​Do Not Hate Your Enemy: The Challenge Of The Righteous

Reflections on the recent book by Tzvetan Todorov

Tzvetan Todorov

Tzvetan Todorov

In his recent book Insoumis, Todorov offers usa very original contribution about the Righteous, analysing the pathway not only of those who resist abuse and perform deeds to the rescue of the victims, but are also able – while resisting evil – not to be trapped in the logic of revenge and hate, not to create new enemies.

For those who suffer in the direst straights, in facts – like in lagers, prisons, during persecutions, in the face of violent forms of prejudice and racism – the most difficult challenge is not only to defend their own dignity and the one of the other victims, but also their ability to set an example of a conciled and non violent world while they defend themselves. Very often, instead, suffering can give rise to behaviour that repropose new kinds of persecution in the name of justice. An example of this is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where two peoples victims of injustice feel entitled to carry out actions which damage the others’ rights, and are unable to reach a compromise.

Todorov is instead interested in the pathways of the people who are able to feel compassion for the victims, and at the same time not to hate and instead to rebuild a relationship with their enemies, both to find a conciliation after ethnic and national conflicts and to help the deliverance even of those who followed even the most terrible path. It is important not only to condemn crimes, but also to rehabilitate people, as an opportunity to awaken again their desire of good, also in the worst enemies.

Survivors who hate forever, not only will spend the rest of their lives very gloomily, but could also spark a spirit of revenge able to cause the start of more outbursts of violence. Actually, victory really wins when eventually friendship is rebuilt between the people of victimes and the one of executioners. A blatant example of this was the full assumption of responsibility for the fate of Jews by Germany, that enabled a certain kind of reconciliation between Jews and Germans. Germany today is always in the front line at reporting anti-Semitism, differently from the hostilities that still go on between the Turks and the Armenians.

An effective definitiion of this particular moral attitude was given by the Dalai Lama: “The inner disarmament goes through the reduction of hatred and the promotion of compassion.” The former precept, Todorov noticed, is opposed to the logic of retaliation, fed by resentment and the spirit of revenge; the latter applies not only to the victims that are closet o us, but also to our foes, in order to find again our way to a lasting conflict resolution. Those who follow this logic is usually not the same person who represses evil, as it could seem, but rather those who keep believing in the opportunity of a victory of humanity, even in the direst situations.

Zvetan Todorov, like Václav Havel, has been able to work through this original vision, starting from his personal experience in totalitarian countries. Communism, in facts, in the name of class struggle and justice, always proposed to wage more wars against ever new enemies of the humanity. Politically exploiting its identification with the victims of capitalism, in facts, it justified crackdowns on every form of human plurality and each time it had to set out a theory of necessary evil to purify society from the so-called people’s enemies.

Such a manichean vision, despite the end of communist regimes in Europe in 1989, always tends, nonetheless, to resurface in new forms, as the idea of an enemy to be eliminated and subjugate is so fascinating, as a key to reach happiness, to draw even today the attention of populists, new kinds of European racists, Muslim integralists who dream of a world purified from the presence of Jewish and Christian infidels, but also all Muslim heretics. Why does this happen? When you fight the enemy, and divide the world between us and them, you witness the birth of apparent forms of ethnic, religious or national solidarity. But then, in the fight against your enemy – be it a people, a class or a religious component – inevitably such hate falls back into the very camp that produces it, because every human being becomes a potential danger. The more desperately they fought the outer enemies, the more communists started started suspecting those whom they considered as traitors in their very ranks. And we are already seeing, in the ranks of the IS, that presents itself as the purest trench of Islam: infidels are not only the Western, but also the very Muslims, who are considered as heretics or not enough lined up with the jihad.

But which is then the mechanism that can lead the men who take sides with the victims not to let themselves be carried away by hate for they enemy and follow non violent resistant methods, as they refuse to fight evil by the means of more evil? Is there a way to resist first evil and then hate?

Todorov does not answer univocally, but he suggests to reflect on the lives of some prominent figures.

Etty Hillesum is the Holocaust victim who has fought the most within herself not to be carried away by hate toward Germans inside the concentration camps. Her diary reflects a unique experience, although it was written in the Duch camp in Westerbork, and we know nothing of what she thought in Auschwitz. Maybe does her ability not to nurture hate stem from her non exclusive vision of love? Etty, in her love toward psychoanalist Speer, reflects on the fact that love should not be limited to only one person, if we want it to be a stimulus for the love of the others and the entire.

“We should never make anybody, even our dearest ones, the goal of our life […] the goal is life in itself, in all its forms, and every man is there as a mediator between us and life.”

Perhaps, instead, her ability of self-control stems from a stoic vision of life, in which men are powerless in the face of the evil of nature and the one caused by other men, andf they have to be judged from their strength to defend their moral character under any circumstances.

Here is therefore why in Hillesum’s opinion Jews were to be defeated by Nazism: that would happen if they had nurtured toward the Germans the same hatred that the latter poured on Jews.

“Our great hate toward the Germans poisons our souls.. we must free ourselves of everything rotten that is inside us.. (otherwise) savagery will let grow in ourselves a very similar savagery that would proceed with the same methods, if we could act following the same methods”.

