When I was a young thing, I studied history — modern history, with guns and cigarettes and revolutions, not the sort with knights and kings.
I was fascinated by the thought — the insanely seductive idea — that if you found the Truth, you could build a perfect world, and if you knew you’d found the truth — as the Bolsheviks knew with absolute certainty,(*) then you could, should, do anything to ensure that idea spread across the world — because how can you justify sacrificing the future happiness of millions to protect a few people now?
I didn’t believe it, but I was caught by the certainty and simplicity of that idea and by the appalling things people would do in its name. This isn’t a rant about fundamentalism — political, religious, or economic — which I find fascinating and terrifying and alien, it’s a meander on an idea I encountered while I was reading about those big brave murderous societies that flourished in the early Twentieth Century, resistenz.
The term has a (semi-)respectable pedigree from historians of Nazi Germany (especially Martin Broszat) but it has wider relevance — the idea is that because totalitarian regimes want to control everything people do (and think), from the music they listen to, to the art they appreciate, to the way they interact with their neighbours, refusing to obey any of these demands counts towards undermining the ambitions of the regime. So, while “resistance” takes place at a visible, public level and is consciously directed at resisting a regime, resistenz is more about what people just get on and do — about maintaining life despite the regime. So, resistenz, I suppose, is a problem when seen from the perspective of the regime, rather than necessarily a deliberate effort to resist it.
Does that make sense? As an example, whenever I see a path trodden into the grass, which has clearly made by people who aren’t prepared to be directed by the existing paths, it reminds me of resistenz. I like the concept because it’s about people and it weakens the idea that in a totalitarian society people somehow became cardboard cutouts crushed flat by the ambitions and ideas of those in charge.
Totalitarian regimes needed support — they needed people to work and fight and, more passively, to ignore the persecution of others. Those who didn’t work very hard or who failed to fire their gun, those who did their best to protect their neighbours, may not have been resisting in big shiny public ways, but they were damaging to the ambitions of such regimes nonetheless.
(*) Except Bukharin and people like him, and see what happened to them.