Ex-KGB, ex-communists and other exes
I have to admit to a weakness: a general distrust of certain groups of people en masse. This even though I believe that individuals ought to be judged as just that, individuals.
People, I’ve often written, retain the freedom of choice, and their behaviour can’t be explained mostly, and never merely, by their group identity.
This freedom is the most valuable of our possessions, and firm belief in it precludes determinism of any kind, be it national, cultural or biological. Corollary to this is the realisation that even after the choice has been made people remain free. They can in due course opt for a different or even opposite choice, renouncing their past.
This is in theory. In practice, certain choices may taint a person for life, springing as they do from horrendous character flaws. For example, a chap who in his youth made lampshades out of Treblinka inmates is beyond salvation, in this world at any rate.
This judgment may be too cruel, and I may be too vengeful a man. Be that as it may, I simply wouldn’t be able to shake the lampshade-maker’s hand even if in the intervening 70 years he has become an upstanding pillar of society, a multiple and doting great-grandfather and a lifelong member of his church’s PCC.
Now what about those who had told him that turning people into household items was both desirable and commendable? Those who had systematically and deliberately corrupted his mind and soul, dredging evil longings out of the far recesses of his personality and encouraging him to indulge them? I’m afraid my answer would be the same, even if they eventually got to profess enthusiasm for free markets, democracy and lampshades made of less exotic fabrics.
It’s a reasonable bet that most people will agree with me on that. It’s even a safer bet that, if I replaced ex-Nazi with ex-Communist functionaries in my hypothetical example, my support would shrink even among those who know that the Communists out-murdered the Nazis six to one in Russia alone.
This is most unfortunate. True, many Eastern Europeans joined the Party or its offshoots simply to get a better job, and this was as far as it went. Other than the actual act of joining they never did anything reprehensible, and their guilt is only that by association. They can’t become ex-Communists in any meaningful sense because they never were real communists in the first place.
Yet there are those who actively pursued careers within the party or its muscular extension, the secret police. Here we’re talking about a totally different human type, especially in my generation or the next one.
If before the war a Russian asked to cooperate with the secret police had a choice only between accepting or dying, after Stalin’s death it was possible to say no without suffering any repercussions, certainly not fatal ones. Hence actively seeking a career in the Party or the KGB betokened an irredeemably amoral and corrupt individual, scum of the earth.
That’s why I’d describe someone like Vladimir Putin in those terms even if I didn’t know that he’s running a fascist state in which KGB officers like him have fused with the criminal underworld to form the ruling elite. I’d regard him as evil even if I didn’t know that he represents a clear and present danger to everything I hold dear.
Mind you, Putin isn’t trying very hard to get in my good books. Not only has he not renounced his KGB career, but he’s proud of it. ‘There’s no such thing as ex-KGB,’ he once said. ‘This is for life.’ In his speeches, especially those designed for internal consumption, he screams zoological hatred for the West and everything it stands for, which is a trademark of his sponsoring outfit and the party that had spawned it.
Angela Merkel is a different matter. She is regarded by most people, even those who don’t care much about either Germany or the EU, as a mainstream Western politician.
Those who care about such things know that she grew up in East Germany where she belonged to FDJ (Free German Youth), a communist organisation. By itself, they correctly assume, that’s no big deal: most Eastern European youngsters had to belong to such groups. Holding this against her would be like holding his Hitlerjugend past against the outgoing Pope.
However, Merkel wasn’t just any old member. Angie Kasner, as she then was, was a member of an FDJ district committee, and its secretary for Agitprop. That, ladies and gentlemen, brands her as someone rotten to the core. Later she claimed that she had only been secretary for culture and, when caught in that lie, complained about bad memory. Amnesia is more like it. In any case, either post was nomenklatura, and one didn’t get there without doing a Faustian deal.
Frau Merkel, no longer Kamerad Kasner, became an enthusiast for political pluralism only in 1989, when the Wall came down. Until then, and she was 35 at the time, she hadn’t had a blot on her Communist reputation, which means she had an indelible one on her character.
Nothing but hypertrophied opportunism? Possibly, and this trait stands her in good stead in democratic politics, as it has become in the West.
Fair enough, she wasn’t exactly a lampshade maker. But for many years she was morally indistinguishable from those who a decade before her birth would have provided inspiration for this handicraft.
Perhaps it’s time we adjusted the scale of our moral judgment, preferably upwards. This may improve our political judgment as well.