Etty thus does not divide the world into Nazis and Jews, occupiers and subjects, but rather she thinks the division is between those who love and those who hate.

The Dutch writer will then find in assistance and help to the other inmates her condition as a moral resistant, almost realising that only active solidarity could strengthen her under such inhumane circumstances.

In the end she admits, in the face of the continuous deportations, that it does not suffice to behave ethical in the face of extreme evil. She starts hoping in an allied shelling that hit the convoys headed for poland. It is as if she had surrendered to the need to exert violence gainst violence, because also the best moral behaviour has no impact on the enemies of Jews.

Is there any contradiction or change of route in this? Todorov provides no answer. He rather suggests that those who, like Hillesum, join armed struggle as a last resort, if they have learnt about the principle of non hate, after the war will be the most eager to seek conciliation. As of the rest, the Dutch writer writes she would have been the first to defend all good Germans, and prevent Jewss from pouring their hate onto them.

Also Germaine Tillon, a great French resistant, accomplishes a pathway that during the Algerian war in 1957, would lead her to reflect about the opportunities of conciliation between the former enemies.

She has no doubt on whom to side, between De Gaulle and Marshall Petain, during Nazi occupation. A militant in the underground resistance, she assesses a principle, to which she will remain faithful for the whole of her life: the defence of truth under all circumstances. “At the level of ideas we know only one cherished cause, the one of our homeland. Out of love for her we joined forces, to try and keep its faith and hope. But we don’t absolutely want to sacrifice truth to it, because we do cherish our homeland, only if we do not have to sacrifice the truth to it.”

Hence, after her harsh years as an inmate of the lager of Ravensbruck, despite the death of her mother in the gas chambers and the loss of faith as Good proved to be absent in the gloomiest time of humanity, Tillion accomplished a great act of courage. She bore witness in favour of two lager guards, injustly accused of killing some French inmates with an axe. “If we shall go on telling the truth, we must do it also when it costs us”, she tells those who questions her pity towards the German enemies.

She then stresses the importance of telling the truth also regarding the Soviet camps, and argues with a Communist comrade who refuses to acknowledge the truth. Also those who were resistants can say silly things and shall always be judged for what he or she says or does. No one is innocent for his or her past merits. “If I detect some malfaisance in my country, I shall try to prevent it with all my strength. I shall not behave any differently towards the USSR as I do with France”.

During the war in Algeria, which she wanted to follow closely, for her attempts to put an end to violence from all sides, Tillion works out a very original concept, which gives the title to one of her reflection books: France and Algeria, Complementary Enemies. The torture and repression carried out by the French legitimize terror attcks, as well as the violence of the Algerian resistants legitimize the French crackdown. To break this endless spiral – that resurfaces today e.g. in the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, Armenians and Azeris, Russians and Ukrainians – Germaine Tillion applaud the “traitors” of the two camps that have the courage not to be carried away by their belonging or to refuse violent methods, like Albert Camus, o the six inspectors of the social camps who were killed by Oas, the terrorist organization that did not tolerate the most conciliating terrorists.

In Tillion’s opinion, the causes for which we fight are less valuable than the suffering endured by human beings. She thus says that “the human family has no flag” and she personally carried out a field activity, helping both clashing parties, opposing death sentences and torture, but also blind attacks.

“I did not “chose” whom I would save: I made the choise of saving all those i could, Algerians and Frenchmen of any faith.”. It is difficult, not only in Italy, to find any third party holding the same spirit toward the Israeli Palestinian conflict. In general, people interested in it takes sides with only one party.

Is there thus any solution when peoples and nations become complementary enemies? Germain Tillion wishes there could be a conversational politics: sitting around the same table, looking at each other, talking to the other and then listening to him or her, show eagerness to put yourself into his or her shoes to understand his motivations. Thus betting on your common humanity, rather than on the loyalty to a group.

Such principle was applied by Nelson Mandela, as he was able to avert civil war in South Africa and start a process of conciliation with whites. The fast negotiations that the leader of the anti apartheid struggle had with the Afrikaaner leaders, from Pieter Botha to Frederik de Klerk and the very general Constand Viljoen – who was about organising a counter insurgency, are a great example of this. Mandela, by demanding equality, always recognised the role of whites in the history of South Africa.

In his self-biography he wrote that we should always safeguard the pride and honour of our counterparts and never despise them, considering them as lower. “By an aggressive attitude we reject the other, obliging them to fight.”

The best results are achieved when you bet on the best part everyone has inside. “It is a fair thing to start from the principle that the others are honesty and worthy or our respect, to awaken the honesty and respect that we are looking for.”

Mandela was able to understand that the barrier between whites and blacks was no insurmountable wall, when he realised during imprisonment that not all whites were equal,, and he could find many sensitive people among his jailers, too.He had understood that hate would harm the very battle of the blacks and hating the enemy does not help you win over him or her, but corrupts the very identity of those who fight for freedom.

Mandela, like Lincoln, understood that in order to fight your enemies you should turn them into friends, because in all human beings, if you are able to dig intelligently, you can find your very humanity. 

Gabriele Nissim, Gariwo chairman

Analysis by

20 April 2016

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