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 P - Politics - introductory texts


Politics - introductory texts: Politics is about how human being may live together and contribute to each others' welfare and chances, or each other's poverty and misery. 

Most texts used as educational material in modern universities in the subject are boring and bad. 

Here are a few better ones, with explanations why following:

Plato: Republic : This is the plan and reasons for a utopia designed by two of the brightest minds ever, Socrates and Plato. It is quite amazing in many respects and for many reasons, not the least of which is that part of it is fundamental metaphysics (and some of that is of a truly Monty Pythonesque quality). Some of the amazing things about it is that is contains outlines of the first communist and fascist utopias. The Jowett-translation of the 19th C is quite fine. Here is some background lecture for Plato's Republic: A.E. Taylor, "Plato"; Werner Jaeger, "Paedia". Richard Crossmann: "Plato Today".

Aristotle: Ethics: This is Aristotle's outline of how to make a good society with good men and women. It is much more realistic than is Plato and of a different metaphysical orientation (Plato was an idealist, Aristotle a realist; Plato had a mathematical mind, Aristotle a biological, both in terms of their primary metaphors). There is a good Penguin version. Background literature: D.W. Ross: "Aristotle", and idem "Foundations of Ethics".

Lao Tzu: Tao Teh King : This is the foundational classic of Chinese Taoism. I list it here to show a quite different approach to political ideals, practices and plans from  the Western one. This may be initially hard to get, and is beautifully explained by Lin Yutang: "The importance of living".

Thucydides: Pelopponesian War: This is an amazing and beautiful book describing the wars between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century B.C. from the point of view of an Athenian who took a prominent part in its later stages. If you want to understand what men really are, and how the ancient Greeks really were, read Thucydides! The best background literature here is Burckhardt, commented on below. An quite delightful brief but highly instructive text in Penguin is A.D. Kitto: "The Greeks".  

Bible and Koran: I am an atheist, hence very much contained in these books I regard as nonsense, and some as quite pernicious nonsense. Nevertheless, parts of the Bible are great literature, and I am told the same is true for the Koran if one reads Arabic. Also, these books had enormous political influence on millions upon millions of men and women, in part because for centuries these were the only books seriously studied and known by men. Background literature: Bertrand Russell: "History of Western Philosophy".

Marsilius of Padua: Defensor Pacis: This is a quite amazing little booklet dating from Whitsuntide 1324, as Marsilius informs us himself. It contains a closely reasoned argument why and how Church and State should be separated. The book was placed on the Index almost immediately, and Marsilius had to flee to Germany, where his friend Ockham (another amazingly bright mind) had fled, also for political reasons. For background see Paul Edward's Ed. "Encyclopaedia of Philosophy".

Machiavelli: The Prince: This is an instruction-booklet written for real princes (leaders, rulers, politicians) by a real top-bureaucrat on the question of how to get and retain political power. It is beautifully written, extra-ordinarily realistic, and still - written in 1517! - capable of shocking most men for its realism, honesty, and insight. There is a copy of the text on this site, with my comments. There too background literature is given.

Machiavelli: History of Florence and Guiccardini: History of Florence : Both hailed from Florence, where both had top bureaucratic-political jobs, and they knew each other and appreciated each other a lot. Both had very bright minds and few illusions. Their outlooks are also similar, and both wrote a History of Florence, which they knew very well. My comments on Machiavelli:  Machiavelli give background literature (as does Burckhardt, below).

Etienne de la Boetie: Discours de la Servitude volontaire: Treatise on voluntary submission. The normal human proclivity towards totalitarianism - the Loyal serving of Our Leaders of Our Group - was seen before, notably by Plato, but seems to have been first clearly seen and  presented for what it is (the formation of totalitarian tribal hordes moved by illusions and hormones) by Montaigne's friend Etienne de la Boetie, and indeed seems to have been transmitted to posterity because Montaigne included this text in early editions of  his "Essays". I know it in Dutch only, in which it has been translated as "De vrijwillige slavernij". There is an excerpt + my comments on this site. Background: Montaigne, "Essays".

