The First to Stop Applauding

This is an image obtained by The Associated Press which shows Cpl. Charles Graner Jr. standing over handcuffed detainees lying on the floor in late 2003 at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo)

I began reading The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn yesterday. I’m only 100 pages in or so, but in Chapter Two I ran across a great story that I wanted to recount to you here. It is timeless, and frightening, and funny, and horrific — all at the same time. And Solzhenitsyn assures the reader that this story — like every thing else he recounts — really happened.


Is it relevant to today? You be the judge!

Here is one vignette from those years as it actually occurred. A district Party conference was underway in Moscow Province. It was presided over by a new secretary of the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). The small hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.” For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause, rising to an ovation,” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.

However, who would dare to be the first to stop?

The secretary of the District Party Committee could have done it. He was standing on the platform, and it was he who had just called for the ovation. But he was a newcomer. He had taken the place of a man who’d been arrested. He was afraid! After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who would quit first!

And in that obscure, small hall, unknown to the Leader, the applause went on –- six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly –- but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them?

The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter. . . .

Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.

That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

“Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”

(And just what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to stop?)


It’s easy to suppose that such fits of insanity can never happen to us. Well. In a foreward to the version of the book I am reading, Solzhenitsyn writes:

There always is this fallacious belief: “It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.”

Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible anywhere on earth.

Settle down, Trumpers. I’m not saying or suggesting in any way that Donald Trump is the return of Stalin or Hitler. Nor is this a post about Barack Obama, or a suggestion that he resembled those monsters.

But each has led cults of personality — and while those cults have not come close to anything approaching the fanaticism that was seen under a Stalin or a Mao, such evils are “possible anywhere on earth.” We would be fools not to learn the lessons of history — not to be on the lookout for a repeat of such horror.

Crying wolf is not just foolish. It is dangerous. But if the wolf has attacked in the past, it is equally foolish and dangerous not to watch for the warning signs that the wolf may approach again. When I read the accounts of the torture suffered in Soviet Russia, I recognize some of the same techniques that were used in Abu Ghraib. When Solzhenitsyn writes that for men to do evil, they must convince themselves that they are doing good — and when he writes that ideology helps men justify their evil deeds as serving a greater good — I recognize the attitude of the more ideological Trump or Obama or Hillary or Bernie supporters, who argue that the use of a nasty tactic by the other side justifies the use of the same tactic by their own side.


A Clickhole article I saw yesterday sums up nicely, in humorous fashion, the attitude of some of the more mindless Trump drones:

Before attacking the president by pointing out the many flaws in his reasoning, why don’t you try agreeing with everything he says? The only people complaining about Trump are biased against Trump according to Trump, so you can’t trust anyone that questions the president, even when that person is you. This is America. If you’re not prepared to sell your values down the river to spew President Trump’s talking points word for word, well, you can find a different country to live in.

For the good of the country, Republicans like me must unite to automatically parrot whatever knee-jerk policy announcement Trump has surprised us with over Twitter. Conservatives must abandon our own long-held viewpoints and ideologies in favor of the random hodgepodge of right-wing causes Trump happened to talk about today. Sometimes it’s difficult to repeat Donald Trump verbatim when it goes against my very sense of right and wrong, but I know history will look kindly on patriots like me who compromise their integrity to echo the rhetoric of a president they vehemently disagree with.

It’s relevant to Trump today because he’s president, but let’s not pretend this is a phenomenon that happens only on one side. (Of course, many on this blog will argue that it does happen only on one side. And many commenters on a partisan lefty blog will argue that it happens only on one side. They’ll just disagree as to which side is the source of original and inherent evildoing.)


I’m tired of arguments that suggest that human nature is different for different political parties. After all, we on the right really thought we had the left pegged as the people who followed a cult leader. And then Trump came along. It’s a little hard to be too smug now.

The Clickhole article is very funny. And yet: the phenomenon of a room full of people who all know they are supporting something crazy, but are all scared to say so, is a reality that has been no joke at times in human history.

No, Trump drones and Obama cultists, I am not saying these guys are the return of history’s greatest monsters. Nor am I saying that you are the return of their fanatic supporters.

But . . .

But if you think such a thing could never happen again . . . think again.



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