Certainly…get him hanged! Why not? Anything–anything can be done in this country. –Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
So here we are, barely into the next century, and the indications couldn’t be better. Peace and prosperity rule. Forget World Wars I and II, the Nazi death camps, the gulag, Hiroshima, even Vietnam. Forget that whole last benighted century of ours, that charnel house of darkness in the heart of the West, or the Free World as we called it, until, ever so recently, the whole world was freed. That’s old news. It was old even before the “short Twentieth Century,” which began amid nationalist cheers in August 1914, ended early as that wall in Berlin came down. It’s hard to believe now that in 1945, after Europe’s second Thirty Years’ War, the civilization that had experienced a proud peace, while dominating two-thirds of the planet, lay in ruins; that it had become a site of genocide, its cities reduced to rubble, its fields laid waste, its lands littered with civilian dead, its streets flooded by refugees: a description that today would be recognizable only of a place like Kosovo, Chechnya or Sierra Leone.
What a relief, when you think about it; more so if you don’t: Mass death, massacre (every acre of it), the cleansing of civilian populations, the whole bloody business has finally been handed back to the savages in countries nobody who counts really gives a damn about anyway. After all these years, we face a world in which genocide happens in Rwanda or East Timor, slaughter and mass rape in the cesspool of the Balkans, which hardly qualifies as Europe anyway, or in African countries like Congo–and most important of all, they’re doing it to one another. Even when it comes to nuclear matters, the MAD policies of the two superpowers have been deposited in the ever-fuller dustbin of history (though most of the weapons linger by the thousands in the same hands), and the second team, the subs, have been called in. Now, Indians and Pakistanis have an equal-opportunity chance to Hiroshimate each other without (at least initially) involving us at all.
We always knew that violence was the natural state of life out there; that left to their own devices they would dismember one another without pity. We’ve more or less washed our hands of mass death, the only remaining question being: If they slaughter each other for too long (or too many gruesome images appear on our TVs), do we have a moral obligation to intervene for their own good?
With history largely relegated to the History Channel and hosannas to the Greatest Generation, the disconnect between the exterminatory devastation of 1945 and our postmillennial world of prosperity seems complete. So it’s hard to know whether to respond with a spark of elation or with pity on discovering that a few intrepid writers–Mark Cocker, Adam Hochschild, Jonathan Schell and Sven Lindqvist–have begun an important remapping of the exterminatory landscape of the last centuries. (As an editor, I should add, I have been associated with Hochschild and Schell.) Interestingly, none of them are professional historians; and I hesitate to call them a grouping, for they seem largely ignorant of one another’s work. Yet their solitary efforts have much in common.
They have taken remarkably complementary journeys into the West’s now largely forgotten colonial past. Considered as a whole, their work represents a rudimentary act of reconstructive surgery on our collective near-unconscious. They are attempting to re-suture the history of the West to that of the Third World–especially to Africa, that continent where for so long whites knew that “anything” could be done with impunity, and where much of the horror later to be visited upon Europe might have been previewed.
Worried by present exterminatory possibilities, each of these writers has been driven back to stories once told but now largely ignored. Three of the four returned to a specific figure, a Polish seaman-turned-novelist who, as a steamboat pilot in the Congo, witnessed one exterminatory moment in Africa and on the eve of a new century published a short novel, Heart of Darkness, based on it. Of the four, only Hochschild has done original historical research. But that, in a way, is the point. They are not telling us new stories but reclaiming older ones that have dropped from sight, and so re-establishing a paper trail on extermination without which our modern moment conveniently makes no sense.
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