Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Electric guillotines


Just reading The Vanquished, Robert Gerwarth’s history of the violence that followed the ostensible end of the First World War. He has this to say about the atrocity rumours that circulated about the Bolsheviks:

Although the reality of the civil war was so terrible that it hardly needed any embellishment, fantastical stories about Lenin’s regime flourished and drifted westwards: of a social order turned upside down, of a never-ending cycle of atrocities and retribution amid moral collapse in what had previously been one of the Great Powers of Europe. Several American newspapers reported that the Bolsheviks had introduced an electrically operated guillotine in Petrograd designed to decapitate 500 prisoners an hour… The Bolsheviks, or so it was suggested [in the British press], had ‘nationalized middle- and upper-class women, who might now be raped at will by any member of the proletariat. Orthodox churches had been turned into brothels in which aristocratic women were forced to offer sexual services to ordinary workers. Chinese executioners had been recruited by the Bolsheviks for their knowledge of ancient oriental torture techniques, while inmates in the infamous Cheka prisons had their heads stuck into cages filled with hungry rats in order to extort information.

It seems that there are three things that escalate the ordinary horror of despotic violence into extraordinary horror, all of which are touched upon here:

  1. Violation of the natural order, particularly of a sexual nature.
  2. Upwelling of arcane, precivilised, non-European presumptively diabolic culture.
  3. Abuse of modern technological means toward barbaric ends.

I’m particularly fascinated by the last, represented by the “electrically operated guillotines”, which prefigure the genuine industrialised slaughter of the Holocaust. More than the scale of the killing — which could be achieved by other means — it is the industrial precision that unsettles people, and makes the Holocaust unique. Or, perhaps better said, makes us want to see it as unique.

It’s hard to disentangle these feelings about the Holocaust, which is what makes the electric guillotines so useful: It’s not that this would have been all that exceptional, to kill 500 prisoners in an hour, and you wouldn’t need anything as unusual as an electrically operated guillotine. (It’s not even clear to me how electricity would accelerate a guillotine significantly.) But the combination of electricity, then the prime symbol of modernisation, with mass execution, was shocking.

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