King Leopold’s Ghost
Lying at the roots of what we “civilization” are crimes so heinous that it is impossible to describe them adequately. A book, King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild, is a history of the Congo and the mass murder, the genocidal killings that took place there around the beginning of the 20th century. And this mass murder, which some estimate reduced the native population of the Congo by 50% and totaled maybe 10, 000, 000, was the official but hidden policy of King Leopold who controlled the Congo while being king of Belgium.
But as Hochschild makes clear, it wasn’t only the Belgians who engaged in mass murder. It was also the French, the Germans, the British, and the Americans. “What happened in the Congo was indeed mass murder on a vast scale, but the sad truth if that the men who carried it out for Leopold were no more murderous than many Europeans then as work or at war elsewhere in Africa. Conrad said it best: ‘All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.”
And again: “Around the time the Germans were slaughtering Hereros [native in what is now Namibia], the world was largely ignoring America’s brutal counterguerilla was in the Philippines, in which US troops tortured prisoners, burned villages, killed some 20,000 rebels, and saw and estimated 200,000 Filipinos die of war-related hunger or disease. Britain came in for no international criticism for its killings of aborigines in Australia, in accordance with extermination orders as ruthless as [those of the Germans against the Hereros]. And of course in neither Europe nor the United States was there major protest against the decimation of the American Indians.” [p. 282]
Machiavelli is famous for saying that rulers, to be successful, need “to learn to be able not to be good.” Well, I wonder about that assertion insofar as it seems there isn’t much learning how not to be good is necessary. Humans, especially those who wield great power and think of themselves as superior to those they consider to be primitive or savages, are capable of the most heinous crimes in order to be successful, in order to gain the kind of immortality that comes from fame. But maybe Machiavelli knew this and wanted to make clear that at the root of what we call “civilization” is barbarism and cruelty. Machiavelli attributes Hannibal’s success to his cruelty, that is, to his inhuman cruelty. And, of course, if inhuman cruelty is required to found a civilized human order, it is also required to fortify or defend that order.
One risks being labeled an “idealist” or naïve’ if she contests Machiavelli’s brand of “realism.” And yet, left uncontested, we are left with King Leopold’s ghost and the sale of chocolate hands in a Belgium even today absent any exhibits recognizing Leopold’s mass murder. If King Leopold’s ghost doesn’t haunt you, then you have made your peace with a realism that can justify mass murder, torture, and slavery. That is, I submit, a rather strange place to be.