Shakespeare: Historical Plays : If you want to understand men, their motives, their self-deception, their blindness, their nobility, their cruelty, and want to read this in the most dramatic prose, read Shakespeare. There are many editions, of which I found a 3-volume edition by Penguin with glossary on the page the best. And there are many comments, of which William Hazlitt's "Characters in Shakespeare's Plays" (of 1818) to be by far the best and subtle. It too is great prose.

Hobbes: Leviathan : Thomas Hobbes was a philosophical materialist in a very Christian age. His Leviathan gives his basic philosophy and reasons for it: To create a safe state. Hobbes also was an amazing writer. Background: Paul Edward's "Enyclopedia of Philosophy".

Spinoza: Ethics : This is Spinoza's main book. It is in many ways confused, and you'll find it hard or impossible to understand its beginning, but it contains many fine ideas and sentiments, and a clear outline and definitions of the human emotions. This is also too simple, but then you may improve upon it if you can, and wonder why in the intervening three centuries so few people have had such bright and noble minds. The Dover-edition has a lot of additional material, such as a correspondence with Von Tschirnhaus (a friend of Leibniz) that quite ably highlights the weak points in Spinoza's system. Background: Paul Edward's Ed. "Encyclopaedia of Philosophy".

Swift: Gulliver's Travels : Stunning satires of the most important human delusions. It should give most men food for serious thought that these satires have been for centuries been looked upon and treated as children's books. There is a Swiftian piece of my own, published in 1989, mostly in English: "Yahooism and Democracy".

Mandeville: The Fable of the bees: Another stunning satire, in great prose, by a very sharpwitted Dutchman (incidentally, about as close to an oxymoron as one can get) who lived in England, practised medicine, and wrote an exquisite English. The thesis of Mandeville is that social welfare always is and must be based on the evil sides of human nature, like egoism, greed and cunning: It is vices like these that motivate industrial productivity, trade, and economical activity. At the time it was published, it was quite infamous and widely attacked (probably best by the amazing Bishop Butler) but it is hard to refute cogently. Mandeville is not at all so well known as he deserves, though there is a good edition of the Fable of the Bees in Penguin. The poem (not the accompanying text) is on this site. Background: Paul Edward's "Encyclopaedia of Philosophy".

Montesquieu: L'esprit des lois : This is a reasoned 18th Century defense of the notion of a liberal state of law. It is very well written, and sometimes quite speculative. Background: Paul Edward's "Enyclopedia of Philosophy".

Voltaire: Dictionary of philosophy: I like Voltaire, and this is one of his best books, next to Candide, to which the reader is also referred in this context, since it is a reflection on the political and religious follies of mankind. The Dictionary as such is given to many topics, mostly not political in a strict sense, but always touching on them, since Voltaire was one of the great defenders of freedom of expression and a rational, scientific outlook. Background: Paul Edward's "Encyclopaedia of Philosophy".

Gibbon: Decline and fall of the Roman Empire: If you want to understand what men really are, and what they really are capable of, you should know history and read the great historians. Here is another of these: The amazing Gibbon, describing the last 500 years or so of the Roman Empire in considerable detail and a series of quite a few books. The series has been abbreviated several times, and B.M. Low's abridgment is an excellent one. Background: Gibbon's own "Autobiography", which is quite candid, and explains quite a few things about how it was to live in the 18th Century.

Adam Smith: The wealth of nations: This is the first systematic texts of the science of economics, and is very well written. It also advocates free trade and liberalism, and does so in better prose and with more realism and humanity than his 20th C would be followers. (If Maggie Thatcher had had a tenth of the mind and qualities of Adam Smith, England at present would have been a much better country than the mess it is.) Background: P. Samuelson: Economics. (This used to be a standard introduction to the subject. It is not bad, but far drier and more pedantic than nearly all other volumes listed in this section.)

Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France: Burke also wrote an amazingly beautiful English (to which both Dr. Johnson and William Hazlitt testify), and these are his reactions to the French revolution. Burke is known as the spiritual father of political conservatives, which is true, but it seems to me - and Hazlitt - that he often is much misunderstood by his supposed followers, and too little read by all. Background: Hazlitt's "Spirit of the Age".

Thomas Paine: The Rights of Man: Thomas Paine is less well known and less read than he deserves, for in many ways he was the man of ideas behind the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 (which he narrowly survived). He was a great natural writer, and very ably expounded the case for enlightened democratic government. His "The Rights of Man" was a response to Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France" and ably refutes most of Burke's political conservatism - without answering Burke's pessimism about the human average, for Paine's basic shortcoming is his optimistic belief in the abilities of ordinary men to be rational, reasonable, fair and honest.

Chamfort - Maximes et Pensées: Chamfort was a French 18th Century writer, wit, moralist and writer of maxims, ideas and anecdotes. He is generally regarded as somewhat cynical and pessimistic, but then such attitudes help one see the truth about human beings.

Hamilton, Madison and Jay: The Federalist Papers: In 1787 the Americans had had their revolution a little over 10 years, and found that the United States were difficult to govern. It was proposed to make a federacy of the states - at the time 13 - that composed the United States, with a central government. Not everyone was in favor of this idea, and three lawyers who were decided to defend and explain the idea in a series of papers in the daily press. These were eventually collected in a book, which is The Federalist Papers - a remarkably clearminded and sane treatise on government, that is also quite well-written (as such treatises go). It is a good introduction to both the constitution of the US and to the sort of political thinking that was practised during the Enlightenment, at least by enlightened philosophers, mathematicians and lawyers.

William Godwin: Political Justice : This is in fact a classic of anarchism, written and published during the years of the French revolution. Other anarchistic treatises I have read, such as by Bakunin and Kropotkin, are far less subtle and fargoing. A good reader on anarchism is George Woodcock's "Anarchism" in Penguin. (Godwin and the anarchists are mistaken, for reasons probably best explained by Machiavellians like Mosca and Aron, but his book is a reasoned attempt to give a rational foundation for anarchism.)

Karl Marx: Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital : The first gives Marx' "historical materialism" and the second his economics. Much of "Das Kapital" (which has two successor volumes edited by Engels) is quite turgid, but it is an interesting fact that the foundations for the sort of mathematical economy Marx was trying to catch was created in mathematics in his own time by the mathematician (and lawyer) Cayley. This is matrix algebra, and several people in the 20th C have shown that something like a coherent Marxian approach to economics is possible using matrix algebra. The main work here seems to be Piero Sraffa: "The production of commodities by means of commodities." See also: Morishima: "Marx's Economics".

Tocqueville: Democracy in America : Tocqueville was French and travelled through much of the US in the 1830-ies, and wrote two amazing companion volumes about it, that have been admirably translated. Few parallel or match his insight in sociological and psychological matters - which the reader can check out by reading his Vol 2, and comparing his expectations and predications with what happened in fact. Two good references are Mosca, "The Ruling Class", mentioned below, and C. Wright Mills and Hans Gerth: "Character and Society"

Burckhardt : The reader who has inferred I really like Burckhardt is quite right. (Nearly all I have of Burckhardt is in German, though in fact all or nearly all has been translated.) I share my delight in Burckhardt with Nietzsche. (Indeed, Nietzsche deeply respected Burckhardt, who initially was impressed by Nietzsche. They knew each other personally and corresponded, but Burckhardt ceased to reply after it became clear to him Nietzsche was getting mentally disturbed. There is a good comparison of both by A. von Martin: "Burckhardt und Nietzsche", which also contains a long selection of quotes from the later Nietzsche, many quite unsavoury.)

