How a good person turns evil


Anna Neistat - Andrej Bán

Anna Neistat – Andrej Bán

ANNA NEISTAT: The symbolism of the International Criminal Court as an institution is enormous, even if those indicted deny their guilt and don’t live to hear the verdict.

ANNA NEISTAT)(What motivates me is a highly-developed sense of justice. After you’ve met the people who have suffered in a conflict you can’t just go away and forget about them. For journalists covering conflicts and for organisations such as Amnesty International the border between local and international is becoming blurred. Because, for example, at Amnesty International, we now have regional offices all over the world – some people are international and some are local, it’s a combination. Whether local or international, the key is that we have to use very precise methodology because the stakes are now very high. They have always been high but now I think that we are, in some ways, victims of our own success because human rights organisations have become quite powerful and governments do listen to us.  But the perpetrators have become much more sophisticated, hiding their tracks and their crimes.

The whole area of fake news and fake propaganda has developed quite dramatically. So the burden on us to provide very precise, detailed evidence, obtained by using the most precise methodology, is enormous. That is why we train our researchers in how to collect information, how to interview, we are using more innovative methodology, such as satellite imagery, remote media listening, all these methods that help us corroborate what we get from witnesses.

The symbolism of the International Criminal Court as an institution is enormous, and even if those indicted deny their guilt and don’t live to hear the verdict, as was the case with Slobodan Milošević, the fact that the proceedings took place is in itself very important, for the victims too.


party of love

Peter Michalík – Max Harris – Philipp Ther – Slavenka Drakulić – Tomáš Sedláček

MAX HARRIS: Love can be an antidote to the ruthlessness of individualism, the narcissism and the loneliness that characterize our time.

max harris

MAX HARRIS)(The anthropologist David Graeber says that the ultimate stake in politics is the struggle to establish what value is, to establish what is valuable and meaningful in life. And I share that view of politics and that view of the world. And out of this view of the world we are led to a value-based politics – a politics that should be motivated by values, that should embody values and how it is practised, and it should follow through on values. But the obvious question that arises is: what values? And to me the value that we should talk more about, because of the problems of our time in particular, is love. Our social relations are damaged, corroded by the excesses of capitalism, in some countries, colonialism and racism have also undercut the quality of the relations we have with one another, and as has come out powerfully in the past few weeks, patriarchy, misogyny and sexism have also damaged the way we relate to one another.

What would a politics of love look like in practice? To me, for example, the way Norway approaches criminal justice policy has been ahead of its time: in Norway and in Norwegian prisons we’re seeing an approach of love and care towards an offender, so that a wrongdoer – and I don’t mean to minimize the wrong that a person does when he commits a crime – so that such a person returns to society not with a sense of hatred towards that society but a willingness to be reintegrated. That’s just one example. We could also talk about a sense of openness towards outsiders, towards refugees. We could talk about a less punitive approach to welfare, we could talk about self-care in campaigning and activism, since that too is a part of politics. I am aware that there is a pull of cynicism when we talk in these optimistic terms, but I’m comforted by the fact that people have talked about love in politics for centuries. Musicians, artists, religious thinkers, indigenous people, politicians and philosophers. And I think one of the great virtues of love as a value for our time is that it can be a unifying framework that brings together these different traditions. It can also be an antidote to the ruthlessness of individualism, the narcissism and the loneliness that I think characterize our time.

PHILIPP THER: It’s so much easier to send a quick message of hate than have a long, rational argument, so maybe the solution is to counter these arguments with love.

PHILIPP THER)(The concept of love in politics might help us to fight the politics of hate and fear, which are key elements of ethnic nationalism, as well as the present-day neo-nationalism we see in politics all over Central Europe. In my recent study of refugees and the perception of refugees, too, I could see how full the social media are of this hatred: against migrants, refugees, foreigners, against the elites, also sometimes against the academics, or against the so-called fake media. It is very difficult to counter hatred with rational arguments. You can use normative arguments, like the Geneva Convention; utilitarian arguments, that refugees have generally benefited the societies receiving them; demographic arguments about ageing societies with shortages of labour. It can be argued that hatred doesn’t pay off, it produces material loss – nationalism also creates material loss. For example, the Hungarians still don’t appreciate how Orbán’s economic nationalism creates material loss but they will in the future. But with all these rational arguments it would be very difficult to counter those messages of hate on social media. It’s so much easier to send a quick message of hate than have a long, rational argument.

