War and Violence I
"If ordinary men can learn to kill,"
asks Andriy Portnov, "who cannot?"
Our speaker today, Andriy Portnov, is a historian from a Ukrainian city called Dnipro(petrovsk) and intends on finishing a book about the place. He reminds us that you can't write a history about any city in East Europe without writing a history of violence. When the Donbas conflict started in 2014 it was another moment of crisis for him: I mean, why? Why does this happen – how is it even possible?

So he started studying, and of course there's a logic behind things. And he will be giving us three lectures over the next three days trying to give us a framework for concepts like violence, genocide, war, all these complicated hobbies. But nowhere does he promise to stick to script.

It sounds like the beginning of a joke: Einstein wrote to Freud once. but it happened, and he ask how we might be able to stop war. Freud wrote back that he felt there had to be one big centralized power, a Leviathan as it were, to keep the peace between nations. He might have been joking (maybe?) but then posited that people have a creative force (obviously he called it erotic) and a destructive one (he identified it as aggression) and you can't work either of them out of the human person. And so much of life is in the interplay. So you can't just drop one of them completely.

Then there are folks who thought that perhaps by educating the proper elites we could have a peaceful world. But this was a bit naive.

Then there are folks like Clausewitz, the author of a nineteenth-century 'Art of War' successor called 'On War'. For him, war is an "act of violence which has an application that knows no limits." So when one decides to go to war, it has to be played through to the end. It can also be interpreted that it's really easy to start a war but hard to end it.

These are digressions, Andriy admits, but even definitions of violence itself aren't always the same. We're sitting in a tension and a struggle that people have occupied for millenia. He asks us to define it for ourselves: some say it's an imposition of will, or the objectification of the other, creating hierarchical structures, using force, using domination, etc.

Any definition, he reminds us, should be used in context. Because every definition by nature leaves something out. And that's dangerous. But that's also human, so we have to work with different lenses and ways of approaching it.

In the past there was the thought that violence is exclusively physical – there wasn't recognition of other types (mental, social, sexual, etc). Max Weber, one famous thinker, says that any form of dominance relies on the legitimate use of violence – think of the police as an expression of legitimate violence. Then there are groups outside the law, say in Ukraine today, that take upon themselves the ability to act. Or think Batman.

There's also the thought that no society in history has been based on non-violence – social order contains the necessary task of restraining violence, often by having the state hold a monopoly on it. And the weakness or absence of a legitimate monopoly on violence is perhaps an opportunity that lets mass violence spread. You could also obviously have the conversation about what legitimacy is, but that goes down an interesting rabbit hole that doesn't reflect the reality of the social systems that we live in ("But ask – why not!" he says).So, returning to the theme, where does violence come from?(not that there's an easy answer – this is basically what we spent six weeks processing at PRIO and all we get are more questions)

There's a popular thought that wars come out of big differences among people living together, that we're somehow incompatible sometimes. But some thinkers have a bit of a different opinion.
Intolerance of groups is often, strangely enough, exhibited more strongly against small difference than against fundamental ones.
The threat to identity comes from what is closest.
Girard: it is not differences but the lack of them that gives rise to violence.
The fiercest struggles often take place between individuals, groups and communities that differ very little.
So you can see where he's going with this one. Before the war, East European states were multi-ethnic. After the war deportations made everything more homogenous. We lived for centuries together, the argument goes, and there wasn't constant war. The only time when Poland was more than 80% Polish was after WWII.

Another example: in Imperial Russia, 19th century Jews thought to integrate a bit more into modern Russian society. This act of getting closer, according to Andriy for reasons too long for our lecture, created a cultural anxiety that led to huge pogroms against them. They were trying to be too similar, more Russian than Russians, and sometimes getting closer is more dangerous than being separate. The Rwandan genocide has also been spoken of in these terms (he says, though I haven't heard it): they're getting too close, they're damaging our purity.
Tangent: There's been a lot of talk about the Stanford experiment, where a researcher created a mock-prison and assigned students to be guards and prisoners. He recorded super-brutality emerging from the guards and concluded that we're all these monsters. It turned out that a lot of the experiment was a bit of a fake. But it turns out you didn't even need that experiment to prove his point. Because we already had Reserve Police Battalion 101.
Police battalion 101 was a German brigade brought from Hamburg to East Europe with the exclusive mission of killing Jews. They weren't SS members or even Nazi party members, they could even refuse if they found it too distasteful. They were the B-team. Go to the forests, they were told, bring the Jews and don't worry about camps, or ghettos. Just do it right then and there. Please start. And they did – the majority of the victims were women, kids, old rabbis, people like this. We have their names. They were explained their task and 'ordinary' men turned into executioners. When people speak about the facts, they often mention wartime brutalization, racism, segmentation/routinization of the task of killing, the special selection of members, careerism, obedience to orders, ideological indoctrination, conformity.

After the war, they were brought to court and asked to explain what they did and why they did it – many of them tried giving the excuse that they were giving the Jews a quick death, as compared to the horrors they'd face at the hands of Polish anti-semitics. They legit said that.

There were Polish anti-semitics, it must be said. And they were paid to be informers – but there are potentially other incentives for locals to give up Jews. Status under the new regime, for example, or pre-existing hatred. People tried helping Jews escape and when they were caught they were killed along with their families. So folks back then had a choice.

So the thought goes, if reserve police battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of people cannot? And you have records of them (again, from Hamburg) going through the Polish forest, finding Jews, hearing them speak Yiddish. Yiddish is quite close to German – in Germany these guys were told that Polish Jews were probably subhuman, incomprehensible, and here they were speaking a kind of German. Enough for hesitation. They were probably still killed anyway.

And then, when all this violence plays itself out, as Clausewitz suggested, then you still have to deal with all the remaining people. Perpetrators too. So do you put them on trial, or were they just following orders? What about the women involved – do they say they were forced to by their husbands? There were some who claimed this – they were seen shooting people for fun (family outing, I suppose). In the Donbas case the Minsk agreement suggests amnesty for people who didn't commit war crimes, but even that document isn't binding. Just push the peace through, some say, just let us stop killing each other. Everything else can wait. Everything else has to wait.

Others worry that amnesty is a kind of forgetting. Others, namely perpetrators, live in fear that the matter will be opened up again. That the lack of loved ones taken away, or limbs, will be a reminder of issues not put to rest. But maybe that's what the next war's for.