The festival of cruelty isn't over

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Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover (Cape £18.99)

Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover (Cape £18.99)

In the winter of 1946, 16 weeks after his rescue from Auschwitz, Primo Levi began If This is a Man. The chapter, "This Side of Good and Evil," provideda lethal analysis of the prisoners' fox-hole barter in tobacco, breadcrumbs, gold teeth. The SS openly connived in this commerce, which made a mockery oftheir vaunted moral and racial superiority. Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil is archly parodied in the chapter's title. Rightly or wrongly, Levi associatedthe German philosopher with all that was irrational in wartime Europe. Nietzsche's assault on morality had foreshadowed a moment in the 1940s -Auschwitz - when humanity began to die.

Jonathan Glover's brave attempt at a moral history of the 20th century, Humanity, puts Nietzsche squarely behind the worst modern atrocities. Theself-proclaimed Anti-Christ wrote much that appealed to the Nazi race engineers and, conceivably, to Stalin and Pol Pot. Nietzsche undermined Westernphilosophy to give our age new values of totalitarian dominance. Today it is fashionable to claim the walrus-moustached amoralist as a strikingly modernwriter but Glover will not exonerate him from charges of pro-Nazism and nihilism. Nietzsche scorned the Judaeo-Christian morality of compassion forthe weak and his violent Social Darwinism - nature as bleak survivalism - served Hitler as justification for the extermination of European Jewry.

Glover, Professor of Ethics at King's College London, turns an appalled eye on our recent moral history. It is a myth, he says, that barbarism is unique tothe 20th century. In the 1890s, Belgium's rapacious King Leopold II allegedly killed 10 million Congolese through slavery. (Even today, Congo tribesspeak fearfully of "the overwhelming".) Nevertheless, much of our century has been a "very unpleasant surprise". Technology has brought unprecedentedmass destruction. Not only Auschwitz, but the atomic holocaust of Hiroshima and Stalin's technocratic Russia have shown man's wilful and destructivemisuse of science. Even H G Wells, with his uncanny gift of scientific foresight, could not predict the industrialised killing fields of Treblinka or theblinding flash over Nagasaki.

The Soviet regime killed almost 62 million in the 70 years after the 1917 Revolution. It's worth looking at that written out: 61,911,000. The figure is somonstrous - so unimaginable - that it becomes almost irrelevant. In numbers killed, Stalin far surpassed Hitler. Yet Hitler surely was an isolated instanceof human infamy. Though he does not name him, Glover refutes the conservative German historian Ernst Nolte who has infamously argued a supposedmoral equivalence between Hitler's mass murder of Jews and the earlier Stalinist eradication of kulaks. In Nolte's revisionist polemic, the Final Solutionmerely (merely!) imitated Stalin's slaughter. So there would have been no Auschwitz without the Gulag. Yet, argues Glover, the industrial exploitation ofcorpses and their ashes was a uniquely Hitlerian atrocity.

Never before had a government planned the annihilation of an entire people. When the Nazis said "exterminate all", they meant all deported, allexterminated; even old women and newborns. "There was a unique moral horror to what the Nazis did," insists Glover. Stalinist Russia had no equivalentof the wretchedly servile Auschwitz functionary Rudolf Hoss. Kommandant in Auschwitz, Hoss' justificatory memoir, is the work of a stunted moralimagination and a key to understanding our century's atrocity. With disturbing indifference, Hoss relates his apprenticeship in Nazi obedience and theimmense pride he took in his death factory. The incorporation of the darker side of Nietzsche's vision - "master and slave morality," "will-to-power" - intothe Nazi belief system resulted in Rudolf Hoss. Lack of imagination (not sadism) made Hoss cruel. He is a warning to us of the dangers of blindadherence to ideology.

Once people have been deprived of their humanity. It is much easier to brutalise and eventually to kill them. All modern dictatorships have known this. TheJews in the Nazi cattle trucks were so degraded by their journey that they were no longer Menschen - human beings - but animals to slaughter. ChairmanMao publicly humiliated victims of the Cultural Revolution with dunce's caps, shorn hair and jeering crowds - then eliminated them. Gulag prisoners werestripped of their name (the cardinal sign of human individuality) then worked to death. As mere numbers, they were expendable.

Ours is an age of diminished individual responsibility for atrocity. The US airmen aboard the "Enola Gay" did not feel morally responsible, personally,for the destruction of Hiroshima. Neither did the many scientists who helped to make the bomb, nor even the President and his men. In this technologicalage, division of labour can make the contribution of any single person seem unimportant. Adolf Eichmann saw the Final Solution only in terms of his ownspecial competence (the smooth running of the deportation trains) and this enabled him to ignore the moral consequence of his work. As a pre-conditionfor professional success, Nazis like Eichmann lacked moral conviction. Eichmann was a tuchle-Deutsch - efficient German - with a terrifying tunnelvision.

Sympathy for war victims can be inhibited by physical distance, Glover points out. The British pilots who killed 40,000 civilians in the Hamburg firestormof 1943 were only dimly aware of the people they targeted with incendiary bombs. If they actually could have seen the human devastation, how would theyhave reacted? (One German witness to the Hamburg outrage graphically described small children lying dead on the pavement "like fried eels".) The moralimagination can be a powerful restraint on barbarism. In 1962, after military briefing on the horrific effects of nuclear war, J F Kennedy was able toimagine something of the human catastrophe that the Cuban missile crisis would unleash. Khrushchev, for his part, had lived through two world wars andunderstood that it was humanly important to save lives. So, at the 11th hour, the armageddon was averted through the moral sympathy of two opposedstatesmen. It is a lesson, says Glover, which should echo down the generations.

Allegedly Nietzsche lost his mind in Primo Levi's native Turin. (In 1889 the philosopher was seen to rush out of his Turin lodgings and tearfully embracea carthorse.) Sedated, the German was despatched to a clinic in Basle, apparently still wearing his landlord's nightcap. By then Nietzsche's war on moralityhad exploded into unintelligible jottings; his mental demise foreshadowed the soon-to-be-shattered Europe. Indeed Nietzsche's "festival of cruelty" is infull swing today. Jonathan Glover predicts no great diminishment in human cruelty. Man enjoys killing too much. (When capital punishment was legal inBritain, there were a shaming five applications a week for the choice post of executioner.) Superbly argued and always accessible, Humanity is an essentialguide to modern catastrophe. Few books interrogate our recent moral history so directly or profoundly, or provide such a civilised analysis of thenever-ending atrocity exhibition.