So maybe the right solution is indeed to counter these argument with love, especially on social media, However, there are different grades and shades of love and maybe we come back to the very basic: fraternity and solidarity, and love thy neighbour.  However, there is a distinction between private and public love, the individual versus the collective. There is also the question of how the love is communicated: is it face to face or is it transmitted over the Internet? That, I think, may be one of the reasons why there is so much hate around, interpersonal or anonymous. You have quoted Václav Havel: I was a great supporter of 1989 and of his politics built on idealism. But maybe, in a dialectical way, it is connected to the politics of cynicism which we have seen since then – maybe it was the idealism of this kind of politics that has bred the cynicism?

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK: I suggest that we build this planet not on passionate love but on solidarity, the weaker form of love that could be brought about by people trading with each other. 

tomas sedlacek

TOMÁŠ SEDLÁČEK)(The whole structure of the EU is, in a way, a cynical structure, because we have replaced the motto ‘Make love not war’ with ‘Make trade, not war’. That is, in a nutshell, the key principle of the European Union. And it has worked, we have managed to stop the French from hating the Germans. We made love between nations, but ironically, not produced love between neighbourhoods, so Brussels today is a symbol of integration and also a symbol of European disintegration when you think of the Molenbeek neighbourhood. We have managed to swallow a camel but choked on a mosquito. So the basic idea of the EU is ‘Let’s make trade in order to have peace’, which is the ultimate value. Trade is what I’d call a secondary value, it’s like a special purpose vehicle, like a ladder.  According to Adam Smith the basic idea of economics is that we are rich because we specialise, we trade with each other. But we can only trade with each other if we are different. We are wealthy not because we are trading per se: we are wealthy because we are different. And economics, or trade, actively seeks people who are different.

These days we are confronted with professional cynics. Cynicism has been mentioned here a few times, and I’d like to add the word professional. These are people who are building their political lives based on cynicism, on deconstructing any values, such as Trump or our President in the Czech Republic, people who have been elected as a symbol of hate.

There are two kinds of love – there is strong and passionate love between two people, which is like a nuclear force: if you manage to crack it, you get nuclear explosion; that’s how atomic bombs are made, that’s the energy, but they only reach a very small distance. Then there’s a weaker type of love, called Caritas in Christian thought, but you can also call it solidarity. This love is weaker but, like gravity, it has a reach of millions and millions of kilometres. I would suggest that we build this planet not on passionate love but on solidarity, the weaker love that could be brought about by people trading with each other.

SLAVENKA DRAKULIĆ: Love in politics is often used by demagogues to evoke emotions, and emotions in this context are usually nationalistic.

slavenka drakulic

SLAVENKA DRAKULIĆ)(We all think we know what evil is – and what it looks like. We have enough examples from history, both from recent history and even from the present day. But in order to illustrate what we are talking about today, it seems to me useful to take another look at it – and I mean literally so. The concept of evil is ancient, and all religions include in their elementary sets of rules instructions on how to fight it. Interestingly, to this day we have not come up with a better, more appropriate concept.


When we look at the photo of Ron Haviv, what we see is a soldier kicking the bodies of dead or dying civilians. It is initially hard to detect the soldier’s insignia or nationality from the photo, but we know that it was taken on 2 April 1992 in Bijeljina, Bosnia. The uniformed men are Serbian paramilitaries, Arkan’s ‘Tigers’, on a killing spree against the Muslim citizens of that small town – what later became known as ‘ethnic cleansing’. It was very effective: only 10% of the original Muslim population was left in that region after the war.

Ron Haviv’s photo is a picture of war, any war. All the ingredients are here. But also of a civil war, of people who lived too close to each other not to kill one another with emotions. No doubt, this is a picture of evil, as an act of ‘collective identity’, according to the deviser of the Stanford prison experiment, Philip Zimbardo. Or a picture of the other side of human nature, or human potential, which has the capacity for both good and evil. This is an illustration of what we are dealing with in this discussion. This is what we need to change.

