01-06-2011 - Traces, n. 6


After the American blitz, the elimination of the enemy, and the joy in the streets, what remains now of the news that occupied front pages all over the world for days? We asked EUGENIO CORTI, the great historical writer who has recounted the crimes (and pain) of the twentieth century. In response, he spoke of justice, of the devil, and of a hope that extends across the centuries.


Eugenio Corti approaches with small steps, his right hand gripping the cane that he always uses, his left hand holding a book. It is not The Red Horse, in the recent Dutch translation of this masterpiece. It is the work of an American historian, Daniel Goldhagen, who, about fifteen years ago, won a certain fame for his Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. This new book is entitled Worse Than War. It is surprising to find it in the hand of one of the greatest Italian writers, who set most of his own work in wartime settings. The Red Horse–1,300 pages ignored by the critics but hailed by readers (with 27 editions, 200,000 copies, translations in 8 languages, and a committee working for the Nobel Prize in Literature for him)–made Corti one of the great intellectuals of the twentieth century. The work is a Manzonian fresco of 30 years of history in which the Supernatural, as he calls it, gives meaning to human vicissitudes, a work that forced him to go down "to the root of evil," as he said when he received the 2000 Catholic Culture Award.
"The theme you proposed, evil and history, is enormous, beautiful," exclaims Corti, who turned 90 in February and has witnessed many horrors, among them Fascism, the ferocity of Nazism and Communism, the world conflict that closed with atomic apocalypse, and the years of terrorism. His work covers them all. The century that gleaned more deaths than any in human history has closed, but all that evil has not been metabolized: the new millennium opened with the butchery of September 11th organized by Osama bin Laden. After ten years, the American streets filled with people celebrating the killing of the organizer, and a few hours later, everything seemed over already.
That's just the point: there is something worse than war.
After a decade's work, Goldgagen came to the conviction that the greatest troubles of history, and in particular of our age, are the mass slaughters, the systematic murders. His book is highly documented, even excessively so in its detail. This macabre accounting in plain terms paints a ghastly portrait of the twentieth century: in war, 61 million people died, 42 million of whom were military and 19 million of whom were civilians. Instead, the systematic massacres during the century killed between 127 and 175 million people.

You wrote Processo e morte di Stalin [Trial and Death of Stalin], a play where you defined Stalin as "an instrument of the devil." Is bin Laden, too, a hypostasis of evil?
Over the course of history, there have been people who incarnated the presence of evil. There is goodness that attracts people, and evil that also attracts them. Each era, since antiquity, has taught that human beings live the attraction of good and that of evil. Where evil has taken root, the history of humankind has experienced mass murders. It must be acknowledged that these murders, perpetrated intentionally, have been more devastating than the wars. The killing is done directly, or with forced death marches, or with hunger and hardship, like the Chinese farmers starved by the regime. Nonetheless, in analogous situations, analogous massacres have not been observed. Why? Goldhagen raises the question but has no answer.

What answer do you give?
Certain SS units were not ordered to kill Jews, but sought to kill them all the same. The Ethiopian dictator Manghistu overflowed with enthusiasm when he taught his men the violence to use in fighting the old imperial regime. There's the pleasure in doing evil. You can be happy to kill. For me, these are people possessed by evil; it is the demonic impulse that continues to make itself known and that drags down many.
And yet, it is not just these major figures of evil who rejoice. The Americans gathered in the streets, euphoric at the killing of bin Laden. The voice of the Church was one of the few raised to warn against exulting over the death of a man.
The Americans were greatly humiliated by September 11th. They were struck to the heart. They identified the guilty one and went to punish him. In order to punish the guilty, they had to do a kind of surprise attack, judging by the little they have let us know about it. On the one hand, there is enthusiasm because the person responsible was castigated, and in a certain sense it is a redressing of law.

