy. These works, and the products of more popular culture like Red Dawn, express our belief that we (Americans) are different and reflect a hope that we would behave differently when faced with oppression. These are not beliefs that can, nor hopefully ever will be, put to the test. But it is notable that so much of our population is made up of those who fled oppression, and of their descendants. Perhaps, just perhaps, we--from Baptists to Quakers to Jews, from Huguenots to Irish to Vietnamese boat people--really are the kind of people who won't tolerate such oppression. Perhaps we have been fortunate enough to skim off the stubborn freedom loving cream of many nations.
At any rate, central to this understanding--that people were more or less willing participants in their own oppression--is its opposite, that those who refused to participate had alternatives. And it is this that makes Oskar Schindler, Nelson Mandela, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Cuban Freedom Flotillas, and the like so compelling to us; all serve to reinforce our belief that it is possible to refuse to be complicit in even these most coercive of systems. It is from this context that Slavomir Rawicz's great memoir, The Long Walk, derives its power.
Rawicz was a Polish cavalry officer in WWII, serving during the futile resistance to the Nazi blitzkrieg. As a Russian speaking resident of Pinsk, in eastern Poland, the Soviets, who had taken over this portion of the partitioned land, simply assumed Rawicz was a spy and shipped him to a prison camp in Siberia--Camp Number 303 on the Lena River. On Easter Sunday 1941, Rawicz and six other prisoners escaped and started walking South. They eventually traveled the length of Lake Baikal, through Mongolia, across the Gobi Desert, through Tibet, and over the Himalayas, before arriving in British-controlled India. Despite the hardships they faced, most of which you can imagine just from their itinerary, they were continually driven forward by a simple dream of freedom. Only four of their original number made it--a girl who joined their party along the way also died--and Rawicz (with his collaborator Ronald Downing) tells their story in a simple unaffected style, but their arduous journey speaks volumes about what individuals can achieve when they cling to that dream. The book, like their walk, is a triumph. Let the final word be Rawicz's own, from his 1993 Introduction to the book :
I hope The Long Walk will remain as a memorial
to all those who live and die for freedom, and for
OBIT: Slavomir Rawicz: A modest man's struggle against the tides of war and oppression (John B Adams, May 5, 2004, The Guardian)
Book-related and General Links:
-EXCERPT from The Long Walk: Chapter XIII: Across the Trans-Siberian Railway (Adventure Library)
-ESSAY: The "Wild Man" of Central Asia
-REVIEW: The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz (Kelly Winters, Suite 101)
-REVIEW : of The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz (Gregory McNamee, Tucson Weekly)
-REVIEW : of The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz (Gregory McNamee, India World)