Because of my experience and where I come from, I don’t like the use of the word ‘love’ in politics. It is often used by demagogues to evoke emotions, and emotions in this context are usually nationalistic: ‘Love your homeland’, ‘immigrants go home’, it’s all exactly the same. So I wonder why we should talk about love in politics rather than, for example, goodness or kindness?  Love, in this radical sense, is for me a dangerous word because it evokes dangerous emotions.  But it might work in its milder and more practical form of goodness or kindness, which, for me, is the opposite of evil.


svet podla google

André Staltz – Vincenzo Susca – Roman Maria Koidl – Radkin Honzák – Zuzana Wienk

ROMAN MARIA KOIDL: If you don’t want to be manipulated, delete your Facebook and Google accounts.

roman maria koidl

ROMAN MARIA KOIDL)(We’re in a phase when we’re about to lose the basics of democracy. The problem is that 99.9 per cent of people don’t understand what’s going on from the technical point of view. People don’t realise the extent to which they are manipulated on a psychological level, and not just by social media. They are psychological machines, and this is being used by forces we are not aware of, and in a manner that is disrupting democracy and freedom. We must stand up and say this is not what we want for our future.

Google, Amazon and Facebook disseminate information to us based on our own ambitions: they have the psychological profile of everyone in this room on Facebook, Linked-In, Instagram, and other social media. And even if you think you aren’t participating, you are, because your friends are, and they have submitted this information. And on the basis of this information companies can send you an individualised message that micro-targets you, based on your psychological make-up. Psychometrics is used to send messages in the worst manner possible, triggering aggression and anxiety: these big organisations manipulate us by addressing our fears and aggressive tendencies. We respond to this targeted information by thinking: yes, that’s exactly how I feel. We are all being turned into demagogues: the new demagogue is you.

But an even greater danger is posed by artificial intelligence and self-learning machines: if we let the present situation go on, these can be more dangerous than nuclear technology; it could be the end of the human being, as Stephen Hawking has warned.  We can’t let a higher intelligence to take decisions for us, we need an ethical discussion about AI and self-learning machines, we need regulation. If you don’t want to be manipulated, delete your accounts.

ANDRÉ STALTZ: The only way to protect yourself is to go off-grid. When things get bad – head for the lifeboats!

andre staltz

ANDRÉ STALTZ)(Google and Facebook were once interesting companies that we used sometimes, but only recently they have become ones we use all the time. Most of the top 10 websites are owned by Google or Facebook, or controlled indirectly by them. I don’t assume these organisations were motivated by malice; rather, I assume they were motivated by self-interest and capitalism.  When people want to talk to each other, they want to be efficient and prefer something that’s quick and easy rather than something that’s safe – most people don’t have the technical knowledge to understand that. For example, when the Internet was first built, there was a technical flaw, as people didn’t expect it to become so important and there weren’t enough IP addresses, which means that you couldn’t connect all the computers to the Internet and communicate directly from computer to computer: the communication had to go through a few supercomputers. And although there is now IP version 6 that would make it possible to send messages directly, the scarcity of addresses is maintained artificially because it’s a business.

Companies such as Google and Facebook initially simply tried to provide a great user experience, and now they offer the best option. They have established themselves as being the best to such an extent that we have started losing other options. From being the best option they have turned into the only option. It’s also a question of belonging: you want to belong to the social network all your friends belong to. Facebook is a psychology machine and it has to be so because of ads: that is the problem. But these systems are setting the stage for totalitarian regimes, where you are told what to do by a single person. Artificial intelligence will be pretty bad: devices such as smartphones will enhance human beings to compete with AI. People built bunkers to hide from nuclear danger. The only way to protect yourself is go off the grid. When things get bad – head for the lifeboats!

RADKIN HONZÁK: I am still convinced that people prefer to do good rather than evil.

radkin honzak

RADKIN HONZÁK)(On the previous panel there was talk about love but what was forgotten was the basic emotion that is fear. 250 million years ago, on a Thursday morning, the dinosaurs appeared. They had a tiny brain and in this teeny-weeny brain there was a cluster of nerve cells we call the core. It resembled an almond and that’s why we call it the amygdala. For dinosaurs the amygdala was the basis of their emotional life, and all emotions that have been known since then. The amygdala does two things: fear and anger, and it also does three commands: Freeze! Flee! or Fight! The dinosaurs eventually became extinct, but the amygdala has remained and when we imagine the brain of present-day mammals, there are six basic emotions but the amygdala is still there, with its fear and anger, which are right next to one another. It’s a question of balance between adrenaline and noradrenaline whether I fight or flee. These are the basic emotions which are very easy to manipulate.

