Category: Non-fiction

Jörg Baberowski
Räume der Gewalt
[Spaces of Violence]

Non-Fiction

Unending Violence?

Can we hope for a peaceful future? Since the Enlightenment, philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Karl Marx have devised narratives of progress promising that violence would be kept in check. Even in the gloomy year of 1939, Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process told the story of such progress, and he is not the only one to share this view of history. In a much noted book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity (2011), psychologist Steven Pinker affirms once more the notion of a peaceful future by pointing to the evidence of historical progress toward nonviolence.

To clear up this promise of improvement is the aim of Jörg Baberowski, a Berlin-based historian of Eastern Europe, in his latest compact work Räume der Gewalt [Spaces of Violence]. If we examine the rich history of human experiences and practices with violence, a history that reaches into the present, a simple anthropological truth is revealed: Man is a violent creature. Historical empiricism shows that human beings have used violence in the most varied epochs and constellations--and that violence always produces more violence Those who profit from such situations in which cruelty is no longer sanctioned can let violence become the norm. And such "violence experts" do not even have to be psychopaths. Once we are socially disinhibited, we injure, torture, and kill for many reasons--not just out of sadism or the desire for power but also, for instance, out of a sense of duty. At best "civilization" acts here to slow the process but it also often intensifies it, as evidenced in the extremes and atrocities of the recent past. "In its potential for annihilation," the author argues, violence has "become the mark of the 20th century." Baberowski does not believe in progress but is even less a theoretician of decadence, for "humanity [...] has never been any different."

Space plays a special role in this work. Time and again, "spaces of violence" have opened up that produce and permit more violence—ranging from the colony to the concentration camp and on to regions afflicted by terrorism. Baberowski’s background as a specialist of Stalinist terror becomes relevant here: he is highly familiar with the deep recesses of the history of violence, and he knows how to describe them in often shocking intensity and clarity. In his focus on how human beings hurt and feel pain ("[I]f no one has pain, then there has been no violence") Baberowski is at the same time applying a narrow concept of violence, when compared to other sociologists of violence. He does not want to hear about structural or epistemic violence, or violence without a concrete perpetrator. Instead, he highlights the immediacy of the victim-perpetrator relationship. He is thus consciously distinguishing himself from the recent expansion of the concept of violence. However, he may also in the process be overlooking important insights on violence in complex social systems where direct physical brutality is frowned upon but more indirect forms of it are permitted.

Of course, not all spaces and epochs are equally violent, as Baberowski clearly differentiates in his book. Social and political orders are possible that prevent spaces of violence in the making and sanction cruelty in a preemptive fashion. There is no such thing as absolute security that never slips into the normality of violence, for systems of security are able to turn into their violent opposite. In the 17th century, political philosopher Thomas Hobbes had ruled out the possibility of state terror that so doubtlessly typifies the 20th century and our present one as well.

Although this small volume is easily comprehensible, it is--precisely because of its clarity--a challenging read: Baberowski lets us hear in detail from witnesses to the worst moments of violence in recent history, from Rwanda to Auschwitz. Nonetheless, for all its pessimism, his book is unsettling and its political implications are important. For only if we acknowledge how the worst is always possible will we be able to counteract it: by closing up spaces of violence wherever they may be opening up.
Eva Marlene Hausteiner

By Eva Marlene Hausteiner, 22.08.2016

Dr. Eva Marlene Hausteiner is a Research Associate in Political Theory and the History of Ideas at the Humboldt University of Berlin and works on issues of imperial and federal systems. Her book, Greater than Rome. Neubestimmungen britischer Imperialität 1870-1914 (Campus Verlag), was published in 2015.

Translated by David A. Brenner