Stowe: Uncle Tom's Cabin : This is literature and fiction, and very likely not to modern taste, but it did a lot to help abolish slavery in the US. One of the things modern democrats tend to overlook is that human beings throughout known history have kept other human beings as slaves, and that indeed the inventors of democracy - i.e.: government by the people - the Ancient Athenians, meant by "government by the people" all such persons as were not slaves, and in fact usually owned slaves. It also relates to the next book and writer:

Multatuli: "Max Havelaar" and "Ideen" .  The first is an attack on Dutch colonialism, by a former Dutch colonial bureaucrat whose real name was Eduard Douwes Dekker. It was translated into English soon after its appearance in 1860, and is now in the Penguin Classics series. It also has been translated in at least 25 other languages. Later, Multatuli wrote 7 volumes of "Ideen" (Ideas), which contains a systematic criticism of Dutch society, often in a beautiful Dutch. In many ways, all of this is much better written, reasoned, empirically founded and more thoroughgoing than all social, economical, political and educational criticism by his contemporaries. Those who don't read Dutch must miss it (and those who do usually are too stupid to appreciate it). 

Nietzsche:  Wille zur Macht Here I am referring to the last volume in the German Schlechta-edition of Nietzsche's Works. (There are other editions which I haven't read, that are claimed to be more complete). I list it not because I agree with it, but because it was one of the founding stones of fascism (though it seems likely Nietzsche would have despised Hitler and Mussolini). Background: Russell "History of Western Philosophy", which contains a sharp estimate of Nietzsche.

Mosca: The Ruling Class : This is the English translation of "Elementi di Scienza Politica" of an Italian liberal. It is written in the Machiavellian tradition, and much more realistic than most political books. Background: C.W. Mills, Power, Politics and People.

Lenin: What to do? : I am no admirer of Lenin, and I list this text - some others of his might have served the same purpose - as one of the formulations of "democratic centralism", which in effect made socialism totalitarian (or much more totalitarian than it needed to be). Background:Talmon, below.

Bertrand Russell: Power : This is an analysis of power in society by Russell written in the 1930-ies. As logical analysis it is a bit disappointing, but it is a very good introduction to the subject. Background: Bernard de Jouvenel, "Power". (This is analytically better, and appeared later, but is less of a good read.) Another good reference here is to the many books of Raymond Aron, such as "The Century of Total War" (namely: The 20th).

Johan Huizinga: In de schaduwen van morgen. Huizinga is the internationally best known Dutch historian, mostly because of his "The waning of the Middle Ages". "In de schaduwen van morgen" ( = "In the shadows of tomorrow") is a later book, written in the 1930-ies, as fascism and socialism seemed to arise everywhere, and a major war seemed close. Most Dutchmen who have read it seem not to like it, probably because it is too realistic and too pessimistic, and doesn't take the Dutch pretended belief in the equality of all men serious. I like it. Incidentally, Huizinga - already quite old - acted as a very brave man when Holland was occupied by the Germans.

Raymond Aron: "The Century of Total War": This is one of the many excellent books of social analysis by Raymond Aron, and diagnoses the 20th Century. The other book I mention "L'opium des intellectuels" is an excellent attack on Marxism.

Richard Crossman: "Plato Today" : This was published in 1937, and is Crossman's attempt to let Plato discuss - anachronistically and fictionally, but interestingly - the dominant social ideas and systems of the 1930ies, which include liberal democracies of various kinds, fascism, national socialism, and communist socialism. The reason to let Plato discuss these is that he was the first to frame what we would call now fascist, totalitarian, socialist and communist ideals. Background: Plato's Republic.

Richard Crossman: "The God that failed" : This was published not long after WW II and consists of a number of texts by former communists and Marxists, who reflect on the reasons that moved them to such radical and idealistic political positions, and also what is wrong with it. (Mostly: It is totalitarian at heart, and many of its analyses contain large parts of wishful thinking. Besides, those who claimed to be humanist socialist Marxists nearly all founded dictatorships, given the chance.) Background: George Orwell's "1984" and  "Animal Farm"

Eugen Kogon : "Der SS-Staat" : This is a book of which the first edition was published briefly after WW II, which describes and analyzes what happened in German concentration-camps, written by one who survived 7 years of them, and who wrote with the assistance of other survivors of these camps. (This is not the type of reading that will turn you in a happy optimist. Bitter and awful truths about "man's inhumanity to man" never are a pleasant read - but they need to be read and digested, for "those who do not know history, are bound to repeat it"). Background: There are in fact quite a few collections of photographs taken in German concentration camps briefly after these were liberated. These make awful viewing, but faces you with another side of men - or at least of some men, for indeed in quite a few ways in the concentration camps the very best of men were brutally murdered by the very worst.

George Orwell: "Animal Farm", "1984" and "Essays": The first two are Orwell's fictional depictions of socialist totalitarianism, which are interesting for very many reasons, not the least of which are that Orwell himself was an - anti-totalitarian - socialist and wrote a very clear English. His "Essays", published by Penguin in 4 volumes, are highly readable because of this clear style, and Orwell's clear mind and personality, and contain much about events and ideas of his time, and about literature in general.

Cseslav Milosz: "De geknechte geest": (Zniewolony umysl) : This is a fine book on totalitarianism by a Polish intellectual,  who after WW II  was briefly involved in Polish socialist government but who refused to do more and fled. I know  it in Dutch only. Its Dutch title translates as "The enslaved mind". Books in a similar tradition: Boetie, Orwell and Crossman.

Robert Conquest: The great terror: This concerns Stalin's purges of the 1930ies, which were quite terrible and not well-known till Khrustov's admission of them - in very euphemistic terms - in 1956, and Conquests 1957 book. There is a Penguin edition of it.

Joseph Talmon: The rise of totalitarian democracy:  This is a very interesting study of what made so much of socialist thinking totalitarian. He traces it back to Jean Jacques Rousseau and the more extreme French revolutionaries of the 1790-ies like Babeuf and Robespierre. Talmon was a historian, and as far as history goes is mostly right - but there is a strong tendency in the average human heart towards totalitarianism, which ordinary totalitarians from the left and the right call differently: "Patriotism",  "Loyalty",  "Esprit de Corps" - in brief all that disposes people to believe that Our Own Kind of people and our  Our Own Leaders are the Best. See esp. Etienne de la Boetie, who saw and  formulated  this very clearly in the 16th C. 

Barbara Tuchmann: The March of Folly: Tuchman was an American historian who wrote a number of books that got deservedly famous (though she is not of the class of  the really great historians like Thucydides, Gibbon or Burckhardt). This is her book on the ineptitude, stupidity, ignorance, wishful thinking, self-willed blindness and incompetence of political leaders, almost everywhere almost always.

"Rapport van de Club van Rome": I give the Dutch title by which this 1972-book - "Report of the Club of Rome" - is known to me. It gives the reasons why there are limits to growth on earth, and what these may be, and what might be done about it. (It is a bit marred by computer-analyses which seem very naive today, but then today anyone who thinks he can do better and has a PC may duplicate the mathematical essence of the Report in a spreadsheet on his PC and improve upon it. The central fact of the matter, ever since Malthus, is that populations grow along an exponential curve, and resources along a linear one (or one with a lower exponent than the growth of population).) Also see: Jared Diamond: "The third chimpanzee".

Alexander Alexandrovich Zinoviev: Yawning Heights : This is a brilliant and quite thick 1974-satire of the Soviet Union by a Soviet professor of logic and philosophy, who because of it was banned from the Soviet Union. What he in fact satirizes - apparently not quite seeing this at the time of his writing - is man's proclivity to totalitarianism, and many of its ideas are equally valid for Western bureaucracies. Reason: Ordinary men and women are far more of totalitarian ideological apes then they like to believe - as any one with a clear mind can see in any social crisis or war.

Simon Leys: "L'Armée des ombres". Leys is the alias of a Belgian sinologist. The book is about Mao's Cultural Revolution and other repression in China on the one hand, and about how Western China-watchers nearly all pooh-poohed evident totalitarianism, and why they did so. It was first published in the 1970-ies, and then quite controversial. It is well-written. Background: Zhisui Li's "The private life of Chairman Mao".

