Those Who Knew Evil: A visit with Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild is the only author to have won Canada's prestigious Gelber Prize twice - first for King Leopold's Ghost and this year for Bury The Chains, which recounts the beginning of the British anti-slavery movement.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 2006-07-01 12:00:00

METTA SPENCER: I see your last four books as pursuing a common agenda.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Right. I'm always interested in questions about enormous injustice. How does that come about? What rationalizations and denials do people make in order to live with it? What allows remarkable people to perceive it openly and bravely when nobody around them does?

SPENCER: You always provide insight into the nature of integrity. You tell us about people who give their whole lives for a cause.

HOCHSCHILD: Well, what interests me is the problem of evil, whether it be the Atlantic slave trade, apartheid in South Africa, forced labor in the Congo, or the self-inflicted genocide of the Soviets, where roughly twenty million people met their death under Stalin's rule. What rationalizations do people invent to live in a system like that and normalize it in their own minds? And why are there some brave people who perceive this as evil and resist it? These are the questions in all four books.

Let's start with South Africa. My father was an executive of an American mining company doing business in southern Africa - primarily in what today is Zambia. When I was a teenager, he took me with him on a business trip to Africa. I could see that the good things in life that I had enjoyed depended on the labor of Africans working in horrible conditions far under the earth. Later, as a college student, I spent a summer working on a small anti-apartheid newspaper in South Africa. It was a life-changing experience for me. I was there when Mandela was arrested. I was surrounded by people for whom politics was very serious. Some of them spent many years in prison. I came home changed, realizing that the United States was on the wrong side in that particular struggle. The United States collaborated with the white South African regime.

Working on that newspaper in 1962 got me interested in South Africa. I went back there several times in the 1980s and wrote a book, The Mirror at Midnight, which was mainly based on a visit in 1988, the worst time of oppression under apartheid. Lots of people were in prison. Others were afraid to talk. You had to be secretive. But my book contains portraits of resisters, black and white.

Then came the extraordinarily rapid changes in South Africa. I covered the first democratic election in 1994 for the Village Voice. The gap between rich and poor (who are almost entirely black) has widened since then. Nevertheless, I find it one of the more hopeful places in the world - an example of how it's sometimes possible to make progress on problems that everyone had considered intractable.

SPENCER: I am most attracted to your book on Stalinism: The Unquiet Ghost.

HOCHSCHILD: Oh, good. Here's what drew me to that. I grew up partly among émigré Russians and in my twenties I became fascinated by this question: How could the country that gave us Tolstoy and Chekhov also give us the Gulag? That society really went mad. When Gorbachev came to power, people became able to talk about Soviet history openly.

SPENCER: But even then, not everyone had such conversations. I remember discussing it in the mid-'90s with people who said they had never talked about it before in their lives. One guy in particular talked about his adoration for Stalin. The next day he told me he'd been awake all night, shaking and with heart palpitations because his emotions about Stalin were still so deep that it was a life-shaking experience just to talk about it for the first time.

HOCHSCHILD: That's right. I spent the first half of 1991 there, interviewing former Gulag prisoners; former secret policemen (when I could find them willing to talk, and amazingly, some were -- both repentant and non-repentant); historians trying to figure out how to dig up this information; people digging up mass graves; teachers thinking about how to teach this in the schools. People would break down in tears as they talked. They asked themselves: How could I have believed in this man? I was fascinated by this denial.

The most interesting instance was in a small town in Siberia, Kolpashevo, by a river that, in 1979, before glasnost, had overflowed its banks, washing away the soil. Into the river started tumbling hundreds of skeletons, and, because the bottom of this mass grave was in permafrost, frozen bodies. I talked with two people whose fathers had been buried there. They knew their fathers had disappeared in the 1930s, but until the river uncovered this mass grave forty years later, they hadn't known just where their fathers had died. Two of them were retired women school teachers who were neighbors and knew each other. The father of one had been commander of the secret police for this region. For forty years she had deluded herself that, although terrible things had happened during the Stalin years, her father was a good man who couldn't possibly have been responsible for any of it. Then with glasnost and the opening of records, her father's signature was found on hundreds of death warrants. So here she was, in agony, trying to come to terms with a lifetime of denial. Such situations fascinate me because I think we live in a whole world of denial.

SPENCER: Absolutely.

HOCHSCHILD: The American administration, for example, denies global warming.

SPENCER: The Unquiet Ghost really gets to the heart of the matter. You don't give very thorough answers as to what to do about it, but... (We laugh.) Let's go on to your next book, King Leopold's Ghost.

