Epigraph. The Buddha urged that we take power – not over others but over ourselves: greater than conquering others is the conquest of oneself; the controlling of one’s wishes and desires, thoughts and conduct.
Power is simply defined as the ability to get another or others, an animal or thing to do what would otherwise not have been done. Of the five aspects of power – authority, persuasion, manipulation, coercion and force – the last three seem to occur most often. Lord Acton (1834-1902) famously observed that power tends to corrupt, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely, that is, totally. History furnishes us with many examples of political leaders who may have started out with the ideal of working for the common good but ended with insatiable, selfish, greed for wealth and power – and with the lack of conscience and compassion necessary for the satisfying of such greed. Lodz was the second largest ghetto in Poland and its leader was Jewish Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, a man with delusions of grandeur who rode around in a carriage, and had his own police force and thugs. Ruthless to fellow Jews, he was abject vis-a-vis the Nazis and actively helped in the deportation of his people to their extermination. He is also accused of sexually abusing young women under his control. He infamously made a speech (4 September 1942) during which he urged: “Fathers and mothers, give me your children” – so that they could be transported to the gas chambers. Contrary to some religious teaching, power and the suffering it can impose far more often degrade rather than ennoble. (Rumkowski was put on one of the last trains to leave for the extermination camp of Auschwitz where, before he could be gassed, Jewish inmates beat him to death.)
By the phrase “Power corrupts” is usually meant that those who possess and wield power invariably get corrupted: President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Nelson Mandela are two exceptions who come to mind. In contemporary times, although Angela Merkel of Germany has been criticised by some for her policy and actions, to my knowledge she has been neither accused of self-aggrandizement nor of “cronyism”.
But power also corrupts the powerless, those affected by the exercise of power by another person, group or ‘race’, the extreme example of which is collaboration with those riding roughshod over one’s own people. The word “quisling” means a traitor, be it to a people, cause or sports team: Quisling was a Norwegian who collaborated with the Nazis and, at war’s end, was executed. To boycott someone is not to have any dealings with that person. The word comes from (Irish) Captain Boycott who worked with imperial and colonising Britain against his people. A much older name (now an epithet and not a proper-noun) is “Judas”: he was once a disciple but later betrayed Jesus to the Romans.
The entire family of Wladyslaw Szpilman (1911-2000; a leading Polish pianist) was killed by the Nazis but he himself was helped to escape. How he survived in hiding till the end of the War is related by him in his memoir translated into English as The Pianist; later made into an acclaimed film by Roman Polanski. We are disinclined to deal with complexity; to reach a nuanced, balanced, judgement. We much prefer the mental and moral ease of clear categories: the totally evil versus the totally virtuous; the entirely innocent “we” as against the thoroughly guilty “other”. Similarly, the racist assertion that all Aryans are superior to all non-Aryans – “Aryans” here as used by right-wing extremists in the West meaning those who are white. Szpilman writes that the ambition of Jewish policemen was to be as close to the Gestapo as possible, and to display competence in the language of their masters. Often, they were far worse than the Germans towards their fellow Jews. But the Pianist was initially helped to escape, literally at the last few minutes, by a fellow Jewish policeman. And his final saviour was a German military officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, who discovered the Pianist, emaciated and unkempt, in his hiding place and secretly brought him food. An exceptional man, Hosenfeld helped many to escape, irrespective of their nationality, including at least one anti-Nazi German. Rather than expecting the conquered Poles to know the language of the “master race”, Hosenfeld made attempts to learn Polish. He attended mass at a Polish church, though this was forbidden to Germans, kneeling before a “racially inferior” Polish priest to receive communion. As I used to suggest to students, if there is Justice, it’s not in this (human) world: Hosenfeld died in a Soviet prison camp, having been severely tortured and suffering several cerebral strokes. Totally broken, his mind lost, Wilm Hosenfeld died like a little child who acutely feels the pain but doesn’t understand why he is being beaten. He who had saved was not saved.
But there are other aspects to the corruption power visits on the less powerful or on the powerless. It is said that when a fish goes bad, the rot starts from the head, and then spreads outwards and downwards. Chaucer (1343-1400; the so-called “father of English literature”) rhetorically asks: If even gold rusts, what shall iron do? Using this image, if the elite of a county cream off millions to gratify their greed for excess and luxury, why shouldn’t those below help themselves to a few hundred, often to satisfy the basic needs of their families? Soon, corruption becomes culture, the normal way of life. In Achebe’s novel, ‘No Longer at Ease’, Obi Okonkwo, newly returned to Nigeria after study in England and holding a government post, rejects a bribe and leaves the other puzzled: Why does he reject my money? What has he against me? In other words, corruption has become the normal way of life, and not to accept a bribe an abnormality. Soon, Obi succumbs. Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi (1919-1987; author of powerful works such as ‘If this is a Man’ and ‘The Drowned and the Saved’) wrote that power can create “a frightful power of corruption against which it is difficult to guard oneself”. To resist the corruption spread by power “requires a truly solid moral armature” (Levi). Power wielded under military rule (particularly under foreign military rule) apart from the loss of freedom, self-respect and dignity, breeds corruption in various forms. It infects men and women, and can spread even to adolescents and children. “Compromises” are resorted to, not infrequently on a daily basis. Worst of all, unable to strike back at the group with power; desperate, despairing and demoralised (de – moralised), the powerless take to harming each other: power corrupts not only the power-ful but also the power-less.
(One is reminded of The Plague by Camus, a novel written with the German occupation of France in mind.)
Sarah Churchwell wrote (‘New Statesman’, 21-27 September 2015) that the consolatory promise of individualism is that a nation can be redeemed collectively by isolated instances of benign action. History and a people cannot be “redeemed collectively” by the “benign action” of a few individuals. Such individual action redeems only the individual – not the people as a whole. But, on a positive note, such individuals are lux in tenebrae, and so I close with words by Szpilman about one Janus Korczak, an adoptive father to Jewish orphans, “the poorest and most abandoned” who, though he could have saved himself, voluntarily came into the ghetto with “his” children:
“The evacuation of the Jewish orphanage run by Janusz Korczak had been ordered for that morning. The children were to have been taken away alone. He had the chance to save himself, and it was only with difficulty that he persuaded the Germans to take him too. He had spent long years of his life with children, and now, on this last journey, he would not leave them alone. He wanted to ease things for them. He told the orphans they were going out into the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible, suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood.
The little column was led by an SS man who loved children, as Germans do, even those he was about to see on their way into the next world. He took a special liking to a boy of twelve, a violinist who had his instrument under his arm. The SS man told him to go to the head of the procession of children and play – and so they set off.
When I met them in Gesia Street the smiling children were singing in chorus, the little violinist was playing for them and Korczak was carrying two of the smallest infants, who were beaming too, and telling them some amusing story. I am sure that even in the gas chamber, as the Cyclon B gas was stifling childish throats and striking terror instead of hope into the orphans’ hearts, the Old Doctor must have whispered with one last effort, ‘It’s all right, children, it will be all right,’ so that at least he could spare his little charges the fear of passing from life to death.”