Alan Bullock: Stalin and Hitler : This is a thick double biography of two of the most frightening and powerful tyrants of the 20th Century. It is a good idea to treat them together, and the reader may shed more light on these tyrants by reading Machiavelli , Gibbon, Burckhardt, Mosca and Orwell. Incidentally, my own view is that neither was intellectually special in any way (as tyrants of the past quite often were). The basic problem men such as these pose is: What is the reason so many millions sincerely believed these in fact rather trivial, unattractive persons were great geniuses? What made so many millions fight their wars and do their biddings? (Part of it was fear, but much of it was wishful thinking, chauvinism, patriotism, believing evident lies, conforming, taking the safest way, lying and pretending.) Background: Conquest, Kogon.

Lin Binyan: "Een kwestie van karakter = A matter of character": This book I know in Dutch only, and its Dutch title translates as "A matter of character". It is by a Chinese journalist who was a Marxist for some 40 years, but not at all blind to the totalitarianism of Chinese communism. He lives now in the US. He describes quite a number of very brave Chinese individuals who protested (and in consequence usually perished). One of the sad lessons of the book is that if it is a matter of character to be or not be a totalitarian conformist, the great majority of human beings' characters are totalitarian and conformist, just as the great majority is - compared to the small bright minority - not at all intelligent or learned. (Of any 100 modern men given the choice, 99 would prefer to be educated in soccer rather than physics.)

Zhsui Li: The private life of Chairman Mao :  Li was Mao's personal doctor from the early 50-ies to Mao's death, survived it all, managed to escape to the U.S. and wrote a book about his experiences that is quite amazing. This is one of the most amazing in depth reports on the actions of a tyrant. Background: Simon Leys, "Armee des Ombres".

Alan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind - How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students : This is a reaction from the 1980-ies against Post-modernism, Political Correctness, and the take-over of much of the universities in Western countries by tenth-rate minds posing as "morally and socially committed", but actually out for soft and easy academic jobs. Background: my "Waarheid en Waarde" if you read Dutch. (I explain I agree mostly with the analysis, which indeed was my own, of earlier date, but don't like the bombastic style.)

Edward Radzinsky: Stalin: A recent biography of Stalin that is quite chilling and instructive about socialism, totalitarianism, Russia, and Stalin and his times and career. It is fairly journalistic, a fairly good read, and reports a great number of amazing facts, most of which are indeed that, or about that: the truth about a tyrant and his entourage and atrocities. It also is a sad implicit comment on the abilities of most men and women. However, to understand more about Stalin and his time one does need to read other relevant literature, such as Conquest and Bullock.

Jared Diamond: The Third Chimpanzee: This is a 1992 book by an American medical anthropologist that outlines the biological and anthropological evidence about the beastly background of the human animal. (Humans are the third kind of chimpanzee.)  It is very well written and presents a lot of relevant facts and some interesting pictures quite well, except for one point I'll  briefly comment on below, after summarizing the main trend of  Diamond's argument: If humanity does NOT succeed in changing its use of the earth and its resources FAST, it will probably exterminate itself and much or all of earthly life. The existing evidence for this thesis is vast, varied and well-founded, and Diamond presents it well and in a fairly optimistic tone of voice. The one blot on the book is his belief in the silly sort of so-called neo-Darwinism that makes all or nearly all  the acts of animals attempts to pass on their genes. (The fallacy here was exposed by Darwin himself, and is counter to Darwinism: Those animals that have received innate capacities that enable them to survive and reproduce transmit those capacities to the next generation. And since, apart from twins etc. each new born animal is unique, this enables a species to survive by producing sufficiently many families that succeed in producing offspring. However, animals generally act as they please, and not with the higher end of transmitting their genes or survival of the species in mind, which indeed are concepts only human animals can understand.)