HOCHSCHILD: Okay. It's the story of the colonization of the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium. It was the private, personally owned colony of Leopold II, who was king of Belgium from 1865 until his death in 1909 -- a brilliant, charming, shrewd, and immensely greedy, unscrupulous man with a great lust for colonies. He had been born when it was no longer much fun to be a king because you had to share power with elected parliaments. Frustrated by being king of such a small country, he wanted a colony where he could reign supreme, and he got one. He hired Henry Morton Stanley, the man who found Livingstone, to stake it out for him. Then he got most major nations of the world to recognize it as his personal possession and he ruled over it for 23 years, turning it over to Belgium only shortly before his death. He became immensely rich, largely through a forced labor system for gathering wild rubber. A world-wide rubber boom had been set off by the invention of the inflatable tire.

Wild rubber abounded in the equatorial African rain forest. Leopold enslaved a large part of the male population of regions where it grew. His private army would take the women of a village, hold them hostage, to make the men go deep into the rainforest to gather a monthly quota of wild rubber. Hundreds of thousands of these laborers were worked to death. With few people left to provide food, there was a famine, accompanied by terrible deaths from disease. The numerous uprisings against the regime were all brutally suppressed. Demographers estimate that the population of the Congo was roughly slashed in half over a forty-year period, from 1880 to 1920 --- a loss of about ten million people.

SPENCER: Somebody else estimated thirteen million, I think.

HOCHSCHILD: That's right. I've been in touch with that author. He's now lowered his estimate to ten million. But nobody knows for certain. It may be thirteen million, it may be only eight million. But there was drastic, drastic loss of population. And loss of population on the same scale - roughly fifty percent of the population - is well-documented in adjacent French Equatorial Africa, where they kept much better records.

SPENCER: So the French were just as grisly as the Belgians?

HOCHSCHILD: They were. In fact, all the colonial powers that had rubber-bearing territories in equatorial Africa -- the French in the so-called French Congo, the Portuguese in Northern Angola, the Germans in the Cameroons -- saw how much money Leopold was making and adopted his system, with catastrophic consequences.

The book is also the story of the brave people who called attention to this. George Washington Williams was the first whistle-blower. He was a black American journalist who went to the Congo in 1890 - very early - and was the first person to write about the forced labor system and other brutality. Sadly, he died on his way home from Africa and what he wrote was only a lengthy newspaper piece, though it created a tremendous ruckus.

The central hero of King Leopold's Ghost, in part because there's so much information available about his life, was a British journalist named E. D. Morel. He began his working life as a clerk for a British shipping company, handling the cargo traffic between the Congo and Europe. Every couple of weeks they would send Morel, because he spoke French, across to Antwerp to supervise the loading and unloading of ships. Morel began to notice that the ships arrived in Europe filled with valuable cargo -- mainly rubber. But when they sailed back to Africa, they didn't carry anything to be exchanged for the rubber - just military supplies. Morel recognized this as clear evidence of a slave labor system. He went to the head of the shipping line and said, "There's something terrible going on here and we shouldn't be a party to it." The boss told him to get lost and when that didn't work, tried to promote him to another job in another country; when that didn't work, he tried to pay him to shut up. Instead Morel quit his job and became a great investigative British journalist, trying to put the story of slave labor in King Leopold's Congo on the world's front pages.

SPENCER: Did he go to the Congo himself?

HOCHSCHILD: No, his life would not have been safe there. He didn't really need to go. The evidence was abundant - largely from credible eyewitness accounts of missionaries. A couple of hundred American, Swedish, and British protestant missionaries had found themselves in the midst of the Congo horror show. Outraged, they described this in missionary magazines. And Morel discovered them and even obtained documents from inside the Congo state apparatus.

SPENCER: Now let's move back about a hundred years for the story told in your latest book, Bury the Chains.

HOCHSCHILD: Sure. It's about the anti-slavery movement in the British Empire, which happened earlier than the better-known abolitionist movement in the United States. British Empire slaves were freed in the 1830s, more than a quarter century before those in the US for two reasons. First, there were large slave revolts in the British West Indies. Second, there was a huge popular movement in Britain - one of the first great civil society movements - which suddenly burst forth in 1787. Its organizers were brilliant. Within five years they perfected most of the tools that civil society movements use in democratic countries now. The lapel button that says you're working for this cause. The widely reproduced political poster. The direct mail fundraising letter. The consumer boycott. By 1792, more than 300,000 people in Britain were boycotting sugar, the principal product grown by British slaves. The very model of a national organization with headquarters in the country's capital and local committees in towns around the country was something new. These folks brought this model of organization to a high level of sophistication. From the four years I spent in their company, I find these people, in their three-cornered hats riding around in stagecoaches, to be quite modern.

SPENCER: We would feel comfortable in their presence, but they were extraordinary human beings. That's what makes the story dramatic. Social changes were occurring that seem almost instantaneous. Actually, it took about fifty years, but compare that to the assumptions of the people around them about what was possible!

