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They came for the Communists, but I wasn't a Communist
so I didn't object. They came for the
To me, the most frightening aspect of the bloody 20th Century is not that evil men commanded the deaths of tens of million, maybe even hundreds of millions, of their fellow citizens. This is relatively unsurprising; man has always had the moral capacity to commit these types of horrors and the technological advances and political centralization of the past 100 hundred years simply handed these monsters more efficient and thorough tools for enacting their genocidal schemes. No, what is really chilling and truly inexplicable is why these millions of victims went so quietly to the grave, why so many otherwise decent men participated in these slaughters and why the populations of these nations docily allowed the perpetrators to stay in power.
As to the last issues, I think we have, reluctantly, to conclude that the polities of these nations were fairly well satisfied with their governments. Jonah Goldhagen's seminal book Hitler's Willing Executioners (see Orrin's review) does an excellent job of demonstrating that the general German population willingly participated in the Holocaust, or at least in the savage repression of the Jews. He does not extend his analysis any further, but I think that we could examine many of the totalitarian states of the recent past and find a similar situation. After all, the administrative apparatus of the Soviet state was enormous, as is that of today's Red China. It's hard to argue that folks were coerced into accepting these bureaucratic roles. It seems more likely that as we achieve some emotional and temporal distance from the age of state terror, we will have to come to accept the fact that the governments that we so abhor were fundamentally popular.
But what of their victims? Well, as Arthur Koestler (see Orrin's review of Darkness at Noon) and George Orwell (see Orrin's reviews of Animal Farm, and Homage to Catalonia) and other refugees from the Left amply demonstrated, there was a masochistic strain among the elites of these movements that lead them to partake of their own purging and executions. But something inexplicable happened which allowed enormous numbers of innocent civilians to march to their deaths with little or no resistance. It is horribly unfair of us to sit in judgment of these people; who is to say which of us, if any, would have resisted? But we seem to have an implicit belief that such things could not happen to us. Take something as mundane as the 1980's movie Red Dawn and you can see American perceptions of how we would react to such events. Or consider the avowal of Holocaust remembrance--Never again! There is an inherent certitude there that we will not be lead away to the camps next time, that we are somehow different. Regardless of whether this is true, God pray we never find out, the belief is important to our perception of ourselves.
It is precisely this form of chauvinism which provides the plot of Gerald Seymour's terrific thriller Archangel. Michael Holly is the very British son of Russian émigrés. He is recruited by British Intelligence to perform a seemingly simple task on a trip to the USSR. When it goes amok, they quickly arrange to exchange him for a captured Russian spy, but that prisoner inconveniently dies, so Holly is sent to the Gulag. He launches a one man campaign of resistance and virtually single-handedly brings about a revolt in the camp.
In the first place let me say that I love Gerald Seymour. He is quite simply one of the greatest thriller writers of all time, comparable to Graham Greene, and this is in many ways his best book. And I, as much as anyone, believe that we in the West are different. In my heart, I desperately want to believe that we would behave like Michael Holly. (And a part of me is paranoid enough to believe that eventually push will come to shove and we'll find out. Isn't that the unspoken reason that we all feel a little queasy about the Democrats newfound mania for gun control? When the black helicopters start circling, don't we all want to face them with a gun in our hands and not go quietly into that good night?) But I have to admit that I am somewhat skeptical. It seems somehow too facile to assume that one iron willed Englishman would suffice to bring the mill of communism grinding to a halt, in however small a corner of the USSR. Seymour too seems to recognize this. Michael Holly is a hero in the tradition of Cool Hand Luke and RP McMurphy (see Orrin's review of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Interestingly, all three of them rebel against repressive authority and simply by force of personality rally reluctant fellow inmates to their cause but ultimately fail, before passing into the realm of myth. They seem to embody a fundamentally pessimistic, but not necessarily wrong, belief that while we aspire to be like these rebels, in the end most folks will not succeed in emulating them and the system will win out. I hope that we are made of sterner stuff and, therefore, I am a sucker for this kind of aspirational literature.
-INTERVIEW : Escape from the newsroom : Journalist turned thriller writer Gerald Seymour talks to Nicholas Wroe (September 15, 2001, The Guardian)
-INTERVIEW: Gerald Seymour (Bookends Magazine)
-PROFILE: TV NEWSMAN'S TRANSITION TO NOVELS (Herbert Mitgang, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of The Fighting Man By Gerald Seymour (Herbert Mitgang, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of The Journeyman Tailor (Herbert Mitgang, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of Condition Black By Gerald Seymour (Herbert Mitgang, NY Times)
-REVIEW: The Running Target By Gerald Seymour (Herbert Mitgang, NY Times)
-REVIEW: FIELD OF BLOOD By Gerald Seymour (Herbert Mitgang, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of A Line in the Sand by Gerald Seymour (Mat Coward, Tangled Web UK)
-REVIEW: of DEAD GROUND (Tom Walker, Denver Post Book Editor)
-REVIEW: of Dead Ground (Harriet Klausner, Book Browser)
-REVIEW: of KILLING GROUND by Gerald Seymour (Harriet Klausner, Under the Covers)
-REVIEW : of The Untouchable by Gerald Seymour (Bill Greenwell, Independent uk)
-Edgar Awards: awarded by the Mystery Writers of America
Other recommended books by Gerald Seymour: