WHERE DOES PAIN, rage and guilt go? At the level of the individual human-being, psychologists are confident that they go to the construction of a personality which reflects and all-too-often reproduces these searing experiences.
As the British poet W.H. Auden wrote on the eve of war in September 1939:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
The truth of this bleak observation is borne out in virtually every programme screened on the Crime & Investigation channel of Sky Television. In the back-story behind the most terrible crimes there are almost always harrowing tales of childhood trauma and abuse. As the branch is bent, so grows the tree. Serial killers are not born, they are made.
But what about whole collectivities of human-beings? What about the peoples and nations that have experienced pain, rage and guilt? Where does it go?
At this moment our television screens are filled with stories featuring Ukrainians and Russians. Over the course of the past century, both of these peoples have endured almost unbelievable levels of pain, rage and guilt. It stretches credulity well beyond its breaking-point to suggest that what happened between the outbreak of the First World War and the end of the Second did not leave its mark on both Russia and Ukraine.
The deliberate creation of famine in Ukraine by the Soviet government of Russia is estimated to have led directly to the deaths of between 3 and 7 million people – most of them peasant farmers.
The details of this political crime, almost too awful to read, have been compiled by historian Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.
Those fortunate enough to live in Ukraine’s towns and cities did not die in anything like the same numbers. But their survival came at a price. They were forbidden by the Communist Party commissars from feeding the skeletal creatures that appeared like wraith’s in their streets and squares. They died where they fell, were loaded on to trucks, and buried under cover of darkness in mass graves.
What does that do to people? Where do the emotions stirred up by such behaviour go?
A partial answer to that question came in 1941 when the Wehrmacht rolled across the Soviet border into Ukraine. Hundreds-of-thousands of Ukrainian nationalists collaborated with the German invaders. It was the local knowledge of these Ukrainians which allowed the German Einsatzgruppen to round up and kill their communist neighbours.
Seeking retribution from those they held responsible for the needless deaths of family and friends is, at least, comprehensible. But the ferocity with which Ukrainians fell upon their Jewish compatriots is beyond rational explanation. Only recently has grainy film footage of these 1941 pogroms come to light. It is the stuff of nightmares. The Holocaust had many helpers.
Russians and Ukrainians are not, of course, alone in perpetrating the most heinous of crimes against their neighbours. Like so many others guilty of similar atrocities, however, the perpetrators were required to bury the terrible memories that came with them. Years of silence. Decades of nightmares. Lifetimes of unacknowledged trauma. How can their effects not have bled into the social tissue of the nations involved? A moral gangrene that spread and spreads.
Not only that, but among the many thousands of historical killers were some who actually enjoyed the killing. Deriving pleasure from causing pain and suffering is not information most human-beings are all that eager to share – at least not explicitly. The intergenerational consequences of such psychopathology’s indirect communication can only be guessed at. How have the children of these monsters been spending their emotional inheritance?
For most Westerners, the war unfolding in Ukraine makes no sense. Russians and Ukrainians look the same, speak the same languages, have lived lives that were, until very recently, culturally indistinguishable. Why are they fighting?
The chilling answer is that both sides are commanded by ghosts. It is the unquiet dead, the unpunished crimes, the gagged memories of countless perpetrators and their victims that drive these armies forward. Impulses barely understood, inherited from parents and grandparents who could neither speak about nor forget the horrors they had witnessed or performed.
Two nations to whom great evil has been done are being driven, by dead hands, to do evil in return.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 April 2022.