There is a fundamental difference between face-to-face communication and communication on social media. N.B.: I must point out that I don’t even own a mobile phone, let alone a smartphone and that I don’t use social media. However, I know that when we talk to each other, 70 per cent of the message is non-verbal, whereas on social media we have to rely on what someone has written or a picture they have uploaded. Human beings are driven by the herd instinct, we all have the capacity for a certain group: we can fit in 95 people, i.e. our tribe. And the herd instinct means that we want to belong.

Milgram’s experiment demonstrated that 70 per cent of people are willing to pump other people with 450 volts just because some stupid lab assistant tells them to do so. And Zimbardo showed with his experiment that under certain conditions 90 per cent of people will do things they would never dream of doing otherwise. The herd instinct of 65 per cent, two-thirds of the population, is characterised by a willingness to give up one’s freedom. Those two-thirds don’t long for freedom because freedom entails a degree of loneliness and the risk that I will have to take responsibility for my actions. Whereas, if I belong to a herd, I am part of it.  Nevertheless, I am still convinced that people prefer to do good rather than evil.

VINCENZO SUSCA: We have been losing control over technology ever since the Renaissance: we have delegated our humanity to technology.

vincenzo susca

VINCENZO SUSCA)(When we take a good look at the history of modern communication we see a paradox: an increasing number of people are participating in public communication but this goes hand in hand with increased control and a kind of submission. Undoubtedly we have greater opportunities for expressing our views compared with the past: some time ago television came up with programmes where ordinary people could become the protagonists. Nowadays on social media everyone has the floor, every idiot can express their views. We are much freer compared with the past but, at the same time, we are also more dependent. Our modern culture is based on Descartes’ idea of freedom, which he defined in his famous saying ‘Cogito ergo sum’, which continued ‘I am in the fortress of my mind’. But nowadays we believe that our image, our body no longer belongs only to us, and we have even come to like this state of affairs. We regard an experience as authentic only when we share it with others. I call this ‘connective activity’: we feel the need to share information about ourselves with people we feel close to us. However, there are others, whom we might call an invisible hand, who can steal this information and make use of it.

It has been mentioned that we have lost the ability to control technology, that we are no longer autonomous. But the fact is that we have been losing the ability to control technology ever since the Renaissance: we have delegated our humanity to technology. Industrialisation has resulted in an industrialisation of the human being and these processes are now coming to a head. The bomb, World War II, the death camps, have brought about the end of modernity. We must realise that we have handed our power to machines and we won’t get it back, whether we like it or not.

We live at a time we might describe as post-humanism. All we can do is apply Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea of freedom, which he saw as a way of doing freely that which we are forced to do. The human being is no longer at the centre of universe, we have been eclipsed by technology but also by changes in the natural world – there is climate change, extreme weather patterns.  We can find freedom only where it no longer exists; we can no longer free ourselves of the chain, we are shackled by it but we can try and find a way of enjoying the chain, of dancing with it.


Avishai Margalit - Hamid Ismailov - Keith Lowe - Rasha Khayat - Hars Pašović - Michal Havran - Chris Keulemans

Avishai Margalit – Hamid Ismailov – Keith Lowe – Rasha Khayat – Hars Pašović – Michal Havran – Chris Keulemans

AVISHAI MARGALIT: 25 million people are currently on the move in Africa. Some of them will try to knock on Europe’s door whether you like it or not. Either you will make Africa prosperous enough and invest and do something about it, or you will have to confront this movement.


AVISHAI MARGALIT)(There is a tendency to glorify evil and aestheticize it, which gives the word itself a metaphysical underpinning of the diabolical, the satanic, that comes from the religious worldview. We invest evil with supernatural traits and there’s a genuine fascination with evil. I was always struck by how utterly captivated I was by Dante’s Inferno but bored stiff with his Paradise. The good is somehow boring and evil is interesting and there is a danger of romanticising evil by giving it an aesthetic quality, especially in literature.