As President Obama said, "justice has been done"…
But, on the other hand, there is the pleasure of killing someone who almost didn't defend himself. A kind of negative retaliation: you committed a great wrong against me, and so I bump you off. It's mistaken. That episode united the desire to find the guilty person, which is positive, and the desire for revenge against a criminal. As happens often in human things, there is a mixture of good and evil. In a certain sense, the Americans did well to make him pay, because butchers need to learn that at a certain point they pay; but killing always brings with it other killings, reprisals, threats of new massacres. We are here swaying between good and evil.

Do you think that human justice is always a partial attempt?
It is a justice that can be done with a different soul.The satisfaction in killing the adversary is not true justice. It is a new injustice.

Human freedom always plays a fundamental role; you can never reduce everything to the circumstances.
The Christian vision of humanity best explains this drama. The abandonment of God multiplies the horrors. In past centuries, there weren't so many massacres as bloody as those in the twentieth century. The reason is that the last century was the most de-Christianized of history. The systematic de-Christianization that developed from the 1500s onwards took hold above all in two great nations at the avant-garde of modernity, even if they are very different from each other: Germany and Russia. Hitler and Stalin were very similar beasts. From the numeric point of view, the Russians killed more people–they started first and had more time. But from the point of view of radicality, the Germans were worse.

Many other exterminations are little known. A very important example is the genocide of the Armenians in Turkey at the beginning of the twentieth century.
First, many of those Christians were shot; survivors were deported and during the death marches an even greater number perished. In Europe, judging by the number of deaths, the most bloody genocide was that of the Russian peasants, perpetrated by the Bolsheviks by artificial famine in the 1920s and 1930s.
When I went there during the war, between 1941 and 1942, there were still reverberations. I had chosen the Russian front; I wanted to learn about that reality because I wanted to be a Christian writer and also tell about the experience of a-Christianity.

What do those tragic stories remind us of?
In each zone I crossed, from the Ukraine to the land of the Cossacks, I saw and heard of the same cruelties repeated. I recorded everything, filling two notebooks, which I then destroyed during the retreat in the valley of Arbusov, so that they would not fall into the wrong hands. Above all, I did not understand why the Communists had killed so many. In Italy, the Fascists took power by killing only a score or so; maybe a hundred. In Russia, the population was five times more numerous and in proportion the Bolsheviks would have had to kill about five hundred or a thousand. What sense did it make to exterminate millions and millions? Now I am afraid that those realities can present themselves again. There is no recovery underway.
In fact, as Pope John Paul II pointed out in 2002, at the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, there was, among Catholics themselves, a generational interruption, such that the process of transmission of moral and religious values between generations was interrupted. Not only that, but the Christians, who should be the ones to work for recovery, are half here and half there, engaged in annulling each other's efforts.
Is the drama of Christians the lack of unity?
Worse: it's open conflict.

What lies before us, in your opinion?
The memory of the past disquiets me.
When I was a high school student on the eve of the war, we had absolutely no idea of the catastrophe that was about to befall us. We are in the same situation: it could be that these small revolutions in the Mediterranean Arab countries, with the decisive support of Turkey, will strike Israel, which will have to defend itself using nuclear weapons. This danger was forewarned in the world of Transcendence a few years ago–I am alluding to the apparitions of 1968 of the Madonna of Zeitoun in Egypt, in another very delicate moment of history.

You have a providential vision of history.
I have witnessed in the course of my long life some great providential interventions of the Supernatural, two of which were done by Our Lady. In short: the salvation of the last 50,000 to 60,000 Polish soldiers who survived the Soviet lagers, were freed, and were invited to combat Nazism in Italy, all of whom, without exception, declared that they were convinced that their salvation was due to the intervention of their Lady of Jasna Gora. And the other miracle, much more striking, was the sudden disappearance of Communism from Russia, after John Paul II consecrated the nation to Our Lady. For this reason, in reference to the problem of Israel, my thought runs to Zeitoun. In conclusion, historical reality does not only contain the tremendous military massacres, and the even greater tremendous mass murders produced by hatred, which we spoke of, but also the great interventions of Providence in favor of humanity, that were equally real. Here lies the foundation of my hope.