Lord Acton was right when he said “power corrupts.” But does it corrupt everyone?
Power in itself is not bad, but it is only with certain persons or groups that it leads them to abuse and corruption.
Good people with power leads to good. Evil people with power leads to evil.
Corruption is the product of the corrupt when they acquire power, yet who do we remember, the good or the bad?
We should remember both, but the scale dips low when it comes to evil people in the history of humanity. The legacy of heinous crimes they have left behind is never forgotten.
Should we always keep alive the memory of such monsters? How else do we prevent it from happening again? Or should we as Churchill suggested: “We must draw a veil over all the horrors of the past.” You decide.
For those of us who have lived through the bloody history of the 20th century, should we choose to forget or to remember?
Would we not rather remember the glorious history of our past than its shameful pages? Psychologists believe we have a “negativity bias” and if we are victims or deeply wounded by evil acts, committed by evil men, refusal to remember is dangerous. Repressed memories eat at our very souls, giving rise to disease and neuroses.
On the other hand, brooding over the past is equally detrimental. It is easy to say “let bygones be bygones,” forgiving and forgetting cleanses the soul, but history makes no such allowance.
After the fall of Communism in Bulgaria, their future president Jehuse Jeber said: “Before we turn the page we must first read it.”
It is not only individuals who can be despotic monsters, ideologies as well shielded under the guise of politics, religion or justice can end up being the cruelest of all. Karl Marx, a German philosopher who in the name of equality and justice created communism that caused 120 million innocent deaths in the 20th century. It brought bloodshed, torture fear and death. Are the hands of Karl Marx clean?
He was the spiritual father of Stalin, who shot seven million or more, Pol Pot and his “killing fields” of Cambodia, who waged a gruesome war on his people, and there is more, many more. This philosophy transformed humans into theorists of violence and masters of cruelty.
Hitler always stands out as a madman who burned six million innocent souls. In a book by historian Heinreich Eberle and physician Hans Jochim Neumann, it is revealed that Hitler suffered many diseases, he was a drug addict, a racist, with delusional ideas about the superiority of the Aryans.
Surely such men are mad or sick, but the misplaced power in their hands allowed them to commit such heinous crimes.
The 20th century is not alone in its atrocities.
Throughout history we have witnessed the lasting power of evil in Attila the Hun, Caligula, Emperor Nero who brought down the entire Roman Empire with his legendary excesses and cruelty. Could a sane man play the lyre as he watched his city burn?
Rasputin may have brought down the Russian empire while Tarquemada tortured and killed Spaniards while head of the Spanish Inquisition.
There was Vlad the Impaler of Romania, whose exacting of cruel punishments became legendary. He was the primary inspiration for Dracula, the famous vampire.
We could include many more, but we must stop and ask, were all colossal demons born thus? Were they never good? Surely they were good children. What child does not love and obey his mother. How did they grow up to become history’s satanic criminals?
It is hard to depend on history, for it is written for the interest of the present. No one knows the real truth, except the people who were there.
Memories are fallible.
Long-term memories are nearly always wrong,
It is therefore up to the psychologists to have their say.
An article in General Psychology by Roy F Baumeister, is surprisingly entitled, “Bad is stronger than good”. Were we not taught the contrary?
Research over and over again shows this is a basic wide principle of psychology. There are even signs of it in animals.
Many psychologists think that this has evolutionary roots for survival. “It is more important to notice the lion in the brush than the flowers growing on the other side.”
It gets even more complicated when we learn that man is hardwired towards negativity. Bad emotions, bad impressions, bad stereotypes are quicker to form a more resistant image. In addition, bad events wear off more slowly than good ones. One criticism has greater importance than 100 compliments.
Professor Clifford Nass of Stanford found that one is more upset by losing $50 than pleased by gaining $50.
In the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala two emotions prevail, the negative and the positive. On an evolutionary basis, those who are attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and consequently would have increased the possibility of passing on their genes.
In conclusion, genes are responsible for those killers of fellow humans in history.
Good is taken for granted. Evil tends to live on.
Power cannot be discarded. Treat the powerful with kid gloves, not boxing gloves. There is little doubt that power in the wrong hands corrupts and “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Those sins live on to haunt us for centuries.
“All cruelty springs from weakness.”
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus (c 4 BC-65 AD)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly