On Disbelieving Atrocities (1944)
It is fascinating and somewhat sad that this essay from 1944 still applies today.
On Disbelieving Atrocities
Arthur Koestler (Jan. 1944)
There is a dream which keeps coming back to me at almost regular intervals; it is dark, and I am being murdered in some kind of thicket or brushwood; there is a busy road at no more than ten yards distance; I scream for help but nobody hears me, the crowd walks past laughing and chatting.
I know that a great many people share, with individual variations, the same type of dream. I have quarrelled about it with analysts and I believe it to be an archetype in the Jungian sense: an expression of the individual’s ultimate loneliness when faced with death and cosmic violence; and his inability to communicate the unique horror of his experience. I further believe that it is the root of the ineffectiveness of our atrocity propaganda.
For, after all, you are the crowd who walk past laughing on the road; and there are a few of us, escaped victims or eyewitnesses of the things which happen in the thicket and who, haunted by our memories, go on screaming on the wireless, yelling at you in newspapers and in public meetings, theatres and cinemas.
Now and then we succeed in reaching your ear for a minute. I know it each time it happens by a certain dumb wonder on your faces, a faint glassy stare entering your eye; and I tell myself: now you have got them, now hold them, bold them, so that they will remain awake. But it only lasts a minute. You shake yourself like puppies who have got their fur wet; then the transparent screen descends again and you walk on, protected by the dream barrier which stifles all sound.
We, the screamers, have been at it now for about ten years. We started on the night when the epileptic van der Lubbe set fire to the German Parliament; we said that if you don’t quench those flames at once, they will spread all over the world; you thought we were maniacs. At present we have the mania of trying to tell you about the killing, by hot steam, mass-electrocution and live burial of the total Jewish population of Europe. So far three million have died.
It is the greatest mass-killing in recorded history; and it goes on daily, hourly, as regularly as the ticking of your watch. I have photographs before me on the desk while I am writing this, and that accounts for my emotion and bitterness. People died to smuggle them out of Poland; they thought it was worth while.
The facts have been published in pamphlets, White Books, newspapers, magazines and what not. But the other day I met one of the best-known American journalists over here. He told me that in the course of some recent public opinion survey nine out of ten average American citizens, when asked whether they believed that the Nazis commit atrocities, answered that it was all propaganda lies, and that they didn’t believe a word of it.
As to this country, I have been lecturing now for three years to the troops and their attitude is the same. They don’t believe in concentration camps, they don’t believe in the starved children of Greece, in the shot hostages of France, in the mass-graves of Poland; they have never heard of Lidice, Treblinka or Belzec; you can convince them for an hour, then they shake themselves, their mental self-defence begins to work and in a week the shrug of incredulity has returned like a reflex temporarily weakened by a shock.
Clearly all this is becoming a mania with me and my like. Clearly we must suffer from some morbid obsession, whereas the others are healthy and normal. But the characteristic symptom of maniacs is that they lose contact with reality and live in a phantasy world. So, perhaps, it is the other way round: perhaps it is we, the screamers, who react in a sound and healthy way to the reality which surrounds us, whereas you are the neurotics who totter about in a screened phantasy world because you lack the faculty to face the facts. Were it not so, this war would have been avoided, and those murdered within sight of your day-dreaming eyes would still be alive.
I said: perhaps, because obviously the above can only be half the truth. There have been screamers at all times-Prophets, Preachers, Teachers and Cranks, cursing the obtuseness of their contemporaries, and the situation-pattern remained very much the same. There are always the screamers screaming from the thicket and the people who pass by on the road. They have ears but hear not, they have eyes but see not. So the roots of this must lie deeper than mere obtuseness.
Is it perhaps the fault of the screamers? Sometimes no doubt, but I do not believe this to be the core of the matter. Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah were pretty good propagandists and yet they failed to shake their people and to warn them. Cassandra’s voice was said to have pierced walls, and yet the Trojan war took place. And at our end of the chain–in due proportion–I believe that on the whole the M.O.I. and B.B.C. are quite competent at their job. For almost three years they had to keep this country going on nothing but defeats, and they succeeded. But at the same time they lamentably failed to imbue the people with anything approaching a full awareness of what it was all about, of the grandeur and horror of the time into which they were born. They carried on business-as-usual style, with the only difference that the routine of this business included killing and being killed.
Matter-of-fact unimaginativeness has become a kind of Anglo-Saxon racial myth; it is usually opposed to Latin hysterics and praised for its high value in an emergency. But the myth does not say what happens between emergencies and that the same quality is responsible for the failure to prevent their recurrence.
Now this limitation of awareness is not an Anglo-Saxon privilege, though they are probably the only race which claims as an asset what others regard as a deficiency. Nor is it a matter of temperament; stoics have wider horizons than fanatics. It is a psychological fact, inherent in our mental frame, which I believe has not been given sufficient attention in social psychology or political theory. We say, “I believe this,” or, “I don’t believe that,” “I know it,” or “I don’t know. it”; and regard these as black-and-white altematives. Now in reality both “knowing” and “believing” have varying degrees of intensity. I know that there was a man called Spartacus who led the Roman slaves into revolt; but my belief in his one-time existence is much paler than that of, say Lenin.
I believe in spiral nebulae, can see them in a telescope and express their distance in figures; but they have a lower degree of reality for me than the inkpot on my table. Distance in space and time degrades intensity of awareness. So does magnitude. Seventeen is a figure which I know intimately like a friend; fifty billions is just a sound. A dog run over by a car upsets our emotional balance and digestion; three million Jews killed in Poland cause but a moderate uneasiness. Statistics don’t bleed; it is the detail which counts. We are unable to embrace the total process with our awareness; we can only focus on little lumps of reality.
So far all this is a matter of degrees; of gradations in the intensity of knowing and believing. But when we pass the realm of the finite and are faced with words like eternity in time, infinity of space, that is, when we approach the sphere of the Absolute, our reaction ceases to be a matter of degrees and becomes different in quality. Faced with the Absolute, understanding breaks down, and our “knowing” and “believing” become pure lip-service.
Death, for instance, belongs to the category of the Absolute and our belief in it is merely a lip-service belief. “I know” that, the average statistical age being about 65, I may reasonably expect to live no more than another 2.7 years, but if I knew for certain that I should die on November 30, 1970, at 5 A.M., I would be poisoned by this knowledge, count and recount the remaining days and hours, grudge myself every wasted minute, in other words develop a neurosis. This has nothing to do with hopes to live longer than the average; if the date were fixed ten years later, the neurosis-forming process would remain the same.
Thus we all live in a state of split consciousness. There is a tragic plane and a trivial plane, which contain. two mutually incompatible kinds of experienced knowledge. Their climate and language are as different as Church Latin from business slang.
These limitations of awareness account for the limitations of enlightenment by propaganda. People go to cinemas, they see films of Nazi tortures, of mass-shootings, of underground conspiracy and self-sacrifice. They sigh, they shake their heads, some have a good cry. But they do not connect it with the realities of their normal plane of existence. It is Romance, it is Art, it is Those Higher Things, it is Church Latin. It does not click with reality. We live in a society of the Jekyll and Hyde pattern, magnified into gigantic proportions.
This was, however, not always the case to the same extent. There were periods and movements in history-in Athens, in the early Renaissance, during the first years of the Russian Revolution-when at least certain representative layers of society had attained a relatively high level of mental integration; times, when people seemed to rub their eyes and come awake, when their cosmic awareness seemed to expand, when they were “contemporaries” in a much broader and fuller sense; when the trivial and the cosmic planes seemed on the point of fusing.
And there were periods of disintegration and dissociation. But never before, not even during the spectacular decay of Rome and Byzantium, was split thinking so palpably evident, such a uniform mass-disease; never did human psychology reach such a height of phoneyness. **Our awareness seems to shrink in direct ratio as communications expand; the world is open to us as never before, and we walk about as prisoners, each in his private portable cage. **And meanwhile the watch goes on ticking. What can the screamers do but go on screaming, until they get blue in the face?
I know one who used to tour this country addressing meetings, at an average of ten a week. He is a well-known London publisher. Before each meeting he used to lock himself up in a room, close his eyes, and imagine in detail, for twenty minutes, that he was one of the people in Poland who were killed. One day he tried to feel what it was like to be suffocated by chloride gas in a death-train; the other he had to dig his grave with two hundred others and then face a machine gun, which, of course, is rather unprecise and capricious in its aiming. Then he walked out to the platform and talked. He kept going for a full year before he collapsed with a nervous breakdown. He had a great command of his audiences and perhaps he has done some good, perhaps he brought the two planes, divided by miles of distance, an inch closer to each other.
I think one should imitate this example. Two minutes of this kind of exercise per day, with closed eyes, after reading the morning paper, are at present more necessary to us than physical jerks and breathing the Yogi way. It might even be a substitute for going to church. For as long as there are people on the road and victims in the thicket, divided by dream barriers, this will remain a phoney civilisation.