Tolstoy and the Master Race

I have reached the chapters of Tolstoy’s War and Peace after the Battle of Borodino.  The Russian army is retreating beyond Moscow, and the city is being left to the invading French.  Napoleon’s triumphal entry will be his undoing.  Tolstoy tells us that just as a pouring water on earth leaves no earth and no water, but only mud, just so did the flooding in of the French army leave no city, and no army.  Empty Moscow absorbed the army as sand absorbs water.  The army was destroyed as soon as it dispersed into the empty quarters of Moscow, and it became a disorganized, undisciplined, looting horde: the city burned.

Tolstoy does not blame the French for burning the city, nor does he credit ardent, or fanatical, Russian patriots.  Rather, he says that it was inevitable that Moscow would burn.  An empty city, built of wood, inhabited by an invading army, an army that casually piles furniture in squares to make bonfires – such a city was sure to disappear in flames.  Chicago did the same later in the century as a result of one cow kicking over a lantern!

In the early period of the occupation, Pierre has a fascinating encounter with a French officer commandeering the villa he is resting in.  The officer, a handsome and vain young man from a noble family, enters the house and beings surveying the rooms to make arrangements.  One of the Russian inhabitants is a gentleman acquaintance of Pierre’s who is old and mentally ill, even delusional.  The man tries to shoot the Frenchman, and Pierre instinctively protects him, wresting the gun from his friend.   He begs the officer not to punish the man who is clearly not in his right mind.

The conquering officer is magnanimous.  He declares that Pierre, who has saved his life, is now a Frenchman.  Tolstoy comments that this man could imagine nobody but a Frenchman being capable of any such heroism.  The officer is quite talkative, and even charming, while also pompous, noble (in the manner of the French we are told by Tolstoy), and completely unaware of the nature of the people around him.  He is so wrapped up in his dream of French gloire, his love of Napoleon, and his joy in the victory of which he has been a part, that he imagines that people are just what he thinks they are.

The officer resembles Tolstoy’s Napoleon in his self-absorbtion, but what struck me was that his behavior and attitudes were the same as those who would conquer France in another 130 years, the Nazis.  This invading French army saw itself as the master race, coming to distribute, in a condescending and benevolently despotic manner, the fruits of their superior and admirable civilization.  The tone of the officer’s talk prefigures speeches by pompous, arrogant, brutal Nazis declaring the benefits of the Reich that they are bringing to their victims.  Its self-satisfaction and ignorance would be its destruction.

With the benefits of 130 years of pseudo-science, the Nazis were able to refine this outlook to the point that many of those they conquered were classified as sub-human, and suitable for burning or mass slaughter.  The French were still in the throes of the Romantic Age.

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6 Responses to Tolstoy and the Master Race

  1. Although the Nazi view that those they conquered were in comparison to themselves sub-human was, to put it mildly, extreme, I wonder whether it’s not the case that feelings of this nature, in some form or other, accompany any conquest. For people do justify their acts: the justification can be – as with the Nazis – grotesque, but unless people feel that what they are doing is in some way justified, they won’t do it. Is that too simplistic, I wonder?

    For instance, the British subjugation of India was justified for many by the idea that the Indians were essentially an uncivilised and barbaric people incapable of ruling themselves. This, essentially, was the view of James Mill (father of John Stuart Mill), whose history of India was considered for decades to be the standard history of the country (even though Mill had never been to India, and did not even know any Indian language). Such ideas were widely and openly expressed, especially after the Mutiny, which was seen as proof of the essential savagery of the Indian peoples. Dickens even advocated slaughter! And even the more moderate and liberal views continued to insist that the the Indians, fine people though they may be, were essentially simple and childlike, and needed to be ruled and guided by a more advanced civilisation for their own good: this was very much Kipling’s viewpoint, for instance.

    I appreciate this is not the whole story: there were many Western scholars as well who found in the arts and literatures of India a civilisation comparable to that of the Ancient Greeks for sophistication of thought and of culture. But on the whole, people did need to find some sort of justification for their actions: if India were to be considered a nation on an equal footing to Britain, then subjugation of India would be morally unacceptable; so the only way to justify subjugating India was to see one’s own self as a civilising force. Kipling even coined the expression “White Man’s Burden” – with its extraordinary implication that Britain was not actually benefiting from its empire, but was continuing with it merely out of a sense of moral duty.

    Once we bring some nuances into such crude arguments, we may even find some element of truth in all this. Magnificent though India’s cultural achievements have been, by the time the East india Company started taking control, those cultures had become static, and, in many cases, had begun to degenerate. Many Bengali intellectuals and reformers of the 19th century (Ram Mohun Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Rabindranath Tagore) actually felt that contact with Western culture had actually been required to revitalise India culturally, and that the Raj, for all its oppressions and iniquities (after all, no empire has ever been run for the benefit of the conquered!) was not, at least to begin with, necessarily a bad thing.

    All this is pretty crude – as any summary of so vast an area of history must necessarily be. But looking through this history, it does seem to me that conquerors will inevitably justify their actions to themselves in some way or other. The French officer whom Pierre encounters is a civilised and refined man: the only way such a man could agree to being part of an invasion and of subjugation of another nation would have been to convince himself that this was a good thing; and the only way he could think this to be a good thing would be to believe that the French were bringing civilisation to Russia. And even here, he may not have been entirely wrong: Russian society was a harsh and cruel society that, at the time, still paractised slavery. In comparison, I think the French could claim, with at least some right (Napoleon did, after all, re-introduce slavery in the French West Indian colonies), to be more civilised.

  2. Lichanos says:

    Yes, I agree with you mostly. I didn’t mean to imply that the French were unique. Certainly, the British were just as bad or worse during their Pax period. (Andrew Young, during the Carter years here, famously remarked in the 1970s that the British invented racism.) And true, people doing evil usually find a way to convince themselves that they are doing good.

    Personally, its seems to me you are too easy on the Brits. And might one not argue that the essence of evil is harming others simply to serve one’s own needs? And the self-justification is all part of that…

  3. Guy Savage says:

    Turgenev’s initial reaction to War and Peace:
    “to me this is a truly bad, boring failure of a novel.”

    Later when Turgenev and Tolstoy had more-or-less buried the hatchet (and not in each other’s heads), Turgenev said it was ‘worthy of survival.’ The first is a direct quote, the second a quote from Troyat.

  4. [...] posted an interesting bit on racism in War and Peace. Despite my interest in military history and time spent as an aspiring [...]

  5. [...] Sunday, January 9th, 2011 | Category: Musings (Illustration found here). [...]

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