We feel, or at least people of certain age feel, that we are going back to the early 1930s, that dark clouds are gathering all over what looked like a liberal triumphalist approach. Fukuyama even celebrated the end of history – that is nonsense and is now under attack in places that echo the terrible things that happened later, after the 1930s. Therefore the fear is real and I don’t think it’s exaggerated: not that I believe that Nazism is on the rise but that something menacing is approaching. And we have to understand it and in that sense I share the feeling of urgency.

In my book The Decent Society I distinguished between a decent society and a civilised one. A civilised society is one where its members don’t humiliate one another while a decent society is one in which the institutions don’t humiliate people. Thus, for example, one might think of communist Czechoslovakia as a non-decent, but civilised society, while it’s possible to imagine, without any contradictions, a Czech Republic that might be more decent, but less civilised.  Twenty years later, I have to say that, sadly, the Czech Republic hasn’t developed into a society that is both decent and civilised.

I believe that in this century immigration will be the test of humanity. When we talk of morality in politics what we usually mean is whether the distribution of resources in a society is just or unjust. But I think this is a secondary question to that of who belongs to a society, who are the members amongst whom you allocate the resources. I also believe that the world in the foreseeable future will be an international world, not a cosmopolitan world. It’s not just about romanticizing the other as your brother, making the other your brother: all that is kitsch morality. It’s a political issue of how we decide about membership and what are the implications of accepting people as members of a society.  I think this problem is with us now and will be the main problem and main test of liberalism in the coming years – liberalism in the widest sense, not just in a doctrinaire one.

Angela Merkel did something that was decent and brave in taking in 800,000 refugees. But if you take Jordan, my next-door neighbour, they took 3.5 million from Iraq and Syria and so on. And that’s a tiny desert kingdom. But no one talks about it, they didn’t get any brownie points for hospitality and for looking after these refugees out of their meagre resources. The point is there are 25 million people on the move in Africa now. Some of them will try to knock on the door of Europe whether you like it or not. Either you will make Africa prosperous enough and invest and do something about it or you are going to have to confront this movement. The hostility and panic about immigration in many places that have never seen an immigrant, even remotely, is pretty frightening. And that brings us very close to the imagining of evil.

In many places the popular sentiment is that liberalism fails to capture the imagination of people. They see it as a phony, elite ideology, imposed by the Supreme Court, by the constitutions, and people connect this with foreigners and minorities who are against us, the people. And therefore, those leaders who speak for us, as the people, namely the nativists, the people who really belong, they are the true people who stand for common sense and not for trashy, lofty ideas. This is what happened in the 1930s and it is what’s happening now. You can call it populism, soft fascism, whatever, it is very powerful. Moreover, all of us, liberal-minded people, talk about truth having vanished from the discourse: there’s fake news – Trump is the embodiment of this – as if truth didn’t matter, you can contradict yourself as much as you want, you can get away with it. But lots of his supporters believe that he’s telling the truth not in the sense of factual truth but that he expresses their genuine feelings of resentment, of suspicion of foreigners, and so on. They feel that because of political constraints, political correctness is the etiquette of the elites and this is restraining genuine personal feeling. And they feel that now is the time to express what they really feel and what real people feel about all those so-called intellectuals.

When Hannah Arendt coined the term banality of evil she didn’t distinguish between those who instigate evil and those who comply with it, the people who go along with the instigators. Most of the latter, and that’s the overwhelming majority, are banal, ordinary people, who in given circumstances will comply. The point is whether the instigators are really entrepreneurs of evil. I think that Heydrich was not in any way banal. And those people who devised the Nazi machinery weren’t banal.  I think that what confused Hannah Arendt was that Adolf Eichmann looked like a shabby clerk whom she, with her snobbish upbringing, looked down on. But he was above all an entrepreneur of evil, he was extremely well educated, had studied Hebrew before the war in order to be efficient in the war; he even studied the Halakha, Jewish law.