Jung Chang: "Wild Swans": This book was first published in 1991 and tells the story of three successive generations from Chang's family, roughly between 1930 and 1975. It mostly tells the story of Jung Chang's grandmother, mother and herself, but also of her father, grandfathers, and brothers. The family obviously is intellectually and morally highly gifted - and had to pay the price for this during Mao's Cultural Revolution, when her parents were cruelly persecuted. The book is a very clear and convincing representation of what totalitarianism means in practice for most living in a totalitarian society, and demonstrates how even in times of cruel terror a few truly humane individuals succeed in standing up against terrorism - and also, very sadly but equally convincingly, that indeed such individuals are (in any society, in any large group: race and gender are totally irrelevant for humanity and intelligence) quite rare. Jung Chang had the great luck of being born and raised in an extra-ordinary family, and being herself very intelligent, very beautiful and very courageous. These qualities helped her gain a grant in 1978 to learn English in England, and thus allowed her to leave China, and eventually write "Wild Swans" - which is measured, clear, sensible, and highly intelligent. It also is not for the faint of heart, for the picture it paints of the human average is both true and frightening.

There is an interview with Jung Chang available on line: Interview Jung Chang that is dated 2001, from which it emerges that "Wild Swans" was forbidden in mainland China (i.e. apart from Taiwan) up to 2001. This is a great pity for the Chinese and for Jung Chang, but it underlines that her book is powerful and truthful. (See also Zhusi Li and Lin Binyan.)

Christopher R. Browning: "Ordinary Men": This concerns the actions of the German Reserve Police Batallion 101 and The Final Solution in Poland. These were for the greatest part quite ordinary German middle-aged men, not fit for front-duty, some 500 of them, who yet managed to murder each - at least and on average - 166 innocent mostly Jewish Polish civilians in the 1940-ies, unarmed and defenseless, old or child, healthy or ill, and for no other reason than their supposed race, mostly by shooting them through the head.

The book is tolerably well-written, not long, not pleasant reading because of the horrors it details, and predates Goldhagen's (in)famous "Hitler's Willing Executioners". Goldhagen didn't like Browning's book, and Browning explains in an interesting "Afterword" why: "Central to Goldhagen's interpretation is that these men were not only "willing excecutioners! but in fact "wanted to be genocidal executioners" of Jews (italics mine). They "slaked their Jewish blood-lust" with "gusto"; they had "fun"; they killed "for pleasure." (..) Goldhagen concludes emphatically that "with regard to the motivational cause of the Holocaust, for the vast majority of the perpetrators, a monocausal explanation does suffice" - namely the "demonological antisemitism" that "was the common structure of the perpetrators' cognition and of German society in general." " (p. 203)

Browning is less simple-minded and concludes his "Afterword" and book (2nd edition) as follows, and it seems to me he is right:

"Why does it matter which of our portrayals of and conclusions about Reserve Police Batallion 101 are closer to the truth? It would be very comforting if Goldhagen were correct, that very few societies have the long-term, cultural-cognitive prerequisites to common genocide, and that regimes can only do so when the population is overwhelmingly of one mind about its priority, justice and necessity. We would live in a safer world if he were right, but I am not so optimistic. I fear we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which peer-group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce "ordinary men" to become their "willing executioners." " (p. 222-3)

Incidentally, I had a similar reaction to Goldhagen completely independently from Browning. If you read Dutch, it is here: Goldhagen en "de Holocaust". It was written in 1996.

Walter Laqueur, Ed.: "The Holocaust Encyclopedia": This consists of 765 large pages with quite a few pictures about the holocaust, including a good explanation why that name for the facts it refers to - the murder of around 6 million human beings, for racist reasons - although common and accepted in the U.S., is not a very apt term. If you want evidence relevant to men's inhumanity to men, then this encyclopedia contains a lot of it, usually in measured prose. There is also some evidence about the relatively few heroes. 


See also: Politics


Aristotle, Burnham, Laqueur, Machiavelli, Mills, Mosca,

 Original: Mar 11, 2005                                                Last edited: 12 December 2011.   Top