Hannah Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil” to describe the galling normalcy of Nazi mass-murderer Adolf Eichmann. Covering his trial in Jerusalem, she described Eichmann as less a cartoonish villain than a dull, remorseless, paper-pushing functionary just “doing his job.”
The phrase “banality of evil” was instantly controversial, largely because it was misunderstood. Arendt was not trying to minimize Nazism’s evil but to capture its enormity. The staggering moral horror of the Holocaust was that it made complicity “normal.” Liquidating the Jews was not just the stuff of mobs and demagogues but of bureaucracies and bureaucrats.
Now consider the stunted and ritualistic conversation (“controversy” is too vibrant a word for the mundane Internet chatter) about the Soviet Union sparked by the Winter Olympics. The humdrum shrugging at the overwhelming evil of Soviet Communism leaves me nostalgic for the Eichmann controversy. At least Arendt and her critics agreed that evil itself was in the dock; they merely haggled over the best words to put in the indictment.
What to say of the gormless press-agent twaddle conjured up to describe the Soviet Union? In its opening video for the Olympic Games, NBC’s producers drained the thesaurus of flattering terms devoid of moral content: “The empire that ascended to affirm a colossal footprint; the revolution that birthed one of modern history’s pivotal experiments. But if politics has long shaped our sense of who they are, it’s passion that endures.”
In America, we constantly, almost obsessively, wrestle with the “legacy of slavery.” That speaks well of us. But what does it say that so few care that the Soviet Union was built — literally — on the legacy of slavery? The founding fathers of the Russian Revolution — Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky — started “small,” merely throwing hundreds of thousands of people into kontslagerya (concentration camps).
By the time Western intellectuals and youthful folksingers like Pete Seeger were lavishing praise on the Soviet Union as the greatest experiment in the world, Joseph Stalin was corralling millions of his own people into slavery. Not metaphorical slavery, but real slavery complete with systematized torture, rape, and starvation. Watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, you’d have no idea that from the Moscow metro system to, literally, the roads to Sochi, the Soviet Union — the supposed epitome of modernity and “scientific socialism” — was built on a mountain of broken lives and unremembered corpses.
To read Anne Applebaum’s magisterial Gulag: A History is to subject yourself to relentless tales of unimaginable barbarity. A slave who falls in the snow is not helped up by his comrades but is instantly stripped of his clothes and left to die. His last words: “It’s so cold.”
Hava Volovich, a once-obscure newspaper editor turned slave laborer, has a baby, Eleonora, in captivity. Eleonora spends her first months in a room where “bedbugs poured down like sand from the ceiling and walls.” A year later, Eleonora is wasting away, starving in a cold ward at slave “mothers’ camp.” She begs her mother to take her back “home” to that bedbug-infested hovel. Working all day in the forest to earn food rations, Hava manages to visit her child each night. Finally, Eleonora in her misery refuses even her mother’s embrace, wanting only to drift away in bed. Eleonora dies, hungry and cold, at 15 months. Her mother writes: “In giving birth to my only child, I committed the worst crime there is.”
Multiply these stories by a million. Ten million.
“To eat your own children is a barbarian act.” So read posters distributed by Soviet authorities in the Ukraine, where 6 to 8 million people were forcibly starved to death so that the socialist Stalin could sell every speck of grain to the West, including seed stock for the next year’s harvest and food for the farmers themselves. The posters were the Soviet response to the cannibalism they orchestrated.
If it is conventional wisdom that the Nazi Holocaust was worse than the Soviet Terror, you would at least think earning the silver in the Devil’s Olympics would earn something more than feckless wordsmithery and smug eye-rolling from journalists and intellectuals. Imagine if instead of Sochi these games were in Germany, and suppose the organizers floated out the swastika while NBC talked of the “pivotal experiment” of Nazism. Imagine the controversy.
But when the hammer and sickle float by, there’s no outrage. There is only the evil of banality.