HOCHSCHILD: What was possible and what was normal.

SPENCER: Right. That's what I want to probe. You've written about four different situations of great evil. Millions of deaths were caused by a social structure that seemingly could not be overcome - yet, in time, it was. A few critics say that you distort reality by attributing these changes to a "great man" theory of history. One reviewer argued instead that slavery ended when it became uneconomical. In connection with Bury the Chains, he said that when enough people had been killed, a labor shortage arose and they had to start being nicer to slaves. This is his explanation for the change rather than the success of the campaigners.

HOCHSCHILD: This was the academic orthodoxy for many years, fueled in large part by a 1944 book by the Trinidadian historian Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery. He pointed out that the profits of slavery had partially underwritten the industrial revolution. He also pointed to the importance of the West Indian slave revolts. He was right about it partially underwriting the industrial revolution and also right about slave revolts, but I think he was wrong that the end of slavery came about because of industrialism, the changing nature of work. There's no evidence, no records of discussions among plantation owners and industrialists saying that free labor was more efficient than slave labor. You can look at the voting records in the British parliament in the 1820s and early 1830s. The plantation interests' representatives in parliament resisted tooth and nail to the end. In fact, the only way the abolitionists could get the bill through parliament in 1883 was by in effect buying the slaves from their masters. They compensated the owners, which was a terrible injustice. If anybody deserved compensation, it was the slaves.

SPENCER: You say Thomas Clarkson went to France to stir up anti-slavery feeling there, but failed. I believe you say the time wasn't right. Do you want to expand on why he failed in France?

HOCHSCHILD: He went to France in 1789, when the French Revolution had broken out and there was tremendous talk about human rights. Except in the minds of a few people, this concept did not extend to the rights of slaves. There were actually a couple of French slave ship owners who re-christened some of their slave ships "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité." It didn't occur to them that there was any contradiction.

SPENCER: (Laughing) That's really ironic.

HOCHSCHILD: A total disconnect. The question is, why was there not a disconnect in Britain? Why were these organizers able to ignite such feeling against slavery? One reason was a contradiction. Britain was dependent on the Caribbean slave plantations for sugar, Britain's largest import. Britain dominated the Atlantic slave trade because British ships delivered slaves to other colonies as well as to their own. Yet Britain was the most democratic society in Europe. It was not a complete democracy. Only five percent of the population - all male - could vote. Nonetheless, there was a culture of democracy. Political campaigns were carried on in public. There was trial by jury, no censorship, and the British people were justly proud of these things. The national song was "Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves. Britons never never shall be slaves." So it was only a question of time before the idea would spread that maybe other people shouldn't be slaves either.

Also, I think people are more willing to identify with somebody else's struggle for justice if it echoes their own experience. Many people in Britain lived in fear of naval impressment. Britannia could rule the waves because the royal navy was far larger than any other - and its manpower largely comprised "pressed sailors." When the navy needed men, they sent out gangs of sailors to kidnap sturdy young men, who had to serve five years in the navy, and often died there. There was tremendous agitation against this throughout the eighteenth century. The navy always won because they said "We can't man our ships unless we do this." But the widespread protests against impressment planted the idea that it was unjust. What was African slavery but a more extreme version of this?

SPENCER: You mention the remarkable social activists who managed to abolish an evil social structure. You point out how it is possible for a social movement to succeed. But the flip side of that question is this: How is it possible to create an evil social structure that is so hard to resist? How did Hitler, Stalin, even South Africa, establish regimes that made it so difficult to challenge power? For one thing, in totalitarian societies at least, people often seem to adore their leader. A cult of personality surrounded Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. On the other hand, you also point out situations where the evil just became normal and there was no "great leader" -- as in the case of slavery. Nobody adored slavery. That isn't what held it in place. In Africa, nobody was enthusiastic about King Leopold. The situation became normalized, just as today we have nuclear weapons that might end civilization accidentally, yet it's impossible to get people agitated about them.

HOCHSCHILD: This is why slavery was so interesting. It was considered such a normal thing throughout the eighteenth century. More than three-quarters of all humankind were in slavery, serfdom, bondage, or indentured servitude. After the abolitionists became active, those in the British parliament who defended the slave trade did not say that Africans were inferior. Instead, they said the economy of the empire would be destroyed. Who would harvest the sugar, who would pick the cotton? How would the members of the navy learn their craft if not on slave ships? That's the challenge for anybody fighting for justice at any time: how do you make people consider something as shocking, shameful?

SPENCER: Exactly. And as you noted about France, there are times when it's possible to conscientize people in one place but fail to do it elsewhere. Campaigners can spend lifetimes working on something. I've worked on nuclear weapons without getting very far.

