A Short Reflection on Violence


from Neil

In an article about just war theory published last year in Theological Studies, the Franciscan theologian Kenneth Himes writes that moral theologians are now talking about a “jus post bellum” – a “set of moral norms to govern the way we end war.” These norms would include an offer of “honorable” surrender and “a sense of humility and remorse by the victors for the suffering and death that was brought about even in a just struggle.” Fr Himes suggests that the “jus post bellum” would also include a “principle of restoration.” “This requires, at a minimum, that the victor return to the fields of battle and remove the remaining instruments of war, e.g. land mines. A maximum reading of this principle proposes that the victorious side assist the losing nation(s) in repairing the basic infrastructure of society.” This is easier said than done. I want to reflect on the more intangible effects that violence has on us – psychologically, intellectually, and spiritually. And I want to suggest that meditating on these effects can lead us to share what the US Bishops called “a common presumption against the use of force as a means of settling disputes.”

An example. Many of us read with hope last week that the IRA had announced that it was giving up its armed struggle for a united Ireland. Where did the IRA come from? A recent article by Mary Kenny in the Telegraph might surprise you:

“Sinn Féin – the seedbed of the IRA – was founded 100 years ago, in 1905, and named by a woman, Máire de Bhuitleir. The movement attracted many women because, besides its aspiration for an ‘Irish Ireland,’ it also emphasized education, literature, equality, bicycling, health campaigns (notably against TB), and most significantly, sobriety. One of Sinn Féin’s first slogans was ‘Ireland Sober is Ireland Free!’ and one of its first forays into public life was to voice objections, in 1907, to Synge’s drama, The Playboy of the Western World on the grounds that it was lowering to the national self-esteem to portray Irish peasants as drunks and patricides, when, with Sinn Féin’s help, they were upwardly striving and temperate. In fact, as Harold Wilson said of British socialism – that it owed more to Methodism than to Marx – early Sinn Fein probably owed as much to the Victorian Methodists’ crusades to raise up the proletariat by clean living as it did to the traditions of Fenianism.”

What happened? Violence. Mary Kenny continues:

“In short, Sinn Féin, progenitor of the IRA, was a cultural movement at its inception. It was, in the words of the early IRA writer, P.S. O’Hegarty, ‘a moral movement, ascetic and clean.’ Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, he blamed the First World War for the decline in some of these morals. ‘There came to every combatant nation a moral coarseness, hardness, callousness,’ he wrote in 1924. When the horrors of the trenches spilled over into public consciousness, everyone involved in national movements, he argued, became coarsened and brutal about the value of human life.”

The experience of violence leaves behind a “moral coarseness, hardness, callousness.” We are left receptive to certain ideas and methods, words and images, that can continue to concretely distort our thinking long after the killing stops. As Benjamin Madley of Yale University has written in the most recent European History Quarterly, some of the origins of the Holocaust might be found in South West Africa. The German flag was raised over Namibia in 1884. The Herero then rose up twenty years later and were met with machine guns and cannon. The German commanding officer, General Lothar von Trotha, announced, “I will annihilate the rebelling tribes with rivers of blood and rivers of gold. Only after a complete uprooting will something new emerge.” A majority of the Herero – between 40,000 and 70,000 – were killed. The Germans, of course, were hardly unique in this. The British killed thousands of men, women, and children in what is now Zimbabwe, and ten million Africans were killed or worked to death in the Belgian Congo between 1885 and 1920. Between 1935 and 1939, as Italians killed 250,000 Ethiopians, the Colonial Minister, Alessandro Lessona, mused about an “Ethiopia without Ethiopians.” Now, the Germans would flinch at what was done to the Herero, and General von Trotha was transferred to Germany in November of 1905. The Reichstag would repudiate its imperial policies and wage conventional wars in Africa in the future. There would not be another German genocide for over thirty years. If only the story ended there.