I draw a distinction between thin human relations and thick human relations. My attitude to my family is thick but to a stranger I have a thin relation. Then I draw a further distinction, between ethics and morality. Ethics is what regulates thick relations: friendship, love, and so on. But what regulates thin relations, relations with the people who you don’t meet, is morality. For many people foreigners, people who are not part of us count for very little and they don’t see the constraints that morality should put on ethics. They believe that it is not selfish to be ethical: you are willing to sacrifice for your tribe, your nation, your religious order, or something that “I” belong to, a thick relation. Most of the feelings that go with evil occur when you have ethics without morality: only thick relations count, only my people count, let the rest of them rot.  But I don’t believe that people are evil by nature – they are usually attached to those to whom they think they belong. But what about the people who don’t belong? That’s where I really put the emphasis. And that’s why immigration is such a case in point.

Cases that became signposts of inhumanity are not just crimes – especially those we call crimes against humanity – they undermine the very concept of morality. It’s not just that they are very bad for killing people but, and this is what I think Nazism was all about, they undermine morality with the idea that there is a master nation and the others are not human beings. Slavs should be subjugated, turned into slaves, Jews should be exterminated – they undermine morality itself. When you face a crime that has this flavour, combined with action, that’s the limit: those are the extreme cases of the unforgiveable.

Evil often consists of breaking the symmetry of humanity, which can be done in two ways: either you make the victim look inhuman – for example, the way inmates look in a concentration camp:  they are dirty, they look like skeletons, you don’t treat them as humans, you can get rid of them almost in terms of hygiene, not in terms of morality. The other way of breaking the symmetry of humanity is turning yourself wild: drinking alcohol like the Cossacks did before pogroms, or the Mexicans in Hollywood movies. This breaks the symmetry of humanity: I’m not a human, I’m a wild animal now and therefore I can do whatever I want.  And vice versa: you are not human.

MICHAL HAVRAN: I don’t assume that the neo-Nazi voters in Slovakia believe that they are voting for something evil, they are not a Satanic sect – they just don’t believe in goodness.

michal havran

MICHAL HAVRAN)(History is a special kind of institution which is present in our cultural and political psyche. The splitting up of Czechoslovakia was extremely violent not because it did violence to our institutions but we did suffer the violence of our own history. In the early 90s, compared with what was happening in former Yugoslavia, we were moral winners in the eyes of the world because we were not killing each other. But compared to what we wanted for this country in 1989 we have failed completely.  This was the very first founding failure of our two countries, and now you can find all the symptoms and weaknesses and immoral decisions in politics in Czech Republic and Slovak Republic.

My professor of moral theology told me that evil is the spam energy of the creation of the world: he had a vision of this great architect who’s making the divine beings or objects and the rest being just bad things – like when you’re making a table, you need some wood, but there are leftovers that are useless. I don’t assume that the neo-Nazi voters in Slovakia are specialists in moral theology, or that they believe that they are voting for something evil, they are not a Satanic sect – they just don’t believe in goodness.

Many people share the idea that goodness has evaporated from this world, and there is no choice between good and evil. When you turn on Netflix or go to the cinema, you can see stories about evil that is no longer in the world, it’s evacuated to some place where it is no longer harmful: it has been converted to action, to fun. In the collective imagination of people who are fed action movies, Batman, X-Men and so on, evil has been safely located in the movies and real evil does not exist. So if I vote for neo-Nazis or populists, or soft populists, they are not the bad guys because the real bad guy is Joker from Batman. Except that Viktor Orbán is not Joker from Batman.

KEITH LOWE: We have to look deeply at history, look at it for what it is, not for what you would like it to be, or what fits in with your own feelings of national cosiness. The starting point is to look first of all at what you did.

keith lowe

KEITH LOWE)(We are all clear about fear: when someone is afraid they can act in a way that is illogical or violent. But we are less clear about freedom. It has this lovely ring to it, it’s something we all want but if you are completely free to do anything, that is where evil is allowed a foot in the door. As rational people, we have to place restraints on our own actions and thoughts and the reason why we have institutions which impose constraints on those who are not so happy to be rational. Institutions have to balance one another out: an independent judiciary, an independent press, an elected government, indeed, there should be layers of government: local, national, supranational. We need these checks and balances that prevent any one institution from overstepping the mark.

The question is: how much to remember and how much to forget. Sometimes remembering past sins is enough to rekindle those emotions all over again and restart the cycle of vengeance – in the 1990s in former Yugoslavia people were singing World War II songs as they went to massacre the people in Srebrenica. But the alternative is impossible: to try and forget and move on to a golden future and deny that the past has ever happened. Anyone who’s been through a trauma knows that no matter how much you try to forget, it’s always going to affect you. And World War II was a massive trauma, particularly for Europe but also for the world as a whole: it killed more than one per cent of the world’s population. It is not viable to pretend that it didn’t happen.