HOCHSCHILD: You're right. The thousands of nuclear warheads all over the world are just as outrageous as the tens of millions of slaves in the eighteenth century. We have to make people consider this shocking.

SPENCER: What about the cases, especially in totalitarian societies, where there was a cult of personality? It doesn't happen absolutely everywhere. There was adoration of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. I guess it's true in North Korea now.

HOCHSCHILD: Yeah, very much so.

SPENCER: But it was not the case with the Khmer Rouge, where the dynamic was different. It is normal for dictators to be adored, even while (or perhaps because) they are exercising terrible power. I have trouble putting myself psychologically in the shoes of somebody who adores a dictator. For example, I despise Castro, but most of my peacenik friends in Canada think he's fine. You describe Russians' adoration of Stalin, but there's still so much left to explain.

HOCHSCHILD: I agree completely and have similar feelings. Castro certainly is not the mass murderer that Stalin was, but anybody who essentially takes almost all power into his own hands for life is not someone that sensible people ought to admire. I think we ought to admire people who see their job as leaders to build democratic institutions. That is one of many things that make Mandela an infinitely greater man than Castro.

What makes people admire a dictator? I don't know. I think we all need to feel that there's a benevolent father figure. But the trouble is, once you give that father figure total authority, eventually he's no longer going to be so benevolent. However, a huge amount of evil can be done by democratic states. The United States today still has, in form, a functioning democracy with elections and free speech. But our president and vice-president authorized the torture of prisoners. Most Americans don't get upset because it's being done to others overseas, not to us. Some very democratic countries did horrible things overseas. While ruling the Congo, Belgium was increasingly democratic at home. Democratic France employed torture in the war in Algeria.

SPENCER: Yes, and there's again the case of nuclear weapons. They don't affect only people overseas. We are ourselves in danger. People know this, but they don't react. It's normalized. It seems that there are two different processes going on to hold the structure of evil in place, though they are compatible. One is normalization. The other is the adoration of the dictator. I think normalization may be harder to combat. People got rid of communism easily, almost without bloodshed. when they could see that nobody else around them wanted it any more than they did. But the normalization seems harder. Do you think?

HOCHSCHILD: I think it is. And in normalization people don't necessarily give their allegiance to a dictator. They just give it to their government. Until the past few months, most Americans normalized the war in Iraq. Happily now people are turning against it. People don't say, "I believe in dictatorship," but they believe there is something semi-sacred about what the government decides to do.

SPENCER: That it is disloyal to disagree.

HOCHSCHILD: Yep. It's changing now about the war in Iraq, as it changed about the war in Vietnam - though it took quite a few years and many deaths there before it did change.

SPENCER: So when you speak to activists who are discouraged because it can take so long to get other people exercised about an issue, what advice do you give?

HOCHSCHILD: I think three things could be learned from the anti-slavery movement. One is that these people never gave up. Fifty-one years elapsed from the first meeting of the anti-slavery committee in 1787 until the British slaves were fully freed. The second important lesson is the importance of coalition politics. In those days the coalition was between people of different religious sects. Quakers and Anglicans came together in the same organization for a common aim, which was secular rather than religious. But that allowed them to make the breakthrough because the Anglicans had the ability to be taken seriously by the government and the media. The Quakers had the person power, with a network of 20,000 people committed against slavery. The third thing, which relates to something I know you care about, is that they were very inventive in looking for different media to communicate their message. The poster. The lapel button. The pamphlet. The book of eyewitness testimony. The political book tour. All of these things came during this period, just as today, as you've written, we have to think about media such as television shows and movies to get the message out. Whatever works.

SPENCER: You've always done your share. I'd like to finish by asking what you're working on now.

HOCHSCHILD: I'm doing a book about the era of World War I, which has fascinated me because so many things that characterize the twentieth century came out of that war. The Russian Revolution. Nazism. Fascism. The darkening of how we look at human nature. For four and a half years the generals had the illusion that each battle would at last be the big breakthrough. They sent millions of young men to their death in that hope. And I'm also interested in those who resisted the war, who saw it as madness. They were unable to stop it but there's something to be learned from them. The book follows some characters through the war, both participants and resisters.

SPENCER: So you have some more great men in your story?

HOCHSCHILD: Not in the same way. It's not the story of a movement and there isn't a central hero.

SPENCER: Everything I have read about World War I makes it sound like one big mistake after another. Nobody knew what they were doing.

HOCHSCHILD: That's right. Nearly ten million people were killed, more than ten million seriously wounded, whole new nations formed, empires destroyed, the Russian Revolution ignited, the seeds of fascism - and people kind of stumbled into it.

SPENCER: Thanks, Adam. I look forward to reading it.

Adam Hochschild lives in San Francisco, Metta Spencer in Toronto.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2006

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