One way to commit evil is simply “not to think,” but willed ignorance of evil already means “the ruin of a human being.” Those who tell Solzhenitsyn not to dig up the past belong to the category of “not-thinkers,” as do Western leftists who make sure not to know. The Germans, he argues, were lucky to have had the Nuremberg trials because they made not-thinking impossible. This Russian patriot advances a unique complaint: “Why is Germany allowed to punish its evildoers and Russia is not?”
Solzhenitsyn discovers yet another cause of totalitarianism’s monstrous evil: “Progressive Doctrine” or “Ideology.” In one famous passage, he asks why Shakespeare’s villains killed only a few people, while Lenin and Stalin murdered millions. The reason is that Macbeth and Iago “had no ideology.” Real people do not resemble the evildoers of mass culture, who delight in cruelty and destruction. No, to do mass evil you have to believe it is good, and it is ideology that supplies this conviction. “Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale of millions.”
From “Solzhenitsyn’s cathedrals” by Gary Saul Morson, in The New Criterion.
Image c/o Wikipedia.