We have to look deeply at history, look at it for what it is, not for what you would like it to be, or what fits in with your own feelings of national cosiness. The starting point is to look first of all at what you did. We should start off with the thought: we did evil, why did it happen? It is important to start with the things we did and then move on to the reasons why that happened. I get very upset with the way my fellow countrymen remember the war. The bombing of Dresden is our one act of contrition, we put all our bad feelings into this but we forget everything else. But what about Hamburg, what about Würzburg, what about Darmstadt… 200 cities I could name?

HARIS PAŠOVIĆ: In order to tame the beast in us some turn to spiritual stories, some to Rihanna, some to football. We have lots of ways of releasing our frustration. I would certainly recommend Rihanna. 

haris pasovicHARIS PAŠOVIĆ)(I would like to consider thinking not just about how a good person turns evil – in my country we dealt with this question 25 years ago. But how does an evil person turn into a good person? And is it even possible? We share the apartment blocks with the concentration camp guards, the rape victim and the rapist often live in the same village or city, when you buy honey in the market, you may well be buying it from a mass murderer.

Let me give a very prominent case of a man who has turned good. In the early 1990s he was even more radical than Milošević; he was a young member of a seriously extremist party. His name is Aleksandar Vučić and he is now the President of Serbia. During the attack on Srebrenica he was an MP in the Serbian parliament and there is a video of him saying that for one Serb we will kill 100 Muslims. He has since distanced himself from his past, declared publicly that he said very stupid things in the past but that he hadn’t done so in the past five years, and that only donkeys don’t change their minds. As matter of fact, he is now the most stable politician in the region, he has scaled down his nationalism considerably, he’s been very constructive as a peacemaker. And in Serbia – a very patriarchal society – he appointed as prime minister for the first time a woman who also happens to be gay. All my liberal friends in Belgrade think that Vučić is a liar, a totalitarian in the making. I don’t know but regardless of whether he’s lying or not, what matters is that he has been acting in a constructive way and if he gets the Nobel Peace Prize for resolving the problem of Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, that’s fine by me.

We shouldn’t pretend that we are all goodies here: we are all both good and evil. Emil Cioran spoke on behalf of all of us when he said that every night before we fall asleep, we imagine our enemies being torn apart. We are not nice, good, little conservatives, little lefties. No, we are beasts too. In order to tame this beast some turn to spiritual stories, some to Rihanna, some to football. We have lots of ways of releasing our frustration. I would certainly recommend Rihanna.

RASHA KHAYAT: Storytelling allows you to face your fears. It also makes you better equipped to shield yourself from evil because fear is often the basis of evil.


RASHA KHAYAT)(I was recently asked to contribute an essay to a collection marking the anniversary of the Reformation. I wrote an essay entitled: “Stop being in denial: Germany is a racist country”. I always include statistics to cover my bases: numbers illustrating attacks on foreigners in Germany but also structural racism, for example that the chances of persons of colour or with a foreign background will always be worse in finding work, securing housing, social benefits, and so on.  I was invited to read the essay at an event and afterwards a woman came up to me, with the title of my essay underlined in a newspaper article. The only reason she had come was to tell me: “You’re wrong”. She was visibly upset by the fact that I claimed that Germany was a racist country: how dare I, as a foreigner, say that about the holy country of Germany? She works with refugee children so can’t possibly be a racist but then I saw that she had an AfD button on her bag. I wonder how you define an evil person: presumably this woman is a grandma who is nice to her children and grandchildren, yet she has no problem coming to an event and attacking someone she’s never seen before for being who she is.  Does that qualify her as sliding towards evil?

I’m all for education: in Germany the gap is increasing all the time and good education is increasingly elitist. I believe in talking to children, teaching them through storytelling. Because storytelling allows you to face your fears.  It also makes you better equipped to shield yourself from evil because fear is often the basis of evil. So I try to write and publish, and to inspire and educate.  I have seen in Germany over the past 4 or 5 years that people refuse to see the fact that there is a racist underside deeply embedded in society. As an artist I think artists have a great tradition of being idealist and resistant, and therefore I believe in resistance and don’t believe that we should leave it all to politicians.

