The thin lacquer of culture

I was shown this video of a German soldier in WWI reflecting on what happened when he came face-to-face with a French soldier he killed:

I was particularly struck by his view that the culture he came from was a mere lacquer that chipped away the moment the war for him was no longer impersonal bombs dropped from a distance but the stabbing to death of another human being that stood before you. This is a particular powerful point when one bears in mind, at the time, Germany was culturally and technologically the most advanced, civilised society in Europe.

This idea was brought home when the man recalled how his comrades would boast of strangling a captain or killing a man with the butt of his rifle. These were not monsters but students, farm workers, ordinary people from ordinary walks of life. These are people who would never, in the ordinary course of things, think to do others harm. Yet there they were boasting about the most appalling acts of killing that would shock us to the core in any other context. The thin lacquer of culture had peeled away.

I suspect most of us listening to that video would be similarly shocked. ‘How can people do such things?’ we wonder. Whilst we accept that, in war, such things are inevitable, to boast about it and to stare somebody in the eyes and stab them to death with a bayonet seems so beyond us we sense we cannot grasp it. And yet the soldier seems convinced that were it not for the thin lacquer of culture, we would do just the same. I think he is right.

Ever since the Fall (the Genesis 3 one, not the band), man has been corrupted by sin. Though, thanks to common grace, we are not utterly depraved, we are, nonetheless, totally depraved. It only takes the thin lacquer to chip away and, faced with the right circumstances, we are capable of gross evil.

One of the saddest things about WWI was that it was labelled the Great War, the war to end all wars. Yet, as is stated so often it has almost become clichéd to say, just 21 years later WWII began. The sad irony is that we have failed to learn that lesson. As Carl Trueman notes:

There has been a temptation in dealing with Nazism to dismiss Nazi ideology as shallow, a creed designed by psychopaths and believed by idiots. This is perhaps connected to an understandable fear that explaining the attraction of Nazism might somehow become a means of excusing it. The problem with such an approach is that it feeds the mentality that sees the Nazi “them” so alien to the enlightened “us” that we might just fall into the same ditch without even noticing.

The Gospel Coalition, 21 December 2018

Entirely in keeping with the thin lacquer of culture expressed by the former German solider, Trueman goes on:

Nazism thrived on a myth of origin (the Aryan race as the pinnacle of humanity) and of destiny (the ultimate triumph of the racially superior); and it fueled these myths with ressentiment of the Jews, aided and abetted by the “criminals” of Versailles and the decadents of the Weimar Republic. In that context, ethics of common human decency simply vanished, and systematic annihilation of Jews ultimately came to make sense.

The Gospel Coalition, 21 December 2018

It isn’t hard to see how these things take hold. Most of us have a natural inclination to think of ourselves as superior to others. To fuel it with myths that both encourage the belief about ourselves as well as cementing the reasons for our superiority, and thus the inferiority, of others is easy. Just as those who looked at WWI said ‘never again’ before walking headlong into WWII, so we run the same risk as we look back on WWII and say ‘never again’ whilst simultaneously affirming our superiority to those idiots of the past who allowed it to happen… twice!

But if the polarisation of British politics tells us anything, particularly in light of Brexit and the vitriol spewing forth from both sides, we are quick to think ourselves culturally superior and adept at finding an ‘other’ whom we can label our inferior. When those we consider friends feel at liberty to vehemently, and publicly, deride you as thick, racist, anti-worker, uncultured, lacking understanding, it is easy to see how the thin lacquer of culture (and it is so often those who consider themselves cultural superiors making such claims) so easily chips away.

We may not yet be physically at war but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking a cultured society like ours could never walk headlong into such things. Just as the thin lacquer of culture is chipping away, and as the twin-myths of a superior-self (and group who think as I do) and inferior-other, let’s not pretend that the evidence of total depravity is not all around us and readily apparent. The terrifying thought here is that we are not so far as we might think from standing before another, looking them in the eyes, and running them through with a bayonet save for the thin lacquer of culture.