For instance, if only the word “Lebensraum” could have been stricken from the language. The geographer Friedrich Ratzel had expanded on the importance of “living space” to defend German expansion into South West Africa. Europeans, Ratzel coldly wrote, would inevitably destroy “inferior” peoples to acquire “living space,” and he had the demographic statistics to prove it – Aboriginal Australians, northern Asians, Polynesians, North Americans, South Americans, and Southern Africans had all been decimated. Rudolf Hess would visit a young Hitler in prison to discuss Ratzel’s Political Geography as the two wrote Mein Kampf. Mein Kampf declared, “Only an adequate large space on this earth assures a nation freedom of existence.” Some Nazis would be even more explicit about the colonial origins of Lebensraum – the pro-Nazi writer Hans Grimm would speak fondly of his 14 years in Africa in his 1926 book People Without Space, which became a key part of Nazi Lebensraum propaganda.

More generally, the colonial experience, Madley writes, “introduced Germans to routine brutality as part of colonial rule.” He says, “Colonial literature transferred violent, racist concepts to Germany, thus eroding resistance to brutality and providing ideas and methods that the Nazis later expanded.” A 1909 book by Captain Maximilian Bayer displayed horrific photographs, including, believe it or not, one of a native prisoner surrounded by German troops, being held on a leash. A popular postcard showed German soldiers loading a chest with African skulls. The Nazis would later develop a vocabulary very similar to colonial discourse – inferior people were “Sklaven,” and criminal penalties were introduced for “Rassenschande.” The Nazis would establish the “Konzentrationslager,” the first of which had been built in Namibia in 1904. The nature of a “Vernichtungskrieg” (war of annihilation) had even been earlier explored by Germans concerned about the Herero. And government geologist had already written in 1904, “the ‘final solution’ to the native question can only be to break the power of the natives totally and for all time.”

Thirty years separated the two ‘final solutions,’ but, as Professor Madley writes, “It is remarkable that out of a country of 80 million, so many prominent Nazis had direct personal connections to Wilhelmine Namibia.” Hermann Göring’s official Nazi biography tells us that “The inquisitive and imaginative lad was very keenly interested in his father’s campaigning as a Reserve officer in the Wars of 1866 and 1870, but he was even more thrilled by his accounts of his pioneer work as Reich’s Commissar for South-West Africa … and his fights with Maherero, the black King of Okahandja.” General Franz Ritter von Epp, the Governor of Bavaria from 1933 to 1945 who supervised the construction of Dachau, had himself served in Africa fighting the Hereros. As did the racial theorist Eugen Fischer. The Nazis carried on a “love affair” with the African Kaiserreich that was behind the writing of popular novels and films (German Land in Africa, German Planters on Kilimanjaro) that reminded the German people that a brutal German role over sub-humans was in fact quite “normal.” Professor Madley writes, “Pro-Nazi audiences accepted this propaganda because they thought of the African colonial project, and its bloodiest, more populous settler colony – German South West Africa – in admiring, nostalgic terms.” And so they were coarsened.

This might seem like a story of unintended consequences. World War I leads to terrorism in Ireland, the “Scramble for Africa” leads to horrific war and genocide in Europe. But it is also a reminder that the morality of warfare might depend upon the “principle of restoration” – the victor needs to recover a humility and remorse for the suffering and death in war, and has to assist the losing side in repairing the basic infrastructure (including, we might say, the intellectual and spiritual infrastructure) of society. Otherwise, war leaves in its wake a “coarseness, hardness, callousness” that makes terrorism and routine brutality thinkable even years later. If the “principle of restoration” seems impossible, then our “common presumption against the use of force” must be ever the stronger.

The journalist David Ender has reported from Falluja that one or two civilian casualties occur every day in a city of barbed wire and concrete barriers where every street has a pulverized building. “We regard Falluja as a large prison,” says a doctor. “Falluja — death,” says another Iraqi, drawing a finger across his throat. What does this mean? We will have to see. And we must pray.

Comments welcome.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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