In his book-length essay The Rebel famous French author and philosopher Albert Camus mainly deals with one of the most characteristic and disturbing incongruities of the 20th century which, as we are all well aware of, became even more distinct in the period after Camus’s death; namely, the strange combination of the civil rights movements rising across the world and, simultaneously, the emergence of a great number of totalitarian regimes performing unspeakable atrocities in the name of humanism, greater good, better future for the entire mankind and so on.
According to him, it doesn’t mean that the ages past have been marked by peace and harmony; but in these times, indeed, “mind did not reel before such unabashed crimes, and the judgment remained unclouded” (Camus 3), for the tyrants of the past were, if nothing else, ingenuous – if they were enslaving, massacring and torturing thousands and millions of people, they did it in their own name and for the sake of personal gain; they did not try to present their actions as leading to the greater good, peace among all nations and unity of mankind. They acted for the sake of their own power and glory, and it was normal, and it was understandable.
The 20th century, however, shows us an entirely different picture. There are virtually no tyrants of the older types, the ones set on the attainment of greater glory and immortality for themselves; and the closer they are to that type, the worse they fare as a result. Truly successful and powerful dictators are those who present themselves as prophets bringing the will of supernatural entities into this world; the difference between them and the prophets of the past is that they serve not gods, but the World Revolution, or the Aryan Race, or something else; and, according to them, the triumph of these entities is to bring endless prosperity, happiness and harmony to everyone; so isn’t it natural that it is alright to kill, enslave and torture in the name of such a high ideal?
However, come to think about it, there is nothing entirely new about it – the word “prophets” gives us the key to understanding. If we look into the past, we will see that there were virtually no leaders who led their people to perform atrocities of any kind just because they wanted to; there is always a comely pretext, the only difference is that in the past this pretext was not human rights or universal harmony, but the will of gods, or quest for a greater glory not only for the ruler but for all who follow him, or patriotism. The thing is, the majority of people consider themselves to be “good” and feel awkward in the very least if they have to kill and torture other people just because their leader wants it. But persuade them that they are doing it because it is their duty to the country, or to the gods, or to something else – and they will perform the most horrendous crimes without as much as turning a hair. Neither German Nazis nor warriors of Genghis Khan did what they did because they considered themselves evil; they did it because they had goals and ideas that outweighed by far all the gruesomeness of their actions. For the Germans it was the prevalence of the Aryan race, for the Mongols it was glory and honor; both got some material gain, but the idea of this gain on its own would have never made such vast amounts of people to systematically kill, maim and conquer. Of course the Nazis have been much more sophisticated in their approach; but it is simply because the Germans of the 20th centuries were more sophisticated than the Mongols of the 12th century.
If we look at the issue from this angle, it is clear that the attention that the 20th century pays to the civil rights is not at all incongruous with the appearance of totalitarian states. People who are no longer ready to believe in the seemingly old-fashioned and outdated gods seem to be quite at ease with the idea of sacrificing their fellow men to supernatural entities of other kind, the ones that do not seem to be supernatural at all: the state, the nation, the agenda, the idea. And it seems that the tyrants understand it, either on a conscious or subconscious level, and behave accordingly. Even the dictators that quite clearly have nothing but power and personal gain on their minds seem to feel obliged to keep up appearances and carry out mock trials, conduct “democratic” elections, deliver high-flown speeches on the protection of human rights and so on. It shows us the idea that permeates the entire world: if I do something for the sake of a greater ideal, nobody can blame me for being in the wrong. Social and economical stability, humane society and freedom are ends great enough to justify any kinds of means used on the way of attaining them. Another reason to believe in this explanation is that humanism, liberty and similar goals seem to be popular almost exclusively in traditionally Christian countries which during the last couple of centuries became exceedingly secularized. The totalitarian regimes in Muslim world seem to be far less concerned with civil rights as the goal for their activities – simply because the religion in these states generally plays a far greater role than it does in the West, and their leaders simply don’t need new gods as long as the belief in the old one is still strong and growing.
Thus, in my opinion, it is only natural that totalitarian states in the 20th century took to including humanistic ideals in their agendas. There is nothing exactly new behind the principle as it is, although this particular combination may seem to be particularly disturbing and horrifying; but, if you think about it, not more disturbing and horrifying than the cruelties performed in the name of God or country. And the very fact that modern dictators feel obliged to appear as servants of the civil right shows only one thing – if they consider it to be an effective tool in controlling the minds and bodies of their followers, this notion must be very important for the modern human indeed, as important as any other gods or ideas used as the tool of control in the past. It is ironical, but it is true – as long as totalitarian states claim to be striving for humane society, we can know that humanism still means something in this world.
Camus, Albert. The Rebel. Trans. Anthony Bower. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1991. Print