HAMID ISMAILOV: Maybe we are not paying enough attention to the inflation of the written word, which brings about a situation when populism starts to work.

hamid ismailov

HAMID ISLAILOV)(In his book Al-Madina al-Fadila the 10th century Persian philosopher and scholar Al-Farabi writes about the ideal state, but also about evil and I was struck by his notion that evil is not a substance that is built into a person. For me as a writer what is interesting is that evil is not just action:  for example, when evil is within a person, gluttony can turn into obesity but that doesn’t affect others so much. But, as we say in Uzbek, clapping is made with two hands. What interests me is how evil is acting in this world; I am not just interested in a dictator, the evil person who imposes evil on the world.

Coming here I was thinking of Roman Jakobson, and his scheme of communication, which includes the message, the sender and receiver, the context, code and communication channel. When this model is applied to evil, the dynamic between the perpetrator and the person who is at the receiving end of this evil becomes much clearer. The context can be clear-cut, as in the Rohingya situation, or less obvious: can we say if Brexit is evil or not? It depends on your perspective, and there are grades and shades that could be discussed. There is also the channel: in Arendt’s case it was Eichmann, and there is also the context, i.e. ideology. All these constituent parts play a different role in the communicative scheme, which helps to explain the interplay between the perpetrator and the victim. The act of evil is not just one way: perpetrator – victim. And the dynamic between these parts is changing all the time, as is our model of representation, what with social media, climate change, and so forth.

Maybe we are not paying enough attention to the inflation of the written word, which brings about a situation when populism starts to work. The great writers of the past, e.g. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, were regarded as a moral authority, their word was taken as sacred but this is not the case anymore.  It is a balancing act: on the one hand, we are increasing the freedom for everyone but at the same time the level of noise is greater than the level of communication.


Liudmila Ulitskaya

Liudmila Ulitskaya

LIUDMILA ULITSKAYA: Freedom has to be fought for. We have received it as a gift, free of charge, and that is why we don’t appreciate it, we haven’t really deserved it. 


LIUDMILA ULITSKAYA)(As a student I couldn’t imagine that communism would end one day. Nobody could have predicted that. Although, in fact, I’m not all that sure that it has really ended. Freedom has to be fought for. We have received it as a gift, free of charge, and that is why we don’t appreciate it, we haven’t really deserved it. In Russia no lustrations took place and that is why we are in the situation we are in now. Our problems are mostly on a moral level. Soviet power controlled people by fear. Now everyone is primarily interested in profit – money has become the most important thing.

In the USSR friendship was extremely important, we couldn’t have survived without friends. People used to meet and have endless conversations in the kitchen. The Moscow kitchen lives on, the tea kettle is on the table and people sit around the table and have heated discussions about politics.

The Russian culture is not my only one. I am Jewish but my Jewish essence is genetic and the only language I live with is Russian. This is not a unique phenomenon. Jews are a bookish people, in every culture you look, whether American or Russian, you will find Jewish writers. I am a Russian writer of Jewish origin. And since the Russian culture is my only one, it would be unthinkable for me to break my ties to it and that is why I want to live out my days in Russia.

Talking to a German friend of mine we discovered something that Russia and Germany have in common – the existence of a silent generation that won’t talk about the past, about what they went through when they were young. Everything is shrouded in secrecy. There is a huge fear, fear of talking. This is a particularly important feeling among Soviet, Russian people, who live in fear of saying something they are not supposed to say, of looking at something they are not supposed to look at. It’s a purely physiological fear. Gradually, as people manage to get rid of this fear, they become free. But it’s a very long process, you can’t just adopt a law that abolishes fear from one day to the next. Fear is a completely natural human feeling, just like pain. When an animal hears a strange sound it is afraid, for itself and for its young, and so is a human being. But the threshold of pain and fear varies widely from person to person. In the Soviet Union the threshold of fear was very high, everyone was afraid to talk, afraid of their neighbours, afraid of meetings, just in case. Getting rid of fear is a lengthy process because several generations have grown up in fear.  But the younger generation lives without fear, to some extent, they have other problems, but they are not so much in thrall to fear as we used to be.

Photo: Peter Župník / Stredoeurópske fórum