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Wat in the World

Robert D. Kaplan






What is our worst existential fear, worse than any cyber, biological, environmental, or even nuclear threat? It is the threat of a utopian ideology in the hands of a formidable power. Because utopia is, in and of itself, the perfect political and spiritual arrangement, any measures to bring it about are morally justified, including totalitarianism and mass murder. But what, on the individual level, has always been the attraction of utopian ideology, despite what it wrought in the 20th century? Its primary attraction lies in what it does to the soul, and understanding that makes clear just how prone our own age is to a revival of utopian totalitarianism.

Aleksander Wat, the great Polish poet and intellectual of the early and mid-20th century, explains that communism, and Stalinism specifically, was the “global answer to negation. . . . The entire illness stemmed from that need, that hunger for something all-embracing.” The problem was “too much of everything. Too many people, too many ideas, too many books, too many systems.” Who could cope?

So, Wat explained, a “simple catechism” was required, especially for the intellectuals, which explains their initial attraction to communism and, yes, to Stalinism. For, once converted, the intellectuals could then unload this all-embracing catechism on the masses, who would accept it as a replacement for the traditional and hence normal catechism of religion. Whereas traditional religions fill a void in the inner life of the individual, thereby enriching it, Stalinism turned that inner life immediately, in Wat’s words, “to dust.” Stalinism represented “the killing of the inner man”; it stood for the “exteriorization” of everything. That was its appeal. For without an interior life, there would be less for a person to think and worry about.

Wat’s clinical insights come in one of the most urgent memoirs of the modern era, his My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual, published posthumously in 1977. My Century is not a memoir in the traditional sense. It is rather a transcribed series of interviews with the author conducted in the mid-1960s by the Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. Wat was ill at the time, both physically and mentally, and was unable to write. We may thus place him in the highest category of intellectuals: those who do not necessarily have to write, for it is enough to listen to their voices.

As a title, My Century is neither exaggerated nor self-referential. For Wat and his family did indeed live the life of the 20th century in all its horror. Wat’s family was Central European, and its history lay “at the borderline of Judaism, Catholicism, and atheism.” Anti-Semitism is, in his telling, part of the permanent tapestry of Soviet prison life. Wat’s older brother perished at Treblinka, his younger brother at Auschwitz. Wat himself spent seven years during and after World War II in Soviet prisons, including the Lubyanka, and in exile in the deserts of Central Asia. He returned to public life in the Eastern Bloc in 1957, in the wake of de-Stalinization, and committed suicide in France a decade later.

The pages of his conversations with Milosz ache with recollections of the ghastly deportations, in which people froze to death in train cars even as women were giving birth. He remembers the icy prison cells that were steaming hot in summer; the constant dread, day after day, year after year, of being tortured; the gnawing anxiety in prison about the fate of his family; the deranged cell mates; the filth and chaos of the railway stations. All this characterized the life of millions in the 20th century; all this and more were the wages of utopian ideologies.


The article’s full-text is available on the website of The American Interes

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