|A RAVAGED CENTURY|
December 24, 1999
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Historian Robert Conquest has written a new book "Reflections on a Ravaged Century." It is the culmination of a lifetime researching end observing the ideology he holds responsible for the mass murders of the past 100 years. Conquest has written 17 books on Soviet history, politics and international affairs. He's also a poet and novelist. A former British diplomat, he's now a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Thank you for being with us. Ravaged is a very strong word. What do you see as you look back?
ROBERT CONQUEST: Well, we've seen the ravages committed by the Nazis and Communists in the huge scale. I mean, millions have killed but in this book I'm not so much concerned to present the actual ravages as to how they came about, how people who went in to perform these horrible operations, what motivated them. Where did they pick up these awful ideas?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It is ideas, ideas you are exactly what you blame for these ravages.
ROBERT CONQUEST: With a capital "I" these things not ordinary idea like you and I would have but an overwhelming idea that we've got everything right, we know the answers for everything, and we can do anything to enforce it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us more about that. How did this happen that ideas like Communism, like Naziism became so obsessive that they led to the mass murders?
ROBERT CONQUEST: I think once you accept that you have the answer to everything, you can do anything to bring it about because your enemies are trying to stop you, are enemies of reason, of truth of everything -- enemies of the future. You represent the people, you represent the nation, you represent everything that is good and that entitles you to destroy the bad people. This is fairly obvious, the type of looking at it. But how did it possess intellectuals? Who are the Typhoid Marys who brought this awful mental affliction into people's lives, into movements and things? That's what was interesting to me - basically - I mean, I naturally develop what they did.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And there have been ideas, which were held obsessively and dangerously for many, many centuries. Bu you go back to the French Revolution and point to it as -- at the beginning of the ideas your most concerned about, right?
ROBERT CONQUEST: It's that time when they first got the motion that you would have a perfect society and you can bring it about by terror and that -- they did both -- the people and the nation, the French Revolution. The nation went to the Nazis, you may say, and the people went to the Marxists. This is putting it crudely. But it's really -- it did affect the whole intellectual class. It's a mental laziness that you have the answers and really study any further than that and how did it happen? I do go into the sort of people who --
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about that? Why did it affect so many people?
ROBERT CONQUEST: Well, it's very attractive in some ways. People do want answers; this is natural, but the ordinary man in the street didn't think he got all full answers. He knew he didn't - it was the intellectual, creating the single, perfect answer and time and time again this has happened.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You use a term that is -- Orwell's term actually -- that I like "the lure of the profound" -- what do you mean by that?
ROBERT CONQUEST: Well, that I use because in the book I'm trying to avoid anything plotted and incomprehensible or referring to things that nobody is going to be interested in. I tried to keep it like in Orwell's terms, clear, and making the points and illustrating with many examples -- not just examples of horror or stupidity but striking ones.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But the lure of the profound is also one of the things that at least from what I've observed, drives intellectuals into these totalitarian ideas, right?
ROBERT CONQUEST: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: They want the deepest, most scientific, most modern and most profound idea to be theirs?
ROBERT CONQUEST: I think they think it's modern, that counts as profound. There are many old political ideas which are more profound in a real sense. But I think what Orwell meant by profound was not to try and produce a huge, complex ideology for anybody, because all the ideologies were quite complicated. But they were accepted on trust, it's been proved by a German doctor and Marx has proved something intellectual - just accepted it. He didn't read "Das Capital."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You, for many, many years, before other people were pointing or would accept what was happening in the Soviet Union, were writing about what you knew was happening in the Soviet Union. Much of what you said or some of what you said has been proven true by documents released since the falling of the wall. Do you feel like you're vindicated?
ROBERT CONQUEST: Well, in a sense. I always thought I was vindicated anyway. I thought the evidence was perfectly clear. Now I feel certainly that the people who are still to some extent taking the view that Soviet union -- that Stalin wasn't so bad. It hasn't actually gone yet. Certainly what we said is accepted everywhere now on the whole, but not among certain sections of the intellectuals.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So even though you think the evidence exists there are still people who don't believe that Stalin was responsible for the death of millions of people?
ROBERT CONQUEST: Well, they parley it away; it was really not the important thing, he industrialized the country, which in fact was being done anyway - like they did with Hitler. It wasn't Hitler, some academics say, it was the machinery. It was the institutions that did it. Of course not, it was Hitler and the institution he created.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, do you think that there are still in our intellectual life right now, ideas that are like - or remnants of ideas that are still quite dangerous?
ROBERT CONQUEST: Well, I think there are ideas that given much more scope and importance than they are willow wisps on a dangerous marsh. I would include the idea of the European Community, for example. I mean, Europe is not really, cannot be a nation state. So it's a big thing, horrendous bureaucracy. And it can't hang together. But that's nothing like the totalitarian ideas, it's still an idea with a rather small, capital letter, which is distorting European history and the West --
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What else do you see right now that worries you for the next century?
ROBERT CONQUEST: Well, we're nearly there. Russia, of course, is in a terrible state. And we don't know what's happening today in Chechnya for one thing, in Moscow. And it doesn't look very nice, and that could cause real trouble. But I still think that -
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Expand on that, what do you mean?
ROBERT CONQUEST: Well, it could spill over into the caucuses, into Azerbaijan or somewhere. But I still think that real trouble is getting the real unity of the democratic countries which will be able to face the troubles together, based, of course, on American alliance, and be able to cope with the really rogue states. There are states worse than Russia that don't have much arms, but enough to cause trouble.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You're talking about --
ROBERT CONQUEST: North Korea. Iraq. There are rogue states which have to be somehow accommodated or prevented from doing -- it's a dangerous situation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I like the way you write about what makes the rule of law and democracy work in countries like England, the United States, New Zealand. You talk about the need for compromise about sort of humility in the face of our own limitations. Tell us a little more about that.
ROBERT CONQUEST: Yes, I think that sometimes people say the democrats are short-sighted and muddle headed. But I think you want to be a bit short sighted. It's better than having a long sight into a nonexistent future. You may see a certain way ahead. And muddle-headedness means taking -- admitting several views that must be worked together somehow, adjusted. I think this openness of society which prevails in the West or part of West is why we're ahead of them, why the closed societies couldn't cope. Their brains were going.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you don't know -- I don't know if apathy is the right word - but you don't mind that some people don't care about politics. You think that's really healthy. If everybody cares too much, it can be dangerous, is that the right -
ROBERT CONQUEST: I think that happened in ancient Greece -- all politics, fighting in the streets -- whereas Rome, they had terrific troubles in early Rome, but finally it was settled legally -- the rise of the Plebs -- after endless trouble, because they had some sort of legal system which the Greeks didn't.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And we shouldn't worry in this country if not everybody votes because it's a sign that things are going well, do you think?
ROBERT CONQUEST: Well, I think it's a good thing if informed voters got well informed and fair number of them voted. But I don't think it's a bad sign if 20 percent or 30 percent or 40 percent don't vote.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you very much for being with us.
ROBERT CONQUEST: Very great to be here.